The Bassholes - It takes one to know one.

Trophy Smallmouth Bass Can't Resist Live Bait
on Friday 30 October 2009
by Lee McClellan

Trophy Smallmouth Bass Can't Resist Live Bait

Kentucky Afield staff Rick Hill tv host Tim Farmer Trophy Smallmouth Dale Hollow Lake

Kentucky Afield staff artist Rick Hill (right) along with Kentucky Afield television host Tim Farmer (center) and Clinton Hill (left) pose with two trophy smallmouth bass taken on live bait from Dale Hollow Lake. Live shiners or large crappie minnows produce more big smallmouth like these than any other presentation


Frankfort, Ky. - I was once a purist - until I got over it.

I used to feel that you should only catch smallmouth bass - or any fish for that matter - on artificial lures. Throwing a hair jig, grub, blade bait or other lure was the most sporting way to fish in my mind, and the best example of the concept of "fair chase" for fishing. "Only meat hogs use live bait," I would scoff with an air of moral superiority.

But, a funny thing happened on the way to my first trophy fish award for a smallmouth bass. My fishing buddies had no such compunctions about using a live shiner or large crappie minnow to fool fall and winter smallmouth bass on Lake Cumberland or Laurel River Lake.

I would patiently swim a light hair jig down a point from the back of the boat, and hear a whipping sound and slight grunt from the front of the boat.

My buddies' rod would bend double, straining from the fight of a chunky smallmouth that inhaled their shiner. They gently chuckled at my conceit while the drag on their spinning reels screeched.

On the occasion that I took a smallmouth with a jig, the fish usually ran from 14 to 17 inches. Those smallmouth bass my buddies caught with shiners averaged 18 to 21 inches.

With each nice fish they caught and each medium-sized fish I caught, my snobbery melted away. Eventually, a live shiner produced a 21-inch long, 4-pound, 11-ounce Lake Cumberland brute, my first trophy smallmouth. I am no longer a snob.

Recent cold rains and unseasonably cool weather pushed water temperatures down into the mid-60s in Kentucky's best smallmouth lakes. Now is a highly productive time to throw some shiners for trophy smallmouth bass at Lake Cumberland, Laurel River Lake and Dale Hollow Lake.

"Smallmouth bass are hitting shiners fished on points at Lake Cumberland," said Scott Lewis of Danville, one of the friends who showed me the ropes of shiner fishing nearly 20 years ago. "A co-worker caught 22 smallmouth a few days ago. The first fish was a 5-pounder, all on shiners."

A spinning rod from 6½ feet to 7½ feet long, spooled with 4- to 8-pound line, is the best choice for shiner fishing. You don't want a rod that is too stiff, nor do you want a noodle rod. A rod that's too stiff rips the shiner off the hook on the cast. A noodle rod doesn't give you the hook-setting power or control on the fight to land a big smallmouth bass. A moderate, fast action rod is ideal, as this action gives just enough on the tip to cast a live shiner a good distance with enough backbone to handle the job of setting the hook. A longer rod protects the light line needed in our clear smallmouth lakes.

A size 1 or 2 Kahle-style hook or a size 1/0 circle hook goes on the business end of this rig. Pinch a BB-sized split-shot 18 to 24 inches above the hook and you are set. A circle hook prevents gut hooking, but it can be difficult to resist setting the hook. Simply tighten down by slowly reeling and lifting the rod tip to drive home a circle hook.

"My neighbor has been averaging between 20 and 30 fish a day, both smallmouth bass and spotted bass, on Lake Cumberland recently," said Ryan Oster, assistant director of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "He said you can't catch anything on artificial lures. Points are producing the smallmouth bass, and any place you can find wood in the water is holding spotted bass."

During my purist days, I underestimated how much skill is involved in shiner fishing. You don't throw a shiner out, eat a sandwich, take a nap, daydream and reel in big smallmouth bass.

I learned to cast a shiner underhand or sidearm, as to not make a huge commotion on the water. An overhand cast that makes a large splash not only spooks fish, it injures the shiner.

Watch the line intently as the shiner slowly flits its way to the bottom. Let it settle to the bottom and slowly reel it towards the boat, letting the split shot tick bottom occasionally. I learned to concentrate as hard as I would swimming a hair jig.

If I feel the shiner wiggle more intensely, I get on my toes and my pulse quickens because this usually means a smallmouth is eyeing it. If the line goes suddenly slack, tightens, jumps or goes off to the side, set the hook, or slowly tighten down if using a circle hook.

Cuts and small coves along with points on the main lake of Lake Cumberland from Jamestown to the dam are great areas to fish shiners. Shelves or other drop-offs in small coves in the lower end of the Laurel River arm and points in Spruce Creek on Laurel River Lake hold smallmouth bass now. Points in the lower parts of Illwill Creek and the Wolf River arm of Dale Hollow Lake are good spots to try, as are Trooper, Boys, Cactus and Pilot islands.

With the drawdown of Lake Cumberland, shore-bound anglers can bring along a bucket of large crappie minnows and fish points close to access areas for smallmouth bass. Crappie minnows are much hardier than shiners and live longer in a minnow bucket, plus you can get three or four dozen for the price of half a pound of shiners. Large crappie minnows also work in boats as well, especially when it's really cold.

Smallmouth bass are some of wariest fish that swim and sometimes it takes the real thing to fool them. Don't be a snob like I used to be, leave the crankbaits, jigs and grubs at home. Live bait produces big smallmouth bass.

-- Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources,