Light Bites Seven ways to turn the faintest nibble into a fish on the line

The most difficult fish to catch are the ones that bite so softly you sense the strike almost through ESP. Detecting light-biting walleyes, bass and panfish can be exasperating--especially when you're fishing with jigs, Texas-rigged soft-plastics or drop-shot rigs.

I was whiffing big-time when I fished Wrong Lake in the Manitoba wilderness with Ted Gartner, a public-relations specialist who missed his calling as a walleye pro. Wrong Lake teems with walleyes, but that day the bite was so light there was no telltale "tap" or movement of the line, just an almost imperceptible increase in rod tension.

Whitecaps and blustery weather made strike detection even more challenging. That didn't seem to bother Gartner, who happily reeled up four walleyes for every one I caught.

I stopped fishing long enough to study his technique. The only difference from mine was the way he held his spinning rod. Gartner's relaxed grip allowed the rod's handle to rest on the tip of his index finger. My white-knuckle grip, which got tighter every time Gartner hauled in another walleye, kept the handle firmly against my palm.

When I loosened up on the grip, though, I was treated to one of those rare moments of true enlightenment. Suddenly, I could feel the negligible increase in tension when a walleye mouthed my jig, and I began catching fish on par with Gartner. That day I discovered that a refined sense of "fishing feel" has more to do with technique than innate ability.

To help you catch more light-biters, OUTDOOR LIFE talked to three anglers who are experts at the task: Cincinnati bass pro Joe Thomas; walleye tournament champion Ted Takasaki of Brainerd, Minn.; and Steve McCadams, a revered Kentucky Lake crappie guide. Their insights will help you to hook keepers on those days when most anglers claim the fish just aren't biting.

1 BALANCE THE ROD

The rod and reel should balance near the point where you grip the handle. A tip-heavy rod undermines sensitivity.

Joe Thomas gains superior balance by holding his bait-casting rod above the reel and placing the rod's butt against his chest. This technique also helps him to focus his concentration.

"Anytime you adjust your watch or do something intricate, you tend to put your hands close to your chest," he says. "Likewise, you're more in tune with your bait when the rod is in front of your sternum."

Another way to improve rod balance is to attach weights to the handle's butt. You can balance any rod with The Balancer from Fishing Designs, which consists of counterbalance weights in a butt cap that slips over the end of a rod's handle. Bass Pro Shops sells The Balancer for about $10 and also markets a weight-balance kit for its XPS rods. Cabela's offers a weight-balancing system for its Fish Eagle XML rods.

2 TOUCHY-FEELY

Touching the line kicks up sensitivity another notch. When Joe Thomas fishes with bait-casting tackle and jigs or soft-plastic lures, he drapes the line over the index finger and under the thumb of the hand he places above the reel. The rod blank is supported by his other three fingers.

"I don't pinch the line," Thomas says. "That would dampen sensitivity. I just touch it lightly."

With spinning tackle, Ted Takasaki extends his forefinger and hooks the line just above the bail. It's essentially the same position as when he casts, except the bail is closed. He takes his finger off the line when reeling. Steve McCadams hooks the line above the bait when he fishes tiny (1/16- or 1/32-ounce) hair jigs straight down to relatively deep crappie haunts.

Hooking the line in such a fashion also helps the angler maintain contact with a lure as it falls. Since many strikes occur as a lure sinks, you'll be ready with a hair-trigger reaction.

3 STICK WITH SCENTS

Anything that can be done to make fish hold on to a lure longer dramatically increases your ability to sense light bites. Walleye fishermen usually tip their jigs with minnows, leeches or chunks of night crawlers. These days, most soft-plastic baits come imbued with some type of fish-attracting substance. There's also a wide choice of scents available in sprays and pastes. Using them can only help on those inevitable days when fish just aren't aggressive enough to deliver an arm-jarring strike.

Steve McCadams often tips his jigs with Berkley PowerBait Crappie Nibbles, especially when he fishes vertically. "The Nibble looks like a little marshmallow," he says. "It's not particularly durable, which means you have to replace it almost every time you catch a crappie, but I've seen days when I wouldn't have caught many fish without it."

4 GET A GRIP

For years, Ted Takasaki has utilized the relaxed spinning rod grip that Ted Gartner employed to good advantage during our trip to Wrong Lake. When Takasaki is feeling for light bites, he doesn't muscle up on the rod until he sets the hook.

"You want the rod resting more on your fingers than in the palm of your hand," Takasaki says. "Your fingertips are much more sensitive."

Bait-casting tackle, on the other hand, is not conducive to a relaxed fingertip grip. Many anglers cup bait-casting reels in their palms. As noted, Joe Thomas cradles the handle above the reel in his fingers and places the rod butt against his chest. This helps him to maintain a lighter touch and a more sensitive connection with the lure.

5 THE RIGHT ANGLE

Sensitivity is greatest when the fishing line extends from the rod tip at a 90-degree angle. Achieve 90 degrees when fishing vertically (straight down) by holding the rod parallel to the water. It's possible to stay close to 90 degrees when casting by retrieving bottom-bumping lures with the rod tip kept high. Thomas and McCadams move their baits along by raising the rod tip from about the 10 o'clock to the 11 o'clock position.

The drawback to a high rod tip is that several feet of line extend between the rod and the water. This poses no problem on calm days, but windy weather bags the line and severely diminishes sense of feel.

Casting directly with the wind, or even into it, reduces line-bagging and improves sensitivity. Takasaki gains even more sensitivity by lowering his rod tip close to the water so that less than 1 foot of line is exposed to the wind.

How does Takasaki maintain anything close to a 90-degree angle with a low rod tip? By pointing the rod away from the bait and pulling sideways. When he retrieves a lure in this manner, he sets the hook with a sideways sweep instead of an overhead hookset.

6 WATCH THE LINE

Despite the many low-stretch, high-sensitivity lines available these days, Steve McCadams sticks with 6-pound-test Berkley Trilene XL monofilament. Fluorocarbon and low-stretch monofilament lines are not as limp, memory-free and castable as standard mono lines.

Ted Takasaki is also a proponent of monofilament. He prefers the original clear-blue fluorescent Stren because of its enhanced visibility on overcast days and when used in dingy water. When he's fishing clear water under good light conditions, Takasaki prefers Stren Magnathin, a small-diameter monofilament that is not fluorescent.

Thomas prefers low-stretch Stren Fluorocarbon when he fishes deep, clear water and needs high sensitivity. He's more partial to fluorocarbon than Takasaki or McCadams because he fishes with bait-casting tackle as opposed to spinning rigs.

Braided and fused lines made from Spectra fibers have the least stretch of any line and deliver the highest sensitivity. But they have their drawbacks. The problem with superlines is that they are highly visible and result in fewer strikes in clear water. Reserve them for fishing in heavy weeds or dingy water.

7 BE SENSITIVE

Buy the most sensitive, high-modulus graphite rod you can afford. It's money well spent when you have to deal with light-biters.

"The most sensitive rods are in the medium-action range," Thomas says. "You don't want a wimpy rod, but you need flexibility in the tip to telegraph the strike."

All of our experts prefer 6 1/2- to 7-foot rods for light-bite applications. Joe Thomas swears by Lucky Craft bait-casting rods. Ted Takasaki prefers St Croix's 6-foot 8-inch Legend Elite medium spinning rod. Steve McCadams favors a 7-foot G. Loomis medium-light-action spinning rod.

"I like a rod that has a stiff butt with a fast-action tip," Takasaki observes. "When walleyes are on a really light bite, I 'see' many more strikes than I feel. I watch for movement in my line or a slight dip of the rod tip. Then I set the hook."