A Generation of Finesse Bass
February 06, 2014
It's been 25 years since my in-depth look at finesse fishing appeared on the pages of In-Fisherman. Drop-shot. Shaky head. Spiderweb-thin braid '¨with a fluorocarbon leader. The hottest topics in finesse fishing didn't even exist back in '87. A lot has changed in a quarter decade. More bass still are in a neutral to negative frame of mind at any given moment than are feeding actively. And when dealing with neutral and negative '¨fish, small, subtle baits in muted tones, combined with slow motion, rule the day. So has '¨anything changed in 25 years?
I guess we should start by defining, or redefining, the term in the first place. Some equate finesse to light line and small, lightweight lures. True, many of the best finesse bass presentations are small and benefit from use on light line. But in my book, finesse is more a matter of mindset than tackle selection.
Getting a lure that appears edible and vulnerable close enough to the fish, for long enough to elicit a positive response given the fish's activity state, equals finesse fishing success. Sometimes, a chartreuse crankbait burning by 8 feet away is close enough for long enough. Other times, it might take a weightless 4-inch worm undulating through the water as it drifts naturally toward a bass, mere inches away, to get bit. Between those extremes, there are endless levels of aggressiveness and activity. Cashing in when the fish are closer to the latter mood than the former is what finesse fishing was all about 25 years ago, and it's what it's all about today.
I think of finesse fishing as conning fish into biting. Working your way into the fish's zone of awareness in a natural, non-threatening way, providing no potentially off-putting clues to your intent. Appearing edible, vulnerable and available, and letting the fish take advantage of you of its own accord. And by "you" of course I mean your lure.
The challenge is knowing when and where to invest time in trying to tempt a fish that may or may not even be there. You need to identify spots that are worth the effort to go the slow and tedious route, and employ those tactics when and where they're appropriate. Toward that end, one of the most important things I ever learned in fishing is the relationship between a fish's activity state and its position.
Active/aggressive bass tend to position themselves "high and outside" in relation to structure and cover, where their zone of visual awareness is greatest. Typically, they're ready and willing biters. Inactive/non-aggressive ones tend to position "low and inside," where their sense of security is highest. And they're not typically anxious to visit the inside of your boat.
The Relationship Between Fish Activity and Position
To me, recognizing and then fishing according to the relationship between activity level and position is the most important part of becoming a successful finesse fisherman. Finesse tactics are slow and tedious. Directing these tactics to spots where they have the greatest likelihood of producing a return on your time and effort investment is paramount. But — at least until you start to feel an activity-related pattern developing, it's equally important to check the high and outside positions with tactics appropriate for more active fish as well. We need to recognize this relationship exists, pay close attention to the configuration of the structure and cover as we fish, and tune our tactics to each specific area and spot.
High and outside fish are usually easiest to catch, and it makes sense to check for their availability before resorting to the more time consuming approach of trying to squeeze bass that are reluctant to bite out of the cracks and crannies. How much effort you put into techniques toward one end of the spectrum or the other defines your fishing approach. High energy guys are always about covering water, looking for active biters. Finesse guys are more willing to slow down and find a way to catch the non-chewers. I'm a finesse guy, so you know how I lean when making these judgements.
The activity level/position relationship exists on all levels. In the large scope view, look for aggressive feeders higher in the water column, on the end of points and other outside curves in the structural configuration. Expect to find negative/neutral fish on inside turns, closer to the bottom. Presentation-wise, expect aggressive strikes as you skim the top or edge of a stump or boulder with a horizontal approach. Conversely, expect to spend time with a more vertical approach, trying to tempt fish out from under an exposed root, stump, or crevice between boulders.
For largemouth bass, finesse tactics pay off best when you get the lure into the tightest places and leave it there long enough that even the least attentive bass notice it and hopefully give it a try. With smallies, on the other hand, finesse tactics work best whenever they aren't chasing. But instead of trying to get into the cover, you need to identify key elements on large structures and concentrate your efforts there. The whole "spot on a spot" concept comes into play in a big way with brown fish.
I think it might be in the area of tackle that the finesse approach has evolved the most since we last looked into this subject in depth. Twenty five years ago, my finesse tackle consisted of three or four spinning rods, all carrying 6-pound mono. These days, I don't use mono for anything but a leader tied to the braid on my topwater rod, and the finesse selection in my rod box includes two drop-shot rods with 6-pound fluorocarbon, an 8-pound-test "grub rod" that's used for grubs, open hook or wire guard jig-and-worm combos and other small jigs, and a heavier-action spinning rod with 8- or 10-pound fluoro that sees duty with a grub on occasion, but is just as likely to be rigged with a weedless jig and a small worm or creature bait, or with a wacky-rigged 5- or 6-inch worm. There's even a medium-heavy casting rod spooled with 10-pound fluoro that always has a lightly weighted, weedless rigged creature bait on hand that I consider part of my finesse arsenal.
