Raystown Lake: Pennsylvania striper jackpot

Editor's note: ESPNOutdoors.com Fishing editor Ken Schultz also is a commentator for "BassCenter," which air Saturdays on ESPN2; look for his "Reel Speak" segment.

I've been frustrated in some really good places at times when the fishing was supposed to be hot and wasn't.

But having been to a lot of fishing destinations over the years, I know a good place when I see one — even if the camera or the livewell doesn't show much proof.

And so it was at Raystown Lake in Pennsylvania.

The Northeast had such a mild fall this year that the leaves were two to three weeks late falling off the trees and the water stayed warm much later than usual.

So as I visited Raystown in mid-November, when the stripers in a normal year would be busting the surface while frantically chasing schools of bait, they were still in lockdown mode.

That's quite a shame because Raystown has quite a reputation, and is one heckuva of a good-looking lake.

It looks good both above and below the surface, in fact. The largest lake wholly within Pennsylvania, Raystown is 28 miles long and covers 8,300 surface acres within 118 miles of shoreline.

If you think about those statistics for a second, you'll realize that the lake has to be fairly narrow in many places, and deep.

In fact, it is completely surrounded by high, forested Allegheny Mountain ridges, making it cozy with adjacent land clearly a good place for wild game. (Note that one can combine spring turkey hunting and fishing quite nicely here.)

Created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Raystown has no homes on it and just two commercial marinas, so it is pristine except for recreational facilities.

That Raystown has no homes on it is ironic, since the name of the lake and the community it was named after arose from settler Robert Ray, who built several cabins beside this arm of the Juniata River in about 1750. That arm later became known as the Raystown Branch.

Fishing with local lake expert and former guide Don "Duck" Grubb, we saw plenty of baitfish schools and larger predators. In fact, Grubb's color sonar was lit up with clouds of fish in about a third of the places we visited. Back when I had a paper chart recorder, I saved paper with such good-looking marks.

Raystown is blessed with alewives, smelt and gizzard shad. The smelt, which have cooler temperature requirements, tend to stay deeper and be the primary forage for lake trout.

I was told that 14 pounds would be a large laker here, yet Christi Spackman, a college student who interns for the local tourism bureau, caught a 16-pound lake trout on her first foray on the lake, just two days before my visit.

The alewives and shad, however, are what really fatten the stripers. Grubb's personal best is 43 pounds.

The lake record is 53 pounds, 12 ounces, but there are lots of well-fed 20- to 30-pounders here.

Normally by mid-fall the stripers are gorging on baitfish that they have herded to the surface.

Anglers watch for a commotion on the surface, or birds plunging into the water to grab a stunned baitfish, then rush over and fling a bucktail jig or casting spoon into the melee and reel quickly.

More than stripers

It's kind of crazy to think of seagulls working on a mountainous inland lake. But they're here. And when the water gets below 50 degrees in the fall (it was 54 during my visit), that's when the surface action kicks in.

The same schooling activity occurs in May, incidentally, as the water is warming, providing casting opportunities for small and large stripers alike.

Stripers can be caught throughout the winter, but the better action picks up in late March, according to Grubb.

Summer, when the water warms and there's heavy boat traffic, can be a challenge for catching stripers, with night-time offering better prospects. The availability of largemouth and smallmouth bass makes up for that quite nicely, however.

Speaking of bass, the lake is popular among bass aficionados and there are many tournaments here. Seven-pound largemouths and 6-pound smallies have been caught in Raystown.

There also are large walleyes in the lake. Most walleye fishing occurs in the spring, perhaps because most anglers don't really focus on these fish at any other time, owing to the availability of other species.

Raystown has been known as a large muskie lake in the past, but these fish have been fewer and harder to come by in recent years.

Similarly, the lake has grown large brown trout and landlocked Atlantic salmon to 18 pounds; but don't come here looking to load up on these species.

Maybe the stripers just out-compete these fish, or devour too many of them when they are smaller.

As with fishing elsewhere, there are four basic ways to catch Raystown's pure-strain and hybrid striped bass: casting, which is primarily done for schooling fish; jigging, which is mainly for suspended fish (often in or near the tops of trees); trolling with plugs and live bait; and stillfishing with live bait.

The largest stripers are usually caught on meat, which here may be alewives (some guides net their own) or hatchery-raised trout (sold locally with proof-of-sale) or locally caught fallfish.

Downrigger trolling with large plugs is a staple tactic here, although close attention has to be paid to where and how deep you're fishing, as there are many submerged trees in some portions of the lake.

