A few polished techniques separate those anglers consistently landing 40-inch fish from those catching the skunk. I’ve written extensively about trolling for striped bass in my first book, “Light Tackle Kayak Trolling the Chesapeake Bay,” but there are always tricks that I continue to perfect, and I’m about to share one such tactic I call “Tracing the Contours.”
Location, Location, Lure Presentation
More than anything else, consistently catching striped bass, especially the really large fish, relies on putting the lure where the fish hide. Set aside color, vibration, scent and size, because if you can’t get the lure to the fish you’ll never feel that rod double over. Big fish are often loners, so your presentation must be perfect, unlike smaller schooling fish where even a sloppy presentation can work. When selecting lures, choose ones that offer the best presentations for the prevailing seasonal pattern. For example, when fishing in the spring, I prefer shallow diving crankbaits that run at six to 10 feet. Later in the year, I’ll opt for a deeper-diving lure that goes to 15 or 20 feet. However, lure selection is only part of the story. You must know how to work them while trolling, and sitting idly is not the answer.
If you watched me trolling along in a kayak, you may notice that I don’t look like most anglers who simply put the kayak on cruise control and enjoy the scenery. I’m constantly fidgeting and adjusting my rods and line. That’s because I know that striped bass love staging on transitions from one depth to another. Some of my favorite spring locations transition from seven to three feet and in fall, 10 to 15 feet. To catch the fish on these transitions, you must guide the kayak up and down the contour—but there’s a catch. What happens to that springtime trolling lure that dives six feet, perfectly tracing the seven foot contour, when it runs into the transition to three feet? It digs into the bottom, of course, and that’s not what I want for the majority of situations. (I state that with the caveat that when running over hard, rocky bottoms, banging the lure across the bottom drives fish bonkers!) Generally speaking, I want the lure to follow the contour up to the shallower section or follow it down to the deeper section if making the reverse trip, without dragging along the bottom. It would be great to have a lure-drone to automatically follow the contours for you, but until one hits the mass market, you’ll have to work the lure yourself.
Select a lure that dives to the lower limits of where you wish to fish. Lure size and shape should imitate the forage to increase the odds of hooking up. Make a long cast and place the rod in a horizontal rod holder while driving the kayak forward. I highly recommend fishing on a hands-free style kayak, one with a pedal drive or a Torqeedo mounted to the stern, because it leaves your hands free to work the rods. As the kayak approaches the transition, remove the rod from the holder, still holding it parallel to the water. As the lure approaches the contour, raise the rod in the air so that the tip points straight towards the sky, causing the lure to rise in the water column. Simply by working the rod in this way, you now have a lure that dives to both six feet and three feet, as well as potentially anywhere in between, allowing you to work a variety of structure that holds fish—without running the lure out of the strike zone.
Similarly, in rocky rivers I may never place the rod in the holder because this environment requires constant adjustments. Selecting a deep diving lure, I power the kayak looking for large boulders on the fish finder. When I see one, I tip the rod toward the sky to run up the boulder without snagging and then lower the rod quickly so that the lure smashes along the top of it and down the other side where predatory fish often lurk.
This tactic takes a little practice to master. There’s a delay in time between when you see a transition on your fish finder and when it comes in contact with your lure. To get the timing right, often I’ll wait until I feel the lure bump into the transition before quickly adjusting the rod. This ensures I’ve traced the contour—though it comes with a risk of snagging or picking up debris.
Kayak Trolling Deep
When fishing late in the season and the prevailing patterns are in much deeper water, simple crankbaits may not be able to get the job done. This is the precise time where my handmade Chesapeake Rigs prevail. Using them I can fish much deeper, sharper contours with a slight modification to the technique. While I could still tip the rod up and down, the sharper transitions make it impractical. Instead, I use a line counter to trace these contours. Using my rig, I know that for every three of line let out, the rig runs one foot deeper, which is a good enough approximation. While fishing in 20 feet of water, I’ll run the Chesapeake Rig 60 feet back, looking for drop offs to 30 feet. When I find these transitions, typically occurring at points or edges, I release the spool, letting out line and allowing the rig to trace the contour to the lower depth. On the reverse trip, I’ll reel feverishly to keep the rig from snagging on the upward transition.
“Tracing the Contour” keeps your lures in the strike zone, which will result in a higher percentage of hook ups. The tactic, while simple and effective, is an often-overlooked technique. Add it to your repertoire, and I promise you’ll see more fish come over the gunnels. Presentation is king, and putting the lure in front of the fish is the first requirement of catching them. For more techniques, gear and reports, visit my Facebook page, Light Tackle Kayak Trolling the Chesapeake Bay.
- by Alan Battista