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Thin braid with a fluorocarbon leader is a common choice for finesse anglers these days, and it's one I've tried many times over the past 10 or 15 years. Unfortunately, despite the advantages it brings, I've never been able to get comfortable fishing finesse stuff on that setup. I've rigged a drop-shot rod with spider web-thin braid, tied on a 6-pound fluoro leader, and marveled at the sensitivity and lack of line twist, then gone hours without a bite before picking up my rod rigged with straight 6-pound Tatsu and started catching fish. More than once or twice, too.
Before braid, I always said that there was no such thing as too thin, too supple, or too sensitive when it came to fishing line for finesse tactics. Braided line proved me wrong. It might be in my head, but I can't seem to fish the light stuff effectively if I feel the connection to the hook that comes with thin braid. Perhaps the movements of the lure are less fluid when they're linked more directly to my hand/rod movements by the lack of stretch and bow in the line. Whatever it is, the difference in my catch rate when fishing light stuff that way is real. Thus in the finesse world, I forego the advantages that braid offers. I'll take more bites over a higher landing percentage any day.
The #1 physical "kick" in fishing for me has always been feeling the bite and setting the hook. Fighting the fish is great. Landing the fish is great. But the satisfaction that comes from recognizing a bite, then swinging and feeling weight at the other end — to me that can't be beat. And I get it more often fishing straight fluoro on my finesse rigs. Mix in the wind knots and the failed leader knots that braid inevitably brings to the mix, and for me, the choice of straight fluoro is easy.
Moreover, the 6-pound fluoro I use today is such an improvement over the 6-pound mono of 25 years ago that I'd never consider spooling the latter again. It's thinner, has less stretch at the low end of the pull curve, and perhaps most importantly, it sinks. Although fluoro eventually stretches as much as mono under load, the amount of stretch under a light pull is less, resulting in a noticeable improvement in sensitivity.
Twenty-five years ago, I was fanatical about the lightest, thinnest line I could get away with, and used 6- and 4-pound for all my finesse applications. Eight pound? Heresy! But as thin and sensitive as today's fluoros are, I've added a somewhat heavier-action spinning rod spooled with 8- and occasionally 10-pound test to my finesse arsenal. I call it my heavy grub rod
Some find it surprising that it was smallmouth bass that led me to add some slightly heavier gear to my finesse selection. Specifically, it was Great Lakes smallmouths. Drifting tubes and grubs on Ontario and Erie often entails 3/8-ounce or heavier jigheads that I felt overpowered my standard finesse gear. Once I had the 10-pound class finesse gear on hand, it ended up proving just as useful for largemouth fishing. I'm doing many of the same things with it I did with 6- pound mono 25 years ago, and enjoying a much more secure connection to the fish once I'm hooked up. None of which should be construed to mean that there's no use for 6-pound rigs in today's finesse world.
Improvements in rod building technology (stronger and lighter construction) and in spinning reels (especially in the drag) are a boon to most finesse anglers as well. But I've been building my spinning rods or having them built with plain cork, Tennessee handles for years and I still prefer the feel of a Tennessee handle to the latest, high tech, light-weight reel seats. And 50-some years into the serious angling game, I still feel that back-reeling is a better way to battle a fish on light gear than relying on even the best drag system, so drag advances are rather meaningless to me.
Lures and Techniques
Back in 1987, my original finesse article generated more reader response than perhaps anything I've ever written. A lot of that response was prompted by the perceived lack of variety in my finesse lure selection. While that selection has naturally evolved in the past 25 years, I'm not sure that it's gotten much broader. The reasons for the narrow selection are rooted in my finesse philosophy:
* Most of the prey that bass in the tight confines of low and inside positions encounter survives by blending with the aquatic background and doing its best not to be noticed. I generally try to mimic those characteristics with my finesse lures. You don't need a lot of color options when you're trying to blend in with a background that's mostly greens, browns, and grays.
* The appearance of vulnerability is high on the list of bite-inducing characteristics in finesse fishing. Smaller sizes and limited movement contribute greatly to this cause, while also narrowing the lure choice field.
* Eliminating potentially negative or alarming cues from a lure's appearance or action is far more important to finesse success than adding what are meant to be positive ones.
So my finesse philosophy doesn't leave a lot of room for variety. It's kind of limited to small plastics in a narrow color selection and the terminal rigs to fish them on.
It should come as no surprise that my most used finesse tactic nowadays is the drop-shot rig. To my way of thinking, the advantage of the drop-shot is simple. The weight is for casting and for getting the rig near bottom. But once the weight is on bottom, the presentation is that of an unweighted soft plastic lure. The natural, drifting action of an unweighted soft plastic has shown its worth in triggering bites from non-aggressive fish time and again. The drop-shot rig provides a means of taking that natural, unweighted action into deeper water, quickly and easily.
When drop-shotting started to prove its worth, I did what I always do with new techniques. I immersed myself in it. I experimented with everything about it. Realistic minnow imitating baits versus traditional plastic worms. Baits with swimming tails versus those with straight or flat tails. Stiffer, gliding baits versus floppier baits., and more.
I still experiment when I run across something new or interesting. All my experiments over the years led me to try to combine the slinky, floppy action of a soft, thin worm with the bulky appearance of a fatter worm, which in turn led me to relying more on worms with a ringed body. They look fat as the rings define the outer profile, but their flexibility results from the reduced diameter between the rings.
