Some fishermen like the finesse approach -- you know, the "gentle art" of angling?
I'm not among them.
Finicky trout? Moody bass? Gimme a fish with attitude on the end of my line -- something like a big, fat hybrid striper.
Hybrids, wipers, hybrid stripers, sunshine bass -- whatever you call 'em, these bad boys will put a serious bend in your rod. A laboratory cross between the landlocked striper and the white bass, they're the meanest, hardest-pullin' freshwater gamefish that swims.
Contrary to popular belief, your bait doesn't need to be alive and kickin' to catch hybrids. These bruisers can be caught on the bottom with a variety of dead baits as well.
By angling standards, hybrid fishing is a brand new sport. These fish are the result of fisheries management, not Mother Nature. Most states didn't even begin their hybrid stocking programs until the Seventies. Little wonder most anglers are just now beginning to figure out how to catch them.
The vast majority of hybrid fishermen use bait, but a growing number love to tempt 'em with artificials. But why be satisfied with just one approach? If you've fished for wipers with live bait in the past, what I'm about to tell you may shock you, and hopefully tempt you to try some revolutionary bait approaches. If you prefer artificials, you're about to learn some exciting topwater techniques that'll have your heart pounding and your adrenaline pumping.
Popular bait techniques for hybrids are much like those used for reservoir stripers. The most common presentation involves slow-drifting live shad on weighted "down lines" for suspended fish. A good approach, true, but the catch rate falls off dramatically during frontal passages. Another popular method is to use a bow-mounted trolling motor to pull live baitfish on long lines behind the boat, alternately stopping and speeding up so the bait falls and rises enticingly -- not a bad way to catch a 'brid, but again, it's best in stable weather.
Here's a news flash: contrary to popular belief, your bait doesn't need to be alive and kickin' to catch hybrids -- or even on life support, for that matter! Like northern pike, these bruisers can be caught on the bottom with a variety of dead baits as well.
Expert Birmingham, Ala. angler Chris Stephenson was the first to clue me in on bottom-fishing for wipers. An avid hybrid and striper hunter with a degree in fisheries biology, Stephenson has three National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame catch-and-release hybrid line class world records to his credit, including a 31-incher from Pickwick Lake, Ala. on 14 lb. line.
Stephenson stumbled onto what has to be the strangest hybrid pattern of all one morning while drifting live shad for white bass in the swift Tennessee River current below Wilson Dam, Ala. "I noticed another fisherman's boat was anchored on a nearby hump, and every time I'd drift past him, he'd be fighting a big fish and cussing his brains out," Chris told North American Fisherman. "I finally asked him what was up; he said he was catfishing on the bottom with chicken livers, but big hybrids kept taking his bait -- I saw him boat one that had to be 15 pounds."
Stephenson was back at the Wilson Dam launch ramp before daylight the following morning, but this time, he wasn't gunning for white bass. Motoring to a series of shallow humps washed by fast current, and armed with a box of hooks and sinkers, he dropped anchor and set out two lines baited with chicken livers. Within minutes he was fast into two big hybrids at the same time. "I went through a bucket of livers in less than an hour, and had to run to town and get more," he recalled. "I couldn't believe it -- the hybrids were eating it off the bottom like candy!"
Stephenson began experimenting with his bait menu. He tried beef liver, cut pieces of gizzard shad and skipjack herring, whole dead threadfin shad -- it seemed whatever offering he set out, hybrids gobbled it up eagerly. He caught wipers up to a whopping 17 pounds using dead bait on the bottom, as well as big stripers and chunky catfish.
Citing fisheries studies, Stephenson said, "Hybrids have a huge appetite for their size. When not busting shad on the surface or chasing suspended baitfish schools, they'll often roam close to bottom and gorge themselves on dead fish. This feeding behavior is especially prevalent below dams, where turbines act like a Cuisinart to slice and dice baitfish. Taking advantage of this little-known fact can greatly extend your angling opportunities when hybrids aren't feeding in the upper section of the water column, such as during temperature extremes and frontal passages."
