A Primer for Drift Fishing The Race
Part 1: Line, Lures and Terminal Tackle
by Mark Sanner
In the past few months, I've talked to several anglers about fishing The Race. Some of the conversations were with people who had never fished The Race, but most were with people who had fished there before but had little success. All were eager to learn more about the tackle, lures and methods my fishing partners and I use to put fish in the boat.
The fact that people are asking me for advice is astounding, because I am no expert. Far from it. In fact, my first season at The Race produced few fish, even as I watched other boats around us haul in fish on every drift. "What am I doing wrong", I wondered. It wasn't until my partner and I swallowed our pride and started talking to experienced anglers and local tackle shops that we picked up enough information to begin boating fish on a regular basis.
That's my first piece of advice for novice Race anglers: ask lots of questions.
Ask friends, relatives, neighbors, and yes, even tackle shops. Freely admit your ignorance as well as your desire to learn more, and you might be surprised at the helpful responses you get in return.
Be forewarned, however, that if you ask ten anglers what they use to catch fish at The Race, you're likely to get fifty opinions. On closer examination, though, the vast majority of this advice will be variations on a few basic themes. Furthermore, almost every variation will work to a greater or lesser extent. Your task is to select from among these variations, try a few of them, then modify your tackle and technique until find a combination that works best for you.
In my first season or two at The Race, I used 30-50 lb. mono, but I've switched over to super braids exclusively. Why? Feeling the bottom is critical to successfully fishing The Race, and mono has so much stretch, especially when you've got a lot of line out in deep, fast water, it's hard to feel what's happening on the other end. In effect, mono is like dangling a pound of lead at the end of a big rubber band from the roof of an eight story building. Super lines, on the other hand, have almost no stretch, and allow you to feel not just bottom but also individual bumps and rocks. Save the mono for backing when you load your reel with super braid.
I use Tuf Line, 125-150 yards of 35 or 50 lb. with 30-40 lb. mono as backing on the reel. There are many other excellent braids such as Cortland and Power Pro. I prefer 35 lb. because it's very thin diameter cuts through the deep water and helps keep me in contact with the bottom with the least amount of weight. Many people like to use heavier line, 50 lb. or more, at The Race because of the ubiquitous rocks and snags that damage and weaken the last few feet of the main line. One drawback of super braid line is that it is much more susceptible to abrasion than mono, and anglers have to pay close attention to the condition of the line for signs of wear.
Super braids will start to fray or show "fuzzies" when they've been abraded. I've actually had trouble breaking off 50 lb. Tuf Line when I snagged bottom really hard, and even got spooled once because I couldn't break it. Since then I've used only 35 lb. I may lose the hook and sinker with 35 lb., but not the hook, line and sinker.
When the last couple feet of main braid line starts to show signs of wear, cut it off and retie. Tying good knots is very important when using any super line, so take your time and do it right. The best knot for terminal tackle with super line is probably the Palomar, but it's not practical when you've already got a sinker, leader and bucktail attached to a three-way swivel. In this situation, I usually fold the line over on itself and tie a double-line improved clinch knot. Most super lines are so slippery that a single-line improved clinch knot can eventually slip out.
Lures and Terminal Tackle
The basic setup for The Race is a bucktail on a three-way rig, and everyone you ask will have his own variation on this theme. The traditional rig is a 1-3 oz. lead head bucktail attached to a three-way swivel (preferably black) by 6 feet of heavy mono leader (50-80 lb.) and a large sinker attached to another eye of the three-way swivel with a 12-24" drop line of 20-30 lb. mono. The idea is to be able to break off the sinker if it gets snagged and save the rest of the rig.
The bucktail with a pork rind trailer is a combination freshwater bass anglers call "jig 'n' pig." Any color will work at The Race, as long as it's white. I've fished all the colors in the tackle shop, and keep coming back to plain white, white with a blue stripe, white with a yellow stripe, white with a black stripe . . . you get the idea. Yellow has been working very well for me, too, green and chartreuse are a close second, and I don't think I've ever caught a fish on pink.
A popular version of the bucktail available in my area (but not much farther) is called a Drift Weight. It's a big, bushy bucktail jig with a plastic head instead of lead.
