Midwest Finesse Rods
June 27, 2016
During the past three Junes, Steve Reideler of Denton, Texas, and I have fished together for a day or two. On June 20, we spent five midday hours in pursuit of smallmouth bass at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' reservoir in northeastern Kansas.
Steve became a Midwest finesse devotee in the August of 2013. From the get-go, he exhibited an endless longing to understand and perfect all that is known about Midwest finesse fishing. And along the way, he has added and contributed his insights, modifications, and subtle additions to this piscatorial genre that stretches back to the late 1950s when Chuck Woods of Kansas City, Missouri, was creating the underpinnings for Midwest finesse fishing.
Nowadays, Steve has become a top-of-the-line Midwest finesse angler, and his stellar abilities at employing Midwest finesse tackle and tactics has allowed him to catch innumerable numbers of largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and spotted bass in north-central Texas, south-central Oklahoma, Arkansas, northeastern Kansas, north-central Minnesota, and northeastern Wisconsin.
As we fished together on June 20, we concentrated on our casting, retrieving, searching, and catching smallmouth bass rather than talking. But while we were on the road traveling to and from the reservoir and occasionally while we were in the boat, we talked about the spinning rods, spinning reels, lines, leaders, jigs, and soft-plastic baits that we were using.
For a spell, we talked about the rods we have used and were using.
Both of us are frugal anglers. Consequently, we do not buy expensive and state-of-the-art spinning rods.
He uses a 6 1/2-foot Gander Mountain's Vortex spinning rod. It is a medium-power and a fast-action rod. Steve possesses four of them. He describes them as light and sensitive spinning rods that are fitted with nice cork handles. Although the list price is $59.99, they are constantly on sale for $19.99. He says it is as light and sensitive as the more expensive rods that he has worked with in the past.
For many years, I have been using a six-foot Shakespeare Synergy Supreme spinning rod. It is described as a medium-action rod, and it is such an old-school rod that there is no power rating. It is not a lightweight rod, and it is not particularly sensitive. Its suggested retail price is $19.99, but I bought most of them for less than $15. On many solo outings, I will have five or six of them out of the rod box and sporting different kinds of Midwest finesse rigs. Across the years, I have never broken one. But I have had to replace the tip-top guides on three of them. And since May of 2003, I have fished two to three times a week throughout the calendar year, which means I have used them a lot. (It needs to be noted that they are no longer part of Shakespeare's spinning rod repertoire, but some retailers still have some of them in stock, and at the age of 76, I think that I have enough of them to last me until my last cast.)
During the past year, I garnered a new insight or two about spinning rods. This occurred when I was asked to field test four spinning rods for four different rod manufacturers. One of the rods is a top-of-the-line spinning rod, and it is lightweight, sensitive, long, and expensive. Another one of them is designed especially for Midwest finesse anglers, and it is lightweight, sensitive, long, and costs about $100. The third one is a six-foot, medium-light-power, and moderate-fast-acti0n rod, and it is lightweight, sensitive, and the price of it is unknown, but I suspect that it will cost somewhere between $75 and $120. The fourth one is five feet, six inches long with a fast-light-action, and it is light, sensitive, and it costs $50.
I have never been a tackle connoisseur, and when I began field testing these rods, I knew absolutely nothing about the modern-day rod world. Because I had been out of the loop for so many years, I sought the perspectives of other anglers about what they thought were the critical ingredients that constitute a good rod. All of the anglers who responded to my questions talked about the importance of the sensitivity of a rod. They also preferred lightweight and relatively long rods; some of their rods are seven-footers and even longer. Two anglers emphasized the importance of the guides, and others did not mention the guide factor. All of their rods were what I would call expensive, and, in fact, a few of them cost more than $200.
As I field tested the four rods, I compared them to each other and to my old Shakespeare Synergy Supreme spinning rods.
All four of them felt lighter than my old-school Synergy rods. In my mind and hands, I could not determine if that was an asset.
All four rods are said to be sensitive, and I suspect that means that the rod radiates a sense of feel to an angler's hand, telling him where and what his lure and presentation is doing and if a fish has engulfed the lure. But sensitivity is not an important element in Midwest finesse fishing. In fact, a no-feel presentation lies at the heart of Midwest finesse presentations. Thus, I have no need to feel what my lure is doing and where it is. But across the years I have developed what I call an intuitive knowledge of what my lure is doing and where it is. I have found that when I feel it I am doing something wrong. What's more, I rarely feel the strikes of a largemouth bass or a smallmouth bass, and in many ways, the largemouth bass and smallmouth bass seem to catch me and my lure rather than me catching them. The only time that I want to feel something in the water is when I am searching for patches of submerged aquatic vegetation, and once I find that vegetation, I do not want to feel it again.
I was able to make slightly longer casts with the longer rods than I could with with the six-footer test rod, five-foot-and-six-inch test rod, and my six-foot Synergy rods. But at the reservoirs and natural lakes that I fish in Kansas, Missouri, and Minnesota, I have never had to make long casts to catch largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and spotted bass. I grew up using spinning rods that were either five-feet, four-inches or five-feet, six-inches long, and to this day I wish my old-school Synergy rods were six or eight inches shorter. In fact, during the tests, I noticed that long rods and long casts at times adversely affected my abilities to properly execute some of the six basic Midwest finesse retrieves. The bulk of the anglers who I talked to about the virtues of long rods and long casts said that most of the largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and spotted bass that they catch are caught on the initial drop of the lure, or a hop or two, or a short drag after the initial drop. Midwest finesse anglers do catch a goodly number of largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and spotted bass on the initial drop of their lures, but they catch the majority of them while they are employing one of the six basic Midwest finesse retrieves. To execute those retrieves during the field tests, I made short casts with all of the rods, and a short cast in my eyes is about 30 feet long.
