Stripers on Rat-L-Traps

 Fishing for Stripers in the Napa River by SportfishWorld's Bob Fisher


"Stripers on Rat-L-Traps" is a SportfishWorld feature containing photos and tips about fishing for Stripers (Striped Bass) with Rat-L-Trap lures in the sloughs of the Napa River in California's Wine Country.

 SportfishWorld © 2003 Bob Fisher. All Rights Reserved.

 (Above and right)
Bob Fisher with an early morning Napa River Striper
  (Above and right)
Tim McDaniel with a
Napa River Striper

 Stripers on Rat-L-Traps
Napa River November 2003

It was still dark when we slipped the boat into the calm waters of the Napa River and tied it up to the dock. The skies were overcast and the forecast was for rain but the air was still and surprisingly much warmer than two weeks ago when we had been here last. There was a light glow of orange appearing above the hills on the eastern horizon. Surprisingly, the parking lot at the Cuttings Wharf boat launch was already full but the multitude of pickup trucks and small trailers parked there didn’t belong to anglers, for it was duck hunting season and the duck-hunters were out in force. As we slowly motored up the main channel of the Napa River, I mentioned my concern to Tim about fishing for stripers up in the slough, a tidal-influenced, muddy offshoot from the main river, in the pre-dawn darkness amongst the guys dressed in camouflage, hiding in the reeds with their guns. However, the anticipation of catching another thirty five pound Striped Bass, on light line in the shallows as on previous trip overrode any more thoughts for our safety, even though we could hear random gunshots in the distance.

It turned out to be a perfect morning for lure fishing the shallow waters of the slough for Stripers. The tide had just turned from a 5.9 ft high and was on its long way out to a -0.2ft low as the sun started to appear through the clouds. We had the turn of the tide coinciding with sunrise in our favor and in the dim light we could see baitfish behaving skittishly along the shoreline near us. Water was starting to drain from the floodplains and creeks back into the slough, carrying food and nutrients with it. Occasionally we would see a wake that was caused from the back of a large striper breaking the surface as it chased little schools of frantic baitfish right up to the banks where they sought protection in the shelter of the reeds.

We were fishing from my 19ft BlueWater walk-through in seven feet of water but we would sometimes drift up onto a bank that would halve that depth, so the outdrive was fully raised. Tim was in one corner at the stern and I was standing on the small, plywood cover to the anchor locker, up at the bow. It was a quite a good setup as there was a reasonable distance between us and that gave us a lot of room to cast freely.

It wasn’t long before Tim had a hookup and after a couple of short runs he managed to turn the fish against the current and guide it back to the boat. It was a small striper that had engulfed his Rat-L-Trap and it rolled and splashed on the surface until he could get the hooks out. Once released it quickly swam off out of sight. A fifteen minute interval followed during which we had no follows, strikes or hookups even though we had made dozens of casts. We both spotted a couple of swirls ahead of the bow, in front of a clump of reeds near the shore. I quickly fired off a cast in that direction and retrieved the lure back to the boat. Nothing resulted. Another cast, a couple of turns of the handle on the little baitcaster and my retrieve was stopped by a solid hit. The fish immediately took off with the current causing the rod to bend into a full arc with the line being pulled slowly but steadily from the small spool. I had lost fifty to sixty yards of line by the time he had slowed but the boat was drifting along the slough in the same direction that he had headed so I wasn’t too concerned yet. By applying constant pressure we eventually caught up with him and after a few short powerful runs I had him at the side of the boat. Tim had put his rod out of the way in one of the front rod holders and had the net ready but the fish dived and swam around the back of the boat and to the other side. I put the rod tip in the water and dragged it under and around the outdrive. This time when I got him back to the boat I guided him along the surface and into the waiting net. He weighed between eight and nine pounds and on light tackle had put up a good fight. The current had really picked up by this time and we were drifting too fast. We were also ending up on the bank each time we approached a bend in the slough so a change of tactics was in order. We headed back up to the end of the slough but this time we dropped a heavy anchor attached to a ten foot length of chain ahead of an area that looked promising where swirling, muddy water from a tidal creek was being fed back in where debris such as grasses, leaves and reeds were floating by quickly on the surface. When we drifted back into our desired position we tied off the anchor rope on the forward cleat. It was Tim's turn this time - a noticeable swirl to the stern was followed by a quick cast and a few turns of the handle resulting in a solid hookup from a fish that easily took fifty yards of line from his spinning reel in one powerful run. It didn’t take me long to reel in, pull the anchor and start the engine and I soon was motoring downstream in pursuit of the fish which had now increased it’s lead to seventy yards. When I had closed the gap to about twenty yards I cut the engine allowing Tim to apply steady pressure at close range.

The basic technique that we employed was to slowly motor up to the end of the slough as far as we could safely go and then drift back in the outgoing current with both of us shooting out continuous casts to both banks as we drifted along but paying particular attention to anywhere that there was movement (activity) in the water. Tim’s preference was for a one-ounce, blue and silver Rat-L-Trap lure and a six foot Ugly Stik Intercoastal rod matched with a little ABU Garcia spinning reel spooled with ten pound line. I was using 10lb line on my Shimano Curado baitcaster on a six-foot, graphite, Shakespeare Axiom single-handed baitcaster rod with a half ounce multi-colored Rat-L-Trap. Both of these outfits are lightweight and well balanced and as such are suited to our style of lure fishing for Stripers in the sloughs of the Napa River, which involves repetitive distance-casting with fast retrieval throughout an entire day of fishing. Due to the possibility of hooking a very large fish, there also exists the chance of getting spooled. Therefore your reel of choice should have a good drag system and be loaded with the maximum capacity of line but not so much as to cause tangles or overruns. As we do not use leaders for this type of fishing, it is advisable to check the line for signs of fraying and we always re-tie our knots after every good fish.

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