I wish I could say this “wrecking ball” discovery was the result of testing a cutting-edge angling hypothesis. In truth, it came about by happenstance. It was fortunate that I had enough fishing sense to see value when value presented itself.
The concept is simple, involving an “outside the box” use of downrigging equipment to locate pelagic freshwater fish like white bass, hybrid striped bass, and even stripers that are in a neutral, bottom-hugging mode, where they can be caught with vertical tactics. By “outside the box” I mean that instead of attaching a line with lure or bait to the downrigger ball via a release clip, there’s no bait, lure, no line, or clip involved.
I’ve been a full-time fishing guide for 11 years, working several central-Texas reservoirs near Austin that are under 13,000 acres in size. I guide year-round, and typically conduct about 185 trips per season, each focused on catch-and-release angling for white bass and hybrid stripers.
One afternoon, between my morning and afternoon trips, I was getting gear squared away before my clients were due to arrive. I’d recently restrung my ‘riggers with braided line in lieu of the braided metal cable that comes standard with downriggers. I noticed that the line was unevenly spooled on my starboard ‘rigger, so I lowered the weight so I could manually guide the line onto the spool evenly.
I was in about 33 feet of water, drifting slowly along a flat on Belton Lake. As I hit the “Up” button on the Cannon Digi-Troll 10 TS, the 12-pound ball rose off bottom as I guided line onto the spool. I glimpsed at my sonar unit and saw that not only had the ball risen off bottom, but that what looked like a school of white bass had chased it up.
Amazed, I immediately lowered the ball back down and watched same scenario play out. As the ball rose, the white bass rose about 12 to 14 feet off of bottom in pursuit, then turned and headed back to bottom. I repeated this twice more before the fish no longer responded. I used my trolling motor to go back over the area, probing the bottom with a slab spoon. I immediately hooked a nice white bass, then another, then another, verifying fish species.
Polishing The Program
I couldn’t wait to test this “wrecking ball” concept and started fine-tuning it. To appreciate why it works on freshwater pelagics like white bass, consider the nature of these fish. They patrol offshore areas in large numbers, often generally relating to deep structure where they feed on shad. Schools work together to herd, and trap the baitfish against a bank, into a cove, or toward the surface, then feed heavily but briefly.
I recalled many occasions when bottom-hugging white bass would pull up off bottom and rise to the level of my downrigger ball, trailing it for several yards before breaking off the chase. I knew fish that responded to the ball would hit lures quickly dropped to them. But I never realized how deadly the system could be.
I now run a single ball 5 to 6 feet off bottom in areas I suspect may hold fish, keeping an eye on sonar. Speed matters. I don’t exceed 2.9 mph in water over 68°F, and slow to between 1.9 and 2.6 mph in water 50°F to 68°F. Once water temperatures drop below 50°F, I don’t find fish willing to rise off bottom or chase.
I’ve placed my downriggers farther toward the bow on my port and starboard gunwales than normal to keep both downrigger balls visible on sonar. Using a standard 83/200-kHz skimmer-type transducer with a 22-degree cone angle on my Lowrance HDS-12 Gen3 unit, I can steer the boat with one hand and raise and lower the downrigger ball to follow the contour of the bottom with the other, watching for fish rising toward the ball. I tend to use my starboard ‘rigger primarily because the transducer is just starboard of my lower unit, so that ball stays in the cone a bit better than the port-side ball does.
Once fish reveal themselves, I put the motor in neutral and raise the ball as quickly as possible. If you leave it in the water, fish continue to follow it, and the school spreads out instead of remaining tightly grouped. For vertical jigging, I want them to remain as tightly grouped as possible.
Using my remote, I put my Minn Kota Ulterra trolling motor on “Spot Lock” above the fish. I keep my trolling motor deployed as soon as I lower my downrigger ball to quickly respond. At times the school moves quickly enough to avoid you. But if you backtrack to where fish first followed the ball, you should be successful 80 percent of the time.
It’s critical to get lures down quickly. One trick is to watch the foamy bubble trail behind the boat. Instead of tossing a marker buoy, which takes time and is a snagging hazard, or using i-Pilot, I pick out one foamy bubble patch and use it as a temporary buoy, watching it and my sonar until I see fish. Once I spot the school, I press “Spot Lock” and drop slab spoons.
I’ve developed a technique I call “easing,” which involves a 3/4-ounce slab anchoring a tandem rig. My favorite is a white or silver holographic Model 180 spoon made by Bryon Nolan of Redneck Fish’n in Altus, Oklahoma. I use it with the Hazy Eye Shad tandem rig, which is designed to eliminate break-offs and tangles experienced with most tandem rigs.
I attach a slab to a snap on the end of the Hazy Eye Shad rig. Once the boat is still and my line is hanging plumb vertical, I drop it to the bottom with my rod tip 6 to 8 inches above the surface. I keep my free hand on the bail and close it the instant the rig contacts bottom.
With the slab on bottom, I ease my rod tip steadily and smoothly from its position just above the surface up to the 11-o’clock position in a 5-second time span. If not grabbed by a fish, I let the rig fall back to bottom on a semi-slack line. Ninety percent of the strikes and nearly all hookups occur as you raise the rig. The easing tactic is much more effective than traditional snap-jigging.
