Sunday, June 26, 2011

Finessing Largemouth Bass

I really try to be a versatile angler when I'm bass fishing.  I usually start off using bass fishing tactics that are fun and also have the ability to find fish fast and put big fish in the livewell.  I always say, "I love the buzzbait and topwater bite", or "There's nothing like a spinnerbait bait", or "I love the way those bass slam those lipless crankbaits".  Yeah, I love that stuff.  However, when the fish aren't active and refuse those offerings, there's only so much beating the water unproductively that I'll do before I go to my "go to" finesse wormin'.  I have so much confidence in finesse worming techniques that I could reduce the amount of tackle weight that I bring to the boat by literally bringing only a handful of plastics and terminal tackle to do the job, and I can do that on just about any day of the year.  Sometimes I get mad at myself for almost being narrow minded and catching fish the way that I always do. My logic is that they're biting and I'm putting fish in the boat, why change?  Then, while I'm catching fish, I think that maybe there's something else that would work even better?  So, I pick up another rod rigged with a spinnerbait or jig and give it another whirl.  Why put down the rod with a set up that's working and change to a power presentation?  Is it just because I want to catch fish on something else?  If fish don't hit, then I question myself again, "Why am I beating the water with something that's not productive, especially when I know I would be catching fish the other way?"  It's almost like the fish or cut bait paradigm.  I guess it's kind of a nice problem to have, huh???

Dave Roberts boated this chunky bass
while finessing with a 4" plastic worm.

One of my goals yesterday was to pitch jigs and catch fish with my new fathers day present (flippin rod and reel). Well, I met half the goal and got some pitchin' in, but didn't get a fish on it. I think that cold front conditions, clear water, and that we were fishing lots of areas that were devoid of the type of cover you'd like to pitch to contributed to that.  I'm satisfied that I gave it a good effort. I know that big fish tactics like that pay off as they have for me in the past, but yesterday it was not to be.  We made several passes down a particular productive lake shoreline, found fish and knew they were there.  Each time we worked that stretch of shoreline we caught fish while finesse fishing, but other normally productive techniques didn't even draw a strike.  This is how finesse fishing techniques for bass can really make your day when fish just seem that they don't want to bite your usual stuff.

What tackle works well for finessing largemouth?  There are many ways to finesse bass, but when I think finesse, I'm thinking light line, light weight and soft plastic lures.  Spinning gear with a high quality fast action graphite rods in medium light to medium power and a quality reel with a good drag set properly generally will suffice for putting bass in the boat using these techniques.  I let water clarity determine what type of line that I use.  In most cases I prefer 8 pound fluorocarbon line for sinking presentations when the water is clear.  For floating presentations I may use monofilament because mono line floats.  When the water is murky I'll go with small diameter braided line to get a little better hook setting power and that extra line strength to muscle the fish in a bit more.  I'll go into more detail on lure types and the amount of weight that I use in a moment, but in general I'd say that the amount of weight for most of these presentations varys from no weight up to about a 3/8 of an ounce.  Wind, depth, and the type of cover that you fish may dictate how much weight you'd use, but also the effect you want to have on your lure may determine that as well.  For example, more weight means a faster fall while lighter weight means the opposite.  It all depends on what you want the fish to see to trigger a strike.  As an overall rule, I use just enough weight to get the effect I want while still reaching the bottom, but not so much weight that the fish will drop the lure when they bite.  I find that while fishing these techniques the fish tend to grab and hold on to the lure much longer than faster heavier power presentations.

Finesse techniques include those popular in the bass fishing world that pro anglers and publications have made famous.  One thing that they all have in common is that they use light line, generally light weight, and they draw strikes when other lure presentations don't.  Shaky worm fishing, drop shotting, weightless presentations such as floating worms or sinking stickbaits, flukes and small plastic worms are many of the techniques that these pros use.  Let's now go into more detail.

Mark McWilliams (left) coaxed this
largemouth to hit his shaky head rig.  
Shakey worms and shaky heads (sometimes spelled shakey in the marketplace) have become popular over the past several years.   The terminology is new, but the concept is as old as soft plastics.  The concept is that you fish a soft plastic lure on light line while keeping the lure in the strike zone where you know bass will hang out, and shake it in their face.  Technology of equipment and tackle selections have improved dramatically over the years allowing anglers fishing finesse techniques to really build up their arsenal.  In general, light weight jigheads designed to rig soft plastics weedless while enabling those plastics to "stand up" are quite popular and effective for shaky worm fishing. Most shaky worm anglers rigs include straight worms that often tend to float the tail up rather than sink to the bottom.  The stand up worm approach raises the tail of the worm off the bottom increasing visibility to fish.  Shake it a little and tempt that bass to strike.  The lure resembles a critter feeding on the bottom.
There are many styles of shaky heads on the market.  Some of them have screw locks built into the head, a short section of coiled wire molded to the jigead designed so that you can screw the plastic worm head to the jighead and bury the hook into the body of the worm Texas style rendering the rig weedless.  Some shaky heads appear to many like any other jighead, but have flat bottoms , special hook and eye alignment design, or other features that allow the jig to stand up on end and prop the plastic tail up off the bottom.

Shaky head worms, from above, Chompers Shaky Worm,
Strike King Finess worms 6 1/2" and 5", Zman Finesse
 Wormz.  The 5" pictured Strike King Finesse Worm is
rigged on a Megastrike Shaky2 Pro Model Shaky Head.
  The Megastrike shaky head is also pictured "standing up".
Straight tailed soft plastic worms that tend to be more boyant are popular with this technique.  There are many of these on the market.  This boyancy and the ability of the shaky head design to allow the lure to stand up for increased visibility.  Fish this technique when fishing gets tough, and watch your fishing partner shaking his head trying to figure out why your thumpin' him!

Drop Shotting is a popular technique.  Simplified, the basic rig includes a sinker on the end of the line with a hook and small soft plastic lure tied a couple feet up your line, or whatever depth you want to present the bait.  Of course, now there are specialized products for the technique that enable you to change weights without retying, hooks that stay straight and keep your lure presented horizontally, and rods that are designed for this technique that have sensitivity and backbone while still being able to cast light lures effectively.  This technique is effective when you want to have an off the bottom presentation that allows fish to see your bait easily.  These rigs also allow you to fish vertically and keep the lure moving to draw strikes from inactive bass.  Soft plastics of all kinds are effective with this technique including small plastic worms (some designed just for drop shotting), creature imitations in the form of preys species like gobies, minnows, and crawfish, and also can be used as an effective presentation for tube baits.

