— By Chris Nelson
Sometimes I think the fishing industry has gone the way of the Christmas tree lot in a “Charlie Brown Christmas” — all flash and no substance.
Like Lucy telling Charlie Brown to get the biggest aluminum tree he can find, anglers are constantly bombarded with advertisements on fishing shows insisting that success depends upon purchasing the latest “high tech” or “innovative” products. Good grief.
The truth is inexpensive rigs catch fish in a variety of situations. They’re perfect for beginners, casual fishermen and old fuddy-duddies like myself who don’t believe spending more money means catching more fish.
I fish along the Missouri River in Pierre, S.D., mainly from shore below the Oahe Dam. I can fit everything I need to catch walleyes, white bass, crappie, and whatever else may be biting in a kids-sized tackle box. And I’ve only got about $50 invested.
Below are five basic live-bait rigs I use. Most can be cast and retrieved or still-fished, depending on the mood of the fish and the preference of the angler. All are easy to rig and use.
Nothing of what I’m about to say is new — not even the minor tweaks. It is, however, often forgotten or unknown to beginning anglers caught up in the new-age hype.
Plain Jane Rig
This rig is exactly what its name implies — plain. It consists of a hook, short leader, barrel swivel and a slip weight. It’s a variation of the venerable Lindy Rig adapted for shore fishing.
The rig is easy to make. Tie a hook to a monofilament or fluorocarbon leader (8- to 12-pound test) that’s 12-24 inches long. Next, tie the leader to a swivel. Finally, run a slip weight onto your main line and connect it to the other end of the swivel. Bait up, and you’re done!
A quick note on leader selection: either monofilament or fluorocarbon work in most situations, but they are a little different. Fluorocarbon is less visible and more abrasive resistant than monofilament. If fishing clear and heavily pressured waters, fluorocarbon is my choice. Otherwise, I tend to stick with less-expensive monofilament.
This rig can be still-fished on the bottom or retrieved slowly with pauses. Along with versatility, a big advantage of this rig is the slip weight, which allows you to feed line to finicky fish.
Weight size will vary. A general rule is the lighter the better. However, a heavier weight is needed when fishing current to stay on the bottom. A selection of 1/8- to 3/4-ounce weights in egg, bullet and walking styles will handle most situations.
Egg weights are my favorite. They tend to crawl through snags and most weeds. If you’re casting and retrieving the Plain Jane rig, this matters. However, I’ll switch to a walking-style sinker if I’m fishing strong current and I want my bait to stay in place. Egg and bullet sinkers will roll along the bottom in the current, while flatter walking-style sinkers stay put.
Proper weight size will also depend on the length of cast needed. Longer casts are possible with heavier weights, so upsize if you need to reach out to fish.
Additionally, heavier weights allow you to make “lob” casts as opposed to having to “whip” a lighter weight. Lob casts help keep your minnow, worm or leech tethered to the hook.
Line type also impacts weight size. Fireline, braids and other superlines will outcast monofilament and fluorocarbon. Consider this when selecting a weight, and as a general rule use a heavier weight with monofilament and fluorocarbon.
I alluded to this earlier, but a huge advantage of the Plain Jane is the slip weight. This allows anglers to feed the fish line unencumbered upon detecting a bite. Slack line allows the fish to inhale the bait without feeling the resistance of the weight. This is necessary at times when fish are finicky or negative and need to be coaxed into committing.
Any style and color of hooks can be used with this rig. I like Nos. 4, 6 and 8 octopus-style hooks. The components for this rig are so cheap that I opt for a higher-quality (more expensive) hook that is light and sharp. I don’t overspend, but I shy away from the bargain hooks you can find in bulk.
A variety of live bait can be used with the Plain Jane rig as well as the split-shot rig I’ll discuss in the following section. Minnows and nightcrawlers are the most popular due to their widespread availability.
Equally important to the bait you select is how you put it on the hook. When using minnows, run your hook through the lips or head if you plan on casting and retrieving the rig. If you plan to still-fish or move it very slowly across the bottom with long pauses, hooking the minnow through its tail or back works better. A tail-hooked minnow swims around and acts lively, which is what you want if you’re going to let the rig sit on the bottom.
When casting and retrieving nightcrawlers on this rig, I like to only use half a crawler. When waterlogged, nightcrawlers really stretch out. I’ve found that a half-crawler stays on the hook better and often gets more bites. Depending on the length and width of the crawler, I’ll run the hook through the crawler one, two or maybe three times and let the rest dangle.
