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Arkansas’ striped bass, guides making moves all year long

By JAMES K. JOSLIN Staff Writer

This article was published October 9, 2011 at 3:14 a.m.

— The screen of the fish finder was eerily quiet that morning. The conversations of the five wouldbe fishermen who called this bay boat their temporary home were muted as expectations were subdued by inactivity.

Striper guide B en Sanders lamented that the fish had moved on us. They had been there, in that particular area of Lake Ouachita, for the previous several days, but on this morning, only a few scattered returns lit up the screen. And,there were no takers for our live shad.

Then came a call on Sanders’ phone. He motioned to us to pick the rods up out of their holders, reel them in and get ready for a ride. Shortly, we had moved a quarter mile or so to the west. There, we found fellow striper guide David Cochran. His party of two from Texas needed only two more fish to post a limit. So, as is often the case with a double-handful of the Hot Springs-area striper guides, Cochran had rung Sanders to share the wealth.

The fish had been found hanging near the bottom over an old road bed amid a forest of nearly ancient, underwatertimber. Of course, as Sanders explained to us, moving around to find these fish is just a routine exercise.

Each year, ducks and geese make their annual migration from north to south across the continent of North America. Winter brings their southward plunge to avoid the cold, while spring brings their northward return to the nesting grounds in the northern United States and Canada. Striped bass in our state are like those waterfowl, but the fish’s movements - hidden beneath thousands of acres of water that veil their migration - are harder to discern.

“Lake Ouachita is an eastwest lake,” Sanders said, beginning his explanation. “In January and February, the majority of the fish will be up at the western end of the lake. As the water warms up, they will begin moving out. By August and September, the majority of them will be on the east end. Water temperature plays a big factor, as a real hot July or August will put them right at the dam - in the deepest water.”

Basically, he said, “The hotter the weather, the deeper the stripers go, and the farther east. Of course, we’re talking about the majority of the schools. Some fish can be found all over Lake Ouachita all the time.”

The striped bass move from place to place in the lake because of changes that come with seasonal fluctuations in variablessuch as the thermocline, oxygen content, water depth, clarity, temperature, availability of forage fish and more.

With a dozen years of striper guiding already reeled in, and having fished Lake Ouachita since the 1970s, Sanders knows that those physical movements by season and temperature are also accompanied by movements in the stripers’ eating habits.

“Our tactics vary by season,” the guide said. “In January, we’ll be using small shad with a weighted balloon system. We’re talking small bait, even the bigger brood shiners. During the colder months, when the lake is at its coldest and surface temps go below 50 degrees, the fish are morelethargic. Then, we’ll slow-troll for them.”

That method will shift to bigger shad and less weights by late February, March and April. Then, as spring takes over, the fish begin feeding toward the surface, and the weights are gone from the lines.

“This is when we fish with the biggest shad we can get,” Sanders said.

As summer settles in, the guides move to even bigger weights, maybe even 1- or 2-ounce ones, and troll slowly in the deeper water. Eventually, by August or September, trolling may be replaced with sitting motionless over a school of fish.

This cycle then shifts again in the fall, as weights are once again lessened, then removed, and the fish begin moving up in the water column. One thing, though, remains a constant.

“I will always have a topwater bait on the boat. These fish are capable of coming up early and late in the day, no matter what time of the year or wherever you are,” Sanders said, adding that the general idea is just to adapt to the fish by letting them tell you what to do.

Enlisting a guide to go striper fishing seems an elementary decision when considering that finding the schools of these big fish is like looking for a needle in a haystack. In this case, however, the needle may weigh 50 pounds or more, and the haystack covers more than 40,000 acres of water that may be more than 100 feet deep.

Furthermore, with several guides networking to find the fish, you’re more likely to get on them through such cooperation.

“We’re out there every day,” Cochran said. “We guides help each other out. If one boat is struggling, we call and tell them if we’re on fish. It works both ways. Next week, Ben will be calling me. You just can’t be on the fish all the time. So, the better you work together, the better it is for everyone. Our customers are happy, have a good time on the water and come back for more trips, which helps the local businesses.”

So, while the stripers are making their seasonal moves, make the move toward a computer and look up Sanders,C o chran or one of their fellow guides by visiting www.arkansasstripers.com if you’d like to try hooking and fightingsome Ouachita stripers.

Staff writer James K. Joslin can be reached at (501) 399-3693 or jjoslin@arkansasonline.com.

Three Rivers, Pages 132 on 10/09/2011

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