Catch Tackle-Bustin' Stripers

By Don Wirth

 christianstriper

A cool river on a hot day, and a wall-hanger of a striper -- what more could any fisherman ask for? 

The big topwater plug slushed once, twice, then all hell broke loose.  First the water beneath the lure bulged up, then a detonation followed. I set the hooks hard and the fish thrashed angrily, throwing gallons of water skyward. That's when the fun started.

No doubt about it, this was one big fish. Although I had the drag on my wide-spool baitcasting reel nearly locked tight, and in spite of the 50-pound mono that loaded the spool, this striper was uncontrollable. It shot across the flat where I'd hooked it and headed for a deep channel. All I could do was lean against the loaded-up rod and watch helplessly as my line disappeared down to the knot. All seemed lost, then for reasons known only to the fish, it suddenly did a 180. I reeled frantically, regaining line as the striper rocketed back in my direction.

Finally its surges grew less intense and the striper rose to just beneath the surface, fanning its great tail, its silvery-purple hues evident through the thin morning fog. I worked the fish to boatside and managed to slide it over the gunwale of the boat. What a monster -- 48 pounds on digital scales! 

If you're looking for big-fish excitement close to home, you ought to get into striper fishing. These exciting gamefish hit hard, pull even harder and grow to unbelievable size. They live in reservoirs, rivers and tailraces across much of the country, and their range is expanding annually.  I'd like to tell you what I've learned about these gamefish so you can get in on the action, too.

Habits of Landlocked Stripers

The striped bass is a true saltwater species, but one that has also proven to adapt remarkably well to many freshwater environments.

Two primary factors drive striper location in any body of water:

Food availability -- Put simply, stripers go where the groceries are. You will rarely find them where large schools of baitfish aren't evident. Landlocked stripers feed primarily on pelagic (open-water) baitfish, especially threadfin and gizzard shad, hickory shad (skipjack) and blueback herring. If shad or herring aren't readily available, they will also devour creek minnows, shiners, freshwater eels, trout and small bluegills.  

  Landlocked stripers grow big -- real  big. Like this 62-pounder caught by legendary Tennessee guide Ralph Dallas.  Water temperature -- Stripers are cool-water fish. They are most active in water temperatures ranging from around 48 to 68 degrees, with 54 to 64 considered prime by most experienced striper anglers. Stripers become stressed in warm water and lethargic in water much below 44 degrees. In summer, especially in deep Southern and Western reservoirs, reservoir stripers may attempt to move extremely deep to find cool water temperatures; this can be fatal to them since sufficient dissolved oxygen may not occur at depths that have the right temperature. 

Structure and Cover

One of the most confusing aspects of striper fishing to many first-time anglers is grasping exactly how these fish relate to structure (bottom contour changes) and cover (objects in the water). A brief explanation is in order.

Many striper fishermen, myself included, got into this sport via bass fishing. I can vividly recall the morning I was casting topwater lures for largemouths and a 20-pound striper appeared out of nowhere and blasted my plug. I was hooked! But it took me a while to realize that reservoir stripers, unlike largemouths, maintain only a loose association with structure and cover. Once I began fishing for stripers seriously, I realized that their location was usually dependent upon food availability and water temperature, not the presence of points, humps, ledges, standing or sunken timber, rockpiles, etc. Thus a striper is just as likely to be caught in open water as it is at the end of a reservoir point -- provided that's where forage and cool water are found.

Of course, baitfish often congregate around structures, especially main-lake points, sunken islands and river channels, and stripers may be there waiting for them. But it's the bait, not the structure, that holds them there.

Stripers are not nearly as cover-oriented as largemouth bass -- except in current. I love to fish for big stripers in moving water, and have found that these fish will stick very tight to submerged trees, logjams and boulders, much more so than in slack water.

To sum up: structure (bottom contour changes) is important to stripers only to the degree that it attracts baitfish. Cover (submerged objects) is much more important to stripers in rivers, river-run reservoirs and tailraces than it is in slackwater reservoirs.

Live- and Dead-Bait Approaches

The most dependable method of hooking into a landlocked striper is via live bait. Here are some tactics the experts use to fish it:

Gathering fresh bait -- Fresh, lively bait is essential. Soft-rayed baitfish favored by stripers (shad, herring) are extremely hard to maintain commercially for any length of time, which is why you seldom see live shad sold in bait shops. The best way to ensure that you have good bait is to catch  it yourself, usually by using a cast net. This is a circular mesh net that's weighted at the bottom; when thrown properly, it fans out and sinks quickly, entrapping large quantities of bait. Cast netting is an ancient skill; once mastered, it can help assure that you have plenty of lively bait. But before you rush out and buy one, check local regulations regarding the use of cast nets. They aren't legal everywhere. A dip net with a long handle can also be used to gather bait; this works especially well along dam wing walls and bridge pilings. 

  Live bait is great for stripers. Keep delicate shad in a rounded tank.  Storing bait -- Once you've caught your bait, you need a place to keep it. A shad tank, available by mail from most fishing gear catalogs, is highly recommended; these have a circular or oval interior which helps prevent delicate baitfish from jamming into corners and damaging themselves. More hardy species including creek minnows, shiners and bluegills can be kept in a conventional rectangular baitwell or ice chest rigged with an inexpensive aerator.  

Downlining -- Using weighted bait rigs or "downlining" is a good approach in deep reservoirs lacking standing timber or other line-fouling obstructions. Use any medium- to medium-heavy-action baitcasting or light saltwater spinning rod, a reel with plenty of line capacity and 14 to 20 pound line. Vary hook size according to bait size. Avoid light-wire hooks, as stripers can easily straighten these. My personal preference for all forms of reservoir and river live-baiting, including downlining, is the Gamakatsu Octopus bait hook, size 4/0 to 6/0. Set up your downline rig with a heavy egg sinker, swivel, 2-foot leader and hook. 

Downlining procedure is fairly simple. Idle over the area you intend to fish and watch your graph for baitfish and/or stripers. Determine the depth of the bait/fish and lower your downlines to this depth or slightly above, but not below. Then either drift with the wind or use an electric trolling motor to move you slowly along. A good place to try downlining is between two main-lake points; stripers often suspend in open water in this scenario, following wandering baitfish schools. When downlining, adjust your reel drag so it will slip and put your rods in holders.

Flatlining  Flatlining is a technique whereby live bait is drifted or slowly pulled behind the boat. Pick an area on the main lake or in a tributary where baitfish are running close to the surface, then gently cast or simply let out enough line to put your bait well in back of the boat (1 1/2 castlengths is sufficient). Put your rods in holders and drift or troll slowly. The bait tends to move up and down slightly with wind and wave action, enhancing its visual appeal. Flatlining will take other species as well as stripers; I've caught bonus bass, hybrids and walleye. 

Floats -- If you know stripers are using a specific area, suspending a live bait beneath some sort of float is a deadly and exciting technique. Commonly-used floats include large cork bobbers and balloons. Simply rig the bait two or 10 feet below the cork and let it swim around freely. I like floats best in rivers, where stripers often hang very tight to submerged wood cover.  

Planer boards are commonly used by Great Lakes salmon anglers and big-water walleye fishermen, but they're great for stripers as well. I especially recommend them in rivers, where they help you present your live bait close to shoreline cover. I use heavy line (130 pound Bass Pro Shops MagiBraid) and light saltwater tackle when planer-boarding for big stripers in snaggy rivers. Rig the bait 3 to 6 feet behind the board and simply drift with the current or move slowly along with your electric trolling motor, occasionally bumping the board into logs and rocks.  If there's a fish hiding there, you'll know it! 

Bottom rigs are excellent in current, especially in deep river holes. Use a heavy sinker rigged on a drop line on a 3-way swivel. The sinker line should be lighter than the main- and leader lines, enabling you to break it off easy should you get hung up (a common occurrence). I use very heavy tackle and line when river fishing (40 and 50 pound mono) if monster fish are a possibility. 

Dead bait can be highly effective for stripers. In fact, I believe some of the biggest stripers, like giant northern pike, may feed exclusively on dead bait, this being obtainable without the fish expending a great deal of energy. Rather than use the whole baitfish, some form of "cut bait" -- either chunks, filet or head -- is recommended. In slack water, fish it on the bottom on a swivel rig from shore or an anchored boat; in current, use the 3-way rig.   

Lures & Tactics

Several types of artificial lures can be used for landlocked stripers:

Try surface lures, minnow crankbaits, vibrating baits and jigs for big landlocked stripers. Topwater lures are exciting to fish, and often highly effective since the striper is a big-time surface feeder. Big minnow lures with short diving lips are an excellent choice; retrieve these slowly right across the surface as shown in Fig. 6.  Large prop baits are better in low-light conditions and if there's a chop on the water. I use a 6/12- to 7-foot rod and 14- to 20-pound line in clear reservoirs; 40-pound-plus in snaggy rivers. 

Crankbaits with diving lips can work well when cast or trolled. Run these through a school of stripers and hang on! Use a soft-action fiberglass or composite rod to help absorb the powerful impact of a striper slamming a fast-moving crankbait. 

Soft jerk baits are very convincing mimics of injured or disoriented baitfish. Rig them as shown in Fig. 6 and twitch them close to the surface; often you will see the striper rise up and grab he lure. 

Jigs and pork or plastic trailers are best when stripers are schooling. They are heavy lures that can be cast a long distance. When you spot breaking fish, cast beyond the surface activity and reel quickly. If a striper doesn't grab the jig directly, stop reeling and let it sink; one will often pick it up on the fall. I like jigs best in slightly murky water, and will usually use a large white or chartreuse twist-tail pork strip or soft plastic grub as a trailer. 

Metal spoons are best when stripers are suspending, but they can also be skipped across the surface for schoolers. I especially like spoons on stormy days since they're extremely wind-resistant.

Surface lures, shallow-running crankbaits and soft plastic jerk baits are best when used in low-light conditions. This can include daybreak, dusk, night or all day long if it's stormy. I usually start my fishing day at dawn with topwater lures, using my biggest, noisiest artificials first and gradually shifting to smaller/quieter baits as the sun comes up. Then in mid-day I switch to trolled crankbaits, jigs or live bait.

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Offshore Bass

By Don Wirth

Trophy Smallmouth1

A rockpile surrounded by 60-foot water was home to this 6-pound smallmouth. 

As I beached my boat at the launch site, the angler who had taken out before me was snapping his trailer tie-downs in place.  "I ain't never fishin' this @#$% lake again!" he cussed.  "I pounded the banks all day and didn't have a single hit!"      

I didn't have the heart to tell him about the two dozen bass I'd caught and released that day, fish ranging from 2 to 7 pounds.

Why does one angler fail while another succeeds?  It might be easy to blame lack of success on poor equipment, but today's excellent boats, motors, electronics, tackle and lures make bass fishing an equal-opportunity endeavor.

A Realtor once told me the three rules of selecting a new home: location, location, location.  These same rules increasingly apply to bass fishing. Today's anglers are well-versed in the latest fish-catching methods. But old habits are hard to break, and in bassin', the oldest habit of all is pounding the bank.  Target-casting to stumps, lilypads and logs lining the shoreline is, to many, irresistible.  The bank is a powerful magnet -- it's easy to see, easy to follow, and gives up just enough fish to draw you back again and again and again.

The scene repeats itself every weekend.  Count the trailers at the launch ramp, then count the boats ringing the shoreline -- no doubt, this is where 99 percent of the pressure is applied.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine that in a short time, most of the fish haunting the banks will be caught.  Those left lurking in the shallows will be highly educated (believe it, bass do learn not to strike!), perhaps uncatchable by conventional methods.  Bank-beaters who haul water blame it on the weather at first, but eventually quit coming back. 

My advice to the bank fisherman is simple: do a 180.  On most lakes, the best bass fishing will be found over your shoulder, on offshore structure.

Why Offshore?

In the '60s, angling theoretician Buck Perry and tournament pioneer Bill Dance proved that bass may not be attracted to the shoreline nearly as much as bass fishermen.  Their astounding catches from offshore ledges, ditches, humps and roadbeds helped make the phrase,  "structure fishing" part of the basser's lexicon.  Upon reading about the exploits of Buck and Bill, nearly every serious bass angler in the country marched out and bought a flasher and a set of marker buoys, then dutifully set out to probe the wide-open spaces of their local lakes.

Most gave up quickly, finding the offshore world amorphous.  Locating   

 Offshore Scene

Move way, way off deep points, where big bass suspend. 

structure there, to many, seemed like trying to find a port in the fog -- after all, it's a lot easier to fish down a stumpy bank than a river channel drop-off. The same scenario takes place today.  Anglers read their fishing magazines and watch all those TV shows; they know the fish are offshore, yet they can't get a handle on how to catch 'em.

I've got a thing about knowing why bass behave the way they do.  The bass is a living creature, not a picture in a magazine.  It does what it does for survival, not because it's trendy.  In my 25 years covering the bass fishing scene, I've worked with the best anglers and fisheries scientists in the nation.  Here's what they say about why bass live offshore.  Read and reread this information.  Once you understand it, you'll gain new confidence in your offshore angling endeavors. 

         Baitfish movement -- The No. 1 reason why bass move offshore is to follow the forage.  We've learned too well that bass love to hang around cover; what hasn't sunken in is that these same bass are opportunistic predators and will gravitate to where their chances of feeding success are greatest.  In many lakes and reservoirs, pelagic baitfish including threadfin shad, ciscoes, alewives and herring roam open water, often miles from shore, feeding on drifting plankton blooms, drawing hordes of bass off the banks in the process. 

         Fishing pressure -- Put thousands of angler man-hours against shoreline bass, and something's gotta give.  On pressured lakes, many shallow fish move out of harm's way to offshore structure.

         Changes in habitat -- The past 30 years saw the construction of a great many reservoirs nationwide.  When newly inundated, these were replete with brush and logs in shallow water, providing prime bass habitat and awesome fishing for the bank-beater.  But wood cover rots away over time; as it disappears, bass move offshore.  Don't look for many new reservoirs to be built in this age of environmental awareness!  

         Oxygen depletion -- Especially in summer, oxygen diminishes in the shallows, and baitfish and their predators gravitate offshore where wind and water currents create higher dissolved oxygen levels.

         Changes in forage base -- Sometimes there just isn't enough for bass to eat in the shallows.  If shoreline weedbeds are sprayed, for example, the shiner and bluegill population may decline, and bass will concentrate their feeding efforts on more abundant prey species, many of which may live offshore.

         Clearing water -- Many murky reservoirs undergo a gradual clearing as mud and silt settle.   Concealment is a major component of predatorial success, and bass find it harder to hide in shallow, clear water than in shallow, murky water.  As the water clears,  bass move out to deeper cover, where they're less visible to their prey.

         Cold fronts -- When there's little shallow cover, bass will move deeper following during a cold front, which may pull them far from the bank in a shallow lake.

         Dropping lake levels -- When reservoirs undergo seasonal drawdowns, or when natural lakes lower during droughts, bass pull off the banks to offshore structures. 

Structures to Fish

Bass won't be everywhere.  These are the places to check:

Channel structure -- In reservoirs, flooded creek and river channels provide a structural edge; increased oxygen and plenty of brush, timber and stumps for hiding.  Plus, channels are superhighways used by migrating baitfish.  High spots -- Call 'em humps, saddles or submerged islands -- to bass, they're havens from fishing pressure and great places to intercept baitfish schools.  Points -- Easily the most obvious and therefore the most heavily fished offshore structures, points are nonetheless important holding and feeding stations for offshore bass.  Submerged man-made structures -- Sunken roadbeds, ditches and house foundations draw hordes of bass, many of which spawn on these structures if they're sufficiently shallow. Isolated weedbeds -- Probably the best offshore structure in most natural lakes, and in some reservoirs.  Often the biggest bass in the lake will hold in isolated clumps of grass far from the bank; lunker hunters know these small, scattered beds often produce better than large expanses of offshore grass.  Reefs -- In natural lakes such as Erie, giant schools of bass often suspend over offshore reefs.  Baitfish schools -- At times, bass don't relate to offshore structure at all, but rather to schools of bait.  This phenomenon is prevalent in summer and winter, when large numbers of bass may suspend near schools of shad, alewives or ciscoes.  Anglers often report bass mixed with stripers, hybrids, even walleyes, when this occurs. 

Offshore Savvy

 Trophy Smallmouth

 Old habits are hard to break, and in bassin', the oldest habit of all is pounding the bank.  

What tools are required for offshore bassin'?  And what tricks do experts use to efficiently locate and catch offshore bass?

"Just cruise the lake," veteran bass pro Jack Chancellor advises,  "and watch your depthfinder while you're running."  The Alabama pro has spent many a tournament practice day running and looking while his competition was fishing, a tactic that helped him win the  '85 BASS Masters Classic.  "I don't look for bass on my depthfinder; I look for structure.  If the structure and bait are there, you'll find bass."  Chancellor cautions against placing too much reliance on topo maps.  "They're usually outdated.  Lakes change over time, particularly those with good current flow.  Sunken timber disappears, ditches silt in, contours soften.  Only the depthfinder doesn't lie."  

Chancellor's one-two punch for offshore bass is a Carolina-rigged worm and a jigging spoon.  His "Do-Nothing" worm technique popularized Carolina rigging among America's bassers.  

"The Carolina rig is a great bird-dog lure," Chancellor says. "You can fish it fast and cover a wide area, which is ideal when you're looking for bass on a big piece of offshore structure like a channel ledge.  And unlike a crankbait, it'll follow bottom contours due to its heavy sinker.  Offshore bass are often concentrated; once you find  'em with the Carolina rig, switch to the spoon. Vertical fishing is the fastest possible way to load the boat, a great tournament tactic." 

A great big-fish tactic, too. I once watched Chancellor catch 9- and 6-pound largemouths on two consecutive drops of a spoon on a deep channel ledge in a Georgia impoundment.

Carolina rigs are also useful in natural lakes, but Tarpon Springs, Fla., guide Ray Van Horn gives  'em an unusual twist:  "Instead of a traditional worm or lizard, I'll use a super-long plastic worm, sometimes 14 inches.  At times, these are even better than live shiners for giant bass. I'll vary the leader length so the lure suspends just above the height of the grass."  

Van Horn uses the wind to present the lure properly.  "I'll cast and then just drift with the wind, dragging through isolated weed clumps.  The sinker roots on the bottom, hangs up occasionally, and imparts an erratic action to the worm.  It takes a long, powerful rod to set the hook when you get a pickup, 'cause you've usually got a lot of line out."  Van Horn's biggest bass on a megaworm: a whopping 15 pounds.

Pickwick Lake, Ala., smallmouth guide Steve Hacker believes fishing offshore is the only way to go on a river-run impoundment.  "Smallies relate to mounds, drop-offs and other offshore irregularities.  Their position on the structure as well as their feeding activity will be directly tied to current flow."  When no flow is present, bass will be deeper on the structure, and less likely to bite.  

But when the turbines kick in, expect fast action, Hacker promises.  "Baitfish will move, triggering a feed.  Bass usually move shallower when generation starts.  If they were holding 15 feet deep on the side of a mound, they might slide up to 8 feet when the water starts moving."  

Hacker likes leadhead lures including bucktail jigs, grubs and Sassy Shads in current, and fishes 'em on light line.  "Using heavy line is a big mistake when trying to probe offshore structure in current.  It creates too much drag.  Your lure has to sink quickly, or it'll be swept out of the fish zone.  I routinely use 6- to 8-pound mono and have caught smallies approaching 8 pounds on it, as well as a 68-pound catfish. Stay away from the new high-tech braided lines; they tend to float and make it harder to get your bait where the action is."  

Like most offshore experts, Steve keeps a set of marker buoys handy.  "They're as much a part of my offshore fishing as my noontime sandwich," he says.

Magnum Wiggle WartBrentwood, Tenn., angler Steve Bunning uses skills he learned trolling for salmon and steelhead while living in Chicago to catch largemouths, smallmouths and spotted bass in Tennessee lakes.  "Trolling is the most efficient way to cover a lot of water," he believes.  

In clear lakes, Bunning often finds bass suspended, relating loosely to channel drops, points, humps and baitfish schools -- sometimes deep enough to use downriggers or leadcore line.  In murky lakes, bass are usually shallower, often holding around stumps on offshore bars, flats and points.  In either case, "pulling crankbaits" is Steve's favorite approach.  "In clear lakes, super-deep divers like Mann's 30+ and Storm's Magnum Wiggle Wart in reflective shad patterns produce best, while in murky waters, I'll hammer bottom with crawfish-imitators like Bomber's Model A in fire tiger, perch or natural craw colors."  

Bunning has caught smallies and largemouths over 6 pounds while trolling offshore bass structure, plus a smorgasbord of muskies, walleyes, trout, even a 40-pound paddlefish.  "No question, it's a big-fish technique," he's convinced.  "The world record smallmouth was caught trolling."

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Heavy-Metal Crappie

By Don Wirth

Harold Morgan

Doubles! Harold Morgan's heavy sinker rig is one of the deadliest crappie methods ever devised. 

Listening to Harold Morgan play those sweet, fluid sounds on his pedal steel guitar, you wouldn't think he'd be too fond of heavy metal. Harold played steel on the road for years with some of Nashville's most legendary country music stars, and has swapped licks with the hottest pickers on the Grand Ole Opry.    

But it's a fact -- Morgan's a metalhead.

No, he hasn't traded in his axe for a Les Paul and a stack of Marshall amps. Harold, you see, is as skilled at catching crappie as he is at coaxing those shimmering notes out of his steel guitar. And he has a system for probing structure and cover that'll be music to any crappie angler's ears. It's based around sinkers -- big sinkers. The weights Morgan relies on are heavier than those used by most catfishermen, let alone panfishermen. But once you understand why they work so well, we think you'll become a metalhead, too.

Just Shy of an Ounce

No question, crappie fishing is viewed by most folks as an ultralight sport. Tiny minnows and jigs, buggywhip rods and wispy lines are favored by the vast majority of crappie anglers. They leave the heavy stuff to the bass and catfish crowds, believing that in the world of the papermouth, the light touch reigneth supreme.

But Harold Morgan doesn't buy into that line of thinking. The friendly Nashville crappie guide is a legend in the Southeast for his uncanny ability to find and catch these scrappy gamefish regardless of season or conditions. I've shared a boat with him on many occasions, and can promise you his approach is anything but light.

Morgan routinely uses heavy sinkers when hunting slab crappie. No, I'm not talking about a couple of BB-sized split shot pinched on 4-pound line -- I'm talkin' magnum-size sinkers, ones that weigh, as he puts it, "just shy of an ounce."

Harold Morgan1

Morgan keeps plenty of sinkers on hand -- breakoffs in deep brushpiles are common. 

"Most crappie anglers would never dream of using sinkers as heavy as mine," Harold said with a chuckle as he idled his boat into a creek arm on Priest Lake, a 14,000-acre impoundment close to Nashville. He circled around one of the hundreds of submerged brushpiles he's sunk in the lake over the years, noted the presence of a big school of crappie on his graph, and shut off his outboard. Then he proceeded to pulled a tray of lead that looked like it weighed a ton from beneath the boat's console.

Morgan selected a pear-shaped bell sinker with "7/8" stamped on its side. "If you took all the split shot in the average crappie fisherman's boat and melted it together, it wouldn't weigh as much as this one sinker!" He then took out a spinning rod that appeared stout enough to do battle with one of the Priest Lake's big smallmouth bass, and tied the hunk of lead to the end of his line. He next baited up two tuffy minnows to leader lines dangling stiffly off the main line -- an unorthodox-looking rig if ever I'd seen one. The weight caused the tip of his rod to sag. "Let's see if we can hit one over the head," he joked as he lowered the ungainly-looking setup over the side of his boat into the tangle of brush below.

