St. John's Presentations
Unique River Tactics for Moving Waters
by Larry Larsen
Florida's St. Johns River is a mighty watershed that is loaded with big largemouth bass. There is no better place for testing
natural bait strategies, and when it comes to fishing giant shiners for giant bass, no better guide than Bob Stonewater. Big river bass are a different ball game, he contends. With
over 600 ten pound or better largemouth to his credit, it's wise to listen to his thoughts. His experience, mostly all along the St. Johns River between Melbourne and Jacksonville, lays
the groundwork for very productive techniques involving the use of the ultimate lunker bass bait, the golden shiner.
While he enjoys casting artificials, large shiners are the guide's choice for consistently catching monster bass, because they're a
natural forage. Florida largemouth eat them year around. Stonewater fishes them over the same period.
"You'll trick a lot of 6, 7, or 8 pound fish on artificials, but the bigger ones usually want the baitfish," says Stonewater. "In fact, of the 200
fish over ten pounds that I've taken personally, only 19 were caught on lures."
Stonewater has found that once he finds a productive spot, he'll
get three or four strikes and then it'll slow down. So, he feels that it's best to just move to another productive hole that he knows holds
bass, rather than wait out slower strikes after the initial flurry.
"You can always come back and get the other fish," he says. "But your time is more productive if you
don't hit one spot too heavily. You'll have more strikes per hour, and that gives your client a better chance of catching fish."
A believer in big baits, the guide uses the largest shiners he can find, some even as large as 14 to 16 inches in length. Bigger forage will catch bigger bass, he reasons. On one
recent week's tally only two of 25 bass caught weighed less than six pounds. Monster bait was responsible for such a record.
Stonewater is concerned only with trophy largemouth. That's
what his clients are generally looking for and that's what his life is built around. He is just not content with bass of lesser proportions. His
methods and learning have evolved from the goal of successful lunker bass angling.
Offering a big fish just one big shiner may not suffice either. A 13 1/4 pounder hit two shiners on one trip that Stonewater put together. Three
generations of anglers, a father, son, and grandfather, were all fishing with Stonewater out of the same boat when the big bass struck. The two elder gentlemen landed the fish.
Get The Point
The guide prefers to use a weedless hook under most conditions. It enables him to get his shiner up in the cover and most of the time, if he
doesn't get a fish, he's at least able to get his shiner back out of there. And, he didn't feed the fish that
he's trying to catch. With a weedless hook, you're not getting hung up all the time and yanking on the cover, he reasons. That disturbs the fish in it.
"It's not going to be too long before the bass in the cover figures something is going on that's not quite
right. She's not dumb," says Stonewater. "Your chances of getting a strike there are becoming less and less."
The hook size should be matched to the size shiner that you're using. That shiner needs to swim as
free as it can, and look natural. If you have a big hook hanging out of a little shiner, your chances of
catching a big fish are not good. You can trick a bigger bass with a little shiner if you're using light line, a
small bobber, and a small hook. The little baitfish will look natural then.
Stonewater uses up to a 7/0 or 8/0 hook with the giant shiners. He makes his own weedless hooks because he hasn't found a large enough or heavy enough
factory-made hook to hold the lunker bass. The off-the-shelf hardware was breaking or straightening, so he started making his own.
"When you're hitting an 11 or 12 pound bass and it's going away from you,
that's some impact," says Stonewater. "I've seen a lot of rods and reels jerked from people's hands and they just can't believe it."
In the river currents, Stonewater always hooks his baits through the lips. Even
when the shiner tires then, he'll look more natural in the moving water. In a strong current like that found in rivers, the baitfish will wear our quicker, advises
Stonewater. It will start dragging sideways in the water. You won't have much chance to catch a big bass then.
In a lake situation where current is not present, an angler can get away with hooking the shiner
through the back (dorsal fin area) or near the anal fin, admits Stonewater. Those hooking procedures, though, just won't work as well in current.
Stonewater likes to use 20 to 25 pound test monofilament, but occasionally will go to lighter line and
rod for some great action. Regardless, he advises setting the hook quickly. His concerns are the line may
drag on something and spook the fish, or the bass may swallow the bait, making it more difficult to release the fish in a healthy state.
Set The Hook
"Just wait until the line is tight, then set", he says. "If the bass has that shiner in its mouth, then the
hook is in there too. Her mouth will be closed because she doesn't want the shiner to get out," laughs
Stonewater. "You just want to take the time and find out which direction the fish is moving, and then get the slack out. Then you can tighten up and sock it to her."
"The fine line of live bait fishing is handling the rod between the strike and hook set. The proper way to
tighten up on the line is to keep the rod tip up at a 45 degree angle from the horizon," he says. "You have better sensitivity in the rod and better feel on what
the fish is doing. If you hold it down pointed at the fish, you may get the line too tight and not feel her before you have a chance to set the hook," advises
Stonewater. "She'll let go with that increased tension."
After the bass takes the bait it will be moving somewhere. It won't just stay put. A largemouth will
usually swim straight out to the middle of the river and then turn around and go back under the cover
where she was laying. That's a fairly typical pattern for big fish on the St. Johns, according to the guide.
By holding the rod tip up, you've got six feet of real "soft" line to play with,
according to the guide. The secret of any kind of fishing is being able to feel the fish without it feeling you. The soft line enables an angler to pick up line off the
water with less resistance. He can find out easier which way the fish is headed.
"You have time to get turned towards her, get squared away and have your
feet planted," says Stonewater. "Then you can really snatch the hook into her. The bass won't even know what happened, except that she ate the wrong shiner!"
When the shiner is placed along the appropriate bank, Stonewater doesn't move it frequently. He'll
check it occasionally to make sure that the shiner hasn't "jumped up" through the weeds and is laying on
top of them, out of the water. The bait will do that once in a while to get away from a big bass, but the predator will also tear apart the weeds to get at its prey.
The bait must be lively to attract most St. Johns River lunkers, though. The current in the river wears
out a shiner quickly, and while two lake fishermen may use three dozen shiners a day, river anglers could require twice that many. When a shiner wears down, Stonewater will take it
off and put it back in the livewell to recoup a little. The tired baitfish won't regain all its
strength, but it will be strong enough for one more trip back into a bass haunt.
"The shiner should lay there with enough freedom, so that it looks natural," Stonewater says. "That big
fish will get into the cover and root out the bait."
When a shiner becomes nervous and struggles in the weeds, yet appears to be hung, the guide will get
another bait to that area quickly. Rather than pull that first bait to free it, he'll let it lay. That way, he
won't disturb or feed the bass until he gets a second shiner to it.
Hopefully, that second one will be what Stonewater likes to call a "kamikaze" shiner. That's one that
will sacrifice itself for a good cause!
Editor's Note: This article is a partial excerpt from the book, "Bass Guide Tips". The longer book chapter
contains additional information on "how to rig shiners" for a variety of conditions. Click if you want help with lodging or flights.