Tone of voice on the phone conveyed excitement like a bolting hybrid striped bass. Joe Landolfi, a veteran at flatline trolling, said, “We’ve been trolling 6-pound hybrids! Diane hooked a 50-inch musky on a size 7 Rapala!” Six-pound mono on a light rod didn’t hold that fish, but they boated about half a dozen hybrids.
Shortly I was on the scene with him. The next year, trolling into the belly of a cove with Fred Matero, for a split second the strike felt like suction before I saw in my mind’s eye jaws close with a force like a hydraulic safety lock. Running like a boulder rolling down a talus slope, the fish gained deeper water before the pace slowed, and then a violent series of speedy jolts tested my drag setting all the more before the first of my trolled hybrids came to the net—a big one.
I showed Mike Maxwell Lake Hopatcong hybrids better than 5 pounds a year later in 2016, and he bought a boat later that week, trolling Spruce Run Reservoir hybrids as large as 6 pounds. Manasquan Reservoir holds hybrids, as does private Culver’s Lake. Here and there every May and June some over 9 pounds seem to get caught, 7-pounders frequently. Wherever this hatchery cross between striped and white bass swim—they’re called sunshine bass in Florida—springtime trolling is effective.
Try the Shallows
A difference of a foot or two can mean fish or none. Unlike fall when hybrids haunt deep drop-offs and main lake points, or summer when they cruise over deep open water, May into June finds them fairly close to shorelines, especially in coves. Fourteen is my magic number for depth, the number of lines Shakespeare wrote to form each of his sonnets. There’s art to flatline trolling too. The learning curve will never end for anyone who stays awake at the tiller.
Fourteen is not the only depth to seek on the graph, however, and if you were to try, good luck at that. We’ve connected once over 22 feet and a few times as shallow as 8 feet. I returned to a spot with Maxwell where Matero and I caught a lot of small hybrids over 10- to 12-foot depths. Repeated passes yielded nothing, until I veered the boat a few yards further out over 14 feet and connected. Pass after pass over 14 to 16 feet resulted in big stripers on.
Whether or not hybrids hug bottom or cruise mid-column is a curiosity immaterial to results mostly coming by use of swimming plugs like Rapalas. We’ve hooked many more than we’ve marked on the graph, which I use only incidentally as a fishfinder while trolling. Chiefly it’s a tool for navigation and learning myriad structural differences. In just three years of flatlining, I’ve learned a few lanes well enough to approach passes with detailed adjustments that feel familiar and promising.
One plug or another can mean fish or not. Before beginning our 2016 trolling outings, I bought plenty of plugs to try, despite popular preference on Lake Hopatcong for Rapala Floaters. Does the #9 Floater enjoy immortal status? The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” may suggest this is true if you’re out in early June heat too long, but if so, a caveat is worth heeding. I felt fascinated in the possibility of plugs out-producing others, but when Brian used a plug he had and I did not have, the pronounced degree of difference felt shocking. He trolled an X-Rap while sitting near the bow, me at the stern trolling my favorite #9 Floater. I netted eight hybrids for him in one series of repeated trolling passes before I got a tap.
This doesn’t mean it is necessarily wise to use nothing but X-Raps. One consideration is the education of the fish you’re after. Whatever’s offered, the fish pursued take a clue; maybe not today, but eventually. Whatever’s added to an environment becomes part of it, and the intent behind a plug is something a fish would avoid if it knew better. They learn. A hybrid is advantaged by a total lack of pride. We swell with our accomplishments, but when we achieve something, the situation may shift as if the world resists further intention.
Hybrids can’t know about designs to hoist them over boat gunnels, but they sense environmental threats in ways you can understand well enough to assume they’re not as easy to catch as one plug you possess always out-performing another.
Eye on the Weather
Lakes and reservoirs large on the Mid-Atlantic scale typically engender an afternoon breeze, though I’ve trolled calm, sunny afternoon conditions enough to know they seem unproductive, although early in the morning and in foggy afternoon conditions, calm has accompanied plenty of action. Otherwise, brilliant afternoon sun frequently means lots of strikes so long as that breeze chops surface a little.
