Fishing with shiners may make some people think of their childhood when they fished ponds with their grandfather. Images come to mind of buying some shiners from the bait shop, putting them under a cork and waiting for a bite. To put it simply, shiner fishing is more than that. Fishing with these little nuggets of gold is THE best way to catch a trophy bass. Here in Florida shiners are abundant and in lakes and ponds where they are found they are the preferred food item for largemouth bass.
So what is a shiner? The term shiner is used liberally for a variety of fish in fresh and saltwater. But when you here hardcore bass fisherman talking about shiners they are talking about one fish. The following picture is a beautiful wild shiner caught in a lake in Clearwater, FL.
Now shiners are a far more superior fish to use for bait for several reasons. While we are on the topic of shad we need to make these distinctions so you are not tempted to use them unless you absolutely have to. Shad are eaten regularly by bass for the same reasons shiners are but keeping them is the hard part. Shad are like pilchards and threadfin herring in saltwater. They need to be kept in a baitwell that has lots of raw water flow. That means that new water has to be pumped in and continually drained to keep them alive. If you put a dozen 3-4" shad in a full 5 gallon bucket they will begin to die in minutes. If you have a boat with a raw water livewell you can keep shad but they often still don't hold up well. For a guy like me who does most of his bass fishing from shore shad are off the table because my bait needs to be able to survive in a flo-troll bucket, a 5 gallon, or my 20 gallon brute trashcan for extended periods of time. The second reason I don't like shad is because of their action on the hook. They do not hold up well and their scales are extremely fragile. They tend to swim really hard for about a minute and then they die out because they exhaist themselves. Shiners will keep their scales for longer and swim at more relaxed pace which keeps them alive longer on the hook.
Now that we know why we should fish with shiners let's talk about the hardest part of shiner fishing, getting them. Some people can go to baitshops and buy them. However, if you can catch wild ones it usually works out better. Not to say that shiners from a bait shop are not good bait. There are many bait shops that simply have people that go out and catch wild ones. There are those that sell farm raised shiners though. Farm raised fish will work but wild ones always seem to be more frisky which is a big plus. Also, shiners usually cost more than $10 per dozen and you can go through a dozen REALLY fast. So now let us talk on how to catch you own.
Catching live bait is not something you see many freshwater bass fisherman doing, especially in small lakes and ponds. Bass anglers have millions of different "scientifically" proven lures and juices that most of them have some sort of artificial baits they like to throw. But why go through all that when nature made the BEST bait for you? To catch shiners you first have to know where to find shiners. This is the most difficult part of shiner fishing. In many lakes and ponds that have abundant aquatic grass, grassy flats with 4' or less of water are almost always a good place to look. However, when they are out in the open they are very vulnerable and they will hide deep in the grass or move in large schools. I would not recommend blindly throwing a cast net unless you KNOW they are there. They tend to spook easily and will move off if throw the net too much. The best technique is to dumb them up a little and bring them to you.
Chumming with pieces of bread can often bring shiners out of hiding and make them catchable. Shiners also like their heavy cover especially in the spring and fall when bass can be extremely aggressive. They will hand out deep in lilly pads or in aquatic floating grasses. You will also frequently find them hugging tight to fallen brush. In this case bread can sometimes draw them out into the open but sometimes you must be patient and wait for them to swim out. I fish in many small ponds and man made lakes. Most all of them have hydrologic control structures of some type like a spillway, wier, or culvert. In these man made or "disturbed" lakes or ponds, structures like this seems to always attract shiners. All of my best shiner spots are near or right at one of these types of structures. Look for these things in your local lake or pond and you will usually find a short cut to getting shiners. It is common to also simply find schools cruising the perimeter of a lake or pond even in there is little structure. This tends to happen mostly in the fall when the shiners have the main spawning ritual for the year but is not uncommon in spring and early summer as well. In this situation a cast net is the best option because the school is on the move.
