JOE KINNISON is on the hook for our latest interview, talking with SV’s Bob Shuman about getting started in bass fishing, enjoying the peace, beauty, and intellectual challenge of the sport, and sharing insights from the world’s top Bassmaster anglers: Christiana Bradley, Tyler Carriere, Destin Demarion, Pam Martin-Wells, and Brandon Palaniuk.
Joe Kinnison “sincerely promotes fishing for everyone.” His previous book is Oh’Fish-Al Innsbrook Fishing Guide, on fishing technique tailored to a lake resort community in Eastern Missouri. Joe is an officer in a St. Louis fishing club, and he has several bass tournament wins. He is also a member of the Missouri Writers Guild and the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association (SOEPA).
What did you hook your first fish with—and what are your first memories of fishing?
When I was in primary school, my parents bought a small farm. The farm was all of the way at the end of a miles long gravel road. A small neighborhood organization took up a collection to maintain the road, along with a well that served water to the community. The well was a short walk up the road from our site, and a roughly two acre, kidney-bean-shaped pond was just downhill from the well on common ground. The pond was difficult to approach. It was surrounded by weeds and generally not well kept. Still, we decided to try fishing in the pond one summer day. After trampling enough weeds to get to the water’s edge, we baited hooks with bobbers and worms and started casting. In what seemed like no time, we were reeling in bass, many of which were good size, at least to a kid. Nearly every cast produced a fish, and I remember getting worn out, more than feeling that we’d caught all we could.
What kind of bait do you use today?
I use artificial baits today, and I change baits depending on the forage of the lake and the season of the year. I have had some of my best fishing days, in terms of volume, fishing a lipless crankbait. A lipless crankbait is a fairly heavy lure which is shaped like a fish. The fishing line ties to about the center of the fish’s back which makes the lure wiggle as it moves. A lipless crankbait can be cast a long distance, and the lure is retrieved at a regular rate. I use the lure to cover flats, which are large, shallow sections of lakes. I have had some of my most prolific fishing days dragging a lipless crankbait up the deep edge of a flat and long distances over the submerged surface of the flat. When the fish bite this moving lure, they tend to bite hard. The long length of fishing line from the long cast gives the hooked fish room run, and surge, and jump.
How has your technique changed over the years—and what crucial insight did you have about it?
When I moved to St. Louis, I started getting together with a small group of anglers. We jokingly called ourselves the Bassin’ Assassins. About once a month, we would travel to a group of ponds on a friend’s farm. We were not a very experienced group, but the ponds were seldom fished. These bass would bite almost anything. I started by throwing an inline spinner, which is really more of a trout lure than a bass lure. The bass bit it anyway. Since the ponds were a forgiving environment for an up-and-coming angler, I started experimenting. What I learned is that I preferred to fish slow, rather than just rip baits along a path and try for a reaction strike. I liked making the bait appear natural and move like a real crayfish or a worm. I later learned that this style of mimicking prey is called finesse fishing. Finesse fishing is the method I most prefer. It is slower, it gives a good feel for the fish, and being able to tempt a fish with what it believes is actual food is rewarding.
Why do you think people give up on fishing—and is there a way to keep them going with the sport?
I have met many people who like catching, but don’t necessarily like fishing. I think most people get excited to have a fish on the line. They get to steer the fish, reel it in, control it, and grab its lip. Although that’s the excitement of the sport, catching does not always happen. Moreover, sometimes when it does happen, the fish do not fight, or they are too small to be challenging. During most fishing trips, there is a period of time when the fish are not biting. Those are the times when most people give up on fishing, finding it boring. Those that stick with the sport seem to be the anglers that start seeking solutions when the fishing is idle. They start changing lures, alternating retrieve cadences, or switching colors. They start to notice changes in water color or wind direction or sun angle. Those that begin to understand the natural elements that impact the catching. These are the ones that keep going with the sport. I think the best way to learn the types of things that matter to fishing success is to spend time on the water with someone who loves fishing, not catching.
