By Jeff Little
As the waters of the Chesapeake Bay cool down each fall, fish of all sizes bunch up. It’s evident where the menhaden, the local forage fish, bunch up. Seagulls and ducks feast on the small silvery baitfish driven to the surface by striped bass. Where you find this commotion, you are also likely to find Alan Battista trolling a garage-manufactured collection of heavy wire, glass beads, swivels, soft plastic shad bodies and bucktail dressed jig heads. He calls it the Chesapeake Rig. Battista discussed his creation and the trolling tactics that improve its effectiveness.
How did you come up with the rig?
Battista: Many years ago I was in the Patapsco River, late October or early November fishing for striped bass. I noticed schools and schools of baitfish everywhere. It was obvious that the striped bass were feeding on this forage. I needed to develop something that mimicked them. I wanted to create a lure that is similar to the ones used during spring trophy season, only downsized for the fall. In my basement I'd worked on rigs that essentially are what people call the Alabama Rig today.
During the time I was working on these mini umbrella rigs, which I still use today, I found an older gentleman at a local flea market selling what I now call the Chesapeake Rig. As soon as I saw it, I knew I needed to have it. It had all the elements I wanted. I bought a pair and didn't use them for 9 months.
When I got around to using them, they quickly became my favorite rig. Because there is a chance to lose one on a snag, I tried contacting the gentleman to get some more. His wife answered and unfortunately she'd informed me he'd passed away just months ago.
Out of necessity I started making them. I needed them for myself! If I didn't make them, the rig would be gone forever. As people started seeing pictures of the quantities of fish they caught, I was overwhelmed with requests to buy the rigs. Right now I can't make them fast enough to meet the demand.
How is it made?
Battista: The rigs are rather labor and cost intensive to make. Each one takes 30-45 minutes from start to finish depending on how tired my hands get. There's a lot of assembly time because of all the hardware needed. Each Chesapeake Rig is made of two stainless spreader bars, one smaller than the other. The larger bar has a pair of bucktails dressed with a plastic shad body. This creates a 3-tiered bait school with the bucktails riding the lowest tier to catch the biggest fish. Everything has a swivel attaching it to keep from twists or tangles which is really effective. For as elaborate as it looks, it doesn't twist or tangle easily because everything spins.
Do you use it year ’round?
Battista: I fish it from September through December. It's not because I don't think they'll work at other times, I just prefer to go with lighter tackle when the fish are shallower. The Chesapeake Rig is phenomenal for running in the 10- to 25-foot range over drop-offs and structure, but in the spring and summer I prefer shallower plugs.
As the weather temps drop, like they are doing right now, those fish go twice as deep, say 50-60′ at the current time. This makes trolling for them more difficult because of the heavy weights needed to go down that far. Last weekend boats were trolling with several rod spreads with 20-36 ounces of lead. That’s not practical for a kayak, so I’ve been experimenting with a downrigger lately, which has been successful using the Chesapeake Rig. Truth be told, the bluefish scare me in the summer so I keep my premium rig stowed to keep the shad bodies intact.
Describe your rod, reel, line and rod holder set up for trolling this rig. Is it any different than your trolling jerkbaits?
Battista: When I want to fish a schooling lure, there's a few things to consider. The first is that I need a rod that won't double over with the extra drag caused by these rigs. You don't need to buy a broomstick, but you will need something a little stiffer than the bass rods used for jerkbaits. I run 30- to 40-pound braid with a large swivel clipped directly to the rig.
The second thing that's really important is some way to know how much line you have out. I use a line counter that's integral to my reel. The rigs will run about 8 feet deep with 25 feet of line out and 20 feet deep with 100 feet of line out. Trolling requires knowing how deep your lures are running. If you don't know, you're just trying to catch a fish with luck.
As far as drag from the lures, it’s a non issue for me. I run a pair of them and don’t even notice any drag, but that’s from my pedal driven Hobie. Paddlers do seem to take notice. The other benefit of a pedal kayak is that I can continue to troll while fighting the fish, which keeps the other rig running. I do that to keep it from potentially snagging on the bottom. Additionally, continuing to troll often catches another fish or two while fighting the former.
I’ve seen you get doubles many times. What are the two largest striper that you’ve caught on the rig at the same time? What about largest single striper you’ve landed on the rig?
Battista: During this time of year, the baits are downsized for the schooling fish. Fishing in the early fall isn't about catching the biggest fish, it's about catching lots of fish. It's really no sweat to catch two, maybe three dozen fish in a few hours. Most of the fish you'll find in the fall are in the 18- to 30-inch range, with the majority being 16 to 22 inches. I've caught plenty of 20-inch plus fish two at a time and the largest was probably 28 inches. As the season wears on the larger migratory fish show up in the deeper waters and I'm experimenting with a few things to reach these greater depths with these rigs. I've also gotten some requests to upsize the Chesapeake Rig for use during the spring season where 40- to 50-inch fish are possible, but I'll have to get back to you on that one.
You wrote a book on kayak trolling tactics. Tell us a little about it.
Battista: Writing Light Tackle Kayak Trolling was a great opportunity for me to reach a lot of people and show them what I do and how I do it. My methods aren't the only way to catch striped bass, but they are the most productive and reliable way that I know. I'm not one of those fisherman that keeps to himself and hides all his secrets. I've put everything I know into the book to help others catch fish, even my personal maps. It's my philosophy to share with others openly because we can learn so much from each other. If I don't share openly, I can't expect others to do so either. To create a forum for these types of fishing reports and discussions about kayak trolling, I started a Facebook page for the book. I love seeing posts of fish caught on Chesapeake Rigs using tactics I teach in the book. It's been a fun endeavor.