Going Live

Most bass pros own enough artificial lures to stock a tackle shop. Consider Alabamian Tim Horton. His drive-through garage is lined with plastic utility boxes stuffed with everything from tiny plastic worms to oversized swimbaits, and it's better organized than a librarian's Dewey Decimal System.

A surprising fact to many, a few of Horton's utility boxes house live bait tackle for bass. Because live bait isn't allowed in tournaments, you might think that Horton wouldn't fool with it. However, when chilly autumn weather cools the water, he happily catches mega smallmouth bass on threadfin shad.


Before Horton became one of the nation's foremost bass pros, he guided for bass on Wheeler, Wilson and Pickwick lakes. This is where he got hooked on fishing threadfin shad for smallmouth. The tactic was a sure bet for his clients, especially those who had limited fishing skills.

"Lures just can't compete with the real deal," Horton says. "When a smallmouth sees a live threadfin shad, the bite is automatic."

The shad bite peaks in autumn when the water temperature is between 56 and 70 degrees. As the dams pull water for power generation, the smallmouth feed around humps, ledges, roadbeds and channel bends 8 to 25 feet deep. The downstream bend of a river channel is especially good.

The presentation is simply dragging the shad over the bottom behind a boat that drifts with the current. That's what we did on an early December afternoon when I fished the upper reaches of Pickwick Lake with Horton and his friend John Gray of Noblesville, Ind., who competes in the Bassmaster Opens. Horton used his electric motor to adjust the drift so the boat passed over humps, channel bends and other sweet spots.

Our rigs consisted of 6-pound fluoro­carbon line, a No. 2 drop shot hook and a BB-size split shot 12 inches above the hook. We ran the hooks crossways between the nose and eyes of 2- to 3-inch threadfin shad. Our spinning rods were medium action 6-foot, 6-inch All Stars matched with Pflueger Supreme spinning reels.

Although we didn't hook any of the giant smallmouth these waters are known for, we did land several bass in the 3- to 5-pound class, including a few largemouth. Horton was all smiles.

Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala., learned his bass fishing basics while growing up in California. Before becoming a professional tournament angler he was a trophy bass guide, mainly on lakes Castaic and Casitas.

"I normally used artificials," Martens says. "But, when the shad bite was on in the fall, it was hard not to use live bait."

There were days when Martens' clients would catch 80 to 100 bass over 4 pounds on shad. Sometimes the biggest five bass weighed more than 50 pounds.

Martens would run a 1/0 Octopus hook up through the lips of 4- to 5-inch shad and cast them on 6- or 8-pound line threaded through the guides of a slow 7-foot parabolic rod that is less inclined to rip the bait off the hook during a cast.

When Angie Douthit of Clewiston, Fla., isn't fishing the Academy Sports + Outdoors Women's Bassmaster Tour, she's guiding for bass on Lake Okeechobee. Her business partner is husband Chet, a former Bassmaster touring pro. Douthit runs 100 to 150 trips per year on Okeechobee, and she fishes wild shiners 90 percent of the time.

"I call shiners 'golden retrievers,'" Douthit says. "You throw them out, and they retrieve big bass."

Throughout much of the year, and especially from December to March, lures just can't compete with wild shiners for trophy bass and numbers of fish. Another benefit with shiners is that they allow novice anglers to catch big bass. Because Douthit's clients are often families with youngsters, wild shiners ensure that everyone catches something.

Douthit's basic shiner rig consists of a 1-ounce bell sinker at the end of the line, a 4/0 Kayle hook fastened to a loop knot 2 feet above the sinker, and a free-sliding slip bobber. She runs the hook up through the jaw and out the nose of a lively 9- to 12-inch wild shiner.

The heavy sinker rests on the bottom and holds the shiner in place. The slip bobber helps to maintain a vertical line from the surface to the sinker, and it serves as a strike indicator. The bobber doesn't go under when a bass swims off with the shiner because there is no bobber stop on the line. Instead, the bobber slides across the surface. Another strike indicator is the clicker drag on the baitcasting reel. The reel is spooled with 25- or 30-pound Berkley Big Game line and is fixed to a 7-foot medium-heavy saltwater rod designed for live bait fishing.

Douthit anchors the boat on both ends within easy casting range of the bass and concentrates on main lake grassbeds. Scattered Kissimmee grass is especially good.

Elite Series pro Brian Snowden of Reed Springs, Mo., is also a Table Rock Lake fishing guide. When deep bass won't bite in June through October, he rigs his clients with a live crawler 18 inches above a 3/8-ounce drop shot weight. He impales the crawler through the collar with a No. 6 Eagle Claw bait hook that has barbs on its shank to prevent the bait from crawling up the line.

"I have my clients drop the bait straight down 18 to 40 feet deep over submerged points and humps that have few snags to catch the hook," Snowden says. "I tell them to hold their rods still because bass can't resist the squirming crawler."

Back when Mark Davis was a fishing guide on Arkansas' Lake Ouachita, his clients often had trouble catching bass on lures in the summertime. He kept their rods bent by split shotting live crawfish around sunken brushpiles 20 to 35 feet deep.

These days, Davis sometimes uses live craws when he takes his youngsters fishing. The difference is that he now favors drop shotting over split shotting. His basic drop shot rig for craws is a 3/16-ounce weight 12 inches below a No. 6 bait hook on 8-pound line. He hooks a 1- to 2 1/2-inch craw near the end of its tail to give the bait more action and reduce hang-ups. He always fishes this rig vertically and often finesses it down into brushpiles.

"When you use live bait, you're feeding them and not fooling them," Davis says. "Bass usually stop hitting a jig or plastic worm after you snatch up one or two of them. But, you just keep right on catching bass when you use live bait."

Elite Series pro Dean Rojas of Grand Saline, Texas, a California transplant, has taken huge, prespawn, West Coast bass by fishing live crawfish in the winter and early spring. He keys on typical crawfish habitat, rocky banks and points that drop into deep water.

Rojas threads a No. 2 bait hook between the eyes of a 3- to 5-inch crawfish and gently casts the bait on a limber 7-foot spinning rod spooled with 10-pound monofilament. Then he slowly crawls the crawfish back by stitching the line with his fingers. He says you often feel the crawfish kicking to get away just before a bass bites.

Because shad are fragile baitfish, you generally have to catch your own just prior to fishing with them. Tim Horton does this with a 10-foot cast net. Early in the fall, he casts the net over balls of shad that he spots schooling on the surface.

When the water cools and the shad drop 15 to 20 feet deep, he finds them with his Lowrance LCG. The day I fished with Horton, he spotted a large school of baitfish 15 feet deep on his LCG, made one cast with his net and hauled up so many shad that he had to throw most of them back.

"I put the shad in a round 20-gallon aerated bait tank," Horton says. "That's big enough to keep 50 to 60 shad lively all day.