Something like electricity moves up the line, humming through graphite to fingertips. Pause to make sure. Slowly lift the rod tip. She’s still there, chewing away on something real. She won’t drop it now. Drop the rod tip. Sinews tighten. The tip bows down again . . .
Something electric about livebait smallmouth bass techniques. Not just in the actual fishing. In the crudest sense, livebait fishing means stopping at the bait shop, filling a bucket or a cooler with things that swim or wiggle, making for the community hole, and propping a rod on a stick. That’s as much relaxation as fishing, which is just fine.
But the most voltage is generated by artistry in this endeavor. In the hands of an artist, livebait fishing is something else again. An artist gathers his own bait, with the same anticipation and excitement of bass fishing. The bait comes from the same environs as the ultimate quarry. Special care is taken to keep it fresh and lively.
When an artist presents livebait, he’s already immersed in the world of his quarry–in tune with their movements and reactions to things like wind, weather and time of day. The boat is perfectly positioned, or if on foot, the choicest spot determined through careful observation. Quiet is the rule. The cast is soft, the rod is long, the bait is set, the line is semi slack. He becomes a heron. Through movements hard to distinguish, he slowly manipulates the bait–chosen for this season, this month, this day, this moment.
Livebait fishermen like to fish alone. They make polite excuses, but you and I know we aren’t quiet enough. Last time we dropped a Pepsi can on the aluminum hull. And, uh, kicked a tackle box over on the way to the livewell after being debaited. Being debaited can be frustrating. But an artist takes it in stride. Because he knows there will be a next bite, and one after that, and so on ad-infinitum.
Livebait artists tend to like smallmouth bass a lot. Smallmouths come in packs. When the bite is on, it’s nonstop, in any environment they dwell in. Yet, every environment calls for its own approach. Here’s a look at the contrasts in styles between livebait artists North and South–and the reasons for contrast–in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs.
Nightcrawler Secrets–When Lake Michigan guide Tim Dawidiuk (920-746-9916) is under pressure to produce smallmouths, he depends on bait. “Smallmouths can’t resist a lively, twisting crawler,” he says. “They just can’t. When nothing else works, crawlers produce, even when smallmouths are inactive and stuffed with alewives. In fact, it’s the only bait that I know of that Lake Michigan smallmouths always bite, regardless of conditions.”
Summer and fall are key times for crawler fishing around Wisconsin’s Door County, an area surrounded by some of the world’s finest smallmouth fishing. “Alewives are a key forage here,” Dawidiuk says. “When alewives finish spawning and move out to deeper water, some smallies follow. Topwaters, minnowbaits, and spinnerbaits often work so well that it’s a waste of time to mess with bait. But when smallmouths congregate on structure and become more difficult to catch, I use crawlers.”
Dawidiuk’s clients pitch a jig-and-crawler combo to rocky points and bluff banks in 10 to 20 feet of water during summer and fall. Standard gear is a 6-1/2- to 7-foot medium-power spinning rod with a moderate action, and a medium-capacity reel spooled with 6- or 8-pound line. A tough line like Trilene XT or Big Game Inshore is more durable in the rocks, but Dawidiuk says line color doesn’t seem to matter when pitching bait.
“The real key is finding the right kind of rocky slope,” Dawidiuk says. “Combinations of various size boulders create lots of crevices and attract more smallmouths. Three or four points of shoreline bluffs might look identical, but only one will hold any number of fish. Even when smallmouths are keying on crayfish in the rocks, I think crawlers still work better. Bass will pick up either bait off the bottom, but they’ll usually rise up to meet a descending crawler.”
Ice fishing legend Dave Genz (320-203-1518) spends most of the summer guiding for smallmouths on the Mississippi River near his home in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Unlike Dawidiuk, Genz relies almost exclusively on livebait, especially with novice anglers in the boat. But he agrees that there’s something magic about fresh worms. “I prefer jumbo nightcrawlers from Vados Bait Express (866-584-3474) in Minneapolis,” Genz says. “A flat of jumbos contains about 200 crawlers, versus 500 ordinary worms.”
“I buy crawlers by the dozen then sort out the largest ones,” Dawidiuk adds. “I like the real long ones that stretch to 12 inches or so. I think they catch bigger fish, and they drop more slowly to the bottom. Bass usually look up, and this writhing, wiggly thing is just parachuting down on them. Most of the time, a crawler never reaches the bottom.”
Genz usually uses a sort of split-shot rig constructed with a #4 Eagle Claw L042 wide gap hook and a 3/8-ounce Water Gremlin Pinch-Grip sinker for fishing in current. Genz: “I’ve experimented with several hooking methods through the years–through the nose of the worm, through the collar, or threading the hook through the head–to find the most natural presentation. Most of the time, though, I just thread on as much of the crawler as will fit on the hook.”
Dawidiuk, meanwhile, usually presents crawlers on a 1/16-ounce jig with a wide-gap hook. If it’s windy, he might jump to a 1/4-ounce jig on 10-pound line, but a crawler is much less effective if it drops too fast. “I especially like the Bait Rigs Odd’ball or Northland Buck-Shot jigs, with a full crawler threaded on by the nose,” he says. “Smaller 1/16-ounce jigs are best for fishing deep-water points in summer and fall.”
Minnow Magic–As good as crawlers can be for river smallmouths, Genz usually spends a good portion of his fishing time in search of his favorite bait–redtail chubs. “The redtail is a river minnow,” Genz explains. “They know how to fight current, so they swim down to hide behind rocks, where smallmouths live. Many anglers believe that bait from the same water they’re fishing works best, and for good reason. The size, shape, color, and scent precisely match what the fish are accustomed to eating.
“With artificials,” Genz continues, “it’s necessary to select a lure that presents the right cues. You have to get into a smallmouth’s head and figure out what those cues are. That gets complicated. With redtail chubs, the right cues are built in. They’re river minnows. They know how to react in current. And when a smallmouth approaches, they twitch, dart, and dive into the rocks–the same reaction a smallmouth or any other predator expects to see.”
Veteran Lake Erie guide Jeff Snyder (330-830-2277) agrees that live minnows are tough to beat during tough bites. “I probably use artificials 80 percent of the time, but don’t hesitate to use bait when it produces more fish,” Snyder says. “Smallies are sight feeders, but in cloudy water, the added attraction of livebait helps fish key in on the bait. Smell, taste, vibration, and the ability to keep the bait in one spot works in conjunction to outproduce the varied cures of artificials.”
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