The lowdown: This complete guide to fishing for striped bass in freshwater will show you where, when and how to catch stripers in lakes and rivers across America.
Members of the temperate bass or “true bass” family, striped bass are native to the Atlantic coast from Georgia all the way to Maine. Though they’re saltwater fish, they are also anadromous, meaning they spawn in freshwater rivers.
As it turns out, stripers also thrive in freshwater lakes. As a result, fisheries departments have stocked striped bass widely in artificial reservoirs across the United States.
Freshwater stripers are the same species as saltwater stripers, but they don’t usually get as big as their saltwater counterparts. Landlocked stripers weighing 5 to 20 pounds are typical, though some lakes produce true trophy stripers over 40 pounds.
Anglers can find stripers across a broad swath of the Southern U.S. and reservoirs as far north as Pennsylvania and west to California. They’re most successful in big Southern reservoirs and river systems.
Most of the best striper lakes are strikingly similar. A typical striper lake is a large, sprawling impoundment with deep structure near the dam, a more riverine environment at its upper end, and a well-defined river channel with lots of smaller creek arms. And they’re loaded with baitfish.
Some of the best striper lakes in America look like this, including Lake Texoma, Smith Mountain Lake and Lake Cumberland. Some, like the Santee Cooper Lakes, are a bit different but still offer many of the same habitats.
Wherever you may go, the following tips and tactics will help you catch more and bigger freshwater stripers.
Striper Behavior & Conditions
First off, it’s essential to understand why stripers behave the way they do and what conditions they prefer. Striper movements and locations are driven by a handful of factors that anglers can use to predict where you’ll find them on any given day.
Those factors are:
Striped bass can tolerate a fairly wide range of temperatures, but they prefer waters between 55° F and 68° F and will generally seek out that range whenever possible. Stripers become more active in spring when waters warm up above 45° F.
They remain active in summer until temperatures reach about 75° F, when they start to become stressed. In warm waters, they’re likely to bite best in the early morning and evening.
Stripers usually go where their food goes. Looking for schools of baitfish like shad is often one of the best ways to locate striped bass in any given reservoir. Another sign to keep an eye out for is gulls and other birds feeding on baitfish at the surface.
Oxygen levels are closely tied to temperature, as cold waters have more dissolved oxygen than warm waters. Stripers require a minimum of 5 mg/L of dissolved oxygen to survive.
The importance of oxygen is especially apparent in summer, when lakes heat up and oxygen levels decrease, often forcing stripers into “thermal refuges” in deep water, limiting their habitat to small areas with an acceptable temperature and oxygen level.
Current often plays a role in determining striper location. In environments with current, striped bass often wait along current seams and below current breaks, ready to quickly dart into the swift water and grab disoriented baitfish.
Where available, stripers may also seek out current in summer because it has more dissolved oxygen. This pattern occurs in the reservoirs of the Tennessee River system, in which some stripers spend the whole year in tailwaters at the head of each reservoir.
When stripers inhibit open water in large lakes, wind plays an often-overlooked role. The wind moves clouds of plankton around the lake, which attracts shad and other plankton-eating baitfish. As you might have guessed, stripers often follow.
The urge to spawn drives freshwater stripers in springtime when waters warm up to about 60° F. If their environment allows, they will make their way toward the upper ends of reservoirs and into tributaries at this time.
In most freshwater systems, stripers do not have the necessary habitat to spawn successfully, though there are exceptions. Lake Texoma between Texas and Oklahoma and Kerr Lake in Virginia and North Carolina are examples of lakes where natural reproduction occurs.
Cover & Structure
Unlike black bass, stripers aren’t tied to cover like weed beds and brush piles. They’re quite comfortable roaming open water, following schools of baitfish far from any identifiable features.
That said, stripers do usually relate to some kind of structure. They follow the contour lines of river and creek channels up and down reservoirs during their seasonal migrations and often use points and humps to corral schools of bait fish.
Stripers will also hunt among standing timber where available. In rivers, they often congregate in deep pools above or below a shoal.
