March 17, 2020
By Steve Quinn
“In the top Florida bass lakes, I’d bet over 80 percent of bass over 10 pounds are caught on live shiners,” says Captain Jamie Jackson, renowned guide on West Lake Tohopekaliga on the Kissimmee Chain. For anglers eager to head south in pursuit of lunkers, there’s no place like Florida during the winter months. I know because I’ve made the trip many times, and rarely come home disappointed. Shiner fishing has a long tradition there and has remained popular because it’s so effective. It’s also a lot of fun. All anglers love to watch a float wiggle, then plunge below the surface, whether what’s on the other end of the line is a crappie or a lunker bass. And the way bass sometimes play cat-and-mouse with their prey is a fascinating show in itself.
Captain Sean Rush represents the tradition of shiner fishing, while also bringing it up-to-date with equipment and techniques for habitats that are regularly shifting due to nature and human activity. His grandfather was a Florida bass guide and Rush learned the ways of water and fish from him, as well as other top guides. During the 1970s and 1980s, Rodman Reservoir, the St. Johns River, and lakes Orange and Lochloosa produced amazing fish and helped inspire his love of hunting big bass. At age-17, he started guiding on his own and has been at it for 30 years, now owner of Florida Bass Fishing Guide Service. He focuses on Rodman Reservoir near Ocala on the Ocklawaha River, occasionally visiting other top locations and fishing at least 300 days a year.
He’s lately gained notoriety for putting visiting anglers on many fish qualifying for the Florida Fish Commission’s TrophyCatch Big Fish Contest, including three that qualified for “Hall of Fame” status by exceeding 13 pounds, and the state’s biggest bass of 2013, just shy of 14 pounds. To fish the varying conditions, he uses two boats—a 23-foot aluminum War Eagle with a pair of big livewells to hold shiners, and an 18-foot custom-made Prodigy Mud Boat with an air-cooled Gator Tail Outboard, built to tackle the backcountry or reservoir drawdowns, which occur every three to four years on Rodman to control vegetation and the buildup of muck.
Captain Jamie Jackson centers his Orlando Bass Guide Service on the Kissimmee Chain, mostly West Tohopekaliga. He is owner of AJ’s Freelancer Guide Service, taking it over for famed guide Ed Chancey, who began guiding on Toho in 1960. Jackson has now been guiding for 35 years there, regularly putting clients on personal-best bass. He fishes artificials as well, but likes wild shiners for top-end fish.
Collection and Care of Bait
Another renowned bassman also has a passion for shiner fishing. Joe Balog gained fame for his smallmouth techniques, equipment modifications, and tournament victories on the Great Lakes while living in Ohio and Michigan. He’s since moved to Florida, now living in DeLand, near the banks of the St. Johns River. He traded his big Ranger Fisherman for a shallow-draft aluminum rig and has devoted his fishing time to largemouth bass in heavy vegetation.
“Origins of this move came years ago,“ Balog says, “as our family made fishing trips to Florida in the 1980s. It got in my blood and I began taking month-long forays there in the mid-1990s, then finally moved in 2015.” He’s a dedicated shiner man, as well as fishing artificial lures. “From fishing with guides years ago, I knew collecting and care of shiners was a large factor in success. The excitement of seeing a big bass stalk a shiner is dependent on having fresh and lively bait, as fish may ignore or toy with the half-dead shiners you often see being used down here. While guides sometimes have to rely on store-bought bait, I always collect and cure my own, so I know they’ll drive bass wild. Their look and vibration patterns are completely natural. And the more they struggle, the better bass like them.”
Like many others, Balog collects shiners with a cast net. “If you select areas carefully and bait them ahead of time, cast-netting is very effective,” he says. “I use a big cast net with a heavy lead-line to trap them efficiently. But netting incurs mortality. If I need some particularly healthy baits, I catch them with a rod and reel, using bread balls on tiny hooks. However you catch them, it’s a three-day process. You bait an area, then return and chum it to draw shiners closer, catch them, transfer them to tanks with cooled water and chemical treatments, and cure them. You want them to evacuate their intestines, which takes about a day and a half.”
To store baits, he has two tanks. “Longer tanks work better for shiners than round ones,” he says, “unlike tanks for baitfish like shad. The larger the area the better, but you only need about 18 inches of water in the tank. Shiners like to move laterally, but don’t need depth. For pumps, I’ve been using Frabill Aqua-Life units, which are about the size of a soda can. They’ve lasted for years and keep oxygen levels up.”
In his boat, he has a tank with a bubble pump and he adds ice and chemicals to reduce stress, especially in warmer weather. And, adding ice, he lowers its temperature as much as 20°F below ambient temperature. “That change doesn’t shock these shiners,” he says. “Colder water keeps them less active in the tank so they don’t bang around and get damaged. But they shoot off when you pitch them into the lake or river.”
Rush rigs shiners in three ways, depending on the type of habitat he’s fishing. In more open areas, such as edges of hydrilla beds, he hooks them on a 3/0 to 5/0 Eagle Claw 84 hook, set through the back, behind the dorsal fin, with a 2-inch styrofoam float set above. Hooked this way, shiners tend to swim upward and attract strikes from below. Around thicker mats of vegetation, he freelines them on a 4/0 hook placed just in front of the anal fin. This position keeps the hook from hanging up when the baitfish scoots back beneath the mat, and allows it free reign to try and escape from bass lurking there.
To cover edges of submergent or emergent vegetation, he sometimes trolls baits, hooking them through the lower lip and out a nostril, which keeps them upright as he slowly moves along cover. “Some days, bass tend to feed along edges, while other times they lurk way up underneath,” he says. “When getting a shiner into position, I give it an underhand lob, then quickly strip off several feet of line since shiners often bolt when they land. Softer landings obviously help keep baits healthy and active.”
