In baseball, it’s the bullpen ace. In football, it’s the backup quarterback. When the game’s on the line, when all else seems to fail, get on the horn and haul the heat out of the pen.
In fishing, it’s the livebait box. When the day seems lost, hail the baitwell and get a topnotch reliever on the line. Even for smallmouth bass. Tournament fishing has created a bass-equals-artificials psyche across the country. Which is fine.
Artificials work best at least half the time, which leaves half the time when artificials don’t work so well. Why keep the best players on the bench? Well, sure, sometimes you just prefer to fish with artificials. But not me, when the bite goes bad.
Finding bass is one thing. In my mind, nothing beats suspending minnows, tubes, cranks, spinnerbaits, or hair jigs for active smallmouths. When location is wired, when bass are working classic spots and feeding heavily but suddenly turn off because of a change of weather or heavy pressure, working those same spots with bait often transforms a nonbite into a bite, sometimes a good one.
Many experts who fish for smallmouths in rivers, reservoirs, or the Great Lakes, tend to fish unadorned baits. No spinners, no frills, just the right hook and a fresh lively bait. But rigging, bait choice, and nit-picky details involving hook style and leader length demonstrate creative adaptations to specific local environments. Different baits work better in different waters for many reasons.
The anglers here depend on artificials most of the time, switching to livebait when the situation demands. An old In-Fisherman credo: Be good at many things rather than master of one. Those who develop a feel for both livebait and artificials, who know when to choose which, tend to be the best all-around fishermen on any system.
Jeff Snyder—Big-Water Bass
On Lake Erie, Jeff Snyder has seen and done it all. His 23 bass tournament victories (maybe 24—he lost count) are tops on the big lake. Along the way, he amassed impressive records for things like the largest smallmouth ever weighed in an Erie bass tournament (6.83 pounds), the biggest 6-fish stringer (35.4 pounds), and the biggest 10-fish stringer (57.1 pounds).
“I use artificials 80-percent of the time,” Snyder admits. “I use livebait when I have to, and livebait’s been working this year. It’s a dirty-water year, because of constant high winds. Smallies are sight feeders, but in cloudy water, the added attraction of livebait really helps. Smell, taste, vibrations, and time to find and scrutinize work in conjunction to outproduce the varied cues of artificials. I think livebait produces high-frequency sounds that we can’t hear but that fish pick up.”
Snyder uses minnows all year for smallmouths, even during the cold months. Early in the year, he collects his own emerald shiners. “We use throw nets in spring,” Snyder says. “But they move down to 20 feet or deeper right after spawning in late May, which makes throwing nets on ‘em difficult. By June, we switch to golden or pit shiners from local pits. On Erie, procuring bait from the system isn’t necessary. I net my own in the 5- to 7-inch range. Commercial bait operations rarely supply anything over 3 inches. Bigger fish (especially for 5- to 7-pound-class smallmouths) require bigger baits.”
Experts from other fisheries relate how other baits are better in their waters, but minnows are the key bait on Erie. “Smallmouths have so many forage options here—shad, alewives, shiners, smelt, even gobies—that they seem to feed opportunistically on whatever comes along,” Snyder says. “Bass take shiners well, especially baits in the 5- to 7-inch range. And bigger baits definitely keep sheepshead off the hook.
“Second, the smallmouths, being so abundant, always are in a competitive mode. Always. A bad day on Erie is 25 bass. I prefer to use emerald shiners, natives to the system. I match what bass are feeding on when I can, but it’s not critical. Smallmouths are so competitive and opportunistic here that they take the first lively shiner dropped on ‘em.
“I can use big minnows to catch smallmouths under any conditions,” Snyder continued. “I caught smallmouths last year two days before Christmas in 38°F water with 6-inch shiners. Big minnows not only target bigger bass and deter sheepshead, but they also appeal to razor-sharp competitive reflexes.
“Rigging depends on how and when I’m fishing,” Snyder says. “Most of the time it’s windy, and most of the time bass are on rocks, two situations that call for slinky or sand-bag rigging. Slinky rigs are by far the best system for presenting livebait on Erie. A slinky refuses to snag in rocks. I go a size heavier because a hard sinker is compact, while the slinky is spread out. To get the same feel, I use a 1/2-ounce sand bag where I’d use a 3/8-ounce bottom bouncer. A slinky is so much more snag resistant than a bottom bouncer, though.”
