STRIPER BOILS - Background
Surface feeding activity occurs as 100-5000 striped bass roll and porpoise in unison. These "boils" can simmer or boil over as striped bass trap shad schools against the surface. Water spouts and crashing splashes mark the spot. Disturbance by fishing boats cause striped bass schools to sound and then reappear a few hundred yards away as feeding resumes in a different direction.
As shad grow in size and develop stronger swimming ability the surface action gets more intense as striped bass corral shad against the surface or trap them near shore. The tendency for shad to "ball up" in a tight school when predators approach allows striped bass to herd and trap shad schools. The trapped shad school is repeatedly probed by striped bass working together to eat, injure and kill as many shad as possible. Shad are often slashed by the jaws and stunned by the powerful caudal fin during such encounters. Striped bass capture most shad at the surface creating a highly visible disturbance with water spouts and a boat wake-like wave as stripers line up shoulder to shoulder to feed. When the attack commences the surface activity is intense and visible for many hundred meters as water is thrown high in the air. Surface feeding boils last from a few seconds to as long as three hours. Duration is probably determined by shad abundance. Many shad allow a longer feeding period while few shad may be consumed or lost from sight in a few seconds.
Surface boils only occur when shad are present. In years when shad numbers are limited and eventually eliminated from the open water, no striper boils are seen. When shad are abundant boils are common and predictable. Striped bass often feed at the same time in the same location on a daily basis. Striped bass habitually return to a successful feeding spot every day until the forage is consumed or escapes.
Both shad and stripers are tightly bunched as they begin the daily feeding ritual. Normally, about one-half hour after first light shad form schools after spending the night randomly distributed in the water column. This shad schooling behavior attracts striped bass and feeding begins. As shad schools are repeatedly attacked, large schools fragment into smaller groups. Fragmentation of shad schools also causes striped bass schools to break up as groups of striped bass chase after small groups of shad. An original feeding event, one-acre in size, can dissolve into scattered striped bass feeding in many different directions over a square mile. When feeding ceases both shad and striped bass regroup.
If striped bass are satiated they may not eat for the rest of the day. More likely they will randomly feed again near mid-day and then again in the evening just before dark. After dark, shad schools disperse and boils are not likely. Striped bass are effective nocturnal feeders and feed on shad subsurface at night.
In times when forage is very abundant, boils may be rare or half-hearted because shad are easily obtained and schooling efforts are not required to obtain food. Perhaps surface feeding action is at its peak when shad are common but not abundant. Striped bass must now work hard to corner shad for effective feeding opportunities. As shad become scarce, surface feeding opportunities decrease.
Stripers cannot be discussed without including their primary forage, threadfin shad. Every summer, newly hatched shad move from the back of the canyon to the open bays to feed on plankton. Two to four pound striped bass find the small shad and feed aggressively on the surface until the shad are eliminated or get smart and move back toward cover. There may be an extended period of striper surface feeding activity (SLURPS) during July and August at many open water locations over the expanse of Lake Powell. After the mid summer fire works, shad moved out of open water to find escape cover where they could avoid the relentless pursuit of stripers.
Really good surface action is most likely to happen very early in the morning, about 30 minutes after first light. The boil may be near cover, such as a flooded tamarisk cove or a buoy field or break water guarding the marina. Shad need to eat and are prone to sneak out of cover just after dawn and just before dark. That's why boils are seen most often at twilight periods.
As the water begins to cool in September and October, larger stripers which require cooler temperatures and have been living in deep water all summer, are able to spend longer periods of time in the warmer surface layers. The big fish round up schools of shad and drive them into short, wide canyons and coves where they hold them captive in between feeding sprees. Shad get in shallow water where stripers can't swim. Stripers guard the mouth of the cove waiting for a ball of shad to attempt an escape. Finding one of these guarded box canyons is like having your own private fishing hole. Look for shad schools that will not leave shallow water. A wave of the hand over the school causes them to scatter and even jump out on the shore. They will do anything except enter deep water where stripers are patiently waiting.
Ravens walk the shoreline like prison guards waiting for shad to make an ill fated leap for freedom. Ravens, gulls and blue herrons can be used like sign posts that say "Fish here!". Throw your favorite top water bait to the back of the cove near the raven's feet and brace for the jolt of airborne stripers or the slurp of a bass. A large, trapped shad school may stay in the same cove for two weeks while enduring daily feeding attacks from guarding stripers and opportunistic bass. Generally, shad are trapped in a cove for three to five days before escaping or being eliminated. If the shad are gone when you return for another day of fishing search the adjacent shoreline for another shad corral.