I’ll occasionally use a leech with this rig, especially if I’m chasing walleyes or smallmouth. Of course, I follow standard leech-hooking procedure and run it one time through the sucker and let the rest dangle.
The simplicity of this rig is genuine. Tie a hook to your line and pinch a split shot 8-16 inches above it. That’s it.
But don’t let the straightforwardness of this rig fool you into thinking it’s a gimmick — it isn’t. It will catch fish when others fail.
Split-shot rigs allow you to present live bait with finesse. The light weight allows the natural action of the bait to shine. This finesse presentation works when fish are negative and the bite is slow. It can be still fished or cast and retrieved.
This rig works well in shallow water without much current. Because the weight is light, it’s less likely to hang in snags. If it does hang, use your rod tip to lift or snap it out.
Any type of line works with this rig. However, in clear water I’ll attach a fluorocarbon or monofilament leader to my main line if I’m using Fireline or braid. I tie back-to-back uni-knots to connect the main line to the leader, but you can also use a swivel.
Using a fluorocarbon or monofilament leader has two advantages. First, they’re less visible to fish. Second, split shots stay put better when crimped to monofilament or fluorocarbon. Split shots slide on Fireline and braid, often coming to rest on your knot at the hook eye. This doesn’t just hurt the action of the rig, it also damages your line and knot.
Due to their extreme light weight, split-shot rigs have two major drawbacks. First, they’re hard to cast and a strong whipping action will often throw your bait off the hook.
Second, they’re tough to control in the wind. A stiff breeze creates a bow in the line. This often lifts the bait off the bottom and makes it impossible for the angler to feel anything. Using Fireline or braid helps alleviate this problem, as their narrow diameter cuts through the wind better than monofilament or fluorocarbon, but it doesn’t remedy it entirely.
Split-shot rigs are primitive. That’s what’s great about them. Almost every angler carries hooks and split-shots in their tackle box. They work in a pinch or when an ultra-finesse presentation is necessary.
One final tip: pick a spinning or spincast reel when fishing this rig, because they’re built for casting light-weight tackle. A 6- to 7-foot rod with a limber tip works great.
Gum-Drop Floater/Floating Jighead Rig
This is an easy, yet underused rig that excels in the right situation. I don’t use it often, but under the right conditions it’s a perfect setup.
This rig slightly suspends the bait off the bottom. It’s rigged just like Plain Jane or split-shot rigs, but uses a gum-drop floater or floating jighead.
I primarily still-fish this rig. I use it when the bottom is covered with fine, green moss that slimes your bait upon contact.
When fishing a floater, I always use an 8- to 12-pound-test monofilament leader because monofilament floats. After all, the goal of this rig is to stay off the bottom.
Floaters come in a variety of colors. I’m not convinced that color matters all that much. However, if I’m fishing an area with smallmouth bass, I’ll opt for bright orange and chartreuse colors. I can’t explain it, but these colors have produced some big smallmouth for me.
I use a gum-drop floater (aka Phelps Floater to us old guys) most of the time because its body is soft and compressible, unlike a floating jighead which is hard. Once again, I’m not sure how much this matters to the fish, but it does to me. Lastly, I opt for the smallest size in most situations. However, I will upsize if I’m using a larger bait such as shiners and chubs.
The rules for attaching live bait are similar to the two rigs already discussed above. One variation I use on floater rigs is hooking a minnow, shiner or chub in the back instead of the tail. Back-hooking offers a unique action when paired with a floating rig.
Cheap and simple is the modus operandi for bobbers. Plus, nothing beats the visual appeal of seeing a bobber disappear.
The standard snap-on globe bobber is the most straightforward approach. You can snap it above about any live-bait rig and be ready to fish.
The problem with snap-on bobbers is that you can’t suspend your bait too far beneath them. Four feet is about the maximum length if you’re planning to cast any distance. If you need to suspend your bait a little deeper, switch to a slip bobber.
A slip bobber is a float that allows the line to pass through it. To halt the line is a small piece of string you cinch onto your main line to “plug” the hole in the bobber. The beauty of this string, which acts as a bobber stop, is that you can reel it up into your spool and cast it out.
Compared to a snap-on bobber, slip bobbers allow for longer and more accurate casts by shortening the amount of line at the tip of your rod. This reduces the excessive whip action when casting and keeps your bait attached to the hook.
Slip bobbers can be balanced by adding split shots below them. Generally, you want to add weight until the bobber barely stays afloat. This reduces the “pull back” a fish feels when they take it underwater. Simply put, it’s easier for a fish to pull a small portion of the bobber under than the whole thing.
