When it comes to stripers as with all types of fish, its hard to beat live bait. There are three keys to live bait fishing for stripers. 1. Knowing where to find bait. 2. Obtaining the right kind of bait. 3. (Most important of all) Keeping live bait alive and frisky.
Most all lakes or rivers that have stripers or hybrid stripers have an abundance of some type of shad. In many cases this may be the reason that the stripers were stocked in the lake in the beginning. Mother nature has a built in safety net in her reproductive system; a forage base for large species in the food chain. Shad also have a forage base consisting of nutrients and plankton.
Some lakes, depending on their geographical location and the type of water, will hold a higher nutrient content than others. When too many large shad are in a body of water, the reproductive chain slows down. When the shad get this large, nothing else can eat them but a fish with the appetite and the size of a striper. They are eating machines. The striper will start to decrease the number of large shad and that will make more forage for the smaller shad. This in truth will speed up the reproduction of the bait. What this chain reaction does is to put more of a useable forage base into the system for small sport fish like walleye, bass, and crappie.
Contrary to the beliefs of some bass fishermen, stripers are actually helpful to the other sport fish. In many cases, trying to convince bass fishermen of this sometimes is very difficult. (That is a different article that we will pursue at another time). Finding these large desirable shad can sometimes pose a problem if you don't know where to look. Large gizzard shad like to feed and sun themselves on long mud flats. Most lakes have areas that possess flats somewhere . Usually, even in the hot summer, the best flats to try are in the back of the creeks. During spring and winter, with several fronts coming through, the shad often will move off the flats and onto the edge of the creek channels and hold in a little deeper water to escape the high barometric pressure.
A good way to spot gizzard shad is to watch for them flipping on top of the water. If you don't see any shad flipping and are not having any success in catching shad, move out to where the flat breaks into the channel. The bait may be a little more spread out but they should be catchable. In most all cases, shad are more easily caught in shallow water. Threadfin shad can sometimes be found using the same technique. It is very important to move quietly onto the flats and make your first pass count. Shad, like fish spook easily in shallow water. I have never had very good luck catching gizzard shad in clear shallow water. Sometimes it is possible to actually drive your shad into a pocket in the back of a cove while throwing your net as you move into the cove.
Below the dam of a lake or river is always a popular place to harvest bait. Using a special dip net is a good way to catch shad. Usually, shad are more plentiful if the dams are releasing water. The shad love to swim in the current. Castnets work also but can be dangerous because of the large rocks and obstructions on the bottom and it is easy to hang up. Hanging a net on the bottom tied around your wrist is not a favorable situation. Always be careful and check your local laws applying to dam access and net laws.
Eley shad and threadfin shad are better attained at night with the use of lights. Placing an artificial light or using the lights of the dock or landing ramp may help draw in these shad. The shad usually will swarm the lights after about an hour. Two or three good throws, and you should have you all the shad you need for a days fishing. Harvesting shad in this method requires arising even earlier than fishermen would normally think about getting up but if that's what the fish want, the rewards can be well worth it.
Using the right kind of bait can make the difference between having a successful day of fishing or just killing a lot of bait. 1,000 pieces of gizzard shad will not do you any good if the fish are feeding on Eley. A body of water that has a good supply of bait can make fish very picky about what they eat. Steak and lobster both are great, but when you want a good steak, and you will not settle for anything else. The best lobster restaurant may be 5 minutes away and a good steak, 45 minutes, you'll drive the extra time just to get what you want. Fish can be the same way. Most of you know, shad of all types are much harder to keep alive than conventional bait like live shiners, chubs, suckers, etc. That is the reason it is so hard to purchase them.
It takes a lot of work and special handling to keep shad alive in the volume that a live bait dealer would need. Only a few dealers are set up to handle and hold shad. It is very expensive to build and buy the equipment they need. Even though the price you pay for shad seems high, the dealer is not making the profit that you might think. Although the bait that most dealers carry will produce fish, there are very few times that it will work as well as live fresh bait.
The best way to determine what type of shad is working best for the lake or river that you are fishing, is to ask around, most local people will be familiar with the preferred bait. Better yet, when you catch a fish do a stomach sample to see what type of bait and the size that the Striper is feeding on. This method doesn't lie. The proof is in their stomach.