Use some of these subtle clues to really increase your striper catch rate. If you need more enticement I will dangle a little more bait. There is often a daily progression of feeding activity. Shad leave cover to feed at first light. Stripers show up about 30 minutes later. The surface boils with flying shad and stripers until shad head for cover again. That can be 5 minutes or two hours depending on the day. But as the shad turn from open water towards cover they find bass waiting. Large and smallmouth bass let stripers drive shad right to their waiting mouths. On numerous occasions I have watched a striper boil build to peak intensity. Then as shad leave open water and stripers lose interest a second wave of green fish hit shad right at the cover line. A zara spook or jumpin' minnow thrown towards the middle of the bay gets a striper swirl while the same lure thrown towards the canyon wall or other cover gets a bass attack. I have taken more big largemouth on top water baits from declining striper boils than with any other method. Three to five pound largemouth will swim near similar size stripers and use the aggressive striped bass wolf pack to get an easy shad meal.
How To Find a Canyon with Shad
It is as simple as it sounds. In late summer and fall shad find the shallowest water available to avoid stripers. Cruise to the back of the canyon and LOOK. Recently harassed shad will be along the edge of the cove usually in water less than one foot deep. There will usually be some old tamarisk trees that shad use for additional cover when stripers attack. It will often be a short open (box canyon) cove close to deep water. If shad will not leave the shallows when you approach and even jump on the bank when you wave your hand, you know that stripers have recently attacked and will be close by. Bird activity really speeds up the search process.
Random coves where stripers trap shad are better fishing than the terminal end of long floodplain canyons. For example, the back of Red canyon always has shad but it is very shallow and brushy in the back where shad have the advantage. You can catch stripers there but only a few. Move further out to the mouth of Red and there are many short coves where stripers can round up shad in the channel and then trap them in the cove. When shad are found in these coves stripers are near and will be catchable either on top or on spoons at the mouth of the cove. Shad will escape (usually over night) after stripers leave and the next boil will occur where shad and stripers come together again. It may be in the same cove or a half mile away. That's why I contend that cruising and looking is better than waiting and wishing.
Morning and evening shad will feed near the top and the "dimpling dark cloud" of fish usually about 10 feet in diameter can be seen riffling the surface. Look for a riffle near the back of a calm cove. If lucky enough to find an unmolested feeding school check back periodically and you will find stripers.
Granted it takes more time to go look for shad. Sometimes I cruise for more than an hour without casting a lure. But when I find feeding stripers I make up for lost time in a hurry. Use the cruise and scan technique the first hour of light in the morning and last hour of light in the evening during August and September.
TYPES OF BOILS
Slurping: May - July
Larval shad are barely able to swim as they drift in the water column like plankton. All sizes of stripers eat larval shad in the first boils of the season. Stripers line up side by side and effectively graze on the surface in unison like a large lawn mower cutting grass. The feeding school moves just faster than most electric trolling motors can push a boat. The feeding activity looks like a single wave surrounded by calm water. It is very subtle and easy to miss. There is very little splashing although the slurping noise is audible for many hundreds of yards.
When a boat approaches the fish sound and then pop up again a few hundred yards away to resume feeding in a new direction.
Slurpers will sometimes take full sized surface lures and/or shallow running crankbaits. The lure is not as important as precision placement.
First, stop the boat just in casting range of the rapidly moving school. Determine direction of travel and coast that way. These fish are going to the right. See the smooth water ahead and riffled water behind the boil. Put the trolling motor on high, bear to the right and try to keep up.
Approaching from behind is better than having a school come head on. It is difficult to place a cast properly when the school is movcing rapidly toward the boat.
Lure placement in this slurping group should be well over the biggest concentration in the middle of the picture. One angler should cast over the middle group while the other casts over and right of the splashing fish.
After sounding there is a period of waiting while the school regroups and comes to the top again. Look to see which way they were heading when they went down. These are going right. Move the boat slowly in the direction of travel hoping that fish pop up in casting range. When that happens the first cast should be a hookup.
But sometimes the fish double back and come up 200 yards in the wrong direction. In that case get on the big motor and try to get close again.
A tight boil means all fish have surrounded the prey. DO NOT CAST into the pod. That will cause the fish to jump in unison and then flee at full speed. Cast beyond or to either side and bring the lure into the strike zone.
When fish are down look for stragglers to come up. A couple of swirls mark the location of the school. Sometimes a single swirl will tell you where the next surfacing event will be and give you time to get in range before they come up.
Food size is very small, less than an inch, and terminal tackle cannot be much larger or it will often be ignored. Small white jigs, plastic worms, or spoons work when tossed into the school but long casts are required to reach the boat shy fish. One possible solution to this dilemma is to tie a small lure dropper behind a heavy lure (or casting bubble). The big lure delivers the goods but the small lure catches the fish.
Small Boils - July-September
Shad swimming ability changes as they grow large enough to avoid feeding stripers. Slurps change to Boils when shad can elude stripers in a one-on-one match up. When shad are available but only in small numbers stripers feed in small squads or individually instead of in complete schools. Five to ten stripers chase after a handful of shad. They break the surface in dolphin-like leaps when shad are cornered. The disturbance lasts only for a few seconds or as long as it takes to catch a mouthful of shad. The boil is random and usually repeatable, popping up again and again for brief moments in the same general 10-acre area.
