While saltwater fisheries garner much of the attention of Sunshine State anglers, Florida is home to some of the fishiest freshwater lakes, rivers and canals in the world. Most of the statewide sweetwater enthusiasts who frequent these venues live and die by artificial offerings, targeting various bass species, butterfly peacock, bullseye snakehead, clown knifefish and much more. However, live bait fishing in Florida’s freshwater environments is also a viable tactic, and a very effective one at that. The bait of choice for most: the golden shiner.
When it comes to freshwater fishing, live bait usually isn’t even a consideration. Anglers around the world have embraced targeting game fish with artificial enticements, but anything but lures in the freshwater world is seen as an exception. However, the truth of the matter is that live bait is incredibly effective in freshwater venues. And although some artificial die-hards may make fun of you for using it, there’s no shame in catching more fish and having fun doing it.
Behold, the golden shiner. These small baitfish don’t look like much, but they are natural prey items for freshwater predators all over Florida and way beyond. In fact, these flashy critters occur throughout eastern North America, from Florida to as far north as Canada, and then west to Texas and even Wyoming and Montana. Though the similar common shiner (Luxilus cornutus) also occurs naturally in Florida, the golden shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas) is much more accessible as a baitfish.
Despite their widespread range, most of the golden shiner purchased and used as live bait by anglers are farmed and sold. That said, wild shiner are vital members of the food chain wherever they occur and face predation from almost every game fish in its coexistence. Here in Florida, our freshwater fishing venues seem to me more diverse than others, particularly in southeast Florida, where canals and rivers allow some saltwater predators like snook and tarpon to enter inland lakes where they feed regularly on shiner.
Thanks to its widespread availability at local tackle and bait shops, the golden shiner remains the top live bait choice for freshwater anglers in Florida. Thankfully, these hardy little fish are top menu items for typical targets like largemouth bass, catfish, gar and much more, but popular nonnative game fish like butterfly peacock, clown knifefish and bullseye snakehead will also suck down a shiner. Additionally, Florida favorites like sunshine bass, as well as freshwater snook and tarpon, also feed on shiner. Combine the shiner’s inexpensive availability, low maintenance requirements and incredible diversity in catches, and the result is the perfect live bait for freshwater fishing.
Now that we’ve established shiner can catch just about any predator that swims in your local freshwater venue, let’s talk about how to fish them. Before wetting a line, it’s important you maximize your baits to their full potential. Shiner are relatively hardy, but it’s still worthwhile to care for them like you would any other baitfish. Remember, healthier, stronger baits catch more fish. This means you don’t want to overcrowd them. While anglers fishing from boats typically use small livewells with plenty of capacity, freshwater fishing attracts a great deal of landbased anglers as well. Fishing from land certainly doesn’t preclude you from using live shiner, but you need to use the right approach to keep your baits alive. One of the most convenient and inexpensive, yet effective options is to simply put your shiner into a 5-gallon bucket and attach an aerator to the rim, making sure the stone that oxygenates the water is completely submerged. If you’re looking for a single product to keep your baits alive on the go, we recommend Frabill’s Magnum Bait Station. This insulated bait box comes in several sizes and includes an aerator, so all you have to do is load your baits and flip it on.
When it comes to rigging, your ideal approach depends on your style of fishing and what you’re targeting. For typical pursuits like peacock or largemouth bass fishing, light spinning gear is your best bet. This allows you to get enough casting distance and accuracy on the small, lightweight baits while still achieving the right setup for the fish you’re targeting. By the same token, your hooks and leader should also be appropriate for the bait on hand. In most cases, there’s no reason to exceed 20 lb. fluorocarbon leader in our freshwater fisheries. Going any heavier may impede the natural swimming ability of your baits. Additionally, your hook should match the size of the bait, so size 1 to 1/0 circle hooks work PHOTOGRAPHY: DENES SZAKACS, CAPT. MATT ARNHOLT (BOTTOM LEFT) well, as do “mosquito” J hooks. If you’re fishing in deeper water or want to weight your bait down, a small split shot weight fished 12 inches above the hook will get the job done.
It’s also worth mentioning that many tackle shops carry different shiner sizes, offering small, medium, large and extra large baits. In most cases, small to medium shiner will cover your bases for Florida’s freshwater game fish; but if you’re targeting larger predators like tarpon and snook, a larger bait might be more enticing and could eliminate bites from smaller fish. In that case, we urge you to step up your terminal tackle with heavier leader and larger hooks. However, big or small, live golden shiner should certainly be included in your approach from time to time.