Every serious bass fisherman in Florida knows you can’t beat a 6- to 10-inch live golden shiner for catching trophy largemouths. Although using live bait for bass isn’t popular outside of the Sunshine State, it can be every bit as effective, especially now. Any bass-no matter where-will sooner take a live minnow than an artificial lure when the water is cold in early spring.
Noted California bass guide Larry Hemphill (530-674-0276), who normally fishes with artificials, became a believer during an early-spring outing at Clear Lake. He was having little luck, and his client suggested they try live bait. Hemphill obliged, rigging the angler’s outfit with a large shiner, known locally as a “jumbo minnow,” 3 feet beneath a slip bobber. A split shot 8 inches above the hook prevented the bait from swimming to the surface.
During the remainder of that day, Hemphill’s client caught 25 largemouths, including one that weighed 10 pounds. His best five bass weighed nearly 30 pounds. “I was fishing right next to him, casting jerkbaits, jigs, and slow-moving crankbaits,” Hemphill says. “I couldn’t get a bite.”
Shiners in the 3- to 5-inch range can produce fast action right now, throughout the country. Hemphill suggests using 10-pound-test monofilament to avoid spooking line-shy bass in clear water. Use a rod with a medium-heavy action to ensure solid hooksets, and go with a No. 2 Gamakatsu Octopus hook to avoid deep-hooking fish. “An Octopus usually catches a bass right in the lip so you can release it in good condition,” says Hemphill. Run the hook up through the minnow’s lips, as opposed to through its back, to keep it lively. Then adjust the rig depending on the depth of the water you’ll be fishing.
Since the water is now oxygen rich from top to bottom, bass may be lurking on shallow or deep structure. “First I fish the shallow cover with a bobber,” says Hemphill. “If that fails, I’ll go deeper without a bobber. It’s more challenging but certainly effective.”
In water of less than 10 feet, rig up with a slip bobber and split shot as Hemphill did. Focus on boat docks, reeds and bulrushes, rock piles, steep rock, shale or chunk-rock banks, windfalls, brushpiles, and submerged vegetation. For isolated pieces of cover, such as boat docks or windfalls, cast right to the target, moving on to the next after several casts. When fishing larger areas, such as rock banks or submerged grass, cast upwind and let the breeze sweep the slip bobber over or along the edge of the cover or structure.
You can reach deeper bass by fishing your minnow on a free line. Use the same hook, line, and rod, but leave off the bobber. Then add another split shot or two to get the minnow down 15 to 20 feet or more. “We drift minnows along the edges of volcanic rock piles on Clear Lake,” Hemphill says. “Some of the bass hold at 20 feet.”
Position yourself along the edge of a steep bank or other dropoff, and drag the minnow as you drift. Slow the boat’s speed, if necessary, to maintain a nearly vertical line.
Whether you’re fishing shallow or deep, Hemphill stresses that you should set the hook quickly after a bass grabs the minnow. “You may lose a few fish by setting the hook right away, but you greatly reduce the risk of killing the bass,” he says. Besides, the action you’ll get on live bait will more than make up for any misses.