The woods were thick and the incline steep, but I continued to climb. First, I used the trees and exposed roots as hand holds. When the woods gave way to open rock, I bloodied my knuckles and scraped my shins crawling up the cliff face. Reaching the summit, my eyes focused on a small hut. Inside the hut, sitting in a circle around a smoldering fire, I found the bait masters. Six anglers who have perfected the art of using feathers, fur, metal, plastic and rubber to match a wide range of fishing baits. As I approached the hut, the sages of bait made a space for me around the fire. Here is what I learned.
6 Master Anglers on Matching the Food Fish Actually Eat
Largemouth bass have a large appetite. It takes a big bait to satiate a big bass. Largemouth will feed on bluegills, other bass and large shiners or minnows, but they really like a fat, juicy shad. Not only are these baitfish full of fat and protein, but they often school in the open presenting bass a meal that is too easy to pass up.
Following the mantra that big bait equals big fish, the recent trend towards larger and larger lures has resulted in anglers catching bigger bass. For the past five years, NuCanoe regional director Stewart Venable has systematically increased the size of his lures and his catch. Fishing out of Fort Mill, South Carolina, Venable uses a variety of lures to imitate gizzard shad.
“Gizzard shad spawn in early spring, especially early May,” he says. “This is a good time to use smaller spinnerbaits, crankbaits and soft body swimbaits.”
Venable chooses a floating or topwater swimbait that he works steady across the surface. Through summer, he goes deep with a crankbait that dives 12 to 25 feet to reach bass hiding from the heat.
He also likes a deep diving spoon. “Work it over humps and structure.” He suggests evening, morning and after dark are the best times to fish. “The low light brings shad to the surface and the bass follow.” He chooses a topwater popping or slash bait.
In the fall, as the bait schools up in shallow water, he returns to topwater and suspended swimbaits.
In the rivers, he often finds shad holding in the current sucking up plankton. “This presents a perfect opportunity for bass to ambush them,” he says.
When the water turns cold, Venable takes up the deep-sinking swimbaits he can work slowly across the bottom. “The fish want to get the most protein using the least energy,” he explains.
Regardless of the size and weight of the swimbait, Venable uses the same steady retrieve. “You can go faster or slower, even pause the lure,” he explains. “The jointed lure creates its own action.”
Fooling a bass with a nine-inch lure takes patience and practice. “The larger lure culls out smaller fish,” he says, “I get fewer bites but bigger fish.” He says that bass will often follow a big swimbait for some distance before striking. “Presentation is key, keep experimenting with speed until the fish respond.”
Shad give themselves away with a flash of silver. Venable chooses lures with plenty of sparkle and shine. Spinnerbaits with large blades, spoons and silver crankbaits are his favorites. He chooses swimbaits with a large profile and plenty of flash. Since there are often several generations of shad in the same water body, he lets the bass dictate what size lure he uses. “Experiment with size until they respond,” he says.
- 8-inch Bullshad in dirty bone color
- 1⁄2 ounce Bionic Fishing Razor Spinnerbait in gizzard pattern
- 4.8-inch Keitech Swing Impact FAT in Pro Blue
- Speed up or kill the retrieve to trigger a reaction bite.
- To throw big swimbaits, choose a heavy rod and reel with strong drag.
- During the summer, work a spoon around dock pilings to find bass hiding from the heat.
Wilderness Systems Team Captain, Jeff Little fishes the swift moving, rocky waters of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River. To design his line of custom Confidence Lures, Little studies the river and its inhabitants like Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands. If he’s not working the rock gardens and pools with rod and reel in search of smallmouth bass, he dons a scuba mask and jumps in to chase the bait the fish eat.
Many times, he finds the bottom littered with crayfish. This tiny lobster-look-alike hide in the rocks during the day then venture out when the light is low. “Crayfish aren’t just prey for bass,” Little points out. “They are predators, too.” He suggests searching for the crawdad’s prey, first. “Turn over rocks and look for aquatic insects and small fish,” he instructs. Little says that areas that hold big numbers of these little critters will also host crayfish and bass. A perfect mixture of rock or cobble bottom provides places for the craw to hide and hunt.
When he finds a crayfish, he studies its color pattern and behavior. Bass are particularly fond of molting crustaceans. “That’s the phase of life when the crayfish is growing out of its shell,” he explains. Often, the crab is dark green or black, but slight variations in color differ from area to area. Little promises, “If you can match the local color pattern, your lure won’t be left alone long.”
