Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Line on Hybrid Stripers and Walleye

The Bottom Line on Hybrid Stripers and Walleye

By Bruce Edward Litton

          I never forget the first time my son and I tried weighting live herring along the bottom edge of a Lake Hopatcong drop-off in October 2007, but I don’t remember if we got clued in by secondhand information or the rig seemed obvious. A half-ounce egg sinker ahead of a small barrel swivel and a four-foot, six-pound test leader of monofilament tied to a size 6 hook. The only change we’ve made since involves the use of size 10 treble hooks. I owned a topographic map, selected a sharp drop, used a fish finder to determine the edge between the slope and flat deep bottom, anchored shallower and cast our rigs to that edge. Sure enough, we caught good-size walleye of about four pounds.

          We kept coming back for more each third week of October. We’ve caught walleye every fall, and after a couple of years, began catching hybrid stripers along with them. On several occasions, a lot more stripers than marble eyes. Lake Hopatcong is not the only New Jersey destination for either species by the same method. Hybrids grow perhaps just as large in Spruce Run Reservoir and may be as numerous. Manasquan Reservoir features them also. Average size is about three pounds, fish slightly less than two pounds abundant, four-pounders common. I’ve caught a few five pounds and a little better, but so far, I’ve been jinxed at catching one of the six, seven, or eight-pound fish that so many of us read about in fishing reports, see photographed or catch ourselves. I’ve hooked and lost a few in this range and they fight like nothing else in freshwater. They just don’t leap as smallmouth bass do.

          Walleye inhabit Swartswood and Greenwood lakes, Monksville and Canistear reservoirs in addition to Hopatcong where they average about four pounds, six-pounders commonly caught with a number over eight pounds caught each year. We don’t catch loads of walleye less than two pounds as we do the bass, and though walleye do gather together in pods, the explanation for the catch discrepancy involves their not schooling in large numbers. On one occasion early in October, I witnessed fellow Knee Deep Club member Marty Roberts catch the last of about a hundred hybrids on one outing. He stayed anchored in a single spot, his fish alarm sounding off like Christmas bells.

          Many ways exist to catch both of these species and most of them cross over. In almost a decade, I’ve successfully used different approaches, but I like the bottom line of drop-offs in October best. I sit back and let the world unwind. Nothing else has been so relaxing and productive for these species. One caveat. Not all of the fish will cruise right along that bottom edge. In general, we set from 20 feet down to 45 feet, but throughout the month of October, be aware that on either Lake Hopatcong or Spruce Run Reservoir, fall turnover and oxygenation of the deepest water is not likely complete until the end of the month. We have marked fish as deep as 33 feet on October first, and yet as late as the third weekend, have witnessed herring dead reeled up from 40-foot depths. Your live bait is the canary in the coal mine, so check on it to avoid wasting effort.

          We follow no hard and fast rules on where to set, besides always putting at least a couple of six lines total between two of us right on the deep break. A good idea for beginners is to mark that edge with inexpensive buoys. Most often, we rig four lines with live herring and cast to shallows for bass and panfish with a rod apiece while keeping an eye on the open bails of the herring sets. Other anglers set drags light, tightening them upon setting the hook, but especially with quick-running hybrids, this can make a mess. Walleye, on the other hand, take the bait slow, line poking off the spool. You really know when a hybrid hits. Grab the rod, engage the reel and set the hook so that treble hook doesn’t catch in the gut, a problem we’ve never caused.

          Trebles allow herring liveliness. A single-shank hook turns inward upon a herring’s eye when placed through the nostrils, so a treble is preferable. Slip a prong through that bony opening for the most secure and liveliest arrangement. The tiny treble rides on top of the herring’s head like a thorny crown. Since the little hook with those hazardous extra prongs often catches inside the fish’s mouth, use a hook disgorger or long-nosed pliers to remove it.

          We miss a few hits. Not many. Medium-power spinning is all that’s necessary, and we’ve caught nice walleye on ultra-lights. However, with six-pound test monofilament and an eight-pound hybrid on the terminal end, power the fish when you can, but never force it. Hybrids have convulsive power like no other freshwater fish, sure to explode in sudden bursts of muscular force that will snap line instantly if the drag is the slightest bit too tight. Some veterans would never go so light, but on the other hand, Marty Roberts, last I spoke to him about it, catches hybrids only with ultra-lights, so it is a matter of preference as much as a matter of fact that a big hybrid will test any gear. I have caught five-pounders on 10 and 12-pound test, and though I felt relief in having a margin of more control than with lighter line, the fights remained long and sustained. The point is—these fish aren’t leader shy. If you use a 12-pound test leader, no problem. Fluorocarbon is all but invisible anyway. Hybrids must have good eyesight, as walleye certainly do, and yet many get caught on chicken liver, so they rely on smell, too.

          Herring happen to be rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. If you are good with a razorblade or very sharp knife, slightly incise live herring along the back, never so much as to impede liveliness much, just enough to release a little scent. Muscle gets cut, so a little of the fish’s vitality and endurance will be compromised, and yet so long as the fish remains active on the hook, a compromised life is more of a target to a predator. Walleye floats made of Styrofoam—black is best—help keep crippled herring out of rocks and other bottom obstructions. They slide onto the leader like an egg sinker and the hybrids and walleye don’t mind. Or just slip a little junk Styrofoam on the line, although the typical whiteness may not be ideal.

          There’s nothing else like it. Whether the wind howls like Halloween banshees or the lake lays calm and flat, this method works all day, but get on the water before dawn for the best action early. When the wind blows 20, 30 knots and everyone else hunkers down behind shoreline ridges in the calm, we anchor right in the blow, don’t even bother to double anchor, and let the boat ride the swells. Wind’s where the best action awaits.

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