Seasonal Striper Patterns
Stripers follow fairly predictable seasonal patterns in most lakes and reservoirs across their range. The exact timing will vary depending on location; expect stripers to become active earlier in the South than in the North.
Striper Fishing in Spring
Starting in early spring, lakes warm up and stripers become more active. Early in the season, as temps creep up into the 50s, stripers often follow schools of shad into relatively shallow water, especially along rocky points and riprap banks, which are quickest to warm.
Stripers can sometimes be found in as little as 5 to 10 feet of water, making spring the best season for shore-bound anglers to catch them from banks and piers.
As spring continues, spawning behavior is a major event in virtually all striper lakes. Depending on the latitude, spawning movements may start as early as March or continue as late as June.
Regardless of whether they have the required habitat to reproduce successfully, stripers will go through the motions and can reliably be found at the upper ends of reservoirs in spring when water temperatures are between 60° F and 68° F.
Throughout the spring season, the best striper fishing is typically in the upper half of any given reservoir, particularly around submerged points, humps, and the mouths of creeks.
In rivers, look for stripers in tailwater areas below dams.
Striper Fishing in Summer
After spawning—or at least giving it their best shot—stripers return to the main lake. The fish are often thin and weak after spawning, but they feed heavily and fatten up quickly in late spring and early summer.
Early summer can offer some of the best striper fishing of the year as fish gradually work their way back down from the upper to lower ends of reservoirs, gorging themselves as they go. Points, humps and channel edges are prime areas.
Depths vary widely, and there is often excellent topwater action in early summer. On other days, fish will hold deeper, but you can usually find fish by focusing on channel edges, providing stripers with easy access to deep and shallow water.
Patterns start to shift as you get into midsummer and reservoirs reach their hottest temperatures of the year. Stripers will almost always be at the lower end of a reservoir this time of year, in deep water near the dam.
Most reservoirs stratify in July and August, and stripers are usually around the thermocline. It’s advisable to avoid targeting trophy stripers this time of year, as larger fish are more prone to stress, and mortality rates in warm water are high.
Striper Fishing in the Fall
After challenging conditions in late summer, fall is a season of transition. Lakes cool down, and stripers once again become more active, but it doesn’t happen all at once, and not without some bumps along the way.
Most large reservoirs experience a turnover event in early fall, during which water from above and below the thermocline circulates top-to-bottom, which evens the water temperature and dissolved oxygen level throughout the reservoir.
The turnover throws the whole lake into temporary turmoil, and the fishing can be very difficult for a week or two. But once the dust settles, cool water throughout the lake allows stripers to feed actively in shallow water again.
Some of the best fishing happens when the temperature drops back below 60° F, and stripers head back toward the upper ends or reservoirs, corralling schools of shad on points and in creek arms and coves. This time of year, the trick is keeping tabs on striper movements, as they’re often here today and gone tomorrow.
Late fall is an especially good time to scan the surface for topwater activity and circling gulls, which usually point to the location of active stripers and can provide hours of nonstop action.
Striper Fishing in Winter
Early winter often sees a continuation of late fall patterns, especially on Southern reservoirs, where stripers continue to gorge themselves on baitfish near the surface and in shallow water. The action stays pretty consistent as long as water temps stay in the 50s.
Once the coldest part of winter sets in, stripers gravitate to deep water in most lakes. Look for them in 20- to 40-foot depths, particularly in channels and near drop-offs. In lakes with deep, standing timber, stripers often spend the winter among the trees.
Starting at the lower end of a lake near the dam is usually advisable in winter. Using slow, subtle tactics like drifting live bait or dead-sticking soft plastics is often a good idea in colder conditions.
There are exceptions, however. In power plant cooling lakes, there’s usually a warm water discharge canal, which is invariably an excellent place to find striped bass in winter. These areas attract a wide variety of baitfish and predators.
Winter can also offer sudden bonanzas for stripers. Shad are susceptible to cold shock, and large numbers of them can die off if the temperature suddenly drops into the mid-40s. When that happens, it provides a quick and easy meal for striped bass.