More important than choosing the right color, Little also observes the crayfish’s movements. “Notice how fast the crayfish move when you uncover them,” he says. “Then match the speed with your retrieve.” He says that crayfish will dart and bash into things while fleeing a predator. “A square-bill crankbait bouncing along the bottom imitates this motion,” he says.
Working a crankbait along the bottom allows Little to cover a lot of water looking for a bass bite. “It allows me to find high-percentage areas,” he explains. He also uses the crankbait to fish wind-blown, muddy banks of a reservoir or river whitewater.
Once he finds the fish, he may switch to a jig to slowly work the area. “Crayfish will try to hide by holding completely still,” he says. “One little twitch and the bass will pounce.” He also relies on the crawfish jig when the water is cold. “It’s great for fishing heavy structure since it can bounce through rocks and deadfalls without getting snagged.”
Little uses a supersoft polymer in his Confidence jigs that flits and flutters in the current. “I’ll let the bait sit in one place for up to a minute,” he says.
Confidence Baits Draggin Head: Tiny membranes and appendages dance in the current to entice bass feeding at close range.
Live Target Craw: The square bill produces a wide wobble like a fleeing crawfish.
- Fish rocky areas early and late to find crawfish hunting in the open.
- When slow-fishing a jig, the bass can pick it up and drop it before the angler has a chance to react. Add scent to the jig to encourage a bass to hold-on.
- Black always works. Molting crawfish are usually darker than hardshells.
3 Jumbo Shrimp
Gulf shrimp demand big money at the seafood market. It’s no wonder that trout, reds, tarpon and snook are willing to pay the ultimate price to feed on these tasty crustaceans. Tampa-based pro guide Eric Hensen is in the heart of shrimp central. “Shrimp are a huge part of the local forage,” he explains. “It’s important to understand their lifecycle.
Shrimp migrate to deep, open water in the winter and return to the shallows in summer. “That’s why the biggest shrimp are around in fall, spring and winter,” he says, “and tiny peewees in summer.” He adds that shrimp will move on the full moon when they can ride higher than normal tides. “Wind can affect the tide, too,” he adds, saying that an onshore blow will push more water into the shallows.
Hensen has noticed that shrimp tend to like water between 62 and 68 degrees. “When the water drops below 50 degrees, the shrimp will bury in the mud.”
Hensen lists three predominant species of shrimp along Florida’s west coast: pink, white and brown shrimp. “Pink shrimp live in the clear water of southern Florida,” he starts. Brown shrimp are found in murkier, deeper water farther north along the coast. White shrimp also concentrate in northern waters. “They seem to like cloudy shallow water,” Hensen says.
The color and size of locally available shrimp can vary greatly from one area to another and from one hour to the next, so Hensen recommends carrying a wide array of soft plastics to match. “Carry jig tails from five-and-a-half inches to two-and-a-half,” he suggests. His go-to size is four-and-a-half inches. “That’s the size that the tackle shop labels ‘hand-picked’,” he explains.
He also packs a variety of hooks and jigs to imitate the shrimp’s behavior on a given day. “I’ll use a circle hook for drifting, a weighted belly hook to crawl the shrimp or a jig head to bounce the shrimp off the bottom.”
Hensen adjusts the size of his lure to match the shrimp he observes. A general rule of thumb is smaller shrimp in the heat of summer. “Trust me,” he insists. “Elephants eat peanuts.”
He also watches how the shrimp behave. “Are they moving fast or holding in the water,” he asks himself and then tries to match the speed and depth of the natural bait. “I generally start out with a slow pause then adjust the pace of retrieve until I find out what sparks the fish.”
XMove Monster3X shrimp comes in a wide variety of sizes with matching jigs and weighted, weedless hooks.
- If the fishing is slow, slow down the presentation. Sometimes waiting several seconds between moves can be the golden ticket.
- Use a tough soft plastic to save changing lures all day. I can catch 50 fish on one soft plastic.
- Study the live shrimp at the bait shop to learn about the size and color of the local wild shrimp.
For New England striped bass anglers, fishing with eels is a necessary evil. Real eels are slimy, slithery and stinky. Given a chance, they will tie themselves in a knot of boogers around your hook and line. Handling eels requires a strong grip and a strong stomach, so most anglers choose to imitate these uncooperative baitfish with an artificial lure.
