The Life of a Lake Cumberland Striper Guide

By Captain Jim Durham – StriperFun Guide Service

As the alarm clock begins to chirp, I awake from my dream of a desperate fight with a 65 pound monster Striped bass! The dream seems so real! But as my thoughts clear, the big fish in my mind begins to fade. I think to myself, “maybe someday”.

I say my morning prayers, praying thanks to the Lord for letting me live to fish another day, for a safe trip, good weather and a great day of fishing on Beautiful Lake Cumberland. Its 3:00 A.M. and it is time to catch the day’s bait.

Such is the life of a Lake Cumberland Striper Guide.

As I step onto the dock, the cold wind off the water removes any final cobwebs. There is work to be done. The lights placed on the edge of the dock to shine “just so”in the water have done their job overnight and there is bait in the water. I say one last little prayer that I will catch all the shad I need for the day with just one throw of the net. Deep down inside I chuckle to myself because I know my last little prayer will not be answered. The hard work of the throwing and the hauling in of the large bait net is just part of the game. Catching the freshest bait for the clients is what always makes the difference on the toughest fishing days. Only the true Striper purists go to these lengths. Such hard work keeps a man humble and puts things in a proper prospective. As usual, I get a few big shad with each throw, with countless smaller shad returned to the deep to grow big for another day. It is now 5:30 AM and the day’s bait is finally caught. Tired and sweaty but feeling satisfied, I put the net up for the day and begin to organize the rods. I tie fresh knots on the ever sharpened hooks and as I check the wind, I consider my strategy for the day.

As I drink coffee at the dock office waiting for my day’s group to arrive, I swap funny stories with other guides and fishermen. I pause to enjoy the moment. Coffee time in the morning is special. Striper Guides and fishermen are a breed unto themselves. From the half truths of exaggerated catches (whose stretching of the truth you can always see through) to the truly recognizable exhilaration of hearing of a large school of Stripers surfacing to “feed heavy”the day before, Striper fishing just gets in your blood! As I step outside to make sure all preparations on my guide boat are ready, I find myself still amazed at the grace and beauty of Lake Cumberland. After all these years, watching the sun begin to creep over the hill still takes my breath away. Lake Cumberland is an angler’s paradise. With over 1,200 miles of shoreline and over 66 thousand acres of fishable water, Lake Cumberland is one of the largest man made lakes in the world. As I marvel at its beauty, I am humbled for the second time that morning.

Such is the life of a Lake Cumberland Striper Guide.

It is now 6:30 AM and the day’s group has arrived. Hand shakes are made all around and gear is stored. It is time to depart for the day’s adventure. The excitement and enthusiasm in the group is palatable! Even after so many years of such daily adventure, my adrenaline at this time of the morning is still sky high. Because out there in the lake “there be monsters”! The Kentucky State Striped bass record is over 58 pounds and having a client catch a fish of this size (or even one bigger to set the State record) is what every Striper Guide works to accomplish. This is our holy grail!

We depart the dock and ease out through the no wake zone then I pin the throttle and we come up on plane. The “run”to the hot spot will be long. Most of the group, including a young boy on his first “big game”fishing trip, huddles below in the cabin out of the morning wind. But the oldest of the group takes the passenger seat and strikes up a conversation. As always, I enjoy meeting new people and listening to their stories. I learned a long time ago that an old man doesn’t get to be old being foolish. I generally learn something important about life on these mornings from such conversations and today is no exception.

As we pull into the first spot of the day, the mist is still on the water. In short fashion I have deployed a dozen rods with large shad at various depths. We begin to move slowly with the trolling motor, exploring the ridges of a familiar wall near the bank. This wall on the creek channel side is an old friend, having relinquished countless big Stripers over the years. The wall goes straight up from the water’s edge to nearly 100 feet in the air and there is 80 feet or more of water below us. As I begin to mark large schools of bait on the fish finder it begins to “chirp”with the sound of fish being marked as well. Sometimes, fishing for Stripers is like being an old WW II bomber. Just like with the old Bomber crews there can be hours of slow time interrupted by 15 minutes of sheer breath taking excitement.

But this morning the excitement comes quickly!

