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Blane Chocklett's Guide to Catching Landlocked Freshwater Stripers

Landlocked striped bass allow you to leave the ocean wind and waves behind.

Blane Chocklett's Guide to Catching Landlocked Freshwater Stripers

Striped bass first became landlocked by accident in the 1950s, but now they thrive in lakes, reservoirs, and rivers in more than 35 states from the Carolinas to California. (Blane Chocklett photo)

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This article was originally titled "Freshwater Stripers" in the February-March 2024 issue of Fly Fisherman.

It’s an early fall morning and the sun is just starting to rise. There’s just enough light to start seeing the 3-inch baitfish flicker on the surface. You notice the bait is packed closely together in a ball about the size of a basketball court. As the sun rises, the baitfish begin spraying out of the water as if they are being attacked from below. Then you hear popping and sucking sounds, as well as the cannonball splashes of fish falling into the water. You see striped bass frothing at the surface as they chase their prey, and your senses feel charged with electricity.

You position the boat with your trolling motor. Other than the carnage in front of you, everything is calm and peaceful. As you make your presentation and stay tight to the fly, you let the small 3-inch shad imitation sink. You give a short strip and then wait.

It’s hard not to pull the fly quickly through the wad of bait. Finally, you feel that little bit of weight and then you strip-strike, the line comes tight, and you feel an angry surge in the line.

Sweetwater Slabs

If this scenario sounds familiar, your first thoughts may be of a Mid-Atlantic or Northeast coastal striper blitz. Perhaps you’ve been out on the ocean and had experiences just like this. Your guess would have been a good one, but this scene unfolds many mornings and evenings on freshwater lakes and reservoirs. Landlocked striped bass can provide the most exciting fishing you’ll ever encounter, and you often don’t have to worry about tides, ocean weather, waves, or rocking boats.

I’ve been fortunate to fish for stripers most of my adult life. Most of it has been in salt water along the East Coast, and to this day it has a special place in my heart. I’ve spent the last few years working with the American Saltwater Guides Association (ASGA) to help save these great fish.

Unfortunately, they are in danger from overfishing and bad recruitment from many years of poor spawning in Chesapeake Bay.

While ocean stripers are hamstrung by overfishing and other factors, fishing for landlocked stripers in many parts of the country is as good as it’s ever been.

Most of my interest in lake stripers came from the encouragement of my close friend Henry Cowen, who guides for freshwater stripers on Lake Lanier, Georgia. Henry is a wealth of knowledge on striped bass and wrote the book Fly Fishing for Freshwater Striped Bass: A Complete Guide to Tackle, Tactics, and Finding Fish (Skyhorse, 2020).

A bearded fly angler leaning over the gunwale of a boat, smiling and holding a striped bass in the water.
Robust populations of landlocked striped bass now exist throughout the country. (Blane Chocklett photo)

I have had firsthand help from him in solving the puzzle of catching stripers in lakes. It was early in the fall, and Henry informed me that I should concentrate on the arm of the lake where the river flows in. He said the temperatures would likely be cooling there first, the bait would be concentrated there, and the stripers would follow. He also told me to watch blue herons as they have an uncanny way of knowing when and where the bait and the stripers would meet. He also had me focus on flats, red clay banks, and the backs of coves.

After a couple failed attempts, it all finally came together. I had just spoken with Henry on the phone, and I was blind fishing around a small cove where a great blue heron was silently stalking along the shore. I remember having lots of other anglers in motorboats running past me, going fast running from spot to spot.


All I could do was sit and pay attention to the bait on the surface, their behaviors, and the signs nature was telling me. I was using an intermediate line and a 3-inch Clouser-style shad imitation.

It was a bright, sunny late morning, and I noticed the bait starting to get densely packed together, instead of spread out. The herons began to get more active, and I was reading the topography of the land and was visualizing in my mind how the terrain might look under the water as the cove met the river channel. I cast toward the back of the cove and counted down to about 20 seconds and began a slow 2-inch strip with pauses. There was no surface feeding, and I was just blind casting where I imagined the cove dropped off into the river channel.

After a couple strips, I felt a little tick at the end of the line, and I struck hard with my 8-weight. It was my first lake striper on fly—about 30 inches long—and it fought just like its saltwater cousins. It was a gratifying moment, and I was forever hooked.