It is counterproductive to chase these boils with the boat. The better way is to proceed slowly in the vicinity of the last boil with either a trolling motor or big motor and hope that the next boil will be in casting range. These fish are very catchable as they are always searching for a stray shad, but pin-point casting and impeccable timing are essential for success. Determine direction of travel and try to get ahead of feeding fish. Turn off the motor and wait for the next splash. These boils require great patience. When fish swirl to the top, cast right into or 3 feet beyond the feeding fish. If placed in the 'feeding zone' the striper will hit the lure. Once the fish turns and dives he will not go back for the lure.
Moderate Boils - August - October
Stripers feeding together mean that shad schools are larger and exhibiting school behavior. Individual shad try to escape predators by moving to the center of the school. The ball of shad created is then ravaged by stripers who seek to kill, eat, injure, or damage as many shad as possible in a short time. Surface disturbance is great with water splashing high in the air as striper tails flail shad trying to stun them. After the initial attack stripers return and hunt down the cripples.
Wounded shad flee along the surface making a very distinctive v-wake as they pass. The wake looks just the same (only smaller) as a stick-bait retrieved in the standard walk-the-dog fashion with a side to side motion of the lure.
Stick baits are the best baits (zara spook, jumpin' minnow, spittin image, etc.) as they lay out the distinctive v-wake that stripers are 'looking up' for to locate prey. Healthy shad are quick while injured shad are easy prey. A lure cranked down under the school looks healthy and will be passed while a lure trailing a v-wake on the surface is a target that cannot be ignored. Other lures (jigs, jerks, soft plastic, etc.) must be fished on the surface to be effective. One exception to this is the distinctive fall of a jigging spoon. When released on slack line the spoon's side to side sweeping motion resembles the death spiral of a mortally wounded shad and is another favorite striper target.
Approach the boil at top speed and then cut power when in casting range. Make sure boat drifts parallel to the boil and does not enter the perimeter which will cause the school to dive or to feed in the opposite direction.
Cast out of the side of the boat - Never in front where the forward motion of the boat overtakes the lure and does not allow it to work while the stripers are still on the surface. It is better to wait and make one good cast than to waste a cast and see the school leave while the errant lure is being retrieved.
Keep contact with the school by putting the electric motor on high and traveling in the same direction that the school is feeding. Boils of this magnitude may stay up for 10 minutes and then pop up an additional 3 or 4 times after the school sounds or is put down by fishing pressure.
Big Boils - (100 or more stripers)
The ultimate boil may be experienced a few times each season. Shad and stripers will be oblivious to the fishing boat. They will keep moving out of range and a trolling motor on low speed should keep the fish in casting range. Often there will be 3 or 4 schools feeding in all directions at all times. Park between schools and let them feed right back into casting range for maximum effectiveness. Just be quiet as possible and pretend you are a big striper. You can feed right in with the other predators for up to 4 hours.
Catch fish on all baits - your choice. It is wise to crimp hook barbs, take off all but one hook, or use only a single hook. Do not let a stray hook foul in the net or end up in your hand. Hope the fish get full and quit before you need assistance casting or no longer have a place to stand with fish bodies littering the entire deck.
FINDING STRIPER BOILS
When parked next to a boil stripers are quite easy to catch. Finding a boil may be more difficult. Cruising in the boat is better than waiting. Find an area where fish have been seen or reported and travel at moderate speed scanning for splashes and other disturbances. Since boils are random acts which occur only when shad and striper schools come together, it is most profitable to keep moving until a boil is discovered. I often travel into the morning sun looking for a striper splash to be back lit. The splash shows up much like a flash bulb going off marking the direction and location of feeding stripers.
Other animals seek an easy meal as shad leap into the air and even on shore to avoid marauding stripers. Gulls, terns and blue herons mark areas where open water boils have been or will be. Coyotes and ravens visit coves where shad are trapped. They wait for stripers to ravage the small forage fish and then pick up shad that flop out onto the beach. Western grebes feed on shad and will be near shad concentrations. Look for these animals that are hungry and better at finding boils and easier for us to see than the tell-tale splash in the vast expanse of open water.
When stopped near active fish or after a school has just left the surface, LISTEN for the loud splash which carries extremely well for long distances across the waters surface. Many boils are heard before being seen.
Lures for Boils
TOPWATER - Preferred technique - Stripers are 'looking up' for food.
Many different topwater lures work. I prefer the 'Jumpin Minnow' over the Zara Spook because it casts further and maintains a nose up attitude in the water making it easier to walk the bait.
Bass poppers work fine but don't cast as far and must be "popped" resulting in a slower retrieve.
SPOONS - Required to prolong the boil after the fish sound. Note the close resemblance between the Wally lure and an adult threadfin shad.
Spoons are versatile as they can be fished on top while the boil is "up". They can also sink with the school as it retreats into deeper water.
Spoons can be fished on the bottom to continue to catch stripers that are waiting to resurface.
Single hooks as seen on the white jig are a wise choice for inexperienced anglers and kids. Two treble hooks per lure flying around in an adrenaline charged boil fishing atmosphere are cause for safety concerns. It is possible to replace most treble hooks with singles or use lures that come with single hooks. In Big boils the lure type will not matter.