Suddenly, one of the lines begins to scream as a huge Striper engulfs the shad without a moments pause. These big fish can be traveling at upwards to 25 miles an hour when they hit. There is no “nibbling”involved. Instead, when a Striper feeds it is one of nature’s most spectacular events. Trophy Stripers hit like a freight train and the fish of the moment does not disappoint. Fifty feet of line are gone in an instant! I grab the rod, engage the reel and haul back and “cross the fish’s eyes”with a vicious hook set. The tug of the fish in return is not polite. It about yanks the rod out of my hand and takes off on a powerful run causing the drag on the reel to squeal all over again. The group had already decided that the young boy is to go first. His nervousness is only outweighed by his excitement. His father steps up with him and in one smooth motion I hand the boy the huge fishing rod and reel. As his dad coaxes and coaches him he begins the long fight with the fish. Such fights can last 30 minutes. Truth be told, his dad has to help him some or the rod would have been pulled from his grasp quickly. I have seen grown men wearied and whipped by these mighty denizens of the deep. Many a day “Captain Jim”has had to finish the fight (or at least spell the fisherman until he could rest a moment, catch his breath and take the rod back). These monsters can flat wear you out. They give everything they have got and many times make multiple and long runs.

To his credit, the young man was stout of heart and true to the creed. With a little help from dad, he lands the 25 pound plus fish. I net the fish and hand him (and dad) the trophy to hold up (the trophy Striper is to big for the boy to hold up by himself). As I snap the photo, two other lines begin to scream. I move in to action, repeating my life’s play once again. As I glance back, the young man’s smile gets bigger by the moment and just for a second, time stands still.

Such is the life of a Lake Cumberland Striper Guide.

Specializing in “Trophy” Striper Fishing, Captain Jim Durham is a Kentucky State licensed guide who has fished Lake Cumberland year round for most of his adult life. As a former B.A.S.S. tournament circuit fisherman, Captain Jim is also a Staff Officer with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary as well as a Coast Guard Merchant Marine Captain. Captain Jim and Striperfun™ Guide Service can take you on safe, fun and unforgettable fishing trip to catch a “Trophy Striper” of a lifetime!

A gift from Sara Durham– Daughter of Captain Jim Durham – for Christmas 2006
Captain’s Log Date: December 25, 2006

The stars were fading into the sunlight as the Captain slowly stirred. The crisp air carried a feeling of hope as it whipped through the small marine cabin, chilling the Captain as he put on his warm jacket. The smell of fish and lake water filled his lungs as he carefully gathered his lures, poles and other fishing necessities. A good Captain knows that a lot of dedication, hard work and preparation is needed for a successful fishing day. This particular man was a great Captain.

The engine roared as the Captain pushed the gears up to full speed. His fishing boat sliced through the untouched lake water, leaving the first ripples of the day far behind. The Captain marveled at the beautiful glare of sunlight on the mirrored water ahead as he searched for a place to start fishing. His cheeks burned from the cold wind, but he didn’t mind it too much because he had finally spotted the perfect little cove.

The Captain threw his line into the water yet again, enjoying the serene beauty and silence of the nature around him. All of a sudden, the loud scream of his reel signaled that a giant Striper had just bit down and was trying to run. The Captain gathered up all of his strength and began to pull the giant monster towards his boat. After a great struggle, the weary Captain held up his victorious prize. Gazing at the sunlight reflected off of the fish’s giant shiny scales, the Captain thought to himself, “This is going to be a great story“…

For all of your great achievements, tall tales, and fondest memories…


By Captain Jim Durham – Founder StriperFun Fishing Guide Service

There is an old saying that “most legends are based partially upon truth”. I always thought that such a statement was more fable than reality. I no longer do, ever since I saw “the man in the Silver suit”.

In all the years I have been an outdoorsman, spending thousands of hours at night on the water and/or in the woods, I have never seen anything (really) strange like a flying saucer, a Unicorn or Bigfoot, etc.

Sure, weird things have happened.

While Bass fishing one day in my early twenties, I once had a small family size herd of deer appear at the edge of the woods (where the woods met the water) and just stand there and “stare” at me in my Bass boat while I cast and fished. They were perhaps 100 feet a way. They just stood there and watched me out in the water for at least 5 minutes. I then caught the biggest Largemouth Bass of my life (8.5. pounds) out of a rather small and heavily fished public lake. I would have never thought there would be such a huge Bass in this small lake.

