The Kayak Corner: Spring Live Bait Strategies

In early April, the water is still cold and the fish are lethargic, so it is a good time to try some alternative strategies. 

It is April at last! April begins with cold water and a difficult bite, and usually ends with warmer water and a strong prespawn bass bite. This was a tough winter for kayak fishing, there wasn’t much open water. In most of New England, the ice is gone, the water is still a bit chilly, and the fish are a little lethargic, but for those of us with cabin fever it is time to fish. 

Before you hop in your kayak in the chilly waters of spring, check your safety gear. Dry gear and a PFD are required not only by law in some states, but by significant others everywhere. We may get some warm days this month, but make sure that you are dressed for the water temperature. There’s nothing worse than getting wet on a cold day, forcing you to leave before the fishing gets good. 

Fortunately, there is plenty of fishing available right now. The bite may not be fast, but with a solid strategy you can avoid the skunk and get some quality fish. In early April, the water is still cold and the fish aren’t up to speed yet, so it is a good time to try some alternative strategies.  

I don’t fish with bait very often, but in April I use live bait like shiners and smelt to catch picky fish. Live bait techniques work in both warm and cold-water ponds; whether your targets are bass and pickerel or trout and salmon, you can get dialed in with your techniques. 

One of the competitive advantages of kayak fishing is the ability to go slow.  Boaters may laugh at us for our slow speeds, but when it comes to slow trolling, no vessel is better than a kayak! I vary my speed when I troll live baits, but usually I’m moving between 1 and 2 miles per hour. 

In warm water ponds I focus on bass, but my incidental catches include big perch, crappies, pickerel, and on rare occasions, stripers. Once I even caught a 20-pound carp that wasn’t shy about inhaling a shiner.

This giant mirror carp was a welcome bycatch to bass and trout after it picked up a live shiner.

A fast- or extra-fast rod with 8- to 15-pound braid tied to a fluorocarbon leader is a fish-ready set up. A spinning rod allows for soft casts that get your bait behind the boat without giving the shiner a death smack on the surface. I find that lighter braid helps the bait swim better and allows me to feel when the bait freaks out as a predator gives chase. 

I keep the terminal tackle to a minimum as well. The object is to get the bait to swim well behind the boat, but too much rigging will catch weeds and distract from the presentation. I use a circle hook on an 8- to 12-pound leader, and if there are toothy critters around, I will bump up to 20-pound leader.  I don’t use any swivels or clips; the hook is tied directly to the leader. If I’m fishing in 6’ or less, I don’t use any extra weight; but, if I’m in deeper water, I will add an appropriately sized split shot to keep my bait in the lower half of the water column. 

Early season bass are often cruising flats; the weed beds have yet to emerge, and the shallows haven’t significantly warmed yet, so the fish tend to be more mobile than later in the season. These areas usually have few snags and are easy to troll. Focus on drop-off edges and weed edges; if you have side-scan sonar, it is easy to stay along a weed edge. If you can find any structure, boulders or logs on these flats, it is a good idea to make multiple passes. 

Bass tend to school up during the early spring, so when you catch a fish, circle back on the spot where you got bit. I often find that ninety percent of the fish I catch on a trip come from one small section of a shoreline. One of the benefits of kayak fishing is that you won’t spook off the fish very quickly, even by constantly going over one spot. I have made 20 passes through an area and still found a good bite, so once you find them, stay with them! 

My preference for bass is to use circle hooks, but it took me a while to get used to them. I use one size larger than I would with a j-hook, because the larger hook catches the corner of their mouth better. I always hold the rod in hand and when I get bit, I stop pedaling and leave the bail open. After I let the fish eat the bait for a second, I close the bail and start pedaling to pull the slack out of the line.  Continuing with a steady pull but no hookset, usually puts the hook right in the corner of their mouth. 

Circle hooks work well for catching largemouth bass, with less need for a hookset and less damage done to the fish.

For trout and salmon, I use similar tactics with downsized tackle. Trout and salmon are often line shy, so I use ultra-light rods rigged with 5-pound braid with a 4-pound leader.  I use small J-hooks like the Owner mosquito hooks; the light wire is great for smaller baits and is easily set with light tackle. I use light rigging, only adding split shots as needed for deeper presentations. 

Smelt or small shiners are the favored baits for trout and salmon, andif you are fishing for salmon on the big lakes, smelt are the top producer. Both baits are small and easily dragged behind a fast-moving kayak, so make sure you focus on your speed—keeping it under 1.5 miles per hour will guarantee your baits swim naturally. 

The great thing about pedal kayaks is that you can hold your rod while you troll, which allows you to feel the hit and drop back as soon as something eats the bait. I keep my bail open while trolling, leaving just a finger on the line, which allows me to pay out line as soon as the fish strikes. With light tackle a hard hookset is unnecessary; I practice a similar hookset to the circle hook technique, using the kayak’s momentum to pull the hook into the fish. 

When compared to “bass” lakes, trout and salmon lakes tend to be considerably deeper water with fewer shallow flats. Here, focus on inlets and outlets where there may be some water flow, as well as drop-offs and edges. Don’t ignore the deep, open water of the pond, especially early in the morning; smelt often come to the surface over deep water, so trout and salmon will be scattered around them. They also school, so once you find an area with fish, keep covering it until the bite stops. 

No matter what bait you use, the Frabill Flow-Troll bait bucket works well for keeping them alive. The bucket is easy to tow behind the kayak, especially when you’re going slowly. It even allows you to grab a bait without sticking your hand in the cold water! 

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