Catch What's Biting

The “catch-what's-biting” philosophy can turn an otherwise slow day into a day of fun and excitement when you're willing to target a variety of species like catfish, black bass and crappie. (Keith Sutton photo)

When I was young, I often fished with my Uncle Julius. Each time we went, I always asked, “What are we going to fish for?” My uncle’s answer was always the same: “We’ll catch what’s biting.”

Some days we fished with minnows, worms or crickets. Sometimes we’d cast plugs, spinners or jigs. Occasionally we fished with all these.

We always caught dozens of fish, sometimes as many as 100 or more.

When I got older, I got hooked on bass fishing. I was casting plastic worms, crankbaits and topwater plugs. I caught plenty of nice bass up to 9 pounds, but many days I caught nothing, and only rarely did I catch more than 10 fish.

I persisted with my bass-only obsession for years, but there came a day when I longed for something more. I no longer needed to catch bass. I just wanted to catch fish—any fish.

It was then I returned to the philosophy my uncle taught me: catch what’s biting. And it’s been so much fun, I’ve never turned back.

Consider a day of fishing I enjoyed recently with my friend Lewis. We fished an oxbow we often visit, and knowing the lake’s propensity for producing a variety of good-eating sportfish, we prepared to catch what’s biting. We brought worms, crickets, minnows and a variety of spinners, plugs and jigs. I even brought some prepared catfish bait.

We began our day casting topwaters for bass. Lew launched a chugger toward shore and gave it a tug. Kersploot! It made a sound like a stone dropped in the water. But before Lew could give a second jerk, wham! A bass blew up on the plug. It turned out to be an 6-pounder, the biggest fish of the day.

In the next hour, we caught five bass each, but none as big as Lew’s first. Unfortunately, the bite ended as quickly as it began. Time for something else.

“Let’s try for crappie,” Lew said, grabbing a pole rigged with a jig. I baited a hook with a minnow, and while my friend sculled the boat, we dipped our rigs beside shallow cover.

Lew quickly landed a 1-1/2-pound white crappie. I followed with a nice black crappie, then another. In an hour and a half, we caught enough to cover the bottom of the ice chest. And the minnows I was using enticed other fish as well, including a chain pickerel, three bowfins, a longnose gar, a spotted gar and a 5-pound flathead catfish.

Just before lunch, we decided to move offshore and fish around some cypress trees. Previous experience showed this to be a bream haven, so we that’s what we targeted. Lew fished crickets under a bobber. I fished a worm on bottom, hoping to catch some redears.

Both tactics proved effective. Lew was yanking in big bluegills as quick as he could get a bait out. And while the redear action was slower, I caught eight nice ones, including one over a pound. A variety of other sunfish also took our baits, including longears, green sunfish, warmouths and spotted sunfish. Lew’s crickets proved irresistible to several yellow bass, and my worms enticed a small buffalo, two freshwater drum and two channel cats.

Catching a few cats convinced me to try the prepared bait I had, and that proved a good move as well. I caught one 4-pound channel cat, plus three bullheads.

During that unforgettable day of fishing, we caught 20 species, 127 fish in all. Had we come there only to fish for bass, we would caught just 11 fish before our catching was done. Before we left, Lewis posed for a photo, straining to lift the long stringer of bream we kept to eat.

I might just as easily have described many other fishing trips I’ve been on where the catch-what’s-biting philosophy produced a memorable day on the water. It’s proven a day-saver on many trips, and having raised six sons who are anglers, I can tell you it’s the best way to instill a love of fishing in children. It’s always fun to catch a variety of fish that are hungry instead of struggling to catch those species with lockjaw you might have targeted exclusively.

To make the best of catch-what’s-biting fishing, carry a broad selection of baits and lures you can use no matter what fish are hungry, or carry baits and lures that appeal to a wide variety of fish. I prefer the latter because it allows lighter travel.

I always carry live bait because, at times, it outproduces artificials substantially. Minnows are hard to beat because they’ll catch almost any fish, including bass, crappie, walleyes, saugers, stripers, white bass, trout, catfish, crappie and even big bream. Earthworms also are excellent because they can be used for big fish and small. Crickets work best for smaller fishes, but when you want to catch large numbers (when children are fishing with you, for example), they work better than any commonly available live bait.

Other excellent multispecies baits include crayfish, grass shrimp, shad and insect larvae such as hellgrammites and waxworms.

Here’s a great multispecies rig I use. First, put a bobber stop on your line, followed by a slip cork. Below this tie a size 2 Carlisle hook. Crimp a split shot on the line 4 inches above the hook and the rig is complete. Adjust the bobber stop so you’re fishing just above the bottom, and cast near stumps, brush, logs or other visible cover. You might catch anything from a beautiful sunfish to an ugly old catfish.

Artificials also should be all-purpose varieties. My favorites include small spinners like the Blakemore Road Runner, Mepps Aglia and Johnson Beetle Spin; multipurpose crankbaits such as Bill Lewis Lures’ Rat-L-Trap and Bomber’s Fat Free Shad series; small spoons like Cotton Cordell’s CC Spoon; and small to medium-size jigs like Mister Twister’s Lightnin’ Bug and TTI-Blakemore’s Slab Daddy.

Fish throughout as much of the day as possible. Depending on the season, some fish bite better near dawn and dusk, at night or when the sun is high. The more hours you can fish, the higher your catch rate will be.

Certainly we all have our favorite fish, and at times, we want to fish for our favorites exclusively. But to get the most fun out of each fishing experience, go prepared just in case and catch what’s biting. You’ll be glad you did.

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