For the past 6 or 7 years, I've caught at least half my bass each season on a drop-shot rig. The overwhelming majority of those have come on a ringed-body worm. Unfortunately, most ringed worms carry that skinny inner diameter all the way up to the head, making them fragile when you try to rig them on a jighead or Texas rig them.
I talked Herb Reed of Lunker City into building a ringed worm with a fatter internal diameter at the front end for rigging versatility and a tail that sports a smaller inside diameter to maximize the floppiness. The result is the Ribster and it's the only drop-shot worm that's always been in my box for the last several years. Motor oil, ayu and something called grapevine make up my primary color selection, although there's always some smoke and black to try if my usual colors don't feel right on a given day.
Back in the day, I used a lot of marabou jigs, but when real marabou disappeared from the market and was replaced by turkey marabou, I never found the shorter, less supple jigs tied with it to be nearly as effective, and I eventually stopped carrying them. I do still use some hair jigs, but limit their use to smallmouth fishing in extremely cold water.
Shaky heads? I still prefer to fish a small worm on an open jighead if the cover's not too nasty. And when it is nasty, I usually go with a more streamlined head design than the typical shaky head. My choice is Fin-Tech's Title SHot head. The 1/16-ounce model has a 2/0 hook that works well with light finesse rods and the 3/0 hook on the 1/8- through 1/4-ounce sizes works fine with the 8-pound fluoro on my heavy grub rod, as well as with the 10-pound on the casting rod I use for creature bait finessing. They have a great Shaky Head in the Title SHot series, but I find the more streamlined head a more comfortable fit most of the time.
I still prefer to put a grub, 4-inch worm, or mini-creature bait on an open-hook jighead when cover allows or, when fishing moderate cover, a head with a simple, wire weedguard. I carry football and round-head jigheads with twin wire weedguards and fairly small (1/0 and 2/0) light- wire hooks from 1/16 to 1/4 ounce for this purpose.
I use the same selection of Ribsters for jig-worming as I do for drop-shoting, and I'm also big on small creature baits these days. Not that I always start with a mini creature, but I often break off the head and the livelier appendages to make a smaller bait that also has less going on, action-wise. The less commotion it creates, the more vulnerable it looks, and in finesse fishing, that's a good thing.
Of course if the water's under 60°F, I still can't get by without my little smoke and motor oil colored boot-tail grubs. My old reliable, the smoke Sassy Grub from Mr. Twister, has long been discontinued. I thought I'd acquired a lifetime supply when I still had the chance. I'm nursing the last few hundred now. But fear not. This past season, I substituted a somewhat larger, but still small, swimbait for the old reliable, boot-tail grub, and hardly missed my old favorite.
Finessing typically involves small lures, so if you're in water where both bass species thrive, you're going to catch smallies, even when you're not targeting them. But by taking those finesse techniques away from tight inside corners and out into the open lake, you can often get into smallie heaven.
The last couple years, one of my favorite finesse techniques for smallies has been a small swimbait on a football head, and fishing it as a grub, just dragging bottom very slowly on hard-bottom, elevated spots on the floor of the main lake. It might be roadbeds on an impoundment or shell beds or rock ridges on a natural lake. Smallmouth bass love those spots in the late summer through fall, and what's more fun than a big brown bass on 6- or 8-pound test.
The drop-shot rig is another great tool on open water smallie spots, with the advantage of allowing you to fish a heavier weight, while maintaining the natural drift of an unweighted plastic. I've had particularly good success with drop-shot worms in minnow color patterns when smallie fishing. My favorite color for drop-shot baits for smallies is ayu. It's basically a greenish back, over a pale gold pearl belly. But if the water has a little tint to it, out comes the motor oil pepper.
Neither power-fishing nor finesse-fishing — nor anything in between — holds the ultimate answer to fishing consistency. All are tools to help solve the riddle of where and how to catch bass on any given outing and then to capitalize on what you've learned. Every angler will find a balance between the power side of the equation and the finesse side that suits him. My balance is more toward the finesse side than many anglers. I still usually start with a more horizontal approach, using moving baits and keying on the high and outside positions, looking for easy biters. But if the fish aren't obviously in suicide mode, it doesn't usually take me long before I've got the grub rod or the drop-shot rod in hand and I'm exploring the nooks and crannies looking for a sign of life from a less aggressive bass.
Still, as I move around the lake or river, the jerkbait, spinnerbait, or crankbait is still within easy reach, to check obvious high-percentage points, looking for easy bites. Catch a few at any time, and I might not put it down again. And tomorrow I might be more inclined to stick with it longer and harder before reaching for the light, slow stuff. But my own power-finesse balance doesn't let me fish the up tempo approach too long before I start thinking about the fish I'm bypassing, fishing past those inside turns and crevices. It takes steady action to make more than a couple hours go by without me checking for less active, but still catchable fish. Can't imagine that will change much over the next however many years I fish, either.
*Rich Zaleski, Stevenson, Connecticut, wrote his first article for In-Fisherman in April, 1979. Across the decades, he's been one of the most astute anglers and writers we've worked with.