Get gold-mem­ber bass chops

Why the shiner guides of Florida are the kings of stress-free big-bass fish­ing

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - by PETE ROB­BINS

IN COASTAL SOUTH FLORIDA, the na­tive mu­sic is salsa, or maybe Buf­fett if you cross a few more bridges. In the north­ern part of the state, you’re lis­ten­ing to coun­try, or maybe Skynyrd. But at ev­ery in­land tackle shop from Pa­ho­kee to Pen­sacola, the sweet­est mu­sic around is the soft, sput­ter­ing bub­bles of an oxy­genated tank keep­ing pre­cious finned gold alive. Bass purists through­out the rest of the coun­try have re­treated from night-crawler dirt, cricket bas­kets, and min­now buck­ets, but the Sun­shine State still holds a vi­brant live-bait cul­ture, and na­tive golden shin­ers are its cur­rency of choice.

Un­like the tour­na­ment com­peti­tors who race at 70 mph to get to a spot first, vet­eran Cen­tral Florida guide John Leech says the shiner guides are re­mark­ably calm and com­posed. “I ride right by places where I know I can catch fish, because I re­spect my friends’ water,” he says. Th­ese guides also catch a ton of big fish, and if you can get past your ar­ti­fi­cial-only mind­set, their low-drag ap­proach to bass fish­ing can score you a live-bait mon­ster this fall.


As bait shops around the coun­try are be­ing re­placed by mega­marts and on­line shop­ping, there are fewer rea­sons for ar­ti­fi­cial-only guides to hit the store in the morn­ing, ex­cept maybe for ice, crack­ers, or the men’s room. Those who need lively shin­ers, on the other hand, have no choice but to stop be­fore dawn. The need for same-day fresh­ness hedges the stores against un­sold in­ven­tory and forces guides to min­gle. They queue up and wait for the pro­pri­etor to dole out shin­ers, cast­ing harsh glances at any blow-dried glit­ter boater who looks down on them. The ar­ti­fi­cial-only guys may think they have “the clos­est thing to live bait,” but that just re­in­forces the fact that live bait is cat­e­gor­i­cally su­pe­rior.

The tough-to-find “mule ear” 9to 12-inch shin­ers are at a pre­mium in spring­time, but in fall, Leech is con­tent with 5-inch­ers, and prime warriors are in the 6- to 7-inch range. “The last guy to the bin is the mad one,” ex­plains Mark Detweiler, owner of Big Toho Ma­rina in Kis­sim­mee. “You’ve got to get up early and get here.”

What’s dif­fer­ent about this time of year ver­sus the early-sea­son rush is that Leech is not fish­ing the large veg­e­tated flats where bass spawn, but rather mov­ing off­shore where they’ll come up school­ing. On shal­lower lakes, he’ll look for hard bot­tom such as shell beds 5 to 6 feet deep, and in deeper fish­eries, he’ll fo­cus on struc­tural el­e­ments such as ledges in the 10-foot range.


In spring­time, Leech will an­chor and fish shin­ers un­der a cork, but in the fall, he’s more likely to let his bait roam teth­ered only to a leash of 20- to 30-pound braid. He im­pales his gold­ens through the lips on a Kahle hook so that “the nose of the shiner rides in the belly of the hook.” Leech doesn’t cast at break­ing fish, pre­fer­ring to let his shin­ers swim around and “do their thing.”

When the school­ers froth the surface, he’ll go through up to 10 dozen baits a day, which at $24 a dozen gets ex­pen­sive in a hurry, and dead baits are worth­less, ex­cept maybe as cat­fish bait. The mar­gins are al­ready thin in this game, so in ad­di­tion to Leech be­ing a guide and Detweiler be­ing a busi­ness­man, they both have to be fish whis­per­ers, us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of care­ful han­dling, chem­i­cals, and aer­a­tion to keep that gold valu­able.

Live-bait­ing for bass may be a lost art in most of the U.S., but not in Florida.

Large, free-lined golden shin­ers crush Florida bass in fall.

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