Kentucky's 2007 Hybrid Forecast

Here's the latest on our state's growing hybrid fishery, with waters like the Ohio River, Barren River Lake and others that you should try. Is one near you? (May 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Most Kentucky anglers would probably agree that throughout the Commonwealth, hybrid striped bass are what you'd call an "obscure" species. After all, hybrid stripers rank a ways down the list in terms of angler interest -- behind largemouth, crappie, catfish and bluegill.

Yet according to fisheries biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), the hybrid striped bass is a species that has a lot of appeal -- both to people who like to fish and in some cases, the biologists who are working to improve the health of all game fish species.

Recent collected data has given some indication that when hybrid stripers are stocked in certain environments, establishing that new fishery can help improve the quality of fishing for other game species too.

Kentucky's state-owned hatcheries produce nearly 600,000 hybrid striped bass each year, which generally have been released into about six waterways. This year, a couple of other new fisheries will likely be started.

These opportunities to find hybrids aren't being expanded simply to give anglers more to go after, though that's a darn good reason. The effort is also as part of some ongoing research conducted by KDFWR biologists.

"We originally began the hybrid program where it was feasible for a couple of reasons," said KDFWR Fisheries Director Benjy Kinman.

"In some of our lakes, white bass had taken a nosedive," Kinman said. "They tend to be extremely cyclic in natural reproduction. We felt a good remedy would be to substitute a hybrid fishery instead, through ongoing stocking.

"That both eliminated the bulk of the problem with up-and-down reproduction, and provided a fish that was a fast-grower, hard fighter and could potentially get a lot bigger than a pure white bass."

In other waters where hybrids now roam, the reason to create a fishery was a little different.

"In some spots, especially our smaller-sized lakes, we realized that some had a surplus of larger shad in the forage base," said Kinman.

"For all intents and purposes, this segment of bigger baitfish wasn't benefiting the majority of the largemouth and crappie, because they were too big for most of the predators to eat. Maybe a 20-inch-plus bass could handle a 5- or 6-inch shad, but that was about it.

"It's actually one of the reasons why we don't want shad in our smaller public lakes. Yet we can't go in and eradicate all the big shad that are already there. So we've taken a different route in some lakes of 300 acres or better where we believe a hybrid fishery can make it," said the biologist.

"We decided hybrids would be a good choice to reduce the otherwise underutilized big shad -- and within just a couple of years after stocking, develop another fishing opportunity for a really exciting fish to catch."

Hybrids are an open-water strain that can attain weights of over 20 pounds. Fish of that size have a voracious appetite, and also have the potential to trim big shad numbers down a bit. At the same time, hybrids don't compete much for space and food with other fish like bass and crappie. After all, bass and crappie relate to structure, often in shallow water, while hybrids prefer open-water environments.

Of the waters currently being stocked with hybrids, only one has struggled with getting off the ground: Guist Creek. Biologists are studying the reason why. Most of the other larger lakes and rivers -- including Barren River, Herrington and Fishtrap lakes, Rough River Lake and the Ohio River -- have generally done quite well as homes for hybrids. Perhaps Guist Creek at 300 acres is a tad too small.

The jury remains out for now.

"I've had more positive comments in recent months about the hybrid fishery we started in Rough River than any other fishery going out there -- and we have some really excellent fisheries available," said Kinman.

"I think hybrids have given anglers a quality mid-to-late summer fishing opportunity that otherwise wouldn't have been there. And the people out there giving it a try are cashing in. They're catching bigger fish. They can do it without having specialized equipment and extensive expertise to be successful during a time when some species aren't as easy to connect with," he said.

"Hybrid fishing isn't like fishing for stripers. You don't have to have downriggers and planer boards and that kind of tackle. You can catch them on bass-fishing gear, which most people already have. They can get them in the jumps, during spring runs, off points and channels at times, and while trolling out in open water," Kinman explained.

You might be wondering . . . if hybrids are so versatile and such great fighters, why doesn't the KDFWR stock those fish everywhere?

