Drop Shot Retrieves for Smallmouth Bass
May 20, 2013
Drop and wobble. Sits there. Boing, boing, boing. Whoopee. Anchor up. Could be a while. Drop-shot rigs. Not really boring so much as stationary. That's what they're made for. Or are they?
What if bass are suspended? Can you swim a drop-shot? Yes. But why swim a drop-shot rig through the middle of the water column? Because you can. Drop-shot rigs can move, baby. They can hug bottom while moving horizontally at a strictly controlled pace. By playing with weight and speed, you can swim plastics anywhere in the water column with a drop-shot rig.
"Swim" conjures the image of a jig-plastic combo gliding through the water on a horizontal plane. But a drop-shot rig can employ heavier weights to keep moving and entice bass. It's the same principle employed when backtrolling for walleyes with a 3-way rig. With certain advantages.
The swim-drop method is especially intriguing because it offers the option of maintaining constant bottom contact while swimming steadily along, so you know exactly where it is in relation to bottom at greater speeds. And it allows you to swim things slowly near bottom with more consistency and control in deeper water. Slow-rolling plastics with jigs, by comparison, is more of a guessing game in water deeper than 12 feet.
Sometimes bass won't rise up for a lure. In some environments, they can't even see it up there. And, when they can't see it up there, why not swim a drop-shot rig through the middle of the water column?
Where It Began: Drop Shot Retrieves for Smallmouth Bass
Marc Marcantonio, tackle designer, tournament pro, and charter member of BASS, began his bass career in Delaware and now resides in Steilacoom, Washington. He's been winning a few tournaments along the way. "Swimming drop-shots through the middle of the water column is a technique that, as far as I know, we were the first to use on a regular basis," he says. "We began in 2002 and we've won a lot of money with that technique."
Marcantonio uses the drop-shot as a mid-column, horizontal technique in clear water or whenever he's marking bass up high. He won with it at the Tournament of Champions on the Columbia River. "When bass are on suspended baitfish or looking up, drop-shot rigging offers a bevy of advantages for swimming techniques," he says. "It allows you to use soft plastics in ways you can't duplicate with any other kind of rigging. And it's not smallmouth specific. I've caught largemouths over 9 pounds and spots over 7 pounds swimming drop-shots through the middle of the water column."
Along with cranks, suspending baits, and plastics on jigs, Marcantonio says swimming a drop-shot offers one more way to imitate baitfish mid-column. "It's distinct from those other techniques because you're able to shake the rod tip throughout the retrieve to create a lifelike up-and-down motion added to the horizontal motion," he says. "With highly active fish you can burn it at crankbait speeds while adding vertical movement. We use drop-shots like most people use swimbaits. With weight below the bait, rod-tip action is imparted directly to the plastic instead of the lead. The result is an imitation of a feeding, troubled, wounded, or distracted minnow."
To add action, Marcantonio prefers a rod of average length. "I typically use a Lamiglas 6-foot 6-inch spinning stick with a 3-power rating," he says. "Sometimes I use a Lamiglas 703, the same action in a 7-foot blank, but I prefer the shorter rod because it's easier to impart the shaking action. Cast, let it sink to the depth you want to exploit, and start slowly turning the handle. We constantly move the bait, holding the rod tip parallel to the water while shaking the belly in the line between rod tip and water by bouncing the rod tip. Pay attention to the distance the rod tip is moving up-and-down so you can duplicate it. The idea is to combine vertical and horizontal movement."
Marcantonio spools with 6-pound Yamamoto Sugoi Fluorocarbon line. "Most of the waters out here are oligotrophic and extremely clear," he says. "Fluorocarbon provides stealth, but also better feel and hook-setting because it has less stretch than mono. Since I'm nose-hooking plastics most of the time, I don't need to set the hook. They're stuck instantly, so it's not really critical to fish with the rod tip down."
He then uses a Palomar knot to tie on a size #4 Gamakatsu Drop-Shot hook. "When drop-swimming in shallow, clear water with 4-inch or smaller soft plastics, I leave a 5-inch dropper and clip on a 1/16-ounce QuickDrop in calm water, or 1/8-ouncer in a slight breeze. It's deadly on shallow flats where smallies collect during prespawn. Later, when bass suspend deeper, I typically use a 10-inch dropper with a 3/16-ounce QuickDrop. If I want a faster retrieve I upsize to 1/4-ounce, and so on.
"The key is finding the proper weight," he says. "It didn't exist, so I designed QuickDrops by West Coast Tackle & Co. Line twist can be a problem with this technique, so this teardrop weight has the entire swivel outside the lead — providing two swivel points instead of one. The molds were computer designed for hydro- and aerodynamics. It has a compact shape for its size, making it less obtrusive. It's balanced to cast farther, doesn't spin, and the patented quick clip works with 2- to 50-pound mono. I want the lightest weight I can get away with in the middle of the water column, so I use 1/16-ounce in calm conditions and 1/8-ounce in normal conditions."
Marcantonio likes thin plastics for drop-swimming. "We can impart more action with thin worms or baits with thin tails like the 4-inch Roboworm, the Yamamoto Shad Shape Worm, or the Basstrix Bait Fry and Flashtrix," he says. "But the technique works with any soft plastic — straight or action tail. You can fish it faster than a spinnerbait or slower than a Carolina rig, depending on the amount of weight used, the depth, the speed of the reel, and the pace you establish with the reel handle."
The Bottom Swim
"Just to be clear, I also drop-swim along bottom," Marcantonio adds. "It's basically the same thing, except I'm using a heavy enough QuickDrop to hug the bottom and move quickly, upsizing to 3/8 or 1/2 ounce on a longer 12-inch dropper. In wind I use a 3/4- or 1-ounce QuickDrop. Since the weight is below the hook, and on the bottom, bass don't seem to mind the heavy weight."
