Mastering the Three-Way Rig for Stripers

This simple but productive technique is far more effective than plugging on the surface, and it produces more cow stripers than any other method. Our expert explains how it's done.

by Tim Coleman

It was a cold, quiet, inky night as master striped bass fisherman Sherwood Lincoln and his neighbor, John McTurk, headed out for the nearest coastal rip off Black Point. There, at a spot where the bottom rises from 50 to 30-plus feet, using land ranges backed by GPS, Lincoln stopped his 21-foot center console at a precise point. The ebb current took over, sweeping the boat back toward the underwater plateau.

As he watched the bottom come up, the approaching rip line and the lay of the land, Lincoln told his partner to get ready. The words no sooner cleared his lips when one and then both hefty conventional rods doubled over as hooks were set into the maws of jumbo stripers, fish fooled by a live eel drifted deep with the aid of a heavy sinker.

Before the tide completed its journey, they tallied another 10 large bass, bringing their total to a dozen, a productive evening though not out of the ordinary for this fisherman.

Lincoln has caught bass at this rate for over 20 years in his home waters. Locals know him as one of few anglers who have landed 50 bass over 50 pounds. Most of us are lucky to get a few fish that size, but Lincoln's photo album has snapshots of dozens of fish to 63 pounds, any one of which would be a lifetime catch for most of us.

Most of Lincoln's fish were caught with a simple system called a three-way rig. This method was developed by Atlantic Coast bass men to cope with deep water, stiff tides and roller-coaster bottom topography where numbers of heavyweight bass wait for the current to bring them a meal.

The three-way rig not only helps Lincoln but dozens of other local fishermen catch huge stripers. A three-way rig was the undoing of one of the heaviest bass ever landed, a 76-pounder caught on a reef at Montauk Point by Capt. Bob Rochetta. The fish is the second-heaviest striper ever recorded by the International Game Fish Association, passed only by a 78-pounder taken by Al McReynolds at a New Jersey jetty. The three-way rig was also used by many other anglers to catch fish from 55 to 70 pounds in bass-filled waters like Plum Gut, The Sluiceway, Valiant Rock and Sugar Reef, to name a few.

Photo by Marc N. McGlade

But three-waying, as some call it, is a method that is easily exportable from the Cape May rips through Monomoy on the tip of Cape Cod and up into the rock-bound coast of Maine.

Making a three-way rig is easy. In fact, if you've ever made fluke rigs, you've got the basic idea for a three-way striper rig.

Three-waying gets its name from a three-way swivel, the rig's starting point. On one eye, tie an 18- to 24-inch leader with 40- to 60-pound monofilament for a sinker heavy enough to tend bottom in a running tide. In some cases, this might mean as little as 3 to 6 ounces of lead, while other rips and reefs may require 16 to 20 ounces to keep the bait down in the payoff zone during the main part of the flow.

On another eye of the swivel, tie on a 5-foot leader, to which you attach a single hook for live eels, a double hook for large live bait, or a bucktail and pork rind. That's not a misprint: Three-waying gives anglers the ability to use a variety of baits or lures. The main line is tied to the third eye of the swivel.

Heavier, conventional tackle is normally used because of the size of fish encountered plus the weight of the sinker and bait, which may add as much as a pound or more. This is not the arena for light spinning tackle. Thirty- to 50-pound monofilament or the newer super-braids are the standard lines, the latter offering extra sensitivity to help determine a strike from the sinker merely hitting bottom. Usually a 3/0 or 4/0 reel is chosen, along with a rod comparable to a 30- or 50-pound-class trolling blank.

Some anglers favor circle hooks in the 5/0 to 8/0 range, while others like a turned-up-eye offset version of a live-bait hook.

Perhaps the most widely used bait today is the live eel. Normally associated with night-fishing, a live eel will nevertheless fool fish right in the middle of the day, though you increase the risk of having a bluefish intercept it at such times.

Most anglers run the hook through the bottom jaw of the eel, bringing it out the top of the head. The skull bone locks the hook in place and keeps bass from ripping the bait off the hook should a strike be missed. (It pays to keep a coarse rag on board to grab the slippery eels out of the five-gallon bucket used to tote them from bait shop to boat.)

Besides live eels, some striper anglers also three-way such live baits as bunker, river or sea herring, and hickory shad, some over 12 inches long. Other anglers favor a single 1/0 treble hook in the nose of the bait, while others use two trebles connected with piece of wire to catch blues or short strikers. One treble is placed solidly in the bait's nose, while the second is lightly hooked behind the dorsal.

The standard arena for three-waying is a reef, an underwater hill where the bottom rises from, let's say, 50 to 30 feet. The tide flows up this hill, carrying a meal to stripers or blues that have taken up feeding stations just at the crest of the peak, at a point where they can see what the tide brings them yet not have to expend energy to buck the flow. The rip line marks the approximate high point.

Once you have a target location identified, motor uptide from a point on a reef where you think a bass may be waiting. At the appropriate point upcurrent, take the boat out of gear, drop the rig to the bottom and then drift back to the apex of the hill.

Watch your fish-finder, GPS or Loran, or ranges onshore, for reference points when you hook a fish. Repeat the same drift time and time again, keeping your bait in the payoff zone as much as possible. If getting land ranges is new to you, one easier method would be to jot down the GPS or Loran numbers where you start a drift. Next time, motor back to the spot and then drop the rig to the bottom. As long as the tide and wind remain the same, you have a good chance of repeating the same drift. If your boat has a good chart plotter, you can just reset the boat position and see if your drifts follow the same successful line.

As you drift along, you will develop a fee

l for the sinker hitting the rocky bottom as the boat moves along the underwater rise. If you hit a rock or the bottom, take a full turn on the reel. This keeps snags to a minimum, but in craggy-bottom areas expect to lose gear - it's part of the game.

Some anglers offset this a bit by using lighter line to attach the sinker. When the rig fouls, they merely break it off, losing only the relatively inexpensive weight, not the rig. Other anglers get their rigs back by running back upcurrent - in the opposite direction from where they were headed when the rig fetched up in the rocks. By pulling from the opposite direction, they can often pull the sinker free from between the rocks.

On some rips, hits will come as the bait nears the rip, while on others you will find stripers lying behind. You can get to those fish by taking the reel out of gear and dropping your bait back down. Be ready to strike, because hungry fish sometimes hit as soon as the juicy eel or bunker comes into their line of sight. Knowing which rips produce best (either up or down from the peak) is something that must be learned from time spent on the water.

While reefs are the primary spots for three-waying, the method is also successful in the deeper inlets, especially when they are quiet and empty of boat traffic. In these places, drift large, tempting baits close to the base of the rocks that make up the jetties bordering either side of the outlet.

Places like deep inlets or breachways have been the scene of some good catches of large bass at night with the help of a three-way rig. Imagine a 45-pound striper poking about the base of the stones in 30 feet of water when along comes a 1-pound bunker, struggling to get free! That's the beauty of the three-way method: It delivers a large meal right to the doorstep of fish that normally spend most of their lives in deep water. For every 40-pound striper caught on a popping plug in the surf, hundreds more are landed by anglers fishing deep.

Bucktails drifted at night have accounted for many bass over 50 and even over 60 pounds over the years.

* * *
Try the three-way method in your local waters this season. Maybe you won't equal the results of Sherwood Lincoln, but few methods are as deadly.

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