Not all lakes are suitable for every type of fish. The introduction of any species into any waterway always impacts on what's already there.

Biologists are extremely careful to minimize the chances of any stocking causing something negative to happen to other fisheries already present. Also, the characteristics of a species dictate whether it can thrive in a given type of aquatic environment. Therefore, you can't just put every fish in every waterway just because they all live in water.

Sounds logical? Sort of, but it's not that elementary by a long shot.

Of the best five hybrid spots right now, Rough River Lake seems to be getting a whole lot of attention. Through angler surveys, the agency records that only 10 to 15 percent of fishing trips are aimed primarily at hybrids. But other anglers fishing for something else are winding up with hybrids on the line, too.

Rough River doesn't have a white bass population, but hybrids behave much like white bass. In the case of Rough River, this is an example of substituting a more consistently sustainable fishery through stocking, rather than going back to restore or supplement a white bass fishery, which is so naturally sporadic.

Characteristically, hybrids tend to migrate downstream in greater numbers than white bass. This tends to set up an interesting situation in trying to manage the fishery. After all, more fis

h are going to be lost through the dams of lakes, or move into lower pools of rivers. Sometimes that makes it a little hard to follow how things are developing.

On the other hand, hybrids slipping out of a lake proper into a tailwater also sometimes afford anglers a new fishing opportunity below the dam -- and sometimes a great one.

Hybrids are an open-water strain that can attain weights of over 20 pounds. Fish of that size have a voracious appetite, and also have the potential to trim big shad numbers down a bit.

Mark Wilson's 1991 state-record hybrid was caught in the tailwaters. No doubt, a fish stocked in Barren River Lake went downstream and through the dam, and eventually grew to 20 pounds, 8 ounces before Wilson winched it in.

Barren's 10,000 acres at summer pool provides hybrids with plenty of room to roam. Conversely, when the lake is drawn down a great deal in winter, it puts hybrids in a smaller area with the big shad. This keeps hybrids in pretty good shape during the colder months -- and sustains a quality fishery. Easier food availability in winter generally means fish can feed with less effort. Their chances of survival are better when they don't have to range far and wide for meals.

Anglers can expect to catch mostly 10- to 12-pound hybrids in Barren, with an occasionally larger specimen thrown in. The bulk of the hybrid fisheries are giving up fish ranging from 4 to 8 pounds.

In the early years of the stocking program, when Barren, Herrington and a couple of other lakes were first chosen for this new species, KDFWR hatchery personnel captured and used female striped bass and male white bass to produce the hybrid stripers.

In more recent years, since female stripers are very difficult to come by for brood stock, the agency switched and began producing what they call a "recip" (short for reciprocal) cross, using eggs from female white bass and milt from male purebred stripers.

Biologists want to compare the two mixes to see if either one has better survival and growth potential than the other, and if so, to select the better one to use in stocking.

One other interesting fact they've discovered as well in this research is that hybrids are capable of reproducing, and perhaps crossbreeding with purebreds.

"It's a misconception that hybrids can't reproduce in the wild," said KDFWR Assistant Fisheries Director Gerry Buynak.

"Genetic studies we've had done show that the fish we're stocking are reproducing in a controlled hatchery environment," he said. "That probably means there's some natural reproduction happening from fish we've stocked in the wild, too."

Buynak says that another reason why hybrids are stocked instead of white bass -- besides the tendency of white bass reproduction to fluctuate so much -- is that whites are much harder to grow in a hatchery setting.

He adds that about the heaviest white bass you'll ever catch will weigh 5 pounds. Not surprisingly, the larger 15- to 20-pound trophy sizes that hybrids can reach are more attractive to anglers.

"Big fish are usually more fun to catch than little fish," he said.

Some of the best quality fishing -- and hottest hybrid action in Kentucky -- is on the Ohio River below the various dams. Buynak and Kinman both believe what data indicate, that hybrids tend to survive and grow better than the purebred striped bass also being stocked in the river.

