If history is any teacher, we should see the first of the spawning threadfin shad “running” the shoreline in very shallow water during the low light hours in the mornings this week.
This event typically signals the start of the best hybrid striped bass fishing of the year in terms of both quantity and quality.
This bite typically ramps up quickly, stays strong through the end of May, then dissipates quickly in the first week of June as summer heat forces the beginning of the thermocline formation.
Being as ready as possible to take full advantage of this peak season by preparing ahead of time has served me well in these past 13 years as a professional fishing guide.
In this article, I simply share the things I have done, and continue to do through the season, in order to catch and release as many of these hard-fighting freshwater pelagics as possible.
BAIT TANK PREPARATION
Of all the equipment on my boat, the most crucial during the hybrid striper season is my bait tank. This specially-designed piece of equipment insulates, filters, circulates and aerates the water which keeps my live baits (threadfin and gizzard shad) alive.
Before the hybrid bite ramps up, I simply go through all of the electrical connections related to the bait tank and re-apply dielectric compound. This substance, which is similar in appearance to petroleum jelly, prevents corrosion. It is inexpensive, easily applied with a cotton swab, extremely effective and readily available at auto parts stores.
Additionally, I have filter media cut-to-size and ready to be placed into the bait tank’s filter box.
I make sure I have a sufficient quantity of rock salt and Shad Keeper enzymes on hand to treat multiple tanks full of water.
I make sure I have a bait net (and a spare) on the boat for dipping the baits out of the tank without causing undue trauma and scale loss.
Finally, I make sure I have a backup aerator motor stored in a zippered plastic storage bag and that the connections on it match up with the connections on the existing motor so a quick changeout is readily accomplished should the primary motor fail.
ROD AND REEL PREPARATION
I use six identical rod/reel combos for my live bait fishing. Each Ambassador 5500 series line-counter reel is spooled with an equal amount of 80-pound test Sufix 832 braided line. This ensures that each line-counter pays out and retrieves identical lengths of line which can be critical for getting baits suspended at the correct depth.
With the main line all taken care of, I then tie my circle hooks and leaders using fresh fluorocarbon with 25-pound test Sufix. Each hook/leader combination is stored in a small zippered plastic storage bag inside a water-tight tackle box so they do not tangle and are not rusted when needed.
CAST NET PREPARATION
A few years ago I picked up a great tip from catfish guide Chad Ferguson concerning cast nets. If your net has gone unused for some time, fill a cooler with hot water and add about a cup of fabric softener.
Completely immerse the net in the solution and shut the lid in order to retain the heat. After soaking overnight or longer, rinse the net with fresh water and suspend it by the horn (the plastic ring at the top of the net) such that the weights stay off the ground. The heat and solution will soften the net, making it limp and supple, which translates into easier throwing and better spread on the net.
Since I keep my boat in constant operation year-round, I do not have to do as much to transition into hybrid fishing as I would if I were bringing the boat out of winterization. Still, there are a few hybrid season-specific chores I tend to.
The chore paying the largest dividends is clearing my front casting deck of any objects that may snag the mesh of my cast net. The last thing you want to happen is to be lined up perfectly on a school of shad in shallow water which could provide all the bait you need for the day, only to have your cast net snag on an unclipped cable tie on your trolling motor wiring, or to hang on a poorly located pair of needle-nosed pliers, or (insert any of a hundred other things we anglers like to keep “handy” on the front deck) ...
Beyond this, I also tension and position my Bee Ready rod holders so they do not swivel too freely nor bind, and so the angle at which they hold the rods (I prefer parallel to the water’s surface) is just right.
Since I have a tackle cabinet built into the leaning post on my boat, I shuffle the tackle boxes such that my hybrid-specific boxes are nearest the top of the rack for easy access to spare leaders, swivels, hooks and weights.
I have created a 21-item checklist which I review before each and every hybrid striped bass trip.
Because hybrid fishing involves the use of specialized equipment which I use only during this peak time of year, I want to be sure nothing is left to chance.
Several items have to do with the boat (fuel tank topped off, boat batteries charged, onboard flashlight charged, trolling motor hand-held remote charged). Several items have to do with shad-netting equipment (deep water net onboard, shallow water net onboard, water transfer buckets onboard, shad holding buckets onboard, waterproof Grundens overalls onboard).
Other checklist items address the gear used to present baits to the fish (six sets of bait rods onboard, six sets of jigging rods onboard, chum cutting board present, chum-cutting scissors present).
The few minutes of intentional thought it takes to create a reusable checklist like this will pay dividends, especially during those times you find yourself in a rush or get out of your normal pre-trip preparation routine.
To some this may seem like overkill. To me it is inexpensive insurance that pays off in the way of more time spent catching more fish in a season that will only last for a fixed amount of time.