Wacky rigs are also very effective on inactive bass.  You can wacky rig any type of soft plastic, but the most popular plastics rigged this way include soft sinking stick baits in the Senko style, french fry type worms, and straight tailed finesse worms.  You can wacky rig them on a drop shot set up, weightless on a small circle or octopus hook, or on a jighead.  To rig a plastic bait wacky style, hook your plastic worm about in the middle of the lure.  You can also rig it slightly off center to give it a different action.  There are jigheads with weed guards that are designed for wacky rigging available in the market today.  The brands aren't so important to remember here, rather, the technique is the thing to remember.  Wacking rigging these soft plastics results in a horizontal presentation where both ends of the lure move and the overall drop of the lures kind of flutters to the bottom.  The drop is not predictable and is more erratic depending on how much action you impart using your rod tip, and that is what tends to promote strikes.  Also, when fishing current, you can "dead stick" these lures and just allow the current to bring your lure to the fish.  One of the big complaints with using this method is that the really soft lures tend to tear after a couple fish.  You can weld them back together or glue them with crazy glue.  Or, simply use a small rubber band, like the ones you can get from an orthodontist, and push it over the worm and place the hook under the rubberband on the bottom of the plastic bait.  Case plastics makes a wacky rig tool that is pretty good at doing this quickly on the water.  Also, there are some plastic worms designed for wacky rigging that have hard soft plastic inserts to put your hook through that won't tear.  I don't currently own any of those but may try them out in the future since it seems like a great idea.

Nose hooking soft plastics has become popular with smallmouth anglers across the country, especially with drop shotting.  But you can also fish weightless presentations this way.  Sinking stick baits, tubes, floating plastic worms, and just about any type of soft plastic bait can be nose hooked and fished effectively. The key is the hook.  Light wire extremely sharp circle hooks and circle octopus hooks hook the fish the vast majority of the time in the corner of the mouth.  You don't need to set the hook in the traditional sense. Rather, a slow wide smooth sweep of the rod tip to gather up slack line and slight pressure while reeling will pull the hook toward the mouth and firmly hook the fish in the corner of it's jaw.  Catfish and saltwater anglers have been using these hooks since their establishment in the market several years ago.  Catch and release bass anglers are now seeing the benefits of using these hooks as well.  In addition to decreased mortality rates of hooked fish, circle hooks also increase hookup rates often hooking fish that you didn't even know were on the line without any action on the anglers part.  When people or children are learning to fish, it's things like this that make things easier on those teaching fishing to inexperienced anglers.

You can also use more traditional techniques and just scale down the size or your lure and use less weight.  Soft plastics can be rigged on light weight jig heads, Texas rigged, or fished without weight.  One of my favorite presentations is to use a 4" plastic worm, Texas rigged on a light wire hook like a Gamakatsu size 2 offset shank worm hook, and use a small bullet weight from 1/32 oz. or 1/16 oz.  The key to this presentation is the slow fall and when fish hit they can't feel the weight of the lure.  You can fish anywhere in the water column, it's weedless, and fish really hold on to it.  There are many styles of soft plastics that are effective.  You can jig it at mid level or let is just sit on the bottom.  There's no wrong way to fish it.

This bass was fooled with a 4" plastic worm
 Texas rigged with light weight and light line.

Soft plastic stick baits are very effective at producing large numbers of boated bass.  You can rig them using the techniques described above, weighted or weighless, depending on how active the fish are.  I usually begin using an unweighted Texas rig or nose hook them and use them as search lures.  If I find that fish are holding in tight cover or very predictable places, then I'll adapt and offer them a different presentation of this bait like a wacky rig.  There are many brands making these, but Gary Yamamoto made them famous when he introduced the Senko years ago.  What set the Senko apart from other soft plastics back then was the high concentration of salt impregnated in the lure that not only seemed to have fish hang on to them longer, but also gave them the ability to sink and flutter down the water column even when rigged weightless.  This action provokes strikes that no other bait could offer.  An added bonus was that these lures could cast like bullets. This is another lure that can't be fished the wrong way, only if you don't fish it.  Are they productive?  There are very many companies making versions of this successful bait. That's a testiment in itself as to the productivity of the Senko and other brand versions of it.

Soft jerk baits first made their appearance many years ago when Lunker City introduced it's line of soft plastic jerk baits, the Slug-go and Fin-S Fish.  These baits can be rigged on jigheads and other rigs described above, but the most popular way to fish them is to fish them with a wide gap worm hook Texas rigged or nose hooked with a small circle hook.  Cast them out and twitch your rod tip and watch them dart eradically on the surface or just under the surface, and then glide with a very slow fall.  They are sometimes irresistable to bass.  Other soft jerk baits include the Zoom Super Fluke, Bass Assassin Shad Assassin, and Case Plastics Salty Sinking Shad.  Bass Pro Shops, Cabelas, Gambler, Strike King, Luck E Strike and many other brands make their version of this bait, and that gives you an idea just how successful this type of lure is.  They all catch fish.

These soft plastics are examples of the wide
variety of soft plastics that you can use to finesse
largemouth bass to bite.  From the top, a 4" Mizmo
tube on a jighead, 4" Zoom Dead Ringer, 4" Senko
Texas rigged, 5" Zoom Super Fluke Texas rigged,
and a Bass Pro Shops Caterpillar Grub on a jighead.

Tube plastic baits are perfect crayfish imitations, but can also imitate minnows and other forage species.  They come in different sizes for panfish up to huge flipping and saltwater models.  For finesse largemouth fishing, I like the ones in the 2 1/2" to 4" range.  You can rig them on jigheads with an open hook or weedless, Texas rig them like you would a plastic worm, or nose hook them for drop shotting.  Many anglers wouldn't think of NOT using a tube for smallmouth fishing, but often overlook their effectiveness on their largemouth waters.  It's no secret that largemouth relish a crayfish meal, so what better soft plastic to offer them than a tube?

