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"Pooching" Live Bait

Author: Frank Ross

One of the more popular pros on the walleye circuit is Tony Puccio, known affectionately as the "Pooch." He's always got something working, both on the water and off.

Tony Puccio with a nice walleye.
When it comes to catching big fish the "Pooch" can trade blows with the best anglers on the water, and back at the dock no one makes a better plate of spaghetti than the "Pooch". But that's another story.

Tony Comes At Fishing From Several Angles
His passion for catching fish led to a desire to improve upon the baits and fishing techniques "en vogue." As the president of Bait-Rigs®, he's personally designed many of his products such as the Odd Ball™ and Slow-Poke™ jigs. Those designs have come from countless days on the water either catching fish, or trying to figure out why not.

When it comes to fishing live bait, Puccio is no odd ball, he's on the ball. There are so many different ways to catch walleye that the hardest decision seems to be what technique to use under what conditions. On the subject of fishing live bait, there's no better source of information. In preparation for a trip, I called his office and caught Tony fresh off the road from a tournament at Montana's Ft. Peck Reservoir.

Tony, you're a hard-core live-bait fisherman, but you have also done very well in tournaments when crankbaits were the number one technique. How do you decide which approach to take?

"Well, first of all, water temperature and fronts trigger the bite or turn it off. And wind always plays a big part because of the mud, or break-line. When I pre-fish for a tournament, I always start out with live-bait rigs on the first day. If I don't catch much, I'll switch, but when the fishing is hot you'll always catch more and bigger fish on live bait," he said.

"To catch big fish, you only have to find a pod of fish that are active. I'll give you an example. Let's say you're trolling over a sunken island and you're catching fish at one end of it. What that tells you is that the fish are very active in that zone. You found them with crankbaits, but the best thing to do now is switch to live-bait rigs so that you can concentrate on that pod of active fish. It wastes so much time when you are trying to work a small area trolling because, with your lines out, it takes too much time to turn around and get back on that active pod.
More walleye have fallen for live bait than any other presentation.
"In June, July and August I usually fish a crawler harness with a 1-ounce in line sinker. I let out 50 feet of line, and when I feel them pick up the bait, I drop that line back and let it pay out through the sinker until they're committed," he said.

"Water clarity is a major factor, especially in the Missouri River system. That water is so clear. The other day at Ft. Peck you could easily see 10-feet down. It was very hot, around 100 every day, and there wasn't any wind except for one day. When you've got clear water and no wind to create a mud-line, the fish spook very easily," he said.

We finally had a storm blow through on Wednesday, and on that day the break-line was very active. We caught some nice fish, but there were a ton of 10- to 14-inch fish that were hitting. If you're out for recreational fishing that size fish can be a lot of fun, but we were looking for big fish.

"Fish eat all the time. Bigger fish are usually deep, and they just lay there. If they're not active you've got to put it in their face and trigger the bite. Sometimes it's live bait that triggers that strike and sometimes it's crankbaits. You've just got to try both to see what works. For me, I always start with live bait because when it works, it works better. It's also easier to let the bait work because you have to pull it slower."

Bottom Conditions Dictate Presentation
"When pulling leeches and crawlers I use a bottom bouncer more often, but the bottom conditions dictate the rig. With a smooth bottom I always use a slip sinker. With a lot of debris on the bottom, such as wood or rocks, I use bottom bouncers because it keeps me from getting hung up so much."

Another important point is the length of your rig. "When I'm in rocks or a heavy debris area I shorten the length of my leader from my three-way swivel to about 18 inches. In rivers, fish are not spooked by boat traffic. I lengthen it up to as much as 6- to 7-feet because of the currents and eddies. The big fish hide in those eddies behind logs or wing dams, and when I position my bottom bouncer just upstream, the longer leader allows the bait-rig to freelance up into those areas as the current works it," Puccio said.

"There are so many ways to present live bait. A jig is really just a simple live-bait rig. An effective way to fish with jigs is to pull them along like a bottom bouncer without jigging it up and down. I use the smallest size jig that I can, often as small as 1/8-ounce, with either a minnow or crawler. I let out about 60 feet of line and move very slowly, keeping the jig right on the bottom. That way you maintain direct contact with the bait," he said.

"In the spring with pre and post spawn fish, I use live-bait rigs all the time. In the late summer months, when fish are dispersed and you have to cover a lot of ground, I often switch crankbaits to find fish, and then zero in with a rig on a smaller spot," he said.

The same approach translates to any body of water. "When I fish my home lake, Mendota, I head for the rocks first. If I don't mark many fish, I start trolling deeper spots until I have caught at least two fish in one spot, then I go back and target those active fish with live-bait rigs."

"It doesn't matter what the body of water, you've got to find the active fish and trigger a strike. For me, live-bait rigs work the best once I've located that active pod of fish," he said.

"Now, when are you going to come by for dinner," he asked? Your spaghetti? It's only about 850 miles. I can leave in an hour!

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Author Frank Ross
Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.

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