Drop Shot Smallmouth
September 15, 2017
Drop-shotting has come of age, no longer a niche finesse fad, but a mainstream tactic as critical as crankbait mastery or flippin' in many situations. Even dedicated power fishermen acknowledge the facts and always have a spinning rod or two on board. And they work to improve their techniques, knowing they're mincemeat without it.
Seth Feider of Bloomington, Minnesota, is one of those pros, and he could easily teach a class on smallmouth specifics. Technical drop-shot skills placed him in the winner's seat at the 2016 Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Mille Lacs in Minnesota last September. He paced the field with a three-day total exceeding 76 pounds — over a 5-pound average. His was the heaviest smallmouth catch ever weighed in at a Bassmaster event. He finished 6.5 pounds ahead of second-place finisher Brent Ehler, who also used drop-shot techniques to catch over 90 percent of his smallmouths.
Our Japanese-technique guru and historian, David Swendseid, says the tournament world first took notice of the technique in the 1990s. "Drop-shotting has two names in Japan," he says. "It's called the Tsunekichi rig or Daun Shotto (meaning down shot). At its inception, the drop-shot rig was introduced as an ultralight technique. Early adherents employed 4- or 5- pound line and nothing heavier than 3/16-ounce teardrop weights on light tackle. Once American anglers began using it, they often employed slightly heavier lines, weights, and rods."
While most bass pros use 7- to 10-pound line to drop-shot for largemouths, many experts mostly use 6-pound fluorocarbon for smallies. Swendseid said the best drop-shotter today is probably Aaron Martens, the 2015 Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year. "With his multiple drop-shotting wins around the country, Martens demonstrates his versatility with the technique," Swendseid says. "I use it because it's so crazy effective. If I had my choice I'd fish other ways, though."
So would a lot of pros. It was interesting, though, to watch almost an entire field of Bassmaster Elite anglers using spinning gear. Feider is at home with spinning tackle and Minnesota smallmouths. He used a 7-foot, medium-light Daiwa Steez AGS rod and a Daiwa Exist 3012 spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Sufix 832. He tied in a 15-foot leader of 6-pound Sufix Fluorocarbon, with a #2 VMC Neko Hook and an 18-inch to 2-foot dropper terminating in a VMC TDSC Tungsten Drop-Shot Cylinder Weight. Every detail influences the outcome.
A precise combination of rod, reel, line, hook, sinker, and sonar seems more integral to the success of drop-shot angling than any other technique in bass fishing. "The rod tip must bend easily," Feider says. "It's important that bass pick up the bait without feeling any tension. The tip has to be fast but very light and flexible, giving to the least amount of pressure. That's the key to proper action on a drop-shot. The hook is critical, too. The longer shank on the VMC Neko sticks in the roof of its mouth, so landing percentage is second to none. The #2 is light, so they take it all the way in, but the gap is big enough to stick and stay wherever it ends up."
Martens uses 6- and 7-pound Sunline Sniper Fluorocarbon with a #1 Gamakatsu Drop-Shot hook. But some anglers are turning to hooks with built-in swivels, like the VMC SpinShot. "The advantages of those hooks are less line twist and the ability to have the hooks stand straight out," Swendseid says. "I think its benefits increase with the size of the lure. I often use offset-shank hooks, which allow me to tuck the point in the body. The hook shank acts like the keel of a boat to keep the lure upright when I shake the rod tip. Texposing allows you to fish in brush or vegetation."
One exciting new hook is the Trapper Tackle Drop-Shot Bait Lock. The bend of the hook is "notched" to lock a nose-hooked plastic in place after a "swing and a miss," or for those times when smallmouths play with the bait without getting hooked. Another unique hook is the Blakemore StandOut, which has an R-bend where the knot's tied, leading to an eye on an extended shank. The tag end passes through the eye, creating a stabilizer that keeps the hook extended horizontally. Bass can't knock it out of kilter.