This largemouth spit up a crawfish after being boated yesterday.
  This two and a half pounder had been munching on a four inch crawdad!

Here's the crayfish was expelled by the bass above.
Find a tube and think crawdad!

Grubs (twister tails), spider grubs, creature baits, and soft plastic imitations of baitfish are also very effective when rigged using the techniques described above.  You can rig them using any of the techniques above.  Spider grubs work particularly well when teamed with football style jigheads, but can also be Texas rigged.

What about colors of soft plastics used in finesse bass fishing?  Natural colors work best for me, with lighter softer colors on bright days, and darker contrasting colors on dark days.  Water clarity can also dictate what colors to use.  In murky or slightly stained water, I sometimes use Spike-It worm dye to dye the tail just to give it some added visibility.  Another general rule of thumb is that when imitating bottom dwelling prey, use darker colors like green pumpkin.  When imitating swimming prey like shad, use lighter colors like blue pearl salt and pepper.  If I had to limit myself to colors, green pumpkin, pumpkin, watermelon and black work on all the plastics above.  Blue pearl salt and pepper, pearl, blue glimmer, smoke metal flake and white work well when imitating baitfish.

If you find yourself in a situation where the bites are few and far between when using your favorite power bass fishing techniques, think about trying a soft plastic bait, light line, and go fishing finesse style.  It could save your day and put a limit of largemouth bass in the boat when other stuff doesn't seem to work.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Catching Prehistoric Sharks

OK, it's not fishing.  It's fossil collecting.  My daughter and I collect fossils of all kinds, but our favorite type of fossil to collect is sharks teeth.  The teeth that we collect vary in age from 2 million years to 85 million years old depending on where we collect and the geologic formations that contain the fossils.  In this article, I'm going to discuss the Palaeocene Epoch fossils that are about 60-65 million years old that are found in the Aquia formation. 

Before I go on about specific fossils, let me explain what the environment may have been like for these critters in the location where I collect.  The formation is a marine deposit, and what is now land in this part of the Mid-Atlantic was once covered by oceanic inshore waters.  The climate that is now temperate was tropic 65 million years ago.  The dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period about 70 million years ago, and mammals were evolving at a rapid pace.  Reptiles, birds, fish and sharks were the dominant vertebrate life forms.  In the seas, sharks were the primary predator, and along the coast huge crocodiles roamed eating fish, sharks, and any land animal that they could catch.  Sharks and crocodiles preyed on each other!  The ancestors of whales and other sea mammals had not taken to the sea yet, so most of the shark's prey consisted of fish, land animals, birds, turtles, sharks, stingrays and crocodiles.

Palaeocene sharks resembled some of todays sharks.  Most of them have long been extinct yet their ancestors thrive today.  Today, requiem sharks such as bull sharks, dusky sharks, sand sharks and reef sharks are the dominant genera.  65 million years ago, requiem sharks were just beginning to appear in the fossil record.  Sand tiger sharks dominated the seas, having the largest number of genera and species of any other type of shark.  Stingrays were also common.  It was also a time of transition for the megatooth sharks.  What is believed by many to be a direct ancestor of the giant white shark commonly known as Megalodon was a shark known as Otodus obliquus.  This shark grew to about 35 feet long and had robust dagger like teeth as long as 4".   These teeth were versatile with the ability to catch and eat large prey, but also were robust enough to crunch through bone, tough leathery hides and turtle shells.

Teeth like this one from Otodus obliquus came from a shark that was over 30 feet long!

Otodus would dwarf todays largest predatory sharks.  There was another shark that arose during this period but soon became extinct (many believe) was the pygmy great white shark, Palaeocarcharodon orientalis.  The teeth resembled today's great white sharks, but were much smaller and much more heavily serrated, like a steak knife.  These teeth are relatively rare world wide, but can be found in a couple locations in the United States.  Most of the specimens for sale in the retail fossil community come from Morocco.

This is my only pygmy great white shark tooth, or Palaeocarcharodon orientalis specimen, that I've found so far.  Wave action most likely wore this tooth down.  Better quality specimens can be found though, a goal of mine in the future.

Beautiful Palaeocarcharodon orientalis found by Kevin May.

Click on this link to learn more about the pygmy great white shark:

Sand tiger sharks were the most numerous of the Palaeocene epoch.  There were many different species, all of them extinct, but some are ancestors of today's sand tiger sharks.  Here's a link to a picture of a sand tiger shark:

You'll notice that the teeth of these sharks are very long, curved and thin.  They are perfect for catching and holding fish until they can be swallowed.  Each tooth sort of resembles a fish hook!  Below is a picture of some of the teeth collected on one trip.   You can see the sand tiger teeth in the bottom of the picture.

These fossils were collected during one trip to a Palaeocene location.  The bottom two rows are teeth from various species of sand tiger sharks.

Sharks teeth are probably one of the most commonly collected fossils in the world.  Why?  Well, there are a lot of them out there and because of the tough durable material that nature has crafted them out of (dentine), they preserve very well.  Why are there so many sharks teeth in our fossil beds?  Modern sharks have rows of teeth behind their current active set of teeth, and these rows are known as files.  Sharks continually lose their teeth when they feed, and when they lose a tooth, another one grows behind it to take it's place from the "file", kind of like a conveyor belt.  Modern sharks lose several thousand teeth each year and some sharks lose as many as 10,000 teeth per year!  Now, imagine that the Palaeocene formation contains sediments that range from 60-65 million years old.  That's a five million year range.  If there were, say, several million sharks in the region at any given time during that period, multiplied by five million years, multiplied by 10,000 teeth per shark, and if you do the math...well, that's a lot of shark teeth!

You'll notice that the fossil shark teeth come in a variety of colors.  It has nothing to do with age other than they've been fossilized.  The coloration depends on the mineralization that takes place in and around the tooth.  In other words, the minerals in the sediments that the teeth are buried in will influence the color of the fossil during the fossilization process.  For example, iron deposits tend to give fossils a reddish brown hue.  Modern day shark teeth are almost pure white in comparison.

