March/April 2019 Issue
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This Month in In-Fisherman
Smallmouth Tricks: Pick Up Sticks
By Matt Straw
A steady breeze blew across the bay, raising a six-inch chop over a shallow flat. The little waves threw bands of mottled shadow and refracted light across the backs of spawning bass—smallmouths nesting in sand 3 to 6 feet deep.
The soft plop of a balsa-wood minnow melted into the hush of wind and water and it laid on the surface. The tiny waves turned it back-and-forth. It bobbed along, slowly following the direction of the breeze, tipping and nodding in the chop. Until it disappeared in a violent upheaval, clutched firmly in the jaws of a disturbed creature with a cloak of yellow and bronze.
It played out that way for hours. No need to twitch, swim, or move the bait at all. What disturbed all those bass, then? We could ruminate for a few pages about something that should look like nothing more than a floating stick with ear rings inspiring rage and fury, but from down below, my Rapala Original Floating Minnow spelled “threat” to animals defending their progeny—their future.
That was many years ago. I no longer disturb spawning bass protecting their progeny (our future). I don’t begrudge anyone the lawful pursuit of bass during the spawn, but the same success can result during other periods of the smallmouth calendar year. Wading Michigan’s Tahquamenon River one summer, waist deep, I heard a disturbance behind me. Maybe 12 feet away, bass were corralling minnows against the bank, right where I’d waded in. I flipped a little size-9 Original Floater just upstream and let the current carry it over them. Suddenly my eyes were filled with spray. Three 18-inchers were caught and released in minutes.
Retrieved or not, stickbaits can spell “threat” or “food,” depending on the mood of the fish, simply because the minnow shapes Lauri Rapala carved out of balsa over 80 years ago are realistic enough to inspire violence. When retrieved, the action is equally realistic. It was, perhaps, inevitable—Lauri or not. But few successful minnowbaits, whether floating, suspending, or sinking, have deviated far from that original design.
David Rose, guide and outdoor writer from northern lower Michigan, lives in an area surrounded by crystal clear water that spotlights the effectiveness of minnowbaits on top. “Floaters can be awesome during mayfly hatches,” he says. “I use Rapala Original Floaters or Storm Thundersticks like surface baits, or I reel as slow as I can so it’s like a wakebait. The old Slapstick from Norman floats nose up. The tail stays down. The effectiveness of that bait on or near the surface made me start wrapping Storm Suspen-Dots on the tail of balsa floaters. A lot of times there is no explosion. Smallmouths just slide up and suck it under. A tail-down bait is more likely to get bit when bass act like that. Smallmouths often hit when it’s rising back toward the surface like a real minnow, nose first. They’re sabotaging things that aren’t paying attention—minnows focused on mayflies, not danger.”
Density and construction have a lot to do with how fast floaters rise. Balsa lures like the Bagley Bang-O-Lure almost snap back to the surface. But plastic lures like the Original Rebel Minnow rise slower. Reef Runner minnow baits rise so slowly they almost qualify as a hybrid suspending bait. Rise rate can be a factor in triggering strikes. A slow riser could appear to be more distracted to a predator. And a bait that sticks around (forgive the pun) a little longer after cracking into a rock might catch bass coming from farther away to investigate. But when it comes to lifting off vegetation, balsa lures are more efficient, bringing fewer weeds back to the boat.
Trolling for walleyes with floating minnowbaits might be what pro angler Mark Martin is more famous for, but he learned where and when to target bass with them during his many years as a guide. “When bass are shallow, floaters are more efficient,” he says. “I can let an Original Floater rise off weeds, emerging pads, and snags or twitch it on top. In 10 feet of water or less, floaters can be the best choice at times. Smallmouths always seem to be on edges when I target them, and floaters work way better than Husky Jerks because they rise off snags on the shallow side of that break, so I can float it off snags, pads, and weeds in those postspawn spots I like.”
Balsa minnows are a throwback from another era, and too often overlooked today by jerkbait-wielding, bass-pro wannabes. But suspending jerkbaits tend to be better throw-backs.
Cast beyond a retreating bass. Pull a jerk down to its running depth. Twitch it in place. A suspender can wait as long as it takes for a smallmouth to pass back that way.
For bass, Martin uses suspending minnows more often—especially as a throw-back lure. “For a throw-back, I use the same lure in a different color,” he says. “If a smallmouth was interested enough to follow a lure, it will often strike the same lure in a different pattern. Once you identify the right size, everybody on the boat should be using a different color, so if a fish follows and turns you can point it out. Your partner might flip that fish. Switching colors can be important anyway. You can’t always see fish that follow. Along those edges smallmouths use in postspawn—drops, weeds, rockpiles—each one is like a new spot after first pass through with a different color. I use Berkley Cross-Lok Snaps for quick lure changes, not for added action. Key spots might be few, and only 50 yards long, and I want to go through those areas again and again with different patterns”
He especially likes to target bass during postspawn, “when they’re hungry and concentrated,” he says. “A #10 Rapala Husky Jerk is best for smallmouths most of the year. It emulates the favored forage size, cuts the wind, and dives to running depth quick. Smallmouths will be off the edge of the rocks and gravel where they spawned. I don’t burn it—I just cast and slowly work it back with a reel, pause, twitch—or a slow, steady crawl. Slow and steady seems to be the best method at that point, but you have to add a twitch here and there to trigger a strike. Usually the bite is a subtle tick, and if you don’t slam the hooks home hard you just missed a fish. And it often comes right after that twitch.”
