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May 07, 2007

Rockfish on the Run

Tips for trolling up big stripers

If you want to bag bragging-size striped bass with any degree of consistency, stow the chum bucket and leave the 12-pound spinning outfits at home. Charter captains with a knack for catching cows forget finesse and cover the water by trolling attention-getting lures such as umbrella rigs and parachute jigs.

Designed to imitate a cluster of baitfish, umbrella rigs resemble smaller versions of the dredges pulled as teasers by billfishermen - except one or more of the artificials on an umbrella carries a hook. Parachute jigs may weigh 2 to 5 ounces or more and feature synthetic hair that flares and sweeps back to present a large profile. These bulky artificials demand the use of rather beefy tackle; many crews rely on wire line to take lures deep and withstand the strain of trolling heavy hardware.

Anglers develop and refine techniques that deliver the best results for their home waters, so trolling strategies vary from one area to another. Let's take a look at how two skippers from different regions approach the striper-trolling game.

Massachusetts Methods
Capt. David DeCastro (781-826-5231, www.sharonbsportfishing.com) runs his 32-foot Brownell out of Green Harbor, Massachusetts, to fish areas such as Cape Cod Bay, Martha's Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands out of Menemsha. He calls the waters of Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, his "regular spot."

Striper trolling off Provincetown peaks in June and July. "We typically catch 20, 30 or more fish a day. Our average striper measures 36 inches and weighs in the mid 20s," DeCastro says. "But fish may range from keeper-size [28 inches] up to 39 pounds, which was my biggest last year."

DeCastro finds stripers concentrated along a steep drop-off that occurs not far from the beach. He focuses his efforts on the sharp edge in 24 to 30 feet because straying just a few feet to either side of that line puts him in deep water or up on the shoal. The skipper prefers to fish on a rising tide and usually enjoys the best action during the four hours leading up to a high tide.

Tackle consists of custom rods and Penn 113H 4/0 HL or HLW reels. "I avoid levelwinds because wire line can wear a groove in the guide. I load my reels with 100 yards of 80-pound Dacron backing and top them with 100 yards of 50-pound, single-strand stainless-steel wire," DeCastro says. "Albright connections hold securely and pass through the line guides smoothly."

When he expects to find fish on the edge, DeCastro gets out the "Cape Cod jig-and-eel," a black lead head dressed with black or dark-red nylon hair. "These jigs work well when I mark fish in depths of 30 feet or less," he says. "I can make them bounce and scratch the bottom."

Stripers tend to move off the edge in search of deeper water at low tide and when boat traffic gets busy. Since charter captains don't enjoy the luxury of fishing only under ideal conditions, DeCastro always has a plan B. "When fish leave the edge, I usually find them in 35- to 40-foot depths," he says. "In that situation, I use umbrella rigs. I want them to run deep without actually hitting bottom, or they'll foul."

DeCastro prepares his four-armed umbrella rigs with an 8-inch, 130- or 180-pound fluorocarbon leader and surgical-tubing worm on each arm; each worm carries a 10/0 or 12/0 Limerick hook. The 24- to 30-inch leader in the rig's center ends with a snap for attaching a Rapala Sliver or 7-inch Bomber Long A plug.

"Fluorocarbon is expensive, but very durable and effective. And I have the advantage of using leader material left over from my bluefin-tuna trips," he says.

Deploying two rods, one from each cockpit corner, DeCastro lets out all 100 yards of wire so easy-on-the-inserts Dacron backing rides in the line guides. He knows that 100 yards of wire in the water and his preferred trolling speed of 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 knots combine to keep the umbrella rigs working at 30 to 33 feet. If he needs more depth, a 4-ounce trolling sinker ahead of the umbrella takes it down another 10 feet.

"Depth control is very important," he says. "If you mark fish and troll over them without a hookup, your lures probably aren't working deep enough. In that case, you can either slow down to let the rigs go deeper or add a trolling sinker."

Plugs on an unencumbered line may swim as much as 4 to 6 feet from side to side. A plug fettered to a short leader on an umbrella rig retains its fish-attracting action but has much less liberty and range of motion, which helps keep lines from crossing and tangling. DeCastro also avoids wrap-ups by setting both umbrellas the same distance behind the boat, because at different lengths, the longer line would cross the shorter on turns.