Full-time bass angler Eric Harrison has made a life out of imitating eels with his Hogy lures. “Eels are one of the only catadromous fish,” he explains, “They move from the ocean to rivers and back.” Believe it or not, eels breed in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, hundreds of miles from shore. Then, they migrate inshore to freshwater rivers and lakes. “Eels have one of the most amazing life cycles,” he marvels.
Harrison bases his bait choice on the time of year and the size of the bass he expects to meet. “At the beginning or end of the summer I use smaller seven to 10-inch soft plastics,” he starts. As the larger eels return from June through September, they attract larger stripers. Harrison up-sizes to a 13- to 14-inch eel imitation. In the offseason, smaller elvers are almost clear. “A three to six inch white plastic worm is a perfect imitation,” he adds.
For big bass, he goes with a two-tone or all black eel imitation. “Eels are active at night and so are the striper,” he explains, adding that black eel will get the most bites after dark. “I have no idea how they can detect a black lure in the dark water,” he shakes his head. “But black has been a proven producer.”
He rigs the soft plastic eel on a weightless swimbait hook if the fish are holding higher in the water column. The rubber eel gets a half to one-ounce jig head when Harrison detects the fish feeding deep. “Big bass are often feeding directly on the bottom,” he points out. “So it is important to keep a bait in the zone.”
At night he looks for shallow flats that border deep water. “I’ll go to an area that holds fish deep during the day then fish the shallows after dark.” This frustrates boaters who cannot venture onto the shallow bars that hold big striper at night.
I’ll set up my drift to cross the flat and fan cast the bait in every direction. “The best spots will experience considerable current,” he adds, so it’s important to establish a drift that crosses the fishiest areas. He likes water from two to seven feet deep. “When bass are feeding shallow they will often feed on large eels,” he says. “That’s when I break out the 14-inch Hogy.”
He varies the speed of his retrieve, but it usually involves a steady crank with occasional pauses. “The rate of retrieve also changes the depth where the lure is working,” he adds.
When fishing is slow, Harrison will slow troll across the flats and through fishy areas. “I never troll faster than two-miles-per-hour,” he insists. Trolling may not be his favorite way to hook striper, but it can be the most effective.
Jiggin’ Hogy: I use a half-ounce to one-ounce jighead that keeps the lure on the bottom.
Original Hogy: Designed to be matched to a swimbait hooks, the depth where the bait works depends on the speed of the retrieve.
- Bass key in on surface splashes even when they are feeding on the bottom, expect to get hit within a few seconds of the cast landing on the water.
- Engage the reel as soon as the lure hits the water, striper will often hit the lure as it sinks.
- I will rip a weightless soft plastic back to the boat to spark the fish to bite.
Dee Kaminski fishes Florida’s east coast for snook, trout, reds and tarpon. Her fortunes rise and fall with annual mullet migration. Kaminski’s story starts in the fall. As the water temperature cools, silver mullet from all along the Atlantic Coast head south to spawn off South Florida. “This is the mullet run,” she explains, “fishing is on fire.”
Huge schools of mullet congregate in hopes of escaping predators. “To find feeding fish look for mullet raining out of the water” she says. Kaminski continues, “Most people think the run only happens along the coast, but the fish enter the inlets and backwaters, too.”
Current and tide have a huge effect on mullet. “Bigger mullet will escape into deep holes and cuts around islands and river bends,” she says. Juvenile mullet hide in the mangrove roots. “A high tide will push the bait up creeks and canals. During colder months, the mullet escape to the same canals and creeks to find warmth. “When it gets cold, mullet and mud minnows are the only game in town,” she says.
So, how do you match the mullet? “Size and color vary greatly,” Kaminski says, she often finds mullet gathered by age. “Matching the size is critical,” she says, often carrying several sizes of the same color pattern. “The tackle shop walls are covered with mullet imitations,” she says.
Kaminski chooses colors and patterns that don’t exactly match the color of the bait. “My favorite is a bone-colored surface walker,” she says. Red head with white body or dark back and light belly are other favorite colors. She chooses light colors on sunny days with clear water and dark colors when the sky is overcast or the water is stained.