I prefer slip bobbers in most situations because of the advantages mentioned above, but the snap-on’s convenience is difficult to beat. It’s a good idea to carry a small selection of both.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to use a plain hook below the bobber. Small jigs, Kastmasters or other small lures work just fine, too. I like to use Northland Eye Droppers when fishing crappies. If I’m chasing bluegills, I’ll reach into my ice-fishing tackle for some tiny tungsten jigs.
Also, I’ll often use a treble hook with a slip bobber. Because slip bobbers rarely snag if they’re set up properly, the extra hooks are not a problem and increase your hook-up ratio. Additionally, you can attach more bait. A treble allows you to gob on more nightcrawlers or put multiple minnows on the hook.
Hooking live bait on bobber rigs differs slightly from rigs fished on the bottom. Generally, back-hooking minnows, shiners or chubs is the best option to keep your bait lively. If you are casting a slip bobber and retrieving it slowly with pauses, head- or lip-hooking is an option.
No need to overcomplicate this final option. Whenever I’m shore fishing, I have jigheads in my box. Some days, live bait on a jighead is the best way to catch fish.
There’s not much to be written about jigheads that hasn’t already been covered ad nauseam in countless articles, so I’ll limit this to a few quick tips.
For shore fishing, I carry a small but diverse jighead assortment in the 1/4- to 1/32-ounce range. Head shape is mainly round, but I also carry a few darter, swimbait and mushroom heads. This gives me options.
Fishing a jig from shore will inevitably lead to snags and break-offs, because the simple physics of the situation isn’t in the angler’s favor. Therefore, I use bargain jigheads, such as Arkie jigs from Walmart.
Improve Your Odds By Wading
Wading is shore fishing on steroids. It’s bigger, better and lots of fun. It’s also a great way to catch fish.
Wading has two main advantages. First, it’s essentially an extension of your cast. It allows you to get closer to the fish and access water out of reach from the bank.
For example, think of lakes Poinsett or Kampeska in northeastern South Dakota. Much of the shoreline has a shallow, gradual taper. You might make your best cast from shore but only reach 5 feet of water. That’s fine if the fish happen to be in that depth. But what if they’re not?
Here’s what — you don’t catch squat. However, wading 30 feet out may allow you to reach slightly deeper water and the fish. Trust me, the first time this happens you’ll become a believer.
Wading not only allows for longer casts, but more specialized ones as well. Most of us can whip a 1/4-ounce swimbait 100 feet or so with no problem. However, try and whip a cast like that with a slip bobber with a back-hooked shiner and see what happens. Spoiler alert: your expensive shiner flies off the hook into the next county and your slip-bobber rig catapults through the air in a tangled mess. Wading cuts down your cast distance, allowing for a nice, bait-friendly cast.
The second advantage is access. Wading can tap waters untouched by other anglers. I love this aspect of wader fishing. What fisherman doesn’t like having an advantage like that?
Shorelines are often unfishable. Snags, overgrown brush, cutbanks and a plethora of other obstacles can prevent a stretch of water from getting fished. In waders, you can get in front of the trees or below the cutbank as well as negotiate any snags.
One of my favorite tricks is to wade out through the cattails to the water’s edge. From there I can make parallel casts along the cattails. This works great on stockdams for largemouth bass as well as on glacial lakes in springtime.
The access wading provides not only allows me to reach new waters and fresh fish, but it also allows me to break away from the crowd. There is something to be said for solitary fishing, away from the beer drinkers and stereo blasters. In waders, I can simply slip down the shoreline until I find the peace I’m looking for. It’s the very definition of social distancing.
When selecting a pair of waders, consider two things: what am I going to use them for and how much money can I spend? I go cheap on a lot of things — waders isn’t one of them. Sensing wetness in your lower extremities while wading is a horrible feeling, as is being too cold in an under-insulated pair.
For my money, boot-foot neoprene waders are the best all-around option for the northern plains. It takes around $130 to purchase a good pair with a thickness of 3.5 mm, though prices run up to $300 depending on the brand. Like all outdoor clothing, my advice is to get what you can afford and make it work.
Also, keep in mind that waders serve multiple purposes. They’re just as useful on a river sandbar in April for walleyes as they are in November in a duck slough. Additionally, they’re great tools for seining bait. With all of these uses, it’s easy to justify spending money on a good pair of waders.
Pairing the simple live-bait rigs discussed above with waders is an inexpensive way to catch more fish, and when open water is to be found, I’m about as inseparable with them as Linus is with his blanket. You might become that way, too.
About the Author: Chris Nelson is a freelance writer from Pierre, S.D.