Hybrids seem to come and take position under the shallow trolling lanes of May once the water temperature edges into the upper 50s, and plenty hang around until it reaches the mid-70s. We’ve enjoyed fast action at sun-up. We’ve caught bass after bass with the sun at its zenith, through chilly drizzle and sweltering 90-degree heat. As yet I haven’t enjoyed catching bass like crazy as the barometer plummets, but astonishing feats of trolling success are possible.
As a frame-of-reference, after flatlining trout in April, Jim Welsh of Dow’s Boat Rentals taught me the use of a 6-horsepower outboard is helpful to putter at slow speed, but hybrids take chase, so faster trolling speeds of about 2.5 to 3 mph are appropriate with a larger engine. Sometimes nipping a plug repeatedly before slamming the lure 10 to 15 feet or further along—don’t slow that speed—hybrids indulge strong speedy responses, whether the water temperature is 57 or 74. They often overtake a plug tentatively by seeming use of intelligence as if to ask if it’s okay, gently mouthing the plug as if to test it while swimming at the same speed you troll. You can feel the loose grasp as the fish plays. Suddenly the lure gets slammed, and the bass immediately yanks on the line rapidly as if trying to wrestle the rod from your fingers.
Again, you’ll find hybrids on your line faster than you will on the graph, but the fishfinder is just as important as landmarks to orient experience. There’s no better way to familiarize yourself with a lake or reservoir’s shallower structures than to troll. When one hybrid strikes, expect more, since they school by weight class. Most we’ve caught measure about keeper size of 16 inches. We’ve caught smaller and larger.
To locate a school once is to know where to try again, since hybrids know the spot better than you ever will, returning again and again. If you catch small bass, don’t discount this, because we’ve caught small on one occasion, only to hook 5-pound-class bass on pass after pass another time. It’s tempting to try repeating experience, and wise to take this approach sometimes, but the moment you feel the same old, same old—try elsewhere. Maybe smaller bass frequented passes too many times. Maybe you’re beating the spot to death and losing fresh response. The lake is never the same from moment to moment, and your presence on it is actually part of what it is, so listen to hunches.
If something tells me what’s on my mind isn’t a good idea, I make the effort to find what feels right instead. Only one thing is certain: the past doesn’t repeat. Plenty gets written about patterns of all sorts repeating, but an actual event of catching hybrids happens only once. Unique to that experience in just that way.
A rodholder attached to the stern and a couple towards the bow for guests has resulted in catches, but we’ve never bothered with second rods once the action gets hot. Since plugs have to run apart from each other, I like a combination of medium-power rods ranging from 5-1/2 to 7 feet; naturally the longer rod allows guests to run a plug aside of another nearer to the middle of the prop wash. Sixty feet behind the boat is no hard and fast rule, but a round figure. Run plugs further and closer back. A fast action rod is essential for working a plug irregularly with bursts of speed as well as short twitches. Sometimes you can tease a tentative bass into slamming that lure, and it’s thrilling.
Fifteen-pound quality braid doesn’t stretch like monofilament and imparts direct energy from rod tip to plug. Its low diameter slices water as it will slice flesh, so keep fingers out of the way. It also results in slightly deeper plug running depth, which may or may not serve any advantage, but you’ll feel stripers subtly nip. Monofilament will never inform you of fish’s presence as braid will. You have more control but also invite danger, since hybrids run with serious power, turning braid peeling off the reel into a saw edge.
Flatline equipment is deceptively straightforward. None of it will make catching hybrid stripers any easier if not used well. With an unspoken reputation of just casting a plug behind a boat and dragging it, flatlining can seem the epitome of artlessness, when in fact there’s no end to possible variations on its simple theme.
|WHIPER WEAPONS: WHAT’S IN YOUR BOX?|
|Jerkbaits like Rapalas, Yo-Zuris, Smithwicks, Storm Thundersticks and others all produce at one time or another. Every plug’s action, color and size is a little different. X-Raps have a wider wiggle than #9 Floaters, and a tuft of red feathers on the rear treble might have favored Cronk over me. Perhaps the combination. We’ve tried various diving and lipless crankbaits to no result as yet, but I remain curious about possible effectiveness. – Bruce Litton.|