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How to Fish Live Bait for Bass

By Gary Heffley
Most bass anglers frown on it, tournaments forbid it and lure manufacturers spend millions of dollars to mimic it. Live bait fishing for bass is not just something families do, soaking minnows or worms under a bobber as I did as a child growing up while vacationing at Lake Shasta, it is a deadly technique that knowledgeable anglers can utilize for success.

Some of reasons most serious anglers frown upon it, is the amount of money spent on lures and tackle, the time perfecting techniques and of course the pro’s can’t use it. Practicing catch and release is often difficult using live bait. And of course if they are club or tournament anglers they practice and use what will win them money, bragging rights and even sponsorships.

There are some guides who will offer live bait excursions for bass in Northern California, most notably those targeting big bass on Clear Lake using jumbo or large minnows. Minnow fishing is nothing new to bass anglers. Shiner fishing in Florida for trophy largemouth bass is an art form of its own and deadly effective.

The easiest way to fish minnows is to use a bobber and stopper, suspending the bass under bobber at a depth the bass are being marked on electronics. It is also possible to free swim the minnow suspending the bait without a bobber at depth waiting for a pickup. Some anglers prefer to use a size 6 or 8 hook, hooking the minnow through either the lips and nostril cavity or just behind the dorsal fin. Of course large or jumbo minnows will need larger hooks. Either method allows the minnow to swim freely. If using a bobber set up a strike will often be preceded by a “run”, where the bobber is seen dancing across the surface as the minnow tries to run away or the fish has picked up the bait but has not eaten the minnow. When bobber fishing let the fish take the bobber completely under the surface. You need to be quick to remove any slack and set the hook firmly.

While shiner fishing at Disneyworld a few years ago, (Yes there is bass fishing available right in the park) I was introduced to using circle hooks with shiners. While I have yet to try the method in California using minnows it was very effective. The key was to reel the line in, not setting the hook but allowing the hook to turn and catch the bass in the corner of the mouth using steady tight pressure. This is particularly effective if you plan on practicing catch and release as regular hooks often result in swallowed baits making survival of released fish less than a certainty. Being a “rip lips” hook setter it took a few missed hook ups for me not to set the hook but to allow the circle hook to rotate and settle in to the corner of the bass’s mouth.

Crawdads or crayfish are also great live bait for bass is. Many anglers with dreams of the next world record Largemouth Bass use crawdads for bait in the trophy rich lakes of Southern California. Either by sight fishing near bedding bass or marking a lunker on electronics holding in structure a well placed crawdad can entice a monster take. Most anglers hook a crawdad deep through the tail allowing the crawdad to move freely. Some anglers will use a weight ahead of a leader to keep the crawdad on the bottom.

Crawdads are also a favorite of smallmouth bass and have been known to take smallies in streams and lakes. They are also a great bait for kids to enjoy as they can be caught/trapped in many lakes, ponds and waterways. Crickets are another smallmouth favorite and are another bait that kids can enjoy catching. Many fine smallies have been taken with a crickets fished below a bobber at Lake Almanor or Trinity Lake.

Of course the most popular live bait for bass and the one used by most everyone growing up is the night crawler. It is almost impossible to fish a live night crawler wrong; all that is important is to get the night crawler in front of the fish. Inflating the crawler so it floats about 18 inches above a split shot can be an effective way of catch trout or bass anywhere. This technique is used nearly every day on Eagle Lake and in many small bodies of water that receive trout plants by the CA Department of Fish & Game. Nightcrawler inflating devices are available at most sporting goods stores and should be another tool in a well-stock tackle box.

Of course when using live baits most any game fish swimming may end up on your hook. At Lake Shasta I have caught bass, bluegill, catfish, crappie, trout, salmon and even the detested squawfish using minnows.

One thing to remember is that many lakes forbid certain types of live bait as many are not native to the waters and therefore forbidden for introduction. For instance minnows cannot be used at Whiskeytown, Trinity Lake or even at park ponds like at Anderson River Park. Always check the fish and game regulations for the types of baits allowed on any lake, pond, river or stream before using them.

[Editor's Note: Please share with our readers what you know that will enhance the experience of wetting a line in Northern California or Southern Oregon waters. What have you learned? Your expertise, no matter where you fish (fresh or saltwater) or what species you target, could be invaluable to other anglers. What not to do is just as important as what to do. Please send your strategies, ideas, tips, techniques and personal experiences to Please include your name and hometown.]

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