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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Snyder uses minnows all year for smallmouths. Early in the year, he collects emerald shiners in throw nets. "Once they move down to 20 feet or deeper after spawning in late May they're difficult to catch," Snyder says. "By June, I switch to golden shiners from local pits. Procuring bait from the system isn't necessary at Erie, but the 3-inch shiners available from bait shops usually don't produce big fish. Baits from five to seven inches long are a better choice for smallies in the 5- to 7-pound range."
Genz also uses redtails throughout the season, from opening day in late May until he's ready to put his boat away and dig out his ice fishing gear. Snyder continues to use big minnows all winter. "I caught smallmouths a few years ago two days before Christmas in 38°F water on 6-inch shiners. Big minnows not only target bigger bass and deter other fish like sheepshead, but they also appeal to the competitive nature of smallmouths in lakes like Erie with an abundant smallmouth population.
"My rigging depends on how and when I'm fishing," Snyder adds. "Most of the time it's windy, and most of the time bass are on rocks, two situations that call for a slinky (a length of parachute cord filled with buck shot). 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, say a 1/2-ounce slinky instead of a 3/8-ounce bottom bouncer, because the weight is more spread out."
Snyder slides the slinky on the line with one bead on each side, then ties on a #3 barrel swivel and a leader. He adds a #4 VMC Octopus hook to the end of the leader and hooks a shiner through both lips. "Leader length depends on how far off bottom the fish are," he says. "I usually multiply the distance from bottom by two. So if sonar shows them three feet off bottom, I use a 6-foot leader, and so on. If the fish are more than about four feet off bottom, though, I use a slipfloat rig."
Genz meanwhile, uses the same rigging for minnows as he does for crawlers. He places the sinker on the main line anywhere from eight inches to two feet above the hook. "Sometimes it makes a difference," he says. "Most days I pinch the weight 18 inches to two feet up the line. But when smallmouths aren't in a mood to chase, I move the sinker close to the hook, which slows the presentation, giving a minnow less mobility while keeping it closer to the bottom."
A critical tool for both anglers is a long rod. Genz favors an 8-1/2-foot steelhead rod for fishing current, while Snyder uses a 7- or 7-1/2-foot baitcasting rod for rigging shiners. "Long rods keep more line off the water, offer a better feel for what the bait is doing, and absorb shock when a big smallmouth surges on a short line," Genz says. And whether you're dragging a shiner in 25 feet of water on Lake Erie or dropping a chub behind a boulder on the Mississippi River, a long rod allows you to reach most fish without casting.
When the water is as clear as it gets, when smallmouths are as tough as they get, Tim Horton becomes a bait fisherman. Horton isn't known for fishing with livebait. Quite the contrary. Having been recognized as the the BASS Angler of the Year, one might say Horton is best known for his prowess with artificials.
Horton lives near Pickwick Lake, the current smallmouth Mecca that straddles the border between Tennessee and Alabama. The fishing here can be fabulous--world-class for smallmouths, in particular. "But when it isn't, it isn't," Horton laughs. "Pickwick can be real tough. It's a riverine environment, and when they're (the TVA) not running water, it's tough to get a bite. At certain times of year, you can work artificials until you're blue in the face and come up empty handed. That's when I go bait fishing."
Horton gathers shad with a throw net. He runs a shoreline where the wind has been coming in, where hybrids, stripers or largemouths have pushed bait against the bank, and he looks for nervous water and jumping shad. His fully aerated, 50-gallon minnow tank is filled with nature's own--small gizzard and threadfin shad--in no time flat.
"They really seem to prefer the yellowtails," he says, referring to the threadfin, "possibly because they max out in growth at a size smallmouths can still forage on. Most of the yellowtails we catch are in that three-inch range, which is perfect for smallmouths." Gizzard shad, on the other hand, can grow out of the size range smallmouths prefer within a single year.
In late summer and early spring, smallmouth fishing can be really tough on Pickwick. They position fairly deep, on top of humps or rises in the channel bottom that top off somewhere between 18 and 24 feet. Watching his GPS, Horton pulls up to one such hump, tosses out a marker, and circles around. Downwind of the hump, he quickly grabs a threadfin, jumps to the trolling motor on the front deck, keeping the nose of the boat into the wind, and slips the point of his hook right through the bottom of one eye socket and out the other, without damaging the bait's eyes. "Never seems to slow them down too much, this way," he said. "The shad stays oriented in the direction of the drift and stays alive longer."
He starts letting out line until he ticks bottom and reels up a crank or two. "With the water low and clear, without any water running through the dam, I go with clear 8-pound Real Line down to a #2 baitholder hook or a Gamakatsu shiner-style hook," Horton says. He places a #2 split shot about 18 inches above the bait to keep it down. Bites tend to be aggressive from smallmouths anytime livebait is involved, but spooky or inactive fish just follow and close their mouths on the bait. He prefers spinning tackle and uses Pflueger gear.
The best rod for this technique is an 8- to 8-1/2-foot medium-light steelhead rod rated down to at least 6-pound test. With a subtle take, you can allow the fish to bend the tip much farther before alarming it. And, with the kind of bass you might find in Pickwick, an 8-foot rod is a blessing. The shorter the rod, the more pressure it puts on the line. Longer rods act like shock absorbers, and an 8-pound smallie can deliver a considerable amount of shock.
"When you feel a take, don't hesitate--just bury the hook fast," Horton advises. "When conditions are right on Pickwick, it's not unusual to land four or five fish over 6 pounds. For a really big smallmouth, in the 8- to 9-pound range, the drag has to be set perfectly, and knots have to be tied carefully. With 8-pound, you're pushing the envelope. You're going to lose a few, but you have a better chance of hooking bigger bass, which tend to be wary."
Proper presentation, including calculating speed to match natural movements, and allowing the bait to move freely and appear the same as it might if unattached to lines and sinkers is all part of the flair and artistry of livebait bassin', an art form all but forgotten in a world ruled by the artificial.
Catching Your Own
Catching bait in small streams is almost as much fun as catching smallmouths. Many anglers use seines, castnets, or minnow traps to catch baitfish, but chubs and shiners also can be caught on hook and line.
Most minnow catchers prefer a light-power spinning rod and matching reel spooled with 4-pound mono. Tie on a small ice jig and tip with maggots, a piece of worm, or an artificial offering like a Berkley Power Wiggler.
Fish the same kind of spots you would for river smallmouths: current breaks, current seams, and long runs with a gravel bottom. A trolling style minnow bucket secured to your waist with a rope holds the baitfish you catch.
Back at your vehicle, transfer the minnows to a larger baitwell with good aeration. A 48-quart cooler and a 12-volt air pump keeps enough bait for a day's fishing alive and healthy, even during summer.