Trolling For Rockfish

Trolling is the preferred angling method for those targeting striped bass (a.k.a. rockfish) during the spring and fall seasons on the Chesapeake Bay. The two primary areas that are the focus of this article are the recommended tackle and techniques required to catch rockfish.

TACKLE: Over the years we have experimented with many different setups some that worked well and some that didn’t. Below are my recommendations as to what works best.

RODS: For your planer board rods I recommend a 6 to 6 ½ foot 30 to 50 pound class rod. The rods need to have a gimbal and a solid set of guides. Stay away from guides with ceramic inserts. Roller guides are not required and a likely sign that you over spent. We use offshore angler’s power sticks which are available from bass pro shops and should last a lifetime. Cost is around $90 per rod. All of the required characteristics for your boat rods are the same except I recommend a 40 to 60 pound class rod because your boat rods are going to typically be used to troll relatively heavier baits including in line sinkers.

REELS: For your planer board reels I recommend Shimano Tekoda 700’s and for the boat reels I recommend Shimano Tekoda 800’s. When you get the reels you will want to adjust the reel handles out 1 place to the farthest position as this will give the angler more leverage on the fish when cranking the handle.

LINE: For your planer board reels I recommend 50 pound test mono either clear or dark green camouflage. I tend to stay away from the high visibility lines when fishing the Chesapeake Bay. I also typically do not put braided line on my board reels because braided line has a higher propensity to slip out of the scotty clip. If you prefer to use braided line on your planer board reels, and many folks do, then I recommend at least 80 pound test to ensure the line does not inadvertently slip out of the clip. For the boat reels I recommend 65 pound test moss green power pro. I also have no problem spooling a couple of the reels up with monel wire. I grew up using wire and we still catch plenty of rockfish on wire line each season. As for your leaders I recommend 60 pound test fluorocarbon but given the cost any clear or low visibility monofilament will suffice.

LURES: We use mostly chartreuse and white tandem rigs with parachutes affixed. We also use umbrella rigs. Our tandems are typically 2 to 4, 4 to 6 and 6 to 8 ounce combos with 9 inch shads attached. We typically use products produced by local outfitters. For more information as to the specific companies and brands we use please contact me via email at the email address given below and I will provide you several folks who can meet your needs. I should point out that we do adjust our trailing baits quite often and have found that green and chartreuse tomic plugs, made in France, work very well. Also don’t be afraid to use a crippled alewive or tony accetta spoon either.

THE SPREAD: We run 21 lines from a 35 foot Carolina Classic express sportfisherman with a 14 foot beam. I know many a charter captains who run many more lines than that. My philosophy is simple. Troll as many lines as you’re comfortable with. Mitigating factors should include the number of accessible rod holders you have, your vessel’s beam width, and your crew’s experience level. The last thing you want to do is compete against a charter boat. Most charter boats run 2 trips a day and deploy as many rods as possible because it greatly increases the odds that they can return to the dock with happy customers in time to pick up their next party. Your typical fisherman that is out there for the love of the sport shouldn’t need a 140 feet span of planer line and 30 rods deployed to catch rockfish.

PLANER BOARD MATH: At the onset of your fishing day you need to stagger your distances and weights as you need to find where in the water column the rockfish are feeding and adjust your trolling depths appropriately. Be careful not to put your heaviest lures to the far outside position on your planer boards because this increases the likelihood of a tangle when the bait is struck. We typically work lightest to heaviest without significant weight variation on our board lines. I would not recommend deploying to the planer lines any tandem with a combined weight in excess of 14 ounces. We recommend you leave the deeper running heavier rigs for the boat rods not the planer boards. When deploying your planer rods be sure to adjust the bait’s distance behind the boat appropriately remembering that the farthest bait out if struck and pulled from your clip will drop the farthest distance behind the boat. For instance, if your planer board is tracking 100 feet a beam of your vessel and you drop a bait back 120 feet and then run it all the way out to the planer board when struck you will have the fish 220 feet behind the boat. Why is this important to note? Because you must be careful to adjust each additional line you put out on your planer board line to ensure appropriate separation. If you fail to do so you’ll spend more time sorting through tangles than fishing. For instance, given the example above you would not want to put the next bait 140 feet behind the boat and send it to a position 80 feet a beam of your vessel because if both baits get struck at the same time the 2 fish will be right on top of one another exactly 220 feet behind your boat. At that point the only distance separating the 2 fish and the 220 feet line spans is the horizontal distance between the respective rod holders.

BOAT HANDLING: At the onset of your fishing day we recommend a trolling speed between 3 and 3.5 knots speed over ground. For some inboard vessels this means you may need to have a trolling valve installed. As a short solution you can use a sea anchor to slow your speed but this is not a good permanent solution and represents another potential obstacle anglers must avoid when landing a fish. You want to pay particular attention to your trolling speed and note at which speeds your having more success. On a slow day don’t hesitate to adjust your speeds. Our basic principle is the colder the water temperature the slower we troll. In the winter months we’ve trolled as slow as 2 knots and caught fish.

FINDING FISH: Work the channel edges in a zig zag pattern from one side of the channel to the other until you locate the fish. Depths from 35 to 80 feet are most appropriate. We often drop our boat rods back a little farther when we are in the middle of the channel and adjust them appropriately as we reach the channel edge. Your really not looking for fish but rather bait as where there is bait there is bound to be fish. Pay attention to diving birds and large schools of menhaden you might see on your sounder. Mark the larger schools and don’t be afraid to circle back over those marks repeatedly from multiple directions.

KNOW THE TIDES: If readers take one thing away from this article it should be the importance of knowing your tide information. Always have a tide chart on your boat and be sure to make note of the high, low and slack tide times for your area before departing the dock. Rockfish always bite best on an ebb or flood tide and are much less likely to bite on a slack tide. If you don’t have a full day to put into your fishing effort make sure you plan your departure time to avoid fishing in slack tide conditions.

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