Jack Giles’ cast settled next to a submerged brush pile, and the strike was immediate.
A giant bass smashed his bait almost as soon as it hit the water, sending Giles rearing back to drive the hook deep into the bass’ jaw.
The fish exploded through the surface and wallowed across the top for a few seconds before diving back towards deep water. It was nip and tuck for a while as the bass battled to reach the brushpile and the safety it would bring.
After turning the fish around and finally wearing it down Giles had his first lunker of the day, a nice 6-pound bass.
Russell Hanson quickly released the bass, reached down into the livewell, caught another Florida shiner and put it on Giles’ hook. This time the bait barely hit the surface before another bass engulfed it as well. In only a few minutes Giles had caught a couple of lunker bass. Over the course of a couple hours Giles caught more bass in the 6- to 8-pound range than he had caught over his lifetime, topped off by a personal-best 10-pounder.
“I don’t start catching the lunker bass until mid-May and then they bite all the way up until it gets really hot around the first of July,” Hanson said.
Hanson is a throwback to what some say are the good old days of fishing when that meant a stop at the bait store or bait pond before going fishing. Almost every camp house and country pond had small bait ponds next to them to raise and keep the shiners, minnows or bream handy for access and the next trip to the water.
Although Hanson has done his share of bass fishing with artificial lures, about 15 years ago he reconditioned a 12- to 14-acre lake, and started fishing for lunker bass without much success.
“We’d gotten some shiners in the lake, and after a few more hard days on the water when I couldn’t catch anything larger than 5 pounds, I changed my strategy,” Hanson said. “I chummed up some shiners right off my pier and caught a few with the cast net and started fishing with them and caught some really big bass.”
The results of his switch were nothing short of fantastic.
“Last year I caught 265 bass over 5 pounds between mid-May and September,” said Hanson. “Most of the bass I catch are in the 5- to 8-pound range with several over 10 pounds. I usually average catching at least 10 bass over 10 pounds each year. Last year my biggest was over 12 pounds.”
That’s what a fisherman’s dreams are made of, and it is possible if you use the right equipment, fish in the right spot and fish at the right time. Every lake has some big bass that just won’t bite an artificial lure after the spawn is over and hot weather approaches.
“I’d gotten tired of fishing hard and never catching the big bass I had in the lake,” Hanson said. “Now that I’ve been fishing Florida shiners for 15 years I can tell you that they work very well and enable the average angler an opportunity to catch the bass of a lifetime, and that’s something that’s virtually impossible for most nonprofessionals to do now on public or private waters. “
When Hanson restocked the lake they put in threadfin shad, Florida shiners and Florida bass.
“We put in threadfin shad first, bluegill bream and then put in 20 pounds of Florida shiners in the 10- to 12-inch size range,” Hanson said. “We also caught some native shiners from one of our smaller ponds and we’re pretty sure that they cross bred. We came up with some 5- to 8-inch shiners that are really hearty.”
Hanson did almost everything the experts told him not to do but surprisingly it worked.
“I stocked those shiners about 18 years ago and I’ve been catching those big fish now for 15 years and we also have a healthy population of bluegill and shad in the lake,” Hanson said. “I’ve never stocked them again.
“I don’t claim to know what I’m doing, I just know what’s working for me.”
Catch and release monsters
Hanson practices catch and release on all bass over 2½ pounds, and keeps everything smaller. They take out 250 to 300 pounds of fish a year and they have a healthy population of bass from three-quarters of a pound to 12 pounds.
“Catch-and-release live-bait fishing has always worked for me and as far as I know we’ve only lost two bass, one was hooked in the gills and one we found floating,” Hanson said. “Some anglers frown on fishing with live bait and many think all the bass will be gut hooked and die but that’s not the case with our bass.”
Hanson doesn’t adhere to the old theory that you need to let bass run with the live bait before setting the hook and says it’s he doesn’t hook bass in the gut.
“The reason I never let bass run is because we’ll get hung up on the brush piles on the bottom so I’m forced to set the hook and get their heads up quick,” he said. “Most of the fish we catch are hooked in the side of the mouth and we release them right back into the water after taking a quick picture. “
As it turns out, that could be the key to catch-and-release bass fishing with live bait.
Hanson prefers a 7½-foot heavy-action rod with 17-pound Stren monofilament line.
“I like the Bass Pro Shops Carbon Lite rod and reel combo and I’m going to fish a shiner on a 5/0 hook under a weighted popping cork with a 2- to 3-foot leader,” Hanson said. “I like to fish that weighted popping cork so that I can cast it out far enough and then let the shiner swim free underneath it. Those big bass like to kill that shiner before he eats it and sometimes they’ll slap it first and take all the scales off them and then come back and eat it.”