Martin says he fishes the Original Floater with the same presentation. “The crawl is best accomplished with the rod tip pointing down. I like FireLine with a fluorocarbon leader or I spool with 6-pound Berkley Vanish for pitching. Less stretch provides better feel and better hook-sets. Fluorocarbon sinks a little bit more and keeps the lure down where you want it a little better. Smallmouths are sight feeders, a little more so than walleyes, so with these slow presentations I think fluorocarbon is important.”
First thing in spring, Rose clips on a suspending bait. “Right after ice-out, suspending baits do well in depths of 4 to 12 feet,” he says. “We throw a lot of 4- to 4.5-inch Smithwick Rogues and Husky Jerks, twitch, let it sit for a minute or so, and twitch it again. When the water’s that cold nothing’s moving fast. A lot of guys come up here from the South and their rods are always moving. That’s the opposite of what you want to do. Using 8-pound fluorocarbon mainline, the lure stays down where you want it. Give it twitch, keep the line taught, and give it another twitch.
Mike Kerempelis guides on the smallmouth mecca of Green Bay and won’t leave the dock during prespawn without a couple dozen Lucky Craft Pointers on board. “It’s the first lure I tie on in spring,” he says. “I use a long, medium-light spinning rod and 10-pound Berkley FireLine with a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader tied on. Suspending baits are best when the water is clear and cold, in the 40°F to 57°F range. The shallow runners that dive only 5 feet or so work well out to 12 feet and deeper, but we’re mostly targeting depths of 10 feet or less early.”
Most lures rest horizontally, but some with the tail up or down. During a hatch or whenever baitfish are feeding right on bottom, a bait resting head up or head down can be effective. “But in spring, horizontal is better,” Kerempelis says. “I think it’s a big thing. A nose-down lure seems to work best in summer, but the less going on with a lure in cold water, the better.”
Another thing that works better in summer is a deep diver, like the Yo-Zuri Hardcore Minnow. “I use 7-foot Fenwick medium-light spinning rods for shallow runners, but for deep divers I go with medium power,” Martin says. “I use Down Deep Husky Jerks when bass move out into areas 12 to 20 feet deep. I’ve had good luck on deep runners, but more luck with shallow runners overall. But Down Deep Husky Jerks and X-Rap Deeps chase bass down the breaks where they move deep in summer. If they stay on shallow rocks, work shallow runners faster and more erratically in warm water.”
I’ve fished suspending baits from the back of Kevin VanDam’s boat in summer and watched him snap the rod tip in every direction, never allowing the bait to stop or even slow down. Every snap begins with slack line. “The more erratic the better for smallmouths,” he says. “I use jerkbaits year-round and I work them hard. It’s hard to make a deep diver work erratically, so we designed one that could. You have to make it jump, and this one won’t roll over no matter how hard you snap it.” And why wouldn’t he like the lures he helped design that are named after him—the Strike King KVD Jerkbait, available in both shallow and deep versions.
Deep-diving jerks like the SPRO McRip 85, Lucky Craft Pointer XD, Smithwick Pro Rogue, and those already mentioned get down 8 to 10 feet, and often are effective in depths of 15 to 20 feet on the cast (trolling can take them deeper). Active smallmouths rise to them, especially when worked as erratically as possible.
When smallmouths stay shallow in summer, two needs stand out: 1) Identifying the most erratic baits possible, and 2) Identifying the size bass accept. When I want a small erratic bait I reach for the new Dynamic Lures J-Spec (3 inches), Pointer 78 (3.25 inches), or a Baker Lures JLD 3 (3.75 inches). If bass demand a larger one, I go with a Daiwa DB Minnow (4.75 inches), or the new #12 Rapala RipStop (4.75 inches), which was designed to fish as hard and fast as need be. Choosing one of these baits over the other, for me, always boils down to color. The color that appeals best to the fish in the lake I’m on is tied on first.
The effective size range for smallmouths, overall, is 3 to 5 inches. But here’s something that applies to suspending baits year-round: Anglers need to spend time identifying the size that works on the water they fish. Fishing the Sturgeon Bay Open for 10 years, I found it all but impossible to catch smallmouths with anything smaller than 4 inches. On the Great Lakes, where bass usually have the option of targeting bigger baitfish, small baits don’t work for me often—even in 40°F water. But on some inland lakes in the Midwest, smallmouths never hit baits 4 inches or larger, which probably speaks to the size and type of forage those lakes offer.
“Our water’s really clear,” Rose says. “We have smelt, shiners, and herring here in the Elk-Torch Chain and Grand Traverse Bay, making a 4-incher seem small, but it’s more effective than the larger baits. In water this clear, you need to cast farther. A 5-inch lure gives you that umph to get it out there another 30 feet with the right tackle (medium-power rods). I use suspending minnowbaits spring and fall especially, but I do use them in the summer, and fish them faster, especially when I want to cover water.”
You want erratic that works over cabbage beds? Try rip-snapping a floating Rapala Scatter Rap. Smallmouths swarming in open pockets among the massive weedbeds of Lake St. Clair seek and destroy that presentation when nothing else moves them. The Scatter Rap, with its wide, round, oversized bill, lives up to its name.
Hardbaits tend to fall into what I call the “high-profile” category—flashy, aggressive, noisy, and attraction-oriented. Low-profile baits, like most soft plastics, tend to succeed best in clear water. But minnowbaits, whether floating or suspending, can be a little of both. Flashy, but not so noisy. Erratic or slow and steady. Deep divers and frenetically-worked shallow divers can push a lot of water, but minnows worked slowly with extended pauses displace little water. The operator can choose. And that’s a double-edged sword. If you only work a minnow one way, what have you missed?