You interviewed five professional anglers, affiliated with Bassmaster for this book—were there any commonalities to their experience and stories? Are most people who fish helpful to the newcomer?
Fishing is a welcoming community, especially to kids. In my experience, anglers are like golfers, in that they are happy to recount the elements that led up to their par, what club, what distance, what line, and so on. For anglers, it may be what reels and cranks, what location, or what technique. While some anglers protect their secrets, most are quite open in sharing their experiences. As for the professionals, the most common element of their stories is that they each had a mentor. Be it a grandfather, brother, or family friend, each angler had a generous fishing enthusiast take them under their arm and give them experiences on the water. Although fishing is the second most popular outdoor sport, fishing can seem to be a small and not mainstream community. Really, it’s not. You just need to find a friend.
What does a fisherperson do during the off-season?
The off-season for professional fishing may not be what you think, the off-season is actually in the fall. Professional tours start as early as February, and the season ends in July. While that is the professional ranks, I make the point in my book that I am far from a professional caliber angler. For me, the off season is what you might expect, winter. I live in the Midwest, and I am not a big fan of cold. Some of my peers travel to Arkansas each year to fish for trout in the Ozark mountain streams. Personally, I like the heartiness and the fight of bass, so I stick with that type of fishing. I give my boat a good cleaning about Thanksgiving time, and I park it until the Easter season. I spend the winter reading and writing.
Please discuss the issue of releasing fish after they are caught. Why would or wouldn’t you do this—is it ever required?
Choosing to either keep or release a bass is a thorny issue, and there are passionate opinions on both sides. Large and smallmouth bass are not good eating fish. They are edible, but they would not be a first choice among diners. As such, keeping these fish for food is not the norm. For most of my fishing tenure, catch-and-release has been the preferred method. Recently, however, lake management views have been changing. Bass tend to be the apex predators in most lakes. With few adversaries, the fish tend to overpopulate. When a bass population gets too large, sufficient food is not present to support all of those fish. The fish tend to grow to approximately the same size and compete for what nourishment is available. These fish tend to thin. The industry calls such fish stunted. The bulk of the fish population of a lake can be unhealthy, starving. Some of the new thinking is that small bass should be removed from lakes and rivers to try to prevent the stunting problem. With small bass being particularly hard to prepare as food, the question becomes what to do with them. Dead fish are better used for garden fertilizer or even left on the bank to feed birds and raccoons. Some animal rights people believe that culling small fish is inhumane. Other animal rights people believe that starving a population of fish is inhumane. There are good arguments on both sides. I am a believer that catch-and-keep is the best policy.
What is fish body language and how does knowing about it help when fishing?
Even experienced anglers generally do not know that largemouth bass can change color. The fish have the ability to express the green and black pigments in their skin, or they can mask those pigments. It would not be unusual to catch really green-looking bass on one trip, and then catch really white-looking bass on another trip on the same lake. Coloration depends on how deep the bass are swimming and how much vegetation is in the water. Bass express their pigments when they are in the weeds. The green shades make them harder to find. The suppress their pigments when they are in deep or open water. More whiteness makes them harder to see by other fish looking from the bottom toward the surface. The pigment provides information to the angler. If you reel in a white-ish bass, it does not mean the animal is unhealthy. Instead, it means the animal came from a deep, suspended position to bite the lure. In that way, the coloration of the bass tells you at what depth the fish are feeding. This is valuable information for the angler.
How would this book have been written if you worked on it ten years ago—what has changed in the field?
I do not think this book could have been written a decade ago. Like many pursuits, fishing has undergone tremendous technological change in the last ten years. In that period of time, the industry has developed high resolution sonar equipment, invisible fishing lines, and previously unheard of lure presentations like umbrella rigs. Due to the improvements in the technology, most anglers have been focused on trying new gear. The new gear has been effective in improving catch rates, especially for offshore fish. As the technology has been assimilated, in my experience, questions remained unanswered. For example, if we both have all of the greatest gear, what makes an angler on the Bassmaster Elite tour different from me? In looking for that explanation, it became clear to me that soft skills separate anglers who already possess the latest technology. It really comes back to the human elements to determine success. Mentorship is a factor. It is also sensory skills, creativity, and organization that make the true difference.
