Even though I have seen it so often over so many years, I still find it remarkable that seemingly small things can be so critical in finally getting fish to bite. One moment there are no fish (for all practical purposes), the next, with just a lure tweak here, a lure change there, or a modest technique modification like a slight change in retrieve, the fish are all over you—they’re everywhere and they’re big to boot. It’s calculated magic—but, as we all know, until it falls into place, it’s a puzzle.
I recently mentioned experimenting for two years with casting spoons for smallmouth bass, before finally getting it right, during at least one yearly period. Now it remains for me (and perhaps you) to try it during seasons besides fall. I’m thinking the method probably works at times all summer, too, when smallmouths are holding in water about 8 to 30 feet deep.
I’ve mostly been using the 5/8-ounce Luhr-Jensen Tony Spoon, which I call a paranormal smallmouth spoon because it looks more like a traditional option for pike. Slab spoon and vertical jigging this isn’t. I’m casting and retrieving, which calls for a bit of a different spoon design.
Coupled with a 10- or 14-pound fused line and a medium-action 7-foot casting or spinning outfit I can make gigantic casts, so this is a method that covers a lot of water. Let the spoon drop on a semi-slack line. Once it hits bottom, the line goes slack and you give the rod tip a sharp upward lift of about 3 feet, then let the spoon fall again on a semi-slack line back to the bottom, following it with your rod tip and reeling as it drops.
This gives the spoon an intense wobble-flash action on the upswing, and an erratic knuckle-ball-like action on the fall, as you can’t control exactly how the spoon moves as it drops back. The retrieve is a constant rip-fall, rip-fall, with the angler watching line on the drop back for a telltale tic. Other times the fish is just there on the next up-stroke and you don’t see or feel your line move.
You catch a lot of pike, walleyes, and largemouths fishing spoons like this too. With those fish, you often see or feel a tic in the line as they take, because much of the time they’re hitting the spoon on the drop. Smaller smallmouths do that a lot too. And that was the trouble with my experimentation. I was catching decent smallmouths, but never anything exceptional.
The transformation came in reconsidering the nature of the smallmouth and in changing the retrieve process. As we have long taught, understanding the nature of the fish species being pursued is fundamental to finding and catching fish, but the presentation process—finding just the right combination of rod, reel, and line, and then just the right lure for the situation, working it in just the right way, is what finally puts fish in the boat or on the bank.
The smallmouth is one of the most discriminating and discerning and intelligent of all our fish—and, perhaps as a matter of having such street smarts, it’s also perhaps the single most curious fish in freshwater. Those characteristics intensify in older, often larger smallmouths. They’ve been around a long time. As I said: street smarts.
Where smallmouths are concerned, retrieves often need to be just erratic enough to be highly curious—yet still just barely catchable. Said another way: The retrieve shouldn’t be so predictable that it’s identifiable. Curious. Not quite identifiable—yet at the same time at some point barely catchable.
So instead of slowing down in that cold-water situation I did the opposite. As soon as the spoon touched down, I ripped it back up as hard as I could. I concentrated entirely on ripping the spoon up again within a nanosecond of it touching down, time after time after time, all the way through the retrieve until it was about 50 feet from the boat, which is about when the retrieve becomes too vertical to work well.
Time after time the fish were just there on the up-rip. And big fish, not just run of the mill fish, although smaller fish were biting too. So it was the retrieve coupled with the nature of the fish that got them going. The fish were chasing, chasing, chasing, never quite able to get a handle on what the thing was, until finally—finally—they took a shot at pinning the thing on the bottom. The key was driving them crazy with the retrieve until they couldn’t stand it. I don’t know how far some of the fish might follow before they take a crack at the spoon. After several days on the water I could at times begin to tell I’d soon get hit, because I could feel fish swimming by and missing—or just touching the line as they swam by, trying to get a handle on what this thing was.
This is part of what each In‑Fisherman issue is about—lessons in the process I just outlined. Many of the strategies we write about step far beyond current tradition. Other times, the strategies are but a slight modification of current trends—or an attempt to capture a trend as it unfolds. Whatever it takes. It’s calculated magic.