You'd be hard pressed to find an angler out there who didn't begin his life's pursuit of the next bite with some sort of live-bait offering. Whether it is a pint-sized trout worm, or a gargantuan Florida Wild Shiner, live baiting is one of the easiest forms of fishing, which coupled with its extreme effectiveness, has the proven ability to hook the angler, of all ages, on the sport (pun intended).
Live bait fishing is one of the oldest ways to fooling fish, and over the centuries there have been many complex approaches to presenting a live target to a sport fish- but I'm a big fan of simplicity, and I believe that fishing with live bait doesn't need to be so complicated. On that note, I'm going to share with you my simplistic approach to my favorite live bait- shiners.
KISS (Keep It Shiner Simple)
To me, shiner fishing is one of the most exciting ways to catch the fish of a lifetime! I don't go fishing with shiners often, but when I do I find myself wondering why I ever had to grow up, and learn the often complex art of artificial fishing. Shiner fishing just has the ability to transport me back to my youth, fishing with my dad, who taught me all I know. Those same elementary rigging, and presentation, techniques that my father coached me on, are still my preference today, and boy, do they still work!
First things first- let's look at the shiner itself. Different regions of the country (or the world) have different types of baitfish you could consider "shiners." The shiner down in Florida resembles more of a freshwater Tarpon compared to the shiners in the Northeast, which are more commonly referred to as "minnows." Now, the point of this observation, is that you are going to have to make slight adjustments to your fishing tackle depending on what size shiner you are using, and how big the fish are that you are targeting, but in general, the approach is all the same.
When I was a youngster and learning how to properly present a live shiner, the first rig that my dad taught me was as simple as simple could be- a hook attached to a line. We had a lake house in Connecticut where I would venture out every day on our little row boat, and I would slowly troll a shiner without any weight or bobber. It was by far the best technique to catch the bruiser Smallmouth Bass in that lake, because I was able to cover lots of water, and the shiner was able to move more naturally through the water column. This is still a rigging technique that I use today for open water situations, with limited cover, in 10-feet of water or less.
As I got older, and learned a few more tricks, I started experimenting with adding weight or a bobber to the line in order to control the depth of the shiner.
In water deeper than 10-feet I prefer to add a simple Removable Split-Shot , of varying weight, about 2-feet from the hook. The whole idea about adding weight is not to make the shiner sink like a stone to the depths, the key is to add just enough weight that the shiner can still swim somewhat freely, but slowly descends to where the big girls live. The perfect weight will slowly "lead" the shiner to the bottom, which depends on the size of the shiners you are using. Smaller shiners might require just one tiny split shot, while some of the Florida variety might require an Alaskan Halibut weight with the Power-Poles down to keep it from taking you for a ride (slight exaggeration).
Now, for the other extreme, bobber choice is also important, but not as specific as choosing the right weight. Bobbers are great for some exciting shiner fishing, and they are really great when you are fishing for shallow water or water where cover (such as submerged vegetation or standing timber) is only feet beneath the surface. If I am fishing an area that has grass growing up to somewhere like 5-feet of the surface, I want to keep that shiner from digging into that grass. But I want it to try! Honestly, any bobber can help you catch fish (I prefer foam-style), but the key is to buy one that is just big enough so the shiner can't pull it under, but not so big that it is overly conspicuous to the fish and wears out the shiner too fast. As far as the leader length goes, all you have to do is estimate how deep the shiner can go before it gets bogged down in the cover and start with that length.
When it comes to hook, I grew up fishing with a simple Baitholder Hook, which is still a great style for fishing with smaller shiners for perch, crappie, small bass, and other smaller sport fish. Now, if you're fishing with larger shiners (4" or bigger) I suggest using either a Circle Hook or a Kahle Hook. Both of these style hooks are great for fishing with bigger shiners, targeting bigger fish. The beauty of a circle hook is that you rarely will gut-hook a fish, and you don't have to set the hook hardly at all- just wait for the fish to eat, and then start reeling as you lift the rod tip. As with choosing a weight, or a bobber, choosing the correct hook size has to do with what is going to allow the shiner to swim naturally, with a slightly injured look to it. The bigger the shiner, the bigger the hook, but again, if the shiner can't swim without doing so in a nose-down fashion, then it is probably too big.
The way you rig the shiner on the hook is also very important. When I was a boy, my dad taught me that the best way to keep a shiner alive, and moving naturally, is to hook it through the nostril- by simply letting the shiner open its mouth and then inserting the hook through the nose. This method allows the bait to open and close its mouth and breath naturally, but you need to be more careful casting it! My other favorite way is to hook the shiner right through the top of the back, in front of the dorsal fin. When the fishing is hot, or you need a better casting distance, without losing your bait, hooking it through the back is a great way to present the shiner. Remember, with either hooking technique, it is important to let the fish fully eat the shiner before you set the hook, because most fish will actually try to turn the shiner around in its mouth so they can swallow it head-first, and this process can take some time- so count to around 10-seconds before hitting it home.
Finally, for the line, rod, and reel, that I use-I actually have two! If I am fishing smaller shiners, with very little cover around, I like to use spinning gear. I prefer a 7' medium-action spinning rod, paired with a 2500-sized reel, and I use anywhere between 8-12lb Vicious 100% Fluorocarbon Line. When it comes to those bigger baits, and fishing for bigger fish around heavy cover, I love to use a 7' medium-heavy action bait casting rod, a 6.3:1 bait casting reel and 14-20lb Vicious 100% Fluorocarbon Line.
Where to swim your shiner:
The great thing about shiner fishing is that they are effective anywhere, and for so many different species. I have caught everything from big largemouth bass, to powerful Peacock Bass, and everything in between.
The biggest key to choosing the right location for shiner fishing is to pick areas where theres likely a school of other baitfish, and with them a school of hungry game fish. Grass lines are a great example- they provide an edge that baitfish will travel up and down, like an underwater highway, and the game fish are there waiting for one of them to come down their offramp. Regardless of what type of cover or structure is present, look for areas that serve as funnels, such as bridged areas along a causeway, a small creek dumping into a lake or even where two grass lines come together.
The most important factor when it comes to shiner fishing is….FUN!! You're not trying to win the Bassmaster Classic! Bring the family out, pick a spot in the sun, grab a cold beverage out of your Yeti, and enjoy the rare pleasure of sweet shiner simplicity.
See you out there!
To see these shiner techniques, and more, in action, check out these episodes of Sweetwater TV: