You will be allowed one style of plastic bait for smallmouth bass. One style to fish all year, to the exclusion of all else, by decree of the Tired Old Magistrate of Hackneyed Expressions (call him TOM). What would you choose?
Most would select tubes and do just fine. A 4-inch grub might be a better choice in many places. Tubes catch fish shallow and deep, but rarely excel for suspended fish. Grubs can catch smallmouths in all the places where tubes produce, and more. How about soft-plastic sticks? An excellent choice for the entire water column, but not for the entire year. Spider grubs? Effective, if only in a limited few situations, primarily right on bottom or along the face of bluff banks.
Plastic worms? Not as old as TOM, but a venerable choice. So I must be getting old, having watched the ersatz crawler develop from its infancy. I purchased the earliest Mister Twisters and pre-rigged K&E Plow Jockies and, like everyone around me, stood dumbstruck when they caught fish. Not just a few fish. Lots. Not just little fish, but state-fair-champion mud bathers.
But those were largemouth bass. Smallmouths seemed far less interested in purple worms. A plastic worm had to be purple back then, you see, or it wouldn’t catch anything. Black grape was ok. But a red worm? Get serious. While, as certain as the sun rises in the east, some codger will regale me with letters about how he positively smoked smallmouth bass with plastic worms back in the 1960s; it simply wasn’t fashionable then. Isn’t fashionable now.
I know at least 20 tournament smallmouth anglers who hope it stays that way. Unfortunately for them, it’s my answer to ol’ TOM.
Smallmouth worms are different. I’m not the world’s most prolific or well-travelled largemouth fisherman, but tell me if I’m wrong: Finesse worms catch small bass. I know, I know–many western-circuit bass tournaments are won with finesse worms on drop-shot rigs or presented on jigs in super-clear water. But how many real pigs are caught on tiny little 4-inch worms? Around here, it’s rare. To target truly huge largemouths in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (where “truly huge” means something over 6 pounds), we throw jig-n-pigs, crankbaits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, slop frogs–almost anything but a worm. Worms are for numbers when it comes to largemouths.
By contrast, the biggest smallmouths in any system will eat a properly presented worm. Last year, Jimmy and Billy Lindner won the Canadian Bass Fishing Championship with small plastic worms. My partner, Tim Dawidiuk, and I weighed the heaviest one-day stringer in the history of the Sturgeon Bay Open with the help of finesse worms.
In the past 24 months, I’ve been in the boat with some of the nation’s best tournament smallmouth anglers, and many of them said the plastic worm has become their confidence bait, and proved it by pulling one out every time the bite got tough. Two smallmouths that measured 23 inches came wallowing into my net last summer with plastic worms pinned tightly against their snouts.
Worms are versatile and can be presented on drop-shot rigs, Carolina rigs, Texas rigs, and all manner of jigs and hooks. Consequently, smallmouths take worms on shallow structure, deep structure, and suspended in between. Smallmouths eat worms in rivers, in lakes, in reservoirs, and in the Great Lakes.
But any ol’ worm won’t do. The best smallmouth worms are small–in the 4- to 6-inch range–and we usually cut the 6-inch worms back an inch. Color, texture, thickness, and action are equally critical and have to be carefully matched to every situation. But, rigged right,with the proper care given to all the variables involved, a worm is dangerously right for bronzebacks. Most of the time, nothing works better.
“In clear, cold water, sickletail worms are the best plastic option I’ve seen,” Dawidiuk said after the Sturgeon Bay affair last year, where he also guides for smallmouth bass. “You proved it to me. I’ve been working with it since, and rigging is critical. But, with the right rod, reel, and line, my clients can cast these things for miles and catch smallmouths they wouldn’t otherwise catch with a tube or a grub.”
The idea of swimming a plastic bait is old, but even old dogs get new ticks. A worm is, perhaps, at its best for smallmouths when brought back on a straight retrieve–no lift-drop of the rod tip, no speeding up, no slowing down, no drop, and no rise, just a straight, horizontal retrieve.
The trigger is in the action of the tail and the mesmerizing slow-and-steady progress of the bait through the water. Often as not, especially during spring and summer, smallmouths seem to gauge their chances of actually capturing prey by approaching it slowly and watching for a reaction. If they get really close and their target doesn’t spook, chances are they’ll bite–that’s if the bait looks, smells, and performs just right.
The right size, color, and action is critical with smallmouths. Smallmouth bass, as I mentioned, seem not to be worm-oriented in most environments when traditional tactics are employed. But the uncanny thing about worms is how well they imitate minnows. In minnow-imitating colors like smoke, smoke with metal flake, smoke with black flake, green smoke, white, salt-and-pepper, clear-blue, natural shad, amber with black flake, or any of a wide number of related shades, a swimming worm becomes a perfect minnow imitation.
The effectiveness of the worm at imitating minnows can be compared with certain streamers in your fly-fishing arsenal. A classic woolly bugger, for example, looks nothing like a minnow lying there in the fly box, with it’s chenille body and bushy marabou tail. Put it in the water, however, and nothing looks more like a minnow in the hands of an expert. The tail tapers down and comes alive, undulating this way and that with every puff of side current, every strip of line. By the same token, a worm looks nothing like a minnow in your hand. Put it in the water. On the right jig, in the right hands–presto. Magic minnow look-alike.
When rigged on jigs, actiontail worms in that magic 4- to 5 1/2-inch range look most like a minnow smallmouths want to eat. Most actiontails have a small sickletail or a fairly long rippletail. Either can be effective, depending on the time and place. Sickletails put out a constant but subtle pulse on a steady retrieve. It’s a hum rather than a buzz, compared with a 4-inch grub or a long actiontail. Sickletails like the Persuader Curly Tail and the Berkley 4-inch Power Worm excel in clear water, in highly pressured venues, after cold fronts, and in cold water.
“Snake tails” or rippletail worms put out as much vibration as a grub, but probably sound and feel different to nearby smallmouths. The profile is certainly different–long and slender. The blur of the tail imitates the swimming action of a minnow. Rippletails tend to excel in stained or cloudy water, during activity peaks and during summer or whenever the water is warm.
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