Live bait still the best bet for winter smallmouth bass
by LEE McCLELLAN
FRANKFORT - It is easy to lose your way with so many new technological advancements hitting the market in the fishing world each year. You want to try the new developments, presentations and techniques because you don’t want to fall behind.
You try new lures or presentations and eschew what’s worked countless times. Similar to when you learn to cook more exotic foods, you try to prepare something much more complicated, miss a step in the process and it turns out nasty. The not-quite-right meal makes you think a plain old pork roast with mashed potatoes, gravy, peas and a nice salad would have tasted much better than the gourmet mess you made that your dog won’t eat.
I had a similar experience last weekend. My old fishing buddy James Charas and I headed to Lake Cumberland in one of our annual winter trips for smallmouth bass. I came with two rods: one strung for fishing a big, heavy jig deep and the other with heavier line than I normally use for winter smallmouths, but I felt confident. It was new, high quality fluorocarbon that costs nearly 20 bucks a spool.
I had a friend and co-worker do incredibly well on a tough, cold day on Dale Hollow Lake in late December a couple of years ago by fishing a heavy football jig deep and slow. I really wanted to catch a big smallmouth bass that way as well.
James came with two rods, one for fishing live shiners and the other for fishing a smaller, lighter jig. I didn’t get to fish my jig much in the first few hours because I was too busy netting James’ nice smallmouths. As soon as I would get settled in working my heavy jig way out from the bank on deep points, I heard, “get the net.”
James didn’t fall for trying something new. He stayed with the tried and true and threw a live shiner. Nothing out-fishes live bait for winter smallmouth bass on lakes such as Lake Cumberland, Dale Hollow or Laurel River Lake, no matter how many new lures come down the pike. The float and fly presentation can come close at times, but the real thing is the real deal.
Part of my stubbornness rests in a deeply held idea that catching big smallmouths on lures is nobler than using live bait. This is a commonly held feeling throughout the fishing world, especially with trout anglers.
There is nothing noble about watching your fishing partner catch all of the fish because they had enough sense to use what worked best that day. Anglers fishing a large smallmouth bass tournament on Dale Hollow Lake on the same day struggled to catch many fish.
I know live bait isn’t allowed in bass tournaments, but the live shiner turned what could’ve been a tough day into a royal field day, culminating in a 22-inch long pig of a smallmouth. He caught seven smallmouth before fishing cooled off in the afternoon; the smallest was 18 inches long.
Another commonly held belief is live bait fishing comes easy and requires little skill. Live bait fishing improved my lure fishing because it taught me the value of concentration and the art of locating fish. You don’t just throw out a live shiner and read the paper, drink a cup of coffee and reel in fish. It takes skill.
Use medium-sized shiners for smallmouth bass. Large crappie minnows will work in a pinch and cost much less, but shiners seem to catch more big ones. Use a 1, 2 or 1/0 sized Octopus style hook and run it through the lips of the shiner. Attach a couple of BB split shot weight about 18- to 24-inches above the hook. Circle hooks work okay for still fishing live bait, but they bring lost fish and frustration when casting shiners.
When you cast a shiner near a smallmouth, they usually take it gently and don’t swim off with it. You often don’t get the tension necessary for the fish to imbed the circle hook in its jaw. You’ll lift the rod and reel to keep tension, but you just end up leading the smallmouth. Eventually, they detect something funny and drop your shiner.
With an Octopus style hook, wait several seconds after the take and set the hook. If you stay on your toes, gut hooks are exceedingly rare.
Use an underhand or sidearm cast with a 6 1/2-foot to 7 1/2-foot long medium-light or medium power spinning rod to fish the shiner. Avoid a rod that is too stiff or it will throw the shiner off the hook, but a rod too wimpy loses sensitivity. Spool the reel with 4- to 8-pound line; those with a monofilament core and fluorocarbon coating work really well for shiner fishing as does straight fluorocarbon.
Cast the shiner to points or featureless “nothing” banks near deep water in the lower end of Lake Cumberland, from Low Gap Island to the dam, the lower sections of the Wolf River arm and Illwill Creek in Dale Hollow and the Spruce Creek arm of Laurel River Lake. The drawdown of Lake Cumberland means anglers without boats may walk much of the shoreline in the lower lake with a bucket of large crappie minnows and fish points for smallmouths.
James swims his shiners by letting them sink near bottom and reeling them back in a slow, rhythmic retrieve. It requires patience and concentration to fish them this way, as opposed to beating the bottom. You cover much more of the water column with this retrieve and pick off those idle smallmouths suspended somewhere between the surface and bottom, their location for much of winter.
Slip on some coveralls, fill the front pockets with handwarmers, get a pound of shiners and head to Lake Cumberland, Dale Hollow Lake or Laurel River Lake. An afternoon of catching big smallmouth bass beats football on television every time.
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