Feider uses long, cylindrical VMC Drop-Shot weights about 90 percent of the time. "They snag less and have a faster fall rate," he says. "The only time I use round sinkers is for bed fishing. I can put more tension on them without moving the sinker when pitching the rig shallow. I always use 1/2-ounce weights to keep the lure right where I want it. A 1/8- or 1/4-ounce sinker moves. When anglers shake a worm they move the weight. You want to impart action without moving the sinker. That's what makes a drop-shot what it is — maintaining lure placement precisely on a key spot."
Martens and Swendseid disagree somewhat, saying there's a time and place for light sinkers. "I agree with Seth — use a heavy sinker for the purpose of not moving the lure," Swendseid says. "That's when you want to keep a lure in their face for an aggravation bite. Martens and Kota Kiriyama are advocates of this technique, but there are other approaches.
"To make a lure move and swim, use the lightest weight possible," he says. "When I don't want to swim my lure through open water I do exactly what Seth does with 3/8-ounce and heavier sinkers. In the Columbia River, 30 feet down, I don't impart any action to the lure. Let the current work it. I watch my electronics for specific targets and get down to them fast with a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce sinker."
In-Fisherman TV fans may remember a segment we filmed years ago using action-tail grubs and worms on drop-shot rigs in rivers, fishing current as Swendseid describes. But the swim-drop, an open-water technique we wrote about several years ago, is best achieved with light 1/16- to 1/8-ounce teardrop-shaped weights to target the middle of the water column with a slow retrieve. Marc Marcantonio of Washington won a lot of money doing it, so he designed the ideal weights — QuickDrops by West Coast Tackle & Co. "Line twist can be a problem," he says. "My teardrop puts the entire swivel outside the lead — providing two swivel points instead of one. Molds were computer designed for perfect hydro- and aerodynamics. QuickDrops cast farther, swim better, and give us one more option for imitating open-water baitfish. "
Martens uses a range of weights, generally with 6-pound Sunline Sniper Fluorocarbon. One favorite rod is a 6-foot 10-inch Aaron's Edge spinning rod by Enigma — a Micro Wave guide-system rod designed for 1/8- to 1/4-ounce weights. "It's light, handles 3- to 8-pound line — designed specifically for drop-shotting," he says.
Swendseid uses several styles of rod, some designed to handle 2- to 4-pound test. "They're extra-fast ultralights from a JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) company called Raid — all slightly longer than 6 feet. They handle weights from 1/32-to 3/16 ounce." I use a 7-foot 6-inch medium-light action Daiwa Steez for 1/16- to 3/4-ounce weights and lines up to 12-pound test.
Martens uses Shimano Stella reels, but Swendseid prefers JDMs due to their shallow spools, with less line capacity to provide better line management when casting. "Among American-made reels for drop-shotting, I prefer Shimano Stellas and Dawia Exists," he says. "I spool with 5- to 6-pound Seagur Tatsu or JDM fluoros 99 percent of the time."
Length of the dropper can be critical. Martens says most of his drop-shot lengths are shorter early in the season and longer later in the year, since bass tend to be shallower and more bottom-oriented then. The focus also is on what bass are feeding on. Craws? Place hook and sinker 6 to 20 inches apart, depending on approach. Rig higher when pitching or casting, go short when fishing vertically. When bass spit up minnows, use water clarity and sonar info to call the shot. Hooks can be as far from the sinker as the rod is long, so be open-minded to adjustments.
When fishing structure, lure placement is important. Drop-shot rigs can laser in on a target immediately. Even in rough water, it's an efficient choice. And it's subtle. As Great Lakes expert Joe Balog notes, "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."
Though he prefers a medium-light rod when fishing shallow, Balog likes a 7-foot, medium-power Daiwa Steez to drop-shot vertically on deep Great Lakes structure. He likes 3/8- to 3/4-ounce round "cherry bomb" sinkers to target rocks in 25 feet or more. "A cylinder weight doesn't tell me when I'm on bottom as well when I have to go down 25 to 30 feet," he says. "Most of the time, I tie my hook 2 to 3 feet above the weight with a nose-hooked goby imitation or finesse worm. I drop it near the highest part of a key spot and hardly move the rig."
