By Mark Fike
I grew up dunking bait to catch fish. Dad and I almost always tied on a good-sized weight, a hook, and threw out our bait and sat and waited for a bite. Sometimes, particularly when we were fishing for bream, we would use a bobber.
Then the transition began. I started using a float for catfish in rivers so I could cover more water. I just hung the bait down much lower.
Getting away from the weights cut my snags in half at least. But even using the floats and bobbers seemed unnatural to me.
So, over the past twenty years I began freelining my baits and I noticed right away my catch rate rocketed up. Freelining bait means using little or no weight on the line.
Using little or no weight makes the bait look very natural. For a nightcrawler, it appears it somehow tumbled into the river and was floating along squirming in an effort to get to dry ground.
When freelining minnows the technique allows the minnows to swim freely around with just the weight of the hook or perhaps a small piece of shot to drag them down some to give the perception they are struggling and are an easy meal.
Even out in the brine, I freeline cutbait or clam or squid when possible. Bait that is not tied to the bottom, bait that is not predictably floating along at the same depth all the time is an offering that few fish will pass up.
I am a teacher of Life Science at a middle school during the day. Last spring I promised my enthusiastic students that I would go catch enough fish for the classes to do a fish dissection. When I did the math I started kicking myself for opening my big mouth and making promises like that. I had 108 kids which meant I needed 54 fish! It was the night before the only day we could do the dissection!
This afforded me an opportunity to experiment a bit in my hasty quest to fill the cooler. I went to a local pond I knew was full of bream that needed thinning and I went to work. I started with a piece of worm and a big split shot. Fishing was slow.
I could tell that the rate I was catching was not going to get me to the goal line before the sun went down. So, I used a small float. Although both the split shot and the float did catch fish, it was again, too slow.
So, fishing the same areas, I took off the float and weights and flicked the piece of worm on a bare hook to the edge of the lily pads. This was the same place I had fished for the previous hour and had only taken 9 fish. I had about an hour and a half left to fish.
Within an hour and a half, I caught nearly 70 fish and exhausted my two dozen worms. The kids were surely happy to see me lugging the coolers into the classroom the next day and they learned a lot. I did too. Freelining worked so much better.
However, it is not usable in all situations. If you need your bait deep you are going to either wait a LONG time for it to sink or you will have to use weight.
Also, in places where there is a stout current, you will need to use weight. However, use the least amount of weight possible to get the bait down to the strike zone, not on the bottom unless your target fish is a bottom feeder.
I love to fish for bluefish and rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay. My favorite charter captain, Ryan Rogers of The Midnight Sun Charters, showed me that by pinching a few very small weights on the line during a rip-roaring tide, we can get the bait down just enough to get to the fish.
Many times I have seen people not wanting the weights on their line in a fast tide or current and they catch nothing. Pinching a piece or two on the line will still allow the bait to look natural drifting along. Tinker with the weight and just don’t go overboard.
You will soon see that freelining bait is the way to go if you want to catch more fish.