A slinky is buck shot inside a short length of parachute chord that is heat sealed at the ends. The nylon sleeve seldom catches on rock. Several companies make slinkys, but Snyder prefers the What A Drag by Inspiration Lures (919/362-3993), or the Sand Bag by Scott Eno Tackle Company (315/625-4064).
Snyder slides the slinky on the line with one bead on each side, then ties on a #3 barrel swivel and ties a leader to that, ending in a #4 VMC octopus hook and a lip-hooked shiner. “Leader length depends on how far off bottom the fish are,” he says. “However far bass are off bottom, I multiply by two. If sonar shows them three feet off bottom, I use a 6-foot leader, and so on. I use 8-pound green Berkley XT about 99 percent of the time. I think line color makes a difference, and since Erie is green, the line melts right in.”
Snyder likes to drift the slinky rig, targeting a distinct side of structure. “Smallmouths are drawn to the upwind side of reefs, humps, and shorelines,” he says. “I use my trolling motor and two depthfinders (front and back) and keep working at a specific depth. If I catch one at 26 feet, I don’t waste time over 25 or 27 feet. Smallmouths in Erie tend to feed at a precise depth. Get sloppy and your catch rate drops.”
If smallmouths are more than four feet off bottom, Snyder switches to a slipfloat rig. “When bass are way off bottom or if there’s no wind, I get precise about placement with slipfloats. I put a couple split shot three feet above a shiner hooked in the back right behind the dorsal, so he swims in a circle. I get better hookups that way, too, using the same #4 octopus hook. I need a big enough float to hold the minnow up, but I don’t want a lot of resistance, so I use pencil-shaped slipfloats.”
Bait fishing isn’t a seasonal thing, Snyder says. “It’s condition dependent. I fish bait in dirty water. A guy using tubes or grubs will outfish two bait rods some days on Erie, but not in dirty water or on flat days with bright sun. In tough conditions and when the water’s cloudy, bait beats artificials.
“I use baitcasting gear. I think I have more control over my line and the fish. Lamiglas just introduced two rods, the XDC 703 (7 foot) and 763 (71⁄2 foot) I designed specifically for this. With lighter line, a long rod produces better hooksets by taking up stretch. Plus, the bass can’t jump and wrench free as easily. A long, limber-tipped rod keeps me tight to the fish. I also like the Abu Garcia VC4600C reel.”
With apologies to Berkley, Snyder calls shiners nature’s Power Bait.
Joe Monteleone—The River Connection
Joe Monteleone has smallmouths over 7 pounds to his credit. Featured in several past In-Fisherman articles about smallmouths, Monteleone is a respected source on tactics that produce big fish. He often uses big livebaits.
“The bigger the better,” he admits. “I’ve never seen a creek minnow I thought was too big, because I’m after giant bass. I caught two smallies over 7 pounds one day while drifting 7-inch creek minnows.”
Although Monteleone calls them “creek minnows” because he gathers them from the tributaries of rivers he fishes, they are large silver shiners. “I use the biggest creek minnows I can seine, or sometimes I use minnow traps in creeks from the same system I’m fishing. I think indigenous baits outfish generic bait-shop minnows. River smallmouths slam indigenous baits when they seem cautious with generic baits.”
Monteleone lives in Tennessee, a Mecca for outsize bronzebacks. He spends most of his time hunting overlooked trophies in small to large river systems, and he throws lots of artificials from spring through fall. “I fish big minnows during the winter, when the water’s below 60°F. Or in summer when the water’s low and clear, and fishing’s tough. The best time to go livebait fishing is in clear water under a clear sky with bright sun and no wind. Tough conditions.”
“Indigenous minnows are fairly hearty,” Monteleone adds. “I can keep them alive longer in summer, though sometimes I use crayfish. Keeping bait alive on the hook is critical, too. The life expectancy of a minnow is cut in half by casting.
Better to troll or drift most of the time. I use no weight unless I need to use a 1/8-ounce cone sinker ahead of a swivel to keep a bait down in heavier current. I hook a minnow through both lips to keep it from drowning too quickly. And always moving with the current helps..
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