The rod tip relaxed, indicating the sinker had hit bottom. Morgan engaged the reel spool and began s-l-o-w-l-y turning the handle. In a matter of seconds, the rod buckled and he lifted not one, but two  slab crappie into the boat! "Love those doubles," he smiled, dropping both fish into his livewell. He rebaited and handed me the rod, urging, "Here, you try it."

The heavy sinker swinging from the end of the line reminded me of some bottom-fishing rigs I'd used for stripers in the past. I flipped the bail and THUNK! the sinker dropped to the bottom like a Buick falling off a bridge. Following Morgan's instructions, I held the rod steady and turned the reel handle slowly. When the weight lifted off bottom, I instantly felt one, then two fish on my line.

Harold and I fished for a little over two hours and caught over 70 crappie -- all from the same brushpile, all on his heavy metal rig. Hmmm . . . so much for ultralight fishing!

"The first time I saw the heavy sinker rig used was on Kentucky Lake years ago, long before there were any depthfinders," Morgan said.    "After the lake was formed, we fishermen needed a way to find submerged structures such as creek channel drop-offs, humps and ditches. Many of us started sinking brushpiles for crappie, and we needed a way to locate these as well."

Harold Morgan3

When combined with tube jigs, Harold Morgan's heavy sinker rig is pure dynamite on big crappie. 

Lacking sonar units, Morgan and his Kentucky Lake cronies started tying heavy sinkers to the end of their lines so they could literally feel their way along the bottom. "We'd hold the rod with one hand and work a sculling paddle with the other, moving slowly along, tapping the sinker on the bottom. When we'd locate likely structure, we'd anchor the boat and start fishing. At first, the sinker was nothing more than a crude depthfinder."

But even after Morgan got his first "green box" sonar unit, he kept relying on that magnum chunk of lead. He experimented with the heavy rig and eventually refined it into a deadly crappie fishing tool. "The way I use it now, it's a combination bottom probe and presentation device," he explained. "No other crappie technique I've seen gives you more precise control over your bait or lure, especially in thick cover and deep water."

The Setup

Morgan's heavy-metal crappie system is unusual and ingenious. Here are the elements that make it work:

  • A heavy bell sinker, from 1/2 to 1 ounce. After years of fishing the rig, Harold has grown most comfortable with a 7/8-ounce weight. The sinker is tied directly to the end of his fishing line.   
  • Abrasion-resistant monofilament for the main line, normally 8-pound test.   
  • Two 6-inch leader lines of stiff, heavy monofilament -- Morgan recommends bargain-basement 20- to 30-pound catfish line for this application. "Don't use premium line for your leaders -- it's way too limp," he cautioned. "You want the leader lines to be stiff and springy so they'll stick out at right angles from the sinker line. This will present the bait or lure more effectively to fish in thick cover, and will help prevent the leaders from wrapping around the main line."      
  • Two 1/0 or 2/0 Eagle Claw lightweight gold crappie hooks baited with tuffy minnows, or two 1/32-ounce tube or twister jigs. Tie either to the stiff leader lines.       
  •  A 6- to 7-foot medium-action spinning rod. This is a much heavier stick than most crappie anglers are used to fishing, but necessary for handling the heavy sinker. "I don't like an ultralight rod with this setup because of the sinker's weight, and because the rig often catches two fish at a time," Morgan noted.       
  • A standard-size spinning reel, not an ultralight. "The spool of an ultralight reel is too small to hold a good quantity of 8-pound mono," he said. "You need some line capacity because when you fish thick cover like I do, you have to constantly check your line for abrasion and retie often."

Morgan attaches the first leader line 18 inches above the sinker, and the second 18 inches above the first. This gives his presentation a 3-foot spread, ideal when crappie are suspending. The leaders are attached to the main line with loop knots so they will not slip.

The Approach

Crappie Grubs

Tube jigs and heavy metal -- a winning combination for crappie. 

Morgan surveys the fishing area with his LCR until he locates structure, usually brushpiles he has set out earlier in the year. "I set out cover at various depths to attract crappie in all four seasons," he explained. Once the cover has been pinpointed, he pitches a marker buoy over the side and lowers his heavy sinker rig to the bottom. Most crappie anglers anchor when they're on a honey hole, but not Harold -- he works slowly around the target area with his electric motor on a low-speed setting. "The sinker tells me better than any depthfinder when I'm in the right spot," he emphasized. "Because it's so heavy, the line is straight down over the side of the boat at all times, and I can feel the weight tap against brush and submerged trees. If I bump wood, I reel up line. If I don't feel anything, I let out more line until I do."

The best part of Morgan's unorthodox sinker rig: it's amazingly tangle-free and user-friendly. "Unlike standard crappie rigs, this one is very cover-intensive," Harold said. "It bumps, knocks and crawls over brush and branches without hanging up, letting you present your bait or lures right where the fish are. The sinker gives even a novice angler a positive feel of what's down there, so they can react quickly and lift the rod or reel in the line to stay out of trouble. And if you do happen to get hung up, it's easy to get the rig out of the brush -- just tighten down until there's a bow in the rod and release the reel's bail. The line will pop off the spool and nine times out of 10, the sinker will flip off the branch." 

Movin' on Up

Morgan demonstrated a deadly tactic he's developed with his heavy rig. He bumped the sinker along the bottom near a submerged creek channel in 23 feet of water. Soon he encountered a deep brushpile; he slowly circled this while keeping an eye on his LCR. When the graph revealed fish suspending in the 18-foot zone above the brush, he shut off his electric motor and slowly began reeling the sinker rig straight up. About halfway to the surface, the rod bowed and two fat crappie came aboard. 

"Suspended crappie are hard to catch on conventional rigs," Morgan said, "especially when they're deeper than 15 feet. You invariably lose touch with your bait or lure in deep water on a standard split-shot rig. But with the heavy sinker on the very end of your line, everything's tight and your line is straight under the boat. Bites are easy to feel since the hooks are above the weight."

Morgan continued, "By reeling straight up from the bottom, you'll eventually reel your bait or lure through the fish, and when you do, multiple bites are common. This technique is also conducive to catching the biggest crappie in the school, which often hang out at the bottom of the pack. By using the conventional approach of lowering a bait down through a suspended school of fish, the smaller, more active fish usually bite before the big boys even get a chance to see your presentation." 

Year Long

Morgan uses his heavy sinker rig throughout the year. Here's how he alters his approach to meet changing seasonal conditions:

Spring --   The heavy rig is not intended for shallow spawning areas -- Morgan opts for a conventional float rig when fishing for spawners in 7 feet of water or less. "But not all fish will be on the beds at once -- many will be in the pre- and post-spawn mode; these fish will be suspending on drop-offs adjacent to the spawning areas," he explained. "Look for a ledge that falls from around 10 to 20 feet, drop the sinker rig to the bottom, then reel up slowly until you contact fish. These drop-offs are usually ignored by other anglers in spring, but they can hold a ton of fish."

Summer --    "This is usually the hardest time to catch crappie, but you can load the boat if you locate suspending schools. Follow the edge of a channel drop-off with your electric motor on low speed, and troll several sinker rigs at various depths. When one of them gets bit, quickly mark the line with a marking pen and adjust the other rigs to that depth. I often have better luck using jigs in the summer than minnows."

Fall --    "Crappie will return to spring bedding areas, but don't go as shallow as they did when spawning. The 12- to 15-foot zone is often loaded with fish, and the sinker rig lets you put your bait or lure right in their faces."

Winter --    "Crappie can be super-deep -- I've caught 'em in 56 feet of water in January! Keep the sinker very close to the bottom and try to be extra careful not to bang into brushpiles too much -- for some reason, these fish are extremely spooky in cold water, and the entire school can vanish in a heartbeat."

J. Percy Priest Reservoir guide Harold Morgan can be reached at (615) 227-9337. 

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Crankin' Clearly

By Don Wirth

clearwater cranking
Long casts close to cover are essential when working crankbaits in clear, shallow water.


Examine the lure selection of most clearwater bass fishermen, and you'll find a good assortment of leadhead grubs, small jigs, finesse worms, suspending jerkbaits, spoons, blade baits and a topwater or two. But chances are the crankbait selection will be minimal, especially when compared to that of anglers who fish murkier water.

There's a reason for that. Most bassers feel crankbaits are at their best in water with some color to it. Where visibility is limited, bass respond eagerly to the exaggerated action, pulsing vibrations, bulky profile and noisemaking rattles of these popular lures. But the very attributes that make crankbaits so deadly in stained water seem to work against them in clear water. Here, bass tend to feed by sight rather than sound. They have the luxury of carefully scrutinizing a prospective meal before striking, and unless it looks real, they'll often ignore it. The exaggerated wobble, chunky profile and excessive noise of most crankbaits can appear unnatural to bass under clear conditions.

But when the right approach is used, crankbaits can be absolutely deadly in clear water. Knowing which crankbait to use and where to chunk it can spell the difference between hauling water and toting a limit to the scales.

Starting Shallow

In clear water, deeper isn't necessarily better. True, many clear lakes are rocky, and have little shallow wood or weed cover. Bass therefore have little reason to be shallow, and tend to move out deeper. But if cover is present in the shallow margins of the clear lakes you fish, don't automatically head for the depths before trying a shallow-running crankbait.

clearwater cranking2
Bass in clear water feed mainly by sight. If your crankbait looks like real food, it'll be harder for the fish to turn down.


Shallow runners like Mann's 1-Minus and Worden's TimberTiger series remain popular among pro bassers. Unlike long-billed crankbaits, these squat plugs have the barest nubbins of diving lips. They're designed to run extremely shallow -- some less than a foot deep. It's amazing to watch 'em bump and grind their way across logs, through brushpiles and over the top of subsurface weedbeds. They're truly 4-wheel-drive crankbaits!

Regardless of how clear or how skinny the water may be, bass will hang tight to cover if it's available, and few lures are more effective for fishing shallow wood and grass than these toadlike cranks. In this scenario, think of your crankbait as a substitute for a spinnerbait -- if you fish it in the same places you'd slow-roll a spinnerbait, and at about the same speed, you'll catch bass. Actually, a shallow crankbait is often preferable to a spinnerbait in clear water, because it has plenty of visual appeal, while the spinnerbait does better in low-visibility water where bass feed via vibrations rather than sight. If you pick the right color pattern and present the lure properly, it will mimic a live crawfish rooting along the bottom, or an errant baitfish that accidentally strayed into the wrong neck of the woods.

Long casts close to cover are essential when working crankbaits in clear, shallow water. Shallow bays and tributary arms are the perfect places to start. Wearing Polarized sunglasses and standing at the bow of your boat, it should be easy to spot submerged weed patches, laydown logs, brushpiles and the like. Using a 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-action baitcasting rod (a soft-action cranking rod may be too light for this application) and a reel spooled with 14- to 20-pound mono, chunk the lure past the cover and retrieve it so it a) bumps into the wood/grass and glances off it; b)bulldozes through the cover;  or c) barely ticks the top of the object. Here, a miss is as good as a mile -- in clear, shallow water, bass sense their vulnerability to predators, and may not venture far from a stump or grass patch to attack their prey. Obviously this high-contact approach is rough on monofilament lines. The perfect line choice for this application is Bass Pro Shops' Excel monofilament; it has the right combination of abrasion resistance and low visibility to get the job done.

In clear lakes, shallow crankbaits are especially deadly when fished over and around patches of milfoil, hydrilla and other junk weeds. A favorite tactic of pro anglers is to swim the lure s-l-o-w-l-y over the top of the grass so it creates a telltale wake, like that of a fleeing shad. Don't be surprised if a lunker largemouth blows a hole in the grass as big as a tabletop in an effort to grab the bait!

Shallow runners come in a variety of sizes. I'd recommend starting off with a fairly large plug, one that can be cast a country mile; if that doesn't evoke a stroke, scale down to the smaller sizes (they make 'em as tiny as 1/8 ounce -- fish these on spinning gear). Even the teeniest of these cranks will catch big bass from heavy cover.

Gravy Spots

When bass are deep in clear reservoirs, they're often stationed on what pro anglers call "gravy spots." These are primary structural elements such as points, ledges, humps and drop-offs that have been sweetened by the addition of a choice piece of cover, such as a solitary stump, standing tree, weed patch or boulder. This added element of attraction provides the "gravy" that enhances the spot, making it a major draw to big bass.

There's no telling how many national tournaments have been won on gravy spots in clear reservoirs, especially during the summer months. Big bass will stack up on these places like cordwood, and the angler skilled (or lucky) enough to find 'em can load the boat in short order.

Mann's 1-Minus Crankbaits
Short-billed crankbaits like the Mann's 1-Minus are designed to run extremely shallow. It's amazing to watch 'em bump and grind their way across logs, through brushpiles and over the top of subsurface weedbeds.


A deep-diving crankbait is the best lure choice for doing some serious damage to the bass population on a gravy spot, especially if you're fishing against the clock (or simply lack the patience to crawl a worm or jig through the area). Many of these places are 12 to 20 feet deep, well within range of a long-billed diver like a Fat Free Shad, Wiggle Wart or similar plug. This is mainly open-water fishing, so go with a 7-foot cranking rod, a high-speed reel and low-diameter 10 to 14 pound line.

Locate the gravy spot with your depthfinder, then delineate it with a marker buoy. Pull off the structure and make repeated long casts around the buoy with a deep-diving crankbait. Most strikes will occur the instant the lure bumps the rock or stump. Typically bass hold  tight to or suspend around this cover.

In summer, deep weed patches can hold the biggest concentrations of bass in the area, but small grassbeds are sometimes difficult to detect with electronics. Use the deepest diver in your tacklebox as a weed detector. Make a super-long cast and root the lure across the bottom of the point, ledge or hump. If it picks up grass, immediately switch to a crankbait that doesn't dive quite so deep and recrank the area.

A plug knocker is essential for this brand of deep crankin'. Many serious crankers carry a "pocket rock," a 3/4- to 1-ounce catfish sinker with an eye at one end.  After attaching one end of a wire snap to the eye and the other end around their line, they slide the sinker down to the lure, jiggle the rod tip and the bait usually pops free, thereby saving a ton of money on crankbaits.

Crank the Middle

In hot weather, bass in clear lakes often suspend, and can be a bear to catch. Currently one of the hottest summer strategies on the pro tournament trail involves cranking these fish with a realistic suspending crankbait like a Suspending Fat Free Shad Junior.

The kicker with this "pattern" is that it's not really a pattern at all. Suspending bass are often relating solely to each other, not structure. This can make searching for them like looking for a needle in a haystack. A good place to start is between two main-lake points. Bass often gang up on the ends of points early and late in the day to ambush passing schools of baitfish, but when the sun is high, they may go into a neutral mode and gravitate into open water. Locate two opposing points, then idle around until you spot hooks indicating bass on your graph. Note their depth, then crank 'em with a suspending bait. The beauty of this crankbait style is that once it's reached its maximum depth, it'll stay there. Once you've cranked down to the level of the bass, stop reeling for a beat or two, then resume the retrieve. This erratic approach will often trigger a strike from a suspending fish.

The same 7-foot cranking outfit you used for probing gravy spots will work great here, but I'd drop back a notch in line size and loosen up your reel drag a bit -- this is strictly open-water bassin'.

Smallmouth Strategies

Veteran smallmouth hunters accept gin-clear water as the norm. They know that big smallies tend to favor deep water, but they also know that it's possible to entice even the deepest fish up to the level of a small crankbait.

While smallies will slam the biggest crankbaits in murky waters, you'll get far more strikes in a clear venue by sticking to 1/8 to 3/8-ounce lures. Some favorites among the smallmouth fraternity include the Bomber Model A 600-series, Rebel Crawdad and Rapala Shad Rap. Many of these baits have a maximum depth range of 8 to 10 feet, but don't let that deter you from fishing them in deeper areas. In clear water, smallmouths are attuned to swimming long distances to grab a meal. It's entirely possible to pull big smallmouths out of 25 feet of water with a compact crankbait that runs no deeper than 10 feet. And notice I said "smallmouths" -- don't be surprised if you see a whole school of bass chasing after your lure!

Rocky points, gravel banks and shale ledges can hold large numbers of smallmouths. Secondary objects such as isolated stumps and boulders will concentrate them, so by all means seek these out with your electronics, then crank away.

Parallel cranking is a great way to stir up some smallmouth action on a rocky lake. Position your boat close to a limestone bluff or 45-degree chunk-rock bank, than cast parallel to the structure, working progressively deeper until you contact fish. Don't be dismayed if your boat is sitting in 100 feet of water next to a bluff bank -- smallies will suspend here at their comfort zone and won't be hesitant to snatch a fast-moving crankbait.

Which rod/reel/line to use with small crankbaits depends on your personal preference. Many bassers prefer a 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-light spinning rod, especially for the lightest baits in this genre. Spool up with 6- to 8-pound line and fan-cast the area, using a stop-and-go retrieve. And make sure your hooks are super-sharp -- a big smallmouth will take to the air as soon as you stick it, and you'll lose it if the barb isn't buried

Colors for Clearwater Crankin'

Choose colors carefully when cranking clear water, but don't be afraid to get creative if need be.

Natural color patterns including popular shad and crawfish patterns are reliable choices. Remember, bass in clear water feed mainly by sight. If your crankbait looks like real food, it'll be harder for the fish to turn down.

On sunny days, crankbaits with a reflective finish are a real advantage. They catch the sun's rays as they wobble, creating a flash that bass can see from great distances. Most open-water baitfish are silvery in color, so the crankbait's flash signals a potential meal to bass.

But reflective crankbaits lose their potency on cloudy or rainy days. With the sun hidden behind clouds, the lure reflects only the grayness around it, thereby rendering it virtually invisible to bass. Now is a good time to use a flat-finish lure (bone white, pearl, perch), or a hot color such as fire tiger, red or orange. And some built-in rattles can't hurt, either. -- Don Wirth

 
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Lures for Wood, Rock and Weeds

By Don Wirth

bass in weed cover

Legendary Florida bass expert Doug Hannon relies on a Texas-rigged plastic worm when fishing heavy weed cover like lily pads. 

Contrary to what many weekend anglers believe, bass pros don't possess supernatural powers for finding and catching fish. Instead, they earn those fat paychecks by correctly analyzing the fishing situations that confront them. This analysis includes determining the type and location of bass cover where they're fishing, then picking the best possible lure and presentation.

Sounds elementary, doesn't it? There's no sixth sense involved -- the pros simply maximize their opportunities for bites by putting the right lure in the right place at the right time.

Choosing the correct bait for the cover you're fishing is at the heart of every successful bass outing. To help you make the right decision, we present our recommendations for the best lures to use when fishing bassin's Big Three: wood, rock and weed cover. We suggest getting three large plastic utility boxes, one for each type of cover mentioned, and loading them with the lures mentioned.

Lures for Wood

Wood cover includes stumps, standing timber, deadfalls and brush. It's great bass habitat, especially when found in classic bass locations including shallow coves and flats, channel edges, points and submerged humps.

Bass generally hold tight to impenetrable wood  (stumps, logs, standing timber) for concealment when in a feeding mode, but will move into penetrable wood  (root systems, brushpiles, tree limbs) when inactive. A single piece of wood can provide both types of cover -- a submerged tree's trunk is impenetrable, but its root system and branches are penetrable.

When fishing impenetrable wood, your lure must be able to bump or crawl over the cover without hanging up. Design features that enable a lure to do this include large diving lip, streamlined head or body shape, weedguard and a concealed hook point. Therefore the best lures for fishing stumps, logs and standing timber are the following:

  • Crankbaits with large diving lips            
  • Weedless jigs            
  • Texas-rigged plastic worms and lizards            
  • Spinnerbaits

Fishing penetrable wood demands a lure with the ability to root out a bass in a very tight, snaggy spot without hanging up. Design features facilitating this include weedguard, streamlined head/body shape and concealed hook point. Lures best suited to brushpiles, limbs and roots include:

  • Weedless jigs            
  • Plastic worms, lizards and craws with a pegged sinker

Presentation tips for wood:  

  • When fishing tree trunks and stumps, always bump the cover with your lure. This causes it to change speed and direction, giving it the appearance of a fleeing baitfish or crawfish. The strike normally occurs immediately after the bait contacts the wood.           
  • When fishing a laydown log with a spinnerbait or crankbait, retrieve the lure so it travels the length of the cover instead of cutting across it. This will maximize its contact with the cover.            
  • Bass often hold at the major forks of submerged trees. Here, a spinnerbait is your best bet -- slow-roll it up to the fork, then stop the retrieve so the lure flutters straight down.            
  • Avoid overhand casting to roots, brushpiles and tree limbs -- you'll hang up constantly. Pitch or flip the lure into the cover instead.            
  •  Visibility is often poor in thick root wads and brushpiles. Here, use a  lure with strong visual contrast, such as a black worm with a chartreuse tail.

Lures for Rock 

bass in wood cover 

Wood cover holds plenty of bass. Choose lures that can bump off standing timber, stumps and brushpiles without constantly hanging up, like jigs spinnerbaits and plastic worms.   

Rock is generally regarded as inferior to both wood and weeds in terms of bass attraction, but bass are drawn to it where other types of cover aren't available. Rock is the prevailing cover in many deep, clear natural lakes and highland reservoirs. Rock cover occurs in the following forms:

Chunk rock, which ranges in size from fist-sized to head-sized. Traps decaying organic matter upon which crawfish feed.

Riprap, large pieces of rock used to shore up the bank near a reservoir dam. Good habitat for crawfish; shad feed on its slimy algae coating.

Boulders, massive rocks most often found in Western reservoirs and Canadian shield lakes. Provide plenty of shade to conceal bass in clear water.

Gravel, common in rivers, shield lakes and reservoirs -- great habitat for crawfish and an ideal spawning surface for smallmouth bass.

Sand -- rock in its smallest form! Porous, so it enables aquatic vegetation to take root. Perfect spawning surface for largemouth bass.

When fishing chunk rocks, boulders, gravel and sand, hangups usually aren't a worry. Instead, the extremely clear water typical of rocky lakes will dictate the type of lure used more than the cover itself. Therefore the lure should a) look extremely natural, with a lifelike baitfish or crawfish profile and color pattern, and b) have an erratic action, which is far more appealing to a bass in clear water than an unvarying, mechanical action. The best lures for rock cover are the following:

  • Soft-plastic jerkbaits            
  • Wood or plastic floater/diver minnows and suspending jerkbaits            
  • Small leadhead grubs, tube baits and jig/pork combos            
  • Flashing metal baits (jigging spoons, tailspinners, blade baits)                         
  • Finesse worms fished on small leadheads or split shot rigs            
  • Small deep-diving crankbaits            
  • Topwater lures

Presentation tips for rock:

  • Use lighter line than you'd use for fishing wood or weeds. Rocky lakes are often gin-clear, necessitating smaller lures and a more discreet presentation. Western bass anglers commonly use 4- and 6-pound mono when fishing rocky cover in deep, clear impoundments.            
  • On sunny days, choose lures with a realistic reflective baitfish pattern, such as a foil-finish crankbait or a smoke metalflake grub. On overcast days, the same lures in flat, non-reflective color patterns such as bone white or crawdad will be more visible.            
  • Bass often suspend over large rocks and may respond to a topwater lure or jerkbait retrieved over their heads.            
  • Retrieving a jig in short, erratic hops around chunk rock, riprap and gravel will mimic a live crawfish.            
  • A 4-inch finesse worm is one of the deadliest lures for probing rocks. Rig it on a leadhead with hook exposed, drop it straight down onto rockpiles in deep water and shake it gently on the bottom.            
  • When bass are on deep rocks, try a metal blade bait. Its heavy vibrations and intense flash can draw strikes in water over 50 feet deep.

