by Bob McNally
In northeast Florida’s lower St. Johns River, there is an abundance of shoreline development, mainly homes.
Invariably the houses have docks and piers in the water, and often these are key spots for catching tidewater largemouth bass.
In many tidal areas, docks are particularly attractive to largemouth bass because they are so long—some nearly 300 yards in length—and they often are bordered by fertile grassbeds that attract minnows and other bass forage. Tidewater docks have to be long so property owners can have their boats floating at low tides as well as high tides.
Docks are great summer haunts for largemouth bass, and while a lot of lures and baits catch brackish-water largemouth, nothing is more deadly than live marine shrimp. These are the same shrimp you order in restaurants or at the grocery store. And just like humans who can’t get enough of these good-eating crustaceans, largemouth bass prefer shrimp over just about everything else swimming in water.
Yep, the same live shrimp you’d use for seatrout or snook will dupe a largemouth bass even faster than a live shiner.
Throughout much of the lower St. Johns River, and just about any other tidewater river along America’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, shrimp are found in great abundance summer through early fall. And no other bait is so relished by largemouth bass when it’s available.
Shrimp are active at night, and so are foraging largemouths bent on having the bug-eyed crustaceans for supper. Summer and early fall night fishing always has been a prime time to take largemouth bass. But in tidewaters where shrimp inhabit, night bass action can be nothing short of sensational.
Cast netting shrimp for food is a popular activity where I live in northeast Florida. People “bait up” shrimp and hang lanterns over the water to attract them, then throw nets to catch shrimp. As one might expect, anywhere such preferred forage congregates is sure to draw bass in big numbers. So savvy people who cast net for shrimp at night also fish for largemouths in the same areas.
Docks along the St. Johns River also produce bass during the hottest, brightest parts of the day, as well as at night. Long and large docks are prime, as they provide a lot of shade, and bottom supports are superior structure. Drift a live shrimp around and under big docks, especially during a running tide when the sun is high and bright, and you’re likely to catch big bass and plenty of them.
Natural presentation of shrimp is important in catching tidewater bass. Slip-float rigs are versatile and allow anglers to work baits and lures at any depth in current. Small slip floats are good, and with a spinning or baitcasting outfit they can be cast accurately around bass-holding docks, pilings and weed beds. Submerged weed beds, incidentally, also can be very productive tidewater spots for float-fishing live shrimp. Find a weed bed with 4 to 8 feet of water over it, float a live shrimp above the weeds naturally in current, and it’s almost a sure bet a largemouth bass will belt it.
Controlled drifting with shrimp baits along bottom and over and around tidewater structure is deadly for bass, particularly in summer when fish can be deep. A deep ledge, underwater hump or bridge piling is a choice spot for such a tidewater tactic.
Bridge abutments over brackish water can be great for catching bass with live shrimp and floats, too. And don’t be surprised if shrimp intended for largemouths also produce striped bass, flounder, redfish, and sometimes ladyfish, sheepshead and black drum.
Fish live shrimp on a 1/0 Kahle-style bait hook, with a 3-foot leader between a 1/4- to 1-ounce sinker, and then use a slip float above that. Position your boat up-tide of a targeted dock, piling or bridge abutment, and cast toward the structure, freelining back the bobber and bait. When a float is taken under, reel up the slack and set the hook. Heavy monofilament lines and leaders can work for such fishing, but heavy braided line is better; 30-pound test is good. Barnacles coat everything in brackish water, and they cut line like a knife, especially mono. Lost big fish from cut lines are common around tidewater cover, but braided line helps.
Often, the longest, oldest and most weathered docks are best because they stretch farthest into deep water. Old docks are good because they have an abundance of barnacles, weeds and deteriorating wood that draws bait, which in turn pulls bass. The more pilings and cross supports under a dock the better it is. Frequently docks that are lowest to the water are preferred by bass because they offer the most shade.
One tip-off to some hot spot tidewater docks are sailboats or large cruising boats. Most sailboats, and some big pleasure boats, have deep keels, sometimes 6 feet or more. Usually a dock spot where a sailboat is moored has a wallowed out hole for the keel. Big pleasure boats make “holes,” too, when they run their big engines. Such holes harbor bass, especially during low tides, particularly if there are lots of dock pilings nearby.
When a tide turns and falls, bass often drop off shoreline flats and head to deeper water. Dock fish normally relocate to the deepest pilings, or may even move offshore to ledges or humps. No matter, live shrimp catch tidewater bass wherever they’re found.
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