I was somewhat surprised to see my photo in the most recent issue of In-Fisherman magazine. It had slipped my mind that I’d contributed to a piece on big bass fishing with shiners, so I was naturally excited to read the article and prove to my wife that I still had it.
Steve Quinn wrote the tell-all. Easily one of the best bass writers of all time, I spent a few days in the boat with Steve back in my big-water days; a long-lasting friendship being the result. Since then, we’ve collaborated on a number of off-the-wall topics surrounding bass fishing, most often the types you won’t read about elsewhere.
This one was a case in point. Fishing with wild river shiners is a decades-old tradition across Florida and the Deep South, and numerous articles have been written about the techniques involved. This one was a bit different, however, as I explained to Quinn the hypnotic powers properly cared-for shiners have over the biggest bass in the world, and how to acquire the ultimate baits.
Such brings up a conversation that, somehow, I don’t think we’ve ever covered here on the Bass War. Now I don’t want to bore you with novel topics or get started in a holier-than-thou conversation, but I wonder, how many of you fished, or continue to fish, with live bait for bass?
The topic is one we’ve heard little about recently, but has repeatedly popped up across our sport from time to time. From shiners and shad to hellgrammites and mud puppies. And who could forget the crawfish revolution that occurred in the early '90s, when guys like Dan Kadota and Bob Crupi challenged the world record on a weekly basis with precise presentations in the deepest of waters?
The world record itself was, in fact, caught on a live bait. Sure, the recognized champion caught by George Perry was taken on a plug, but an even bigger fish – the 22-05 behemoth taken in Japan and sharing Perry’s title – was reportedly caught on a live bluegill.
Even still, live bait often gets a bad rap. First off, it’s incorrectly assumed that little or no skill is involved in this type of fishing, and that the bait itself does all the work. Nothing could be further from the truth, as anyone who’s ever watched a good shiner fisherman coerce a 3/4-pound baitfish up under a floating mat of pennywort can confirm.
Furthermore, consider our previous example. In the early days of California’s big bass boom, the best anglers could routinely place a three-inch crawfish on a table-top sized rockpile in 50 feet of water, with little or no weight. In fact, they could actually “walk” the crayfish into the strike zone. Skill? I’d say so.
My affinity for live bait fishing comes from two sources. First off, shiner fishing in Florida allows me to pursue fish in cover so incredibly thick, it’s impossible to fish with any other method. Save your rebuttal regarding punch weights and the like. Here, we’re talking stuff so thick, 10-foot alligators walk on it.
Secondly, live bait fishing is incredibly exciting, often more so than fishing with lures. Think about it this way: imagine your lure could see, and every time a big bass chased it, it tried to get away. This game of cat and mouse is immediately telegraphed to the angler, creating an excitement like few others in fishing. And the harder the bait tries to escape, the more the bass tries to kill it. I’ve seen shiners jump out of the water numerous times, landing on the top of a mat or even the shoreline, in order to avoid getting eaten by a giant bass.
But what about conservation, you ask. Don’t live baits often result in deeply hooked fish, left to die after having their guts ripped out?
Truthfully, they may. But the circle hook revolution is changing that. Nearly all of my live bait fishing, from grouper to redfish, sailfish to bass, is done with a form of circle hook. My preferred shiner hook is one custom-made from an octopus-style, featuring a rounded point, allowing most fish to be hooked in the lip and the others to be easily removed with long-nosed pliers.
Compare this to the gut-hook marathon going on across many smallmouth fisheries each spring, when dozens of fish are killed by anglers using Senkos and tubes, both loaded with salt and immediately swallowed up by pre-spawn cruisers. There, a high percentage of fish are casualties.
Finally, live bait fishing puts an angler better in touch with the resource and the environment, and at times shows us potential that we never knew existed. Back when I was a kid, I loved collecting big creek chubs for use in fishing beneath boat docks while on summer vacation. Wading the shallow waters, friends and I could often catch five, six, even 10 or more bass from beneath a single dock while using these baits. Later, such success encouraged me to slow down and soak these areas while lure fishing, often resulting in multiple catches throughout the day.
So, if you haven’t lately, consider live bait fishing for bass; you’re sure to learn something. In my case, that’s always the goal.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)