How do the fossils find their way on to the beach?  Imagine a shark losing teeth while feeding.  The teeth settle to the bottom of the ocean floor in whatever sediments are on the bottom.  After millions of years of being buried, the oceans finally recede and what was once under water is now land.  Erosion from weather, rain, wind, and perhaps waves form cliffs.  Within those cliffs are our buried fossils.  When chunks or boulders fall from the cliffs that contain the fossils, that's their first placement on the beach.  Eventually, those boulders or clay blocks erode from wave action, freeing the fossils to take their place within new beach sediments, like sand or gravel.

Here you can see the cliffs containing fossils.  Fossiferous material falls from the cliffs and eventually erodes leaving various fossils lining the beach.

Can you find the sharks teeth in these pictures?  You can see that you need a sharp eye to spot these fossils that hide between shells, sand and gravel.  Here are a couple pictures of Otodus teeth just waiting to be collected amongst beach material.

What other fossils can you find?  We find crocodile teeth and bones, crocodile scutes, pieces of turtle shells, shark and fish vertebrae, stingray dental plate fragments (stingray teeth), bird and reptile bones, and sometimes fish teeth.  Every now and then you may find a piece of shark cartilage.  Shark vertebrae and pieces of cartilage are much more rare than shark teeth because they don't preserve as well as the teeth.  There are also various invertebrate fossils in the form of sea shells, internal and external molds.  Some are snail like gastropods.  You may also find different species of clams and oysters.

This is a large chunk of a fossilized turtle shell.

If you're lucky you may find crocodile a tooth.  Steven Ferguson hit the jackpot when he found a block of clay containing an entire crocodile skull (top picture)! The crocodile skull after it was prepped - clay and other rock removed from the fossil (lower picture).

 So why collect fossils?  It's a great way to have fun outdoors.  In my case, it's a hobby that both my daughter and I enjoy that we can spend quality time together.  You can find many of nature's treasures and often some have monetary value.  Most of the time when I beach collect, it's as if you get lulled into a trance by the slapping of gentle waves on the shoreline as you drift into prehistoric past.  It's relaxing and most of all just plain fun!

Here's a huge Otodus tooth found by my daughter.  Notice the near perfect quality of this tooth even after 65 million years of fossilization.  The tip of the tooth shows what is known as "feeding damage" that occured while this animal was feeding on another animal.  Perhaps the tooth bit down on a turtle shell, or a crocodile bone?  It's a mystery that adds to the mystique of this fossil.

 Finally, you may find these types of fossils where you live, or perhaps different fossils.  You may find them in a beach, or along a road cut, or perhaps a river or creek bed, or a geologic formation exposed in a field.  To find fossils near you, look up your state or territorial government and find the department or agency responsible for geology.  You should be able to get some information about what formations contain fossils in your area and may able to obtain a geologic map of formations.  But the best way to find fossils is to join a fossil club or a fossil society near you.  They will teach you where, what, how, when and why as pertaining to collecting fossils.  And who knows?  Perhaps you'll find something new to science!  Many of todays paleontological finds were the result of amateur collectors.  In future articles, I'll discuss other formations and types sharks that can be found, including the massive giant great white shark, Carcharocles megalodon.

For more information about fossils including sharks teeth, please visit the following links:

The above links will help you learn more about fossils, their formations, identification of your finds, and also get to know people in the fossil collecting community.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Big River Bronze

 "I consider him, inch for inch, and pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims!"
-Dr. James Henshall on smallmouth bass.

 Earlier I wrote about the huge amount of fun you can have on small streams.  But, sometimes bass anglers strive to chase the big sow smallmouth bass and one place you have a good chance at one is a big rocky river with the varying types of cover that they prefer.  I'm fortunate to live along the East Coast where just about every river within a four hour drive is a world class smallmouth fishery.  Those rivers include the mighty Susquehanna, Juniata, Potomac, Shenandoah, James, Rappahannock, and New.  There are others too, so I'm blessed.
Chunky smallies like this one keep me going back for more.

Popular lures to target big smallmouth bass include tubes, soft jerkbaits, hard jerkbaits, crankbaits, jigs, spinnerbaits, topwater plugs, buzzbaits and plastic worms.  Many anglers will rig multiple rods with a combination of these lures and switch from set ups until they establish a pattern of catching bronzebacks.  For many anglers in my neck of the woods, the go to baits are 4" tubes or 3/8 oz. tandem spinnerbaits to start with, then adapt from there.  Of course, if you can carry more rods you can rig different lures to offer.

What type of rods and reels do you need?  When fishing from a boat, I usually bring four or five rods.  For most soft plastics and jigs, I prefer a medium power fast action (or extra fast) 6'6" graphite spinning rod rigged with 8 pound test fluorocarbon line or light braid/fluorocarbon leader.  Reel preference is up to you, but a balanced set up is most important.  I like the 4000 series Shimano reels simply because I can get longer casts if I need to.  Some people prefer the next sizes down, but again, it's personal preference.  For crankbaits, jerkbaits and topwater plugs I like a medium power medium action rod, and team it with fluorocarbon line.  The only exception is that I'll use a quality monofilament line instead of fluorocarbon for topwater lures simply because fluorocarbon line sinks and monofilament lays on the surface longer aiding in the topwater presentation.  Sinking lines like fluorocarbon tend to inhibit the action of topwater plugs.  I have also used braid for topwater with a short stretch of fluorocarbon leader for topwater because braid is very slow sinking.  Also, on my spinning tackle, if the water is murky I will tie lures directly to the braided line in some cases, especially when fishing jigs and weighted soft plastics.  I usually carry two baitcasting set ups to chuck spinnerbaits and buzzbaits spooled with 14 pound fluorocarbon line.  However, if you are wading a river, you don't have the luxury of using multiple rods, so if I had to pick one, my choice would be the medium power fast or extra fast spinning rod/reel spooled with 8 lb. fluorocarbon line, or the braid/fluorocarbon leader combination.  It's the most versatile set up and you can work most types of lures.  The only thing I'd do differently with my wading rig is to fish smaller spinnerbaits and buzzbaits than I would while fishing from a boat to better match the action and power of the rod. 
A double!  This pair of bronzebacks attacked tandem willow leaf 3/8 oz. spinnerbaits.

