Noted professional anglers like Gerald Swindle often cope with the same challenge that many weekend fishermen face—largemouth bass that have grown lure-shy due to heavy fishing pressure. Savvy fishermen often rely on finesse tactics and small baits to coax bites from temperamental fish and are typically satisfied with catching average-size bass.
If a tournament angler wants to remain in the game with other world-class fishermen, however, he’s got to catch quality bass on finesse gear.
Swindle takes on the challenge by resorting to what he calls, “hunting bears with a BB gun.”
Essentially, this means fishing cover with light line and small lures, and doing everything possible to extract heavy fish without breaking them off. Swindle’s favorite “BB gun” is a modified drop-shot rig.
Drop Shot Bullet
As with his standard drop-shot setup, Swindle ties a 1/0 TroKar Drop Shot hook to 8-pound fluorocarbon. He uses a Palomar knot and leaves a long tag end which is run down through the hook’s eye to make the point stand up.
It’s with the sinker that Swindle deviates from the typical rig. He shuns drop-shot weights that have a quick-attach eyelet that eliminates the need for a knot and allows a snagged sinker to slide off before the line breaks.
A quick-attach sinker is convenient when drop-shotting, say, a gravel bottom in open water. But, when you’re pitching into limbs, brush and other cover, the rig breaks off too easily and wastes time.
Instead, Swindle uses a ¼-ounce Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp Tungsten Worm Weight. He threads the tag end of the hook’s knot through the weight so the sinker’s narrow nose points up. Then he threads on an 8mm glass bead and ties off to a large barrel swivel with the bottom loop cut off.
The drop line from the hook to the sinker measures 6 to 8 inches. The bullet sinker slides easily through cover, while the bead rattles against the sinker to attract bass. The swivel simply holds the sinker in place. Swindle usually Texas-rigs a 43/4-inch Zoom Finesse Worm to avoid snagging.
“Everybody knows a drop-shot rig is good for catching small fish, but if you put it in heavy cover where the big ones live, it’ll catch them, too,” Swindle says. Windfalls and brush piles, both in shallow and deep water, are prime targets when he hunts bears with his drop-shot BB gun.
When fishing bigger baits, heavier line and a stout baitcasting outfit, Swindle might go right for the heart of a piece of cover. But when using light spinning gear, he picks at the edges first. If he can draw the bass out to the bait, his odds of landing them on light line are excellent.
After the sinker touches bottom, Swindle reels it up a few inches and shakes the rodtip very gently to rattle the weight against the glass bead. It’s not a lift-drop action; the worm essentially dances in place, tempting the fish to attack.
Should the bass refuse to come out and play, Swindle gradually works his way deeper into the cover, fishing slowly and methodically.
When a bass nabs the worm in a tangle of limbs, he sweeps the rod up and applies all the pressure the line can withstand. If the stars are aligned right, the fish shoots to the surface and jumps into open water.
More often than not, the bass plows into the cover, or scoots out of it while the line is wrapped around limbs. Landing a bass in this situation is a daunting task, but it can be done.
In a recent tournament, he hooked a 4½-pound largemouth in the middle of a submerged brush pile on a drop-shot rig. The fish immediately wrapped around a limb and started a see-saw battle that lasted several minutes.
It would swim off one limb only to wrap around another. Swindle applied steady pressure, but restrained the urge to bear down too hard. The fish eventually swam free of the cover where Swindle could get his hands on it. That one bass moved him up several spots to claim third place.
Another BB gun that Swindle keeps handy is Zoom’s 4-inch Super Fluke Jr. which he rigs Tex-posed on a 3/0 TroKar Extra Wide Gap Hook. He skips and casts this lure under boat docks and into “gnarly cover” with spinning tackle and 10-pound line. It produces especially well for him in the fall when bass feed on schools of baitfish.
The 3-inch, boot-tailed Tiny Tim Baby Swimbait from Tabu Tackle is a deadly BB gun for Pennsylvania bass pro Dave Lefebre. He rigs it with an exposed hook on a 1/8- or 3/16-ounce Gamakatsu ball head jig.
“I like a ball head because the Tiny Tim Baby runs straighter on it than with other jigs,” he says. “I don’t want the bait to wobble or dart. That subtle wagging tail is what does the job.”
Pinpoint casting is critical with the exposed hook rigging. Lefebre skips the undersized swimbait under docks and overhanging limbs, and he swims it tight to stumps, logs, brush, along break walls, and over shallow grass.
“I just reel it slowly near the surface, and the bass come out and boil all over it,” he says.
Ideal conditions for this tactic are clear, calm water. The pro does especially well in the summer and early fall when bass key on small, young-of-the-year baitfish. Confetti Shad and Golden Shiner are his go-to colors. Lefebre favors a light spinning outfit and 6-pound fluorocarbon line when fishing this lure.
