The Wiper Fly Fishing Experience, Part 1
Wiper on the fly in the Rockies, who could ask for more?
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Wiper, the hybrid striped bass/white bass, is gaining a lot of popularity in fishing circles across Colorado and surrounding areas that have wiper fisheries. The greatest excitement is probably found among the relatively small circle of fly fishers who pursue them. Once you find these fish, fooling them with a fly is not difficult. And the powerful fight that entails is something that will almost make you wonder why you’d fish for anything else.
Now, wiper are fairly mysterious fish and volumes have not been written on the subject of fishing for them. As with any type of fishing article, authors offer information based on their experiences, leaving the door wide open for an array of other tactics, insights, and opinions. It seems everyone I talk to about wiper have their own thoughts that have been formulated not by magazine articles and fishing shows, but from their own personal quests. This article is nothing different. I have put in many hours behind the reel searching for these steamrollers, and the following is a compilation of my experiences.
This is a two part article. In this first part, I will discuss how to find these fish, some behavior observations, when to fish, and some thoughts on structure. In the second part, I will discuss what flies to use, how to present these "tools", which lakes to check out, and how to battle these very aggressive fish once hooked.
Fly fishing for wiper can be humbling, but if you get that one trip under your belt where you really get into them and figure them out, you will be hooked for life. Having these hybrid-vigor fueled fish tear line out of your hands is an amazing feeling, and we should consider ourselves lucky to have this fish available to us. It’s like saltwater fishing in the Rockies.
Wiper will eat forage fish about the width of the gape of their mouth, entitling this 6-inch shad to be dinner for the big boys.
Finding the fish
The most important thing in any type of fishing is locating the fish. If you’re fishing trout in a river you look for pockets and runs of the right depth, size, and water speed. When smallmouth fishing in a lake, you look for certain structure and depth depending on the time of year, or you survey with your electronics. Whatever the scenario, if you find the spots where the living is easy and the food aplenty, you will find big fish.
It is often assumed wiper travel constantly and randomly around the lake in schools at generally high speeds picking off whatever food they come across. My thoughts are that this is partially correct. I have witnessed their schooling mentality and their speed of travel. One moment they will bust near the surface 50 yards to the east, and the next you will see them flashing underneath your boat and onto the west. But I don’t think it is completely random. Those frustrated by this thought, hang in there. This may not be an easy fish to locate, but I don’t think it’s a crap shot.
Every fish has some level of energy conservation written into their DNA. If they did not, they would exhaust themselves swimming about freely all day long. Think about trout in a river – the biggest fish will take the best spots where current is slight but carries plenty of oxygen and food so they can keep growing big and fat.
Wiper are no different. They have spots and patterns on each body of water that provide what they need – food. With little current to speak of in general, forage is the key. They are not so much like bass that they need cover and structure to ambush fish. They are more effective schooling and taking a team-based approach to feeding. The best example of this is when they corral baitfish to the surface, bay, or other type of trap so they can perform their signature "busting" feast.
Wind blowing into any structure makes that structure better. This complex has plenty to offer wiper, especially traps for schooling baitfish.
But what about when they are not busting baitfish near the surface? I believe they are doing similar things subsurface. Here’s where experience with a lake, knowing structure and water temperatures on the lake, and understanding wiper movement comes into play the most. Wiper like other fish will use underwater structure, edges if you will, as their highways. Perhaps it is a depth breakline, submerged road beds, rocks, sunken trees, or humps. Perhaps it’s a weed line, mud line, or inlet/outlet channel. Whatever it is, these edges define a path for them. These fish travel in a route consistent with edges and the availability of food.
Colorado has several bowl-shaped lakes with very little structure. In these lakes it is definitely more difficult to determine good spots. Spending time looking for even the smallest hump or contour may prove beneficial. A good depth finder, patience, experience, and resourcefulness are helpful in locating fish on these lakes.
The "available and abundant" theory expressed by a variety of authors is alive and well. Wherever there is an abundance of food that is highly available to predators, you will find fish. So is the case with wiper. However, don’t expect the schools to sit still in one area for long. Instead expect the schools to travel paths between or with abundant food sources. That’s right, I said "with." Wiper are ravenous beasts. They have been known to decimate forage populations. They are living vacuums. In understanding this, definitely consider baitfish schools structure. Wiper almost certainly corral and follow schools of shad and other forage fish when abundantly present. One of the best indicators in finding wiper is prevailing wind. Always check the leeward side of a lake which may harbor schools of baitfish.
Chasing wiper around a lake is not often considered a smart thing to do. It wears out trolling motor batteries and may tear your heart out. Don’t get me wrong, I do it myself all the time - especially when the busting activity is moving slowly in semi-predictable fashion. I am not the type to sit in one spot and fish for hours even if it is the best choice. My only recommendation is to find a happy medium.
Surface water temperatures are one important piece of the puzzle that will help you find wipers. These temps combined with knowledge of the fish’s movement and preferred forage will provide a good starting point to finding wipers on any given day. In the spring as surface water temps approach the 50’s, wiper will become more and more active. Optimal temps are relative to a body of water and strain of fish, but in general the farther away you get from the optimal range for any fish, the lower their metabolism and thus the less they are compelled to eat and the slower their actions will be.
One of the reasons we put the Fish Explorer website together is to provide information that will help you find fish in individual water bodies. Our focus on water temperatures is not simply a novelty. If you understand how water temperatures affect fish on a particular lake, you are one step ahead of the game.
