Coming across the perfect rod is an epiphany. It’s like Christmas morning, only better. Instead of a polka dot tie and new underwear you get a piece of the puzzle that fits, a tool that launches longer casts, presents baits better, and drives solid hooksets. With a smooth reel right for balance and retrieve speed, joy results.
The joy of handling perfect equipment should never be underestimated. Days with no fish can be almost delightful with rods and reels that cast smoothly, operate smoothly, deliver optimum sensitivity, and feel light in hand. Just ask Rob Neumann, our managing editor. Rich Belanger of St. Croix sent me a new Avid AVS80MLM2 last summer, an 8-foot rod built for light line. I took the rod into Neumann’s office. He was intrigued enough that fishing, try as we might, suddenly seemed impossible to avoid.
We looked around the office and found an Abu Garcia Cardinal C40LX spinning reel that balanced, filled it with 4-pound Trilene XT and slipped out without anybody seeing us. It would be nice to describe how well the rod worked, but you’ll have to ask Neumann. He never set it down all day, happily outfishing me 3 to 1 while I tried to find something that would work better (we were on my spots, after all, so I prefer to think the rod had something to do with it). He was skeptical about using line so light, but boating a couple 4 pounders encouraged him to hang onto that rod until the sun dipped into the trees. Which was fine. Several days later I understood why he never put it down. It was brilliant. It loaded perfectly with 1/16-ounce jig-plastic combos and sent them way out there. It was exquisite for feeling light takes, functional at setting hooks and a joy to play big fish with. And joy (did I mention this already?) should never be underestimated. Matching sensual pleasure at that level with everything else you do to catch smallmouths can be discovered right here.
Cranks, Suspending Baits, Topwaters
One rod cannot suffice for crankbaits. The discussion, in fact, is detailed enough to demand an entire article. Most fisheries, and most smallmouth cranks, when used with braided line, call for a medium-light spinning stick, in my opinion. (Which is also the perfect choice for light topwaters, like poppers.) Many pros today use fiberglass casting rods for cranks, and G. Loomis makes a hybrid glass-carbon Deep Flex rod with an almost parabolic bend for this purpose (the CBR803 DF, rated for 8- to 14-pound line, is right for smallmouths).
On big reservoirs, the Great Lakes, and big natural lakes, most good anglers opt for casting gear, monofilament line and medium to medium-heavy fiberglass rods. For those who prefer to throw cranks with mono, the new Fenwick Elite Tech Crankshaft 50-50 (ECC70M-MF) has a glass top and a stiff graphite butt, facilitating both the retrieve and the hookset. But for those who fish braided line, medium-light power performs much the same way in a graphite blank. The main reason for employing medium-light power is the positive reaction of the rod when retrieving cranks. Resistance from the bill of the crank loads the rod almost half way, leaving little bend to remove on the hookset while leaving a smallmouth little chance to relieve pressure once it touches the point of a hook.
So my favorite crankin’ stick is the St. Croix Avid AVS70MLF because it loads as mentioned, and it’s a spinning rod. Spinning gear casts farther and covers more ground with cranks when coupled with an American-made Ardent 2500 S filled with braided line, and the same combo happens to be perfect for throwing suspending baits and light topwaters, too. With its tight tolerances, the Ardent continues getting smoother with time, and the braided line allows cranks to dig deeper, and relieves the need for excess power to set hooks. Warning: This rod will feel too light and underpowered the first time you retrieve a crank with it. Don’t let that stop you from working with it until you hook and land a few fish. Let some of the power requirement transfer to the line. Braid can handle it. At that point you understand how perfect this rod is for light topwaters, suspending baits and cranks when the target is a big smallmouth bass. Once they touch the lure, they’re not going anywhere until you have them in the boat.
But I’m a heretic so what do I know? Chris Beeksma, a smallmouth guide in Wisconsin, prefers casting gear for the giant smallmouths of Chequamegon Bay. “I use the St. Croix LTBC70 MHM Deep Cranker for all my crankbait fishing, even with shallow runners like the Rapala DT 4,” Beeksma said. I think the heavier rod gives me better control, especially when pausing, moving or ripping a crank. And it’s a great lipless crankbait rod. Always thought I wouldn’t mind a longer crankbait rod and voila, St Croix comes out with the 7-foot 10-inch LTBC710HM Magnum Cranker for deep diving cranks, those 16- to 20-foot divers. This rod just tames those bad boys, and the extra length is perfect for long casting, for making cranks change direction, and for handling the extra weight, yet it’s extremely sensitive for scraping bills on bottom.” Beeksma matches his cranking needs with a Shimano Chronarch 200 SF for distance, a 6:1 retrieve ratio, and smooth delivery.
The case has been started for the Avid AVS70MLF as an all-purpose rod. It works well with anything light, including jigs, tubes, spinnerbaits, and drop-shot rigs. But Beeksma likes a different all-around stick. “Many if not most of my clients prefer spinning rods and the St. Croix Legend Tournament LTBS70MF is what I have my clients use 75percent of the time for tubes, worms, topwaters, jerkbaits, and spinnerbaits,” he said. “It’s a great all around rod for folks who cannot afford or just don’t want specific rods for specific tactics.”
Cory Schmidt, field editor for In-Fisherman, is big on swimbaits. He throws a variety of hard-body swimbaits for smallmouths. “Rod characteristics need to be very specific,” he said. “Swimbaits tend to be heavy, so the cast is more of a lob. The tip has to be fairly soft, yet the spine requires better than average power to achieve any distance. And you don’t haul back and pop the hookset like you do with other techniques. When you feel a thump, drop the rod tip down, reel up and sweep set or you’ll miss.
“The soft tip is the number one thing. In order to propel the baits and in order to set the hook, there’s a delay. You can’t just set. You’ll lose most fish. Just reel down and sweep to load the rod. Typically, with smallmouths, you’re not using the big swimbaits. The 4 inchers are optimum. So I use a Shimano 7-foot Crucial CRC-X70M rod and Shimano 1200 Citica reel to throw lipless swimmers like the jointed Castaic Catch 22, and the Tru Tungsten Tru-Life 4-inch swimbaits. Heavy baits like these balance better with casting gear, in my opinion.”
When using soft boottail swimbaits (the kind that demand tying on a jig or hook), Schmidt prefers spinning gear. “These are not technically swimbaits,” he said. “For action-tail plastics like the Castaic Jerky J on a jighead, I use a St. Croix Premier 7-foot medium-power rod with 15-pound Power Pro and a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader to match with 1/4- to 3/8-ounce heads. You’re swimming it, not jigging it. My reel of choice, in that case, would be the Daiwa M-Cast. There are certain times when each of the two primary types of swimbait becomes an awesome choice for smallmouths.” Be ready when it happens.
Continued – click on page link below.
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