Lure speed can make or break a day of bass fishing. Skilled anglers know this and regularly vary their retrieve speeds when casting cranks, mix twitches, pops and pauses with topwaters, and alter the lift/drop cadence with spoons and other vertical lures.
However, only the savviest bass fishermen alter their lures’ sink rates—the speed at which they fall through the water.
Sink rate is one of the most critical factors in triggering strikes, especially with jigs and Texas-rigged soft plastics. Get it right and bass hit the bait on its initial fall. Get it wrong and, well, you know what happens.
Solving The Fall Formula
Finding the perfect sink rate, the one that turns fish into biters, means factoring in water temperature and clarity, as well as the bass’ mood. Missouri’s renowned pro bass fisherman Denny Brauer has a knack for cracking this difficult code, which he follows to the letter when using his bread-and-butter techniques: flippin’ and pitchin.’
“In cold water, bass move slowly, so you want a sink rate that gives them time to react,” he says. “In warm water, they’re more active, so you need a fast sink rate that triggers reflex strikes and prevents bass from getting a really good look at the bait.”
Most bass anglers know how water temperature affects fish behavior, but few go to the extremes Brauer does to match his lures to conditions. From prespawn through the spawn, he uses jigs and bullet weights as light as 1/4 ounce with bulky plastics and trailers. He warns not to go too light, though. If you do, you’ll sacrifice lure control and casting accuracy. And if you can’t put the bait where it needs to be, or feel it when it gets there, sink rate is inconsequential.
After the spawn, bass speed up a click or two and faster sink rates produce better, so Brauer follows suit. He slims down the lure’s profile and switches to weights as hefty as 5/8 ounce. He uses these fast-falling presentations until the water temperature drops below 65 degrees in fall.
Such fast-sinking setups paid off big for Brauer in a recent tournament on Alabama’s Lake Eufaula. When bass in shallow wood and vegetation refused his 3/8-ounce jig, he switched to a 1/2 ouncer. In the warm, clear water and postspawn conditions, the bass pounded the faster-falling presentation.
“The heavier weights coaxed more strikes,” he says. “I won that tournament on the 1/2 ouncer.”
But warm water doesn’t always call for fast-sinking lures. According to tournament angler and Normark’s Director of Field Promotions Mark Fisher, you should tailor your sink rate to where bass are holding in vegetation.
“If the water’s warm and you’re throwing a Texas-rigged worm to bass holding right on the bottom, you want to use a heavier weight. That’ll give you a fast drop, and you’ll trigger fish by catching them off guard.
“On the other hand, if the bass are higher up—even up to the weed tops—go with a lighter weight; like a 1/4 ouncer. The light sinker deflects off the weeds and makes the worm flutter through the bass’ strike zone. You can make this action even more effective by shaking your rodtip as the sinker bounces down through the weeds.”
Horse Of Different Color
Water color and clarity also factor into the sink rate equation. Temperatures being equal, Brauer chooses fast-falling baits in clear water; slow-sinking lures in stained water.
“In warm, dirty water, a bulky lure that moves a lot of water is more effective than one that falls quickly,” he says. “But in warm, clear water, a fast drop is crucial.”
Bass sometimes trigger on surprisingly fast sink rates. While recently fishing crystal-clear Lake of the Ozarks, for example, Brauer started his day pitching a 10-inch plastic worm tipped with a 3/4-ounce bullet sinker. He needed to use
the heavy setup because he was targeting deep-water docks over dense brush piles, and he hoped the big sinker would bust through cover. He didn’t locate any fish in those areas, however, so he motored near open-water docks in six to eight feet of water and began pitching the same rig.
“I normally don’t use a 3/4-ounce sinker for fishing that shallow unless I’m trying to punch through heavy cover—and those shallow docks weren’t by any brush,” he says. “But I fished the heavy weight that day simply because I already had it tied on.”
Brauer was stunned when a big bass nailed the fast-sinking worm before it hit bottom. Over the next few hours, six more bass inhaled the worm as it rocketed toward bottom on its initial fall.