More important than color, Kaminski strives to imitate the mullet’s behavior with her lure. “Mullet spend most of their time swimming just below the surface,” she says. “Topwater walkers are always popular.” Kaminski casts past a school of mullet and walks the lure back to the kayak.
“Sound is a big part of the attraction,” she says. “The plop when the lure hits the water and internal rattles draw the fish away from the real bait.” She also uses a surface walker to prospect for fish. If the fish are feeding deep, she works a weighted, weedless hook slowly along the bottom or over grass. “I’ll cast into the middle of a mullet school and let the lure sink to the bottom,” she says. If nothing happens, retrieve the lure slowly interrupted with a few long pauses.
“I often hook a fish while I’m distracted by something else or talking on the phone,” she laughs. When Kaminski spots a trout, snook or red swimming the shallows, she lands the lure four feet ahead of the predator and lets it drop. “Move the lure slowly into the strike zone so the fish can see it.”
Edje Joe weighted, weedless hook and paddle tail. The flat weight on the weedless hook gives the paddletail a seductive side-to-side movement.
Tactical Anglers Crossover: Internal rattles add sound that attracts surface-feeding fish. Reversed gill rakers disturb the water for more vibration.
- A loop knot reduces line twist and increases the lure’s action.
- Pinch a split shot to the hook for a more pronounced wounded fish action.
- Add Pro-Cure gel mullet scent to the lure. Why not smell like a mullet, too?
Fly fishermen invented the phrase “match the hatch”. Choosing a lure that looks like natural prey is the primary tenet of all fishing. As aquatic insects move from their water stage to their air stage, they are an easy target for hungry trout.
Pacific Northwest adventure fly guide, Rob Lyon has turned fishing into a science. Paddling the Deschutes River in Central Oregon, he must imitate a wide variety of river terrestrials, bugs that start life in the water and end life in the air. There are a variety of critters swimming and flying around swift mountain water, but monstrous stoneflies the size of your longest finger, attract the biggest trout.
For three years, these critters live underwater scooting along the bottom and hiding in the rocks. “They don’t present much of a target for fish until the hatch,” Lyon admits. When these predatory insects move to the surface to hatch, breed and die, the fish go crazy. Various bugs hatch throughout the year, but the big stoneflies can’t wait for spring. Even if you know the general season, timing the sporadic hatch is both art and intrigue. “Call up local tackle shops and peruse online forums to get in on the conversation about when and where the bugs will appear,” Lyon suggests. Of course, online discourse could lead to fishing in a crowd. To avoid the throng, Lyon suggests moving upstream of the main hatch. “You may just hit gold,” he says.
Bugs vary in size, shape and color from river to river and pool to pool. Lyon does some ground work before hitting the water. “During the stonefly hatch, giant bugs the size of a small rodent will be all over the rocks, trees, bank, they’ll crawl on you and find their way down your shirt collar,” he itches. Lyon recommends picking up a bug, turning it over and finding a fly to match. “That means you have to carry a wide variety of patterns,” he says.
It is important to copy the pattern and behavior of the insect in each stage of life. Bounce a nymph across the bottom through fast moving water. “If you’re not ticking bottom, you’re not catching fish,” Lyon insists. Or, he suggests letting a dry fly whisk in the current. “A dry fly will quickly lose floatation, but a half-submerged fly looks like a stonefly emerging from the water.”
After the hatch, the flies will return to the water to drop eggs. “Twitch a dry fly across the surface to imitate an ovipositing female,” Lyon suggests. Best action will be early and late where low-light conditions give the bugs a chance to fulfill their destiny.
He reminds anglers that it takes a fish some time to eat a giant stonefly. “It’s open wide for chunky time!” Lyon roars. Give the fish a chance to eat before setting the hook. “They’ll gorge themselves quickly,” he adds, “so take advantage of the bite while it lasts.”
- Soft Pillow
- Kauffmans Stone
- Norm Woods Special
- Wind will blow emerging flies back into the water, target steep banks and overhangs to find flies hiding from the wind.
- As they emerge, the bugs will gather at certain places in the river. Find one of these places and the show is over.
- If the fish are stiffing your dry fly, try slapping it on the water at the end of the cast. This imitates the pop of a falling fly and it gets out your aggression.
Current and tide have a huge effect on mullet, which congregate in huge schools in hopes of escaping predators. | Feature photo: Jason Arnold