"We put about five striped bass per acre in the Ohio pools," said Buynak. "And some of our research is showing that, depending on the conditions at the time we're ready to stock, that hybrids do better than striped bass."

Regardless of whether the water is high and turbid or quiet and clearer, hybrids basically survive. But striped bass fare noticeably worse in murky conditions.

Kentucky is actively working with other states in managing and providing hybrid stockings up and down the Ohio to keep the fishery robust so all bordering state's anglers can benefit.

"If you overlook the Ohio for hybrids, you really are missing a topnotch fishery right below the dams and even in the pools," said Buynak.

"We seeing good fish caught from one end to the other. And when conditions are right, from April through September, you can do pretty well with a little willingness to learn the water," he said.

Whether you're on the Ohio or on our final hotspot, Fishtrap Lake in Pike County, Buynak notes that hybrids are aggressive enough to be caught on both artificial lures and live bait. If you prefer straight-line fishing, dropping a chicken liver over the side along a river channel or off a deep point is a good bet.

If you're more a moving-target kind of angler, either casting when fish are in the jumps with spoons, trolling a shad-type crankbait, casting open shallow-water flats early and late with flashy metal lures -- all are proven hybrid-catching tactics.

The schooling characteristic of hybrids makes them an exciting and fast-action type of fishing experience. When you locate fish, just try to stay with them.

Look for signs of activity around schooling shad, or lots of surface disturbance near rocky banks and lake dam faces.

Look for signs of activity around schooling shad, or lots of surface disturbance near rocky banks and lake dam faces. In the tailwaters, drag a larger in-line spinner through gravelly bottoms. Or let a live bait drift down the current along the edge of running water.

In spring, go to the heads of creeks and up the headwaters of the main lake. Cast to shoreline cover or the channel until you find action.

Mostly it takes observation and a couple of trips to get familiar with how these fish move at different times of the year.

You can apply what works on one lake to most of the others.

We mentioned that for hybrids in the future, anglers may want to keep a couple of new spots in mind. So we want to make sure you know where those are. Last year, the KDFWR began releasing hybrids in portions of the Kentucky River, from pool 4 downstream to pool 9. The agency plans to continue with these stockings this year. Before long, anglers should start catching some pretty big fish.

From pool 4 upstream, the KDFWR is releasing white bass to see if they can restore a fishery that in recent times has all but disappeared. Biologists will monitor the progress of that effort to see if fishing can be improved in that section of the Kentucky River as well.

Starting this year, Lake Linville is finally on the list of stocking sites for hybrids. Remembe

r that these fish are less than 2 inches long when released, so it takes a while for them to get up to catchable size. Very rarely are fish reared to larger sizes before going into a waterway, unless special circumstances warrant that more expensive approach.

Hybrid fisheries in Kentucky aren't as numerous as those for crappie or bass. But regardless of which spot you choose, chances are one of these hotspots isn't too far from you.

You needn't go out and buy a whole bunch of new expensive stuff. Grab your bass gear, a couple of crankbaits, get on these lakes or the river and troll around until you hook up. Then you can go back and cast the spots, or drift-fish them with live bait in those holes or flats where you've found active fish.

"The last bit of advice I can give you is to have a good hold on your rod," said Kinman. "And don't get caught off guard, or your rod might fly right out of your hand and into the water. Hybrids hit hard and they pull hard, I promise you that."

Size and creel limits on hybrid striped bass vary from lake to lake, and are sometimes combined with limits on white bass and striped bass, if these species are all present in the same waterway.

Pick up a current copy of the Kentucky Sport Fishing and Boating Guide, available at all license vendors or from the agency's Web site at fw.ky.gov.

Anglers sometimes have a tough time determining the differences between hybrid stripers, stripers and white bass, especially in smaller-sized fish. A free fish identification guide is available from the KDFWR. And the species ID guide is also included in the regulation Guide noted above.

To receive information by mail, call the KDFWR Information Center, weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern, at 1-800-858-1549. Good luck and get fishing!

Find more about Kentucky fishing and hunting at: KentuckyGameandFish.com

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