Waterdogs are a deadly livebait for bass, particularly trophy-size bass. Although no scientific evidence indicates that bass hate “dogs”or strike them out of anger or as a nest-protecting instinct, they’re incredible baits, attracting strikes throughout the year.
Waterdogs seem particularly effective on spawning bass; bedding males will remove them from their nest time after time. Spawning females eat them on sight.
Waterdogs wiggle and swim attractively when healthy, and they’re soft, easily swallowed, and apparently tasty as far as bass are concerned. As a result, they also catch bass in cover and on deep structure.
What’s A Waterdog
“Waterdog” is a common name for the aquatic larva of the tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), a large North American salamander. Their name is well deserved. Originally named for the tigerlike stripes often seen on the skin of adults, the name also applies to the appetite of larvae. Ounce for ounce, they’re as voracious as any critter in freshwater.
Adult tiger salamanders burrow underground, but like most amphibians, they return to water to lay eggs. Tiger salamanders and some close relatives spawn in ponds in early spring. They lay eggs in jelly masses attached to twigs and plants.
Tiger salamander eggs hatch in about two weeks. Larvae first gorge on water fleas, then turn to larger invertebrates and small fish. They grow rapidly to several inches. Bait dealers sell larvae in the 4- to 8-inch range.
Waterdogs generally metamorphose during summer, transforming into adults that live on land. The main change is the loss of external gills that stick out like feathery plumes. Other changes in the skin let adult salamanders live in moist ground without shriveling. Although not much is known about these skin changes, they probably are of practical importance to anglers, because adult tiger salamanders are a less effective bait than aquatic larvae. The reason for these changes in their attraction to fish likely relates to the production of mucous compounds that help protect the skin.
The life history of tiger salamanders in various parts of the country varies. Some larvae do not metamorphose during the first summer, but remain in the larval state throughout the first winter. These larvae often grow to over 8 inches and may turn up in bait stores as “giant” waterdogs in spring. In some areas in the West, waterdogs never undergo metamorporsis, but become sexually mature without turning into land-form adults.
Despite stories of their appetite and viciousness, waterdogs are harmless to humans. They have no teeth, spines, or poisons. Their slippery skin and ability to wiggle make them hard to hold. Wrap your four fingers around the waterdog’s body and place your thumb firmly, but gently, beneath its chin. In addition to being effective, this holding method also keeps the animal relatively quite.
Any heavy to medium to medium-heavy pitching or flipping baitcasting rod and reel will do. I prefer a Shimano Castaic reel as its Instagage clutch enables me to immediately release line when bass take a pitched waterdog as soon as it hits the surface. It also lets me readily engage and disengage the spool during slow retrieves. I’ve taken many lunker bass that hit immediately when I pitched a dog into a cedar tree tangle. Like using a jig in heavy cover, it’s necessary to get the bass’s head up immediately or lose it.
For either pitching or drift-trolling or “strolling,” a strong braid or super braid like Lynch Line or FireLine works well. I use a 20- to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader with these lines. At least a 30-pound line and 20-pound leader is necessary to consistently move bigger bass out of cover when pitching, and the no-stretch nature of these lines becomes critical when strolling.
In heavily pressured waters like Lake Fork in Texas, where many bass have been caught and released several times, boat movement, sonar, and electric motors seem to alarm some bass and limit strikes. Long pitches help, even if bass are inside cover.
Baits must be strolled 50 yards or more behind a boat for best results. Bass seem to need time to recover from the passage of the boat, even in water 20 feet deep. With long lines out, superlines outperform monofilaments.
Puttin’ On The Dog
Over grass or in wood, a weedless rig is desirable. Use a worm hook size that matches the size of the bait. A 3/0 is fine for 6-inch dogs; a 4/0 for 8- to 10-inchers; and 5/0 or larger is best with jumbo dogs if you’re hunting trophies.
Five-pound bass easily inhale 10-inch waterdogs. Theoretically, a 14-pounder might crave a dog about 14 inches long, but you won’t catch many 6-pounders. Moreover, extra-large dogs are difficult to pitch. They hit the water too hard, splash excessively, and die quickly.
To make my rigs weedless, I use True-Turn EZ-Link hooks—a hook with a wire coil to attach plastics—sharpened with a Point Maker. Any sharp hook with a wire coil should work. The coil allows for replacing the worm without removing the dog.
Any standard Z-bend worm hook could be used, but they tear up worm heads, and baits can be injured if they must be removed to replace a damaged worm. Another option many waterdog anglers use is a hook with a wire weedguard like a Strike King “Porko” hook, forsaking the worm. These hooks work fine when casting dogs from an anchored boat, but I’ve found them less snagproof than worm-hook rigs when pitching or strolling.
To use a worm hook with a wire coil, first screw the head of the plastic bait (worm, lizard, or crawfish) onto the coil, as if you were going to fish the plastic bait by itself. Then pin the dog on the hook, going up through the lower jaw just behind the lips-jaw bones and out through the top of the nose. Center the hook so the dog will not spin on the retrieve, but don’t go too far back into the head.
If the hook goes between the eyes of the dog, it hits the brain, and the dog dies. Once the dog is on the hook, put the body of the worm over the barb, just like a standard Texas-rigged worm. Skin-hook to minimize strike resistance. This weedless rig can be pitched into heavy cover or dragged through hydrilla patches.