How about more specifics on lures?  I could write many pages on this subject as many in the past have.  Basically, you want to try to match the hatch like fly anglers do (I'll save that for another blog post later).  Most smallmouth in rivers are creatures of opportunity, feeding on whatever the current provides them.  In my neck of the woods, the prominent prey are crawfish or minnows, with the former probably the smallies favorite food.  They also feed on various insects both flying and water nymphs like helgrammites, or anything that they can fit into their mouth and catch.  Probably the lure that most people should learn to use that best imitates crayfish is the tube jig.  These jigs are soft plastic tubes with cut tentacles that undulate in the river currents.   
Popular soft plastic lures, from the top, 4" tube exposed hook on a jig, Texas rigged 4" plastic worm, 4" Senko Texas rigged, 5" Zoom Super Fluke Texas rigged, 4" Bass Pro Shops Caterpillar Grub on a jighead 

When worked slowly across the bottom, tubes closely resemble the movements of crayfish.  You can rig them on jigheads (exposed hooks or weedless) or Texas rigged.  Experiment to see what works best for you.  When fishing a tube, you have to be a line watcher while at the same time be in tune with what you are feeling.  This is why graphite rods are so important, to feel the slightest bite.  Often that bite may feel like weeds, leaves or a spongy feeling.  Watching your line is important because you may not feel the bite, but see the line moving away as the fish tries to escape undetected with it's new found meal.  Other times, you may feel a tap or thump and then all of the above.  In all cases, set the hook!!!! 

 Tube jigs will put more smallies in your boat.

Other soft plastics include sinking soft stick baits that can be Texas rigged or nose hooked with a small circle hook, soft jerk baits like the Zoom Super Fluke Texas rigged or nose hooked with a circle hook, small 4" plastic worms Texas rigged or rigged on a jighead, or a twister tail or grub on a jighead.  There are many more soft plastic baits that will work.  Basically, choose colors, shapes, and sizes that mimic the primary forage of bass in your river, whether it be crayfish, minnows, juvenile bass, helgrammites or other forage.  Also, once you choose something to imitate the primary forage in your river, work the lure to best imitate that creatures movements.

Other effective lures are spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, topwater plugs, hard jerkbaits, minnow baits, and crankbaits.  Spinnerbaits and buzzbaits draw reaction strikes.  The vibrations, flash, and movements of these lures suggest prey but are not exact imitations of forage, but the flash or commotion of the lure tiggers a response from the bass to attack, either for feeding or territorial responses.  Crankbaits, jerkbaits and minnow baits can also draw reaction strikes when flashy or bright colors are used with erratic retrieves or actions imparted on the lure by the angler.  Most of the time, however, these lures work best when mimicking local forage species. 

These jerkbaits, from the top, are the Rattlin' Super Rogue, Rapala Husky Jerk, Lucky Craft Pointer 65, Rapala X-Rap, and Rapala Floating Minnow

From the top, crankbaits include the Rebel Wee Crawfish, Rapala Clackin Crank, Bagley's Killer B1, and topwater plug Heddon Tiny Torpedo

Spinnerbaits (top) are very effective big smallmouth baits that draw savage reaction strikes.  Buzzbaits (pictured below) create a wake and noise that call in big smallmouth for explosive topwater strikes.  Both are effective in a variety of river conditions. 

Retrieves of these lures vary depending on river conditions such as water clarity, temperature, time of year, and water levels.  Good rules of thumb would be to slow down presentations and work deeper pools in the colder months, and work more aggressively during warmer months.  Vary your retrieves until you get strikes, then try to remember what you did and try it again.  If your continued approach draws strikes consistently, then you've established a pattern of catching bass.

Now that we know what types of lures work well, where do you find big smallmouth bass?  River bronzebacks are opportunistic feeders.  They lie in wait to ambush prey just like their largemouth cousins.  The biggest difference is the habitat and cover that's available to them.  How smallmouth bass relate to the different types of cover available to them depends on the affect of river currents and depth around that cover.  Smallies tend to sit on current seams behind any type of cover that breaks the current.  It could be a mid river boulder, a weed covered gravel shoal, a rock wing dam, bedrock river bottom ledges and shelves, islands, deadfall trees, creek mouths or chunk rock river bottoms.  Big smallies feel comfortable with deep water nearby, just like their largemouth cousins, and love shade to hide in.  They may hold in deep water, or in shallow cover near deep water where they can retreat.  They may hold tight to structure or cruise slack water rocky flats in search of prey.  You can see that with a good pair of polarized sunglasses.  Often a well placed cast ahead of a cruising smallmouth will draw a strike.  Also, look for surface activity.  Signs of activity include minnows skittering across the surface that are probably being chased by a bass, or rings of displaced surface water indicating a bass sipping mayflies off the surface, or the visual sight of a smallmouth bass launching itself airborne in an attempt to catch a dragonfly or damselfly in mid-flight.  Cast just up current to where you noticed the activity that gave the bass away let the current carry your lure to the fish, or with more active baits cast beyond the activity and bring your retrieve across the area.  Soft jerkbaits or topwater plugs are extremely effective at drawing strikes from these feeding smallmouth.

My fishing buddy Bob Barber caught this smallmouth on a soft Texas Rigged Zoom Super Fluke in a shallow water likely holding spot.

Many anglers know that, when fishing small streams for smallies or trout, fish hold in areas at the heads and tails of pools, or any current break in between.  The same can be said for rivers, the heads of pools and tails of pools are also likely holding spots.  Even deep water pools with rocky cover below will hold big smallmouth most of the time.  They may not be active when holding there, so finesse presentations work well by placing the lure on their front door.  Tube jigs are very effective for this.

Spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, crankbaits and grubs are effective in covering a lot of water quickly to get a feel where the fish are holding.  You can catch a lot of smallmouth in a hurry on these lures.  However, if that bite shuts down, at least you've located them and can easily adapt to a slower finesse presentation.

How can I get to these fish holding areas?  Many anglers use jet drive bass boats to quickly move from spot to spot and navigate through waters where boats with props can't go.  They draft very shallow while on plane when moving between fishing holes.  And, the weight distribution of the equipment and set up of the boat allows the boat to drift over shallow areas with minimal draft. 

Canoes and Kayaks are very effective at reaching prime fish holding waters even when the rivers are too shallow for the jet boats.  In addition, you can approach these fish in a very stealthy manner,  and even get out and wade if you so choose.  The key to fishing out of a kayak is to position your kayak such that you don't spook fish while at the same time being able to present your lure effectively.

