Live Bait Basics

Category: Articles

 Jun 29th, 2011 by zboudreau

Modified Jun 29th, 2011 at 12:00 am

As many of you may already know, live baits can work great for muskie and pike. In Wisconsin, the use of live bait (usually in addition to artificial presentations) is very popular, especially in the fall, for muskies. It can work well in the spring too. In a nutshell, it works best and is most efficient in cool water ranges. Many nice fish are taken; big pike are often a surprise bonus at times too.

To cover a good general time frame for effectiveness, I’d recommend bait use from the start of the season (where there is no closed season it should work all winter) to the upper-sixty degree range of surface temperatures. However, I may cheat, occasionally, after I’ve officially given up hope of success on artificials when a nasty cold front comes in. But, once temperatures are in the 70’s for good, I’m done. I bring it back into play around turnover time, usually about the 60-degree mark for surface temperatures. There will be on and off periods, but once past turnover, bait will be effective to ice up.

Any bait type would work, technically (as long as it’s legal to use of course), but suckers are the popular bait in Wisconsin, and readily available at any reputable live bait dispensary near muskie waters. While it seems that Wisconsin can certainly claim to be the originators of live bait fishing in the states, partially because multiple lines are legal, bait use is spreading to other areas.

There are some folks who aren’t real happy about this. There is good reason for their unhappiness, and it is, in most cases at least, borne of concern for the fish caught on live bait rigs. Live bait has tremendous potential to kill a lot of fish. It has done a significant amount of damage over the years in Wisconsin. Thankfully, though, this has taken a real turnaround in the last five years. More education and peer pressure is needed to eliminate mortality caused by live bait completely, but things are certainly headed in that direction. And, the good news is, it is possible to achieve 100% releasability with live bait, if some simple rules are followed.

This isn’t a complicated issue. In fact, it’s quite simple. If esox are allowed to swallow a hook-and it doesn’t matter what type of hook-and it remains in their stomach, gullet or deep inside their mouth, it will kill them. The only question is how long it will take; some die immediately, and some may take months.

So, if anyone intends to use live bait, it certainly comes with great responsibility. Hopefully, you intend to release the fish you catch. Realize though, that if you allow esox to swallow, you have killed them, and this includes undersized fish too. Live baits (and any deadbaits) must be used with quickstrike rigging. To insure a clean release-and to increase hooking percentages-immediate hooksetting is a must.

In choosing good live baits (we’ll focus on suckers since they are the predominate live bait used for pike and muskies) for quickstrike use, baits ranging in size from 13 to 17 inches are the easiest to manage when it comes to handling the bait and installing the rigging. They provide a good-sized target that will attract a large size range of esox, including those of exceptional size. Smaller baits can work too though, as can larger. And, sometimes you are left without a choice due to availability.

There are several different types of quickstrike rigs on the market these days. It still seems that the majority of these incorporate a leader system on which there is an adjustable front hook (either treble or single) to be attached to the front of the bait (usually the lip) and then a stinger hook or hooks in the rear. There are also a couple of rigs that have a rubber band system that eliminates any necessity for a front hook. A rubber band system provides more built-in safety for the fish and better hooking percentages.

The rubber band system was originally brought to use with muskie rigs by Steve Herbeck (pretty smart move there, Herbie). Herbeck is the designer of the other well-known rig on the market, the “Herbie Rig.” Rubber band rigs like the Herbie Rig or Lift-Off provide for livelier baits by not obstructing breathing, as well as better hooking percentages. The key to quickstrike rig effectiveness is in the whole rig breaking free cleanly from the bait, and then into the mouth of the fish.

When the leader runs through the front hook attached to bait’s head and through to stingers as on more traditional quickstrike rigs, there are potential problems tha can really lower hooking percentages.The main leader is against the bait’s body, and, depending on the angle, it often results in the stinger hooks literally being pulled from the bait, but then driven right back into it again. Upon the hookset, the sucker gets hooked (again) but not the fish. The rubber band system provides for a totally different angle, since the entire rig is attached to the very top of the bait (see illustrations). Upon hookset, the rubber band stretches up, and by the time it breaks, the stinger hook angle is well away from the bait. It results in better hooking percentages.

More importantly, for the good of the fish, these rigs are the safest. Actually, I hadn’t really thought of it exactly that way until it was pointed out to me by our Tech editor, John Myhre. While setting immediately provides for the best hooking percentages, some folks that are new to quickstrikes, after missing several fish (usually because of rigging issues), decide that waiting for the fish to take it a while may increase hooking percentages. Some folks who supposedly know what they are doing actually promote a wait. In some cases too, folks may not detect a strike right away.

Contrary to some popular belief, muskies will often swallow a bait in a matter of seconds. They very seldom wait long. A quickstrike rig is not a release rig at all if the front hook gets to the gullet. Wait just a little and it can happen, and happen quickly. When using the rubber band system, if folks wait until the fish turns the bait and starts to swallow, there is no front hook in the head of the bait to enter the gullet. Most of the time, the stinger hooks (in the back of the bait), since they are now point-in, will catch on the fish’s jaw or inside the mouth on the way in. Odds are, even when there is a wait period for whatever reason, the fish still won’t get any hooks to its gullet or stomach. Keep in mind, that there is absolutely no guarantee of this ? and that I don’t recommend waiting at all. It’s just a safer rig should it occur.

Call it mere marketing if you want (keep in mind that you can make your own at home though, if you choose), but rubber band rigs hook a better percentage of fish and are much safer for the fish, period. Strictly speaking as a fisherman, please use these.

Rigging is really quite simple. It sounds awful complicated, but it’s not. With a little practice, you can quickly rig baits. The illustrations provided show the Lift Off rig, but the process is the same for the Herbie Rig, though the stinger hook is attached in a slightly different manner.

What I find works very well for me in the rigging process, after I run the bait needle through the nasal passages, is to pinch the live bait between my knees. Sounds a little gross, and looks a little shady, but while cinching the rubber band system to the bait’s head and attaching the stinger hooks, holding the bait between the knees leaving both hands free works great. Remember, when installing the stingers, you want to just use enough skin to hold the hook so it will easily rip free on the hookset. This is explained in directions that come with the rigs.

Once the critter has been rigged, there are lots of ways to present baits. They can be vertically presented over the side of the boat, which works very well on breaklines and for any deeper situations. They can also be suspended below a float (bobber) to run over vegetation or other shallow structure. Concentrate on edges with live bait though, since this truly seems to be where it is most effective.

Finally, hooksets are very important for success with these rigs. Heavy tackle is a must. You must have enough force and snap to break the rig free from the bait and drive the hooks into the fish. Use a quality, low-stretch super braid line in a minimum of 80 pound test. Set the hook hard-with snap-as soon as you can.

Most of the time the fish will be angling away after taking the bait. Set immediately! Odds are much better, for obvious reasons, when the fish is angling away. If you are not certain and the fish is close, just put very heavy, steady pressure on the fish. In seconds, the fish will turn away from the pressure-set the hook. If the fish is a distance from the boat for some reason (more than 25 feet), what works great for me is to start the outboard, and immediately drive to the fish, parking right on top of them. This will make them move away, and you can then set the hooks in the opposite direction.

Using these rigs, with proper rigging and setting the hook as outlined, it is possible to hook well over 80 percent of the fish that take, and they’ll be totally releasable. If you set immediately, hooks will always be in the mouth. It can work when other methods don’t, and it’s fun too. Do it right and it’s a neat method. Do it wrong though, and you kill fish.

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