Lures for Weeds

crankbaits, jerkbaits

Realistic crankbaits and suspending jerkbaits with a flash finish are excellent choices in rocky lakes. 

Aquatic vegetation is arguably the best bass cover of all, but it can be frustrating to fish -- constant hangups and that big glop of grass hanging from your hook can soften your resolve to probe weedy cover. But knowing what lures work best in specific weedy situations and how to fish 'em correctly can connect you with the biggest bass of your fishing career.

weeds aren't created equal. Here are the types most important to bass anglers:

  • Surface pads,  including lily pads and water hyacinths. These provide maximum overhead cover for bass, and their fragrant blossoms attract insects to crank up the food chain.            
  • Junk weeds,  including hydrilla, milfoil and coontail. These grasses grow in thick mats in sheltered coves and tributaries and provide sensational cover for bass and forage species alike.            
  • Submerged grasses,  such as eelgrass. These crank out plenty of oxygen and provide good cover for bass and baitfish.            
  • Emergent grasses,  including cattails and maidencane. They serve as a bridge from the terrestrial world to the water for insects, frogs, rodents and other small creatures bass feed upon.

Lure-design properties effective in weeds include long, slender profile (for sinking through thick grass), weedguard, concealed hook point, flat shape (for skimming over pads and matted grass), and noisemaking blades or rattles. Lures that showcase these properties include:

  • Weedless frogs and rats            
  • Buzzbaits            
  • Texas-rigged plastic worms and lizards            
  • Weedless jigs            
  •  Weedless metal or plastic spoons            
  •  Lipless rattling crankbaits

Presentation tips for weeds:

  • Douse your worm or lizard in liquid fish attractant or cooking oil so it'll slide easily through thick weed mats to the bass below.            
  • Don't use a stop-and-go retrieve when fishing frogs and rats across surface pads. Reeling slowly and steadily will make it easier for bass to locate the lure.            
  • Use the tail of a plastic worm as a trailer when fishing a weedless spoon. A bright trailer color like chartreuse or red will enable bass to spot the lure in thick grassbeds.            
  •  If a bass strikes your surface retrieve in matted grass or pads, but misses the lure, just keep it moving -- chances are it'll come back for a second try.            
  • Concentrate on edges where grass meets open water. Bass often locate here to take advantage of prey in both types of habitat.

 Choosing Bass Cover by the Season 

Bass cover is often seasonal in nature. Here's what you should be fishing during the four seasons:

WINTER:

1) ROCK -- Clear, rocky lakes are often your best bet in winter where iceover doesn't occur. They stay warmer longer than shallow, weedy or woody lakes and can provide good fishing all winter long. Best bet:  Deep rocky points.

2) WOOD -- Provided it's deep enough. Avoid shallow wood cover and look for isolated stumps on deep points and channel drops instead.

3) WEEDS -- Always fish 'em if available.

SPRING:

1) WEEDS -- Bass will flock to the first weed growth in shallow lakes. Best bet:  Weeds will be thickest in the warmest water, usually in the lake's northwest corner.

2) WOOD -- Stumps and logs 8-10 ft. deep in early spring, then all kinds of wood in shallower water once the surface temp rises.

3) ROCK -- A distant third now.

SUMMER:

1) WEEDS -- Lily pads provide so much shade, the water beneath them may be 5 degrees cooler than elsewhere in the lake, meaning bass in pads will be more active. Milfoil and hydrilla beds will be thick now and will hold plenty of bass. Best bet:  Isolated weed patches  close to deep water.

2) WOOD -- Fish laydowns on shallow flats in murky lakes; stumps and brushpiles on deep channel structures in clear lakes.

3) ROCK -- Try rockpiles at night in clear highland lakes.

FALL:

1) WEEDS -- The last remaining weeds as the lake cools are a natural bass magnet. Best bet:  The deepest weeds will be the last to die. Use a deep-running crankbait to pinpoint their location, then slow down and fish 'em with a weedless jig. 

2) WOOD -- Stumpy flats are good now; bass will gorge on shad here prior to moving deep for the winter.

3) ROCK -- Begins to exert more attraction as weeds die off. Try topwaters over rocky ledges and gravel humps. 

 

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Live-Bait Secrets for Giant Stripers

By Don Wirth

giant river striper 2
Get your hands on the striper of a lifetime with the live-bait tips in this story!

No question, lures can produce amazing results. Unquestionably one of the biggest thrills in freshwater fishing is the moment a big striper smacks a topwater lure -- the impact has been likened to that of a Buick falling off a bridge. And don't sell crankbaits and jigs short when it comes to catching these silvery fighters.

But day in and day out, the best "lure" for a real wall-hanger of a striper is live bait. Most of the giant stripers taken every year succumb to some form of bait, and if you're serious about tangling with a trophy, you'd be wise to have something stinky and squirmy on the end of your line.

Here's what you know to score big on bait. Put the following tips into practice on your home striper waters and watch the quantity and quality of the fish you catch escalate.

Baiting Up

The experienced striper fisherman spends a great deal of time searching for, gathering, holding and caring for his live bait. He knows that on many fishing days, if there's no good bait, his chances of a bite are minimal. Thus productive striper fishing demands some general knowledge of where to hunt the bait the fish want, and some specialized gear to catch and maintain it.  

Landlocked stripers are often typecast as indiscriminate eaters; many anglers even hold them responsible for declining populations of bass and crappie in some reservoirs. But biologists know such is not the case. Stripers feed mainly on pelagic forage fish including threadfin and gizzard shad and blueback and skipjack herring. They'll also eat trout, bluegill, eels, drum and an occasional carp. At times, stripers will even dine on crappie minnows!

 

striper bait castnetting
A cast net is essential for gathering live bait.

Of the above, the most popular landlocked striper baits include shad, herring, trout and bluegills (the latter two where legal). Shad and blueback herring are best gathered in a cast net; trout, skipjacks and bluegills can be caught on rod and reel.

Throwing a cast net is an ancient art that's well worth mastering. If you can't find these nets in your local tackle outlets, Bass Pro Shops (1-800) BASS PRO) sells them, along with instructional videos. Net size is indicated by radius (example, a 10-foot net spans 20 feet across when thrown properly). A good starter size is 6 feet; once you get comfortable with this, you may find a larger net more desirable. If you're after big baits like gizzard shad, choose a heavy net with a fairly large mesh size; this will sink faster, especially in current.

Shad and blueback herring can usually be netted in large quantities below dams, however extreme caution must be exercised -- stay out of posted areas and wear your pfd! In the Tennessee striper reservoirs near my home, I also find gizzard shad in the back-ends of tributaries as well as around river eddies and shoals.

Skipjack herring are a tremendous live bait; they can occasionally weigh over 2 pounds, but that's not too big for a monster striper. Skipjacks thrive in the fast water below dams. The best way to catch them is to use a spinning outfit with two or three tube jigs tied 6 to 12 inches apart up the line. These buggers really put up a fight when hooked; catching them is a blast.

A shad tank is a necessity for keeping shad and herring frisky. These aerated tanks are rounded inside so the bait doesn't swim into the corners and get "red-nosed." The best ones have a filter to trap scales and crud. Get the largest shad tank you can deal

 

giant river striper
Monster stripers like this 47-pounder are usually caught on live bait, as legendary Tennessee guide Ralph Dallas knows.

Skipjack herring are much harder to maintain in a tank than are shad and bluebacks. Many anglers catch them in a likely fishing area and immediately bait them up and fish with them rather than risk killing them in their tank. Some highly sophisticated skipjack tanks are in development as this goes to press; they include a remote tank to hyper-oxygenate the water and a much more powerful aerator pump than is commonly used in a shad tank.

Your bait tank's water must be kept cool (preferably 60-70 degrees) and treated with a livewell chemical. I treat the water in my shad tank with Shad-Keeper and Foam-Off. I also add ice in hot weather.

Proven Bait Rigs & Presentations

Like catfishermen, striper anglers have a variety of bait rigs they rely on under various conditions.

When tying these rigs, keep in mind that factors such as line test, sinker weight and hook size are relative. In deep water, and in heavy current, you may need a much heavier sinker than in shallow, slack water (where you may need no sinker at all). Likewise, your hook size will vary according to bait size.

 

striper bait
A bait tank with rounded corners helps keep live shad frisky.

When stripers are below 15 feet deep, a down line comes in handy. This bread-and-butter reservoir rig presents the bait directly beneath the boat and is especially recommended when stripers are suspending off the bottom and around offshore structures such as humps and channel drop-offs.

As shown, the down line should be fished with a heavy sinker so your bait doesn't drift back too far, which would alter its depth. A sturdy swivel is necessary to prevent the baitfish from twisting your line during its struggles.

Long baitcasting or spinning rods with a fairly soft action are perfect for downline use. I like to keep my downline rods in holders until a fish strikes.

Once suspended stripers are located on your graph, note the depth of the highest fish and measure out enough line off your reel so your bait is presented just above their level. For some reason, a suspended striper will usually swim up to grab a meal, but will seldom swim down.

types of bait can be fished on a downline. In hot weather, a live bluegill can be surprisingly effective.

Flatlines are used when a shallower presentation is required, and are often employed by reservoir anglers in conjunction with downlines. Here, a baitfish is hooked and a cast length or so of line peeled off the reel. Every time the boat speeds up or slows down, the bait will rise and fall in a most enticing manner. Adding a split shot above the bait will put it a little deeper if desired. Besides stripers, a flatline will often take a bonus bass or walleye.

When fishing downlines and flatlines in combination, try to present a Duke's mixture of bait sizes. On some days the fish want only the biggest baits in your tank; at other times they prefer a much smaller bite.

Planer boards are currently in vogue with reservoir and river striper hunters. These wedge-shaped devices attach to the baited line and cause it to swing out to either the left or right of your boat. Reservoir anglers find this gives their presentation more coverage; river anglers like the fact that the board can present the bait tight to shoreline cover. Depending on how aggressive the fish are, run your bait anywhere from 3 to 20 feet behind your boards.

Floats and balloons are arguably the most exciting method of presenting a live bait. They're recommended when stripers are using shallow river bars and shoals or reservoir coves and points; they're super-deadly when fish are holding tight to submerged trees or snaggy undercut banks, such as is often the case in rivers. In the tailraces I fish, I may get a follow from a big striper early in the morning when casting a topwater lure or crankbait past a sunken tree, and will return to the spot later and chunk a big shad on a float to this spot. Often the bait gets creamed the instant it hits the water.

Stinger rigs may be required for large baitfish, especially skipjacks and trout. Here, the bait is hooked both through the lips or nose as well as through the tail. Wire leader material works great for attaching the stinger hook to the main hook; its stiffness helps prevent the tangles you'd get from using mono or braided line.

Bottom rigs are best used on gravel bars and flats, and are deadly in river current. Either live or "cut" bait (sections or filets of baitfish) will work on the bottom. Some of the biggest stripers ever recorded were taken on cut bait fished on a bottom rig.

Tackle Recommendations

The type tackle you use will depend on the kind of bait rig being fished and the size of the striper you're likely to encounter.

Where stripers run up to 10 pounds, bass-sized baitcasting and spinning gear can be used. In open reservoirs where stripers may range from 10 to 30 pounds and a combination of downlines and flatlines is used, 6 1/2- to 7 1/2-foot medium-action baitcasting rods and wide-spool reels such as Ambassadeur 6500s with 15- to 20-pound mono are recommended. And in snaggy rivers, where giant fish are a possibility, use 7- to 8-foot medium-heavy to heavy baitcasting rods, Ambassadeur 6500 and 7000 reels and 30- to 50-pound mono. Some river anglers I know are using braided lines to 130-pound test; these work better in murky water than clear water. If you do use braided products for stripers, keep in mind that these superlines have almost zero stretch; you'll need to compensate by using softer-action rods than you'd normally use with mono.

More Bait Tips

  •  When drifting bait, a bow-mounted graph with its transducer attached to your trolling motor is a great help in pinpointing striper location and bottom structure.
  • Stripers sometimes hit a bait so hard, the impact can break the line. Keep your reel drag fairly loose. Then when a fish runs off with your bait, tighten down the drag gradually to control the fish.
  • Use an unmounted bilge pump and hose to drain the water from your bait tank and replace it with fresh water as needed. Clean the tank's filter regularly during the fishing day.
  • If you don't see stripers on your graph, don't panic -- look for big schools of baitfish instead. The stripers won't be far behind.
  • When you detect a strike, set the hook immediately rather than allowing the striper to swallow the bait. If the water is cool, the fish can be released alive. --  Don Wirth 
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Tubin' Winter Slabs

By Don Wirth

winter crappie haul

Winter can mean super-deep crappie. Vertical-jigging a tube jig is a great way to catch these fish. 

Even though I was encased in a snowmobile suit, I felt the chilly blast of the north wind across the water. I was about to suggest to my fishing companion, Nashville crappie guide Harold Morgan, that we head for a nearby marina and a hot cup of coffee, when something solid thumped my line. I set the hook and reeled a chunky crappie up through 30 feet of water. As I was admiring the fish, Morgan's rod bowed, and seconds later he swung not one, but two slab crappie into his boat. From the looks of the massive school of fish revealed by Harold's graph, things were about to warm up considerably.

Morgan, an experienced guide who usually favors live bait, had insisted we try tube jigs on that frigid January morning. It turned out to be a wise move, for we enjoyed tremendous crappie action -- and we didn't have to stick our hands in a minnow bucket once.

Better Than Bait?

"In cold water, tube jigs can have some definite advantages over live minnows," Morgan said.    He listed them as follows: 

  • More visible --    "At extreme depths, on overcast days with minimal light penetration, and when the lake has turned muddy after a hard rain, a brightly colored tube jig is much more visible to crappie than a live minnow -- important to keep in mind, because crappie are primarily sight feeders."
  • Less rigging --    "When you're in an active school of crappie, you'll be constantly rebaiting your hooks with minnows, but you can fish the same tube jig all day long unless you break it off in a treetop. On cold days, you can keep your hands warm and dry when using tube jigs, and you don't have to rerig with a fresh bait every time you hop from one fishing spot to the next."
  • Temperature tolerant --    "I've seen minnows go into shock in winter when you take them from a bait shop environment to a frigid lake."
  • No mess --    "No bait buckets sloshing around, no minnows flopping under your boat's console, no dropped hooks and sinkers -- tube jigs are neat and tidy."
  • Versatile --    "You can fish tube jigs at any depth, either vertically or horizontally. This comes in handy in winter since crappie can exhibit wider fluctuations in depth than at any other time of year."
  • Easy to fish --    "Jigs are usually thought of as requiring quite a bit of skill to fish properly, but they're actually the simplest lures you can use -- as easy as live bait."

Tubes, Heads & Tackle

Morgan uses standard mini tube jigs. He buys them in bulk bags in a wide assortment of colors. "Tubes are the cheapest lures you can buy -- cheaper than live bait, too," he noted. "I keep plenty on hand in different colors and experiment with color throughout the day to find what's turning on the fish." Before each trip, Morgan loads a compartmented Plano utility box with tubes (throwing in a few mini-twister grubs as well), taking care to restock colors that may have been depleted in previous outings. "You need to keep each color separated in storage so they don't bleed," Harold warned.

tube-jig-caught crappie

Tube jigs rule when it comes to enticing big crappie this time of year.

While not a strong believer in scented fish attractants, Morgan will often squeeze a few drops of liquid scent over his tube jigs once he's organized them in a utility box: "This keeps them soft and pliable, and prevents them from sticking together. WD-40 will work, too."

Leadheads used with tube jigs are also purchased in bulk. "I use 1/16-, 1/8- and 1/4-ounce heads," Morgan indicated. "Many crappie anglers use 1/32-, even 1/64-ounce heads with tubes, but I want to feel the weight of the lure on my line when I'm working it. If you're fishing the jigs by themselves, without a sinker, the deeper the water, the heavier your leadhead should be." Harold stores leadheads in a separate utility box, away from his tubes. "Some tubes have salt or other additives which, over time, can rust your hooks," he warned.

Leadheads can be purchased either unpainted or in a variety of colors. "This adds even more versatility to your presentation," Morgan said. "I use a lot of unpainted heads, but I've seen days when they wouldn't hit anything but a white tube on a pink head. Heads are cheap, so stock up on a good menu of colors."

The tackle Morgan uses for tube jigs depends on how he intends to fish them. For vertical fishing, he favors a 7-foot medium-action spinning rod and 8-pound mono. For casting and retrieving tubes horizontally, he uses the same rod with 6-pound line. "Many crappie fishermen use ultralight tackle with tubes, but these short, light-action rods work best with 4-pound line. This is too light for the brushy places I usually fish," he explained.

Rigging Up

Morgan is a storehouse of crappie fishing information, and the information he shares on tube jig rigging methods should greatly expand the possibilities of catching slab crappie on these lures, especially during the tough winter months. Here are a few riggings he recommends:

  • Kentucky rig --   "This is my bread-and-butter crappie rig. Use 8-pound main line and tie a 1/2- to 1-ounce  bell sinker on the end -- I use 7/8 ounce. About 18 inches above the sinker, tie two 6-inch leader lines 6 inches apart. These leaders should be made with cheap, stiff 20- to 30-pound mono, the kind found in the discount bin at most bait and tackle shops. When light tube jigs are tied to the ends of the stiff leaders, they will stand out away from the main line for a better presentation and less tangling. You can add a tiny piece of Styrofoam float to the leader lines to help keep the jigs elevated." In winter, Morgan lowers this rig into submerged tree limbs and brushpiles, then s-l-o-w-l-y reels upward -- a deadly tactic for suspended crappie. He also taps the sinker along creek channel drop-offs, keeping the weight in contact with the bottom while the tubes dart and settle in a most enticing manner. "You can mix or match tube jig colors, or fish one tube and one live minnow," Morgan pointed out. He keeps leaders pre-tied with tube jigs for fast rerigging when necessary.
  • Multiple rigging --   "Crappie often bunch up tight in winter, and when they do, tying more than one tube jig on your line is a good way to load the boat quickly," Harold promised. "I just attach them to the line 6 or 8 inches apart and have used as many as five tubes at a time." This multi-rig can be either fished vertically over brushpiles, or cast and retrieved straight back to the boat when crappie are shallow.
  • Straight rigging --   "This is the simplest method of all -- just tie the leadhead of your choice to the end of your line and hook a tube jig to it so the head of the tube snugs up tight against the leadhead."
  • Concealed rigging --   "The bass boys use this weedless method when rigging their larger tubes, and it works fine for crappie, too. Insert the jig head into the hollow cavity of the tube -- a drop of fish attractant makes it slide in easier. Then work the head up to the closed end of the tube and press on the hook eye until it breaks through the soft plastic. I like this rigging method when vertical-fishing thick brushpiles."
  • Float & tube --   "Arguably the most exciting method of fishing a tube jig. Simply attach a float to your line above the jig, then adjust the length of the drop line running from the float to the jig so the tube is presented just off bottom, or slightly above the level of suspended fish. Just hold the rod steady -- even the slightest wave action will activate the jig. Great for kids -- they love to watch that bobber go under!"

No matter what rigging method is employed, Morgan cautions the tube jigger not to overdo his presentation. "Tube jigs work because they're very subtle, natural-looking lures," he explained. "The single biggest mistake most anglers make when fishing them is to use too much rod action. You don't need to jerk hard -- just shake the rod tip gently, or hold the rod steady and let the rocking of the boat move the jig for you."

Winter Wonderlands

Morgan says winter crappie can vary widely in depth from one lake or fishing day to the next. "The 15- to 25-foot zone is usually the most productive in winter on the lakes I fish (Priest and Old Hickory reservoirs near Nashville)," Morgan said. "However, I have caught crappie as deep as 57 feet, and as shallow as 5 feet in winter. If you can't find fish, by all means take time to explore both deeper and shallower water."

Bass Pro Shops Squirmin' Squirts

Keep a good supply of tubes on hand, in a variety of colors.

Morgan sinks his own brushpiles and targets these extensively in winter. "I'll also fish channel bends, drop-offs, submerged humps, flats with scattered stumps and rock bluffs." The latter structures are often overlooked by crappie anglers, Morgan noted. "Sheer rock bluffs hold heat -- the water against them is often several degrees warmer than elsewhere in the lake. This attracts baitfish and crappie in droves."

Bluffs are perfect for tube jiggin' -- just put your boat tight to the face of the rock wall and lower your tube jig to the bottom, Morgan recommended. "Usually a bluff bank has one, two or more narrow rock ledges that jut out from the vertical rock mass like stairsteps," he said. "On the lakes I fish, the 

first ledge is usually about 12 feet deep, and the second 5 to 10 feet below it. In winter, crappie often bunch up big-time on the second ledge. Use tube jigs on a Kentucky rig -- lower the sinker to the ledge and move along slowly with your trolling motor, tapping the weight against the rocks. I've also caught big smallmouth bass in winter on crappie tubes while probing bluff ledges."

The biggest surprise about winter tubin' is how shallow crappie can be, even on the most frigid days. "Crappie are very much oriented to sunlight, and on calm, sunny winter days, may move into 5 to 10 ft. of water in shallow coves. Here they hold around submerged stumps and brushpiles. Just casting a tube jig past the cover and swimming it slowly and steadily will often produce a strike."

 What to do When Tubes Aren't Working

No lure or live bait works every time. We asked Nashville crappie guide Harold Morgan for some recommendations on what to do when your tube jigs aren't producing strikes in winter.

Change colors  --   "This can often produce immediate positive results. Over the past several winters, my best tube colors have been chartreuse/red, white, solid chartreuse and black."

Slow down  --   "Try a less active jigging presentation. Crappie can be sluggish in cold water -- don't jerk the blazes out of your jigs!"

Keep moving  --   "I never anchor, but use my trolling motor to move slowly around structure or suspended fish instead. Often the crappie have drifted 20 or 30 yards off the spot; once you relocate 'em, you can catch 'em."

Add a minnow or Power Bait  --   "Try hooking a tiny crappie minnow or a chunk of Berkley Power Bait to the tube jig's hook for added attraction."

Switch to bait  --   "Some days they just want the real thing. Don't fight it -- give 'em live bait if they insist on it."

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Targeting Wintertime White Bass

By Keith Sutton

white bass on tube jig

White bass have small mouths -- big baits won't catch them with any  consistency.

In spring, white bass seek tributaries of major reservoirs for spawning runs.  It is during these spawning runs, when thousands of whites are concentrated in small streams, that most white bass are taken during the year.  In fact, for some white-bass aficionados, there's no season but spring.  When spawning runs end, so does the fishing.

That's unfortunate, for winter is an excellent season for catching whites.  Many anglers catch them in dam tailwaters by tightlining from the bank or wade fishing in the shallows a safe distance from the dam.  Others fish lakes and rivers from boats, using a sonar unit to find whites schooling around deep-water sunken islands, river bars, long points and other structure.  When fish are found, it's usually easy to entice them with a well-placed lure or bait.