Where to Bottom-Fish
"Most anglers think of bottom fishing as being best in deep holes and on dropoffs, but where current is present, hybrids are likely to be surprisingly shallow," Stephenson indicated. "In April and May, for example, I often find them in 10 feet of water. In slack-water lakes, or in tailraces when current is not present, they'll be deeper -- 15 to 25 feet is typical."
Here are some bottom-fishing hotspots Stephenson recommends:
Big flats -- "Think of bottom-feeding hybrids like grazing cattle -- they roam big, flat, obstruction-free expanses of bottom with little slope. In a river-run reservoir, look for flats in the 10- to 18-foot zone swept by moderate to strong current. In slack-water fisheries, look for big main-lake flats with 15 to 25 feet of water on their outer edges."
Submerged humps -- "The most productive humps are moderately shallow -- 10 to 12 feet on top is perfect. Look for humps close to a deep creek or river channel; these will pull in hybrids that were suspending in open water."
Slow-tapering points -- "Points are universally appealing to hybrids because wandering baitfish schools often gather there. The points most conducive to bottom-foraging are long, with an extremely slow taper into a deep channel. Flat points at the mouths of inflowing tributaries are especially productive."
Shell mounds -- "I became aware that hybrids forage on areas where shellfish congregate when commercial mussel divers told me of seeing huge concentrations of these fish. Shell mounds are common in river-run reservoirs."
Warm-water discharge areas -- "Excellent cold-water hybrid spots -- often you'll find 65-degree water directly below a 'stream plant' even when the rest of the lake is in the low 50's. The water here is like chowder -- there are zillions of baitfish, and hybrids can get a grand slam breakfast merely by swimming along bottom and sucking in dead shad. Good place to hang a giant striper, too."
Stephenson's bottom rig uses a #4 Gamakatsu Octopus hook at the business end -- perfect for baiting chicken livers, cut skipjack herring or whole dead threadfin shad.
Stephenson highly recommends tackle with maximum shock absorption built in to handle scrappy hybrids. "Never use a stiff-action rod like a bass flipping stick!" he cautioned. "These fish pull so hard, with a stiff rod, they'll either break your line or straighten the hook when they make their famous powerhouse run. For bottom fishing, I like medium-action 7-foot baitcasting rods, coupled with wide-spool reels spooled with abrasion-resistant 14-pound mono. Don't use braided line; it lacks the stretch needed for these powerful fish. And although I may use lines up to 50 pounds for river stripers, I find my hybrid catch rate decreases when I use heavier line."
Stephenson's bottom rig is much like the bass angler's Carolina rig. He slides a 1 to 3 ounce egg sinker, depending on the amount of current, over his line, adds a plastic bead for knot protection, then ties a stout swivel to the tag end. He then attaches two feet of 14 pound mono to the opposite end of the swivel as a leader, and ties a stout live bait hook like a #4 Gamakatsu Octopus to the tag end. After positioning his boat above the structure he wishes to fish and anchoring both ends, he baits up with chicken livers, cut pieces of skipjack herring or whole dead threadfin shad, and casts his offering onto the structure. "I try to engage the reel spool right before the bait hits the water, to prevent it from being swept too far off the structure as it's sinking," he added. "Once it's on bottom, I adjust the reel drag so it slips under pressure and place the rod in a holder. I don't like to use clicker reels with the spool open; these result in too many hybrids swallowing the hook before you can get the rod out of the holder."
As spring transitions into summer, bottom-fishing becomes more productive -- and tolerable -- at night. "It's just too darn hot where I live to anchor down on a hole on an August day, but it's very comfortable at night. Hybrids are more active after dark in hot weather anyway, and you're liable to hang into a big flathead catfish now as well."
Ready to switch gears and for a bruiser 'brid on top? Veteran Goodlettsville, Tenn. angler Jack Christian's the man with the plan. "I've yet to meet a fishermen who didn't get a rush out of catching schooling hybrids on topwater lures," the former Priest Lake guide insisted. "These fish can feed so ferociously, it can be downright scary. I've seen acres of them boiling the surface to a froth, with shad jumping clear onto the bank trying to escape!"