What do you discuss in the book that isn’t typically covered in fishing books?
This may sound mundane, but one of the things that I discuss is how to get on the water. Some of the nation’s best fishing lakes are overwhelmingly large. It can be a difficult problem just to get started, and no one tells you that perspective. I point readers to where to launch their boat, where to get a guide, where to stay overnight, and where to grab dinner. Such practical things are often omitted in fishing books. Beyond the practical, few other fishing books will inform readers about things like sensory training and improvisation techniques.
How long does it take, on average, for someone to feel confident in fishing?
Getting confident in fishing can take a while. I cannot really identify a precise timetable, but I would say about five years will not be far off. As with any sport, some people have a natural gift for fishing. They may be particularly aware of nature or unusually observant. These folks usually start fast. For the fast starters as for the rest of us, eventually the angler will have an outing where they catch nothing. A reliable bait does not work or no fish reside in a confident “honey hole.” At these times, whatever confidence the beginning angler has fails. What restores confidence is going back out on the water and trying different lures, different techniques, and different locations until one finds and catches the fish. Having to adapt to different conditions and different quirks is what ultimately makes a successful angler. One would have to have experienced several shut-out situations before becoming assured that success could be achieved under most fishing conditions. Personally, going onto a lake knowing that I can effectively fish crankbaits, or spinnerbaits, or soft plastics, or swimbaits is what ultimately gave me confidence. That and being able to consistently out-fish my brother-in-law.
Do you honestly believe that both sensory training and improv training really make a difference to an angler?
Both of these disciplines sound “new agey,” and “fluffy,” as in not tangible. I refer people to a scientific study of a baseball team that employed sensory techniques. The results were measurable. In the book, I tried to translate some of the sensory training ideas to outdoors pursuits. I have tried these sensory exercises, and I believe that they have helped my fishing. My most memorable response to suggestions for sensory training was an angry one. A very experienced angler chastised me for trying to teach people what for him was just being “in the zone.” I guess he had some natural abilities, and he was upset that I was teaching people how to make the best of their lesser gifts. Improv is also a tentative conversation for most anglers. People seem to think that I’m trying to get them to try out for Second City Comedy or something of that ilk. No, I’m trying to provide permission and instill a process for experimentation. Sometimes just knowing it’s okay to cast a jig with a purple streamer or a crankbait with a worm weight ahead of it on the line is acceptable as long as it is purposeful.
You really make the sport sound approachable and fun. How were you able to do that?
Two teachers in particular had an influence on my life. A high school English teacher was a fiend for economy of language. Second, a college professor once lowered a grade on a paper saying that I turned in ten pages because I did not have time to write eight pages. He wanted editing and economy. I brought those sentiments into my professional life, and I became a big advocate for clarity and simplicity. I believe that writing in that fashion makes most topics approachable.
Fishing can get really complex, and the industry is heavy on jargon. I have heard professional anglers take more than a full minute just to tell you the details of their rod, reel, line, and lure combination. I do not think it needs to be that complicated. One of the things that I really liked about the anglers that I worked with is that they too kept it simple. For example, one only used two lure colors, among the hundreds of choices. If the pros can reduce the options to two, so can weekend anglers.
Finally, fishing is fun. Something about the man versus beast situation is primal. Fishing is a rite of passage. Getting proficient at fishing is really just calling upon skills you use in other areas of your life and channeling them productively into this particular pursuit. Most people have the life skills that enable at least some measure of success at fishing. I am hoping to draw these out of people so that they enjoy the peace, beauty, majesty, and intellectual challenge of the sport as I do.
Thanks so much, Joe, for talking with Stage Voices.
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Photo permissions (from top): Skyhorse; Joe Kinnison; Tyler Carriere
(c) 2021 by Joe Kinnison (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.