Raystown's stripers move up the Raystown Branch of the Juniata in spring to spawn, but there is no natural reproduction, so the lake's population is mainly sustained by stocking.

Although stocking was originally carried on by the state, it is now mainly undertaken by area striper clubs. The foremost of these is the 400-member Raystown Striper Club, which also hosts one of the largest striper tournaments in the U.S. each May. It is an event that doubles as a fund-raiser for stocking efforts.

May sounds like a good time to get back to Raystown and give it another go. I've already penciled it in on my calendar, in fact.

Game-fish profile

Species: Bass, striped (Morone saxatilis)

Other names: Striper, rock, rockfish, striped sea bass, striper bass, linesider, squid hound, and greenhead.

In general: An excellent sport fish that attains large sizes, the striped bass is a member of the temperate bass family (often erroneously placed with the sea bass family).

It has been considered one of the most valuable and popular fish in North America since the early 1600s, originally in terms of commercial importance and eating quality and in more recent times for its recreational significance.

Striped bass have been successfully transplanted to landlocked freshwater environments and crossbred with related species.

Both sea-run and landlocked stripers provide important angling opportunities in North America, and are among the most valued and prized species.

Identification: A large fish with a large mouth, the striped bass is more streamlined than its close relative, the white bass. It has a long body and long head, a somewhat laterally compressed body form, and a protruding lower jaw.

These fish are mostly bluish black or dark green above, fading into silver on the sides and white on the belly.

On each side of its body there are 7 or 8 prominent black horizontal stripes that run along the scale rows which are the distinctive markings of the striped bass; one of the stripes runs along the lateral line, with the rest equally divided above and below it.

The stripe highest up on the side is usually the most noticeable, though on some fish, one or more of the stripes are interrupted.

Most of the fins are a dusky silver, with the exception of the white pelvic fins.

In freshwater, the striped bass has been crossed with the white bass to create a hybrid called the whiterock bass, sunshine bass and wiper.

Striped bass differ from hybrids in the regularity of their stripes, while the hybrid usually has interrupted stripes. The narrow body of the striped bass also distinguishes it from the white bass.

Size and age: Growing rapidly in early life, striped bass average 5 to 10 pounds, though they will often reach weights in the 30- to 50-pound range.

The maximum size that a freshwater striped bass can achieve is unknown, although the largest sport-caught freshwater striper is 59 pounds 12 ounces. The all-tackle record for the species, 78 pounds 8 ounces, belongs to a saltwater fish.

Striped bass normally live 10 to 12 years.

Distribution: On the Atlantic coast of the United States, the striped bass commonly occurs from the St. Lawrence River south to the St. Johns River in northern Florida.

Striped bass were introduced to San Francisco Bay in 1879 and 1882; today, along the Pacific coast, they are abundant in the Bay area and extend from Washington to California.

Stripers have been introduced to many impoundments in the U.S., particularly in the Southeast and in the West.

Habitat: Striped bass are found in saltwater, freshwater and brackish water, though they are most abundant in saltwater.

They are anadromous and migrate in saltwater along coastal inshore environs and tidal tributaries. They are often found around piers, jetties, surf troughs, rips, flats, and rocks.

A common regional name for stripers is "rockfish." Indeed, their scientific name saxatilis means "rock dweller," although they do not necessarily spend most of their lives in association with rocks.

They fin far upstream during spawning runs and also can be found in the channels of medium to large rivers at that time.

In freshwater, stripers are commonly found in open-water environs, or in the tailrace below dams. They are seldom found near shore or docks or piers, except when they may be chasing schools of baitfish.

Life history and behavior: Spawning takes place in fresh or slightly brackish waters from mid-February in Florida to late June or July in Canada, and from mid-March to late July in California when the water temperature is between 50 to 73 degrees.

Peak spawning activity is observed between 59 and 68 degrees.

The young move downstream to the estuarine portions of rivers in the late summer or early fall. Striped bass move in schools, except for larger fish, which either travel alone or with a few others of similar size.

Food and feeding habits: A voracious, carnivorous and opportunistic predator, the striped bass feeds heavily on small fish, including large quantities of herring, menhaden, flounder, alewives, silversides, eels, and smelt, as well as invertebrates such as worms, squid, and crabs.

Freshwater striped bass prefer shad, herring, minnows, amphipods, and mayflies.

Feeding times vary, though many anglers believe that stripers are more active nocturnal feeders and are more effective at catching them in low-light conditions and after dark.

For more fish species information, see Ken Schultz's Fishing Encyclopedia, available through www.kenschultz.com.