Best Baits and Lures for Stripers
Striped bass in freshwater have a diet composed almost exclusively of smaller fish. That makes live bait fish—and lures that imitate them—the best striper baits.
The best live bait for stripers tends to be whatever species is native to any given lake and makes up the majority of stripers’ diet there. In most reservoirs, threadfin shad and gizzard shad are at the top of the menu.
Blueback herring and skipjack herring are also important striped bass forage, particularly in Southern reservoirs. Skipjack herring are often favored by anglers wherever they are available, as they are often the preferred food of larger stripers.
In a pinch, any live baitfish available at your local bait shop can work for striper fishing, but you’ll have the best chance of success if you can match the forage stripers are used to. Some striper anglers start their day on the water catching live shad, herring or alewives to use as bait.
The right size bait depends on the size of the fish you’re targeting. Baitfish in the 3″ to 6″ range are considered standard and tend to catch the most stripers, while larger baits measuring 8″ to 12″ will select for only larger stripers.
A tremendous variety of minnow-imitating lures are effective. That being said, a few basic categories of lures will have you well-stocked and prepared for striper fishing.
Bucktail jigs are among the most popular and versatile lures. Anglers cast and retrieve them across the current in rivers, jig with them vertically in deep reservoirs, and fish them close to the surface when there’s a good topwater bite.
Jigging spoons are another popular option for deep vertical fishing.
So-called “flutter spoons,” which fall with a zig-zag motion like a dying baitfish, being especially effective. The Nichols Lures Magnum Spoon and Bomber Slab Spoon are popular.
Casting soft plastic lures is often the best option when stripers actively feed at the surface or in shallow water. Soft jerkbaits like Zoom Flukes and paddle-tail swimbaits like Z-Man MagSwimZ are great options.
When it comes to trolling, an even wider range of options can be effective. Hard baits like the Rapala Magnum X-Rap, Bomber Long A, and Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow are excellent options.
Many anglers also troll for freshwater stripers using Alabama Rigs. With multiple arms, each adorned with a hook and spinning blade, an Alabama rig is a scaled-down version of the umbrella rigs that saltwater striper anglers use more widely.
Fly fishing for striped bass is a world all its own. Fly anglers typically use medium to large streamer patterns such as Clouser Minnows and Deceivers. Topwater poppers can also be highly effective when stripers are feeding actively on the surface.
Striper Fishing Tactics
How do you catch stripers? Let us count the ways. A wide range of tactics can be effective depending on the situation.
Trolling for Stripers
Trolling is arguably the most popular and effective method of catching stripers. It’s especially effective at efficiently covering a lot of water and should be the go-to tactic on an unfamiliar lake.
Trolling is essentially cruising slowly along the length of a lake or reservoir while dragging one or more (typically four) baits and lures behind you. Experienced anglers will troll various lures at different running depths, using planer boards to spread them out away from the boat.
Downriggers or lead core lines are also helpful in getting lures down to where the fish are for baits that don’t run deep enough on their own. Typical trolling speed for stripers is 2.5 to 3 mph, though you may find success within 0.5 mph on either side of that range.
You can use the season as a general guide to where on any given reservoir to start trolling. More often than not, that means the deep lower end of the lake in summer or winter and the shallow upper end in spring or fall.
Two essential tools you’ll need are a depth finder and a good topographic map of the lake. The best approach to trolling for stripers is to follow contour lines on the map, like the edge of a river channel.
Other key areas include places where a shallow flat meets a drop-off to deeper water and the edges of main lake humps that provide shallow structure with deep water all around it. Stripers often hold on the deep side of a hump.
Your depth finder can also help you locate schools of forage fish, often indicating that stripers are nearby. However, when confirmed stripers and bait are in the area, many anglers will switch from trolling to other tactics.
Jigging for freshwater stripers is not an efficient method of finding fish, but if you have a general idea of where stripers are, dropping lures straight down to them can be one of the best ways to get them to bite.
The best time to jig for stripers is when fish are schooling and actively feeding on deep structures like a channel, steep point, or the deep side of a hump. Depending on the situation, you can take a couple of different approaches to jigging.
