Big Baits Big Fish… By Braden Niper
“What in the world are you going to catch with that?” or “What are you trying to do scare them to death?” I cannot begin to count the number of times I have been asked these and similar questions by other anglers, or my father for that matter, who are a bit bewildered by the size of the lures and baits I am fishing. I normally just smile and say something to the effect that you never know what might be swimming around down there. Then, most of the time they walk away shaking their heads thinking that I am some new- to- the- sport- fool wasting their time. However, every once in a blue moon I get the pleasure of hooking a trophy caliber fish on my jumbo-sized offering while we are still chatting, and I get a small sense of satisfaction that maybe I know a lot more about what I am doing than they initially thought. Just maybe there is something to throwing bigger baits. The simple fact of the matter is, most anglers won’t throw truly big baits on a regular basis.
Catching Their Attention: When you live in the most densely populated state in the nation and you fish almost exclusively public waters, you can pretty much guarantee that the fish you are chasing have seen a lure or two or three (hundred) and many have at some point in their lives been hooked. Now this does not mean that they will never strike at something similar or even the same exact lure again. What my experience has shown, however, is it will make them much more selective in what they choose to eat. By throwing a much larger offering than everyone else that fishes a body of water, I am probably showing those fish something they have never seen before.
A larger bait or lure will also draw more attention simply because it will displace more water, causing more disturbance, sound, and vibration then smaller offerings. A jumbo-sized bait will also get more attention simply because it is easier for a fish to see at longer distance as well as being harder to ignore if it passes close by.
How Big is Big? Size of bait is all relative to the conditions and body of water you are fishing. One of my personal rules of thumb is that if the bait I am throwing is the same size or bigger then the fish that other people are fishing for out of the same body of water, it is a big bait. For example, if I am fishing a small duck pond where kids are often fishing for sunfish, and I am throwing baits as big as my hand, I am fishing a big bait. When fishing for large catfish in freshwater or striped bass in salt, I will often use live baits between one and two pounds without thinking twice about it. Largemouth bass are lovers of large golden shiners anywhere the two exist together. I have caught northern pike that actively hit my lure, while they still had the tail of a smaller (but not necessarily small) pike sticking out of their mouth that they hadn’t even finished digesting. I don’t really think fish get smarter as they get bigger, but more likely only the smart ones survive long enough to get big. It is much more efficient for a larger fish to eat one large meal every so often then spend hours and energy chasing many smaller baits to receive the same calories.
One of my favorite late fall fishing techniques is to walk small trout streams where there is a mix of native and stocked fish. In this situation, most anglers will be throwing size 18 nymphs and catching 5″-8″ wild brookies with an occasional 12″ stocky thrown in. I draw quite a bit of attention when I show up with a spinning rod rigged with a 6″ swimming plug in rainbow trout color rigged with inline single hooks. More than once some well-meaning and very knowledgeable angler has stopped me to inform me that there are no bass in the stream and that I need to downsize my gear if I want to have a chance at catching anything. What most of these anglers fail to realize is that there are a handful of 18″ to 24″ browns that ply some of those same small pools and riffles and they are cannibalistic to the extreme. Those big fish will spend some of their time eating the same larva and emergers as their smaller brethren, but they also are apt to grab any smaller trout or chub that happens to hang around too long. I don’t get many bites and sometimes go multiple trips without so much as a tap, but when something does bite, it is normally one to write home about.
Fish the Right Tackle: One thing to keep in mind when casting and fishing these bigger baits is often you will need to beef up your tackle as well. There are two very different but very important reasons for this. First, you need to be able to handle the (hopefully) larger fish you are likely to encounter fishing larger baits. Many anglers like myself release most of fish they catch. I like to fight large fish on light tackle as much as anyone out there, but remember, longer fights on lighter tackle stress a fish much more than a shorter fight on heavier tackle. The second consideration is can your rod and reel handle the weight of the bait you are trying to cast? Each year many expensive high modulus graphite rods are broken by anglers trying to snap cast baits above a rod’s rating. This is especially true for surf casters trying to eke a few more feet out of a cast. Make sure your rod can handle the stress.
Timing is Everything:One thing I have noticed when fishing large baits and lures is that most times if you are going to get a bite, it is going to be on the first or second cast to a spot or fish. I will often not spend most of my fishing time fishing standard baits and lures. I will often either make the first two or three casts when I get to a new location with a plus sized offering, or wait for those few most special moments of the day when I believe a trophy is most likely to feed: at dawn or dusk, during the first few minutes of a wind change, or on a sharply falling barometer.
These techniques are of importance on heavily pressured bodies of water. Recently I spent about an hour before sundown walking around a small (less than 2 acres) duck pond that is fished almost every spring, summer, and fall day by multiple anglers and families. I was just hanging out waiting for those magical few minutes between when the sun sets and the park rangers come around to make sure you are exiting the park like you are supposed to (this is a county park open sunrise to sunset). All the half a dozen or so anglers were tossing standard live worm and bobber combinations except for one gentleman fishing boilies on the bottom for carp. I saw a handful of mixed sized sunfish and one decent sized brown bullhead caught and released. As the sun disappeared behind the trees, the mother and son that were fishing in the pond corner I was waiting for, packed up and started to walk away. When they were 50′ down the bank, I slid into the spot they had been fishing 2 minutes before. Most of this pond is 2 to 4 feet deep with very little shade or deeper water, but the bank adjacent to where I was waiting to fish was 4-5 feet deep with thick brush overhanging the water a few feet out from the bank. My first cast down the bank with a live target golden shiner landed about 2 feet outside of the brush and I was able to slide the bait right down the edge of the overhanging limbs.
The cast landed within inches of where I had cast a piece of night crawler a week before while attempting to hook one of the many sunfish that hold in the area for my two-year son old to reel in. It had worked and a hand-sized sunfish was on his line as he attempted to reel it in. Immediately, about 6 feet from shore I saw a big shadow shoot out from under that overhanging brush and smash that struggling sunfish almost yanking the rod out of my son’s hand. I knew that fish was probably a home body and likely the biggest predator in the pond.
Fast forward a week later. I was only four feet into the retrieve of that first cast and the fish emerged and slammed that swim bait. She came right to the surface shaking her head throwing water in all directions. I had the rod tip down to the surface of the water as she shot back under the bush she had spent the day under. A few short runs later and I slid my hand around the lower jaw of probably the biggest largemouth bass in the pond. The quick measure showed her to be right around 21″ with a girth round enough to have quite easily broken the 5-pound mark, a very nice fish for New Jersey in general, and a monster for a small public pond. Less than 20 seconds after I first touched her, I placed her back in the water and she shot back to the same dark corner in a flash. That fish had spent her life seeing worms and shiners, not to mention lures of all shapes, swim past her day after day. Do I know for certain that if I had tried the same cast 2 hours earlier when the sun was still on the water she would have refused? No,but I am relatively certain of it.
Final Thoughts: Fishing big baits is a quality not quantity technique. An angler needs to be mentally prepared to fish extended periods of time between strikes. Even when that strike finally occurs, you will be surprised how often it is just an average sized fish that decided to slam that jumbo bait. I am often amazed when I consistently hook fish that aren’t much larger than the bait I am throwing. When it all does come together though, it is a great feeling to have success throwing a bait that many other anglers would be afraid to throw. If you are looking for a new challenge, pick up a few baits that simply seem too big to be effective and give them a try sometime soon. I think you might just be pleasantly surprised.