Back to the basics with live bait

Sam Bevard -

As summer has chased away spring with heat and aquatic weed growth, my luck at getting bass to strike artificial lures has hit a solid wall, much owing to the difficulty of getting said bogus baitfish, worms, snakes or whatever the fish takes them to be, to run without accumulating hookfulls of green glop.

But I have found another way to catch fish by reverting to my way of angling 62 years gone. This had its beginning on a morning back in May when I was targeting bluegill by fishing red worms under a bobber in order to determine the quality of that lake as bluegill fishery. After I had caught several unimpressive ‘gills, the small float began to cruise across the surface without going under. It was a shock when the 11-foot light action crappie rod bowed almost into the water. After considerable argument and commotion I beached an 18-inch largemouth.

The red worm and its larger cousin, the night crawler, are the most iconic of fish baits, so much so that the angler’s vernacular often generically calls them “fishing worms.” They will catch most any critter than swims and passes by the name of “fish,” from creek chubs in a tiny stream such as Owl Hollow through the noble bass to the monstrous catfish. The marvel of worms is that when you put one on a hook and drop it into fish country, you can never be sure what might happen.

Since that first worm-biting bass I have landed five additional quality bass on worms, the largest being a 19” that sank the bobber no more powerfully than did the bluegills that had been nibbling at my every presentation.

One might wonder why I have been fishing for bluegills so frequently. It was not in quest of a 10” trophy bluegill. My friend Donnie Gallagher helped me accomplish that goal on June 16 by inviting me to fish with him at Lake Charles. I had little hope of finding such a bluegill in the other waters I fish. I have been fishing for bait.

The small baitfish we lump together as “minnows” are mostly stream dwellers. In built waters such as farm lakes and ponds, the typical predator-prey stocking mix is largemouth bass and bluegill, or sometimes the redear sunfish, or shellcracker. When crappie are included they also are forage fish for the bass when small.

A note about legality is in order here. It is illegal to use crappie, which are sport fish in Kentucky, for bait. Redear sunfish are sport fish but it is legal to bait with them if under six inches in length. Bad news bluegills: though you are size-for-size tougher than bass and can pull against the rod like tiny brutes, the law does not give you sport fish status. You are bait, and one of the best natural lures for those old green monsters your momma bluegills warned you about.

I shamelessly admit that I have been bassing with live bluegills, which is cheating only if fishing in a bass tournament. I have been doing it because it has kept me catching quality bass. We tend to get elitist about our bass angling, and our elitism shows in tackle boxes laden with colorful doodads and pretties, all of which will catch bass.

Artificial lures do more than give us a sense of exclusivity — their convenience makes fishing easier and cleaner by eliminating the time expenditure and labor of catching bait. Well do I remember the days when before I could fish I had to trap or seine minnows or catch crawfish by hand. (The appeal of pitching a live craw into one of my bass ponds has me considering a test of my diminished eyesight and reflexes on a crawdad hunt.) Having a plethora of re-usable bait handy-by all the time truly enables the spontaneous notion of “Let’s go fishing!”

Rather than begin immediately casting when I get to the water I put out a spinning rig with a worm and a weighted bobber. I keep the casting setups handy, but bluegill fishing is a hands-on activity. If you put your worm in front of them they are going to bite it. This delays my actual bass fishing until I have caught a bluegill of the proper size, two inches being the ideal both for bait and for catching on hook and line.

I use long shank hooks larger than most people would use for panfish because I don’t want fish deeply hooked. If a bluegill is bigger than I want for bait I release it in as good a condition as possible. I fish bluegills under bobbers using the same spinning or baitcasting setups I use for throwing artificial lures. I use long shank #3 worm hooks and get best results on medium heavy action rods. I use the smallest bobber that the bait cannot take under and hold down permanently. Using no bobber at all would be preferable but the float keeps the bait from snagging the line or hiding in bottom vegetation. Having bait beforehand would be better but the two times I tried this and stashed my bluegills in the branch in front of our house, coons opened the bucket and stole them.

When I secure a good bait bluegill I put it out on a line and then I cast lures for a dual pattern approach. I prop the bluegill-baited rod and leave the reel on free spool so that if a bass takes the ‘gill it can run freely until I see the strike and react. I give the bass plenty of time to run and take the bait before setting the hook hard. There is usually a good bit of yardage between the fish and the rod tip, which adds the excitement of a long fight. There will be numerous false alarms when the bluegill moves the bobber or even pulls it under and holds it down. I have had a couple of bass break water to nail energetic bluegills as they struggled on or near the surface. When the float stays down too long and the line starts to peel from the reel it is time to grab the pole and turn a bass head!

Bass are not the only possible catches when baiting with live bluegills. This past Monday I went with the Dillon brothers to a two-acre lake in Mason County. I set a rod with a bluegill and when we were packing up to leave I found the bobber down and the line out down to the spool. When the fish felt pressure from the reel it sounded almost at the opposite shoreline! That was a 100-yard reel-in for that 24” channel cat. If only it had been a bass!

There’s no denying the thrill of a savage topwater strike on a Jitterbug, the tap of a bass on a soft plastic, or the sudden jolt when a bucketmouth slams a crankbait. But if you can’t love it when the bobber plunges and the line sizzles away through the water, then you’re missing some of fishing’s most visceral joys.

Sam Bevard Bevard