I generally use 4-inch finesse worms. But lunker expert John Hope favors an 8-inch lizard, often as long as his baits. My view is that the plastic bait is merely a weedguard. Hope uses them as attractors to add flash and color. Your choice.
Unless you’re at short flipping range, strike hard with this weedless rig, as if you were using a worm or jig. Strike even harder if you opt to use large soft plastic baits while long-line strolling. But be sure it’s a fish. A hard hookset without a bass on often pulls the hook out of the dog.
For pitching and strolling, I use 1/8-ounce bullet weights pegged to the line at the hook to minimize snags. As long as my dogs have strength to swim downward, I don’t need heavier sinkers. A healthy dog will swim to the bottom through heavy cover once the sinker turns its nose down, so you can fish in 30 feet of water with a light sinker.
When anchored in fairly open areas, split-shot rigs and even Carolina rigs with 3/4- and 1-ounce sinkers also work well. The line should slide through, not be tied to a heavy Carolina rig sinker so bass don’t have to pick up the weight. Don’t add a bead for noise, as shaking the rig will hasten the death or loss of these expensive baits.
Circle hooks can be substituted for weedless worm hooks in fairly open water, but resist the impulse to set the hook. Instead, merely engage the reel and start reeling after a strike. With circle hooks, you needn’t hurry the set; you can even put your baited rod down and eat lunch. Circle hooks have a nearly 100-percent hook-strike ratio and almost always hook bass in the corner of the mouth.
Bass can be released in good condition, unharmed by deeply-taken baits. I’ve been testing circle hooks at Lake Fork, and they work as advertised in open water. But they hang in vegetation and easily snag in brush and timber, of which Fork has a more than ample supply. Thus, I continue to use and recommended conventional worm hooks in most circumstances.
Waterdogs cost $1.50 apiece in some areas. Hard landings on the water quickly immobilize dogs, making them much less attractive. They can be cast as well as pitched to likely areas, but repeated casts kill them faster than soft pitches or strolling.
In thick cover, allow the dog to swim down to the bottom. If bass are active and striking well, only about a 10-second pause is needed before the dog is retrieved and pitched to another spot. If the bite seems slow, let the dog stay in place for a minute or two. But move it every few seconds so it doesn’t bury in cover.
In open areas over humps and other structures where bass are known to congregate, the best approach may be to anchor and cast. Baits may be left to swim by themselves or crawl on the bottom. But immobile baits on the bottom tend to increase the catfish catch, and dogs will hide under bottom snags if they can.
A slow retrieve, just a few inches at a time, keeps a dog exposed and usually attracts more strikes. By periodically moving a dog forward, it remains attractive to bass. When bass approach, a lively dog often tries to escape, signaling that a bass is near by moving and jerking the line. This helps the angler prepare for a pickup.
Dogs last longest if cast and slowly trolled. Small baits, under about 7 inches, die rapidly if repeatedly cast or pitched. Dogs work extremely well when pitched into cedar trees, button-bushes, and willow roots, but as soon as they stop actively swimming downward they lose their effectiveness in heavy cover. Replace any dog that can no longer swim on its own when pitching or strolling because the swimming motion draws strikes.
A dog that still crawls and moves its tail can continue to work in slower presentations over structure. The angler casts the dog out, then reels to cover water, so it’s less important for the dog to move by itself. Remove dogs weakened by pitching or strolling and return them to the baitwell for later use while anchored.
I prefer to keep my reel in free spool with my thumb on the line whenever I’m not actively reeling. Although I want to strike immediately upon a hit, I also want enough give in the line so a bass can fully inhale the waterdog. While you’re strolling, bass often swim after the bait and overtake it, and they usually engulf the entire bait, so fish can be hooked with the reel in gear.
Slower bottom presentations with the line tight may encourage a bass to bite rather than engulf a bait. In such cases, they need a few inches of slack line to fully get the bait into their mouths.
If you feel strikes, miss hooksets, and then find the tail of the dog missing when retrieved, go elsewhere. You’ve likely found a concentration of small catfish. A missed bass either pulls the bait off the hook or you get it back with multiple tears on its body.
Dogs are usually swallowed by bass almost immediately, faster than a tasty soft plastic. Don’t let bass “take” the waterdog. Bass usually have dogs well inside their mouths by the time an angler can react to the strike. Any delay likely results in a deeply-hooked and severely injured bass.
These baits require particular attention by anglers. When using them with conventional hooks, keep the rod always in hand and strike immediately when you detect a hit. Unless all hooked bass are to be harvested, don’t put down the rod or use more than one rod at a time. Not following these guidelines can injure or kill many fine bass.
I made one trip when strong strikes on dogs were the exception, however. That night, the bass merely inhaled a dog without moving away. The only clue to a hit was a buzzy feeling that revealed a bass had the dog in its throat and was grinding it to kill it. I hooked several bass too deeply for a healthy release before I figured out what was happening. Dogs must be constantly monitored.
Used properly, waterdogs can be one of the most effective livebaits for bass. With circle hooks, they can be an important tool for making the first trip of children and other novice anglers successful and memorable. But, it’s vital that waterdogs be carefully used to avoid unnecessarily harming released fish.
A strong anti-waterdog, anti-livebait movement is growing on waters like Lake Fork where sportsmen see bait fishermen injuring and then throwing back bass protected by special-limits to die later. Livebait eventually could be prohibited on special-limit waters if bait anglers fail to use their baits carefully.