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Taking the bait

When fishing with shiners, attracting bass and hooking bass are two different things.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 2002

When fishing with shiners, attracting bass and hooking bass are two different things.

John Keens was a long way from Moosejaw, Saskatchewan.

As he hauled up yet another bass-battered shiner from the murky waters of Lake Tohopekaliga near Kissimmee, he looked back over his shoulder to fishing guide Lenny Crispino.

"What did I do wrong that time, eh?" he asked.

Crispino shook his head. "I think you tried to set that one too early," he said. "You've got to reel down until you feel the weight."

It was a refrain Crispino repeated patiently throughout the day to his three clients, two Floridians and Keens, the Canadian who was racking up a series of firsts. It was his first trip to the American South, his first bass experience, his first ride in a real bass boat.

It was mid-April. The bass in Lake Tohoe (the more common, easier to pronounce name of Tohopekaliga) had moved away from their spawning beds and into the hydrilla-carpeted flats, Crispino told us. The fish seek to regain their strength before rising lake temperatures push them to deeper hideouts.

The trolling motor on his 21 1/2-foot Ranger pushed us slowly over the flats on a mild, nearly windless morning. In the near distance we could see a scattering of other boats like small islands on the otherwise broad and featureless lake.

We started the day with four dozen shiners in Crispino's live well and bought two dozen more when we went ashore for lunch about noon. At about $15 a dozen, the cost of fishing with shiners can be significant. The incentive to use shiners, however, is simple: bigger bass.

The shiners are nearly as big as the palm of a large hand and can be fished either tied to a float or simply hooked onto a bare line, or "free lined." Fishing with a free-lined shiner takes considerably more "feel" than using a float. It's easier to tell the difference between the tugs of a lively shiner and those of a bass when there is a float to watch.

On this day, however, even the floats weren't enough to protect us from our inexperience. Crispino knew where the fish were, we were getting plenty of activity, but our catch-to-bite ratio was nothing short of pathetic. In a fishing day that began around 7:30 a.m. and ended about 3:30, we got at least 50 solid hits but managed to boat only about 20 fish, all of which we released. They ranged in size from 1-pound yearlings to a few 4-pounders. Most were somewhere in between.

Every bass fisherman who uses a plastic worm -- and that's virtually all of them -- is conditioned to set the hook the minute he feels the telltale jerk of the fish on the line.

Shiners proved to be a different kettle of fish.

When a bass attacks a shiner, the shiner resists. When the bass takes an interest in the bait, the shiner frequently comes to the surface and thrashes around the float, trying to find a place to hide. The bass may actually strike at the shiner several times before swallowing its prey, roiling the water and giving the fisherman plenty of notice that he's in the neighborhood.

Or he may not.

The float can suddenly disappear underwater as the bass runs with the bait. And this is where things get tricky. Crispino reminded us constantly to keep our reels open so the bass would feel no resistance when the line begins to spool out, another way shiner fishing differs from using plastic.

The bass that wants to swallow a fleeing shiner first turns it around so it can be taken head first, a process that can take several seconds. If the fisherman gives in to the urge to set the hook too soon, he will be reeling in a relieved shiner but no bass. The trick is to wait five seconds or so, point the tip of the rod at the fish, then reel like crazy until the line goes tight with the weight of the fish.

Then as, Crispino says, "Try to break the rod" by yanking it straight up as hard as you can.

It was a process that Keens found particularly frustrating. At home, he "jigged" for nothern varieties such as pike and pickerel, and using a bait casting reel was a new experience. The two Floridians didn't do much better.

But as with all bass fishermen, hope springs eternal. It was plenty to make us want to go back for more.

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