Baits & Lures

White bass feed on small baitfish like shad and minnows. Consequently, most are caught using live baitfish or artificial lures imitating that prey.

Of course, that takes in an astounding variety of baits -- small live shad, live shiners, jigs, small spoons, small spinners, small crankbaits and other popular enticements like Gay Blades and tailspinners.  Small is the key word here.  White bass have small mouths, and big bait won't take them with any measure of consistency.

In my experience, you'll rarely go wrong using live minnows, leadhead jigs, or a combination of the two.

white bass

Sand bass this time time of year school around points, underwater islands and river bars. Sonar is a must for finding reservoir fish.

For minnows, use a sinker tied to the end of the line to drag the bait to the bottom where winter whites are usually found.  The minnow is lip-hooked on a small, single hook attached to a dropper line tied a few inches above the weight.

Leadhead jigs must be also have enough weight to carry them to or near the bottom.  For shallow water, lighter jigs -- 1/16 to 1/8 ounce - work well; in deeper or more turbulent water, some anglers go as heavy as 1/2 ounce.

When using a jig/minnow combo, consider adding a #8 treble hook as a trailer.  To do this, tie a short length of line to the bend in the jig's hook, and tie the treble hook on the other end.  Hook a minnow through the lip with the jig hook, then hook one barb of the treble hook in the minnow's tail.  This rig sounds complicated, but it helps nail soft-hitting winter white bass on the slightest nibble.

Deep Structure Fishing

During spring, summer and fall, white bass are nomadic, sometimes roaming for miles as they follow schools of shad and other baitfish.  In winter, however, cold water reduces their metabolism and the need to feed.  For a few weeks, the roaming urge is quelled, and whites gather in fairly stationary schools in deep water.

In big deep reservoirs, they may be down 40 feet or more, usually holding in open water around some type of prominent underwater structure like a hump or fast-dropping point.  The same behavior is observed on big rivers; look for white bass near deep structure like river-channel edges and plummeting holes at the mouths of tributaries.  Sand structures like bars and flats are especially attractive, hence the common nickname "sandies."  Rarely will whites be found where brush and big rocks cover the bottom.  Smooth-bottomed open-water areas provide the habitat they prefer.

Invaluable equipment for fishing deep structure includes bottom-contour maps of the lake, marker buoys that allow you to stay near structure or schools of fish and, most important, a sonar fish-finding unit that will reveal structure as well as the fish themselves. Since white bass spend most of their time over a clean bottom, it's much easier to locate them with electronic gear than is the case with fish that live in dense cover.  Check the spots where whites should be, and when you see some returns, mark the spot with a buoy and start fishing.

One of the best lures for these deep-water fish is a small jigging spoon worked vertically beneath the boat.  Fish the spoon straight up and down.  Jerk it hard, raising it 4 or 5 feet, and let it flutter back down on slack line.  Most strikes come while the spoon is falling.  And you probably won't feel the strike, but that's OK.  When you jerk the spoon again, you'll set the hook.  That's the reason for jerking it hard.

Another one of my favorite lures for deep-water whites is the Road Runner.  This lure can be cast and retrieved up and down points, over and around humps and along deep sand bars and flats.  It has what I call a double whammy -- the flash of a spinner and the seductive dance of a marabou or rubber-skirted jig all wrapped up in one deadly little package.  Work the lure just above the bottom where the big sows lurk.  Use a varied retrieve, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes smooth, sometimes jerky.  Occasionally, it should fall to the bottom and be ripped upward again.  All these shenanigans will usually be more than white bass can bear, and the flash of the little spinner whirling through the water just ahead of the twisting tail entices strikes from even the most finicky fish.

Yet another method of taking whites on deep winter structure is to troll with deep-diving lures, or better yet, to troll with downriggers and small jigs.  Trolling covers a lot of water and will produce fish on those rare days when whites don't want to cooperate.  Trolling may also be the best method for taking suspended white bass, fish holding at mid-depths between the surface and bottom.  Suspended fish are generally hard to catch by casting or jigging.

Pre-Spawn Staging Areas

As winter draws to a close, water temperature climbs toward the mid-50s, and white bass begin heading upstream or uplake to searching for shallow spawning riffles.  This migration begins well before the actual spawn, and progresses in stages as water and weather conditions change.  During the journey, whites gather in huge concentrations in "staging areas," places that provide quick access between winter's deep haunts and spring's shallow spawning streams.  The smaller males arrive first, followed a week or two later by the heavy egg-laden females.

winter white bass

Trolling is a superb way to take deep-schooling white bass. 

In large reservoirs fed by several small tributaries, staging areas will usually be in the upper third of the lake.  That may still be a big spread of water, but for all practical purposes, every spawning-sized white bass in the lake will be there, making them significantly more concentrated.  Most will be found in deep holes near mouths of tributaries with good current flow or along secondary creek channels in deeper water nearby.  Creek/river channel junctions in these areas offer exceptional potential.

In big rivers, whites often stage and spawn below dams when their upstream migration is blocked.  For this reason, tailwater fishing is outstanding throughout the late winter/early spring period.

The same lures and tackle used earlier will work when fishing these staging areas.  But you can often use a faster presentation.  As the water warms from the upper 40s through the low 50s, toward the ideal spawning temperature of 53 to 64 degrees, the fish become more aggressive.  During prolonged periods of warmth, some fish will migrate 50 or 100 yards up a creek and stay in the same area until a cold front drives them back to deeper water.  So fishing pools in the lower ends of spawning tributaries may prove very effective.  In this situation, there's simply no limit as to how many whites can stack into a single pool.  

Winter fishing isn't for everybody.  For most of us, a warm fireplace is much more attractive than a frigid outing on a big, cold river.

If the fishing itch gets too intense to bear, though, give winter white bass a try.  Fishing for these sassy panfish is a sure remedy for what ails you.

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Catch Lunker Bass From Cold, Muddy Water

By Don Wirth

Don Wirth hoists a big bass

Author Don Wirth hooked this 8-pounder when his rattling crankbait bumped off a log in 44-degree water. 

Weekend anglers hate it. Even guides and pro bassers dread it.

Cold, muddy water. 

It's bass fishing's one-two punch -- the toughest conditions bass anglers are likely to encounter. 

And it's coming to a lake or river near you this season.

This Internet   publication is based firmly in reality. We're here to bring you the facts, not sugar-coat the truth. We want you to know that cold, muddy water is no picnic -- but neither is it the end of the world. You can catch bass from it. Good ones, too. 

Veteran Goodlettsville, Tenn., bass guide Jack Christian fishes for both largemouths and smallmouths year-round. He books trips as much as a year in advance, so he's learned to cope with what the elements dish out. And when cold, muddy water is on the menu, there are few bass anglers with more savvy than Jack. We asked the guide to share with us how he copes with frigid, murky water. His responses can help you score in these same tough conditions.

Basics to Remember

"To understand why fishing gets tough in cold, muddy water requires that you first understand a few basics about the bass as a living creature," Christian begins.  "As a cold-blooded animal, the body temperature of the bass is the same as that of the water in which it lives. Every bass fishermen knows bass are most active in warm water. But as the water gets colder, bass get sluggish. They sit and hold more and prowl around less. Digestion takes much longer in cold water, too, so bass feed far less often than they do in warm water."

Besides being cold-blooded, the bass is primarily a sight feeder, Christian continues. "Even though it has a lateral line containing sensory organs, it mainly uses its keen sense of sight when feeding. In clear water, the bass can see a considerable distance and will forage along weedlines, points, ledges, the bottom, the shoreline and other structures, looking for a meal. It feels comfortable in its surroundings. But in muddy water, the bass can't see nearly as well and won't wander far from a home base -- usually an object like a stump or log."

When the two conditions are combined, look for the bite to be painfully slow, Christian warns. "In cold, muddy water, the bass is not only sluggish, its visibility is highly restricted. It may be able to distinguish objects only a few inches from its nose."

Therefore, expect bass under these conditions to exhibit the following behaviors, Christian explains: 

  • They won't be actively feeding.   "This will become more apparent the colder the water gets. As its metabolism slows down, its need for food diminishes considerably. Even an experienced bass angler might get only one or two bites a day in extremely cold water."
  • They'll be very tight to cover.   "Biologists believe that when their visibility is restricted, bass 'park and hold' tight to submerged objects because these objects serve as a reference point in their low-visibility world. When they can see only a few inches, they probably feel some sense of comfort when hunkering up to a stump, log or rock, just as you'd feel more comfortable sitting in a chair in a totally darkened room than trying to walk and feel your way around in the blackness."
muddy-water bass

Jigs are probably your best bet for bass in cold, muddy conditions. 

These are relatively simple concepts to grasp, yet Christian says most bass fishermen forget them when trying to fish cold, muddy water. "The most common mistakes are fishing way too fast, fishing too deep and fishing away from cover. You've got to slow down and get your lures right where the fish are, 'cause they sure aren't going to rush out and chase them down."

Developing a Game Plan

Now more than ever, a game plan can save the day, Christian believes. "The first step I'd recommend is adjusting your expectations," the guide says. "Do this before you make your first cast. If you hit the water like a whirlwind and expect bass to be slamming your baits like they were last summer or fall, you're going to be extremely disappointed. Mentally prepare yourself by coming to grips with the fact that the bite is going to be much slower than normal. Instead of setting a goal of limiting out like you might under better conditions, tell yourself you're going to coax one or two big bass into hitting." This is not an unreasonable expectation, Christian emphasizes. "For some reason, I've caught some of my biggest bass, especially largemouths, in cold, muddy water. I might get only a couple of bites all day, but they're often extremely good fish. This gives me plenty of encouragement to stay out there and fish in these conditions, even though bites seldom come easy."

Christian next recommends making the best of a bad situation. "Conditions everywhere may be bad, but some places will always be a little better than others. Now is the time to key on spots where fish are most likely to be the most catchable."

Christian listed the following as important places to try:

Runoff areas with warmer water   -- "Mud has usually entered the system via runoff from tributaries, typically following a hard rain. Often the temperature of the runoff will be warmer or colder than the lake or river water. If it's warmer, this will pull a ton of forage as well as predatory species like bass into the back-ends of the flowing tributaries."  A surface-temperature gauge can be the most important piece of equipment on your bass boat now, Christian emphasizes. "If the lake water is 42 degrees and the murky runoff in the back ends of the tributaries is 48, most bait and gamefish will be in the runoff. In winter, I'll fish the warmest water regardless of how muddy it is."

Shallow cover in protected coves   -- "Bass will seldom be very deep when their visibility is restricted by sediment in the water. To the contrary, when mud enters the system, it often pushes bass shallower where light penetration is better. Plus, muddy water can warm up quickly on a sunny day -- provided it's not chilled by cold north winds. Coves on the north side of the lake offer the most wind protection; the chilling breezes tend to hit hardest on the opposite (south) shore. Again, your boat's surface-temp meter will show that the water on the north shore may be 5 to 7 degrees warmer than elsewhere in the lake."

Big objects inside the shallow zone   --   "Bass will hold tight to stumps, big rocks, dock pilings and other large objects -- and I do mean tight. Big stumps with exposed root systems and boulder-sized rocks are especially good. I'd look for these in 5 feet of water or less."

cold, muddy river

Muddy-water bass like to hold tight to large objects in shallow water. 

The shoreline  --   "I don't often advocate pounding the banks for bass, but cold, muddy conditions are the exception. The shoreline offers everything a bass needs when visibility is restricted. The best banks are usually sharply undercut; avoid banks with a gradual taper. Of course, plenty of wood or rock cover is a plus."

Bluff banks   -- "These can be good provided they aren't too deep. Rock often breaks off from the bluff's face and falls to the foot of the structure; bass hide around these chunks of debris. A super place to fish a crayfish-imitating jig."

Floating debris    --"Bass love overhead cover, even when it's in the form of debris that gathers in pockets and eddies when the water rises after heavy rains. Look for floating debris in the warmest water you can find."

Your Fishing Approach

"When conditions are good, you can catch bass with a wide array of lures and presentations," Christian says. "But in cold, muddy water, your options are limited by the sluggish nature of the fish and its propensity to be very tight to cover."

Flipping or pitching with weedless baits like jigs and plastic worms (see below) are highly recommended presentations. "Because visibility is limited, you can move close to stumps, logs and other targets without spooking the bass. Drop the lure right in the thickest part of a brushpile or stump and work it very slowly. Often a strike feels like no more than a dull resistance, just as though you'd hooked a leaf."

Christian often finds the bite far better in mid-day than early or late. "The fish may get a little more active after the sun has had a chance to warm up the water."

               Lures to Rely on in the Toughest Conditions

Here are some lures veteran guide Jack Christian recommends trying in cold, muddy water:

Grubs  --   "Leadhead grubs in the 3- to 5-inch size range are surprisingly effective for bass in cold, muddy water. Use pumpkin or chartreuse colors and bump them off rocks and stumps with a slow swimming retrieve."

Hair jigs --   "I especially like these for smallmouth bass, but largemouths will hit them as well. They present a small but realistic baitfish or crawdad profile to the bass and work especially well around rocks and stumps. Dress them with a pork trailer or fish them by themselves. Try black or brown; these resemble live crayfish. I use hair jigs when the surface temperature is around 45 to 52 degrees; in slightly warmer water I may switch to a grub."

Plastic worms  --  "Excellent for big bass when worked around shallow wood cover. Peg the sinker with a toothpick and flip or pitch the lure around stumps and logs. Dark colors like black or purple are more visible in muddy water."

Lipless rattling crankbaits    -- "You normally think of these for the most active bass, but they'll catch big fish up shallow in cold, muddy water -- provided you slow the retrieve way, way down. Ideal for use in stumpfields shallower than 5 feet. The slope-cut head helps the lure glance off objects without hanging up."

Spider jigs  --  "My favorite leadhead lures in frigid low-visibility water. They look just like a live crayfish. When a bass inhales the lure, the jig's soft tentacles writhe inside its mouth and feel alive, making the bass clamp down hard.

Plastic lizard  -- "Another good choice in low-vis water. This lure has even more going for it than a plastic worm -- a long, wriggly tail and four squirmy legs to help get the bass' attention. Rig it Texas-style and flip or pitch it around shallow cover."

Jig 'n pig  --  "The Godfather of cold-water bass lures. Bass will hit it when the water is below 40 degrees. Drop it around stump roots, undercut banks, etc. When it's muddy, I like a big, bulky presentation and increase the size of the pork or plastic trailer. This makes the combo both easier to spot and slower to fall."

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Top Spots for Channel Cats

By Don Wirth

 channel cat 4

Channel cats provide great eating, and they're fun to catch as well.

Love fishing for channel catfish? So do we. Here are our picks for the best channel cat waters in the country!  

Red River, Manitoba

It's hard to imagine a better catfishery than the Red. In fact, it's one of the few fishing spots anywhere that consistently exceeds its press billings. "We just held our annual channel cat tournament, and it took 8 channels weighing 169 pounds to win it," lodge owner/guide Stu McKay said. Whoa, that's a tad over a 21-pound average! "Last season the Red was absolutely incredible, due in part to flow rates being 50 to 100 percent higher than normal," McKay says. "The big channel cats were everywhere, shallow and deep, with a 32-pounder our best fish of the season. And we're looking for an equally sensational year in '00. The only thing that'll mess this place up is a drought."

McKay suggests targeting the three to four miles below the St. Andrews dam at Lockport. "The mile immediately below the dam is known as the Miracle Mile; it typically holds an unbelievable concentration of big channels and is best in early spring. Pre-spawn fishing can be absolutely unreal. By the third week of June, the spawning waves will be on the move and 20s are common."

Cheatham Reservoir, Tennessee

Although best known as a haven for monster blues, the stretch of the Cumberland between Madison and Ashland City, Tenn., (a.k.a. Cheatham Reservoir) is coming on strong in the channel cat department. Expect large numbers of eating-sized cats, with enough wallhangers thrown in to keep things spicy. And you might even hang a big one right in downtown Nashville; the Cumberland runs within a stone's throw of Music City's recording studios and the Titans NFL football stadium.

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Landing lunker channel cats require stout tackle.

Nashville guide Donny Hall stays on this river-run reservoir year-round, but favors winter for the biggest channel cats -- his largest so far is 25 pounds. "December through February is my favorite; the water temp usually runs 40 to 45 degrees, and channels stack up in holes 20 to 30 feet deep -- usually shallower than our blue cats," Hall explains. "You'll catch plenty of nice fish on cut skipjack fished on the bottom on Carolina rigs." River bends, points and other current breaks also produce quality bites.

Guide:    Donny Hall (615/383-4464). Lodging:   Daystop Inn (615) 356-9100. 

Rock River, Illinois

Dark-colored and spooky, the Rock, already a popular destination among walleye fishermen, is gaining a solid reputation as one of the Midwest's premier channel cat venues. The 13-mile stretch from Dixon to Sterling is outstanding; it averages 7 feet in depth and can run to 40 in places. The river's name comes from the limestone that forms much of its bottom; sandbars add to a catfish-friendly habitat mix.

When it's right, few channel cat fisheries can touch the Rock in terms of sheer numbers: "During ice-out, you may catch 150 fish a day," guide Denny Halgren of nearby Dixon says. But look for more than quantity in the future -- the Rock's channels are getting bigger (and meaner) every season. "Fish ranging from 10 to 18 pounds are becoming more abundant; we expect to pop some bigger ones this year."

Anchoring down on wintering holes in the 17-foot range can produce fast action just prior to ice-up, Halgren has found. "The channels will suspend around 14 feet deep in these holes; a sinker rig with a long leader and a float on the end will catch these suspending cats when baited with cheese, worms or other catfish fare."

Guide:    Denny Halgren (815) 288-6855. Lodging:   Best Western Brandywine (815) 284-1890.

Mississippi River, Illinois

Fabled in song and story, yet remarkably underfished. That's the Mighty Mississippi. Around Alton, Ill., the historic river boasts some of the best channel catting on the continent. 

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 Alton-area channel cats run 2-12 pounds, and there are lots of them. 

Tennessee catfish expert Jim Moyer loves the Alton-area channel cat fishery so much, he's now booking guide trips there in the summer. "The stretch north of Alton is one of the most fun places to fish I've ever found -- easy to get to, easy to fish and chock full of eatin'-sized channels," he says. "Here, the river has an extra-heavy shad forage base, which draws massive numbers of catfish. The area is worked heavily by commercial fishermen, but so far this hasn't diminished the sport fishery."

The fun part comes when you rig a minnow, crawler or leech under a cork and toss it around any wood snag you come to, Moyer explains. "The channels routinely run from 2 to 12 pounds, and there are lots of 'em. Catches of 25 to 50 fish a day are typical, and the action is usually fast. It's a great place to introduce your kids to the fun of fishing."

Guide:    Jim Moyer (931) 358-9264. Lodging:  Highway House Motor Inn (618) 466-6676.

Upper Mississippi River, Minnesota

Some extraordinary channel catfishing can be experienced just a long cast from Minneapolis in the swift, scenic Upper Mississippi River. Legendary riverman Dan Gapen, who's fished the stretch from St. Cloud Dam down to Anoka for over 40 years for smallmouths and walleyes, says this classic river is exploding with channel cats. "Best channel fishing I've ever seen in the Lower 48," he asserts. "These fish are so abundant, it's possible to catch 50 or more every time you drop anchor above a rocky riffle." Numbers are one thing, but size matters, too, and the Upper Mississippi is no slouch when it comes to quality channels. "My biggest here so far is a 22-7, but it's the average size that's really impressive. On most days your catch will average between 6 and 8 pounds apiece -- now that's   a nice channel cat!"

Gapen recommends Monticello, Minn., halfway between St. Cloud and Anoka, as a good base of operations. The bite is strong just about any time you decide to go, he says. "In spring, target islands and sandy, riffly areas. Summer finds cats staging in holes; they'll venture to adjacent shallow rock riffles to feed. By fall, channels will be ganged up big-time at the heads of fast-water rapids. Local favorite baits/presentations include cut chubs and live or crushed frogs fished on egg sinkers or 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-ounce Bait Walker Plus rigs." 

Guide:  Joe Gapen's Olman River Float Trips (612) 263-3596. Lodging:    Best Western (612) 295-4000.

Merritt Reservoir, Nebraska

The word is finally out about this red-hot channel cat fishery -- in fact, catfish tournament organizer Tom Lawrence ranks Merritt among the best channel cat destinations in North America. "July, August and September can mean a dozen 15- to 25-pound channels a day," he swears. "It's absolutely awesome!"

Yeah, but fishing Merritt's not exactly a cakewalk. The bad news is that high winds can make presentations challenging to say the least; the good news is that the bite can be so fast, locals don't even bother to anchor. Use a drift sock to slow yourself down. The summer pattern is a no-brainer: "Start upwind on flats close to the river channel and drift chunks of congealed beef blood off the bottom," Lawrence recommends. 

This is one catfish destination you really gotta wanna get to. It's pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and the stark terrain is straight out of High Plains Drifter.    So is it worth the seemingly endless drive it takes to get there? "You bet," Lawrence says with a big, wide grin as he wipes channel cat slime off his hands. 

Lodging:    Valentine Visitors Center (402) 376-2969. Information  Merritt Trading Post (402) 376-3437.

Chotawhatchee River, Florida

Here's a taste of the Florida that existed before Mickey Mouse and all those t-shirt shops arrived. The Chotawhatchee is a scenic stream in the northwest corner of the state surrounded by pristine oak hammocks. It also happens to be chock full of channel cats.

"Right now, this is the best place in Florida to bag a 20-pound-plus channel," says Joe "Catfish Man" Crumpton, catfish project leader with the state's Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. My biggest here so far is a 24; my brother, who lives near the river, caught a 26. One morning last spring we fished pieces of hot dog in a deep hole and caught a 17, 19 and 24. Now that's good catfishin'!" Right on, Joe!

The Chotawhatchee enters the state from Alabama and runs all the way to the Intracoastal Waterway unencumbered by dams or spillways. Because of its large drainage area, sudden water level fluctuations are to be expected after hard rains -- the Chot can jump as much as 4 to 8 feet overnight. You couldn't draw a prettier channel cat river. There are some 40-foot holes, plenty of 15 to 20 foot water, shallow shoals, and scads of undercut banks with snaggy cover.

Catfish Man recommends using the town of Ebro as a jumping-off point. "There are several fish camps there and a good launch ramp," he notes. "I like to target spots ranging from 8 to 20 feet deep, tying up to a tree along the bank and casting a variety of baits into fairly snag-free areas. Worms will catch big numbers; two fishermen can easily boat 30 to 40 keepers a day on 'em. Try hot dog chunks and big strips of cut bait for larger channels."

Information:    Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (352) 742-6438. Lodging:   Ebro Motel (850) 535-2499.

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Catch and Release Shouldn't Apply to Christmas Gifts

By Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation

RBFFStill fishing around for the perfect Christmas gift?  Something that is a one-size-fits-all and that the entire family can enjoy year, after year, after year? 

 

Well, rest assured, there are a lot of people in the same boat, or at least there should be. 

 

Fishing and boating are unmatched leisure activities that offer a true connection with family, friends and the natural environment.  And unlike in most team sports -- age, gender, size and physical prowess are not limiting factors to the level of enjoyment.

 

Fishing and boating offer Americans of all ages the opportunity to step back from their hectic daily lives and get reacquainted.  Water in particular seems especially magical in bringing kids and adults together on the level playing field of the great outdoors.  It is a neutral setting for both and often it is difficult to really tell who is teaching whom the most about life.