The first is fast jigging, which usually works best with jigging spoons. Start by dropping your lure down past the level of fish.
Then, as your boat drifts through the area where stripers are feeding, bring your spoon back toward the surface by repeatedly sweeping your rod tip upward, letting the lure flutter back down a bit as you reel in the slack line between sweeps.
The second is a slower, more subtle form of jigging, which anglers often do with a bucktail jig or a soft plastic trailer on a jig head.
With slow jigging, you’ll want to drop your lure down to about the depth where the fish are feeding.
Then, raise and lower your rod tip slowly, letting the drift of your boat carry the lure through the strike zone. Use your reel to bring the lure up by 5 to 10 feet at a time every few moments as you drift through the area.
Drifting Live Bait
Drifting is one of the simplest methods of fishing live bait for stripers. It involves hooking a live bait fish or a cut bait on the appropriate sized hook (a size 6/0 or 8/0 circle hook works in most situations), casting it out, and letting it drift freely.
Drifting live bait is a great approach to fishing for stripers in a current. In a river or tailwater, cast bait upstream and let it drift along current seams or past current breaks where stripers may be waiting.
This tactic works on lakes, too. Many anglers will anchor on a point or near the edge of a channel and let their bait drift in an area where stripers are known to be feeding.
In winter, drifting is a productive way to fish a power plant’s warm water discharge.
In some cases, you won’t need additional tackle. In a strong current, however, a sinker may be necessary to slow the drift. Or a float may be employed if stripers are feeding on the surface and you don’t want your bait to sink too deep.
A popular tactic on big Southeastern reservoirs like Lake Murray and Lake Hartwell, down-rodding is a method for fishing live or cut bait in deep water that works sort of like a combination of the methods we’ve already touched on.
The typical down-rodding rig is essentially a Carolina rig.
You’ll thread a 1- to 3-ounce egg sinker onto the main line, which ends in a barrel swivel. To the other end of the barrel swivel, tie a leader ending with the hook and bait.
The rig is typically dropped to the bottom and then reeled into the approximate depth of the feeding stripers. The sinker then holds the bait at depth while allowing it to swim or drift freely within a limited range.
You can let the boat drift freely while the lines are out, but you may also engage the trolling motor to control your position.
Down-rodding is an especially effective vertical technique in the summer, when stripers school up in deep water.
It’s possible to find stripers feeding high in the water column at any time, but topwater action is most likely during the morning and evening hours. It also tends to happen from spring into early summer and again from mid-fall into early winter.
During these seasons, watch the surface for the telltale boils that result from stripers blitzing shad or other baitfish up top. You may also be able to spot gulls, cormorants, and other birds circling and diving in the active feeding area.
It’s always wise to have a casting rod rigged and ready for this scenario. Approach the area slowly and quietly in your boat to avoid spooking the fish.
A soft jerkbait like a Zoom Fluke on a light jig head or unweighted hook is great for fishing within the top 4 feet of the water column. Hard baits like Pencil Poppers and Zara Spooks are also excellent when stripers bust baitfish on the surface.
Topwater tactics, including fly fishing for stripers, are also excellent for fishing in rivers when stripers are on their spring spawning run or when fish stack up in tailwater areas.
Hybrid Striper Fishing
Hatchery-raised hybrids between striped bass and white bass—referred to as wipers, sunshine bass, and various other nicknames—are also stocked in reservoirs across the United States.
Hybrid stripers tolerate a wider range of temperatures and, as a result, are more widely stocked.
Hybrid stripers typically weigh 5 to 10 pounds and have a more squat, compact body shape than true stripers. Their behavior is similar, and in some reservoirs, anglers catch true stripers and wipers in the same areas using the same methods.
When specifically targeting hybrid stripers, it’s always a good idea to downsize one’s bait somewhat, as hybrids have smaller mouths and favor smaller baitfish. Lures similar in size to those used for largemouth bass are often effective.
Best Striper Fishing
Click the following states to find the best striper fishing lakes and rivers in each location. A few of the Eastern states listed below also feature great saltwater striped bass spots. We are currently in the process of adding more states.