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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Dating back to fishing’s roots, live bait rigs are simple, inexpensive and effective

Live bait catches fish.

Anglers learned that at an early age, when their first fishing adventures were likely catching bluegills, using red worms as bait.

A slithering worm or wiggling minnow is something fish can’t resist. The natural action, smell and mouth feel of a live prey organism is something fish experience whenever they feed. They know it’s food.

The rigs used to catch fish on live bait are easy to tie, effective and inexpensive, usually, just a hook and sinker, sometimes rigged with a barrel swivel or three-way swivel.

Live bait rigs are most associated with crappie, sunfish, and catfish, but they are also effective on black bass, temperate bass (white bass, hybrid striped bass and striped bass), and walleye.

Here’s some details on four live bait rigs:

Hook and Split Shot

Hook and split shot (Photo by Art Lander)

A hook and split shot is the most basic live bait rig.

A lead split shot is attached to the fishing line about 6 to 8 inches above the hook.

Sometimes the rig is fished with a bobber (float) attached to the line about 2 feet above the split shot. This rig is most popular with sunfish and white crappie anglers in the spring, fishing with a spinning rod and reel or a fiberglass telescopic pole. Make sure enough weight is used to stabilize the bobber so that it rides upright in the water.

Small, light wire hooks are best for sunfish, a No. 8 or 10 Aberdeen hook, with a long shank, is a good choice.

For crappie, the recommended size is No. 2, 4 or 6.

Long shank hooks make it easier to unhook a fish if it swallows the bait. Needle-nose pliers, or a hemostat, are a must for removing hooks from deep in the throat of a fish. Fingernail clippers worn around your neck on a lanyard are ideal for clipping line.

A second option with this rig while fishing with a bobber is to attach the float so that it slips on the line.

A piece of rubber band tied to the fishing line with an overhand knot makes a good “bobber stop.” Simply position the piece of rubber band at the depth you want to fish and the float will slide on the line to the stop. This is a productive presentation for suspended fish.

The hook and split shot rig is also an effective presentation for smallmouth bass when they come up shallow in the spring.

Live shiners, shad or alewives are drifted across flats, adjacent to channels. Fish with spinning tackle, a No. 2 hook, and just enough weight to keep the bait on or near the bottom. Position the split shot on the line about 12 to 14 inches above the hook so that the bait will have free movement.

Slip Sinker

Catfish anglers who fish from the bank of a river or lake at night swear by the slip sinker rig.

Slip sinker rig (Photo by Art Lander)

Tie a No. 4/0 circle hook on an 18-inch leader of 14-pound test monofilament. Tie the other end of the leader to a barrel swivel.

On the end of the line from the rod and reel, thread a 3/4-ounce barrel sinker and a plastic bead, then tie the line to the other end of the barrel swivel. The plastic bead will protect the knot from being damaged by the sinker.

The heavy lead weight will take the bait to the bottom where catfish feed, but when the catfish picks up the bait and runs with it, he won’t feel any resistance if the reel is on free spool since the line will slip through the weight.

Simply raise your rod, and start reeling. There’s no need to set the hook when fishing with circle hooks.

The slip sinker rig is also used by temperate bass anglers drifting live bait on planer boards for suspended striped bass or hybrid striped bass.

Bottom-Bouncing Rig

The bottom-bouncing rig was popularized by catfish anglers fishing from a boat, probing deepwater habitat with live or cut bait, typically submerged humps, creek channels or lines of tree stumps atop old river channel banks in large reservoirs.

The rig is easy to tie. It starts with a three-way swivel. Use a bell sinker for the weight on the bottom of the rig, tied to the three-way swivel on about a 30-inch leader. Typically, the hook leader is shorter, about 18 to 24 inches long. Foam floats are sometimes added to the hook leader to keep the bait up in the water column. Most anglers use lighter line on the sinker leader, to prevent losing the whole rig if the weight gets snagged in a rock crevice.

Black bass anglers modified the rig, calling it a drop shot rig, to fish plastic grubs and worms vertically, for precise placement in and around submerged structures.

Walleye Spinner Rig

A walleye caught with a spinner rig (Photo by Art Lander)

When walleye are in deep water, the spinner rig, baited with a nightcrawler, is a top choice.

During warm weather, walleye are especially predictable and may stay in the same general area for months, typically main lake flats in 25 to 30 feet of water.

The combination of bright plastic beads, a rotating blade, and a live nightcrawler is hard for walleye to resist. Walleye home in on the smell of the nightcrawler and vibrations from the blade. They have excellent vision in low light, turbid waters, or when light penetration is disrupted by wind or cloud cover.

Fishing is best early and late in the day during the summer and early fall. On clear days the bite shuts down by mid-morning when it starts to get bright.

The spinner rig is effective because it is drifted just inches off the bottom, where walleye are holding tight to rock piles, and other bottom irregularities such as ditches or ridge saddles.

The preferred rod and reel for fishing spinner rigs is a 6 1/2 to 7-foot medium-to-heavy-action casting rod and casting reel, spooled in heavy monofilament (17 to 20-pound test) or braided line. Leaders are usually tied on an 8-to-10-pound test line.

The weight used is a specialized bottom bouncer made from wire and lead, in the shape of an upside-down L. The cylindrical lead weight is melted onto the wire, and a snap swivel is attached to the wire arm. This allows the leader to be attached so that the spinner rig trails behind the weight.

The business end of this nightcrawler harness is two No. 2 or No. 4 walleye hooks snelled onto the leader, about two inches apart.

While the color and design of the spinner rig is a matter of personal choice, anglers will notice that some color combinations are more productive than others, typically fluorescent colors, such as yellow and orange. Anglers must experiment with blade color, size and style to find out which is most effective on a given day.

Fishing with live bait rigs will take you back to the roots of fishing.

You’ll be successful and gain a better understanding of how fish move in the water column throughout the year, as water conditions change with the seasons.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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