August 8, 2019
This newsletter promises two good, if lengthy, reads on using a single belly hook. The first is my share about my spring 2019 fishing trip on Block, and my experiments fishing a single-belly treble on my plugs. The second is an article by Toby Lapinski called “Reducing Mortality – A Case for One” that appeared in the June 2019 issue of TheFisherman magazine. In it, Toby details the benefits of a single-belly treble for both fish and fisherman. Toby has been employing the single-belly treble method since 2014 and I defer to him for his expertise in this area.
This spring, my intention on Block was to fish a single-belly treble on my plugs either by removing the second belly treble or leaving the hook protectors on the second treble. With the poor fishing the last two springs at Block, my concern was being able to catch enough sizable fish to give my single belly treble experiment a fair test.
My concerns were not unwarranted. I didn’t catch a fish let alone have a single hit my first three nights on the Island. There were fish being caught on the west side of the island, and I did make a sojourn west, but the fishing does not set up well for me there. It is usually a sand eel bite and the fish tend to be smaller. Don’t get me wrong there are some bigger fish, but if the conditions are calm and bright, I feel the fish get too good a look at my big plugs. The exception is when the fish are on bigger bait or there is a good chop on the water. Otherwise it can be a very frustrating experience.
I ended up back on the southeast side – convincing myself that fishing for no fish on the southeast side was better than catching small fish on the west side. Easy to say. But I finally broke the skunk on the fourth night fishing my rock, catching two small fish. Not exactly was I had in mind, but what it told me was significant: two hits, two fish, hooked securely in the side of the mouth, with a single treble.
One was caught on a Giant Surface with the second treble removed and the other was caught on a Pike Darter with hook protectors on the second treble. The hook protectors worked as intended protecting the fish from the second belly treble! Both fish hooked cleanly, with no second treble hooking the fish in the throat or gills, and the fish unable to use the leverage of being hooked with both belly trebles to free themselves. That gave me great confidence going forward for what was to come!
With a big storm brewing, and wind and waves predicted, my rock would be unfishable. I needed to find somewhere else to fish. My friend, Steve Gressak, had just the spot. During the calm before the storm, he found a day bite with bigger fish! No, this is not the Cape Cod Canal and if you are not fishing from a boat, a day bite on Block is few and far between. For one to happen over several days, and for the fish to get bigger as time went on, was surreal.
The two important ingredients for this bite were high tide and big waves/white water. At first, I was a Doubting Thomas and it took me a little while to come around. The one problem we encountered after we got into fish was that we needed to move around a bit to find clean water during and after the storm. I hooked all my fish on the Giant Surface in “Cobia” with the second treble removed and a Pike Darter in “CCBC Black Scale” with hook protectors on the second treble. Both plugs worked well in the big swell.
I landed all but two of the fish I hooked. Both dropped fish were attributed to pilot error. One as I eased up when the fish changed direction and I lost contact with it, and the other when I tried to horse a fish in on a wave that was much bigger than I thought. The fish had other ideas and the hook pulled out. These fish were on bigger bait (there were mackerel and hickory shad around the Island) and they readily took a bigger plug, I myself catching fish in the low twenties. We did weigh an occasional fish for scale, but I kept with the practice of not weighing the majority of fish and getting them back into the water after a quick picture.
These fish were hitting in close and the water was a cold 56°, but with the waves and strong current, the fish were hard to get in. It still amazes me and seeing it in the daylight is even more impressive. Fighting a fish, riding it in on a wave, and then it just turns a 180 back through the wave, pulling drag like I am not even there. Such strong swimmers! This striper school was dark colored as if they had been in the rocks. They ranged from 16 to 25 pounds, all deep and broad like the stripers of old. We reveled in these fish for two days.
At the end of the storm, the school changed. The fish were lighter in color as if they had been over sand, and they were bigger – to 30 pounds. I took a little too long with one fish and we had to work with it in the surf to revive it to swim way. It was a wake up call not to delay when releasing a fish. The rest of my fish were taken on a Giant Surface in Block Island Green Scale with a 5/0 VMC treble in the front, and the 4/0 on the back with hook protectors. I did not stick any fish with the second treble, but I did have to change out the hook protectors after multiple fish.
I was able to catch on top with the Giant and swim it down, fishing near the bottom, catching fish using both techniques! When the storm was really ripping, I fished the Pike Darter in “CCBC Black Scale,” again with hook protectors on the rear treble.
This plug worked well even when the wind was blowing 30. I kept with my intention to only keep two small fish for the week. I actually only kept one, and I waited until the end of the week so the fish would be fresh. Unfortunately all my fish at the end were 18 to 28+ pounds – way too big for my wife’s culinary preference. I had to rely on someone else for a 29” fish.
The fish were gone the next day and our group was leaving, too. I had been prepared for another lackluster spring on Block but the fish changed that. Maybe when my focus changed from filling the cooler to better striper management – taking a single fish on a single belly hook and quick release – did the fishing gods decide to look favorably on me!
On Block, I was back to fishing the “FG knot.” This low profile knot allowed me to fish a long leader where the knot ends up in the middle of the guides on the cast. Until it failed again. Now I am back to using the No-Name Knot. ALERT!! The “No Name Knot” does not work with braid on a long leader where the knot goes through the guides! You only get 3 to 5 casts until it breaks. Using Fireline original fused 30lb. you can cast forever. The long leader puts less strain on the line near the rod tip when I’m throwing heavy plugs. The long leader also helps corral a big fish in the rocks.
After fishing and catching in the rocks, at one point I noticed the lip on my Giant pike was very rough. I made a mental note to sand it smooth, but I didn’t get a chance. A wave swept it into a rock and there was a slight bump and the plug was free. I reached out with my rod tip to snag it but before I could another wave came in and it was gone. That plug didn’t owe me anything and it had the scars to prove it. As we were leaving later that day, the plug lay in the rocks like a brightly colored Easter egg. That Block Island Green showed up really well. As I suspected, the wave bumped the lip into a rock and the leader was stretched across it. The rough lip cut it like a knife.
For those of you who want to experiment with a single belly hook on my plugs, the removal of the second treble, or adding hook protectors to the second triple does not seem to noticeably affect the action of the plug. If you didn’t save any of the hood protectors that come on my plugs, go to your local hardware store and buy some aluminum screen weather stripping used to hold the screen. It comes in black or gray. Or, you can go to an aquarium store and buy some clear tubing of the right size, at one point I was using that for my home protectors.
I’ve been making some of my SLIM Troller Weasel Surface in northern white cedar. It makes them lighter in weight and, therefore, a little more user-friendly for surfcasters. I noticed this trip that they had too much action for my taste when I used a clip, especially in big waves with a lot of pull and current. Tying direct calmed that action right down. I also tied direct with all my plugs because the pull on the plug during the storm was intense.You may remember in past newsletters that originally I made my plugs to have a good action on a slow retrieve while tying direct. If you use a clip or breakaway, that really frees that action up maybe too much. I notice it, especially with my medium divers, when I’m trying to swim them down. I definitely prefer a little tighter action on my plugs.
By Toby Lapinski
With a large portion of striped bass “harvest” attributed to dead discards, steps can be taken to lessen your impact without impeding success.
If you accept the numbers put out by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in regards to striped bass mortality, then the idea is that roughly half of all harvest of striped bass annually is attributed to dead discards, or release mortality. While I am not going to sit here today and debate the data, I am of the mindset that even if it’s off by a few percentage points either way, then it amounts to what I’d consider a lot of wasted fish and anything that we as anglers can do to lessen our impact in this way should be considered—short of ceasing fishing for striped bass altogether just yet.
Several years ago I made a concerted effort to begin fishing my artificial lures with fewer hook points on them. To some this concept might seem counter-productive if one’s end goal is to catch more fish, but I can say with the utmost confidence that my hit-to-landed-fish ratio has improved dramatically since making the change. Unfortunately it is not as simple as removing hooks, but to me the challenge of finding alternative ways to retain a plug’s intended balance without reducing its effectiveness has become an exciting and rewarding challenge if not somewhat of an obsession.
My journey with using a single treble hook began sometime in the 2014 season when my fishing partner, Jay Hanecak, began building plugs. First off the lathe was an 8-inch needlefish, and we quickly learned that the plug swam much better when outfitted with a single 4/0 treble on the belly swivel and a dressed flag on the tail.
After being put to shame on several outings by Jay’s single-treble plugs, I began modifying all of my needlefish in this manner. From there I started working with the rest of my plugs to eliminate the tail or second belly hook, and it has become somewhat of a joke between the two of us as to the lengths to which I will go to achieve a productive, single-treble plug. Steal a peak into my plug bin or surf bag and you’ll now see that all of my plugs have a tail flag of some sort and hardly any of them carries a second hook. From 3-inch stubby needlefish to 7-inch Red Fins to large pencil poppers to 10-inch needlefish and everything in-between, they can all be successfully fished with a single treble hook so long as you are willing to put in a little work to figure out what rigging works best.
Now entering my sixth season of commitment to this modification, I have experienced a lot of positives and negatives along the way. I was somewhat hesitant about putting this concept to paper as I feel the extensive work that I have put into it should not simply be handed over to the masses. I have spent many hours at my local marina casting, testing, re-rigging and re-testing different configurations of hooks, tails and lures before heading out into the surf with them, but ultimately I feel that there are so many benefits to both angler and fish that I simply cannot keep it to myself any longer. Here are some of my findings.