 

Truth is, today's families need to reconnect.  According to the organization Family Life First, children's playtime has declined by 25% over the last 20 years.  Over that same period, unstructured outdoor activities have declined by 50%, family dinners have decreased by 33% and family vacations have decreased by 28%. 

 

A 1999 study by the White House Council on Economic Advisers reported that parent/child family time decreased 22% between 1969 and 1996.

 

But this information should really come as no surprise because today's Americans spend more time working than they used to.  In 1976, 33% of married couples worked, now it is 51%.  In the book, "The Overworked American," it was estimated the average employed person now works the equivalent of 163 hours more per year, an entire extra month, than they did 20 years ago.

 

More work time often comes at the expense of quality family time.  That is something that even the kids are noticing.

 

Ellen Galinsky, author of "Ask the Children, What American's Children Really Think about Working Parents," reported, "The biggest wish kids had is that their parents be less stressed during the time they are together."  Of the children interviewed, 65% said they worried about their parents' stress levels, either frequently or sometimes.

 

But priorities could be changing.  Ever since the September 11th terrorist attacks, the news has been full of stories about people reassessing their priorities in life.  Most have to do with new commitments being made to spend more quality time with family and friends. 

 

People are now talking of foregoing their standard practices of taking a major vacation every year or two, to doing things together more often and closer to home.  Fishing and boating should be put at the top of everyone's list as good, healthy alternatives. 

 

So this Christmas, don't make it the usual video games, computer programs and other stay-inside, couch-potato items for under the tree, give the gift of family togetherness.  Fishing and boating items go beyond just getting people outdoors, they create bonds and memories that last a lifetime. 

 

"You just can't put a price tag on the thrill of watching a youngster catch their first fish or drive a boat for the first time," said Bruce Matthews, president of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.  "But it really has nothing to do with those individual successes, it's all about the quality time spent together instead. The getting ready, the going, the time on the water, the talking and connecting and the stories told afterwards.  If at some point in the process a fish interrupts, then that's a real bonus," he said.

 

As head of the RBFF, Matthews knows a lot about what boating and fishing can do for the mind and the soul.  The organization was founded for the purpose of reintroducing people to the fun of fishing and boating, and to remind everyone about the importance of environmental stewardship.

 

The program's funding comes not from a commercial sponsor or two, but by way of congressional action using some of the industry's own dollars collected directly into the U.S. Treasury from special taxes assessed to boating and fishing manufacturers and participants. 

 

Some of the RBFF's real handiwork can be seen by visiting www.WaterWorksWonders.org.  This is truly a one-stop-site for anyone having an interest in boating and fishing. There's a wealth of information on how to get started in both activities, as well as tens of thousands of listings as to where to go to enjoy them.  The site also includes a multitude of other subjects and sources related to boating and fishing. 

 

By visiting the www.WaterWorksWonders.org website for information on how and where to boat and fish in your area, and then using the RBFF's Top 10 gift ideas list that follows, this year's Christmas shopping should be both easy and rewarding for the whole family.  

 

The RBFF's Top 10 Boating and Fishing Christmas Gift Ideas

 

Subscription to fishing and/or boating magazines.  There are a number of quality fishing and boating magazines available that bring loads of valuable "how to" information into the home with every issue.  Thumb through the various magazines at a grocery store counter or newsstand to determine which title is most appropriate for your recipient's needs.  Subscription fees will start at about $15 and go up a few dollars from there.

 

Fishing license.  Fishing license requirements vary from state to state, but are typically required for ages beginning in the teens and for those older.  License years also vary, but a January -- December term is often typical.   Many states offer Lifetime Fishing Licenses, which can be a great investment for youngsters sure to enjoy the sport.  Most fishing tackle stores sell fishing licenses or can tell you where they can be obtained.  Fishing license and fishing regulation information for all 50 states can also be found on www.WaterWorksWonders.org under "Fishing".

 

Boating education course.  Sign the whole family up for a boating education course.  You can access the Boat U.S. Foundation's searchable listing of boating education courses on www.WaterWorksWonders.org under "Boating".  These courses typically cover boat handling, legal requirements, rules and regulations, navigation, safety requirements, terminology, weather and more.  Contact your state's department of natural resources for more information or conduct a search on the Internet using the key words "boat safety course," along with the name of your state.

 

Get a boat.  If you are considering a larger, for-the-entire family type of gift this year, consider a boat.  Boats come in all sizes, kinds and colors, and in a wide variety of prices.  There's sure to be a model available to fit your needs and budget.  If you want to play out some possible payment scenarios, use the budget planner found at www.discoverboating.com.  Most people are surprised to find out that boats are more affordable than they thought. Simply put, life is better with a boat because every weekend can be a family vacation.    

 

Fishing equipment.  Rod and reel, then hooks, line and sinkers are all you need.  The selection process doesn't need to be complicated nor the equipment expensive.  As a general rule, consider spincast (the kind that has a push-button) or spinning reels (the kind that looks like a single-wire egg beater) and a 5 1/2' or 6' medium action rod.  If it's your first, neither buy the least, nor the most, expensive.  Usually $50 will buy a good rod, reel and other basic needs.  Ask the clerk or a fishing friend, for recommended hook and weight sizes for the type of fishing in the area.  These small items and fishing lures make great stocking stuffers.  For more information on basic fishing equipment, go to www.WaterWorksWonders.org and click on "Fishing".

 

Life jackets.  Whether considering buying a boat, making frequent lake outings with friends or in anticipation of renting a boat for vacation, a properly fitting life jacket is a great investment.  The idea is to wear it, so get a comfortable one with at least three adjustable straps that allow sizing for use over a light jacket or clothing, as well as with a swimsuit.  Expect to pay around $25 and up.

 

Get started fishing package.  Go ahead and take the plunge.  If fishing is going to be a regular activity for your family in 2002, then invest in a family-fishing package.  That is, get everyone a rod and reel of their own.  Consider getting the same kind for everyone, but vary sizes according to ages and physical capabilities.  Having one "just like mom's and dad's" is often important to young anglers.  Then, buy a good, roomy tackle box.  Give different tackle items to different family members, explaining on Christmas morning that all will collectively go into the tackle box for everyone to use.  In addition to hooks, line and sinkers, other items to include are needle-nose pliers, clippers, flashlight, bobbers, fish stringer, artificial lures and perhaps, a couple containers of the commercially prepared baits for catfish, trout or panfish. Get together as a family and with a calendar to plan a first excursion.  Have fun learning to cast in the backyard or driveway in anticipation of the outing.

 

Guided fishing trip.  Whether you are new to an area or new to the sport, spending a day fishing with a guide can be a wise investment.  It's like getting your own private fishing lesson, plus it will acquaint you with a particular body of water and the fishing it offers.  You also get to check out the guide's boat; as well as see what other boats are popular to the area.  If taking a youngster with you, inform the guide you are more interested in catching "fish," than in catching a particular kind of fish.  That way he can plan on going after the species that will offer the most action for the day.  For example, white bass or catfish are often more predictable and easier to catch than are largemouth bass.  If fishing is slow, ask the guide to call you when the fishing picks up, or when you should try calling him again.  Guide trips are usually available for 1/2 day or full day outings.  Some guides even specialize in taking novice anglers. Don't be embarrassed to ask the guide for references and to contact a few of them.

 

Create your own "Sports Show" gift certificate.  January through March is a great time to visit one of the many sport shows around the country that are full of fishing and boating displays.  These are great places to learn about related outdoor products and how to use them, with lots of free seminars usually being held by experts.  Sometimes there's even a trout pond where kids can fish for a nominal fee or fishing simulators that offer a realistic encounter with everything from largemouth bass to blue marlin.   With a little homework you can find out when and where your local sport show occurs, or visit www.discoverboating.com for a listing of boat shows.  Then, make each of the kiddos a "Gift Certificate" of $20 or so to be used specifically during a family outing to that event.  Chances are good you'll be surprised at the things your children will find of interest there.  It's also a great place to pick up tons of free information about boating and fishing.      

 

Vacation package.  Consider a houseboat outing.  A houseboat is like a hotel on the water and puts you right where the action is.  They offer a nice compromise of modern day luxuries such as hot showers and microwaves, with the mobility of being able to get away from the crowds.  It offers the flexibility for fishing, swimming and soaking up the sun and scenery.  Take along a smaller boat of your own for fishing and skiing, or rent one from the marina.  For houseboat locations and rental information, contact marinas in the area, or use the key words "houseboat rentals" in an Internet search.  

 

Needless to say, these are just a few ideas that might help spur other thoughts as to ways that your family can enjoy a lifetime together in the great outdoors.  More can come by taking a stroll through a nearby boat dealer or fishing tackle store.      

 

So this Christmas, shop for boating and fishing gifts that are sure to reconnect family and friends and result in a lifetime of memories.  And when the time comes for that first outing, make it a special day for those you are introducing to these activities.  Instead of fishing yourself, devote all your attention to helping them learn the basics.   Be patient, be supportive and get them involved . . . even let them take a turn at driving the boat as conditions allow.

 

Then they, too, will truly understand that Water Works Wonders.

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Tackling the Bass Spawn

By Tom Cannon

 tc1

 When conditions are right, the spawn can be an awesome time to sight fish.

Spring brings with it the mating ritual of most living creatures. Bass are no exception. When the water begins to reach the 60-degree mark there will be a mass movement for the bank by these great sport fish.  It can be an exciting, but frustrating time to fish your favorite body of water. One day the bass will bite like crazy, and the next they have committed to the spawn and have lockjaw.

For the spawn to occur, there must be several conditions present. The water must be at, or near 60 degrees. When this takes place near a full moon phase, male bass will head to the shallows and begin preparing a nest or bed. Water conditions will also dictate whether things happen in slow motion or fast and furious. A cold front that lingers for several days will often cause bass to leave the bank and seek out the more stable deeper water, thus delaying the spawn. Warm weather will have the opposite reaction. Just a couple days of bright sunny conditions will rapidly heat up the water and the fish's sexual drive.

 

Water levels are also key ingredients for a good spawn. Generally high or stable water levels are conducive to a good breeding period. The high water allows fish to seek out cover in which to build their nest, so that predators will have difficulty finding or attacking the bed. This is a period when bass become reliant on man for the success of the hatch. Nearly every year, spring rains bring rising waters to area lakes. In our haste for electricity, stable lake conditions, and the (Corps of Engineers) cry of flood control, we humans release large amounts of water from one lake into another and vice versa. After releasing water and dropping lake levels, any beds that were up in the high water that has since dropped are lost. Furthermore, the strong current created by a heavy influx of new water often adversely affects those impoundments down stream.

 

When the conditions are right and the bass are spawning it is a primetime to head to your favorite waters. The first trick is to find the fish. The upper end of the lake usually warms first and that is where the spawn generally begins. The backs of creeks, coves, and sloughs where there is semi-clear water and a firm bottom are the optimum places to start your search. Bass prefer to lay their eggs on a gravel type of bottom, but they'll make due with a mixture of rock or sand if nothing else is available. Their goal is to seek out protected areas where the eggs will be sheltered from wave action and heavy current. Remember that the north and west banks receive the most sunlight, therefore will harbor the most fish.

 

Depth of the spawn depends on the water clarity. In order for their eggs to hatch, bass require a certain amount of sunlight to incubate their eggs. Thus the clearer the water, the deeper bass will spawn. In murky water, anglers will find bass nesting in very shallow water. Here in the Ozarks, I have observed bass bedding in twenty feet of water. As a rule, the bigger fish will bed in slightly deeper water.

 

With the basics covered it's time to go fishing. How do anglers catch these bedding fish? Probably the biggest asset to bed-fishing is good eyesight. Quite often you'll hear bed fishing referred to as "sight fishing." There is a very good reason for that -- it's because the angler spends more time looking for, and at fish, than actually fishing. A great tip for beginners is to slowly troll down the bank while keeping all noise and movements to a minimum. Look for circular spots on the bottom. These will resemble a clean plate, amongst a silted bottom. Don't look for the actual fish, but instead focus on movement or silhouettes. Remember, that if you can see them, the bass can surely see you.

 

Once a bed is spotted, the next step is to determine the nature of the fish. Pros like Guido and Dion Hibdon, can instantly tell if the bass is catchable merely by its actions. Pay close attention to how it reacts to your presence. When you approach the bed, does it travel a long way before returning to the nest? How far does it go? Does it move into a different position, or does it stay "locked on the bed"? Often anglers will notice fish just swimming down the bank. These are called "cruisers" and are not worth fooling with. The general rule is that the farther a bass travels when initially observed, the less likely it is to bite on that day. Those bass that stay "locked on" the bed, are the ones you will want to target. Should you observe two bass on the bed, it's normally a waste of your time to fish for them. A pair of bass means one thing -- they are in the process of spawning. It's rare to even get them to notice a lure, let alone bite one.

 

After you find a bed with a seemingly "locked on" bass the fun part starts. Occasionally the bass will bite the very first time a lure is tossed in the bed. Most of the time it won't, and it takes a lot of patience and attention to detail to catch them. Observe how the bass moves at the lure. Does it react differently when the lure lands in a certain spot? Most sight fishermen refer to this spot, as the "sweet spot." That's the area of the nest that the bass is guarding the most. Once the angler locates the "sweet spot," just keep repeatedly working it. Try different lures, retrieves, scents and line sizes until success is found. Often the best means is to simply leave the bait motionless in the nest, which often drives the fish crazy.

 

 tc2

Without polarized glasses you may never see the bass pick the lure up and spit it out within a split second.

The biggest factor when sight fishing is good vision. Anglers will want to have a pair (or two) of high quality polarized glasses with them. These cut the glare and allow the fishermen to see minute details. It's critical to see how the bass picks up the lure, and if it actually has the bait in its mouth. Without polarized glasses you may never see the bass pick the lure up and spit it out within a split second. Believe me, it is hard to fathom that an angler can be watching the bass intently, but the bass can pick up that little bait, spit it out before even before you can react and set the hook. Most times the angler never even feels the bite, hence the name "sight fishing." This is the one time that I refrain from rearing back to set the hook if I can't tell how well the bait is situated in the fish's mouth. I have found that once a fish has had the bait ripped out of its mouth, it is less likely to pick it up again.

Remember, these fish aren't interested in eating they simply want the intruder out of their area. They will chase off bluegills and minnows they could easily eat any other time. Quite often you will see the bass nudge the lure with its mouth closed. This is a good start.

When the bass begins to nudge the lure out of its bed, its getting aggravated. That is the fish's way of saying, "I asked you nicely to leave. Now I'm shoving you." The next step is for the bass to physically move the intruder (your lure) out of the bed. That is what we are hoping for. Watch for the bass to nose right up to the lure. Concentrate on the lure, but if you can't see it from your angle, look for the tell-tale sign of the gills opening quickly. When you see the red of the gills, strike hard and quick. That means the fish has inhaled the lure.

Should the fish get hooked, but come off before landing it, don't worry. That's simply a characteristic of sight fishing. The bass doesn't pick up the lure very firmly and a good hookset is not always possible. Many times the bass will pick up the lure by its tail, the sinker, or even cross ways in its mouth. It's simply trying to move the imposter out of the way instead of eating it.

The cardinal rule of sight fishing is that any bass not hooked on the inside of the mouth has not been caught in a legal and fairchase method. This fish must be returned to the water immediately if fishing a tournament. Likewise, if the angler is just fishing for recreation, any bedding fish caught should be returned to the water as well. These spawners are the future of our fisheries, and we have to protect them.

Tournament anglers fishing for bedding fish must take every precaution to ensure the safety of the bass. Fish are easily killed during the spawn. Bass have a lot of stress on their bodies and can die from a lack of oxygen, rough boats rides or many other details. Be sure to regularly add "Stay Alive" or another livewell additive to the water in your boat. Run the aerators constantly, and check on the bass in the livewell often.

 

Bedding bass can be caught on many different lures. Most serious anglers limit themselves to those lures that employ a single hook, for reason of fairchase. Soft plastic baits are considered the optimum lure for sight fishing. Choose a lure that you have confidence in then pick a highly visible color that will contrast with the bottom. I have the best luck with a Culprit Salty Tube, or a five-inch lizard. If there is a lot of heavy cover, I will pitch a jig into the bed, but rarely use a trailer, since the bass are inclined to pick up the trailer chunk, and miss the hook.

 

In the past, pros have relied on spinning gear and light line for their sight fishing needs. While this sometimes becomes necessary, I chose to start at the other end of the tackle spectrum. My mainstay is a Team Daiwa flipping rod and Team Daiwa baitcast reel spooled with Bass Pro XPS Fluorocarbon line in the 15-20 pound range. I start out heavy and gradually go to light tackle. The use of a razor sharp hook is critical due to poor hook sets, so I tie up to a Gamakatsu EWG hook, and normally peg my slip sinker.

 

By no means are these the only lures that can catch fish while they are on the beds. Often bass will react to a minnow, and huge limits have been fooled with a Rapala type of floating plug. The key is to rapidly jerk it through a bedding area, allowing it to pause ever so slightly. This works well for dingy water when it's tough to visually see the bass. Topwater baits will also catch some good fish off the beds. Top picks include the Storm Chug Bug, and "spook" type baits. I have no idea why bass find these topwaters a threat, but they can really get some explosive strikes. Surface baits also serve another purpose, and that is to locate bedding fish. For instance, should a fish swirl or slap at a topwater, it has given itself away. Key in on that particular location and often you will find that bass has built a bed and was merely protecting its domain.

 

As you can see, the feat of sight fishing is simple, yet complicated. This is one method of fishing that should actually be referred to as hunting. Most of the time the angler will become frustrated, but with time and experience the success will come. It becomes a game of wits. Remember though, if at all possible, practice CPR -- catch, photograph and release. These bass are carrying the future of our sport inside them. Returning them right away helps the future of our sport.
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What to Do When the Fish Stop Biting

By Ron Brooks

fishbiting2.jpg

Just because the fish have "stopped biting," doesn't mean the fishing is over.

Has this ever happened to you?  The fish are biting, and more importantly you are catching!  Things are going great until all of a sudden, the fish stop.  It's as if someone turned off a water faucet.  A lot of thoughts go through your mind at that time - did we catch them all?

 

I've been inshore and offshore, bottom fishing and drifting, and this has happened to me more than once.  For a long time I thought it might be something I did wrong.  But, there are good reasons for the fish to apparently quit biting.  I say apparently, because in some cases, they didn't quit - you did!

 

On a trip a number of years ago, we were offshore fishing a set of numbers over an old shrimp boat in about 100 feet of water.  When we arrived, we headed upwind, dropped the anchor and backed down on the wreck.  Almost immediately, we began catching vermillion snapper (B-liners) and seabass.

 

As we continued fishing over the next thirty minutes, the bite stopped.  It was as I said above - like someone simply turned off the faucet.  Something was wrong.

 

A lot of anglers will sit and wonder with baits on the bottom, why the fish quit biting.  In reality, the fish didn't quit biting; the boat drifted off the spot!  Wind and tidal current can play tricks on an angler offshore.  Your boat can imperceptibly move a hundred feet or more off the spot you are fishing, and you will not realize it.

 

The fish that are over and around a wreck will not venture far from that wreck, and if your baits have moved away, the chances are good that the fish won't follow them.  To the uneducated angler, it seems as if the fish quit biting!

 

There are a couple of things a captain can do to keep the boat on the fish.  One way is to use a marker buoy.  There are several on the market along with the homemade, milk jug variety.  A heavy weight, enough strong line to reach the bottom, and a jug or marker that can be seen from a distance are all that's needed.

 

When you come upon your GPS numbers and identify the wreck or good bottom with your fish finder, simply toss the marker over and let the weight go to the bottom.  The jug will be your point of reference while you fish.

 

Some words of warning are warranted here.  Never pitch your marker directly over the wreck.  Many perfectly good weights have been lost after being tangled in the wreck 100 feet below.  Move to one side of the wreck to drop the marker, and when it settles, circle it several times to set the relative reference in your mind.

 

Now, when you anchor, you can judge your position and know whether you are moving off the targeted bottom.  Another word of warning -- some markers, particularly the home-made variety, tend to drift and drag the bottom weight.  A heavy sea or strong current will slowly take your marker away from its original position.

 

But, hark, there is a fix for that as well, and that fix is drift fishing.  Rather than fight the current or wind, simply join it and use it to your advantage.

 

A good GPS will have a tracking screen -- that is, it will draw your route for the entire trip.  I like to zoom in to the lowest range and use my GPS to track whether I am moving or not. 

 

Sometimes the current is so strong that anchoring or using a marker is tough as best.  When that happens I revert to my GPS and drift over the wreck.  First I make a judgment about my drift direction.  Then I idle up current or up wind and let the boat drift back.  If the drift is good, I set a waypoint marker on the unit and use it as a reference to which I will go on each successive drift.  I can watch the boat's drift progress and adjust the position by backing or idling forward.

 

Anglers simply make a bait drop, reel up a couple of cranks, and hold on.  If the drift is right, the current will take us right over the productive area.  Drifting with the current means that less sinker weight is required, and that means more bites can be felt.  I always use the smallest weight that will get me to the bottom.

 

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Sometimes the current is so strong that I revert to my GPS and drift over the wreck to mark it.

Another word of caution is needed here.  Try to position the drift so that it moves to one side or the other of the wreck.  Drifting directly over the wreck will cause many hang-ups and lots of lost terminal tackle.  While it's true that big fish live in the wreck, the closer to the wreck your bait is when they hit, the more likely you are to lose the fish and your terminal tackle to the wreck.  It's actually almost an art - getting the boat close enough to entice the big fish to come out and feed, yet staying far enough away that you have a chance at getting them to the surface before they take you into the wreck!

 

Inshore fishing presents another set of problems.  With reference points all around you, it is very easy to see whether your boat has moved.  So the drifting issue is not one we need to address here.  The entire issue with inshore fishing surrounds the tide and tidal currents.

 

Some anglers feel very strongly one way or the other that fish always feed on an incoming tide or that fish always feed on an outgoing tide.  The truth is that fish will feed on either tide or on both tides.  The real key is moving water.

 

Fish are smarter than most people think.  They want moving water because it's that moving water that brings their food.  Baitfish school and move in or out with tidal currents.  Fish will position themselves to take advantage of the food coming their way, and the savvy angler will learn just where those places are located.

 

In general, if the inshore bite shuts down, it will be because the tide has stopped and/or turned the other direction.  That necessarily means that the bait will be moving in a different direction, and that in turn will move the fish.

 

I have numerous fishing spots -- some are good on an outgoing tide and some are only good on an incoming tide.  It is a matter of where the bait is moving and what direction the current takes.

 

Can you use this information in your own circumstances?  Actually you can use it successfully more quickly than you think.  I developed my fishing locations over years of trial, error and learning.  Learning always takes place immediately following trial and error!  But, you can use some common sense, look for a couple of key ingredients, and move along with the fish when the tide changes.

 

While you are catching fish, take note of the current.  Is there an eddy in the current flow?  Are you in a river or creek mouth on an incoming tide?    Can you see baitfish moving?

 

Take note of all these indicators.  Then, when the tide changes, look for similar indicators.  You may need to move to the other side of a river because the eddy you were fishing moved when the tide changed.  You may need to move to the outside of the river mouth where before, you were catching fish inside the river mouth.

 

The key here is twofold - look for the bait and look for the changes in current flow.  Find the location to which the bait moved when the tide changed, and find similar current conditions - eddys, cuts, and the like - and you will likely find the fish.