Another bucktail produced by the same company is called a Crunch Jig, which is a 1/2 oz jig head with 7/0 hook molded in. Both of these jigs are designed to present a large, fluttering target that stays up in the current when the sinker hits bottom, minimizing the snag potential. I always add a piece of 5" or sometimes 7" pork rind on the hook, and here again white or yellow yellow are my favorite colors, but some anglers swear it's got to be red. Soft plastic twister tails in similar sizes and colors work well in place of pork rind, too.
The traditional leader between three-way and bucktail is about 6 feet of 60-80 lb. mono, mostly as protection from razor sharp bluefish teeth. I don't believe bluefish care much what you throw at them, but I think stripers do, so I prefer 40 lb. fluorocarbon leader for reduced visibility. I only resort to 80 lb. mono leader (not fluorocarbon) if we run into an exceptionally aggressive pack of blues that cut me off once too often. As with the main line, watch and feel for nicks and wear in the last few inches of leader, cut it off and retie if it's damaged.
The sinker is attached to the three-way with a 12-24" drop line of 20-30 lb. mono that will break if the sinker gets snagged. I prefer 30 lb. mono for this because the sinker line really takes a beating and 20 lb. is just not durable enough. Personally, I don't like using a mono as sinker line because I lose too many sinkers, and have to retie nicked and damaged drop lines too frequently. Last year, I put together a version of the sinker line using a 12-18" steel leader (about 100-120 lb. test) instead of mono as the sinker line. A steel leader will stand up to any abuse The Race can dish out, so I don't have to tie so many knots.
To give myself break points if (I mean "when") I drag the sinker between two rocks, I attach the leader to the three-way swivel with a small #3 split ring (25 lb test), and I put another split ring on the bottom end of the leader, then a barrel swivel and a duolock snap. In other words, the sinker connection in order is three-way, split ring, leader, split ring, barrel swivel, duolock snap, sinker. A large duolock snap (1-1/2") enables me to use bank sinkers which are cheaper than other styles of sinkers with brass loops or swivels molded in. As before, all this hardware should be black to deter curious blues. Performance with this steel leader drop line has been great so far. I'm spending a lot less time tying knots and a lot more time fishing.
One of the most common mistakes novice Race anglers make is not using enough weight to keep the jig near the bottom. The minimum sinker weight I use is 16 oz. Early in the tide or under certain conditions, a 12 or 14 oz. sinker might be sufficient, but I know I'll have to add more weight as the tide picks up, so 16 oz. is normally where I start. I often move up to 20 oz. by mid-tide, sometimes have to go to 24 oz., and when the tide and wind combine to produce a rip-roaring drift, I'll go all the way up to 28 oz. The largest bank sinkers commonly available in the area are 20 oz., although you might find a few 24 oz. sinkers here and there.
When conditions call for more weight than that, I use a second duolock clip to attach a second bank sinker. It's ugly and creates more drag than I'd like, but it works in a pinch. Another method I learned from a friend that seems to work better is to put a drail sinker (cigar shape with brass loops on both ends) on the end of the drop line and clip a bank sinker to the bottom loop of the drail to bring the total weight up the 28 oz.. If I'm having trouble hitting bottom with 28 oz., it means conditions are getting rough and I head for home.
Staying in contact with bottom is the key to drift fishing The Race. If you aren't bouncing your sinker off bottom from time to time, it doesn't matter what else you've got down there because your bucktail is out of the strike zone. There should be enough lead on your rig that when you free spool it down at the start of a drift, you feel a solid "thump" when it hits bottom. If you're not sure if you're feeling bottom or not, you're probably not. If your line is trailing a long way behind the boat at a shallow angle to the water, you probably need more weight.
However, it's also possible you've got plenty of weight, but your rig is dragging along the bottom because you've let out too much line. Try reeling the rig in half way, then drop it back down to reset the depth. If you're on your first visit to The Race, you might consider arriving within one hour of slack tide to practice a little and get a feel for what thumping bottom feels like before the wind and tide really get going. As you gain experience, you'll be able to judge how much weight is needed to get the job done for the specific wind and tide conditions at hand.
When I started drift fishing The Race, I used 30-50 lb. mono line, 80 lb. mono leader, 1-3 oz. lead head bucktails, and 20-30 lb. mono sinker line. After a few years of trial, error, and conversations with other anglers, I'm now using 35 lb. super braid line, 40 lb. fluorocarbon leader, Drift Weights or Crunch Jigs that are mostly white or yellow, and a customized steel sinker line. If you run into me again a few years from now, I'll probably still be using this same basic setup, but with a few modifications.