Beyond the obvious benefit of damaging a fish much less, the single treble is far safer on the angler. I no longer have to worry about a second hook flailing around when landing a fish, and the plug acts as a handle of sorts when landing. I hardly need to use a light to unhook a fish now, too, and have caught fish right under other guys’ noses without them even knowing I was having success. This can be very helpful along an open, expansive beach where you can see a light going on and off from a great distance.
The single treble hook affords a much more secure connection to the fish. I lose very, very few fish with a single treble as the fish can no longer get leverage and pop a hook out. I also hook very few fish outside the mouth as it’s usually the second hook that snags a fish’s eye, cheek or head.
Despite what one might think by eliminating one or more of the treble hooks, I actually miss very few fish with the single treble. When using two treble hooks I found that the second hook was very seldom the primary point of contact. When a fish was landed and the tail hook was the only one connected to the fish, 99 percent of the time I could find where the front hook had been attached to the fish and tore free.
In some cases fishing a plug with a single treble is as simple as removing all other hooks, but in most cases it requires some tinkering in order to retain optimum casting, swimming and fish-hooking performance. To begin with, you generally want to upsize the treble by at least one size. I also use a split ring on almost all of my plugs. This eases not only changing out hooks when needed but also drops the hook points a hair further back towards the center of the plug. While striped bass do generally seem to strike for the head of a bait, any time that you can position the hook closer to a lure’s center point the odds are better you’ll hook more fish.
Tail flags can balance a plug on the cast and swim depending on what is used, and they make for a more appealing presentation with an undulating bunch of feathers or bucktail hanging off the back of the plug. On plugs where weight is not needed, I simply use the same wire as the through wire to make my tail flags. However, when more weight is needed on the tail I use very large stainless steel siwash hooks (size 9/0) and cut the hook off right at the bend. You can also wrap solder or lead onto a piece of wire or over the tail wrap to add more weight. Another option is the chain often used on eelskin plugs, and this works quite well when a dressed tail flag is not needed or wanted. If you make your own plugs, or if you like to tinker, you can drill out the tail of a wooden lure and add heavier or additional tail weights, or you can drill small holes into a plug and pour lead right into the wood. On plastic plugs, oftentimes loading them, something done quite a bit with Red Fins for example, can be enough to balance the cast and swim. The options are really only limited by your creativity and drive.
To date there is no scenario where I have found that a single treble hook could not be successfully used. This doesn’t mean that you can blindly remove hooks from your plugs as noted earlier. I still strongly urge you to spend some time testing your modified plugs ahead of time, but this is something that you should be doing with each and every lure you have anyway. Wood is inconsistent by nature, and even mass-produced plastic plugs do not have the same consistency that manufacturers might have you believe. Go weigh your unrigged plugs and you’ll often find that otherwise identical lures can actually vary greatly.
One thing to consider when switching to a single treble hook is in regards to fishing surface plugs like the classic Danny swimmer. When all of the hook weight is centered on the front swivel, as opposed to spread evenly between a pair of swivels, it can sometimes be difficult to keep the lure swimming on top unless you play with the line tie or use something to balance the tail and keep it level on the retrieve. That balance can be achieved most easily by the use of a heavier tail flag (cut large siwash hook) or by drilling out and adding tail weight. Again, however, such extreme modifications as this must require subsequent testing to ensure the casting and swimming properties of the lure are not ruined—make these changes at your own risk.
Several years ago I wrote about the use of single in-line hooks on plugs (Modifications That Matter, The Fisherman, May 2015). I will not fully rehash the details of the article, but I still use them quite frequently in certain scenarios. However, I have found that single inline hooks do not work well with swivel hangers and I only use them on lures with solid hangers (like a Red Fin, Bomber Long-A, Yo-Zuri LC Minnow, etc.). What I found was that the single in-line hook, when used on a swivel belly hanger, would cause the hook to rest up along the underside of the lure and there was very little hook point protruding from the lure to catch a fish’s mouth. Due to this I would still get hits but I had a difficult time hooking a fish in this scenario. While I am fully aware that many anglers seeking pelagics and tropical species successfully use these hooks in conjunction with swivels, my findings were not positive—your results, of course, may vary.
I have not gone to crushing barbs, but only because I hadn’t really considered it a necessity yet. In my eyes, crushing a barb really only serves as a benefit when the goal is to ease removal from the user/angler or when removing hooks from outside the mouth of a fish. With a single treble it is rather rare to get a hook anywhere other than inside the intended mouth, and I want as solid a purchase as possible there. Really, the only time I “foul hook” a bass nowadays is when fishing a deep diving metal lip at a certain spot where there is a ledge. I believe the bass lie below the ledge and hammer the plug as it comes over their heads, and every so often when there is a very aggressive feed with many large fish around I will land a bass with the single treble buried square in their forehead. It’s quite the fight to land a fish in this manner and only happens with bass over 30 pounds at this spot—go figure!