A lot of striper anglers that troll lures and cast plugs exclusively look on bait fishing as the down and dirty tactic of the rank beginner that takes little in terms of finesse or technique.
Truth be told, the consistently successful bait angler utilizes a well executed strategy that includes selecting preparing and storing the proper baits.
Throughout the year and over the course of their travels stripers routinely eat a broad range of prey including baitfish, crustaceans and more. In terms of delta baits, threadfin shad, bullheads, mud suckers, bluegill, splittails, jumbo minnows, anchovies, sardines, grass shrimp, ghost shrimp, mud shrimp, pile worms and bloodworms represent a partial list of the baits that anglers’ use for catching stripers.
Threadfin shad are the preferred forage of Delta roaming stripers and as a result shad produce the most consistent results for the bait angler that understands how to prepare and rig them.
There are two types of shad offered at Delta bait shops, namely fresh and frozen. Fresh shad are always the best choice when you can get them. Most top rate shops have fresh shad most of the time, but inevitably there will be days when you’ll have to settle for frozen shad.
Certainly you can pick up some fresh shad at the bait shop, put one on a hook and catch a striper, but if you take a few minutes to brine your shad you can greatly enhance their quality.
For this work you’ll need a small ice chest capable of holding a couple gallons of liquid. When you get to the bait shop purchase your shad and place them in the cooler. Next fill the cooler half full with ice cubes, adding just enough water to make the ice float. Finally, place about a teaspoon of bluing, an ounce of Pro-Cure pure anise and one heaping cup of rock salt into the cooler. Using your hand, so you don’t damage the shad, stir the mixture around. If you have the right ratio of water and ice, the shad will be suspended in the slushy brine.
Each one of the ingredients I’ve listed has an important function. The bluing enhances the appearance of the shad making them chrome bright. The anise adds scent to the bait, which is very important since it is the scent trail the bait sends off that ultimately leads the fish back to the bait and your waiting hook. Stripers respond to a number of different scents, but for unknown reasons, anise seems to be one of their favorites.
Finally the salt has a double function. First it toughens the shad, but it also reacts with the ice and causes the cooler’s contents to drop below freezing. Not only does this ensure that your shad will stay fresh throughout the day or even over an entire weekend, but it also means that when you remove your bait from the slush they will be partly frozen, making them firm and easy to work with.
The measurements I gave for creating the brine represent the approximate amounts I would use when preparing about 3 pounds of shad. You’ll want to vary the recipe accordingly for different amounts of bait. As a general rule when I head out for a day long session of bait fishing I like to have at least 1.5 pounds of shad for each angler on the boat. If the water is cold and the fish are fairly lethargic you can cut the amount of bait roughly in half. However, you don’t want to sell yourself too short. You can always freeze the shad you don’t use, but if you run out on the water you’ll regret it.
If you end up with frozen shad, allow them to partly thaw and then put them in the same brine you’d place fresh shad in. When the folks at bait shops freeze shad, they measure out a pound of bait, put it in a zip lock or vacuum sealed bag and toss them into the freezer. Unfortunately this is not the optimum system for preserving top notch bait. This is why the Delta’s top bait anglers freeze their own shad when they are plentiful and readily available. This way when fresh bait isn’t available you’ll have the next best thing.
When preparing fresh bait for the freezer, place the shad in brine for 12 to 24 hours. Once brining is complete, remove your baits and place them in sandwich size zip lock bags. Lay the bag flat and move the shad around until they form a single layer covering the bottom of the bag. At that point squeeze out as much air as possible, seal the bag and lay it out flat in the freezer. When it’s time to go fishing, take out as many packages as necessary and place them in your main ice chest where they will remain frozen. When you get to your fishing spot take the shad out one package at a time, remove the shad from the bag and put them into brine.
If you opt to vacuum seal your shad, it is important to lay them out on a cookie sheet or piece of wax paper and freeze them before packaging them. If you vacuum pack unfrozen shad the suction will damage them.
Okay, so you’ve got some great shad, they’re in your bait cooler bobbing around in brine and you’ve just dropped the anchor in a promising looking area, how should you go about rigging those shad?
Most Delta style bait fishing is done with an octopus hook tipped sliding sinker rig, so grab a leader armed with a 9/0 or 10/0 hook and snap it on the swivel at the end of your main line.
Next grab a shad out of the cooler and place it on a cutting board. Using a razor sharp fillet knife, make a cut just behind the shad’s gill plate and ease the blade down the shad’s spine nearly to the tail, just like you’d fillet a gamefish. When your knife gets down toward the tail, withdraw the blade without detaching the fillet.
The next step is to place the shad on the hook. Begin by passing the hook through the middle of the fillet working from the meat side, gently rotate the fillet 360 degrees and pass the hook through the center of the filleted side of the shad. After that, locate the black spot near the shad’s head on the backside of the bait and push the hook point back up through that spot. Finally, open up the loop in the snell right behind the hook’s eye, place the shad’s tail through the loop and snug the line down. This sound complicated, but it is actually simple and only takes a few moments to complete.
Now a lot of folks don’t think they have to bother with filleting the shad. I used to be one of those guys and I can tell you that if the technique I’ve outlined isn’t used you won’t be catching as many bass and you could be.
Stripers use several different senses when the feed. Naturally stripers use their vision to see prey as well as their sense of smell to locate baits that can’t be seen. In addition to these senses, stripers also come equipped with a sensitive strip of nerves that run the length of their body on both sides. These nerves comprise the striper’s lateral line. Using the lateral line stripers can detect and zero in on movement and vibration.
When a filleted and properly rigged shad sets in the current it offers stimulus for each of the senses a striper relies on when feeding. A filleted shad is rigged the way I’ve outlined will spin in the current. Since I use bluing on the shad they put off flash that the bass can see as the bait rotates, this rotation also creates vibrations that register on the striper’s lateral line and the fact that the bait’s flesh is exposed to the water encourages the bait to put off a strong scent trail.
In general the best shad for day in day out use throughout the season is a shad that is about 2.5 inches long. When the water temperature drops into the lower 50’s, it often pays to begin upsizing your baits. Occasionally when you go to the bait shop, you’ll see a really large 4, 5 or 6 inch shad mixed in with the average size ones. I always buy those large baits even if the water is warm. I keep them in the brine as I fish and hoard them away in my freezer when I get home. When the water temperature drops and its time to start hunting for monsters those big baits can pay hefty dividends.
When fishing shad, the most effective approach is to cast out, place your rod in a Fish Hookers balancer style holder, take the reel out of gear and engage the clicker. When a bass takes the bait the clicker will sound as the fish moves away. Allow the striper to run until you are certain the bait is well inside the fish’s mouth before engaging the reel and setting the hook…Fish On!