And, finally, you can also wade out to prime locations.  Sometimes, by wading, assuming you've chosen a spot with a healthy population of bass, you can catch more fish by working the area more thoroughly.  Before going fishing, make sure that the water levels are safe to wade.  The USGS website shows river levels across the country.  Here's the link, just change the geographic area in the drop down box on the upper right hand corner of the page:

One piece of important equipment when wading warm water is a good pair of wading shoes that grip the river bottom.  Wading staffs can also be helpful when wading in strong currents.  Know your limitations and avoid crossing areas that are too strong for you to handle.  If you happen to get pulled into deeper water and strong currents, kick your feet up and drift until you reach a section of river that you can easily get to your feet.  Plan ahead before you move your feet.  Shuffle them one step at a time to make sure that you have a good foothold on the bottom.  When in strong current, turn sideways so that you present a smaller profile to the current and you'll find crossing those sections earlier.  I'll post an article devoted to wading rivers in the future because there is so much information that I can't cover in one post.

In closing, find a way to get to a smallmouth river and see if you can get a trophy.  There's nothing like hooking a big smallmouth bass and seeing it launch itself into the air two feet out of the water in an attempt to throw the hook!  After that, you'll be hooked!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Jerkin' and Catchin'

One of my favorite bass bites is on the suspending jerk bait.  Why?  They are big fish lures and when you have a hot bite you can really get some good numbers.  Jerkbaits are effective in rivers and lakes, and they also can help you land a wide variety of species.  I've caught smallmouth, largemouth, pike, pickerel, musky, stripers and walleye on them.  For the purposes of this article, I'm going to discuss suspending jerk baits.  There are so many different brands and models out there, but my advice would be to do some research and buy a couple different styles in a couple different sizes and learn to fish them first.  After that, you'll get a feel for what others to add to your arsenal.

This nice chunky largemouth hammered a suspending gold Super Rogue.
I'm going to go over a few of my favorites:

Smithwick Super Rogue Suspending 5" - There are a couple lakes near me where the bass really jump on this lure.  I toss them in and around log jams or weed beds and jerk them a few times and wham!  Favorite colors of mine include gold rogue, chrome/black back, or fire roan.  Rogues are extremely effective in the smallmouth rivers that I fish when I'm looking for that big bass bite.  This lure presents a larger profile, rattles, and gives off a lot of flash.

 Smithwick Suspending Super Rogues

Rapala Husky Jerk Suspending - these come in several sizes and are great for river smallmouth and also perform well on the lakes near me.  I start with the HJ12 size for largemouth which is 4 1/2", and scale down to the HJ10 (4") or HJ08 (3 1/8") for river smallmouth.  The HJ14 is 5 1/2" and is also a good largemouth option.  These lures also tempt big walleye and musky.  I carry colors that match the forage in my waters plus a few bright colors like Firetiger.  The smaller sizes are very productive on trout.  Rapala produces a deep model suspending Husky Jerk to reach those fish holding on deeper drop offs.  The only issue that I have with these lures is that the hooks eventually will rust, so it's a good idea to replace the hooks at some point.  The hooks are sharp out of the box though.

Rapala Husky Jerks in various sizes and colors, with a Deep Husky Jerk at the top

Rapala X-Rap - these jerk baits have a feathered hook and really do put fish in the boat.  They are extremely productive on smallmouth, largemouth, walleye, stripers, and trout.  Again, match the size and color to the species your after and try and match the forage base where you fish.  For largemouth and smallmouth, I prefer the XR10 4" size, but will go smaller on small streams to the XR08 3 1/8" size.  I use the magnum sizes when I want that big fish bite or while striper fishing.  X-Raps are also available in a deep model.  X-Raps cast extremely well, and, not only that, can be trolled effectively if you so prefer.  They give off plenty of flash and sound with those loud rattles.

Rapala X-Raps, the top is the magnum saltwater version, notice that it does not come with the feathered tail.

Rapala Max Rap - this lure has a slimmer profile but sports a weight transfer system to the angler achieve longer casts.  I just purchased one recently but haven't tried it yet.  I'll post a review after a trip or two.

Rapala Max Rap

Lucky Craft Pointer - these are pricy, but are an innovative and very productive jerk bait.  They are one of the few jerk baits that truly suspend and don't float to the top.  They are weighted in such away that they continue to shimmer or shake even when you aren't imparting action on your lure.  The hooks are super sharp.  They really have some cool colors.  Aurora gold, sexy shad, and Tennessee Shad are my favorite colors.  They also some in several sizes.  I really like the 100s which are about 4" long.  They cast well and have a bigger profile than other minnow baits of the same length.  The shape is really a life like appearance of many forage species.  You can find both rattling and silent models.

Lucky Craft Pointer 100 Suspending Jerkbaits

How do you fish them?  Really, there is no wrong way other than to not fish them.  Sometimes you cast them to your spot and work them back with a series of hard or soft twitches.  Vary your cadence and pauses in between twitches.  Once you establish what the fish want, focus on repeating that pattern.  If the bite shows, try something different still.  One of my favorite ways to fish them is to dead stick them...yep...cast them out, reel a few cranks and give a big sweep to your rod and then stop...keep the line tight and watch the line for the bite.  If fish are there then they will follow it and then hit after they can't stand it in front of their face any longer.  If no bite after a long count, try a small twitch and the fish often will hit the second the lure moves.  Sometimes if the next 15' of water is still productive then repeat those steps.  I've caught a lot of bass and walleye that way.

Don't be afraid to modify your jerkbaits to keep them in the strike zone.  The suspending nature of these baits keeps the lure in the zone for a long time, but some brands will slowly rise to the surface.  You can add weight to fine tune their suspending ability, or change the way they hold in the water by adding soft or sticky weight to either the body of the lure or on the hooks.  Adding feathered hooks can give them a nice look too and give the fish something different.

How's that for a striper caught on a Rapala X-Rap?

My fishin' buddy Bob with a nice rockfish caught on an X-Rap.  He was speed reelin' his lure when this striper smashed it.