Nose-hook or wacky-rig? Obviously, finesse worms and Senko-style cigar worms lend themselves to a wacky approach, but any soft plastic can be fished wacky style, or "gilly rigged," as Martens calls it. He rigs a worm several ways, but one unique method providing success recently involves slipping the hook through the "gill" region of a worm, as opposed to the center. His gilly rig produces a quite different shake and action.
Feider wacky-rigged cigar-style worms to win the Bassmaster event on Mille Lacs. "I was dropping directly down to boulders," he says. "I made 3 or 4 different drops on all sides of the boulders, watching my rig on sonar. If it was windy I caught bass on the windy side of the boulder. When it was calm, the shaded side produced. I used a wacky-rigged, 4-inch stickworm, even though every fish was spitting up craws. It's hard to compete with nature, so I was trying to talk them into a minnow. Where there's a nice balance of forage I've always done well to go away from what they're presently eating. Many of the big fish I caught were completely full. I'd shake the worm in place for 5 minutes at a time — that was the key to catching them."
He adds that working extremely slowly with light line eliminates negative cues. "The 1/2-ounce weight keys accurate drops," he says. "I could put action on it without pulling it away from a boulder. Fluorocarbon comes off the spool easily and drops quickly so you can be more accurate on the drop. I dropped it right past any bass I spotted on my 1199 Humminbird, then kept it there on a tight line, shaking a little to make sure the fish hadn't already bit. Tight-line shaking pulls and shakes a lure too hard, and can move the sinker. Just drop the rod tip and shake the slack to move the lure without moving the sinker."
One of Swendseid's presentations incorporates a very short dropper. "When targeting fish on bottom I sometimes 'drop-crank,'" he says, "with the hook just 3 inches above the weight. I cast and retrieve, allowing the weight to tick cover. The plastic swims along the bottom and when the teardrop tungsten weight hits a rock, the lure flickers, jumps, then resumes swimming. It's like crankbait fishing, but with light line and a tiny weight and lure. Another presentation I came up with accidentally was drop-sliding with extremely light line — 3- to 4-pound test. Make a long cast and shake the rig while it's way above bottom. You want to 'slide' the rig at a selected depth, like 6 feet off bottom."
On the other hand, he often uses a long dropper. "Drop-shot rigs are so versatile you can fish them nearly anywhere," Swendseid says. "I often fish one in tall grass, using a longer leader. It locks the lure in place above the tops of the vegetation. In some situations, Martens often chooses to cast a rig with a long dropper a good distance. He'd rather do that then fish it directly under the boat."
Casting brings in the importance of angles. The longer the cast, the closer to bottom the lure is, no matter how long the dropper. Try lengthening it. "You can call fish to the rig and cover water that way," Martens says. "Drop-shotting is more versatile than most anglers think. You can fish it in 50 feet of water, or in trees, or next to docks, or on flats or humps or nearly anywhere. Experiment with dropper length and weight in each case."
Martens uses 6-inch Roboworm Straight Tails and 4-inch Alive Shads. Both he and Swendseid like DUO V-tail shads and custom handpours. "When given slack, some worms spiral down," Swendseid says. "The V-tail is designed to saunter off at an angle in a natural swimming motion. It's a bulky 3-inch softbait. Its density and strategically injected salt produce a keel effect. It's not ordinary table salt — it was selected for ballast. It's weighted to swim balanced and straight — a new direction in softbaits."
As these experts attest, a drop-shot rig often is the deadliest choice for summertime smallmouth bass. But in their quest for tournament winnings, they neglect one aspect of the tactic — it's absolutely a blast to watch a bass on sonar approach your lure and make it disappear. Set the hook and an exciting battle is on. While it can be stressful for pros eager to plant a big bronzeback in the livewell, it's nothing but fun for more casual anglers.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid and versatile smallmouth bass angler, with countless techniques in his arsenal.