By Keith Sutton

Some lessons aren’t easily forgotten. This is one.

A friend and I were fishing for largemouth bass on a small lake - fishing as opposed to catching. After four hours, having tried nearly every bass lure in our tackle boxes, we hadn’t caught a fish. 

Soon we came upon several anglers in johnboats fishing the edge of a big willow thicket. They were using long jigging poles to maneuver tiny jigs into pockets of water in the brush.

“Looks like they’re catching some crappie,” my friend Lewis said. “You wouldn’t mind doing some panfishing, would you?”

He needn’t have asked. I already was rigging a 1/64-ounce Lindy Little Nipper jig on a long pole and was looking for an opening we could fish.

When crappie are in willows, you have to move in with them to do any good. So we grabbed limbs, ducked our heads and pulled the boat into the jungle. I jockeyed the long pole through the thicket and let the jig fall by a half-submerged log.

With the bad luck we’d been having, I didn’t expect to catch anything, but I immediately felt a hard strike.

This ol’ crappie ought to turn some heads back at the dock, I thought. But it wasn’t a crappie. It was a 3-pound largemouth.

Lew caught the next fish, a crappie. The bass was just a fluke, we figured. But the next fish and the next and the next, too, were bass. In fact, more than half the fish we caught were largemouths. We landed none larger than the first, but we hooked and lost some lunkers.

Since that day, I’ve caught lots of largemouths and spotted bass while using mini-baits such as panfish jigs. Experience has shown there are times when jigging poles, light rods and reels, light line and mini-lures are more than just panfishing play-toys. Sometimes they’re also the best medicine for cagey bass.

Unfortunately, fishing with light tackle and mini-lures also imposes a greater risk of losing a big fish, especially in heavy cover. But you can argue - and I will - that without light tackle, you might not have hooked that lunker to begin with. Furthermore, your chance of landing a big bass on a small lure might be better than you think.

One spring afternoon, I finished work early in the park where I worked. Local anglers were catching some nice crappie on the park’s small fishing lake, so I grabbed an ultralight spinning outfit and hopped in a boat.

Crappie were biting all right. I quickly caught several slabs using a 1/8-ounce BOOYAH Micro Pond Magic, a small spinner. A swirl near the bank caught my eye, and I fired a cast that way. The lure barely moved when there came a jarring strike. I knew I had hooked a good fish—a bass, maybe, or a nice catfish—and because the fish was obviously strong enough to break the 6-pound line I was using, I played it on a light drag. The fish made several exciting runs, but I finally landed the 8-pound, 15-ounce largemouth. It’s the biggest bass I’ve caught in Arkansas, and I caught it on panfishing tackle.

Mini-baits and light tackle are legitimate tools for serious bass anglers. Bassing with such gear is pure fun, too. Nothing you can use will outfish small lures for sheer numbers of bass or eclipse the sheer joy of catching largemouths.

My favorite small lures for bass are the little crankbaits in Rebel Lures’ line. These include the 1-3/4-inch Rebel Humpback, the 1-1/2-inch Teeny Wee-Crawfish, the 1-1/2-inch Teeny Wee Frog, and a variety of mini bug-imitators such as the Bumble Bug, Crickhopper and Hellgrammite. A back-pocket-size tacklebox is big enough to hold all these in a variety of colors, and because this collection allows fishing from the surface to the bottom, it’s hard to beat.

If you give some of these mini-lures a try and hook a big bass as a result, there’s no need to kiss your fish goodbye. Keep your cool, don’t rush, and apply steady pressure against a properly adjusted drag. You’ll be surprised how quickly bass yield to light gear.

Yes, some big fish you hook will break off or twist free. But you’ll catch a surprising number of them, and you’ll understand what fishing mini-lures is all about - putting fish on the dry side of a boat when nothing else will produce.

Beware, though. After you’ve tried fishing with mini-lures, you may find yourself coming back to them again and again. Catching bass on light tackle compounds the thrills, challenges your angling abilities and is unadulterated fun. It is, in a word, addictive.