Fishing around piers
Hanson’s favorite place to fish is on the pier and it holds a lot of fish. Shad and bass hide under it after the water warms up.
“I feed the fish off the pier from spring through September every day,” he said. “We feed at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.,” he said. “I’ll feed about a 16-ounce cup of feed to keep the bream and shiners around the dock where I like to fish. We also put a few round hay bales in the water and all type of organisms to feed on it and it helps the oxygen and gives them food to grow the fish too.”
Hanson said that if you have a lake with a pier on it and feed the fish, it will attract the biggest fish in the lake. You just have to get rigged properly and give them some big shiners, bream or whatever they prefer. If you feed the small fish, the big fish will come.
Hanson’s pier has 7 feet of water under it and he put 6 inches of gravel about 20 feet out all the way around the pier, including under it. As a result of the gravel and feed, he has all sizes of bream, shad and shiners around the dock, luring monster bass to come and eat.
“Out of about 250 fish we caught around our pier last year I caught 225 different ones,” said Hanson. “Occasionally you’ll catch one with a hook mark in his mouth, but for the most part our fish are in good shape. They get a lot of pressure, but they will hit a shiner again and again.”
Big water bass
Capt. Brian Barton has been guiding on Pickwick Lake using live bait since the late ’80s, and he guides people who want to have a good time and catch fish. Most public lakes have intense fishing pressure from bass tournaments, making it tough for the average person to catch fish consistently when they only fish occasionally.
“Bass, stripers, and most other game fish will bite live bait, particularly shad or minnows when they will not strike an artificial lure,” Barton said. “In bass tournaments it’s illegal to use live bait and troll, because these methods are so effective some deem them unfair for that reason. I troll live bait to put as many fish in the boat for my clients as possible.”
Barton said that live bait can be fished anywhere. Spring fishing is typically best in a dam’s tailrace. From summer through early fall lower the mid lake ledges and humps are best. In fall and early winter fish return to the tailrace before heading back down the river to their winter hideouts.
“During the spring I like to troll spawning flats,” said Barton. “In the summer through the early fall ledges, humps, and long points seem to be best. I anchor upstream and adjacent to the structure, and cast the bait slightly upstream and allow it to float across the structure where the fish are holding. In winter deep holes, and sharp dropping ledges seem to produce best. You fish the same locations as you would fish with artificial lures.”
Live bait fishing is an art in itself, and Capt. Barton has mastered it. To be an extremely good live bait fisherman takes many hours of practice and Barton has surely put in the time and effort to become one of the top guides in the country.
“As a guide I can set my clients up for a high level of success by using live bait while using my knowledge and experience with boat position, location, and simply knowing where (the fish) are,” Barton said.
He looks for Eddy currents, where water flows back upstream in a circular motion providing excellent fishing locations for live bait. All fish will congregate in eddy currents while resting and looking for an easy meal.
“I’m going to fish isolated rock piles and humps that I’ve located over the years,” Barton said. “Floating minnows over the tops of humps and mounds probably produces more Tennessee River smallmouth than any other location.
“I prefer using 3- to 5-inch threadfin shad when available. Gizzard shad is my second choice with store bought shiners being my third choice. In the spring a 2½- to 3-inch minnow will work fine if you just want to catch fish, but as the water heats up in the summer the larger bait is better.”
Trophy bass prefer 7- to 8- inch live shad, but 3 pounders will hit them too.
Barton also targets stumps and other wood cover found along the channel ledges. He usually collects his shad with throw nets from the creeks or tailrace areas. This is easily done most of the year, but if he can’t find enough shad to fish with then he will purchase shiners from a local bait shop.
Live bait advantages
“Some of the advantages of using live bait are that it makes it easier for inexperienced anglers,” Barton said. “Live bait enables those folks to catch more and, I think, bigger fish. It’s also more cost effective than purchasing artificial lures. You can catch multiple species on same trip from the same location too. You might catch smallmouth bass, largemouth, spotted bass, crappie and even catfish from the same hole.”
That’s a huge plus for people who just want to have fun and catch fish.
“My clients average catching 30 to 35 fish per day on a live bait trip on Pickwick, and at least six different species of fish on each trip,” Barton said.
Catching fish, and lots of them, is definitely what most people want to do, and the bigger the better. That’s where live bait and an expert guide come into play.
“We use Shimano 2500 Stradic spinning reels filled with 8- to 10-pound test Vicious Hi-Vis monofilament,” said Barton. “When using spinning gear I like a medium action rod. I use a hook with a split shot weight placed 18 to 24 inches above the hook. And when we anchor we sometimes use bait casters with a Carolina rig that gets the bait down to the bottom.
“If a fish gets hooked deep I’ll cut the line and release him quickly. I use a No. 4 bronze Eagle Claw hook so there is minimum damage to the fish with the smaller hook.”