“They were strictly reflex strikes—in such clear water, they had to be. It paid off, though. Together, those seven bass weighed more than 30 pounds!”
Heavy setups have also worked when he’s pitching Texas-rigged worms to bass suspended in flooded treetops.
“In summer, bass suspend less than 10 feet deep in the tops of hardwoods in 25 to 40 feet of water,” says Brauer. “I pitch a 9- to 11-inch worm in there with a 1/2- or 5/8-ounce weight, and bass grab it as it free falls through the limbs.”
Sink Rates By Bait
Sinker size is just one way to tweak a bait’s sink rate, and lures of the same weight don’t necessarily fall at the same speed. A bulky bass jig sinks more slowly than a Texas-rigged tube; a tube sinks more slowly than a plastic worm; plastic baits with swimming tails sink more slowly than those with straight tails; and creature baits with arms, pincers and other appendages fall more slowly than streamlined baits. The list goes on.
Choosing from such a wide array of designs lets you make subtle changes in your presentation’s fall rate that goad unresponsive bass into action.
You can further alter sink rate by modifying these lures, especially jigs. Brauer, for example, often trims the skirt on his signature Strike King Pro Model jig to make it sink faster, or bulks it up with an extra skirt when he wants a slower fall.
Ohio’s Frank Scalish, 2002 Bass-master Rookie of the Year, also beefs up his jigs by attaching a bear hair dressing beneath the rubber skirt.
“I also change trailers,” says Scalish. “I start with a small Yum Chunk. If the jig falls too fast, I put on a bigger Chunk. If I want a faster sink rate, I go to the more streamlined Yum Craw.”
And it’s always easy to make soft plastics fall faster—simply shave down their heads or bodies and pluck off appen-dages until they hit that magic speed. Zoom’s Brush Hog, for example, sinks faster without its “wings.”
You can also increase sink rates by pushing lead inserts or small nails into soft plastic bodies, or slow them down by inserting small floats or pieces of Styrofoam.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Get creative. Sometimes even using a different size hook or pinching small split shot on the hook bend will change a lure’s sink rate enough to provoke a strike.
Changing line size also does the trick. “Line size dramatically changes a bait’s sink rate,” Scalish says. “The thicker the line, the slower the fall.”
Switching lines recently came through for him when he fished an offshore hump on Berlin Lake, a popular impoundment in northeastern Ohio. He started the day hooking several largemouths while cranking an Excalibur Fat Free Shad. The crank quickly stopped producing, however, so he tied on a Carolina-rigged lizard. The new presentation triggered a few more bass, but also soon dried up.
Scalish switched gears yet again, tying on a 1/2-ounce bucktail jig and hopping it over the hump on 17-pound Silver Thread. No takers. Then he went to 14-pound test. Still no bites.
“I finally dropped down to 12-pound line and caught the fire out of them,” he says. “I think I caught all the active bass on my first attempts with the crankbait and Carolina rig. The remaining bass were suspended over the hump, which topped out at 12 feet. When I ripped that bucktail high off the bottom and let it rifle down through the school on that light line, it triggered reaction strikes.”
Scalish uses heavier line when he needs a slower sink rate, such as when prespawn bass relate to shallow vegetation. In such cases, he pitches a Texas-rigged lizard to grass clumps, using a 3/16-ounce bullet weight and 14- or 17-pound line. If this doesn’t produce, he bumps up to 20-pound test. The difference in sink rate might appear minimal, but bass sometimes go nuts when they see the change.
No Set-In-Stone Formula
As you may have noticed, Scalish, Brauer and Fisher don’t quantify what sink rate qualifies as “fast” or “slow”—nor do they specify what water conditions constitute warm and cold, or murky and clear. That’s because there simply is no carved-in-stone formula for determining what sink rate will produce best.
To determine sink rates that deliver, do what these top pros do—experiment. You’ll enjoy the results!