I'm sure by now, you are saying yeah, all this information is great, but how do I keep the darn things alive. Listen close because, I am about to enlighten you. There are hundreds of designs, methods, and techniques for keeping shad alive. Some work and some don't. Several years ago, I designed and developed methods to harvest the first ever large commercial holding tank for large quantities of shad. My education came from experience, pioneering, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Biologists, and information I've gained over the years from some of the earlier freshwater live bait fishermen. Ron Vest, of South Carolina, builds the best filtered shad for fishermen on the market today. Keeping shad alive and healthy is not as hard as you think, if you understand a few basic facts. You have always heard that shad must be kept in a round container. For the most part, this is true, but there are a few exceptions. Let me first explain why. A round or oval tank is helpful when the oxygen level becomes low or shad start to stress. Swimming in a circular motion helps the shad pull oxygen through their gills. A round tank will allow them to do so. Square corners trap the shad in that corner, leading to crowding in the comers and eventually suffocation. Shad don't know enough to make turns to get out of the comers. Stress is usually caused by high temperatures, and this results in lower oxygen levels and over crowding. This in turn causes the worst killer of all, deadly ammonia build-up. If you are fishing in cold weather with cold water temperatures you can often get by with a square tank bait well or a cooler. Water temperatures should be 60 degrees or less. Don't overcrowd. A good rule of thumb is "I shad per gallon of water." Keep plenty of aeration, and most important, keep the water clean.
When the weather starts warming up, you will have to change to a different type of tank. Don't worry, the floating shad on the top of your tank will let you know when it is time to change to a round tank. When selecting a bait tank that is right for you, the most important thing is, to choose round or oval. The tank must have some type of good aeration system. An insulated tank is better for maintaining good temperatures. Certainly, some type of filter system is desirable. Most tanks will range from 15 to 100 gallon in size. A 25 to 30 gallon tank will take care of most fishing needs. You can buy a good tank without a filter system for under $200.00. If you want to go first class, I recommend the Vest Bait Tank, the Cadilac of bait tanks. It is insulated, has a filter and a great aeration system. You'll pay anywhere from $375.00 to $450.00 for this tank. Many beginners build their own tanks, a plastic 55 gallon barrel cut in half works well. Use your imagination and ideas to develop filtering, insulating, and aerating your tank. Listed below are a few steps and points to remember.
1 . Ammonia buildup: Caused by wasted products from stressed shad. Signs: Red nose shad, loss of scales, dead shad, and dirty water. Solution and prevention: Clean water regularly or filter with cotton and charcoal. Buy a product called Ammonia Sorb or Ammonia Kill.
2. Salt: Use in some form, Rock Salt or granulated. Hardens and bonds scales to Shad. Replaces valuable electrolytes lost due to stress. Should always be used In holding tanks. I cup to 30 gallons is a good ratio of mixture.
3. Chlorine: If you are using city water or ice, use a chlorine killer. Most bait dealers can order this or will have some form of chlorine killer. The most popular type is from Jungle called Bait Saver. It's cheap, and it kills the chlorine before you put shad m the tank, not after.
4. Temperature: Water temperature should be kept 65 degrees or less at all times. Warm water means lower oxygen levels. Cool your water by adding ice, but do it slowly, rapid temperature change can result in shock or death. 3 degrees per minute is a good guideline. Buy an inexpensive temperature gauge. This can be a valuable tool to have.
5. Aerator: This mixes the water and adds oxygen- Paddle aerators work well but can beat the scales off the bait.
6. Foam on Water: Foam is caused by ammonia and dirty water. Foam on the water cuts down on the oxygen level. Jungle Laboratory makes a product called Foam Kill. Non dairy coffee creamer works well also.
7. Red Nosed Shad: Caused by stress and over crowding. Cure: None, if you experience this you are doing something wrong.
8. Filtration: Can be done through a developed system in the tank or changing water. If you change the water watch your temperature rise and fall.
9. Quantity: I shad per gallon of water. Adjust this formula with the season. The hotter the weather, the less shad in the tank.
10. Net Mesh Size: Use a net size so that your shad will not hang in the mesh, this can bruise or knock off their scales.
11. Tank: Take your time and do it right.
I hope some of this information will cure some of the problems that you are having or help you to get started. These are some ground rules and guidelines to follow. You can adjust them to help your own situation. Nothing will replace experience or trial and error. I can tell you this, the rewards of fishing with shad are great, but you are also in for some disappointments when it comes to keeping shad alive. One mistake can cost you your whole tank.