"On some days, I hook fish whether trolling with or against the tide, but most of the time, they only hit when I'm heading into the current. It's important to always present lures from the same direction when stripers show a preference," he says. "I keep my GPS on track mode and beat a track to death as long as I'm hooking fish. After boating a double hookup, I maneuver up- or down-current of the spot and deploy my rigs to approach from the same direction."

Upon hooking up, DeCastro usually leaves the second line out to try for a doubleheader - as long as the first angler can manage his fish. Most fishermen have no problem bringing in stripers while the boat keeps trolling, thanks to the sturdy Penn 113H reel, 12-pound drag setting and wire line. If a fish starts peeling off lots of line, however, the skipper brings in the other rig so he can chase the hooked striper.

Chesapeake Strategies
Capt. Sonney Forrest, of Fin Finder Charters (800-831-2702, www.finfinder.com), fishes Chesapeake Bay out of Solomons Island, Maryland, during the state's spring trophy season for striped bass. This season typically runs from mid-April to mid-May; last year's regulations allowed a creel limit of one fish per angler and a minimum size of 33 inches.

A home base at the mouth of the Patuxent River offers Forrest quick access to waters near Cove Point, one of the Bay's narrowest stretches. "Forage fish like herring and bunker funnel through the area, and big stripers stop here to feed during their migration," he says.

Large stripers, Forrest says, prefer to hang out in rather deep water. He most often finds them in depths ranging from 50 to 120 feet - in, not necessarily at, those depths.

"Many people tell me they catch fish in the fall but have no success in the spring. They're fishing too deep," he says. "Focus on the upper portion of the water column. Lures for springtime stripers shouldn't run deeper than 30 feet. Fish holding at greater depths are usually below the thermocline and will not feed."

A close eye on water temperature can help locate a striper hot spot. "Rockfish seek warm eddies coming off the shallow edges of the Eastern Shore's Ship Channel. Baitfish and crabs wash into deeper water, where stripers wait to ambush them."

Forrest usually trolls west to east and back again, crossing the Chesapeake's varying bottom contours and covering depths from 40 out to 120 feet in the shipping lane. He uses tidal currents, which run north and south in the Bay, to his advantage. For example, if he hooks a fish during an incoming tide (flowing north), he turns the boat to come back and pass slightly north of that mark. "Baitfish move with the tide, so you need to move with the school of bait because that's what the stripers do," he says.

The Fin Finder, a custom 46-footer that can carry as many as 30 anglers, boasts a huge cockpit. Forrest puts all that working space to good use by deploying up to 19 rods (custom rods rated for 20- to 50-pound line holding Shimano TLD 30 reels loaded with 50-pound Spectra and 60-pound Ande leader material). He marks the superbraid so he knows exactly how much line is out, thus controlling lure depth. "Experience shows me that while trolling at 2 1/2 to 3 knots, every 100 feet of Spectra in the water results in 10 feet of lure depth," he says. "Every 4 ounces of lead added to the line takes it down another 5 feet, so I use different weights to keep lures at targeted depths."

Planer boards on 125 feet of cord hold four lines on each side of the boat, each line pulling double parachute jigs. Other rods distributed around the rails are armed with parachutes and umbrella rigs. Forrest uses sinkers to run lures deep yet close to the transom, at 55, 75, 100 and 125 feet back. Specific lure depths depend on where he marks fish on a given day. Lines deployed at longer distances, such as 145, 165 and 185 feet, remain unweighted so they stay closer to the surface and won't tangle with the deep lines. He completes the spread with two long lures on rods in holders on the cabin roof: a bucktail 250 feet back and a spoon at 300.

"We manage this system without getting tangles, often while catching several fish at a time. I usually don't stop the boat after a hookup, so the low-geared reels help my anglers bring in fish while we keep trolling," he says. Forrest points out that using heavy tackle prevents prolonged fights, an important factor in ensuring the healthy release of mature stripers that will guarantee more fish in the future.

As the success of DeCastro and Forrest attests, trolling for stripers produces substantial results. Break out the parachutes and umbrellas, and use the techniques discussed here as a starting point for fine-tuning methods to target fish in your area.