 

Many anglers fish half the day because they learned to fish only an incoming or only an outgoing tide.  Good anglers can fish both tides successfully.  When the fish quit biting - they know the reasons.  You can do the same with some of these tactics!

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Lazy Days, Small Streams and Southern Catfish

By Wade Bourne

Biologists in state fisheries agencies confirm that underutilized catfish populations exist in smaller creeks and rivers from Virginia to Texas.

"No business; no plans; no worries; no money; no future.  Too healthy to beg; too lazy to work; too old to steal.  Ain't got much; don't want anything.  Ain't mad at nobody.  Ain't running for nothing.  Waiting for the 3rd of the month." 

 

Joe B. Sweeney, Retired.  Lobelville, Tennessee.

     

Actually, Joe Sweeney's "business card" lacks one additional, important inscription:  "River rat, specializing on catching catfish."

     

And so he does!  This laid-back angler took early retirement a few years ago to fish and enjoy life.  This morning he's on the Buffalo River, across the highway from his house, doing what he does three to four times a week from late spring through mid-fall:  Rod-and-reel fishing for cats.  Shafts of sunlight are shining through sycamore and maple trees along the east bank.  In a few hours the morning will turn hot, but for now the air is fresh and cool.  A light breeze and a swaying current soothe Sweeney's soul as he watches his rods and waits for a bite.

     

"Isn't this the life?" he muses.  "This is what fishing ought to be, quiet and peaceful.  And I can pretty near always catch a mess of fish.  Just give me three fiddlers, some french fries and hushpuppies, and I'm in hog heaven!"

     

Suddenly, the tip of one of Sweeney's rods begins jerking.  The angler picks up the rod and waits.  Now his mood has changed from relaxed to ready.  He's like a cat about to pounce on a mouse.  "Gotta let'im take it," he coaches himself.  "Gotta let'im nibble 'til he pulls the rod down.  Go on, big boy, take it all..."

     

As though following Sweeney's command, the fish pulls the rod tip down with a decisive thump, and the angler quickly sets the hook.  Then a brief fight ensues, the fish wallowing in the current, then burrowing under the boat as Sweeney takes line.  However, the catfish's evasions are fruitless, and soon this squirming one-pounder is airlifted over the gunnels.  After a brief moment of admiration, the angler deposits the fish into a bucket holding two similar-sized members of its kind.  "Get the grease hot, mama!" he laughs.

     

Joe Sweeney has had plenty such chuckles on the Buffalo River over the years, because he's done this so many times before.  He's lived - and fished - here all his life.  When he was little, his father and grandfather taught him where to find smallmouth bass; how to gig for suckers, buffalo and carp; and how to catch catfish as a matter of routine.  "I used to specialize on fly fishing for smallmouth," Sweeney explains.  "But as I've gotten older, I've turned more to catfishing.  It doesn't take as much effort, and I can just about always count on getting a few."

     

And so can other southern fishermen who apply Sweeney's simple methods in creeks and rivers near their homes.  Channel, flathead and blue catfish abound in many of this region's small running waters, and they are vastly overlooked by anglers more attuned to big lakes and such "glory species" as bass and crappie.  Fishermen armed with minimal tackle, bait and knowledge can enjoy this almost-untapped resource with pleasing consistency.  The fish are abundant, and bites are frequent.  As Sweeney says, this truly is fishing like it should be.

 

Small Stream Catfishing:  An Overview

     

The Buffalo River in central Tennessee is typical of many streams in the mid-South:  Moderate in size, depth and current.  It meanders through quiet fields lined by rolling hardwood ridges.  The river course is a continuous series of shallow, swift riffles, deep pools below the riffles, then runs of medium depth and speed.  The Buffalo's water quality is good enough to support ample populations of smallmouth and rock bass, a variety of other sunfish, several species of rough fish, a hodgepodge of creek minnows, and catfish, which grow in surprising number and size.

     

"My biggest catfish from the Buffalo weighed 38 pounds, but I've hooked fish I know were bigger," Sweeney narrates.  "Also, I've heard stories about yellow cats (flatheads) up to 80 pounds.  Most of these bigger fish were taken on trotlines or limb lines.

     

"I catch mostly smaller fish -- 1/2-3 pounds.  There are a lot more of these, plus they're better to eat.  In fact, if I catch a catfish much bigger than this, I pitch him back in the river.  He won't be nearly as good as the little ones."

     

Biologists in state fisheries agencies confirm that underutilized catfish populations exist in smaller creeks and rivers from Virginia to Texas.  Catfish can live in any but cold streams at high elevations.  These fish are adaptable to a broad range of current and turbidity conditions, thus their abundance.  Also, they are extremely hardy, and they will eat virtually anything organic.   

     

Sweeney begins fishing for stream cats in late April, and action picks up as the weather warms.  "My favorite months are June, July and August," he notes.  "This is when the fish bite the best."

     

Though catfish are known as night feeders, Sweeney goes after them only during the daytime.  "I catch all I want in early morning and late afternoon," he continues. 


"However, when the sun starts shining in over the trees, the action slacks off.  I think the bright light drives the fish back under logs and into holes, and they quit feeding until the shadows reappear."

     

For this reason, Sweeney prefers an overcast sky to a clear one.  When clouds block the sunlight, catfish may feed right through the day.  "I especially like a still, humid morning following a night of lightning and thunder.  I don't know why such a morning is better, but it is."

     

A crucial element in Sweeney's stream-fishing pattern is location of the fish.  "Most people think catfish hang in deep, quiet holes.  This may be true of the bigger ones, but smaller cats feed in shallow, swift areas.  I'm talking about runs that are 2-3 feet deep and exposed to direct current.  Also, a spot is better if it has a clean gravel or clay bottom instead of a mud bottom.  Catfish hold around cover (logs, treetops, rocks, etc.) in these areas and move out into the current to find food.  In fact, they feed a lot like a bass."

 

Tackle, Rigging, Baits, Boat

     

Joe Sweeney's tackle for stream catfish is both elementary and inexpensive.  He uses two 6-foot medium action fiberglass casting rods fitted with spincast reels.  (He notes, "It's hard to beat the old Zebco 33 for what I do.")  He spools 8-12 lb. test line onto these reels.

     

To rig up, Sweeney ties on two hooks and a combination of sinkers matched to the depth and current.  "I prefer smaller hooks than most catfishermen do," he remarks.  "I use #4 Eagle Claw wire hooks.  I'll tie the first hook directly into my line with a granny knot some 18 inches above the end.  Then I'll tie on my second hook 8-10 inches below this.

     

To rig up, Sweeney ties on two hooks and a combination of sinkers matched to the depth and current.

"Last, I add my weights.  I'll run two or three egg sinkers up the line, then clamp a small split shot on the end to keep the egg sinkers from sliding off.  For fishing the Buffalo in the summer, I like about an ounce of lead.  This is plenty weight to hold the bait on bottom in swift current.  Fishermen on other streams may add more or less weight as differences in depth and current require."

     

Sweeney says catfishermen can bait with any of a range of cut-up fish pieces, crawfish tails, stink baits, worms, insects, etc.  However, he has narrowed his bait choice to three top performers:  Red worms, chicken livers and catalpa worms.

     

"I raise my own red worms; they're always good for catfish.  Fresh chicken liver is also a standard, and it's one of the cheapest baits you can use.  A box costs around 75 cents.  Chicken livers are messy to handle and hard to keep on the hook, but that blood and liver smell sure attract catfish.  When I use liver, I'll cut off a thumb-sized piece and run the hook through it two or three times."

     

However, Sweeney says his favorite bait for stream catfish is a live catalpa worm.  "I planted three catalpa trees in my yard in 1956 just so I'd have a supply of these worms.  I get two crops a year, one in June and the other in August.  When I notice the leaves starting to disappear off my trees, I can collect catalpa worms by the dozens.  They're big and tough, and they stay on the hook well.  Catfish absolutely love'em."

     

Sweeney routinely fishes different baits on his two rods to see if the catfish have a preference.  "One day they might want worms, the next day livers.  But they'll eat just about anything. 

     

"For instance, one of my neighbors lives on a bluff overlooking the Buffalo, and a couple of years back he cooked a country ham and trimmed off some fat and skin and threw it in the river.  The next morning I was fishing under the bluff, and I caught a cat that weighed about 3 pounds.  When I cleaned it, there was that ham fat and skin rolled up in a ball in its belly."

     

Sweeney's boat/motor combo is as simple as his taste in fishing.  He runs a 14-foot aluminum johnboat powered by a 15-horse outboard.  He outfits his boat with a bucket or cooler to hold his fish, seat cushions, paddle, and two anchors - one attached to the bow of the boat, the other to the stern.

 

Streamfishing Methods

     

Thus rigged, baited and boated, Joe Sweeney is ready to begin his quest.

     

"Again, most people fish the deep holes, but in summer I catch a lot more in the shallow, fast runs," he reiterates.  "I look for logs, rocks or undercut banks in direct, moderately strong current.  Then I anchor just upstream from this cover and cast downstream beside it.  When the weight hits bottom, I reel up slack line and set the rod in the boat with the tip sticking over the gunnels.  Then I just sit back and watch for a bite."

     

When fishing alone, Sweeney anchors only one end of his johnboat.  The other end swings downcurrent, and his lines extend beyond into his target area.  However, when accompanied by a partner, Sweeney anchors his boat across the current with anchors on the bow and stern, then both anglers fish the downcurrent side.

     

Sweeney likes to anchor approximately 20 yards upcurrent from his target area, and he casts as close to his target cover as possible.  Then, with his first rod propped up, he casts his second line a few feet out from the first, and he sets this rod up in a like manner.  Then the waiting game begins.

     

When a catfish starts nibbling, the line pulses, and the rod tip jumps.  Sweeney picks up the rod, slowly reels his line tight and waits until the fish takes a big bite.  When the rod tip dips convincingly, he sets back and plays the hooked fish to the boat.

     

In the course of a morning, Sweeney will fish several different spots.  "I don't stay at one place more than 15-20 minutes," he says.  "If catfish are there, they'll usually bite right away.  The normal routine is to catch two or three fish from a spot, then the bites quit coming.  So this is sort of a hit and run method.  I don't wait in one place for very long hoping to get a bite."

     

One nemesis to Sweeney's technique is hangups.  "It's very common to hang and break your rig off, but that's just a drawback that goes with the fun.  I keep the hook and sinker people in business," he notes.

 

Philosophy of Stream Catfishing

     

Joe Sweeney and his methods typify the casual approach that goes along with small streams, catfishing, and lazy summer mornings.  There is none of the hustle of the big lakes, no fast boats, crowded ramps, expensive gadgetry or sophisticated techniques.  Rather, this is old-fashioned fishing-for-dinner and a chance to shift into low gear......

     

"See how the current's eating this field away?" Sweeney observes at one particular turn where a high bank shows five feet of topsoil.  "The river's always changing.  There's something different every year, new trees in the water, old ones gone, a fresh cut, an island washed away."

     

In a way, the river resembles the lives of those who fish it.  They, too, are always changing.  "A lot of people just don't go fishing anymore," Sweeney muses.  "My grandsons used to go with me, but now they're into the two G's:  Girls and golf.  So mostly I fish alone, or sometimes I'll take a neighbor."  He threads a fresh worm on his hook.

     

"There are a lot of canoeists on the river in the summer, and sometimes all the boat traffic interferes with fishermen.  I usually fish early and late and leave the water to the paddlers during the mid-day hours.

     

"And while I'm talking about canoeists, I don't think some of them have as much respect for the river as they should.  They throw cans and Styrofoam cups and other trash in the water.  I hate that."  Sweeney casts his freshly baited rig downstream, waits for the weight to hit bottom, then sets his rod against the gunnels.

     

"I used to raise red worms to sell.  Whenever I'd be away from the house, I'd leave several boxes of worms out where people could find them, and they'd drop their money in a cigar box.  This business ran on the honor system, and I never knew it if anybody beat me out of a cent."

     

In a few minutes Sweeney gets a bite, and he quickly lands a channel catfish the size of a large corncob.  "Big enough to bite, big enough to keep," he judges, dropping the fish into the bucket. 

     

In the next hour, Sweeney talks about whatever enters his mind.  He explains how his father and grandfather built flat-bottomed boats out of poplar planks, then sunk them in the river so they would swell and seal.  He talks about old friends and favorite fishing spots.  He laments the fast pace of life and the fact that modern parents spend so little time with their children.  He says, "My motto is, 'Don't send'em.  Go with'em.'  In this age you've gotta spend time with kids to keep'em out of trouble."

     

That's the way it is with small rivers and catfishing; there's plenty time to think.  You can ponder whatever is important in your life.  You can remember yesterday, reflect on tomorrow, share an opinion or tell a tale. 

     

The only trouble is, all too often a sneaky fish will snatch your bait and steal you away from your meditations.  You have to stop and reel the vagrant in, but putting up with such a "nuisance" is a fair price to pay for the pleasures of this summer sport and setting.

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Overlooked Spring Bass Hotspots

By Don Wirth


In late spring, bass will hang around flooded bushes for a brief period prior to moving out of the shallows
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Where will you be fishing this spring? You could take the no-brainer approach and get in line with all those other bass fishermen casting to the bank. Or, you could do what pro tournament anglers do, and load your boat with big bass on these key springtime spots that weekend fishermen usually overlook!

 

Hotspot #1: Retaining Wall

     

Description: A sharply vertical man-made structure designed to shore up an earthen bank and protect it from erosion due to wave action. Often associated with shoreline residential developments, retaining walls may be made of cement blocks, wood pilings, or poured concrete.

     

Importance to spring bass: Bass moving from deep to shallow water in early spring often stage in open water adjacent to retaining walls in water temperatures ranging from around 48 to 58 degrees. These fish can be found suspending in the water column when inactive, or cruising the structure feeding on shad that are eating algae growing on the wall.

     

Best approach: Go for active bass first by casting a deep-diving crankbait parallel to the wall. If this doesn't produce a strike, move your boat away from the wall and cast a suspending jerkbait directly to the structure. Work the lure very slowly in the coldest part of the temperature range indicated above, a little faster in the upper portion of this range.

     

Inside tip: In clear lakes, bass action on retaining walls is usually best when a stiff breeze is causing waves to crash against the structure.

 

Hotspot #2: Fallen Tree on Deep Bank

     

Description: A tree that has toppled from the bank into the lake; the top portion is laying in water at least 8 feet deep and the trunk is resting on the bank.

     

Importance to spring bass: This structure acts as a bridge from deep to shallow water. Bass swimming along a deep ledge or creek channel will encounter the top of the tree, then follow it up into water shallow enough for spawning. Also serves as a bridge from the shoreline to the water for insects, mice, and other small creatures upon which bass feed.

     

Best approach: Slow-roll a spinnerbait lengthways down the tree, making sure the lure contacts the structure. Or, swim a jig 'n pig through the branches.

     

Inside tip: Make repeated presentations to the tree, taking care to have lure contact where major branches jut off from the trunk - this is where bass are most likely to be holding.

 

Hotspot #3: Ditch in Tributary Arm

     

Description: A shallow depression in the bottom, either natural or man-made, running from the bank out into a feeder creek. Ditches were either formed naturally by rain runoff, or dug to divert water flow, before a reservoir's formation. They often occur on flats and may be lined with stumps or brush.

     

Importance to spring bass: Ditches serve as a route from deep to shallow water. Spring bass will typically stay in the ditch when travelling, then move up to the adjacent flat when feeding.

     

Best approach: Drop marker buoys to delineate the path of the ditch, then back off and cast a medium-diving crankbait or a lipless vibrating crankbait so the lure covers both the ditch and the shallow flat on either side of it. Or, cast a Texas-rigged plastic worm or a jig 'n pig into the ditch.

     

Inside tip:  In spring, large numbers of bass may stage where a ditch makes a sharp bend. These fish are often sluggish, so once you've located the bend, use a worm or jig to catch 'em.

     

Hotspot #4: Flooded Roadbed

     

Description: A flooded road leading into a reservoir. The roadbed surface may be made of asphalt, gravel or earth; asphalt roads were often broken up prior to being flooded. The roadbed may be elevated off the bottom and lined with stumps or chunk rock.

     

Importance to spring bass: Another "highway" which bass follow from deep to shallow water as the water warms. Bass may spawn on some submerged roadbeds.

     

Best approach: Run a deep-diving crankbait parallel to the structure. Hit the top of the road first, then root the lure through the rock rubble or stumps on either side.

     

Inside tip: Unpaved roads such as old logging trails are less obvious than paved roads, and are therefore more likely to be ignored by anglers. Scan the surrounding terrain for indentations indicating an old road leading into the lake.

     


Weeds are considered by most bass pros to be the #1 cover for bass.

Hotspot #5: Warm Run-Off

     

Description: Water entering a lake via tributaries, ditches, culverts, etc. which drain from the surrounding terrain following warm spring rains.

     

Importance to spring bass: The body temperature of a bass matches that of its surroundings. In the cold water typical of early spring, bass are sluggish, but their activity level picks up quickly when the temperature of their surroundings rises following a warm spring deluge. Run-off also flushes worms and insect larvae into the lake, jump-starting the food chain.

     

Best approach: Move to the extreme back-end of an inflowing tributary and fan-cast a spinnerbait or deep-diving crankbait.

     

Inside tip: An unseasonably warm rain in early spring can trigger a mass emergence of crayfish from hibernation. Root a craw-colored crankbait across the bottom in run-off areas.

     

Hotspot #6: Beds Around Boat Docks

     

Description: Spawning nests formed near boat docks located in coves and tributary arms. Beds will appear as light-colored patches in shallow, sunlit areas.

     

Importance to spring bass: Boat docks are usually thought of as fall structures, but bass will spawn around them when the water temperature reaches approximately 65 degrees. Multiple docks help block the wind, creating a calm surface where solar penetration is maximized and the eggs of the bass can be incubated more efficiently.

     

Best approach:  Locate bass beds visually, then cast a weightless plastic worm to the nest.

     

Inside tip: Pre-rig three rods with a floating worm, straight-tail finesse worm on a light jighead, and a tube bait with pegged sinker. Rotate casts to the bed with these three lures, never presenting the same bait twice in a row. This strategy usually invokes a killing response from bedding bass. Note: it's always best to release bedding bass immediately where you caught them!

     

Hotspot #7: Early-Emerging Vegetation

     

Description: The first green aquatic vegetation to appear in spring.

     

Importance to spring bass: Weeds are considered by most bass pros to be the #1 cover for bass. They provide hiding and ambush places, and attract a variety of forage species including shiners, crayfish and bluegills. Weeds also filter impurities from the water and produce oxygen through photosynthesis.

     

Best approach: Look for emerging vegetation in shallow areas of quiet coves and tributary arms, where solar penetration is maximized. Cast a tube bait or plastic worm doused in liquid fish attractant to the thickest past of the grass and work it to the outer perimeter. If the water is clear, try twitching a silver or gold floater/diver minnow around the grass.

     

Inside tip: Weeds usually appear first in the northwest corner of the lake. This is the area most protected from cold north winds, so the water will be warmest here.

     

Hotspot #8: Deep Pocket

     

Description: Indentation in the shoreline, usually oval-shaped, with a depth of at least 10 feet in the middle.

     

Importance to spring bass: Bass often suspend in the middle of these structures after making their initial move toward the shoreline from deep water.

     

Best approach: If the water is clear, fan-cast a suspending jerkbait around the pocket.

     

Inside tip: This is a great spot for a 3/4 to 1 ounce spinnerbait. Look for baitfish suspending in the pocket, then slow-roll a heavy spinner at the depth level of the school.

     

Hotspot #9: Flooded Bushes

     

Description: Completely- or partially-submerged willow or buck bushes, commonly found in the back-ends of reservoir tributaries after the water level rises in late spring.

     

Importance to spring bass: Bass will spawn in open, sunlit areas around this cover. In late spring, bass will hang around flooded bushes for a brief period prior to moving out of the shallows. Mayflies often hatch out around flooded bushes, attracting bluegills and bass.

     

Best approach: Skip a weightless plastic worm under bushes you can't reach by overhand casting.

     

Inside tip: Both bedding and post-spawn bass often need to be coaxed into biting. "Shake" a soft plastic centipede, finesse worm or tube bait around flooded bushes by squeezing the rod handle repeatedly while the lure is lying on the bottom.

     

Hotspot #10: Crappie Cover

     

Description: Man-made brushpiles or stake beds put out as crappie attractors in coves and tributary arms.

     

Importance to spring bass: Prespawn bass often stage around crappie cover in the 8 to 12 foot zone. Postspawn bass will hold around shallower crappie attractors prior to heading out to deeper water.

     

Best approach: Locate crappie brushpiles visually, then run a spinnerbait past it, taking care to bump the cover. If the water is muddy, flip a jig into the attractor.

     

Inside tip: Large brushpiles intended as crappie attractors are broken up and scattered over a wide area by panfishermen who hang up anchors in the cover. The biggest bass in the area often hold on the outer perimeter of this scattered cover, so when approaching a brushpile, start at least two cast-lengths away from the structure by fan-casting a spinnerbait, then move gradually toward the main concentration of brush.

 

Bonus Tip: Try River Bars for Big Spring Bass

           

Many bass anglers ignore rivers, but they can hold tremendous numbers of quality bass. And right now is your best shot at a big river largemouth or smallmouth. They're prowling gravel, sand, or mud bars in a river or tailrace near you, feeding up heavily prior to spawning.

 

Bars provide river bass with food, cover and an escape from current. The best bars have some form of cover on them - scattered stumps, a big rock, a tree washed in during a flood. In swift rivers, bass hold tight to the down-current side of this cover, and may not move far to strike your lure. A swirling eddy often forms at one end of the bar; baitfish injured by passing through the turbines of the upstream dam are often sucked into this spot, only to be inhaled by bass holding there.

 

Spinnerbaits and crankbaits are usually your best bets on river bars, but if you see bass-busting baitfish on the surface, try a topwater popper. If it doesn't get eaten by a big bass, a hybrid or striper might grab it.

 

 

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Catching Cold-Water Slabs

By Don Wirth

Crappie
Ditches serve as natural migration routes for crappie moving from deep to shallow water.

Winter's an awesome time to fish crappie, especially in the Sun Belt where truly frigid days are few, and ice over is just a bad dream. Fishing pressure is super-light and crappie are usually densely packed and tightly related to well-defined structures. And best of all, no jet skis!

Many winter crappie methods used nationwide were spawned on the mid-South's sprawling reservoirs. We checked with Tennessee's top crappie guides to learn where and how they catch monster slabs from frigid water. Their methods should work for you wherever the water remains open this season. 

Dig Those Ditches!
Billy Hurt, Spring Creek, Tenn. (731/427-7066)

I dig ditches in winter -- ditches on Kentucky Lake where I guide, that is. Ditches are the narrow grooves or indentations formed by runoff; before the reservoir was formed, they drained water from the surrounding hillsides and banks into the Tennessee River and its tributaries. Ditches serve as natural migration routes for crappie moving from deep to shallow water.

In winter, crappie concentrate in ditches in 10 to 12 feet of water. A good place to locate these subtle structures is on a major flat. Idle around the flat, watch your depth finder and use marker buoys to pinpoint ditches.

I'm convinced crappie feel a great sense of security in ditches. The water is typically very murky in winter, and visibility low. Crappie moving along the ditch will swim very close to its walls, like a miner feeling his way through a dark tunnel.

