Fishing for largemouth bass is a great sport. I love it! They are found just about everywhere, fight well, can be taken on a variety of tactics and are clearly the premier sportfish in American freshwaters today. They are the fish that has sparked more innovation and technical advancements in modern angling than any other species. Because of this great surge in the industry, and with the phenomena of tournament bass venues, many fishermen, including newcomers to the sport, approach largemouth bass fishing from this angle alone: that is, it can only be successful if done within the parameters of a bass-boat, tournament style approach. However, I am confident that there are many, many thousands of bass fishermen nationwide that take on these great fish from a much more 'low-key' and bluecollar approach. I am one of those anglers.
Most of the seasoned bass sharpies I know are almost exclusively tournament oriented. If they are not fishing a tournament, they are practicing for one. Seldom do they ever just go bass fishing for the kick of it. They are serious, determined and smart anglers. They have lots of money invested in the sport they love. And most of them would never even dream about stooping so low as to use live bait for bass, labeling it "cheating" or a tactic of the Neanderthal. But I can assure you that there are live bait tactics that are safe, exacting and extremely effective if done correctly, with at least as high a catch-and-release success rate as most lures. This is especially true with big fish.
For several decades, many anglers have paid high dollar for fishing Florida bass lakes in search of that coveted 10-pounder. Most all Florida and deep south guides who specialize in trophy bass fishing fish live golden shiners during the pre-spawn and spawning time frames to put their customers on these lifetime trophies. It is certainly nothing new, and still remains the method of choice for giants in many of these venues. Advancements in tactics and hook designs have made these methods far safer on the fish, with a high success rate for released fish.
Closer to home, Eastern Shore millpond and central Maryland farmpond anglers put the drop on regional trophies using live bluegills, nightcrawlers or native golden shiners. It's not wrong, not bad, just different.
But perhaps the most incredible bait I have found yet for big bass would be live nightcrawlers. This is the premier bait that all the plastic lure companies are trying to duplicate. Makes sense that they would be hot for lunkers, right? Traditionally, I fish live 'crawlers with a two-hook set up. With a clear or fluorocarbon leader testing 10 or 12 pounds, I use a pair of No. 4 Owner Mutu Light Circle, No. 12-446-331 or No. 12-421-882 hooks and tie them six or seven inches apart. The trail, or "bottom" hook goes into the end of the worm, just piercing the skin but not emerging back out of the crawler. The top hook is threaded in and out at whatever point the bait meets with the hook, so that the "head" of the nightcrawler can wiggle and squirm un-abated by a hook insertion. The top hook is tied with a snell and the bottom hook with an improved clinch or Palomar knot. The leader is about three feet long and snugs to a barrel swivel with an improved clinch. The main line should be a quality braid, such as Power Pro Green in 20 or 30 pound strengths. Tie this to the swivel with a Palomar.
Most of the fishing will be at closer distances than other types of bassing. You may be able to get away with 14-pound braid. Sensitivity is important, and when a fish picks up a bait, you need to allow the fish to move just a few feet, then reel up slowly, tightening the line and letting the circle hook do its job. I do not let fish run for any long distances, but rather, load up on them shortly after the strike. I have not killed a fish yet with this set up, as the small yet strong circles do their job. Fish this rig the same as you would any other plastic worm offering. Lift-drop retrieves can be extremely effective. Additional weight may be added in the form of split-shot weights 16 inches above the worm on the mono leader.
Depending on the cover or obstructions you are fishing will determine your preference of tackle. Many prefer to use baitcasting gear to winch hawgs from the tangles, while other situations would call for the spinning approach with lighter braids. Be aware of the structure in your waters and the size of the bass you might be dealing with. In the Delmarva millponds and smaller lakes of central Maryland, I usually use medium heavy spinning gear and 20-pound test braid to extract larger 4-pound and up largemouths from emerging weeds and laydowns. At lakes like Briery Creek with flooded timber and lots of wood, it is best to use heavier baitcasting gear and braids to 50 pound to get trophy class bass from the jungle.
Indeed, bait for bass might seem like unfair or cheating to the masses. But for me, I like its proven effectiveness. In a lifetime of fishing I have taken nearly 200 largemouths from regional waters that went from five to eight pounds, with about 50 percent coming on some sort of live bait, most on live night crawlers. I am not a purist, but rather an opportunist. The real McCoy is hard to beat for big fish.
Jim Gronaw is a Times outdoors writer. His column appears every other Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or email@example.com.