The tone of voice on the phone was excited. Joe Landolfi, a flat line trolling veteran, said, “We’ve been trolling 6-pound hybrids! Diane hooked a 50-inch musky on a size 7 Rapala!” He later added that six-pound mono on a light rod didn’t hold that fish, but they boated about half a dozen of the others.
Soon I was on the scene with him but we came up empty. A year later, trolling into the belly of a cove with Fred Matero, the strike initially felt like suction. Then, in my mind’s eye, I imagined the jaws closing with a force like a hydraulic safety lock. Then came the running- like a boulder rolling down a talus slope- as the fish gained deeper water before its pace slowed, interspersed with a violent series of speedy jolts that tested my drag setting all the more before my first trolled hybrids of the day came to the net. A big one.
Roll forward another year, when I showed Mike Maxwell Lake Hopatcong hybrids better than 5 pounds. He bought a boat later that week and took it trolling on Spruce Run Reservoir for hybrids as large as six pounds. Manasquan Reservoir has hybrids, as does Culver’s Lake, a private body also in New Jersey. What I have come to know is that every May and June if you put yourself on the right lake at the right time, hybrids up to and even exceeding nine pounds seem to get caught. Wherever this hatchery-cross between striped and white bass swim, springtime trolling is effective. So let’s put this into a pattern you can use.
When it comes to spring hybrids, 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, oddly also the number of lines Shakespeare wrote to form each of his sonnets. Apparently there’s a certain art to flat line trolling as well. Fourteen is not the only depth to seek on the graph, however. We’ve connected once over 22 feet and a few times as shallow as eight 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 striper hybrids.
Whether hybrids hug bottom or cruise mid-column is a curiosity that seems to be immaterial since the fish have come mostly by using swimming plugs like Rapala jerkbaits. We’ve hooked many more than we’ve marked on the graph, which I use only incidentally as a fish finder while trolling, and mainly as a tool for navigation and learning the myriad of structural differences. In three years of flat lining, I’ve learned a few trolling lanes well enough to approach passes with detailed adjustments that feel familiar and promising.
When it comes to baits, the same general principle about slight differences applies. One plug or another can mean fish or not. Before beginning our 2016 trolling outings, I bought plenty of plugs to try, despite the popular preference of Lake Hopatcong regulars for Rapala Floaters. Does the #9 Floater enjoy immortal status? The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” may suggest this is true if you’re out in the early June heat too long, but even so, there is a caveat worth heeding- Brian Cronk demonstrated. I was fascinated by the possibility of certain plugs out-producing others. Brian used a plug I did not have, and the pronounced 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 a series of repeated trolling passes before I finally got a tap.
This doesn’t mean it is 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 do learn. Unlike its human pursuer, a hybrid is advantaged by a total lack of pride. We swell with our accomplishments, but when we achieve something, we become less aware that the situation may shift. Hybrids can’t know about designs to hoist them over boat gunwales, but they can sense environmental threats in ways you can understand well enough to assume they’re not as easy to catch as the one plug you possess that has, up to that moment, seemed to always out-perform the others.
Jerkbaits like Rapalas, Yo-Zuris, Smithwicks, Storm Thundersticks and others, all have the potential to produce. Every plug’s action, color, and size is a little different. X-Raps have a wider wiggle than #9 Floaters, as well as a tuft of red feathers on the rear treble that on that day might have favored Cronk over me. We’ve tried various diving and lipless crankbaits to no result as yet, but I remain curious about possible effectiveness.
Lakes and reservoirs large by mid-Atlantic scale typically engender an afternoon breeze. My experience trolling calm, sunny afternoon conditions has led me to conclude this is unproductive. Conversely, calm, early morning and foggy afternoon conditions, have brought plenty of action. But basically, brilliant afternoon sun needs to be accompanied by that breeze that chops the surface enough to elicit lots of strikes.
Hybrids seem to come and take position under the shallow trolling lanes of May once water temperatures edge into the upper 50’s. Plenty hang around until water temperatures reach the mid-70’s. We’ve enjoyed fast action at sun-up, and we’ve caught bass after bass with the sun at its zenith- through chilly drizzle and in sweltering 90-
degree heat. I haven’t enjoyed catching bass when the barometer plummets, but have
had astonishing trolling success with the right weather prompting moving fish.
On the Troll
As a frame-of-reference, Jim Welsh of Dow’s Boat Rentals instructed me about trolling speed and the finer points on achieving it. After Brian Cronk and I flat lined trout in April, he pointed out to me that the use of a 6-horsepower outboard is helpful to putter at slow speed, but hybrids take chase, so faster trolling speed of 2.5 to 3 mph is appropriate with a larger engine. Sometimes hybrids nip a plug repeatedly before slamming the lure 10 to 15 feet further along. Therefore, don’t slow that speed! Hybrids keep up by 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 OK, 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 tests or plays. Tentative taps followed by a sudden slam of the lure as the bass yanks on the line rapidly as if trying to wrestle the rod from your fingers.
OK, they’re not nearly as smart as dolphins, but if you pay attention, they will fascinate you. As I’ve pointed out, you’ll find hybrids on your line faster than you will on the graph, but the fish finder is just as important as landmarks are to orient the 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 five-pound-class bass on pass after pass another time. It’s tempting to try repeating past 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 environment is never the same from moment to moment, and your presence is actually part of it, 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 rod holder 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 action gets hot. Since plugs have to run apart from each other, I like a combination of medium-power rods ranging from 5 ½ to 7 feet; naturally the longer rod(s) allow guest(s) 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. Experiment by running plugs further and closer. A fast action rod is essential for working a plug irregularly—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 mono-filament 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. Mono-filament 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.
Flat line 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, flat lining can seem the epitome of artlessness, when in fact there’s no end to possible variations on its simple theme.