If fish don’t respond in the first 3 to 5 eases, the school generally has departed. I stay put only another two minutes or so to see if the commotion of jigging will draw fish. If nothing happens, I do an expanding spiral sonar sweep to relocate them. If not successful, I go back to the wrecking ball.
I use Penn Slammer 260 spinning reels on Abu Garcia Veritas 6-foot 9-inch medium-light rods with 30-pound-test Sufix 832 braid in neon lime, terminated with a VMC #2 Touch Lok snap. The Hazy Eye Shad rig is tied with 30-pound fluorocarbon and also terminates with a VMC #2 Touch Lok snap to which the slab is attached.
If a tandem rig is not your style, I suggest a 3/8-ounce slab with a Hazy Eye Stinger Hook affixed to the line tie. In this situation, I use neon lime 30-pound Sufix 832 as my mainline, a VMC #2 snap on the end of a 24-inch fluorocarbon leader of 20-pound test. For a single spoon, I use a longer and lighter 7-foot Fenwick Eagle EA70ML-MFS with the Penn Slammer 260.
Once a fish grabs either the slab or the teaser on the Hazy Eye Shad rig, you have two options. You can reel in the hooked fish and get back to fishing while the school remains below. Or you can shoot for a double, hooking one fish on the slab and another on the Hazy Eye Shad teaser fly. To consistently double up, don’t move the first fish far away from its school.
The instant I know I have a fish on either lure, I keep pressure on the fish without raising the rod any further (if possible) or barely raising the rod. If you wind the reel, you’re going too far, too fast. Once the hooked fish swims erratically near its schoolmates with either the slab or the teaser fly dangling free, another fish typically responds in 6 to 7 seconds. You often won’t feel the strike of the second fish, just an increase in the load on the rod. If another fish doesn’t bite in 7 or 8 seconds, reel it in and try again.
You can reap the benefits of the wrecking ball approach—catching many active fish until they lose interest, if you sit still. Fish locate prey and one another both by sight and by detecting vibrations using their lateral line. When the first fish is hooked, it flashes and struggles and puts off sights and vibrations that excite nearby fish. Hooked fish often regurgitate what they’ve recently eaten, and may defecate as a stress response. When regurgitated food and feces fall toward the bottom, a third component—scent is introduced, thus further triggering active feeding. If an angler moves about with the trolling motor or drifts, they fail to capitalize on this triggering element of the program. But if you remain atop the school, action continues.
Staying still has never been easier than with the introduction of self-positioning trolling motors. I recently installed a 2017 model Minn Kota 36-volt, 112-pound thrust Ulterra trolling motor. Once the Spot-Lock button is pushed, the motor works to steer and power itself to stay exactly atop the prescribed location. This newest generation is amazingly precise, rarely allowing one’s line to hang any way but plumb vertical beneath the boat. And they lock on position much more quickly than did first-generation motors.
It also has the capability to move to the left, right, forward, or rearward in 5-foot increments, in case you were a bit off when you hit Spot-Lock, or if your side-scanning sonar reveals fish holding to the side. Lacking this modern technology, tossing out a marker buoy and holding the boat near it with a trolling motor is a workable alternative. You catch more fish if you capitalize on taking more fish from the schools you’ve worked to find by fishing from a fixed position above them, taking advantage of the domino effect first begun by the frantic activity of the first fish you hook in the area.
Wrecking-ball fishing is most effective when fish are holding near bottom in large numbers. In the southeastern and southwestern U.S., this typically occurs from mid-October through April. In Texas, the thermocline typically forms in late May and breaks down in mid-October. The cool months from mid-October until the spawning run in mid-March to mid-April are the best time for this technique.
Once water warms, the thermocline forms and the fish’s metabolism is at a seasonal peak through the summer. They’re often suspended and too transient for this tactic to work as well. Even hot-water fish holding near the bottom at depths shallower than the thermocline tend to be too transient for this tactic to work as well as it does during the cooler months.
What About Rigging?
Anglers sometimes ask, “If fish respond to the downrigger ball so well, why not attach a lure to the release clip on the ball and let the downrigger work as it was intended?” My answer is that you catch only a few fish as you pass over the school instead of potentially catching dozens by sitting atop an active school. Even if you’re an expert downrigger, by the time it takes to stop the boat, reel in and unhook fish, turn around, reset lines, and make another pass at that school, they’re likely long gone.
Downriggers used in the conventional fashion are certainly not obsolete. I consider them the go-to technique during warmer months, especially when dealing with fish suspended above the thermocline. Tricked out with 3-armed umbrella rigs and Luhr-Jensen Pet Spoons, downriggers are ready to do business when the heat is on.
No matter how effective the wrecking ball tactic is, it only works if fish are nearby. You can’t drop a downrigger ball anywhere, watch sonar, and expect fish to come flooding off the bottom. You must find classic cool-water fish-holding topographic features, generally in 22 to 45 feet of water here Texas. Broad humps, long and slow-tapering points, and breaklines at the edges of deep flats are prime real estate. The wrecking ball tactic helps to quickly eliminate unproductive portions of these productive features.
*Bob Maindelle owns Holding the Line Guide Service in central Texas, 254/368-7411, holdingthelineguideservice.com. He has previously contributed to In-Fisherman.
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