Drop Shot RiggingLate summer is awash in warm water, which sounds nice, but it means there’s less dissolved oxygen. The forage glut is in full swing. Fishing pressure grinds on. Big, deep smallmouth bass have seen it all and more. Angling gets tough.

“For Lake Erie bass, mid-summer means mid-July through September,” says Joe Balog, one of the nation’s foremost experts on smallmouths. “The tournament season starts the last week of June and runs through September. During August and September, deep drop-shot techniques have won more money than anything else for the past several years.”

Smallmouths have shifted into true summer patterns on deep, main-lake structures around the Great Lakes, and drop-shot rigs comprise the most effective way to fish deep. “It’s very efficient and very precise,” he says. “But more than that—it’s the only way to consistently catch big smallmouths on the Great Lakes in late summer. Down South you can fish ledges in 10 to 25 feet of water with deep cranks or Carolina rigs. You have more options on those TVA reservoirs. In the Great Lakes you’re fishing in big waves over deeper water, and those other methods aren’t always feasible.”

The tube game, once so popular and effective on Erie, is all but dead, according to Balog. “Drifting and dragging tubes still works,” he admits, “but for every smallmouth you hook, you catch a dozen sheepshead, most of which are 6 to 12 pounds. They make tube fishing almost impossible. Anything dragged on bottom dredges up big sheep, and you can’t afford that during a tournament. It takes 15 minutes to land a big gaspergou. Drop-shot methods produce fewer sheep and represent the ultimate in precision and placement. Moreover, a drop-shot rig is the only way to create a subtle presentation in big waves.”

Unlike the other Great Lakes, Erie can look nasty by late summer. “It’s brown or green from dense blooms of algae and plankton,” Balog says. “Smallmouths sometimes hold on structures only 12 feet deep. But those fish are susceptible to drop-shot rigs because of fishing pressure and those other factors. Big smallmouths have seen 10 summers of algae blooms and low oxygen, becoming really tough to catch at times.”

Specific Rim
Drop Shot RiggingAround the Great Lakes, Balog looks for “rim structure” during summer. Almost every lake has a soft floor covering its main basin. Somewhere that soft floor has a hard edge—the beginning of the lake’s “continental shelf,” for lack of a better term. After postspawn, smallmouths begin migrating down toward those last pieces of structure that gradually give way to the lake’s softer, sedimented floor.

When do smallmouths arrive on the rim? “You have to take conditions into account,” Balog says. “You can generally count on it happening by mid-July on the deepest structures. In some places, that might be 50 to 60 feet deep. On the other side of the lake, it might be 20 to 35 feet deep. Depth isn’t important. The outer edge of the last and deepest structure is key. You hear of people catching big smallmouths on a shallow reef that tops out in 12 to 15 feet of water sometimes, but not consistently. It mostly happens where the soft-bottom basin reaches up into shallower water. In late summer, big fish work the deep side of that reef—not like spring and early summer when they’re on the shallow side, or all over the top.”

Anglers can be boggled by vast Great Lakes structure. “Reefs can be 6 miles long and 3 miles wide,” he says. “Big bass and big schools consistently relate to the outside edges of the structure during late summer. The key areas are: 1) where the wind is blowing in; 2) the highest spot; and 3) the sharpest break into the basin. Special things happen when all three coincide. I key on the west break in a west wind.

“The predominant wind sets up currents that bring bait like a conveyor belt, positioning smallmouths on those sweet spots. Bass use key spots on ledges in reservoirs down South the same way. With an Aqua-Vu you may see that a good spot has only 10 to 15 bass, but they’re all big. That crucial spot, created by the intersection of structure, wind, and current, always draws the biggest fish. Do they run off the smaller specimens? I don’t know—but I hardly ever catch bass smaller than 31⁄2 pounds on rim structure when things are right.

“You catch small bass mixed with large ones on a lake like St. Clair, which lacks deep structure. On shallower lakes, you catch a mix on key spots with thick vegetation. And you have more presentation options. But you often find the drop shot excels there, too. It gets on target immediately, so even in rough water it’s efficient. At the same time, a drop-shot rig is extremely subtle. These big bass are old and they’ve been fished for years. At times, drop-shot plastics are the only thing they open their mouths for.”

Seeing Deep and Sideways
Drop Shot RiggingBass pro Joe Balog says the most important tool for successfully applying the deep drop-shot technique is a side-imaging sonar unit. “I received the first Humminbird side-imaging unit on Lake Erie and immediately saw it as vital,” he says. “Some key spots don’t look productive on 2-D sonar. The last seams of rock bordering the soft basin are hard to find. They show on a graph, but they stand out much better with side-imaging. That final piece of rock that forms the outer edge of the structure is a huge find. Don’t lose it.”

When side-imaging shows a rock finger reaching toward the basin flat, he scrolls over with the cursor and creates a waypoint. “When you come over a spot, side-imaging tells you exactly what you’re looking at. You see the difference between clay and rock, and you can see why one spot is going to be hot and the other not, even though they look similar on sonar.

The final rocks can stick out into the softer substrates and those protrusions are gathering points. Sometimes you see a boulder set into the clay. Scroll over with the cursor and put a waypoint on it so you can accurately drop on the key spot with the most precise method—deep drop-shot rigging. It’s one of the most valuable methods for bass fishing on the Great Lakes. An Aqua-Vu is a powerful tool, too—but I’d have to say side-imaging is even more effective for finding key spots on a daily basis.”

Plastics And Scent
“A number of plastics I’ve used with drop-shot rigging have come and gone in terms of effectiveness,” Balog says. “That could be due to popularity and pressure. The ones I continue to use most are the Yamamoto Shad-Shaped Worm, the Jackall Crosstail Shad, and the Poor Boys Goby. Goby shapes have been less effective the past few years despite the abundance of those fish. Little finesse worms like Strike King’s Finesse Worm or KVD Dream Shot are great. Other times, the Roboworm is it, or a Berkley Gulp! Finesse Worm. I use the Gulp! 5-inch Sinking Minnow, too. That bait was better than live leeches at one time, but not so much now. Trigger X was awesome 2 or 3 years ago and last year less so on Erie. But on St. Clair you didn’t even need to move it. They ate it consistently.”

Balog is a firm believer in scent. “I always add scent to drop-shot baits. Smallmouths have time to inspect and I think it’s critical in summer. I use garlic scents. Right now I’m using Kick’N Bass and I soak ‘em. I can smell the garlic on my partner’s bait in the back of the boat when he lifts it out of the water to cast again. That’s how much garlic we’re using. Pros swear the garlic-impregnated baits work consistently better than unscented baits. If it isn’t impregnated with garlic, I put scent in the bag and let it soak all summer.”

He uses 4- to 5-inch worms mostly, but occasionally 7-inchers. “I’m not afraid to try bigger baits,” he says. “It might only be a 10-percent solution, but sometimes they want a bigger bait. I don’t worry about color. Most of my baits are smoke, purple, and green pumpkin. But I’m more concerned about scent.”

Deep-Drop Tackle
“For me, deep means 25 feet or more,” Balog says. “Drop-shot rigging on the West Coast is popular but quite different from Great Lakes methods. On these massive waters, wind creates big waves and you must have two things, the right rod and the right hook.”

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