The best ditches always have brushy cover on them. On Kentucky Lake, fishermen have sunk brushpiles for decades, so this cover is plentiful. On your home lake, you may have to put out your own cover, but check with your fisheries agency first to make sure it's legal to do so.

I use a spider rig with multiple crappie poles, each 10 to 12 feet in length. Depending on how many fishermen are aboard, I'll run up to eight poles at a time, all rigged with tube jigs and held in rod holders. The setup is a bit unorthodox: first tie a tube jig rigged on a 1/16 or 1/8 ounce leadhead to an 18 inch leader of 6 pound mono. Add a swivel. Then slide a 3/8 to 1/2 ounce egg sinker onto 10 pound main line. Attach your main line to the other end of the swivel.

Use a Palomar knot on the jig. When cinched down real tight, this causes the hook to ride up at an angle, which lets the jig c-r-a-w-l over limbs and branches and helps reduce hangups. Of course, hangups are going to happen eventually, and that light leader lets you break off below the swivel so you can save your sinker. Pre-tie jigs on leader lines and keep 'em handy for quick rerigging. It's no fun tying up rigs when your fingers are numb from the cold.

Once you've located a ditch, use your trolling motor to move the multiple jigs along it at a moderate, steady pace. Keep your lines angled back with no slack or bag, otherwise waves will wash lines into your trolling motor prop and you'll have a real mess on your hands.

Tube-and-Minnow Tactics
Garry Mason, Springville, Tenn. (731/593-5429)

Most guides use either a soft plastic tube jig or a live minnow. I use both in combination to tempt sluggish winter slabs.

Kentucky Lake where I guide usually undergoes a five-foot drawdown beginning in late fall. This pulls crappie tight to cover -- tighter than at any other time of year. Their strike zone also shrinks dramatically, and if you ain't in it, you're gonna haul water.

Crappie plastics
Some days crappie want a jig. When they do, McCadams gives 'em a hollow tube bait rigged on an 1/8 or 1/4 ounce head.

My main targets now are creek channel dropoffs that fall from 12 to 18 feet. The best drops invariably cut close to a submerged bar or island, and have plenty of cover on them.

Now is your chance to get into big schools of megaslabs on an isolated clump of brush or a lone stump. For some reason, crappie really gang up in a big way on this scattered stuff in cold water. Catch one fish and you're likely to catch a zillion more from the same spot.

I use a tight-line presentation with a variation of the Kentucky rig, an old standby for crappie in my neck of the woods. This consists of a 1 ounce bell sinker at the bottom and two tube jigs on 1/16 ounce heads tied at 18-inch intervals above the weight. The tube jigs are tied with a simple cinch knot. This is fished on 12 pound mono using an 8 foot fiberglass spinning rod, one with a whippy tip but a sturdy butt section. I add a live tuffy minnow to the tube jig's hook. The minnow kicks, flutters and activates the tube; the tube in turn adds mass and a dash of color to your presentation, helping crappie to locate it quickly in turbid water.

After pinpointing and marking the creek channel with buoys, use your trolling motor to traverse it slowly, working the jigs vertically. Again, you've got to fish very close to cover now -- the strike zone is tiny, and missing it by an inch is as good as a mile. The Kentucky rig lets you know when you're in cover. The heavy sinker telegraphs a solid tap up your line when it contacts wood; by lowering it into the brush and reeling it slowly upwards through the branches, you can determine where the fish are holding without constantly hanging up. If you do get hung, break your line and rerig. Don't use line heavier than 12 pound -- popping off limbs and branches in an effort to get your rig back will spook the crappie school. Once I lower the rig into the brush, I jiggle the rod tip sideways, not up and down. Think about it: if you use the standard up-and-down jigging stroke, your lure will be out of the strike zone 50% of the time.

Probing Deep Drops
Steve McCadams, Paris, Tenn. (731/642-0360)

To find crappie any time of year, you've first got to find their food source. I believe baitfish are reluctant to move too shallow in winter. Winter weather in the Sun Belt can be extremely volatile -- here on Kentucky Lake, it's liable to be 55 degrees and sunny at noon on Monday, rain two inches Monday afternoon, then drop to 20 degrees by Tuesday morning. Rapid chilling of the surface layer causes massive baitfish kills. You'll go out the morning after one of these monster fronts and see dead shad literally carpeting the lake.

This explains why you can always find a great number of baitfish in deep water in winter. By staying deep, they buffer themselves against the chilling (and potentially lethal) effects of severe frontal passages. And where there's ample bait, there's crappie.

Winter is an ideal time to probe deep ledges. The old creek or river channel seldom falls straight off into deep water, but drops gradually in a series of steps or ledges. In winter, big crappie will relate to ledges between 18 and 25 feet deep. I seldom catch quality fish shallower than 15 feet now.

Stumps and brushpiles located along ledges will attract baitfish and hold crappie. I fish this scattered cover vertically with a heavy version of the popular Kentucky rig:  a 1 ounce bell sinker on the bottom, two  bronze 1/0 snelled hooks 18 inches apart, and a barrel swivel a foot above the top hook. Both hooks are baited with live tuffies.

I use heavy line on my rig -- 20 pound mono for the main line, 17 to 20 for the leader. This is a cover-intensive method, and lighter line simply won't hold up. Besides, we're talking murky water here, so line visibility isn't a factor. I fish the rig on a medium-action spinning or baitcasting outfit. 

Move along the drop and tap that sinker around those deep ledges. Fish it slowly and carefully -- this is a touchy-feely technique. When you feel the rig knock on wood, get ready for a bite. Incidentally, those lightweight bronze hooks team up perfectly with that heavy line. They'll straighten under pressure, so you can get your rig back when you hang up.

Some days they want a jig, and when they do, give 'em a hollow tube bait rigged on a 1/8 or 1/4 ounce head.  The heavy head/light line combination helps keep the lure straight down under the boat, a blessing on rough, windy days. Fish it vertically on 6 pound mono; this setup is especially good for crappie suspending off the drop in open water.

Creek Arm Savvy
Harold Morgan, Nashville, Tenn. (615/227-9337)

Starting sometime before Christmas, crappie get on a dependable ledge pattern at Old Hickory Lake, a flatland reservoir north of Nashville. Now is a fine time to head up into the tributary arms and bump some ledges. Not only will you find plenty of slabs here, you'll have a decent chance of staying out of the wind, which is vital to an effective presentation.

Like Steve McCadams, I target scattered brush along the deeper ledges, 15 to 25 feet. My favorite method is to cast a curly-tail grub on a 1/16 or 1/8 ounce head, using an ultralight spinning rig with 4 or 6 pound mono. Cast the grub to the top of the drop and retrieve it with the rod held steady at 10 o'clock. The water will be frigid now -- 38 to 45 degrees in my area -- and the fish won't move far to strike. Fan-cast the twister around the breakline. Crappie will often suspend out over the channel, and this is a good way to locate a school.

Most fishermen get impatient and fish a twister too fast. Slow way down and you'll catch more crappie! In frigid water, keep the bait moving as slowly as possible while still activating the tail and maintaining a horizontal attitude. 

Vertical-fishing works as well, but don't overdo it. Big jerks won't cut it now. On days with a slight chop on the water, I'll lower a tube jig tied to 6 pound line over the dropoff, watch for the line to go slack as it contacts the ledge, reel up a turn or two and hold the rod dead-still parallel to the surface. The gentle bobbing action of the boat will give the jig all the action it needs. You can also fish vertically with the Kentucky rig. I've got my own version of this favorite: an 11/16 ounce bell sinker on the bottom and 8 pound mono on my main line. Two light wire hooks are attached to 6-inch lengths of 20 or 30 pound "catfish mono," the kind you find in the bargain bin at your friendly neighborhood discount store. These are in turn attached to the main line via loop knots. This cheap line is, as you'd expect, stiff and springy, and holds your baited hooks out at a 90-degree angle from your main line, preventing tangles.

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Advanced Crappie Jigging Tactics

By Don Wirth

Extreme versatility is the reason the jig is such a successful crappie bait.

The lead head jig is unquestionably the deadliest artificial lure ever created for crappie. Extreme versatility is the key to its success. You can fish jigs 12 months of the year in an astounding number of crappie situations by varying jig style, weight, color and presentation. And, you can pack a zillion jigs in your tackle bag and still have plenty of room for a baloney sandwich!

     

Serious crappie anglers are always looking for new wrinkles in jig fishing. Here, some of the top crappie guides in the nation share their secret jigging methods - tactics you can use to score more and bigger crappie on your next outing.

 

#1: Tom Moody's Cold Front Approach

     

Tom Moody, like other veteran Kentucky Lake crappie guides, uses the so-called "Kentucky rig" for probing this sprawling reservoir's ledges, drop-offs and submerged brushpiles. Tom uses a standard double wire crappie rig with a 3/4-ounce bell sinker on the bottom. Moody normally uses the rig with two hooks baited with shiner minnows, but during cold fronts, he replaces one or both hooks with a Charlie Brewer Slider Grub on a 1/16-ounce jighead.

 

You'd think live bait would outperform any artificial lure during a severe cold front, but you'd be wrong, Moody insists. "The Slider Grub can be fished just as slowly and methodically as live shiners, but it gives you the added versatility of using color to your advantage," he says. "By mixing and matching grub and jighead colors, you can achieve exactly the right presentation to trigger bites from non-aggressive fish."

     

Crappie are more color-sensitive than most other freshwater gamefish, including bass, Moody emphasizes. "Often merely changing jig colors provokes an immediate aggressive feeding response. That's why it pays to keep plenty of Slider Grub, tube bait or twister grub color options in your tacklebox, and to experiment with different jighead/lure color combinations. These lures are inexpensive; you can equip a couple of plastic utility boxes with a complete color palette for fewer than twenty bucks. Be sure to stock up on different colored jigheads while you're at it -- sometimes just changing from a white to a chartreuse head will turn the fish on."

     

Cold-front crappie often bury deep inside brushpiles and stake beds; this presents no problem for Moody's modified Kentucky rig. "Simply position the boat directly over the cover, lower the sinker to the bottom, reel your line up slowly, then lower it back into the cover," he instructs. "Determine whether the crappie are striking the top or bottom hook/jig, then adjust your presentation accordingly. For example, if most of your hits are coming on the jig, replace the live bait hook with another Slider Grub. When fishing two jigs, if your hits are coming mostly on the top lure, raise the level of your presentation a foot or so; often this results in two crappies striking the rig at once."

     

Tom's Bonus Tip: "When rigging a soft plastic bait on a jighead, always position the knot on the hook eye so the lure hangs at a 90-degree angle from the rod tip. This gives the jig the natural look of a live minnow swimming horizontally through the water."

 

#2: Garry Mason's Suspending Crappie Technique

     

There's no question that a jig's single hook and compact lead head make it a good choice for probing dense bottom cover. But this lure is also an effective tool for catching crappie suspending in the water column - especially once you master Kentucky Lake guide Garry Mason's unusual presentation tactic that is.

 

"The problem most anglers have with jigging suspending crappie is keeping the jig within the depth zone the fish are using," Mason points out. "Many fishermen have experienced the frustration of catching a fat crappie from a suspending school, only to be unable to score repeat strikes because they couldn't put their jig back in front of the fish."

     

Mason's technique revolves around the spinning reels he uses on his crappie rods. "Say I just hooked a crappie 18 feet deep off the side of a creek channel," he explains. "I know I want to get my jig back in that same spot as quickly as possible, and the surest way to do that is to not touch the reel handle while bringing in the fish. So instead of reeling, the instant I feel the fish hit, I squeeze the line closest to my right hand tightly against the rod handle, then I reach down and pull the line above the handle far enough to get the fish up within reach of the landing net. Then I unhook the fish and drop my jig back into the exact same depth zone. This will seem awkward at first, but with practice, it becomes easy, and it's the surest way to jig up a boatload of suspended crappie that I know of."

     

Garry's bonus tip: "When fishing a jig vertically, it's critical to have your line as vertical as possible, not at an extreme angle from the boat. If the wind is blowing hard enough to offset your line angle, go to a heavier jighead, or pinch one or two split shot about 3 inches above your lure."

 

Most jig fishermen rig their soft plastic lures the traditional way: hook up/tail down on both twister grubs and shad-tail baits like the Slider Grub. #3: Todd Miller's Upside-Down Rigging Strategy

     

Most jig fishermen rig their soft plastic lures the traditional way: hook up/tail down on both twister grubs and shad-tail baits like the Slider Grub. Priest Lake, Tenn. crappie guide and tournament angler Todd Miller agrees that's one way to do it, but he'll give the fish a change-up when the bite gets slow. "On a highly-pressured lake like Priest, I try to give my jigs a different look from what the fish are used to seeing," he explains. "One way to do that is by rigging twister and Slider Grubs with their tails facing up instead of down. This not only creates a different visual profile in the water, but it gives the jig a more erratic action, like a wounded minnow. Note that the hook now lies directly in front of the lure's tail, displacing water. This helps contribute to the bait's jerky swimming action and can mean significantly more bites."

     

A tube bait's cylindrical design means there's no tail hanging down or pointing up, but the lure's soft plastic skirt requires the angler's attention to achieve the best action, Miller adds. "Often the skirt strands are stuck together in the molding process, so before you fish a tube, always take a moment to gently pull the strands apart," he suggests. "If the strands are too molded together to pull apart without ripping up the lure, carefully cut the strands apart with a hobby knife. Separating the skirt gives the lure a more fluid, lifelike action, and it'll fan out better when it's falling"

     

Todd's bonus tip: "Crappie are incredibly finicky about lure color, so I like my jig head and grub or tube body colors to be different so I can cover as many bases with a single presentation as possible. A flash of red or chartreuse on the head often turns on sluggish fish."

     

#4: Jim Duckworth's Jig Trolling Method

     

I've learned to count on Tennessee multi-species guide Jim Duckworth to come through with creative fish-catching methods, and this one is ideal for you crappie anglers who get easily bored when sitting on a hole and waiting for the fish to bite. "I've had excellent results over the years trolling crankbaits for white bass, walleye and sauger, and I discovered along the way that crappie would often respond to a trolling presentation as well, especially from post-spawn through summer," Jim noted. "In order to make my trolling presentation more crappie-specific, I came up with a rig that incorporates both a crankbait and a jig."

     

Duckworth ties on a Bandit 200 crankbait, the adds a 1/16-ounce Slider Grub to the trailing hook via a leader line. "This rig is awesome when crappie are suspending in open water over a channel dropoff or hump, or relating loosely to deep submerged brushpiles," he explained. "The crankbait works like a depth planer to get the jig down to the level of the fish and then keeps it at a constant level. I'll locate a school of crappie or a big wad of bait on my graph, and then I'll circle back around and slow-troll through it with my gas outboard or trolling motor."

     

On days when crappie are actively feeding, it's not unusual to hang fish on both lures at the same time, Jim says. "But the jig part of the rig really shines when the bite is slow," he adds. "The Slider Grub is a compact, non-threatening offering that even sluggish crappie can't turn down."

     

Jim's bonus tip: "Even when crappie won't hit the crankbait, it serves as an attractor, getting their attention until the jig swims by. For maximum visibility, change crankbait colors to match water conditions. In murky water, use a bright color such as chartreuse, or hot orange. But in clear water, go for realism and flash with a shad or chrome pattern. Replace the stock front treble hook on your crankbait with a red hook for even more attraction."

     

#5: Harold Morgan's Float 'N Fly Method

     

The so-called float 'n fly is a plastic bobber and small hair jig combination that has taken winter smallmouth bass fishermen by storm. This innocent-looking rig is incredibly deadly on bass suspending in cold, clear water, and although the jigs used with the method are miniscule, it's racked up impressive catches of trophy smallmouths in many cold-weather bass tournaments.

     

Although the float 'n fly has received plenty of national press as a hot new bass technique, it's really a time-tested crappie method, one that famed Nashville guide Harold Morgan has used for decades. "This is the ultimate jigging method for suspending crappie," Harold promised. "Virtually all other jig presentations involve some movement of the lure, either sideways or up and down in the water column. Not this one. The bobber floats the jig in place indefinitely, which is exactly the presentation you want when the water is gin-clear and super-cold."

     

Morgan turns to the float 'n fly when the water temperature dips below 50 degrees in winter, noting, "It really comes into its own in 40- to 45-degree water, when crappie typically refuse to bite even live bait."

     

Harold uses a long, light-action spinning outfit spooled with 6 pound mono -- 4 if the water is extra-clear. He ties a 1/16-ounce hair jig to the end of his line, trims the hair back with scissors so it's about even with the bend of the hook, snaps a small plastic bobber on the line and positions it from 8 to 12 feet above the jig.

     

Morgan fishes the float rig on banks with a rapid slope into deep water, such as a channel bluff. He casts the bobber close to the structure, waits several seconds for the jig to sink, then either lets the bobber sit still, or gently shakes his rod tip to make the bobber (and the jig) quiver in place. If nothing happens after a minute or so, he reels in a couple of feet of line and dangles the jig some more. It usually doesn't take long for the crappie to react. "The tiny jig looks just like a fry minnow, and crappie will attack it without hesitation. It'll also catch bass, trout and walleye. This rig proves that in jig fishing, sometimes less action is more desirable.

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Juglines for Catfish

By Don Wirth

Jugline Catfish

Shiners and small bluegill are great for juglines and especially tempting to flathead. Blue and channel cats can be tempted with chicken livers, raw shrimp or chunks of gizzard shad.

Catfishermen use a variety of esoteric methods besides hook-and-line fishing to catch their quarry, including limblines, yo-yos, even grabbing the fish with their bare hands. According to Clarksville, Tennessee, catfish guide Jim Moyer (931/358-9264), juglining is one of the most popular of these alternative techniques. "It's easy, effective and fun," he claims. "You'll seldom catch a huge catfish on a jugline, but if you're after a mess of fish for the table, juggin' is a great way to catch them."

The genius of the jugline technique lies in its ability to catch suspending catfish. "Most anglers view catfish as bottom-dwellers, but they'll often move up to feed on passing baitfish schools," he claims. "When they do, a jugline is an ideal presentation. As when bobber fishing, bait dangles beneath the jug."

Juglines work especially well in current. You can toss out several baited jugs, then drift along with them, watching for one of them to take off. Which is, Moyer says, an accurate description of what happens when a good-sized catfish takes the bait. "Catfish go berserk on a jugline. They run all over creation, and chasing after them is half the fun!"

Rigging Jugs
Moyer collects plastic 2-liter Pepsi bottles and spray-paints them bright yellow for maximum visibility. "Plastic soda bottles are cylindrical and take up less room in your boat than gallon milk jugs," he says. "Store them in a plastic garbage bag." Jim writes his name and phone number on each bottle with a waterproof marker; he advises readers to check state fishing regulations to see if this or any additional information is required.

Next, Moyer cuts a 10- to 20-foot length of tough nylon trotline cord, wraps one end around the neck of a bottle, then ties a 2/0 O'Shaughnessy trotline hook to the tag end. A sinker is attached from 6 inches to a foot above the hook, weight depending on conditions. It may take a 1-ounce bell sinker to keep the bait down in current, but only a BB-sized split shot in slack water. 

A fat rubber band is used for adjusting the distance of the hook from the jug when fishing, and for corralling the line during storage. Simply peel off the length of line desired and secure the remainder against the jug with the rubber band. "Keep the bait well off bottom," Jim cautions. "Remember, you're going for suspending cats, and you want your jug to drift freely for a wide-ranging presentation." He normally runs his lines from 5 to 15 feet below their respective jugs.

Live baits like shiners and small bluegills are great for juglines, and are especially tempting to flathead catfish. Blue and channel cats can be tempted with chicken livers, raw shrimp or chunks of gizzard shad.

Jug Methods
Juglines are highly effective in both slack and moving water. In lakes, spread out baited jugs in a wide circle in a bay or creek arm with your boat in the middle (this method works especially well after dark for flatheads). In rivers, toss out several jugs about 20 feet apart, letting them drift down rock bluffs, across gravel bars and close to banks with fallen trees and logjams. Jim sets all his jugs out on the same side of the river so he can watch them, then backs his boat a safe distance away and drifts along with them. What a relaxing way to fish!

More jugline tips from Moyer

  • Attach a metal gaff hook to one end of a broom handle for easy jug retrieval. 
  • Don't leave jugs unattended. Stay with your jugs and collect them before you leave the water.
  • Don't set out juglines in high-traffic areas.
  • Never set out more jugs than you can handle. Use fewer jugs in high wind or fast current.
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Seasonal Sauger Strategies

By Don Wirth

By Jim Duckworth as told to Don Wirth
Jim Duckworth is a veteran multi-species fishing guide based in Lebanon, Tennessee. His broad experience as a professional diver for the Army Corps of Engineers and the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service gives him a unique perspective on the haunts and habits of a variety of gamefish, including the elusive sauger. Reach him at (615) 444-2283, or visit his website, www.fishingtennessee.com. Don Wirth, Nashville, Tennessee, has been writing about fishing topics for 35 years. When he's not on the water, he plays bass (guitar, not fish) in a rock band.

Seasonal SaugerThe sauger is arguably our most misunderstood gamefish. Most fishermen know (a) it looks like a walleye, and (b) it tastes great, but historically, very little exploration has been done by anglers on new tactics for catching these fish. Even the most sophisticated anglers, including many NAFC members, view only the coldest periods prior to ice-over as sauger season.

Here's a news flash: sauger are highly catchable in large numbers over a surprisingly wide time line -- nearly five months of the year in the Southeast, where I fish for them!

Most anglers target only traditional sauger hotspots, especially the mouths of river tributaries and warm-water discharges, and tend to do very little exploration of new areas that may hold more and bigger fish. This typically results in large numbers of boats crowded together in confined areas, never a pleasant -- or productive -- angling scenario.

Even worse, most sauger fishermen employ a shockingly narrow range of methods to catch these fish. Vertical-fishing a heavy jig tipped with a small minnow is the preferred tactic of 99.9% of the sauger crowd in my area. Believe me, there are more ways to connect with these critters than by bumping lead on the bottom!

Sauger are mysterious and wonderful fish, deserving of a lot more attention from creative anglers. As your area fisheries cool down, try my three-phase approach. I'm positive it'll greatly extend your sauger season.

PHASE 1: LATE FALL TROLLING

I start catching sauger fever in early November, much earlier than most anglers bother fishing for this species. Sauger begin to bunch up in large numbers when the temperature in our area rivers, including the Cumberland and Tennessee, drops below 60 degrees. Last November I got on sauger big-time in 58 degree water.

Sauger stack up directly below dams in late fall. This is perhaps the easiest time of year to locate these fish, yet it's amazing how few fishermen are onto this pattern. Once the temperature in the tailrace has hit 55 degrees, I seldom have to move more than a half-mile below the dam to get on quality fish.
     
Crankbaits Rule
Trolling crankbaits is by far the most productive way to catch sauger during the fall phase. I've had my best results trolling medium-sized bass crankbaits in fairly shallow water -- no deeper than 20 feet. Many of the tailraces I troll have a solid rock bottom with occasional humps and depressions. Invariably, tailrace sauger are dead on the bottom, not suspended in the water column. If your crankbait hammers bottom, your chances of scoring a sauger strike are high. If not, you'll probably haul water.

