The river ran calm and cool. It was a serene summer morning far away from concrete or the sounds of civilization.
“That’s one reason I love doing this,” said Erik Almy. “It’s just so peaceful and quiet up here.”
It was peaceful and quiet, that is until the serenity was crushed by the sound of a striper exploding on the surface. A 10-inch gizzard shad leapt from the water, fleeing for its life – the huge fish chased after the shad, slamming the surface several times until finally ending the baitfish’s flight for life. Erik Almy set the hook and his line sliced the water like a razor blade as the big fish began its own battle.
“This is the other reason I like doing this,” said Almy with a grin.
Seconds later yet another striper crashed on another bait sending water into the air like a cinder block had been dropped from the sky. After two more huge strikes on the second bait we had two big stripers on the line. In the relatively small, shallow river the battle turned into an all out fire drill and several minutes of adrenalin-pumping excitement.
Welcome to summertime striper fishing on the Hiwassee River.
While most fishermen keep their fishing spots locked away like money in a vault, Almy doesn’t mind telling folks where he striper fishes. That’s because he knows very few people are going to invest in the time, effort, equipment and sweat equity required to do what he does successfully.
That morning we spent nearly three hours driving and boating to different locales before we actually started fishing. Almy was sweating buckets after slinging a $200 ten-foot cast net countless times to put about 15 gizzard shad large enough to attract a big striper in his $700 live bait tank.
“It’s all about catching and keeping the big baits lively,” said Almy. “Catch the right bait and you can usually catch fish, although not always. Let these big beautiful baits flounder while in the tank and your day is already over before it starts.”
There are days Almy might do the work, spending hours catching bait and fishing with only one, or even zero stripers to show for the effort.
“But just watching even one huge striper blow up on top makes it all worth the effort for me,” said Almy.
Couple the effort, and the knowledge, to secure good live bait with the necessary boat, equipment and know-how to find stripers means Almy isn’t likely to have a lot of competition.
The Hiwassee River runs out of the East Tennessee mountains. The upriver section is a coldwater trout fishery. Stripers stocked in the Tennessee River do not like the warm water temperatures of summer. Routinely the big fish migrate into the highly-oxygenated coldwater areas as a summer refuge, even chomping on an occasional trout.
That’s the area where Almy goes with his big gizzard shad. The bigger the better. Hooking up a 10-inch gizzard shad he said, “I wish we could have found some bigger bait today. You can’t fish a bait too big for these stripers.”
Almy puts his baits beneath large planer boards which carry the big shad out to the side, away from the boat. It’s not unusual to watch the big baits swim near the surface. On this day a resident osprey was watching our baits as well. We scared him away usually but once, for photo purposes, simply stood by quietly, allowing the bird of prey to dive into the river, snatching one of our baits and flying away with it.
It is also routine to watch a shad become frantic, struggling hard on the surface as a big striper begins stalking it like a shark.
“There’s a fish on that bait right there,” said Almy, pointing to a shad behind the boat. Unsure, I didn’t roll video soon enough but seconds later the surface of the Hiwassee again exploded.
“I told you,” said Almy with a smile. “The bait was too nervous.”
Usually stripers never actually take the bait the first time. They seem to like to play with their food like a cat playing with a mouse, slashing at it perhaps in an effort to stun or kill it. That can lead to multiple surface eruptions and severe heart palpitations for anglers waiting for the final take, which sometimes never comes.
This time it did and once again Almy was hooked up.
By 1 pm as the sun climbed high and the heat became intense we had put four stripers in the boat. All were released.
“That might be the most I’ve ever caught in one trip up here,” said Almy. “If you want to catch numbers you need to stay on the [Tennessee] River, in the tailwaters below dams like Ft. Loudon or Watts Bar,” said Almy. “That’s where you can catch numbers. We come here for big fish.”
The biggest we caught that day weighed in at 24 pounds, which is actually small compared to some of the stripers that often take refuge in the skinny cold water.”
“The biggest we’ve ever caught was 42 pounds,” said Almy. “Stripers in the 30-pound class are common.”
But again, it is a tremendous amount of effort. If you’re an angler who likes to catch lots of fish, Almy’s technique has a relatively low ROI (return on investment).
But if you are willing to put in the time and “do the work” for the potential of just a handful of heart-stopping topwater strikes and an incredible battle or two, along with hours of serenity, start doing your homework.