Landlocked History

The natural life history of striped bass is that they spawn in fresh water, but grow large in the coastal areas of the Atlantic Ocean. However, the 1942 completion of two dams in South Carolina—one on Santee River in St. Stevens, the other on the Cooper River in Moncks Corner—accidentally trapped striped bass in the newly created Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion. This unintentional creation of a new fishery surprised fishermen in the early 1950s, and by the late 1950s, popular magazines like Sports Afield and Field & Stream were writing of the exceptional fishing for striped bass in these watersheds, bringing fishermen from across the country to South Carolina.

Of course, other state game and fish agencies recognized this opportunity, and stocked striped bass in their own reservoirs either purely for recreational fishing or to reduce populations of gizzard shad.

Robust populations of landlocked striped bass now exist in Ouachita and Norman lakes in North Carolina; Lake Murray in South Carolina; Smith Mountain and Leesville lakes in Virginia; Silverwood, Pyramid, Diamond Valley, and Lewis Smith lakes in Alabama; Raystown Lake in Pennsylvania; Hamilton, Norfork, and Beaver lakes in Arkansas; Lake Texoma, Lake Buchanan, Lake Tawkoni, Lake Whitney, and Possum Kingdom Lake in Texas; Elephant Butte Lake in New Mexico; lakes Powell, Pleasant, and Havasu in Arizona; Lake Thunderbird in Illinois; Castaic Lake and Lake George in Florida; Lake Lanier in Georgia; Lake Cumberland in Kentucky; Watts Bar Lake in Tennessee; and Lake Mead in Nevada.

In many places, stripers are stocked annually due to poor spawning habitat. They need to have free-flowing current with the speed to carry and tumble the eggs for up to 48 to 72 hours after being fertilized, so they don’t sink and get covered with silt. If they can drift for three days, they will hatch and start the cycle all over.

There are many hatcheries that raise striped bass in captivity. The brood stock that provides the milt and the roe come from naturally reproducing fisheries such as the Coosa River system in Alabama and Georgia.

A bearded fly angler leaning over the gunwale of a boat, smiling and holding a striped bass in the water.
With smaller flies on calm lakes, an 8-weight rod is a good all-around choice. When using larger flies from 5 to 7 inches, a 9-weight or a 10-weight is a better choice. (Blane Chocklett photo)

Lake Tactics

One important thing Henry taught me is how picky and technical freshwater stripers can be about fly choice. I understood this idea immediately as I’ve spent my whole career studying predator/prey behavior. But I was somewhat taken aback when he told me it applied to lake stripers, as in most of my experiences with saltwater blitzes, stripers were not too picky.

A few trips later in October, I got to the water with my drift boat right at dawn. I rowed down the lake around a bend toward a long straightaway. Once I rounded the bend, I could see about a quarter mile down the lake, and I could see a group of boats with splashing all around them. Armed with just my oars, it seemed like an eternity getting to the melee. Once I got close, I started to analyze the movement of the fish and the size of the bait. I quickly tied on a small 2.5-inch gray-and-white fly Henry developed called Somethin’ Else.

As I moved toward the blitz, I noticed that none of the six or seven boats around me were hooked up. A man in the back of the nearest boat was on the phone and I could clearly hear his phone conversation.

Once I got all set up and in position, I made a cast into the feeding frenzy and let my fly sink on an intermediate line with a sink rate of about 1 to 2 inches per second. It didn’t take long, as I was almost instantly hooked into a striper.

What happened next will forever live in my memory. The guy on the phone immediately started cussing and said to his friend “I’ll be damned! You won’t believe what just happened. This guy in a rowboat just pulled up with a fly pole, made one cast and caught a striper. I’ve been here for 30 minutes and haven’t had a bite. I’m going to take this damn expensive boat and electronics to the boat dealer and sell all of it!”

I went on to catch eight or nine stripers while none of the other boats caught anything. A half hour later, one of the other boats came up to me and one guy politely asked “I’ve got to know what you’re using and doing.”

I told him to pull up, showed him my fly, and asked what he was throwing. He wasn’t fly fishing, he was using a bucktail jig with a fluke attached. He was quick to say he catches stripers all the time on this rig. But I told him that at that moment, the fish were keyed in on 2.5-inch shad, and he was throwing a 6-inch bait.

I gave him one of my flies and told him to tie a two-foot leader off the bend of his heavy jig, and tie the fly to the end.

He did, and on his first cast he caught a nice 15-pound striper. He was grateful, and we ended up becoming friends.