I always viewed drop-swimming as a method for exploiting fish on the bottom. When bass won't come up and you need to cover water, drop-swimming became a natural extension of a favorite technique — swimming jigs with grubs, worms, and swimbaits. But drop-swimming keeps a Kalin's Grub or Berkley Power Worm closer to bottom with much more consistency and speed control than a jig when bass refuse to rise in depths exceeding 8 feet. At 10 feet, it's far easier to clip on a different weight to change speeds than it is to retie.
At 20 feet, it's no contest. When smallmouths use rock reefs in those depths on Lake Ontario or Lake Erie, guide Frank Campbell drop-swims down the breaks. "At that depth, you have to make super long casts with light line," he says. "I use 6-pound Cajun Fluorocarbon with a tiny SPRO swivel. You can use the same technique shallow. I drop-swim when sight-fishing around boulders, too. Around rocky cover, a drop-shot rig is less likely than a jig to snag, making it more efficient. On a deep rock hump, reef, or outcropping, it keeps the bait just off bottom. I nose-hook a 4-inch Gulp! Sinking Minnow most of the time, pulling it off the back end of a reef or outcropping. With a drop-shot rig, you know when the bait reaches the break, which is key. Smallies often hit the bait as it slides down the back end of the structure at 38 to 45 feet. I think they're just getting out of the current to ambush feed, but it's a common deal. I caught my biggest bass in the Everstart Tournament on Erie last year sliding a drop-shot rig down the backside of a rock hump."
Campbell uses the lightest sinker possible, but when casting to deep spots he goes with a 1/2-ounce XCalibur Drop-Shot weight. "Sometimes I use pencil lead," he says. "It's easier to create precisely the amount of drop you need with pencil lead, which hangs up less frequently, too."
Rod power becomes a factor when fishing deep with drop-shot rigs. "The rod has to be heavier," Campell says. "It's got to have backbone. At 40 feet, you have hook-setting issues, even when nose-hooking the bait. Force is required to set hooks at depths of 30 feet or more," he says. "I use a medium-heavy, 7-foot stick for deep drop-shot fishing."
Another successful bottom swimmer is Kota Kiriyama, six-time qualifier for the Bassmaster Classic. He won the BASS Elite Series event on Lake Erie in 2008 swimming drop-shot rigs near bottom. "I used only three lures during that tournament, including the Jackall Cross Tail Shad on a drop-shot rig," he says. "I was making long casts with heavier 3/16- to 3/4-ounce weights, using baitcasting gear to swim the bait slowly along bottom. The right rod for me, on big water like that, is long and medium heavy. Right now I'm using a prototype from Shimano — a 7-foot 2-inch medium heavy rod. I use 12- to 14-pound Gamma fluorocarbon."
To swim drop-shots near bottom, Kiriyama points the rod tip down and reels very slowly, making sure the weight stays on bottom throughout. "If the sinker leaves bottom, I pause until it hits again," he says. "It's easier to keep the weight on bottom with the rod tip down. Hold the tip up and it makes the bait rise. You can set hooks better with the rod tip down, too.
"It's almost impossible to swim a drop-shot at extreme depths," Kiriyama adds. "At 50 feet, you're vertical no matter what you do. You can fish 20 to 25 feet deep while steadily retrieving, but that's about the limit."
Kiriyama worked with Jackall on the design of the Cross Tail Shad. "But action tails work great for swimming, too," he says. "Ribbon-tail worms, curly-tail worms, and 4- to 5-inch grubs produce a rhythmic pulse and visual effect on a steady retrieve. I've always believed Carolina rigs were great search tools when bass are pinned to bottom, but I can do the same thing with a drop-shot rig and lose fewer fish. You're less likely to break off because the weight is under the hook. The line above the hook is rarely on bottom, which means less abrasion and fewer problems."
One essential trigger for the drop-shot rig, in my mind, has always been the stop-and-hover. Pause a drop-shot rig and the plastic doesn't plummet to bottom. Not completely. It stops and hovers, suspended right where you've determined bass are most likely to see it — the zone most active bass seem to be in. I use 12- to 18-inch droppers most of the time.
The problem of swimming deep came into focus late last summer. We had a long, protracted period of hot weather that lasted though mid-fall. Smallmouth bass, following the usual day-length cues, found themselves on fall spots in summer temperatures — deep humps topping out at 20 to 25 feet. The usual cranks and football heads were being refused during those unseasonably long stretches of 80°F weather.
Smallmouths reacted with relish to a jig-plastic combo swimming steadily near bottom, but the bait had to move very slowly. To cover more water, I tried swimming Density Tackle DropSwims and Panic Minnows on 8-pound Seaguar AbrazX — a strong, resilient drop-shot line designed to be spooled. Until the water temperature dropped below the 55°F mark, the swim-drop method clearly outperformed jigging.
On calm days, a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce Owner or XCalibur clip-on style sinker worked perfectly. On windy days, a 1/2-ouncer kept the line straighter. But the key element, so often overlooked, was speed. Swim the bait too slow or too fast and the bite-to-drop ratio fell. You can move a heavier weight as slow as you want, but you can't move a light weight fast and keep it near bottom at all at 20 feet or deeper. (Fast is relative. It's still pretty slow.) However, the technique tends to work best when the sinker tickles rather than drags bottom. Playing with different weights and speeds every day produces interesting results.
More interesting than the usual drop-and-doodle. The drop-swim method covers water and puts plastics to work in wild, weird, and wonderful ways that challenge bass to strike. "Can't touch this." Say what?
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is a longtime contributor on advanced tactics for smallmouth bass.