"Look at that," he said while pointing out a desperately fleeing shad that was about to become lunch for the hybrid striper that was in hot pursuit. "I bet that thing wishes he had legs so he could get up and run away."
I heard what Humphreys was saying but I wasn't paying him much attention because I had a radar lock on another shad that was desperately trying to walk on water. I made a cast a few feet in front of it, and made a couple turns on the handle.
"There he is," I shouted to Humphreys. "I think he's a good one too, Homer. I may need some help with this one."
The fight was one with which I was not familiar. Countless largemouth bass, a few bream and even a stray catfish or two have somehow managed to find the inside of my boat through the years – but hybrid stripers? I can honestly say I had never caught one before this day.
"Can't help now big boy," Humphreys shot back as he began working on reigning in his own underwater freight train. "It feels like a runaway locomotive racing down the side of a mountain without any brakes."
I eventually subdued the 4-pound hybrid striper that had seemed to only fight harder the longer the fight continued. In all honesty, I had to admit that this fish fought harder than a largemouth, and I was as hooked as the fish at the end of my line.
"Good gracious," I heard Humphreys groaning. I had forgotten that he was still trying to put the brakes on his own fish. "These things don't give up. And these two are only 3 or 4 pounds. Can you imagine catching one about 15 pounds?"
No I couldn't. That's why I'm going to be a regular on Lake Claiborne near Homer in Claiborne Parish this summer. I want to find out.
Lake Claiborne is home to what Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries District 1 Fish Biologist Supervisor James Seales considers a little-known gem outside the surrounding area.
"The schooling hybrid stripers get a lot of attention locally," he stated. "But I don't know of anybody who makes a trip up here specifically to fish for them. However, I suspect that may change once word starts leaking out."
Seales also explained that Lake Claiborne doesn't have any true stripers in it anymore.
"We stocked true stripers in the lake years ago, but we found out that the habitat wasn't right for them to survive," he said. "So we started stocking the hybrid stripers during the 1980s. We were stocking them to provide biological control for a large gizzard shad population and a stunted bream population, but we realized that they also provided a great sport fishing opportunity."
Most of the hybrid stripers that have been stocked in Lake Claiborne are the product of a cooperative initiative between the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries and International Paper. This program has put approximately 4,000 sub-adult fish in the lake every year since 1999.
"We started out stocking fry," Seales said, "but they were getting gobbled up as soon as we put them in the water. But we didn't have the pond space to grow them any larger. That's when International Paper stepped in and started helping us stock fish that were up to a half a pound. Stocking the larger fish helps ensure a greater survival rate."
The main drawing attraction of the hybrid stripers is during July and August when Seales says the fish start roaming around in packs looking for balls of shad.
"Those two months are best for schooling fish because the shad are close to the surface," said Seales. "And that means the hybrids that are roaming around can trap them on top of the water, and that's when you can actually see the fish feeding on top."
And you can't miss them when they start schooling. Just ask Humphreys, who guides on the lake (318-371-2020). When he isn't racking his brain trying to figure out how to catch a keeper on the tournament trail, he enjoys relaxing a little by trying his luck with the schooling hybrids at Claiborne.
"When they get started," he stated, "you'll see acres and acres of white water all over the lake. The action is a lot more frantic than it is when largemouth bass school. The stripers love to put on a good show when they come up."
Three areas of the lake in particular provide consistent schooling striper action during July and August. The most prolific of which would have to be out in front of the cow pasture going back into Sandy Creek.
"That's where you're likely to see the most action," Humphreys said. "However, don't rule out the other two spots – the intersection of D'Arbonne and Beaver as well as out in front of Bear Creek."
These three areas provide the stripers with what they need during the summer months – lots of open water and lots of shad.
Another likely spot to find schooling stripers is in the back of Bear Creek where it bottlenecks before opening back up into the back of the creek. You might also find some schooling fish on the west side of Beaver Creek around Pine Island.
Seales adds that the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries has also put in some artificial reefs near the State Park in the lower section of the lake.
"We put those out with the help of the Claiborne Parish Watershed Commission," said Seales. "There are two marked reefs with 50 PVC trees in each reef."
Seales says that the reefs were put in the lake to help the white perch and bass fishing, but he concluded that as long as there are some shad swimming above the reefs you'll likely find some schooling hybrid action over the top of the reefs.
