In the half-light gloom of a foggy daybreak, the glare of the sonar unit illuminated the face of Joey Mines as he scrutinized every detail on the bottom about 30 feet below us in this cove on West Point Lake.
“Looks like the fish are home today,” said Mines, a guide and host of the long-running Outdoors with Joey Mines television show. “We have lots of bait and some good fish down there. Let’s drop a few baits down and see what happens. Sometimes, when we put lines down there, we get so many bites all at once it turns into chaos as multiple big fish race off with our baits.”
With several rods placed in holders and arrayed like quills on a hedgehog, we didn’t wait long for action. Soon after the live shad touched bottom, chaos erupted. Several rods bent over double simultaneously. When one fish takes a bait, it kicks off a feeding frenzy as other predators compete for succulent morsels. We pulled up our catches and put fresh bait back in the water as fast as we could to keep the action going. Besides lined-sided leviathans, we caught white bass, hybrid bass, catfish, largemouth, and spotted bass.
“We need to keep baits in the water,” Mines admonished. “As long as the bait stays in the water, fish stay interested. If we don’t drop baits back down fast, bass lose interest and go elsewhere looking for a meal.”
Impounded in 1974 on the Chattahoochee River, West Point Lake covers 25,900 acres along the Alabama-Georgia line near LaGrange, Ga. The lake runs for about 35 miles along the river channel and drops to more than 90 feet deep in places. Stripers love cold, deep water.
“The system can produce some striped bass in the 40-pound range,” said Ken Weathers, an Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources biologist in Enterprise. “In the spring, many anglers fish below the dam for stripers and hybrids.”
In the fall and winter, Mines typically finds himself alone on the lake when stripers turn most active. He normally fishes humps or old roadbeds submerged when the reservoir water level rose. Stripers also congregate near ledges, creek channels or other variations in bottom contours about 20- to 30 feet deep. The deep water near the dam typically holds the most striped bass in the winter. In February, stripers head up the Chattahoochee River in an attempt to spawn.
“West Point Lake has an abundance of stripers because it has a tremendous baitfish population,” Mines explained. “In the winter, we catch a lot of really big stripers. In December, the water temperature cools to about 50 degrees. Fish metabolism slows down and they don’t need to move or eat as much. In the winter, conditions generally remain stable for weeks. When I do find them, I can keep catching them day after day in the same spot.”
In the winter, Mines frequently looks for seagulls to help him find bass. Striped bass herd baitfish toward the surface to cut off their escape routes. The ever-alert and hungry birds spot activity immediately. When the birds see stripers feeding on the surface, they dive to grab their share of the protein buffet.
“Seagulls come down from up north and stay during the winter,” Mines explained. “The seagulls follow the baitfish. In December and January, if I see a bunch of seagulls in a cove, even if they aren’t diving on anything, I’ll go to that cove. If we see the birds diving, that means stripers are schooling under them. That’s when things get really exciting!”
Mines normally fishes with live shad for bait, but when stripers start schooling near the surface, he tosses bucktail jigs at the frenzied predators. After the fish dive deep again, he may vertically jig for them with 1/2- to 3/4-ounce chrome spoons.
“I like to fish a 1/4-ounce white bucktail jig on 10-pound test line,” Mines advised. “It sinks at the exact rate that fish want. With a spoon, let it go to the bottom. At the bottom, barely move it. In cold water, stripers don’t want fast baits, but when they hit, they’ll snatch the rod out of your hands.”
Striped bass give inland anglers in small boats economical opportunities to catch really big fish without venturing far into the Gulf of Mexico. Some anglers without boats fish from platforms set up below the dam.
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