Throwback Technique: Skittering for Bass

Back in the old days to compensate for poor-quality, short-range tackle, bass anglers developed fishing techniques to draw up-close strikes; one such technique – skittering – rarely is tried by today's fishermen

Have you ever thought how different fishing was in past centuries? The modern tackle we use is very different from, and much better than, the simple tools used by anglers prior to the twentieth century. Back “in the old days,” catching bass was much more difficult.

Early anglers developed innovative fishing techniques designed to draw up-close strikes from bass. One such technique – called skittering – rarely is tried and used by today’s bass fishermen, but with a bit of improvisation, you can adapt modern tackle for its use. You will find the results pleasantly surprising.

This old-fashioned tactic, once used by market fishermen swinging perch bellies or frogs, typically employs a sturdy 10- to 12-foot cane pole, jig pole or fly rod and an equal length of line. A pork frog or strip of fish belly is affixed to a stout hook, and the bait is skittered across broad openings in weed patches. If bass are present, they'll hit with frenzied, chomping charges.

One of the earliest descriptions of skittering was written in 1791 by naturalist/explorer William Bartram who observed it being used by fishermen in the southeast U.S.

uneek shows colors gary elliott
A strip of belly flesh from a sunfish often was used by bass anglers who employed skittering in decades past. (Keith Sutton photo)

“I found some of my companions fishing for green trout [largemouth bass] ‘round about the edges of the floating water lilies, and not unsuccessfully, having then caught more than sufficient for us all,” he said. “As the method of taking these fish is curious and singular, I shall just mention it.

“They are taken with a hook and line, but without any bait. Two people are in a little canoe, one sitting in the stern to steer, and the other near the bow, having a rod ten or twelve feet in length, to one end of which is tied a strong line, about twenty inches in length, to which are fastened three large hooks, back to back. These are fixed very securely, and covered with the white hair of a deer’s tail, shreds of a red garter, and some parti-coloured feathers, all which form a tuft or tassel, nearly as large as one’s fist, and entirely cover and conceal the hooks: this is called a bob. The steersman paddles softly, and proceeds slowly along shore, keeping the boat parallel to it, at a distance just sufficient to admit the fisherman to reach the edge of the floating weeds along shore; he now ingeniously swings the bob backwards and forwards, just above the surface, and sometimes tips the water with it; when the unfortunate cheated trout instantly springs from under the weeds, and seizes the supposed prey. Thus he is caught without a possibility of escape, unless he break the hooks, line or rod, which he, however, sometimes does by dint of strength; but, to prevent this, the fisherman used to the sport is careful not to raise the reed suddenly up, but jerks it instantly backwards, then steadily drags the sturdy reluctant fish to the side of the canoe, and with a sudden upright jerk brings him into it.”

In “Fishing in American Waters” published almost a century later (1888), we learn from author Genio C. Scott that skittering was still a popular technique, and anglers had enhanced their rigs with fishing spoons.

“Angling ... among the lily-pads and pickerel-weed is very exciting sport,” Scott wrote. “The angler should use a rod from 13 to 15 feet long, flexible, but strong. For skittering a float is not used, nor is natural bait the best. Use Buel’s or M’Harg’s spoons, mounted with red ibis feather, and white feathers or hair for the under side of the spoon. Stand near the bow of your punt, and skitter the lure along the surface of the water, near the margins of the lily-pads ... A most important essential is to have a man at the stern who can use the setting-pole and sculls so as to enable you to fish the border of the lily-pads without scaring the prey into their hiding-places ...”

One of my uncles was a skitterer extraordinaire. He would first catch a sunfish and cut a strip of flesh from its belly. This was affixed to a stout hook dangling from two feet of Dacron line tied to the end of a long, sturdy cane pole. While I sculled him about, he skittered that piece of fish flesh across openings in weed patches. And I watched as he caught dozens of huge bass that attacked with frenzied charges. In later years, he sometimes used a pork frog or weedless silver spoon with similar effect, a technique still used by some anglers.

Today’s bass are suckers for skittering just as much as the “green trout” of Bartram’s time. Try skittering yourself and see.

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