I’m having one of those rare mornings when the cynic within me is speechless. The pad of my right thumb looks like I’ve been scrubbing it with 80-grit sandpaper, and my left one is getting there. My neck feels like the skin of an overripe tomato. I couldn’t care less. It’s minor penance for smallmouth fishing like this.
For the past couple hours, Northland Fishing Tackle pro-staffer Travis Peterson and I have been a long cast out from a rock-studded inlet on Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Lake. Midwestern modesty is giving us a little guilt trip for it, but we feel like smallmouth gods.
We’ve boated close to 100 brown bass—most in the 3-pound range—and every fish we fight is shadowed by two or three clones that try to steal the bait or gorge on the clouds of crayfish parts puked up by the hooked bass. The top of each fish’s head is raw from rooting in the rocks, and their bellies are packed with so many crayfish that they feel like bags full of marbles.
I fire a smoke-colored curlytail jig onto an adjacent rocky shelf and begin swimming it back to the boat. The bait careens off a fridge-size boulder and a split-second later I rear back into one of those fish that make you secretly panic a little on the hookset—like you’ve thrown a hard right across the teeth of guy who you’ve just learned likes to fight a lot more than you and is better at it.
My drag hums. The brute narrows the spool like it’s on a lathe and I see the line stretch out across the surface. This dude is going to jump.
I stick my rodtip into the water—part of me prays I can keep the fish down; another part dares him to do it anyway.
He does, looking almost lazy as he catches two feet of air—this fish is just too damn big to match the mid-air acrobatics smaller bronzebacks pull off.
The hook somehow holds and an anxious few minutes later, I’m shaking as I lip a smallmouth that goes almost 22 inches, my biggest to date.
Almost a year has passed since that day, but a photo of that brute bass still sits on my bookshelf. Whenever I glance at it, I’m reminded of the awesome power softbaits like the ones we were fishing wield over brown bass.
It’s not surprising—you can fish these diverse lures in virtually any way, at any speed and at any level of the water column, plus you can modify them in an almost infinite number of ways. Of course, manufacturers are making such modifications less necessary these days by offering an ever-expanding array of curlytail grubs, worms, swimbaits, jerkbaits, tubes and baits that simply defy categorization. Best of all, they lend themselves to some of the hottest new presentations for monster bronzebacks.
The Smell Of Success
One of the biggest ways changes in softbaits have benefited smallmouth anglers is on the taste/smell front. The brown bass’ innate curiosity and predatory tactics, make for a perfect combination with new nontraditional, intensely scented softbaits like those from Gulp! and FoodSource Lures.
Bass pro Mark Zona has seen this firsthand on his home waters of Michigan and Lake Erie.
“It used to be that if you went to Erie, you’d knock their heads off with a tube,” he says. “It was the fastball of my smallmouth arsenal. I didn’t believe in scents or anything like that.”
But that changed as Erie and its smallmouth fishery transformed. Nonnative zebra mussels cleared the water and fishing pressure soared. Meanwhile, the lake’s brown bass continued to get bigger, older and harder to catch.
“The fish are conditioned now. I was recently fishing a tournament, fishing deep water with tubes and drop-shots, and not getting bit,” he says. “Then I put on a Gulp! Punch Craw and dropped it down. Boom—5 pounder!”
But the experience was no fluke. Ask Zona, and he’ll tell you it underscores the importance of scent and flavor when fishing today’s “new” smallmouths.
“Since that day, I have seen the same thing happen dozens of times on all kinds of pressured waters, and it’s changed the way I think about smallmouths. I used to think that if they didn’t hit a tube, they just weren’t eating. Now I know that’s not true.”
Eric Naig has also had a unique perspective on using these baits. Not only is he a bass fanatic who chases bronzebacks across the Midwest, but his position as senior marketing manager of Berkley affords him an insider’s view of softbait technology, plus interaction with bass pros across the continent. The combination has given him special insight on how to fish the new breed of scented softbaits.