Topwater action typically begins when the surface temp hits 70 degrees, usually late April or early May in Jack's region. "Hybrids often school by size, and usually the first fish to get 'in the jumps' are smaller, maybe up to 8 pounds," he noted. "The bigger fish are often on a later schedule; you'll start picking up the 10+ pounders a week or two after the smaller ones. The bigger fish are lazier. They instinctively know they can find more abundant forage when the water warms sufficiently for the lake's shad population to complete its spring spawning activity, gang up in massive schools and head out to the main lake. When the surface temp reaches 75 degrees, you'd better make sure the drag on your reel is loose, 'cause you're about to do battle with some major-league fish on the surface!" Jack should know -- he's caught hybrids pushing 18 pounds on surface plugs.
Hotspots for Surfacing Hybrids
Surface schooling is often a main-lake phenomenon, Christian emphasized. Wolfpacks of hybrids typically swim under big schools of shad, gradually pushing them toward the surface. Exactly where the feeding frenzy will take place can never be predicted with certainty, but Jack suggests that anglers position themselves near the following areas:
Points at the mouths of tributaries -- "Baitfish schools moving from their spawning grounds in tributaries will eventually gravitate to points at the mouths of creek arms, only to be ambushed by schools of hybrids. Watch for surfacing fish in open water between two opposing points, as well as over the points themselves."
Underwater roadbeds -- "These are major structures in many reservoirs. Hybrids suspend over them, and when a school of shad happens by, they'll force 'em to the surface and put on the feed bag. I like to fish roads because they receive less angling pressure, being less obvious than points."
Submerged humps -- "The best hybrid humps are close to the mouths of feeder creeks. Hybrids hold there when inactive, then force passing shad schools to the surface when feeding. I've seen 'em school on top of humps as shallow as 5 feet."
Surface feeding can take place in early morning, late evening, or all day long, depending on weather and water conditions. "Generally on calm, sunny days, I do best with topwaters early and late, but on cloudy days with a light chop on the water, I've caught hybrids surfacing throughout the day," Christian said. "Often you'll spot breaking fish just by cruising the lake or watching for schools of birds circling above the water -- they're picking up the scraps from a recent hybrid feeding frenzy. If you don't see fish schooling on top, park around one of the structures mentioned above and hang out for awhile -- you usually won't have to wait long for the action to begin."
Anything that pops, spits or sputters will do the trick with schooling hybrids. Smithwick's Devil's Horse is a long-time favorite prop bait among anglers.
Topwater Tackle, Lures and Tactics
Christian favors long, shock-absorbing baitcasting rods for topwater fishing; like Chris Stephenson, he's respectful of this species' awesome pulling power. His favorite is a 7-foot fiberglass bass cranking stick; it enables him to make extra-long casts to reach surfacing fish and is very forgiving. He couples this with a slow-retrieve bass baitcasting reel (slow = more winching power) and 12 pound mono.
Jack uses a varied menu of surface offerings, most of which are bass lures: "Hybrids don't have a big mouth, so I avoid large striper plugs like Red Fins and stick to medium-sized bass topwater plugs instead." Poppers, stick baits and prop baits rule. Among his favorites: the Zara Spook, Pop-R, Rattlin' Chug Bug and Devil's Horse. "Hybrids aren't nearly as picky about what you throw at 'em as bass are. Anything that pops, spits or sputters should catch 'em."
Presentation is basic -- remember, surfacing hybrids are out for blood. "Cast a little beyond the fish, then start the retrieve. I like to keep the lure moving pretty aggressively, like a fleeing baitfish. The fish will tell you what to do -- if you aren't getting strikes, try speeding up, slowing down or using a stop-and-go retrieve. Keep your drag loose; it's not uncommon to have two hybrids strike a lure at once."
Christian always keeps a rod rigged with a 3/4-ounce metal jigging spoon handy when chasing after schooling wipers. "When they're surfacing out of topwater plug casting range, you can often reach 'em with a heavy spoon. Cast beyond surfacing fish and immediately start reeling quickly with the rod held high so the spoon skips and tumble over the surface. And once the feeding frenzy stops, let the spoon sink on a tight line -- often a big hybrid will nail it while it's fluttering down like a dying shad."