Another big-bass BB gun that Lefebre has scored with for 25 years is a homemade 1/8-ounce Arkie-style jig molded on a 3/0 Owner hook. The short, sparse, living-rubber skirt consists of only 12 strands. He dresses the hook with a 3-inch green pumpkin or watermelon double-tail grub.
“It’s basically a miniature flippin’ jig,” he says. “I fish it in heavy cover with a flippin’ rod and lines as heavy as 20-pound test.”
Lefebre flips the tiny jig into the same woody bass lairs that other anglers probe with bigger and heavier baits. He also fishes grass with the homemade jig, but he must drop it into holes because it isn’t heavy enough to push through thick or matted vegetation.
During one particular tournament, Lefebre flipped heavy jigs into a milfoil bed for three days and qualified to be among the top 10 fishing the finals.
“I was catching fewer bass every day, so I downsized to my homemade jig on the last day,” he says. “I brought in a five-bass limit that weighed over 20 pounds. It was the heaviest limit of the tournament.”
Lefebre’s biggest bass on his homemade BB gun jig is a largemouth that weighed 6½ pounds.
Shake It Up
A shaky head rig has become the default finesse bait for bass anglers everywhere. Even the most finicky bass have a hard time resisting it.
The basic shaky head is a 1/8- to ¼-ounce ball head rigged weedless with a 4- to 6-inch straight-tail worm. Alabama bass pro Timmy Horton opts for Yum’s 4-inch worm in green pumpkin or watermelon with red flake.
“Certain lakes, like Logan Martin, get lots of fishing pressure,” he says. “If you’re not throwing a shaky head or some other small finesse bait, you’re not going to catch them.”
Horton notes that bass get pounded in the spring with larger lures, which is why finesse baits like the shaky head dominate during the summertime. Little baits are less intimidating and look more realistic.
A 6½-foot Duckett medium-action spinning rod matched with a size 30 Lew’s reel allows Horton to skip a shaky head far under boat docks and cast it accurately to brush piles or other cover. He fills the reel with a limp, manageable, 15-pound superbraid to which he ties a 5-foot leader of 10-pound fluorocarbon.
“You have to pay more attention to your presentation with light line,” he says. “You can’t cast right into the middle of bushes. You have to pick around the edges.”
After making a cast, it’s critical that you allow the bait to fall on a slack line so it sinks straight down, Horton stresses. Even slight line pressure will pull the lure away from the cover as it drops. Slack line prevents you from feeling strikes on the initial fall, but you will see the line jump and start moving off when a bass inhales the worm.
When the shaky head reaches bottom, let it soak longer than you normally would with a bigger lure. Shake the line with plenty of slack in it. This makes the bait quiver without moving ahead.
“You have to tease pressured bass into biting.” Horton explains.
The tactic has worked on countless largemouth and spotted bass in southern reservoirs, and when fishing natural lakes such as Wissota in Wisconsin and Oneida in New York, he often plucks smallmouths from boat docks in three to five feet of water.
The shaky head also gets its turn when Horton fishes offshore river ledges in the summertime. He usually works over a school of bass holding on a ledge, first with a deep-diving crankbait and a heavy football jig. When the fish stop biting those lures, he follows up with the shaky head and nabs bass that shunned the bigger baits.
Charlie Hartley of Grove City, Ohio, fished many local tournaments on the Ohio River before he became a touring pro. The Ohio is a notoriously stingy fishery, and any bass that weighs over 3 pounds is considered a heavyweight.
Early on, one of his bread-and-butter lures was a 4-inch ringworm pegged to an1/8-ounce bullet sinker. He flipped the little worm on 15-pound line into windfalls and snags, on flats and into holes in any aquatic vegetation he could find.
Several companies have made ringworms over the years, but many have dropped them from their line. Fortunately for Hartley and other bass anglers, bait makers like Luck “E” Strike (his favorite), Berkley and Northland Tackle still offer them.
When Hartley started competing in professional bass tournaments across the country, he soon found that the little ringworm appealed to quality bass as well as the small ones he was accustomed to catching on the Ohio River.
One of his first professional events was held on the Potomac River where he pitched a 4-inch ringworm into openings in milfoil beds and bagged a heavy limit of bass that included a 5-pound largemouth.
“It takes patience to dead-stick that little worm after flipping it into cover,” he advises. “But it’s worth it. Big, pressured bass look at a bait for a long time before hitting it.”
Line heavier than 15-pound fluorocarbon inhibits the little worm’s action. Hartley claims that many of today’s flippin’ rods are so fast and stiff that you can inadvertently snap 15-pound line when you set the hook.
“I have some old Fenwick HMG flippin’ rods that have a parabolic action and a softer tip,” he says. “They don’t break 15-pound line when I hammer a bass with them.”
Hunting big bass with gear that seems more appropriate for crappies takes some getting used to for anglers who have relied on heavier tackle. However, given the pressure on today’s bass, downsizing is often the only way to trigger a limit worth of bites some days. That’s reason enough to start bear hunting with the proverbial BB gun!