Catching shiners can be hard sometimes and there are two different techniques; hook and line with bread or cast net. I prefer castnet myself every time. I try to avoid catching my baits one at a time if I can. Sometimes a hook and line is the best way because a net cannot get where the shiners are. If you are going to this use a small bobber with a very very small hook. I would recommend #14 or smaller. Roll small pieces of bread up into a tight dough ball and put it on the hook under the bobber. This technique typically requires you to chum the shiners up with more bread to get them going. However, I often run across lakes and ponds where the fish are never fed. Often times fish being fed bread continually eventually get them to associate bread with food. As I said in many places I fish this is not the case. I could throw in a loaf and they just do not react, not even the bluegill. Perhaps if you threw in bread regularly for and extended period of time they would eventually figure it out, but that is not what we are looking to do. We want to catch them some we can catch lunker bass.
I grew up inshore saltwater fishing so when I got into bass fishing castnetting live bait was something that seemed natural to me. All I use is 4' basic net from Walmart. You can go bigger if you want but I would not recommend more than a 6' net. Very often I will be walking along and see a school and have t o very quick with the net to get them. This would not be easy with my 10' net. In addition I would use a smaller net because sometimes you have to get you net into a tight spot to get shiners. Many of my spots have a hole in the vegetation where they are accessible that is only 6 or 8' wide. A large net would not be conducive for this. If you net hits the vegetation it wont sink and the shiners will just swim right under it. I like my Walmart net too because it was cheap. This is not like throwing your net on a pristine grass flat in saltwater. In freshwater environments there are often sticks, stumps, and other unseen net hazards laying on the bottom waiting to snag your net. I don't feel comfortable throwing my $150 10' bait net in most lakes.
Now that we have talked about catching them let's talk about keeping them. Shiners are great bait for land fisherman because of hardy nature. You can keep 2 dozen small to medium shiners in 5 gallon bucket with no aerator for a couple of hours. Add an aerator and you can at least triple that time if not more. Typically you want change some water because ammonia will build up from fish pee and will poison the fish. You can usually keep about 8-10 really nice shiners in a standard white and yellow flow-troll bucket. The over sized trolling buckets can hold more than dozen. Trolling buckets are great because they are very mobile and you can toss them in the water and you don't really have to worry about the oxygen level depleting in the bucket. Just move the bucket around every now and then and they will be fine. You can also go with a standard 5 gallon bucket. I like to this when I need about 2 dozen or more but I know I will be using them fast.
I often catch shiners in one spot and transport them to another lake or pond. This is a lot of work but it can be worth it. There are some lakes that have very few shiners and these can be the best places to toss them. Bass in these lakes will jump on them extremely fast. I have a 20 gallon brute trash can that I will fill with about 2-3 dozen shiners and drive them to my fishing hole. Once you find a good reliable spot to catch shiners, I would try this. You can usually get the best bass in the lake.
Now that we have talked baout catching the shiners and keeping them, we need to talk about actually fishing with them. This is the point of this article and it is very important to know HOW to fish with shiners. There is more to shiner fishing than just tossing in a shiner where ever you want. The most important thing to understand about shiner fishing is that you must put them in a spot where you know bass are hanging out. Now you might say if you have found the spot where bass are, why not use a lure? However, just because you have found bass does not mean they will eat a piece of rubber. You want focus on the points, coves, holes in deep cover, and other spots that you know bass will hang out. The culverts and water control structures where the shiners are found are also good places to fish them. Also, areas where bluegills are nesting are good spots. Large bass will usually shadow the bluegill nests. Shiners are not a good search bait. You need to get in an area where you know the fish will be. This is VERY important, remember this. If you are not getting bit then there are no bass in the area.
I like to free line the shiners with a #2 small wire circle hook with about 2-3' of 20-30lb fluorocarbon leader. If you are fishing the shiners in deep cover you can fish with a bobber over that. That is it for shiner rigging. Generally speaking try to use as small a hook as you can so you dont skewer the fish or affect it's action too much. Do not use any weight or split shot this will detriment the action of your bait.
Probably the best time to fish with shiners is the in the spring before, during, and after the spawn. This time of year you can sight fish bass with ease in the shallows. When you can see a bass there is no better bait than a shiner. Just toss it to them and they eat it. The fish will often feed the hardest in the late spring and early summer. This can be a great time to trhow shiners almost anywhere. The next best time is fall when the shad and shiners spawn. Find schools of bass breaking the surface and they will hop on your shiners in no time flat.
I hope this article was informative and will help you catch, keep, and land BIG bass with shiners. Get out there and don't be afraid to put in the work. It WILL pay off and you will land HUGE bass.