Seasonal Migrations

Stripers don’t have homes, they are constantly moving. They chase the baitfish and look for comfortable temperatures. During these seasonal migrations, the stripers change their food preferences based on what’s available.

Freshwater stripers grow faster than saltwater stripers because there is so much food for them in the lakes and rivers, and they don’t have to work as hard to find or pursue prey. They feed on threadfin shad, alewives, gizzard shad, and blueback herring to name a few.

These prey items can move into shallow water to spawn, or go deep when the surface temperatures get uncomfortably hot. These baits grow throughout the year, so their sizes often vary.

In fresh water especially, don’t underestimate the importance of small bait. These tidbits are rarely overlooked by giant fish and I have caught 30-pound+ stripers on 2-inch flies.

Stripers also target large gizzard shad when they are around. Their choices tend to depend on availability and ease of capture, so you should always be looking in the water to see what the stripers might be feeding on.

There are also specific areas you should focus on. In Northern states in the winter, you will deal with colder water, deep bait, and stripers hunting deep. Focus on deep water and especially on old submersed river channels. If you don’t know the bottom terrain, the electronics in your boat are very important.

The farther south you go in the winter, the more the fishery acts like a fall fishery in the North. It’s all about water temperature. For example, Texas lakes or California lakes will be different than in Virginia in the winter. When the water is below 47 degrees, both the bait and stripers get lethargic, so it may not be worth fishing for them. Water temperatures between 47 and 55 degrees are common winter temperatures that are worth fishing.

Choose low-light, calm days, cloudy drizzly days are as good as it gets. No matter what you do in the winter, use slow and deep presentations with sinking lines.

Spring and fall fishing seasons are similar and are the best times to target freshwater stripers. As the water temperatures warm in the spring and cool in the fall, the bait and the fish become more active.

In late spring the fish are more structure oriented, so finding these key places is critical. Look for long, tapered points, especially near the river channel. Submerged brush  or rock piles in the spring and fall are very important as the bait sits above these humps as well the long tapered points.

These fish are most active in 60- and 70-degree water temperatures, so spring and fall offer the best topwater opportunities. To take advantage, fish during the low-light periods early and late in the day. Red and dark clay banks heat up quicker, so the bait will likely migrate to those areas, especially in pockets and coves that hold this warmer water.

Points are good at night and excellent for topwater fishing. Set your anchor off these points and cast toward the shore with slow, waking-style flies . . . and hang on. In late spring and early fall, gizzard shad favor shallow, sandy areas, and stripers hunt for them in these areas at night. During the day, look for rocky areas as alewives and threadfins spawn over this type of structure in the spring. Their eggs need to attach to rocky structure, and alewives and threadfins often spawn when water temperatures approach 70 degrees.

Flies And Tackle

Fly selection for striped bass at times can be just like trout fishing where matching the hatch is important. When stripers are feeding on smaller shad, I like my Micro, Mini, and regular Finesse Game Changers as well as Clouser Minnows and Henry Cowen’s Somethin’ Else. There are many other good baitfish patterns that mimic shad, like Whitlock’s Sheep Shad and Cowen’s Coyote tied in sizes 2 to 4 inches.

When moving into bigger flies from 5 to 7 inches, I like my Hybrid Game Changer and Jerk Changer, Bisharat’s Spot On Baitfish, Popovics’s Hollow Fleyes, Deceivers, Half & Halfs, and Blanton’s Whistlers. For topwater flies try Bisharat’s Pole Dancer, Crease Flies, poppers, Gurglers, Bob’s Bangers, Wiggle Minnows and Jerk Changers. I also always carry Dahlberg Divers, Schultz’s Swinging D, and Matt’s Yard Sale.

For terminal tackle I use about 24 inches of 12-, 16-, or 20-pound-test Scientific Anglers Absolute Fluorocarbon tippet depending on the mood of the fish and the water clarity. With full-sinking lines I use just a short 5-foot leader. For intermediate lines, I prefer a 9-foot tapered leader. With floating flies and floating lines, I use a nylon Scientific Anglers Absolute Saltwater leader and Absolute Clear tippet.

Five Game Changer streamer flies laid out on a table.
Clockwise from top: Jerk Changer, Crafty Changer (shad), Micro Changer, Feather Changer, Finesse Changer (shad). (Jay Nichols photos)

Fly lines constantly change throughout a day’s fishing.