In lakes, cast around cover, over weed beds, along rip rap shorelines, and main or secondary lake points that have stumps.  In tidal water, look for schools of fish in the shallows, birds feeding on baitfish, or cast to structure that you suspect will hold fish.  Often you will see current seams that will hold fish feeding in ambush of unsuspecting prey especially around creek mouths and weedy flats.

In rocky swift rivers, find seams along shoreline or mid river eddies, creek mouths, or behind ledges and wing dams.  Vary your retrieves using jerks, pauses, long pauses, reel/stop, and even dead sticking until you figure out what will trigger strikes on that day.

My brother Kyle landed this nice musky on a Husky Jerk

What rod and reel set ups do you use?  Basically, match the species your after and the size of the lure to your rod, reel and line like anything else.  If you know that you're targeting bass or walleyes, you can rig larger ones on medium spinning or baitcasting tackle.  If you're using larger jerkbaits for musky or stripers, consider a heavier set up.  For smaller jerkbaits used to target walleye, smallmouth, or trout, you might want to consider using lighter tackle and line.

Try them and develop confidence, and you'll find these one of the most useful tools in your tackle arsenal, not only for bass, but other species as well.  Now get out there and start jerkin' and have fun!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Small Stream Smallies = Big Time Fun

One thing about being a high strung addicted bass angler is the urge to fish places that always hold good numbers of big fish, to try and top your biggest bass each year again and again.  I'm no different.  I'm competitive in my own way, not against my fishing buddies which is a real turn off, but rather against myself.  It's really undue pressure and not really necessary.  However, over the years I've learned to calm down and enjoy the experiences and all that comes with bass fishing, not just big bass, but everything about it.  One of the best ways to do that is to just have fun, and I can't think of a better place than fishing small water for smallmouth bass.  It's fun because you can find solitude, catch lots of unpressured fish, and enjoy a day with maybe not seeing a single person on some very scenic water.

In my home state and neighboring states, there are lots of tributaries that hold smallmouth bass. Many of them receive little, if any, fishing pressure.  How do you find good spots?  Not by reading my blog, but rather, do your homework.  Get a good map of your area and start with public access, ramps, and bridge crossings.  In some cases you might have to ask permission, some cases not, but it depends on the laws of your state or territory.  There are lots of maps out there, USGS maps, on-line topo maps, Google and Mapquest satellite maps, trail and canoeing name it, the info is out there.  You'll find the best spots by trial and error.

Most small stream smallies aren't monsters, but like their river brothers they are strong from life in the current, and most of them are very scrappy.  And, every now and then you can catch a big one.  Here's a nice size small stream bronzeback.

Tackle set ups?  Basically, anything goes.  Once you get a feel for the average size of the fish in your small stream, you adapt your tackle accordingly.  When I first started fishing small streams, I automatically assumed that the stream was best fished with ultralight tackle because they may have had small fish in them.  It was fun landing fish on UL spinning tackle, 4 or 6 pound line, and tiny lures.  But later, after learning the hard way and getting broken off or losing big fish on the hook set, I beefed up my strategy.  Now the big fish call me as before, it's in my nature, so I target them.  But, what I found out is that I caught just as many as ever, but didn't miss the big ones or lose them nearly as often.  I use slightly different size lures on 8 lb. test fluorocarbon line on a medium or medium light spinning rod. 

Lure choices should include your favorites, whatever you have confidence in.  For me, I carry a selection of minnow imitations, jerkbaits, small crankbaits, and topwater plugs.  I also carry small spinnerbaits and buzzbaits.  And most of all, I carry my finesse stuff.  For the most part, the same stuff that works in my rivers works in the creeks.  Plastics include 4" plastic worms, tubes, soft jerk baits like Zoom Super Flukes, Senkos, and Sluggos, beaver type baits, and grubs (twister tails), usually in 3 basic colors depending on water conditions.  In clearer water, I prefer variations of green pumpkin, watermelon, and smoke or maybe something with some flash or metal flake.  Smoke/purple is an awesome color for me.  In dingy water, I prefer darker baits, perhaps black or even green pumpkin, or bright colors like chartreuse, or something with a chartreuse tail.  White is also a great color for murky water.  Spinnerbaits work well under these conditions.  Muddy water?  I pretty much fish other places, not because you can't catch fish, but usually the water is higher than normal and you can't see the bottom to wade, which can be dangerous.  I prefer wading water that I can see the bottom.

My confidence is in plastics, that is, I know when the chips are down that I'm going to catch fish on my favorite plastics.  But my approach is to start with a search lure, perhaps a small buzzbait.  Often I'll use a beat up plastic worm as a trailer.  When the fish are on that bite you can catch a lot in a hurry, and they are big fish magnets.  When the fishing is tough, then I go to the plastics.

Before I go on about actually fishing, what about how I access or others access?  Most of my small stream fishing is done by wading.  I can work slowly and thoroughly.  Most people like to wade upstream, I actually see advantages in going either up or down stream.  When going up stream, basically you don't cloud the water ahead of you when you wade.  Also, most of the fish are in ambush holding patterns facing up current, so well placed casts and retrieves put the lure beyond the fish and let the current bring it to them.  In deeper pools, this might be best to cast up above the pool and let the current bring your bait down toward the bottom, getting it deeper.  OK, we've all probably heard that before, so let's take a stance that blows that theory away...working down stream.  Honestly, I can fish the pool ahead of me without entering it, and position myself on each pool so that any silt that I kick up washes down away from the prime fish holding structure.  But, here's another kicker:  sometimes stirring up the bottom a little gets bait fish excited and feeding, and that in turn can turn smallies on.  Also, keep in mind when fishing down and across, stronger currents keep your bait up.  Sometimes the fish like that, but if you're not getting hits, cast up and bring it across to get your lure deeper.  Either way, a stealthy approach is best.  Plan your wading route ahead of time and position yourself in such a way as to not spook fish but at the same time giving you the best opportunity to present your lure to the fish.  Keep a low profile and don't make a lot of noise or wade too fast as to disturb fish.  Also, wading downstream is easy to cover water with search lures like buzzbaits, fish them across and down.  Don't be afraid to toss them in the riffles, at the base of rapids, or at the tail of the pool.  Let the current pull it all the way across the stream.