“I’ve learned that the key to fishing Gulp! is to fish as slow as humanly possible,” he says. “If you’re doing it right, it’s excruciating, but if there are fish nearby and you keep the bait in front of them, you’re going to get bit.”
That said, you’re selling new scented softbaits short if you’ve only used them in fast-moving horizontal presentations, which largely trigger fish through sight and vibration. To work to their potential, these lures must be fished slowly and vertically, where their scent can close the deal.
Swimming jigs have exploded as one of the best new baits for largemouths (see Editor Kurt Beckstrom’s “Sideways Thinking” in the April 2007 issue). But smallmouths are also suckers for them.
Peterson and I already know this—it was tattooed in our brains during our phenomenal morning on Mille Lacs last summer. Most of the 100-some bass we boated that day hit our 3-inch Slurpies Swim’n Grubs, but we weren’t hopping the baits, or scooting them across the gravel. Instead, we were swimming them straight back to the boat, reeling nearly as fast as our tackle would allow. Peterson wasn’t surprised.
“I’ve been doing that a lot lately, and it catches smallmouths like crazy,” he says. “It’s a fast retrieve—no different than fishing a spinnerbait. Unless you’re fishing deep structure, where you’re counting the bait down to the fish, you’re fishing fast enough to keep the jig only a foot or two under the surface.”
Curlytail jigs have, of course, been a smallmouth hunter’s weapon of choice for decades. But Peterson says many anglers miss out by over-working these baits.
“Smallies just seem mesmerized by the swimming action of a curlytail plastic,” he says. “You need to remind yourself to let the bait do the work and just fish it like a spinnerbait.”
Peterson leans on low visibility superline like 10-pound FireLine Crystal on a large-spool spinning setup for swimming jigs.
“The large spool lets me cast farther and cover more water, which is the whole point,” he says. “I usually get bit at the end of my cast, so I need the no-stretch line to make good hooksets.”
Swimbaits are another lure class making the jump from largemouth to smallmouth fans. It’s par for the course—the baits have had a rather staggered expansion ever since the day someone put a swimming tail on a minnow-shaped soft jerkbait and molded it around a jig head.
First, they were foot-long monstrosities relegated to Southern California fisheries. But when lure designers finally caught on that largemouths everywhere else eat something other than hatchery rainbow trout, they created smaller versions that matched native baitfish, and swimbaits took hold with bass fans from Los Angeles to Long Island. Smallmouth anglers represent the next step.
“Swimbaits are great for smallmouths because you can fish them like a rattlebait, but they’re soft and realistic—‘finesse power baits,’” Peterson says. “Plus, you lose far fewer bass because you hook them better with that single hook than with trebles.”
As swimbaits continue to expand, more colors are offered that appeal to brown bass, in sizes to match.
“Smallmouths like gaudier colors, and at Berkley we’re coming out with more patterns to meet this need,” Naig says. “Matching the forage size is also huge, no matter what kind of softbait you’re using,” Naig says. “We’ve all seen a 10-inch largemouth hit a 10-inch worm. Smallmouths don’t typically do that, though. On my home waters of Spirit Lake, Iowa, I usually downsize to 3-inch lures.”
Smallmouth swimbait tactics are evolving along the same lines as those of swimming jigs, with most pros using them as high-speed search baits.
“I throw them on a 7-foot crankbait-style rod and burn them back to the boat the same way I’d fish a lipless rattlebait or crank,” Peterson says.
The ‘New’ Worm
Small softbait worms are, and have always been, smallmouth killers, but they’ve gotten even hotter with the shaky head phenomenon.
Case in point: The day Peterson and I fished together on Mille Lacs. Most of the time, fish were fighting each other to get at the curlytail grubs we were swimming back to the boat. But there were several periods when those fish seemed to vanish and the jig bite died.
It would have been easy to assume we’d caught or spooked all the bass in the area, but instead we rigged up 4-inch Slurpies Jig Worms and cast them into the same area.