As wiper become more active in the early season, they reportedly go into a false-spawn. At lakes with active, accessible inlet streams at the right time of year, as Jackson Lake in northeast Colorado often experiences, wiper will actually run up the inlets as if spawning. In other places such as Union Reservoir, we have seen hordes of wiper stacked outside the inlet in a typical pre-spawn staging. It is also possible that these fish are relating to the shad that are in spawn mode. Whatever the reason for this activity, it would be a good place to check these inlet areas early in the season and any time of year, especially when the water is flowing.
Outlets are also a good place to scope out wipers any time of year, especially when the faucets are turned on. At Jackson Lake it was reported that several hundred wiper escaped into the outlet river, compelling officials to put in a screen downstream to capture the AWOL and return them to the reservoir.
In both of these cases, one thing is for sure – food organisms up and down the chain are drawn to these areas at any time of the year, which may prove to be enough draw to concentrate these ever-feeding fish.
When surface water temps are in the mid 50’s to mid 60’s wiper fishing seems to be the best in Colorado. They will be active in the upper column of water meaning they are more readily available and recognizable to the fly fisherman. The upper column feeding means that fish will be in the shallows, or they may be over deeper water but up high. During this period, you will also witness good wiper fishing all day, as opposed to the oft-assumed theory that wiper are only low-light feeders. I believe wiper feed all day just like trout in a river, because they inherently like to expend energy by swimming around and thus must eat accordingly.
Analyzing satellite images can help you determine lake structure. In this image of Jackson Lake you can easily see where the "flats" are versus the main basin, which may lead you to warmer water areas in the early-season.
As water temps rise, the fish will typically move deeper to more comfortable water. The temps are better, the forage thinks so too, and sunlight/UV rays will be more dispersed. This is the most difficult time to find wiper, and you really need to put your time in and get to know a lake for its structure and tendencies. Often experimentation and time on the water will be the primary key to your success. During these times you may find wiper moving back to the surface column at night, dawn, dusk, and very cloudy days. This is the typical low-light feeding scenario aforementioned. Wiper will still be feeding mid-day, just deeper. If you’re like most people and like to see fish in the upper column or in close to shorelines, fish the low-light times.
As fall approaches and water temps lower, wiper will move back into the upper column and you will again be greeted with more optimal fishing conditions. As is typical with most fish species, the pre-ice season turns wiper into ravenous beasts. They will feed heavily. Catching this period will often produce larger fish due to the fact the fish have been growing all season and are eager to eat whatever they can before they slow down for the winter.
Two thoughts come to mind at this point as I run out of ideas to express on how to find these fish: non-standard structure and rise identification. As Dick Pearson describes so well in his book "Muskies on the Shield", structure is not necessarily always stationary and permanent like points, humps, and weeds. Often edges can be defined in less physical terms. Other edges you may consider are baitfish schools, wind current, and my favorite, carp pods.
If you see a swarm of seagulls or diving birds congregating in the middle of a lake, go over and check it out, you might find a nice school of baitfish that has drawn not only flying critters, but wiper as well. If there’s a good wind, look for current or places where the wind makes a "spot" a better "spot". Examples are wind blown vegetation edges, a wind-blown point, or a saddle. Current will concentrate forage into certain areas and the wiper will be there.
Regarding carp pods – don’t overlook them. We have fished around carp pods and hooked really nice wiper. Stay as far away from the slow-moving mud-stirring pods as you can so not to spook them. Cast right over their edges and off further to the sides, but not right into them. Spooking them may break up the pod and in turn you may lose your structure. We will often fish bugger or crayfish patterns in this scenario, as we think the wiper are taking advantage of the plethora of food items being stirred up by the scrounging carp.
By rise identification, I mean being able to look at a fish breaking the surface and determining what kind of fish it is and what it is doing. One calm day on Union Reservoir, we were looking for wiper and having a tough go at it. There were rises all over the lake that we initially determined were trout or bass taking insects. As we studied the actions more thoroughly we began to notice a difference in rise forms. One type of rise was different than the others – it was more of a quick "pop" than a quick splash or slurp. Soon we discovered these somehow transferred into wiper – although we aren’t sure if they were wiper eating insects or small fish near the surface, or perhaps a school of shad that were semi-frequently slurping the top. We spent the rest of the trip looking for this rise form, quickly casting streamers into the vicinity, and hooking into several wiper.
Observation is key no matter what sort of fish you are going after. Continuously observe everything around you such as water temps, lake structure, bird activity, insect activity, barometric pressure, weather changes, wind direction, wind speed, your partner’s headache, and anything else that could play into the overall puzzle you are trying to solve. Even the smallest things may trigger a thought process that could lead to success.
Go to Part 2 of this article...
© 2021 Matt Snider
About the author, Matt Snider:
Matt Snider is a life-long fly fisherman who has turned his attention to the "other species" of Colorado, namely any non-trout species. Having caught multiple warmwater species in Colorado on the fly in Colorado alone, Matt built FishExplorer as a means for anglers to maintain updated lake conditions, an element he finds critical in catching fish and enjoying our resources. An advocate of alternative fly fishing and fisheries preservation, Matt is an avid wiper and muskie fisherman traveling with boat in tow in pursuit of these hard-to-find fish. If a fish is willing to eat something, his bet is that it will eat a fly.