They can make or break your day on the water, situations change, fish behavior changes, and so do tactics.

For large flies, I prefer Scientific Anglers Titan tapers. The overweighted heads allow you to turn over wind-resistant flies. I use lines made for cold water as they cast better in the conditions I usually find when striper fishing.

The Scientific Anglers Sonar Sink 30 clear is my go-to line and has been for many years but the Sonar Saltwater Intermediate, Sonar Titan Sink Tip, Sonar Titan Sink Tip Mini, and the Sonar Titan Sink 25 Cold are all important lines through the year. The Sonar Titan 3D sink 3/5/7 is especially important when I’m fishing deep because it gives me direct contact with the fly.

You can use any large-arbor reel with a solid drag. I use Nautilus X-series for my 8-weight rods and the CCF-X2 for larger sizes. If you are more budget minded, TFO’s NTR reel is a good choice. Stripers are strong but usually don’t make huge runs.

I use 8-weight rods for most of my fishing, especially when I use smaller flies. If you are going to have only one rod for all your striper fishing, a 9-weight might be a better choice. With the really big flies, a 10-weight is better. I use the TFO A2x and the new TFO Blitz. My own 10-weight BC Big Fly rod from TFO is especially good for really large flies.

River Stripers

In many impoundments across the country, large rivers flow into manmade reservoirs. These flowing waters are where stripers spawn, and they often spend part of the summer there if the rivers have cooler water. In many tailwaters, the stripers are in the river all summer, and only return to the lake in the fall. Many Southern states have excellent river striper fishing, and catching monster stripers is always a real possibility.

I’ve guided for river stripers most of my life, and it’s a fun and sometimes challenging part of my year. They can be here today and gone tomorrow, making you a hero one day and a zero the next.

In higher water, the stripers are often moving, reacting to changes in flow, just as the baitfish are. In lower, stable water, the fish often stage in one area for some time.

Blane Chocklett leaning over the gunwale of a boat, smiling and holding a striped bass in the water.
During seasonal migrations, stripers change their food preferences based on what’s available. (Shane Maybush photo)

When fish are staged like this, focus on current breaks and seams along larger eddys. A downed tree for example, can create a sheltered area that holds fish, as well as a long feeding seam. Stripers use these areas to rest until low light and better opportunities to feed and or spawn.

I use  sinking lines in rivers to keep the fly in the strike zone. If you have an area with lots of wood and snags, use a sinking-tip line with a floating running line and a floating fly. Mend the running line while the tip sinks, then strip the fly to make it swim down. When you pause, the fly will rise and get eaten.

It is the opposite of using a sinking tip with a Clouser-style fly—in that situation the fly sinks on the pause and swims up on the strip. In both cases, the up-and-down action is a big trigger. But with a floating fly, you’ll get that vertical action and stay away from the snags more effectively.

You can also set up above these areas and swing flies through the holding water, or you can drift along and actively swim flies through the zone.

Below rapids and even in the rapids are great spots to look for stripers in the summer. They get right in the wave trains when they feed, and it can be exciting fishing.

Stripers in rivers feed much differently than when they are in lakes. In moving water, they are more opportunistic and frequently feed on bigger baits like crayfish, herring, skipjack shad, trout, perch, suckers, and anything else that looks edible. They don’t often feed on large groups of uniform-size baitfish so they don’t tend to get selective.

Stripers spawn in the spring in the middle of the river and right on the surface when water temperatures reach the mid-60s. It’s a spectacle to behold.

When it happens, their focus is on reproduction and it can be tougher fishing, but a topwater fly can bring fantastic strikes. I once spoke with Lefty Kreh about how frustrating they could be when they started getting into spawn mode. Lefty without hesitation said, “You don’t go to the refrigerator when you’re having sex do you?” Point taken, Lefty!

If you have never targeted freshwater stripers, I hope I have piqued your interest. The fish are the same as in salt water, but without the wind and tides and waves, and they are accessible in more than 30 states. The truth is if we can’t reduce overharvest in our oceans, landlocked stripers might be the only stripers we have left.

Blane Chocklett guides for trout, smallmouths, muskies, and stripers. He’s a Fly Fisherman field editor, and his most recent story was “Changing the Nymph Game” in the Feb.-Mar. 2023 issue. He is the author of Game Changer: Tying Flies that Look & Swim Like the Real Thing (Headwater Books, 2020). Instagram: @blanechocklettfishing

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