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Live-Lining 101

Lessons in tackle, bait and reading the water

    Live-lining is one of the best light-tackle techniques for rockfish throughout the Bay this time of year. You’ll need a medium- to medium-heavy-action rod and the means to keep small baitfish alive while you are on the water.
    Boat live wells are designed for just this sort of thing, but aerated buckets can work as well. The aerator must be a heavy-duty 12 volts to manage more than a half-dozen baitfish for long periods. Many baitfish species have a poor tolerance for low oxygen and become exhausted or expire if the levels in your container become too low.
    The best baitfish are Norfolk spot four to six inches long. Small white perch will also do the trick, but rockfish much prefer the spot. You’ll need a dozen for two anglers.
    Bait-casting outfits are designed specifically for this technique. Spin outfits, particularly the bait runner models, do the job just as effectively. I use good quality 20-pound-test,monofilament line, but some anglers use lighter line or braid for its thin diameter and superior abrasion resistance.
    Most anglers, however, agree that a fluorocarbon leader of at least 18 inches in 15- to 30-pound test will increase your chances of success. Hook preferences run from size-2 treble hooks to 7/0 J hooks; just about all of them will work.
    Thus equipped, you’re ready to read the water.
    When tidal current is low, live-lining can be very effective for drifting around Bridge supports or specific bottom structure such as rock piles, pipelines or cable crossings, even likely marks suspended in more open water. With little current, no weight is necessary to get the spot down to where the fish are holding; they will swim down on their own and hold there. It is wise, however, to keep the baitfish off bottom. If you allow them to swim unconstrained, they will often find some rocks or rubble to dive into and you’ll be forced to break them off. Hooking the fish just in front of the dorsal is appropriate under these circumstances, for dorsal hooking encourages the bait to swim down while allowing it to move freely and naturally.
    When the currents or the wind pick up, a different approach helps.
    It is very difficult to drift-fish structure or open water with stiff winds or hard-running tidal currents. You cannot stay in productive areas, the boat is hard to control and your baits are too quickly carried away from the sweet spot. In these conditions, the best strategy is to anchor up so that the boat trails near the location you wish to fish. You may need to add some weight to your line, using a live-lining rig with a sliding sinker to get the fish to the proper depth. The baitfish should be hooked through the nose or both lips for a more natural presentation in the water. Hooked in this way, it doesn’t have to struggle to keep oriented to the current and will stay frisky much longer.
    Anchoring is also a good idea if you’ve got a school in a static location or if you intend to chum the fish to your boat. Again, when the tidal currents are slow and the stripers are suspended, it will not be necessary to add weight to the line to get your baitfish down to the proper depth. Hooking the fish in front of the dorsal is, again, the proper placement.
    However, if the stripers are on the bottom in deep water or the tide is running hard — or both — nose or mouth hook and add enough weight (on a live-lining rig) to get the baitfish to the right place in the water column.
    In all cases, when you feel a rockfish take hold of your live baitfish you must let it run unimpeded. If the striper feels any resistance, particularly a larger, smarter rockfish, it will spit the bait. Waiting a long eight or nine count while the striper swims off will allow the fish to move the bait into the back of its mouth and give you the best chance of a good hook set.