This bass fell for a buzzbait fished across and down through the base of the riffles

Kayaking and possibly canoe floats are other effective ways to fish small streams.  Even if you have to portage a few times, or get out and wade once in awhile, it still is a way to reach fish that you might not reach otherwise.  I'm not a kayak expert but I've fished a few times out of them and they are fun, and relatively stealthy if you plan your positioning ahead of time.

Kayaking a small stream is an effective way to sneak up on wary smallmouth bass.

Where do the fish hold?  Think of your small stream as you do your river, or even your trout stream.  Smallies like to hold on current edges of eddies, or behind rocks, logs, boulders, weeds, etc.  Here's what goes though my mind, "if I was a smallmouth bass, where would I position myself to best take advantage of the current to get an easy unsuspecting meal"?  Also, other factors influence holding locations, such as water clarity, water temperature, shade and oxygen among others.  Most of my wading is done in the summer, so hot weather is the norm, so if the fishing is tough because of heat, I look for shade, current, riffles, tributary mouths, springs...anything that might keep a fish comfortable.  I look for each holding spot in a pool.  If I think that there's a fish there, I make multiple casts until I'm sure one isn't there.  Often, like trout fishing, getting that good drift or presentation might take more than one cast especially if the fish are picky and don't want to move far to chase your offering.  And, just because a spot is shallow, don't rule them out.  I've caught some decent size smallmouth in the summer holding behind a rock in the middle of the riffles!

Another method of catching smallmouth in small streams is fly fishing.  Matching the hatch, like trout, will often produce good numbers of bass.  Smallies will gorge on huge mayfly hatches, like the August white miller hatch.  They also like dragonflies, so watch the stream around you to get ideas.  Pay attention to any fish activity, what are they eating.  Often they will jump way out of the water to eat a dragonfly or damselfly.  Streamers and nymphs, especially crayfish, minnow, and hellgrammite imitations work wonderfully.  Don't forget topwater action, small poppers can bring many a smallie to the top.  You don't need much, maybe a 5 weight rod/line set up will do.  If you like using bigger flies, then by all means don't let that stop you, fishing a 7 weight will still catch fish.  You might not get the numbers that smaller flies do, but you'll get the size.

What equipment should you bring?  Well, it's up to you.  Typically, I wear a fishing vest with the pockets stuffed like they've never been stuffed before.  I have separate small boxes for my jigs, hooks/sinkers/rattles, and crankbaits.  I carry my spinnerbaits and buzzers in a Ziploc.  I'll stuff Ziploc bags full of my soft plastics into my vest pockets, each with it's own type and color.  I also carry extra spools for my reel, worm dye, worm glue, wacky rig tool, line clippers, braid scissors, forceps, a can of Reel Magic, bug spray, sunscreen, plenty of water, sometimes lunch depending on how long the wade.  Remember the movie, "A Christmas Story", where the Mom dresses up the little kid in his snow suit and layers of clothing, and he couldn't put his arms down?  My vest kind of resembles that.  Also, don't forget polarized sunglasses
--  oh --
that reminds me, polarized sunglasses are a must, because you often can sight fish ahead in the pools you are approaching.  If you can see fish and they don't see you first, you have a high probability to catch them.  Back to equipment, comfortable clothing if you wet wade or waders during cold weather.  Don't forget when it's cold to wear a wading belt.  I highly recommend wading shoes designed for wading streams.  I used to use felt studded soles, but my state has since banned the use of them, so now I use Simms wading shoes with the sticky vibram bottoms.  I have yet to try them but will write a review after my first trip in them.  Some people like to use a wading staff.  I don't use one because the small streams that I fish have very manageable flow.  Finally, I try to bring a camera with extra batteries or memory.  I used to keep mine in a Ziploc bag and that was OK, but I was always worried about it.  That camera expired due to constant abuse on my part, so I'm in the market for a new one.  There are ones that are now waterproof to say, 15 feet, and very durable.  I'm currently interested in the Sony version once my budget allows.  This will give me the ability to film fishing shots, scenery shots and perhaps underwater ones...and videos too.

A note about etiquette:  If you encounter others, don't wade through their pool.  If it's the only way around them, ask first, usually they will let you go.  Or, get out of the stream and walk around the entire pool away from the water so as to not spook their fish.  A better option is to turn around and go fish the other direction.  If you're fishing with a buddy, give your buddy equal chance at catching fish.  Either share the same pools if they are big enough, trading head and tail of pools each time, or take turns hitting the next pool first.  If you are floating, don't float over the areas shore anglers are fishing, i.e. the fish holding structure unless it's absolutely necessary, rather, position your kayak to float closer to them (unless the fish are between their legs).  Ask landowners permission if necessary, and carry out more than you take in as far as trash goes.  Pick up line that you might find on the stream side, etc.  And most of all, when in doubt, be courteous to others first.  There's plenty of fish to go around for everyone.

Another fun thing about fishing small streams is that there is a potential for catching a variety of species.  Often you can catch quite a mixed bag, which makes the trip more interesting sometimes.  In addition to smallmouth, in the streams that I've fished I've caught largemouth, walleye, chain pickerel, musky, redbreast sunfish, bluegills, pumpkinseeds, rock bass, warmouth, crappie, rainbow trout, channel catfish, black bullheads, fallfish, creek chubs, and carp.  I've probably left a few out.

Here's a nice chain pickerel that my buddy Bill, a.k.a. Genz Man, caught a few years ago on one of our small stream smallie trips.

Another cool thing, literally, about wading small streams is that during those hot dog days of summer, you can take your gear off, put it on a rock, and go for a swim.  I've really cooled off doing this in the deeper pools, often standing there letting the current run over the back of my neck while minnows feed on my leg hairs.  Sitting back against small stream riffles as if in an easy chair is also quite refreshing.

So, if you want to get away from it all, get to fish some awesome scenery, see wildlife action that most people may never see, catch lots of fish and maybe a big one now and then, try fishing for smallmouth bass on a small stream near you.

Finally, I'd like to dedicate this post to one of the best small stream anglers that I know, Jim Cumming a.k.a. Jim C. on  If it wasn't for him I would have missed out on all this.  I learned a lot from that guy!!!!!!!!!!  Thanks Jim!

Until next time, tight lines!