Nearly a month ahead of schedule, Belton Lake is poised to begin producing quantities of quality hybrid striped bass thanks to a very mild winter followed by an early spring.

Last weekend both Stillhouse Hollow and Belton Lake saw surface temperatures break 60 degrees for the first time this year. Soon, the threadfin shad, which serve as the forage base for all gamefish on both reservoirs, will begin their eight-week spawning cycle.

The spawning of the threadfin shad typically corresponds with the best hybrid striped bass fishing of the year in terms of the quantity of fish caught, the quality of fish caught and the ease with which these fish can be taken.

One of the reasons this period is so productive is because the hybrid stripers will still be relating to the bottom in large schools prior to becoming more horizontally scattered with the development of the thermocline, which begins to set up in late May.

Whenever gamefish — be they largemouth, crappie, white bass or hybrids — congregate in large schools, they tend to be more aggressive than when in the presence of fewer schoolmates. Although a particular fish may not have the urge to feed, it will still strike at a bait just to keep other schoolmates from getting that bait before it does. This certainly works to the angler’s advantage.

Two keys to hybrid fishing success are locating fish and using fresh, lively shad for bait.

LOCATION

Spring hybrid are typically found in 25 to 45 feet of water along breaklines, on points,and on humps. A properly dialed-in sonar unit will differentiate hybrid from other species in two ways. First, hybrid will appear in schools, so multiple targets will show on sonar over a short span of bottom. Next, hybrid will produce a relatively “tall” arch on traditional colored sonar when the unit’s sensitivity and colorline (for Lowrance units) or Switchfire (for Humminbird) variables are properly adjusted.

FRESH, LIVELY SHAD

In order to have fresh, lively shad for the duration of a four- to six-hour fishing trip, shad must be properly cared for right from the moment they are captured with a castnet. The greatest aid in accomplishing this is by minimizing handling from the castnet to the holding tank, and through the use of a well-designed shad tank.

Shad tanks come in various sizes to fit any boat, and all tend to be oval-shaped or round-shaped.

Regardless of brand, a quality tank does four things: aerates the water, recirculates the water, filters the water and insulates the water. A boat’s livewell falls short of these requirements as livewells are typically not designed for filtration and are typically poorly insulated.

Filtration is critical as it removes slime, eggs, feces and scales which, if taken into a shad’s mouth, impedes breathing by inhibiting gill function.

Functional brands of shad tanks include Blue Water Bait Systems tanks, the Grayline tanks, the Sunshine tanks, and the Super Bait tanks.

There are a number of chemical additives available to help condition the bait tank water, but the most critical is rock salt. Added at a rate of one cup per 10 gallons, rock salt helps to harden the scales of the captured shad and prevents these scales from coming loose and further polluting the bait tank water.

Once the shad are captured and cared for, and the hybrid are located on sonar, the catching is pretty straightforward. I prefer using a medium action fiberglass rod and a baitcasting style reel with a low, 5.2:1 gear ratio, a 20-pound test monofilament main line, and a ¾-ounce egg sinker attached above a swivel. Below the swivel I use a 17- or 20-pound test length of fluorocarbon about 3 feet long. I then snell a #1 circle hook to the end of this fluorocarbon leader. The shad should be hooked quickly and carefully in one nostril and out the other and then placed in the water gently.

Most days fishing with the sinker about 4 to 5 feet off bottom, which suspends the shad just barely off bottom, will catch hybrid effectively.

As hybrid are caught, the commotion they generate while fighting will draw in more hybrid. Thus, it is wise to fish from a stationary position by either anchoring or using an i-Pilot equipped trolling motor.

Such was the case this week on Belton Lake as anglers Ray Johnson of Harker Heights and Clayton Bell of Florence landed a variety of fish using live shad, including hybrid striper, white bass, largemouth bass, crappie, drum and blue catfish. Instead of drifting, as many anglers do, these gentlemen fished from a fixed position. Once fish moved under the boat and began biting, they stayed under the boat and allowed for multiple catches. The pair landed a total of 58 fish, including numerous hybrid between three and four pounds.

We are still a few weeks away from the peak of this bite, so there is still time to get all your equipment in order so as to take advantage of this great opportunity.

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