It was almost like “magic”.

It was as if the deer “knew” something special was about to happen and wanted to “experience” it. I never quite understood why that happened and will never forget it. It was a “pleasingly” strange moment in time. Probably the strangest I ever experienced, until the day I saw “the man in the Silver suit”.

It was a beautiful “blue sky” day in early spring when it happened. As these types of “high sky” days many times go, the bite was slow. I was fishing large live alewives shad “weightless” on planer boards (with the shad swimming right on the surface where you can see them).

Suddenly, the shad behind the planer board closest to the boat jumped completely out of the water! Sometimes a shad will break the surface when pursued by a big fish, but I had never seen such a “circus” jump by a shad!

Then I saw why! It was “the man in the Silver suit”.

A huge Striped bass that literally looked as big as I am was swimming behind the shad. My heart about jumped out of my chest! Never in all my years had my skin tingled so! Understand clearly that I was trolling slowly about a half a mile an hour and that this huge monster fish just “paced” the shad for 10 to 15 seconds.

I could see him clearly. He looked as long as I am at 6 feet. It was a surreal moment.

The world record Striper ever caught was 78 pounds. The Lake Cumberland / Kentucky record Striper was 58 pounds. This fish looked to be well over 100 pounds! It truly looked like as big as a man in a Silver suit.

The fish then accelerated ever so slightly and simply engulfed the shad. It was as if the shad was accepting its inevitable fate as it just kept swimming and did not even try to evade this time.

I am not sure the big fish at first even knew it was hooked. It just slowly began to swim a way and “lightly” squall the clicker on the drag. Most Stripers, when feeling the pressure of the fishing line and drag, will “sound” deeply and quickly. The tug of the line pulling did not even “faze” this giant creature of the deep.

I was mesmerized and just stood there for a few seconds and watched with every hair on my body standing on end.

Now this was no magic trick. This was no fairy tale and this was no dream. This was real and I was not going to just set there and let it happen! I snapped out of it, picked up the rod and tried to reel.

Good luck with that!

Even though I use heavy duty top of the line equipment with 20 pound test line on the reels, I had nothing. I mean nothing. I reeled and the line just kept going out slowly.

It was then that the fish must have realized something was amiss. Perhaps it was my nervous tension running down the line. Who knows?

In (what seemed like) the blink of an eye, with some hard and fast “swishes” of its tail, the monster fish peeled off 1/3 of the line on the reel. At the time, it seemed like it happened all at once, but in reality must have taken at least 10 seconds.

It was “kabam” and then “reeeeeeeeee” and 150 feet of line were gone. It was truly amazing to see the feed on the spool of my reel “shoot back and forth” so quickly (and so many times in such a few seconds). I am surprised it didn’t begin to smoke!

I kept up the pressure reeling and just prayed I had enough line and that the bend of the rod and the drag system on the reel would do their job to “tire out” this huge Godzilla fish. I remember at the time (funny how things pop into your head) that the morning coffee was working on me and I really “had to go”.

All at once, the line went soft with no pressure. Those of you that have ever “truly” battled a world class fish know what had happened. If the fish had broken off the line there would have been a quick “snap”.

Oh no. It had not broken off; it had turned around and was running at me at full speed!

I reeled as fast as I could to try to keep up the (very) obvious “slack” in the line and I was successful in finally reacquiring a “tight line” just as the old Striper swam up right under the surface 15 foot from where I was standing.

Time seemed to stand still. It was like the deer standing there watching me all those years before.

I believed then (and I still believe today) that this magical big Striper (that looked as big as a man) just wanted to have a look at me.

I could almost swear he smiled at me.

He then turned his head, caught the line under his gill plate and with a loud (and heart wrenching) “twang” he was gone to the depths.

Year later, I still awake nights reliving this moment. I know he is still out there. It’s like we are connected somehow. I can “sense” him.

There is an old saying that “most legends are based partially upon truth”. I always thought that such a statement was more fable than reality.

I no longer do, ever since I saw “the man in the Silver suit”.