For the heaviest cover, he breaks out an 8-foot, extra-heavy, long-handled Shield Rod from Rollie and Helen’s Musky Shop with a Shimano Tranx 300 reel. For lighter duty, 7-foot heavy Shimano Teramar rods work well, with Shimano Curado reels. For clients unfamiliar with baitcasting tackle, he carries 7-foot Star heavy-power Inshore Rods with Shimano Baitrunner 4000 reels, which make it easy to release line. He spools 20- and 25-pound Berkley Trilene Big Game in moss green.
Jackson generally uses a larger hook, a 6/0 Gamakatsu Kahle-style hook or a Matzuo shiner hook with a sickle design. “I’ve had smaller hooks bend out under heavy pressure from a big bass,” he says. “With the tackle we use, setting the hook usually isn’t a problem, though you may have to set hard and reel fast to get the stretch out of the mono if a bass is far from the boat.” Instead of the open hook he uses in pockets of hydrilla beds, he switches to a weedless one around maidencane, which has thick stalks and many shoots. He makes these hooks by soldering a piece of guitar string around the shank below the eye.
For fishing deep channel turns, such as on the St. Johns River or around deep brushpiles, Balog uses a weighted rig, consisting of a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce slipsinker. “I rig a heavy-duty swivel with a leader of 25-pound mono. I use my side-imaging to locate brushpiles and other deep cover, but bass aren’t always right in it. I’ve found them as much as 50 yards from cover, but still relating to it. These bass are the rulers of their domain.” For a floating rig, he uses a standard 2-inch styrofoam float, but colors it black, with just a chartreuse tip extending above the surface, to disguise it from fish but keep it visible.
Jackson recommends 7.5- to 8-foot flippin’ sticks matched with high-capacity, wide-spool baitcasters, such as the classic Abu Garcia Ambassador 6500C3, Shimano Catala 400, or similar bullet-proof models. He also favors Berkley Trilene Big Game, testing 25 or 30 pounds. “Big bass and no-stretch line can bring problems,” he says. “Hooks can rip loose or else bass can get slack line by running toward the boat or jumping, and they may throw the hook. Mono keeps steady pressure on a hooked bass and offers a degree of shock-resistance.” When fishing with the wind at his back, he coats the line with silicone to make it float, so it’s easier to watch multiple lines. But he wants it to sink if he’s fishing cross-wind, so he leaves it untreated.
For freelining shiners in heavy cover, Balog uses a heavy-power 7-foot 10-inch St. Croix Legend Tournament rod (model LBC710HF). “As soon as a bass strikes, let it peel off line, then set the hook and move them out of thick cover as fast as possible,” he says. “These rods are light for their size and durable. For trolling shiners along edges, I go longer with a St. Croix 8-foot Legend Tournament Musky rod. For freelining, I use heavy mono, as I’ve seen it outfish setups with braid by 10:1 in a number of strikes. But for trolling, I use a braid mainline and mono leader. The shiner may be far back when trolling, often over 75 feet, so reduced stretch helps to set the hook. For all applications, Balog uses a 6/0 custom hook made by trophy bass legend Porter Hall, who now lives in Florida.
Each lake presents somewhat different conditions, though in Florida, you can generally plan for a shallow bite, especially in later winter and spring. Floating vegetation is common, particularly water hyacinths, pennywort, water lettuce, American lotus, and lily pads. Bass also abide in thick beds of bulrushes in lakes such as Okeechobee, Kissimmee, and Toho, where maidencane stands can be productive as well. On Rodman, Rush notes that mats may float over water that’s 20 feet deep, though typically much shallower. With water in the 60°F and 70°F range, bass tend to be shallower during the spawning months, while they use deeper water in summer and winter.
On the St. Johns River, mats form on channel swings that have current, as well as in backwater bays, and bass like to lurk under all of them. “That’s the beauty of a live shiner.” Balog says. “They swim up underneath, getting into cover that can’t be fished with a lure. They do the work for you.”
When In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange first fished with Jackson while filming In-Fisherman television, he was alarmed to see that some big bass had swallowed shiners and were hooked in the esophagus. “The first time it happened,” Stange says, “I looked at Captain Jackson and asked about mortality, but he calmly took the fish, turned it over, and reached under its gill flap and popped the hook out, then released it in fine shape. In two days of fishing, we probably had 10 bass hooked deeply, yet we were able to release them all in good condition.
“Fears of killing bass may keep some anglers from fishing shiners or other livebaits for bass,” he says. “In some areas, there have even been efforts to ban certain livebaits. By studying this technique and doing it carefully, anglers can release deeply hooked bass. It was an important lesson, since the same method works on bass hooked deeply on softbaits. Contrary to common belief, the gills of bass are rather tough, though the gill filaments themselves are delicate and easily torn. How else could they engulf the big crawdads and spiny bullheads they commonly consume? If a bass is bleeding, get it back in the water quickly and it will clot and the fish heals. Jackson often recaptures distinctively marked bass that had been deep-hooked and released.”
While many guides and experts use a landing net, Rush leaves it behind. “We lip all our fish, since it prevents fish from tearing up their fins in the mesh,” he says. “And I insist that folks hold their bass with two hands, supporting the belly.”
While Florida is without a doubt “shiner central” for bass, similar tactics can work on other waterways as well, including some where reservoir structure replaces vegetation as the key to seasonal location. Careful collection and keeping of bait, and focus on releasing fish in a healthy state are cornerstones to one of the most productive and exciting ways to fish.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Quinn is a multispecies expert and longtime writer on bass topics for In-Fisherman publications. Contacts: Capt. Jamie Jackson, 800/738-8144, orlandobass.com; Capt. Sean Rush, 352/843-0939, floridatrophybass.com.