"A hybrid striper is an open-water fish," said Humphreys, confirming what Seales had explained. "They tend to roam around almost like they're in a wolf pack searching for something to eat. And when they find it, all heck breaks loose."
But even though hybrid stripers prefer open water to heavy cover, they do tend to aggregate around what many anglers would consider typical bass structure.
"Those three areas are also good because they have deep water access and lots of channel drops and swings surrounding them," Humphreys explained.
The shad use these channels and breaklines as underwater highways, and when they happen to swim over the top of some hungry hybrids, their world becomes a ferocious explosion of gaping mouths and sliver streaks.
Humphreys agreed with Seales that the best time to take advantage of the schooling hybrids is right now.
"The hotter it gets, the better they'll school," he said. "We usually get some scattered schooling during June, but by July they're getting after it big time and that usually lasts on into August."
However, even though the hybrids school best during the heat of summer, they tend to favor the early morning and late evening for their feeding binges.
"You can find them all over the lake all day long," Humphreys explained, "but if you want to be sure to get on them, go early or late because that's when they'll definitely be up schooling."
Most of these schooling fish will be in the 2- to 5-pound range. However, Seales said it isn't uncommon to catch a hybrid up to about 15 pounds.
"There aren't many of them," he stated, "but some of the fish from the initial fry stocking several years ago that survived should be in that 12- to 15-pound range. It's a lot more common for a big fish to go about 7 pounds, though."
And even though Seales reasons that no true stripers inhabit the lake anymore, he said it isn't uncommon to catch a hybrid that looks like a striper.
"Anytime you're dealing with hybrids, the offspring sometimes take on more characteristics of one of the parents than the other," he explained. "That explains why you'll sometimes catch a hybrid with solid bars down the side – a normal indicator of a true striper."
Seales also explained that from their standpoint there is no difference between a striper and a hybrid striper when it comes to the daily creel limit.
"It's five fish," he said, "only two of which can exceed 30 inches in length."
Humphreys said he doesn't care whether they are true stripers or hybrid stripers — he just likes catching them.
"It's not nearly as technical as largemouth bass fishing," he claimed. "All you need is about two or three different kinds of baits and some heavy-action rods, and you'll be set."
Three of Humphreys's most productive lures for Lake Claiborne are a tail spinner like a Rinky Dink or a Tail Kicker, a white grub and a shad-colored crankbait.
"You can do well with some different kinds of topwater lures too," he said. "A Zara Spook is good, and the poppers like the Pop-R and the Chug Bug also work well."
Humphreys picks his three favorite lures based on their ability to work different depths of the water column. The grub and the tail spinner can be worked at any depth from the surface to the bottom, and the crankbait is rigged and ready just in case they don't eat the other two.
He fishes all three lures on typical heavy-action bass tackle rigged with 20-pound-test McCoy Mean Green monofilament.
"I keep three or four retired American Rodsmith flipping rods around the house just for the schooling hybrids," says Humphreys. "Those long rods allow me to make long casts in case the fish come up far away from my boat, and those fish pull so hard that you need the heavy-action stuff just to get them in the boat."
Seales said that most local anglers who go out for the schooling fish just drift around in the hotspots until they see the fish come up schooling.
"Some of them may troll the points during the lulls," he said, "but most just sit there waiting so they can hurry up and get in a cast or two before the fish disappear."
Hybrid stripers usually aren't thought of as being good table fare, but Seales said that is a misconception.
"They're good as long as you know how to prepare them," he said. "You've got to cut out the red meat. Try raising your fillet knife up about 1/4 inch or so. That will leave the bulk of the red meat on the skin."
Seales explained that the red meat is just a different type of flesh that allows the hybrids to have sustained energy over a long period of time.
"A largemouth bass has white meat for short bursts of speed," he said.
The hybrid stripers are good fried, but Seales said most people either bake them or put them on the grill.
"It really doesn't matter," he said, "as long as you get that red meat out of the fillet, you'll enjoy eating them almost as much as you enjoy catching them."
Seales and Humphreys also agreed that there probably isn't any better way to get a kid introduced to fishing.
"They're so easy to catch and they pull so hard that a kid can't help but get excited when he or she goes out fishing for the schooling hybrids," said Humphreys.
"And if you want to get a kid hooked on fishing, you need lots of excitement and consistent action — all of which the hybrid stripers provide. Let them tie into one of those freight trains, and the next time you go fishing they'll be glad to hop on the striper express."