Boom. Big fish that had been there all along hammered the subtle presentation.
“It’s funny, because a lot of anglers, especially in the North, have been fishing jig worms for decades,” Peterson says. But the fish are more pressured now than ever before, and pros are finding that going back to these simple little worms really works.”
Although swimming or hopping the worms will trigger some strikes, the baits perform best when you let the leadhead rest on bottom, then twitch your rodtip on semi-slack line. This rocks the head in place and quivers the tail off bottom.
Powerfully scented softbaits like Berkley’s Gulp! Shaky Worm are tailor made for this. Rig them weedless on a ball or mushroom head jig when fishing wood or heavy cover. Keep the point exposed in light cover or open water—getting hung up occasionally actually helps trigger strikes when the bait pops out of weeds or rocks.
“Smallmouths are a different kind of predator than largemouths,” Naig says. “Largemouths are all about ambushing prey, but smallies are curious little buggers, and they roam around a lot. If you throw something in front of them and they can smell it, they’re going to come and check it out.”
Turn On The Tube
The softbait universe keeps expanding, but tubes still rule as killer smallmouth baits. Savvy bassmen are learning to throw curves with the standard bait to trigger fish that have been giving it a cold shoulder in pressured fisheries.
“All that stuff we’ve read about getting a spiral fall while fishing tubes is such B.S.,” Zona says. “Smallmouths don’t eat tubes because they spiral on the drop—they eat them because tubes look like everything bass have ever eaten since being born.”
That said, for a tube to get attention, it has to stand out from the crowd.
“As pressured as it is now, you need to think of how you fished tubes as a kid—then do the complete opposite.”
That’s what Zona had to do recently when the traditionally hot tube bite went cold. “Fish weren’t hitting the usual 3/16-and 1/4-ounce tubes, so I started using a 5/8-ounce jig head. Just like that, I was catching them—at will.”
It’s the fall rate. Zona says the rapid descent is vital for triggering fish that have seen nothing but slowly spiraling tubes. “If you can, add even more weight to your tube to make it fall faster,” he says.
According to Zona, the only downside to using the obese jigs is that you run the risk of losing a lot of fish, especially if you’ve never fished like this. “That’s a honking piece of lead, and you have to hit fish hard to bury the hook,” he says.
As a result, anglers often bring up fish when they’re green, giving them plenty of juice to start jumping. And that’s when all too many bass come unbuttoned. Fight smart, however, and you’ll put more of these bass in the box.
According to Naig, tubes are also falling into the swimming jig craze.
“Pros are swimming tubes more and more,” he says. “It’s not a pop or a yo-yo retrieve—you’re actually just swimming it back to the boat, and it’s working.”
Zona also fishes fast when throwing soft jerkbaits. Rather than retrieving them in a slow series of jerks a few feet below the surface, he burns them back, often at the surface—almost as if he’s walking a Spook.
“Throw that thing as far as you can, then smoke it back to the boat,” he says. “I mean move it.”
The faster you fish it, the more and bigger fish you’ll trigger. The calmer the conditions, the better.
The best part about the presentation, Zona says, is the hookup ratio. Unlike hard topwaters, the fast moving softbaits hook most fish that bite.
“Hits sound like an 8-year-old jumping off a dock,” he says. “It’s easy to pull a hardbait away from strikes like that, but if 10 smallmouths hit a soft jerkbait, you’ll land nine.”
Because of their construction, the sky is the limit of smallmouth softbait design. Leech baits, for example, like Berkley’s all-new 5-inch Gulp! Jumbo Leech and FoodSource Lures’ 3-inch Leech are great new weapons, and their scent/flavor formulations lend themselves perfectly to the smallmouth’s predatory tactics. Fish them just as you would live leeches—under a float, on a jig, or in a slip-sinker or drop-shot rig.
Presentations like those continue to evolve along with the baits. Evolve with them and you’ll catch more and bigger bronzebacks.