My favorite cranks for this application are Bandit Crankbaits in the 300 and 400 series. These are exceptionally well-made plugs that run true, have strong, sharp hooks and are an excellent value.  Whatever crankbait you select should run 9 to 12 feet deep on a long cast; slow-trolled on 35 yards of line (I use 14 pound abrasion-resistant mono), it should dive 14 to 16 feet. Whatever crankbait you use, make sure it matches the size and profile of the baitfish that tailrace sauger commonly feed upon.

Sauger are surprisingly finicky about crankbait color. On any given day, it's common for one color to outfish another 10 to 1! Change colors often -- sometimes they'll turn off a color after only one trolling pass. In my area, green/white and red/white are especially good in clear to moderately-stained water. On overcast days and in murky-to-muddy water, I'll often score higher on fire tiger, perch, chartreuse or hot orange. If the water is super-dark, I may switch to a bigger crankbait like the Bandit 600 to increase the visibility of my presentation; a big bait also stands a good chance of catching a trophy walleye. Again, this is what works for me; be sure to experiment with crankbait color and size on your area waters.

Your crankbaits must run straight or they'll not only miss your target, they'll foul your lines and create monumental tangles. Always test-troll your lure close to the boat to make sure it behaves properly before letting out a lot of line.
     
The Sauger Shuffle
I fish from a 21-foot aluminum boat which I built myself. It's powered by an Evinrude FICHT outboard, which trolls beautifully without loading up. A 4-stroke is a good alternative to a DFI engine for trolling.

I troll both upstream and downstream until I determine which direction produces the most fish. On some days it doesn't matter; on other days, sauger want the lure coming from only one direction. (Yeah, these dudes can be finicky!)

Doing the "sauger shuffle" will usually put you on fish in a hurry. Start on one side of the river with the nose of the boat pointing upstream, adjust the engine rpm to the current flow so the boat is barely moving ahead of the current, then head diagonally for the opposite bank, trolling crankbaits behind you. Then turn the nose of the boat downstream and reverse the procedure. When trolling with the current, it's possible to move too fast; I take my outboard out of gear frequently to slow down.

When flatline trolling, I usually run two rods, Berkley 6 1/2-foot medium-heavy-action baitcasters with Ambassadeur 5500Cs. Again, 14 pound low-diameter, abrasion-resistant mono is ideal. Heavier lines won't get your lure to the bottom, and you'll lose too many lures with lighter lines.

In snaggy rivers, either a lure retriever or a friend at the lure company is essential -- you can easily go through two dozen crankbaits a day if you aren't careful. If your graph reveals a big snag on the bottom, immediately stand up and stick the rod as high in the air as you can; this will help elevate your lure enough to clear the obstruction. Before trolling unfamiliar territory (or your usual spots when you first start sauger fishing in fall), make several initial passes with a stout baitcasting outfit spooled 25-pound line to snag and bust off branches and snatch tangles of fishing line. Then once you've cleaned out the area, start sauger trolling.

I keep my rods in a rod holder and troll with the rod tip horizontal to the water or pointed slightly downward rather than up for maximum depth potential. I'll remove the rod from its holder and point the tip skyward when trolling across a shallow bar or hump. Take special care to adjust the reels so the drag will slip some. In cold weather, the drag may lock up; if the lure hangs, the rod could break in the holder before the line parts. Try to maintain about seven pounds of drag pressure -- this will save your equipment, and enable you to fight a good fish in fast current without ripping its face off. When a sauger strikes while trolling, never rear back and jerk -- just reel down tight and maintain steady pressure as you work the fish to the boat.

When trolling rivers, I skip over areas with long stretches of constant depth and instead, hammer holes and high spots. You need a good depth finder to differentiate sauger from bottom trash (I like my Lowrance X75). I also look for big schools of baitfish, either on the bottom or suspended in areas of heavy flow; sauger will sit on the bottom and pick off injured minnows that drift down to them. Typically sauger stack up in large schools, which may shift upstream or downstream throughout the day. Current is always beneficial when trolling, but obviously a huge flow can make your presentation more difficult.

Many fishermen say sauger fishing is boring, but action can be fast and furious when trolling tailraces. Besides sauger, you may pick up walleye, bass, hybrids, drum and catfish. Last year I caught a 10 pound walleye, a 38-pound striper and a 25-pound paddlefish on sauger trolling trips.
     

PHASE II: DEEP JIGGING

As the water temp drops to around 48 degrees, typical of late December/early January in my area, sauger go much deeper, and vertical-jigging is more efficient than trolling.

The key to quality catches now is to fish in and adjacent to super-deep river holes -- 80 feet isn't too deep if it's available! (This is probably three times deeper than you've ever fished for sauger before.) Don't panic if you can't find 80-foot water; just target the deepest holes you can locate. On the Cumberland River just north of Nashville, big sauger often stack up 70-80 feet deep. On the Tennessee River below Pickwick Dam, you won't find anywhere near that depth of water; 30-foot holes are considered deep.

Sauger will be in these holes whenever fishing conditions get a little tough, such as on frigid bluebird days following a frontal passage, when the flow is super-heavy, or when the river jumps up overnight following a heavy rain. These fish can be in either a pre- or post-spawn mode, depending on how severe the winter has been. The spawning habits of sauger have always been a topic of considerable debate, but I'm convinced they'll spawn far earlier than many fishermen realize if the winter is mild and conditions are favorable. Last December we caught sauger from 60 feet of water with mature eggs squirting out of them.

Now is prime time for a huge sauger. I average a half-dozen over 5 pounds every year during this phase; a couple may top 6.
     
Jig Setup
I use locally-made jigs weighing 1 to 1-1/4 ounces. These have a light wire 2/0 or 3/0 hook, and a #5 treble hook as a stinger. Instead of connecting the stinger to the jig hook with monofiliment as most sauger fishermen do, I link two brass swivels together, attaching the lead swivel to the eye of the jig hook and the trailing swivel to the eye of the treble. This gives the presentation a little fish-attracting flash, and sauger can't bite through the swivels as they can mono. Eighty per cent of my fish are hooked on the stinger.

I tip my jigs with either live minnows or soft plastic baitfish imitators. The key to a bigger jig bite is to use bigger bait on your jigs. Instead of the 2-inch minnows most sauger fishermen rely on, I'll routinely use 3- to 5-inchers. Creek minnows are great; shad and shiners will work, too. Soft plastic jerk baits are surprisingly good substitutes for livebait -- my favorite is the Gene Larew Long John minnow.

The right rod is essential for super-deep jigging. I use a medium-heavy 6-foot spinning rod with a reel spooled with 20 to 30 pound Berkeley Fireline. Braided lines are excellent for this application; they have zero stretch, enabling you to feel a deep, lethargic fish bump your bait in heavy current. They're also far more resistant to twisting than mono lines -- even heavy jigs will spin like crazy in current. Attach the jig to the line with a snap; if you get hung up, this will open under pressure and help prevent littering our rivers with non-biodegradable braided line.
     
Vertical Approach
I don't anchor when jigging. Instead, I'll point the bow of my boat upstream and use my 24-volt trolling motor to hold my position while I saturate the bottom with repeated jig presentations. When I'm done working a small area, I'll back off the power so the boat slips downstream a ways, then power back up to hold the boat in place again. The key is to keep your line vertical in the water column. You never want your line to be more than 10 to 15 degrees off vertical when jigging; this will increase your odds of hanging up and decrease sensitivity to light bites.

Current flow is essential now. Put simply, if they're not running water at the dam, stay home -- your chances of success go way down. Last winter we had very little flow in our Middle Tennessee sauger rivers, so I took guide parties south to Pickwick Dam where there was more current. If you have a choice, go for the most flow.

After dropping the jig straight down, trip your reel the instant it hits bottom, lift the rod tip about 8 inches (less in frigid water), then lower the rod just ahead of the jig as it drops. Don't pop the jig -- you'll knock off your minnow. Dropping your rod tip quickly will cause your line to tangle in the jig -- all you want is the slightest bag in your line. Sometimes the bite will be surprisingly aggressive during this phase; sometimes it'll be mushy, like you've hooked a leaf. Sauger often suck in the jig as it's falling back to bottom and swim 4 or 5 feet with it; if you lose touch with the lure at any time, quickly reel up slack and set the hook.

The holes where I catch the most sauger now have a clean gravel bottom with a few big logs. I don't like a mud or boulder bottom. There are lots of sauger in snaggy holes, too, but they're too hard to fish -- you'll hang up constantly, and retying is a pain when you hands are stiff from the cold. Avoid jigging around trees that have recently drifted into a hole; key on older trees whose branches have been broken off by current over time.

Ledges adjacent to deep holes can hold a lot of fish -- sauger will slide on and off these during the day. Watch your graph and saturate each step of the ledge with your jigs. You'll feel the jig tap rock and then tumble down -- that's usually when a sauger whacks it.

PHASE III: CAROLINA RIGGING

When the water drops to around 46 degrees, I switch to an approach more often associated with bass than sauger: Carolina rigging. It's absolutely the best presentation for frigid water conditions.
     
The Carolina Crawl
Carolina-rigging for sauger is an anchoring approach. I again target the deepest river holes I can find, but will pay more attention to the upstream and downstream tapers of the hole than when vertical-jigging. Bluff holes are especially good now -- sauger will stage in these waiting for the water to warm up for spawning. The sweet spot is often where the hole starts tapering shallower on the downstream side. Concentrations of sauger will be on the bottom here, holding around chunk rock, wood or gravel.

Anchoring is essential for an effective Carolina presentation. Drop anchor a good distance ahead of the hole, then when the anchor bites, let out enough rope to allow you to reach the structure with a long cast. In heavy current, it may take an anchor weighing 30 pounds or more to grab bottom.

I use pretty much the same Carolina setup for sauger as I do for bass -- a 1/2 to 1 ounce egg or bullet sinker on 20 to 30 pound braided line, a brass swivel, and a leader of 17 pound mono. But my leader is much shorter for sauger than bass (often only 16 inches) 'cause I don't want my bait floating too high off the bottom. On the business end, I'll rig a creek minnow or a soft plastic baitfish like a Sassy Shad up to 5 inches long on a 1/0 to 3/0 hook. I'll fish this on a 6 1/2-foot medium-heavy baitcaster with a slow-retrieve reel.

Cast downstream into the hole -- the Carolina rig will lay out nicely in current. Then use the reel, not the rod, to slowly c-r-a-w-l the rig back upstream while keeping the rod rock-steady at 10 o'clock. Using the reel to move the rig will let you feel every pebble on the bottom, as well as the lightest bites. When you feel a fish, immediately set the hook.

Holes containing mussel beds are awesome sauger spots. Sauger are a primary carrier of the larvae of the washboard mussel; they attach to the fish like ticks and then drop off when they mature to around 6 weeks. Wherever they settle is where the mussel spends the rest of its life. As a diver, I've spent hundreds of hours doing mussel surveys, and have seen tons of sauger in areas thick with these mollusks.

Your bait must appear lively when Carolina rigging. I like a Sassy Shad over a plastic jerk bait for this application -- current activates the Shad's tail and makes the lure throb and wiggle. Likewise, a creek minnow is livelier in the coldest water than either a shad or a shiner.

The older I get, the less I enjoy suffering. I keep myself and my clients comfortable in bitterly cold weather with a propane heater. I lash a 20-pound bottle of propane with an infrared heating element to the side of my boat's rod locker with a heavy nylon strap; it puts out 12,000 btu's and runs for 30 hours. I also keep a complete change of clothes in a big plastic bag for emergencies, plus several pairs of gloves.

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Hybrid Bass One-Two Punch

By Don Wirth

Some fishermen like the finesse approach -- you know, the "gentle art" of angling?

I'm not among them.

Finicky trout? Moody bass? Gimme a fish with attitude on the end of my line -- something like a big, fat hybrid striper.

Hybrid Bass

Contrary to popular belief, your bait doesn't need to be alive and kickin' to catch hybrids. These bruisers can be caught on the bottom with a variety of dead baits as well.

Hybrids, wipers, hybrid stripers, sunshine bass -- whatever you call 'em, these bad boys will put a serious bend in your rod. A laboratory cross between the landlocked striper and the white bass, they're the meanest, hardest-pullin' freshwater gamefish that swims.

By angling standards, hybrid fishing is a brand new sport. These fish are the result of fisheries management, not Mother Nature. Most states didn't even begin their hybrid stocking programs until the Seventies. Little wonder most anglers are just now beginning to figure out how to catch them.

The vast majority of hybrid fishermen use bait, but a growing number love to tempt 'em with artificials. But why be satisfied with just one approach? If you've fished for wipers with live bait in the past, what I'm about to tell you may shock you, and hopefully tempt you to try some revolutionary bait approaches. If you prefer artificials, you're about to learn some exciting topwater techniques that'll have your heart pounding and your adrenaline pumping.
     
Bottom-Fishing Bonanza
Popular bait techniques for hybrids are much like those used for reservoir stripers. The most common presentation involves slow-drifting live shad on weighted "down lines" for suspended fish. A good approach, true, but the catch rate falls off dramatically during frontal passages. Another popular method is to use a bow-mounted trolling motor to pull live baitfish on long lines behind the boat, alternately stopping and speeding up so the bait falls and rises enticingly -- not a bad way to catch a 'brid, but again, it's best in stable weather.

Here's a news flash: contrary to popular belief, your bait doesn't need to be alive and kickin' to catch hybrids -- or even on life support, for that matter! Like northern pike, these bruisers can be caught on the bottom with a variety of dead baits as well.

Expert Birmingham, Ala. angler Chris Stephenson was the first to clue me in on bottom-fishing for wipers. An avid hybrid and striper hunter with a degree in fisheries biology, Stephenson has three National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame catch-and-release hybrid line class world records to his credit, including a 31-incher from Pickwick Lake, Ala. on 14 lb. line.

Stephenson stumbled onto what has to be the strangest hybrid pattern of all one morning while drifting live shad for white bass in the swift Tennessee River current below Wilson Dam, Ala. "I noticed another fisherman's boat was anchored on a nearby hump, and every time I'd drift past him, he'd be fighting a big fish and cussing his brains out," Chris told North American Fisherman.  "I finally asked him what was up; he said he was catfishing on the bottom with chicken livers, but big hybrids kept taking his bait -- I saw him boat one that had to be 15 pounds."

Stephenson was back at the Wilson Dam launch ramp before daylight the following morning, but this time, he wasn't gunning for white bass. Motoring to a series of shallow humps washed by fast current, and armed with a box of hooks and sinkers, he dropped anchor and set out two lines baited with chicken livers. Within minutes he was fast into two big hybrids at the same time. "I went through a bucket of livers in less than an hour, and had to run to town and get more," he recalled. "I couldn't believe it -- the hybrids were eating it off the bottom like candy!"

Stephenson began experimenting with his bait menu. He tried beef liver, cut pieces of gizzard shad and skipjack herring, whole dead threadfin shad -- it seemed whatever offering he set out, hybrids gobbled it up eagerly. He caught wipers up to a whopping 17 pounds using dead bait on the bottom, as well as big stripers and chunky catfish.

Citing fisheries studies, Stephenson said, "Hybrids have a huge appetite for their size. When not busting shad on the surface or chasing suspended baitfish schools, they'll often roam close to bottom and gorge themselves on dead fish. This feeding behavior is especially prevalent below dams, where turbines act like a Cuisinart to slice and dice baitfish. Taking advantage of this little-known fact can greatly extend your angling opportunities when hybrids aren't feeding in the upper section of the water column, such as during temperature extremes and frontal passages."
     
Where to Bottom-Fish
"Most anglers think of bottom fishing as being best in deep holes and on dropoffs, but where current is present, hybrids are likely to be surprisingly shallow," Stephenson indicated. "In April and May, for example, I often find them in 10 feet of water. In slack-water lakes, or in tailraces when current is not present, they'll be deeper -- 15 to 25 feet is typical."
Here are some bottom-fishing hotspots Stephenson recommends: 

Big flats  -- "Think of bottom-feeding hybrids like grazing cattle -- they roam big, flat, obstruction-free expanses of bottom with little slope. In a river-run reservoir, look for flats in the 10- to 18-foot zone swept by moderate to strong current. In slack-water fisheries, look for big main-lake flats with 15 to 25 feet of water on their outer edges."

Submerged humps -- "The most productive humps are moderately shallow -- 10 to 12 feet on top is perfect. Look for humps close to a deep creek or river channel; these will pull in hybrids that were suspending in open water."

Slow-tapering points -- "Points are universally appealing to hybrids because wandering baitfish schools often gather there. The points most conducive to bottom-foraging are long, with an extremely slow taper into a deep channel. Flat points at the mouths of inflowing tributaries are especially productive."

Shell mounds -- "I became aware that hybrids forage on areas where shellfish congregate when commercial mussel divers told me of seeing huge concentrations of these fish. Shell mounds are common in river-run reservoirs."

Warm-water discharge areas -- "Excellent cold-water hybrid spots -- often you'll find 65-degree water directly below a 'stream plant' even when the rest of the lake is in the low 50's. The water here is like chowder -- there are zillions of baitfish, and hybrids can get a grand slam breakfast merely by swimming along bottom and sucking in dead shad. Good place to hang a giant striper, too."
     

Stephenson's bottom rig uses a #4 Gamakatsu Octopus hook at the business end -- perfect for baiting chicken livers, cut skipjack herring or whole dead threadfin shad. Bottom-Fishing Savvy
Stephenson highly recommends tackle with maximum shock absorption built in to handle scrappy hybrids. "Never use a stiff-action rod like a bass flipping stick!" he cautioned. "These fish pull so hard, with a stiff rod, they'll either break your line or straighten the hook when they make their famous powerhouse run. For bottom fishing, I like medium-action 7-foot baitcasting rods, coupled with wide-spool reels spooled with abrasion-resistant 14-pound mono. Don't use braided line; it lacks the stretch needed for these powerful fish. And although I may use lines up to 50 pounds for river stripers, I find my hybrid catch rate decreases when I use heavier line."

Stephenson's bottom rig is much like the bass angler's Carolina rig. He slides a 1 to 3 ounce egg sinker, depending on the amount of current, over his line, adds a plastic bead for knot protection, then ties a stout swivel to the tag end. He then attaches two feet of 14 pound mono to the opposite end of the swivel as a leader, and ties a stout live bait hook like a #4 Gamakatsu Octopus to the tag end.  After positioning his boat above the structure he wishes to fish and anchoring both ends, he baits up with chicken livers, cut pieces of skipjack herring or whole dead threadfin shad, and casts his offering onto the structure. "I try to engage the reel spool right before the bait hits the water, to prevent it from being swept too far off the structure as it's sinking," he added. "Once it's on bottom, I adjust the reel drag so it slips under pressure and place the rod in a holder. I don't like to use clicker reels with the spool open; these result in too many hybrids swallowing the hook before you can get the rod out of the holder."

As spring transitions into summer, bottom-fishing becomes more productive -- and tolerable -- at night. "It's just too darn hot where I live to anchor down on a hole on an August day, but it's very comfortable at night. Hybrids are more active after dark in hot weather anyway, and you're liable to hang into a big flathead catfish now as well."
     
Topwater Time
Ready to switch gears and for a bruiser 'brid on top? Veteran Goodlettsville, Tenn. angler Jack Christian's the man with the plan. "I've yet to meet a fishermen who didn't get a rush out of catching schooling hybrids on topwater lures," the former Priest Lake guide insisted. "These fish can feed so ferociously, it can be downright scary. I've seen acres of them boiling the surface to a froth, with shad jumping clear onto the bank trying to escape!"

Topwater action typically begins when the surface temp hits 70 degrees, usually late April or early May in Jack's region. "Hybrids often school by size, and usually the first fish to get 'in the jumps' are smaller, maybe up to 8 pounds," he noted. "The bigger fish are often on a later schedule; you'll start picking up the 10+ pounders a week or two after the smaller ones. The bigger fish are lazier. They instinctively know they can find more abundant forage when the water warms sufficiently for the lake's shad population to complete its spring spawning activity, gang up in massive schools and head out to the main lake. When the surface temp reaches 75 degrees, you'd better make sure the drag on your reel is loose, 'cause you're about to do battle with some major-league fish on the surface!" Jack should know -- he's caught hybrids pushing 18 pounds on surface plugs.
     
Hotspots for Surfacing Hybrids
Surface schooling is often a main-lake phenomenon, Christian emphasized. Wolfpacks of hybrids typically swim under big schools of shad, gradually pushing them toward the surface. Exactly where the feeding frenzy will take place can never be predicted with certainty, but Jack suggests that anglers position themselves near the following areas:

Points at the mouths of tributaries -- "Baitfish schools moving from their spawning grounds in tributaries will eventually gravitate to points at the mouths of creek arms, only to be ambushed by schools of hybrids. Watch for surfacing fish in open water between two opposing points, as well as over the points themselves."

Underwater roadbeds -- "These are major structures in many reservoirs. Hybrids suspend over them, and when a school of shad happens by, they'll force 'em to the surface and put on the feed bag. I like to fish roads because they receive less angling pressure, being less obvious than points."

Submerged humps -- "The best hybrid humps are close to the mouths of feeder creeks. Hybrids hold there when inactive, then force passing shad schools to the surface when feeding. I've seen 'em school on top of humps as shallow as 5 feet."

Smithwick Devil

Anything that pops, spits or sputters will do the trick with schooling hybrids. Smithwick's Devil's Horse is a long-time favorite prop bait among anglers.

Surface feeding can take place in early morning, late evening, or all day long, depending on weather and water conditions. "Generally on calm, sunny days, I do best with topwaters early and late, but on cloudy days with a light chop on the water, I've caught hybrids surfacing throughout the day," Christian said. "Often you'll spot breaking fish just by cruising the lake or watching for schools of birds circling above the water -- they're picking up the scraps from a recent hybrid feeding frenzy. If you don't see fish schooling on top, park around one of the structures mentioned above and hang out for awhile -- you usually won't have to wait long for the action to begin."
     
Topwater Tackle, Lures and Tactics
Christian favors long, shock-absorbing baitcasting rods for topwater fishing; like Chris Stephenson, he's respectful of this species' awesome pulling power. His favorite is a 7-foot fiberglass bass cranking stick; it enables him to make extra-long casts to reach surfacing fish and is very forgiving. He couples this with a slow-retrieve bass baitcasting reel (slow = more winching power) and 12 pound mono.

Jack uses a varied menu of surface offerings, most of which are bass lures: "Hybrids don't have a big mouth, so I avoid large striper plugs like Red Fins and stick to medium-sized bass topwater plugs instead." Poppers, stick baits and prop baits rule. Among his favorites: the Zara Spook, Pop-R, Rattlin' Chug Bug and Devil's Horse. "Hybrids aren't nearly as picky about what you throw at 'em as bass are. Anything that pops, spits or sputters should catch 'em."

Presentation is basic -- remember, surfacing hybrids are out for blood. "Cast a little beyond the fish, then start the retrieve. I like to keep the lure moving pretty aggressively, like a fleeing baitfish. The fish will tell you what to do -- if you aren't getting strikes, try speeding up, slowing down or using a stop-and-go retrieve. Keep your drag loose; it's not uncommon to have two hybrids strike a lure at once."

Christian always keeps a rod rigged with a 3/4-ounce metal jigging spoon handy when chasing after schooling wipers. "When they're surfacing out of topwater plug casting range, you can often reach 'em with a heavy spoon. Cast beyond surfacing fish and immediately start reeling quickly with the rod held high so the spoon skips and tumble over the surface. And once the feeding frenzy stops, let the spoon sink on a tight line -- often a big hybrid will nail it while it's fluttering down like a dying shad."

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