We had anchored on the deep end of Pickerel Point, and were live-lining herring in the depths near the weed line. The previous summer I had caught a nice walleye and a three-and-a-half pound smallmouth bass fishing just as we were now. Before there were any tugs on our lines, there was a commotion of a different sort which prompted us to pivot our heads to follow a sound like horse hooves on cobblestones. I knew what we’d see- Lake Hopatcong’s surface splashed and cut by dozens of hybrid striped bass on the “jump”, slaughtering herring they’d driven to the surface.
We caught none, but as a result of this encounter, the lake doesn’t seem so large as to hinder effective response to the stripers’ sudden revelation of their whereabouts. In recent years I’ve broken my bad habit of thinking I need to fish structure. Perhaps you’ll get used to an open water concept quicker than I have. A boat can cover a lot of range even when moving slowly enough to read a fish finder. You can troll while you do this, casually keeping an eye tuned to any surface eruption. Certainly when hybrids reveal themselves through their “jump” activity—which can happen anytime during summer—you know they’re around.
When it comes to Hybrid whereabouts, summer is a completely different situation compared to their springtime presence in the shallows or their bottom edge of drop-offs
haunts during fall and winter. In summer, they school and range about the open lake. Like many lakes, Hopatcong stratifies—oxygenated water about 25 feet deep. Notice on your fish finder the deepest fish markings. It is much the same situation at Spruce Run Reservoir. Hybrids follow wide-ranging herring schools, but the main lake points, humps, and drop-offs still provide reference points. Both herring and stripers often school a couple hundred yards off these structures, with the exception of early mornings when they may suspend above the bottom edges of drops close to shore. You need to understand the range as in summer, it’s possible to encounter schools over even the middle of the lake’s deepest water.
Spruce Run Reservoir taught me that hybrids don’t necessarily school only over very deep water. Eric Evans, iBass360 Brand Manager, and I closed in upon smallmouth bass
on a sloping rocky point during an iBass360 team tournament. We heard splashes behind us, saw the crashing of predators on herring a hundred yards away. Eric eased his bass boat out with the bow mount. I snapped on a Hedden Torpedo. In range, I rocketed the plug into the zone, receiving a tremendous strike. I couldn’t help trying to set the hook too soon. I missed a great opportunity; no more bass would hit on top. Eric marked fish beneath us from a couple hundred yards to 300 yards or so distant from shore, but the water was no more than 25 feet deep. We each had snapped on Rat-L-Traps, Eric hooking a hybrid in no time. Lost the fish. I tried something different, allowing the plug to sink on a tight line towards bottom. I felt a thump and played a big hybrid almost to the net, a fish that weighed at least six pounds. Eric kept offering a retrieved plug and caught a hybrid of about three-and-a-half pounds. Several others shook the hooks. Obviously, retrieves worked, but I continued to feel compelled to drop the plug in on company stationing 15-22 feet deep.
Rat-L-Traps sink slowly compared to what I pulled out of the box next. A tailspinner. Years ago, I got some from Cabelas. Mann’s Little George lead-bodied lures the shape and size of a banded sunfish with a Colorado blade for a tail. Made popular by Bassmaster magazine during the 1970’s, these lures vanished from the scene, but they
remain as effective as ever for many gamefish species, including hybrid stripers. Allowing freefall on a tight line, you can feel that spinner pulsate, and though the rate of descent is swift—the lure weighs an ounce—if fish are feeding, they’re chasing it. I felt a thump and set the treble hook into the jaw of another big hybrid, feeling powerful muscle pulse in response, but never budging the fish before the leader broke. A knot gone bad.
Just like that, it was over for us, because lunch was about to be served near the boat ramp. I hadn’t felt such exhilaration since I lost a 40-pound striper in the surf, and I left the reservoir determined to try again. As one might expect, fishing is rarely as simple as repeat performances, but given how many days and hours comprise the summer season, jumps happen a lot. Even when bass don’t make themselves obvious- remembering where you’ve found them before gives you an obvious clue as to where they might be next time you come. Sometimes they’re there and won’t hit anything. Other times there are no marks on the fish finder. But whether feeding or not, finding fish is always more satisfying than barren water.
Lures are not the only approach to hybrids under the surface of bodies of water like Lake Hopatcong, Spruce Run and Manasquan Reservoir. Almost two decades ago, I became acquainted with Knee Deep Club member Joe Landolfi through his summer hybrid exploits. He offered those fish live herring exclusively, weighting each bait with a half-ounce egg sinker, allowing the boat to drift more or less at random. Dow’s Boat Rentals kept Joe endlessly supplied to enjoy idyllic days easing his mind until the sweet screech of a loosened drag shot him upright to brace for battle against yet another six-pound bass.
Determine the depth at which the herring is to be presented by stripping line at two-foot increments. fifteen feet is usually about right, to which you can make adjustments by the angle of the line any breeze or current creates. Don’t loosen the drag so much that a hybrid spins the spool and entangles the line. They won’t drop that bait, but unless you
use a sturdy rod holder in lieu of setting the rod against a gunnel, the pick-up guide wedged against that gunnel does not ensure the security to keep the rod in the boat if the drag is set too tight. Some who drift herring in the summer use multiple rods in holders with drag set for action. A hybrid takes the herring whole and gets hooked while turning with it. Since the bass has no time to swallow the offering, circle hooks aren’t necessary- a size 8 or 10 treble gets the grab. Almost invariably, a hybrid gets firmly hooked in the mouth by that same size 8 or 10 treble fished on a loose drag, but when one of these power-players hits, tighten down rapidly and set to be sure. Just remember, fiddling with a drag knob while holding a fired rocket is especially tricky when trying this for the first time. Above all, especially when using braid, do not get a finger in the way of that peeling edge of line, it’s like a saw blade. Whether you’re out for smashing surface strikes, dropping a Little George on a party of bass, or taking it easy under the sun while drifting, catching summer hybrid stripers is not an easy task, but always worthwhile.
Bruce Edward Litton first got published at 16 in The New Jersey Fisherman. After a hiatus to
broaden his experiences and start a family, Litton began writing again from an even deeper knowledge base. He has covered subjects from bass and trout on New Jersey streams to Outer Banks bluefish from the beach. Litton caught the attention of leading New Jersey outdoor writer Jim Stabile and Jim Hutchinson, The Fisherman's Magazine's managing editor, both of whom were impressed enough to request Litton’s photography and quality articles on places, techniques and tackle. Litton's articles on bass fishing caught the eye of iBass360’s founder Rob Zorn, a fellow Lawrence High graduate, and Eric Evans, the iBass360 Brand Manager, and Litton was asked to join the team as senior writer. The iBass360 family values Bruce's vast fishing knowledge and journalistic contributions, and especially his friendship.