John Carlin’s Outdoors: Striper Fishing at Smith Mountain Lake

It was a perfect day for fishing, but would we catch a big one?

Smith Mountain Lake – It was a perfect summer morning to go fishing. We arrived at Crystal Shores Marina about a half-hour before sunrise.

Capt. Travis Patsell idled up to the dock as we unpacked the car. He had already been out to net the day’s bait, so the live well was full and we were ready to hit the lake.

The first thing you notice is that Patsell has the look of a man who knows his way around a fishing pole.

“I’ve been fishing this lake all my life. Thirty-eight years now. Been running charters since 2010. That was a catfish trip,” Patsell said.

Capt. Travis Patsell of Cats and Stripers Fishing (WSLS)

Since 2010 he’s run more charters than he can remember. If anyone knows where the fish are, it’s him. That said, the thing about fishing is that when you leave the dock, no matter how pretty it is or how much experience you have, you never know if you’re gonna catch one.

And I really wanted to catch one.

More than just fishing

This outing is tinged with sentimentality. Along on the trip is the guy who first took me striper fishing in the late 1980′s, Steve Reynolds.

Known affectionately by his friends as just, “Reynolds,” Steve was my neighbor when I first moved to the area in 1988. We quickly learned of our mutual interest in fishing, and he offered to take me to the lake to catch stripers. Reynolds had already been fishing the lake a long time. He remembers when it was just a big body of water.

“It was when there were no houses on it at all... The first time I took my boat out I had one (a striper) that was like 18 pounds,” he said. “The fishing was really good. We had a lot of 15 to 30-pounders.

Just remember what all the bumper stickers say about fishermen and well, to say it nicely - exaggerating.

The fact is that back then, Reynolds and I seldom caught any fish.

And he blames me.

There was the time he fell in the water trying to get my line untangled from the motor and I had to pull him back in the boat.

Yes. My line was tangled. But it was Reynolds who failed to lock the motor in the upright position before leaning over it.

You decide.

Then there was the inevitable time I lost the big one. It was actually pulling the boat.

He thought it important to tell the story while Patsell searched for the right spot.

“I remember when you lost that big fish. ... I said you got a big one and you’re fighting and fighting it and the pole’s going crazy - and proof. Nothing. I said what the hell? You real it in - your not knot came untied.”

Sadly, he was right. My knot came untied.

Nice of him to remind me.

New day, new fishing stories

John Carlin and fishing buddy Steve Reynolds. (wsls)

30 years later it’s time to update the stories.

And Captain Travis puts us on the fish.

The rod nearest me goes haywire and I grabbed it and began reeling. It’s a striper, but it’s small. Not what we were hoping for.

But it’s early.

As we troll slowly, Captain Travis steers the motor from a watch-sized controller on his wrist. He reminds us that fishing is about patience. He also tempts fate by telling us about all the big fish that might be around the boat.

“There’s a pretty good population of 30 to 38-inch fish in here,” he said.

The next fish would go to Reynolds.

It’s a bit bigger.

Reynolds is excited. He holds the fish up for a photo and even gives it a kiss for the camera.

Steve Reynolds with a Smith Mountain Lake striper. (wsls)

The fishing slowed again and Capt. Travis moved us to another spot, where suddenly we were surrounded by other fishermen.

Naturally, all the other boats were catching fish, while we were left to watch the action.

But Travis, who spends most days on the lake, promises our time is coming.

A part of me wants to be Travis. Fishing all the time and being really good at it.

“It’s long hours but like I said it’s a pretty good office,” he said pointing to the water around us and the nearby mountains that rim the lake. “Where do you get that sitting in a chair?”

I asked him if he fished on his days off. “We plan our vacations around different fish. I love it,” he said. And he means it.

We move to a different spot and Reynolds catches a catfish – and begins talking smack.

“John Carlin has never out-fished the old man. Never,” he said laughing.

And then the rod nearest to me bends and the day’s promise is about to make good.

I begin reeling, but the fish is taking drag and refuses to be turned toward that boat. It tries to break me off by heading toward the propeller and some other lines in the water. A drone captures the fight for the TV story we are shooting.

There was a lot going on, but slowly I got the fish near the boat and Travis netted it.

Travis says it will go about 15 pounds.

That would be the biggest fish of the day.

Meaning I caught the biggest and the first. Just in case Reynolds is taking notes.

John Carlin with a striped bass from Smith Mountain Lake (wsls)

No matter.

There’s a saying that goes that most men spend their whole life fishing, never knowing it’s not really the fish they are after.

It’s great to have been on the water with Travis and Reynolds, who sold his own boat a couple of years ago.

“Fishing used to be my life. And I wish it still was. But I’m too old,” Reynolds said, smiling and knowing he just proved that he still has what it takes.

As a bonus we are bringing back a 10 News favorite – the annual summer fishing picture competition. To send in your best fishing pix from the summer of 2022, click here.

We’ll share them on air, on the web and social media – and maybe we’ll even choose the best picture of the whole summer season!

About the Author

John Carlin co-anchors the 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts on WSLS 10.