The field tests were made at one reservoir in the northern Ozarks of Missouri, at a flatland reservoir in northwestern Missouri, and at eight flatland reservoirs in northeastern Kansas. It is interesting to note that I caught virtually the same number and size of largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and spotted bass on each of the rods, and the catch rate was an average of nine black bass an hour. Consequently I came to the conclusion that the rod was not a critical factor for employing the Midwest finesse tactics at the 10 reservoirs that I fished while I was testing these rods.
That is not to say that the four rods that I tested were inadequate. In fact, I would call them very nice rods that can be used to catch a lot of black bass. But in colloquial terms, they were not my cup of tea, nor are they Steve Reideler's. In short, we do not need costly and top-of-the-line rods to do what we do with our Midwest finesse methods in the waterways that we fish. As Steve and I talked, we came to the conclusion that finesse rods for many anglers are a fashion statement rather than a tactical one, and to justify using an expensive, state-of-the-art rod, some of these anglers invoke a variety of what they describe as enticing reasons why one rod is better than others, but Steve and I find most of these reasons to be insubstantial. Of course, the reason why those rationalizations and justifications are flimsy in our eyes is that they do not explain why our inexpensive and run-of-the-mill rods catch as many black bass as the expensive and state-of-the-art ones.
(I noted in the eighth paragraph above that I have never broken one of my six-foot Shakespeare Synergy Supreme spinning rods across the many years that I have used them, but one of the rods that I was field testing broke while I was in the process of lifting a largemouth bass that weighed about 20 ounces over the boat's gunnels. On April 25, however, I caught a six-pound, six-ounce smallmouth bass on one of the rods that I was field testing. The biggest smallmouth bass that I have caught on one of my six-foot Shakespeare Synergy Supreme spinning rods weighed six pounds, 10 ounces, and that occurred on April 19, 2013. I am not a big bass angler. My passion is to catch 101 largemouth bass or 101 smallmouth bass in four hours, and I am not interested in catching big ones. But as I attempt to elicit as many as 25 strikes per hour with Midwest finesse tactics and tackle, I occasionally and inadvertently catch a big one. )
Despite that broken rod, all four of the rods that I field tested were nattily finished and smartly engineered, but there are two features on all four of them that are troublesome. And across all of my days of fishing, which reaches back to 1948, I had never experienced these problems before.
One of them was the open-hook hanger or keeper that adorned all four of the test rods. The problem with the open-hook hanger or keeper is that my braided line became snarled on the hanger at times. They were also difficult for me to fix the hook of my jig to them — especially the hangers or keepers that are on the bottom rather the top of the rod. When I acquired about the open-hook hanger or keeper, I was told that it is a feature designed for drop-shot anglers. Even though diehard Midwest finesse anglers never employ drop-shot rigs, the rod that was created especially for Midwest finesse applications sported an open-hook hanger or keeper. The hook hangers on my Synergy rods are old-fashioned loop-style hook keepers that are affixed on the side of the rods rather than the top or bottom of the rods. These old-fashioned keepers are almost flush to the surface of the rod, and I have never had a problem with them becoming entwined with my braided lines, nor have I had a problem with easily and quickly affixing the hooks of my jigs to them. Similarly, the Gander Mountain's Vortex spinning rods that Steve Reideler use have a loop-style hook keeper, and those keepers have never caused him a problem.
When Steve and I were talking on June 20 about spinning rods and woes created by the open-hook hanger or keeper, we referred to this phenomenon as the tyranny of the drop-shot anglers. This tyranny stems from the fact that drop-shot fishing is the most publicized finesse tactic, and all of that publicity seems to have provoked the rod manufacturers to attach that devilish open-hook hanger or keeper to all of their spinning rods.
The second problematic feature revolved around the line guides on two of the rods. One of the rods featured American Tackle's MicroWave guide system, which was created by the late Doug Hannon. (See this link for more information about and photographs of the MircroWave guides: http://www.americantackle.us/microwave_guides.html.) It is heralded as a guide system that creates smooth and effortless casts, but I did not find that to be the case. What's more, the guides on the five-foot, six-inch rod were too small, which at times fouled my casts. If that short rod had a better guide system, it would have been my favorite rod of the four that I field tested.
During my field-testing days, I occasionally crossed paths with some anglers who were a tad shocked to see me wielding one of these newfangled rods, and a couple of them said that it looked as if I had finally been dragged into the 21st century. One angler even referred to my old rods and spinning reels as an eyesore. But since then, I have rolled back into the 20th century with Steve Reideler. I am using my eyesore Synergy rods that cost less than $20. Steve is using his $20 Gander Mountain's Vortex rods. And to our delight, we are still catching largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and spotted bass at a respectable rate.
(1) For information about how, when, and where Steve Reideler and I use our rods, please see the monthly guides to Midwest finesse fishing at http://www.in-fisherman.com/midwest-finesse/. We have published these guides since March of 2012. Here are links to three of the most recent monthly guides: http://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/midwest-finesse-fishing-may-2016/; http://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/midwest-finesse-fishing-april-2016/; http://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/midwest-finesse-fishing-march-2016/.