On Priest w/ Lebanon's Chuck Campbell
The silver jig disappeared into the dark-green depths of Percy Priest lake, plunging down, down, down.
At 35 feet I clicked the bail on my spinning reel and began bringing up the weighted jig with a series of jerks and jiggles.
At about 20 feet it snagged a freight train headed south.
The rod bent double and line screamed off the reel.
In the front of the boat Chuck Campbell dropped his rod and scrambled for the landing net.
After an arm-cramping battle of several minutes, I brought the big, striped-sided fish alongside the boat and Chuck scooped it aboard. He reckoned it would go four-five pounds.
I sat down for a breather and a Gatorade while Chuck checked the electronic graph. He reported more hybrids lurking below a wad of baitfish.
He lowered his jigging spoon down and began, well, jigging.
Minutes later another powerful hybrid tried to take his rod away. My turn with the net.
Chuck, a retired Lebanon pharmacist, and I were having a busy summer morning on Priest, jigging for hybrids the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency stocks by the thousands.
Catching hybrids is part hunting and part fishing. To catch them you first have to find them, and during the sweltering days of summer that’s a challenge. Around dawn they sometimes surface, but they don’t tarry long before they go deep.
Deep, as 30-40 feet, sometimes deeper.
To get down where the fish are requires a heavy lure or weighted bait. Chuck, a hybrid-catching maestro, has it down to a science.
He has an edge, because over the years he has learned the general areas of the lake where the fish hang out at various times. He approaches a spot, then uses a complicated electronic sonar system that looks like a NASA lunar tracker to locate schools of bait-fish down below.
Find the bait, find the hybrids.
Drop a weighted spoon down below the school of bait and jig it up a few feet. Let it flutter back down – like a wounded minnow – and jig it up again. Keep a tight grip on the rod – no fish fights harder than hybrids.
The limit is two per day. Chuck releases his. I eat mine.
Anyone who says hybrids and mid-sized rockfish aren’t tasty has never grilled one on the barbie or – as I do – baked one in an oven swimming in melted butter with a dash of lemon pepper.
The key is preparation. Slice the reddish-brown membrane from the fillet (same goes for white bass) and soak in salt water. Some use buttermilk. Carve the fillet into inch-thick chunks and bake. Some use commercial batter; I keep it simple with butter.
Don’t over-cook. I give mine about five minutes. When they’re flaky they’re done.
It’s fun to jig up supper.