Live Baits For Early-Season Bass

There are times when putting the real thing on your hook is the best bet for largemouth action. Here's a look at those times and which baits to use.

Bass baits -- when most anglers hear those words, the images that come to mind are mostly of plastic worms, spinnerbaits, topwater plugs and the like. Often forgotten are baitfish and various critters that bass think of as good food.

Early in the year, when low water temperatures equate with low metabolism rates in bass and an unwillingness to chase most lures, a well-presented live offering ranks among the best tools for tempting fish into biting. Note the words "well-presented." Contrary to what many lure specialists believe, using live bait isn't simple and doesn't automatically put fish in the boat. Success requires selecting the right bait, rigging and presenting it properly and putting it where the fish are. Live bait fishing also commonly involves active approaches, which defy stereotypes of sitting in a single spot and staring at a rod tip.

Let's look at some of the finest live baits for bass, when to use them and the best techniques for presenting them effectively.

Shad
How do bass fishermen begin the process of searching for bass? Often, they search for shad. If shad are stacked up in an area, it's likely that the bass are nearby. That's especially true during the winter, when both the baitfish and the bass often look for modest temperatures, and they tend to pile up in areas that offer a degree or two of added warmth. Such areas might be the deepest water in a lake, or after a string of sunny days, they might also be over sun-baked shallow flats.

Whether deep or shallow, the bass and their favorite food often will be together, and there's no more effective way to get those bass to bite than to put a live shad on a hook and dangle it among them. For stationary approaches, shad can be hooked through the back, just behind the dorsal fin. For slow-trolling, which is an excellent way to present live shad, it's better to hook the baitfish through the nostrils or into the bottom lip and out one nostril.

Because bass are so fond of shad, they often will slurp them down pretty quickly, so it is a good idea to use circle hooks. Anglers using circle hooks will land a good percentage of the fish that bite, and most bass will be hooked in the corner of the mouth. A great hook for a live shad is a 1/0 to 3/0 Daiichi Improved Circle.

The indisputable downside of shad as bait is that they can be difficult to keep alive. A large, round, well-aerated bait tank is needed for keeping large numbers of shad alive for very long. Lacking that option, the best plan is to carry modest numbers of baitfish and to change out the water occasionally.

Crawfish
Crayfish, crawfish, crawdads, mudbugs -- call them what you like. Bass just call them dinner. Virtually every crankbait and jig ever created comes in crawfish color patterns, and soft-plastic manufacturers make countless crawfish imitations. Each of these baits has its advantages, but for sheer fish-attracting ability, it's hard to beat putting a real live crawfish at the end of the line.

The biggest challenge related to fishing with craws during the early part of the year can be attaining them. Some bait stores carry crawfish, but often not until at least mid-spring. They can also be caught, either by flipping stones in a creek or along the edges of a pond or by baiting and setting a crawfish trap around rocks, downed trees or other cover in rivers or lakes. (Check local regulations related to catching crawfish and using them as bait.) However, catching crawfish is also much easier after the water warms.

Assuming an angler can find some crawfish, they typically are best presented on spinning tackle, fairly light line and a simple split shot rig, with no other hardware, except a hook. Craws kick and swim and stay alive well when hooked through the tail section from the bottom to top. Some anglers prefer to remove claws, partly because they believe bass bite defenseless craws best, but partly to spare being pinched!

Some of the best places to present live crawfish early in the year are over rocky points, near vegetation on flats that are close to deeper water and around hard cover, such as dock pilings or stumps. Unless an angler knows a very specific spot that several bass are using, a good strategy is to stay on the move, casting to targets, allowing the weight to pull the crawfish to the bottom, waiting a few minutes and then moving on to the next target. Bass typically won't think about a live crawfish long before biting.

Shiners/Minnows
A live shiner or other large minnow is the one kind of natural bait that a fair number of anglers do associate with largemouth bass fishing. Virtually all bait stores sell minnows of some sort, and the biggest ones available usually make the best choices for bass fishing. That's especially true during late winter to early spring, when the biggest bass in the lake are beginning to move shallow with thoughts of spawning. It's also when a lot of the largest fish of the year are usually caught.

Pre-spawn fish need to feed, but they seek to conserve energy with the water still cold and their metabolisms slow. With that in mind, they simply can't resist a fat live minnow swimming right in front them. Prime areas for finding these fish are over points that are adjacent to spawning flats or along creek channel edges in the same areas.

Depending on conditions, the fish may be anywhere along points and either at the tops or bottoms of channel edges. If the fish are shallow, the best way to present a live shiner or other minnow is on a free-line, with either no added weight or just enough split shot to pull the bait down from the surface and a circle hook through the lips. For deeper water, more weight will be required.

Probably the most popular way to fish a shiner or other large minnow is under a big cork, with offerings cast near vegetation, downed trees, riprap banks or other fish-holding cover. Because this tends to produce big bass and the best spots are often in or near thick cover, float-fishermen usually use bait-casting gear and heavy line.

Float-fishing strikes on shiners can be thrilling. The float will first start to dance, showing the nervousness of the baitfish, and then either the cork will suddenly plunge out of sight or the baitfish will come to the surface, where the bass will then attack it like it's smashing a topwater lure.

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