Daniel Nussbaum of Ladson, South Carolina, is the president of Z-Man Fishing Products, and he has been a member of the Finesse News Network since 2011.
On Oct 1, 2013, we published a column that Nussbaum wrote about his maiden outings on Aug. 26, 27, and 28, 2013, at the Lake of the Woods, Ontario, Canada. He fished with Drew Reese of Rantoul, Kansas, and several of Reese’s friends. Reese resides on the shores of the Lake of the Woods from the middle of May to the middle of September. Reese is one of the pioneers of Midwest finesse fishing, a Finesse News Network member, and occasional contributor to Midwest Finesse columns.
Here is an edited version of Nussbaum’s report about his return to the Lake of the Woods on Aug. 26, 27, and 28, 2016:
Being based in South Carolina, southern black bass and saltwater fishing are obviously much more familiar to us at Z-Man than northern fisheries. In 2011 though, I began communicating with Drew Reese, a Kansas resident who has spent the last 50 summers fishing in Canada, primarily on Lake of the Woods. After being exposed to ElaZtech by (and outfished by a wide margin by) Midwest finesse guru and friend Ned Kehde, Drew quickly realized that the buoyancy, softness, and durability of our material would enable him to catch far more fish than he could with other plastics. Initially, Drew helped us design the Hula StickZ, which has become a staple bait for many finesse fishermen nationwide.
In 2013, Drew finally twisted my arm to come up to Canada to fish with him so he could show me just how effective our baits were on northern waters. Drew’s motivations were simple: using our ElaZtech material, he had fine-tuned a system that would allow anglers of all skill levels to easily catch black bass not just in Canada but throughout North America, and he wanted Z-Man to manufacture and market this series of finesse baits. Drew sought no personal gain from his endeavors. Instead, he merely wanted others to be able to experience the same joy and excitement he had found by using ElaZtech baits.
On that trip, Drew shared with me his handmade prototypes of what would later become the Finesse ShroomZ and Finesse T.R.D. and proved their value by guiding us on an epic three-day adventure on which we caught literally hundreds and hundreds of smallmouth bass. The rest, as they say, is history. And during the past two years, this finesse plastic and jig combo has become a best-selling tackle item—not just in northern markets, but nationwide. What’s more, it has helped countless recreational and tournament anglers up their catch rates.
On August 26, I traveled north again to spend a few days with Drew and brainstorm about products that we can develop for other northern species. After several flights that eventually landed me in International Falls, Minnesota, I crossed the border and drove two hours north to Drew’s cabin on Lake of the Woods near Sioux Narrows, Ontario.
Under cloudy skies and a high chance of rain the following morning, Reese and I hit the water in search of smallmouth bass. The first area we targeted featured flocks of seagulls and large smelt schools lighting up the sonar; those are sure signs that smallmouth bass were in the area. Accordingly, we tied on smelt imitators: five-inch Scented Jerk ShadZs, 3.75-inch StreakZs, and Hula StickZs. We used ones that replicated the color of the smelt. After several unwelcome northern pike encounters, Drew connected with a four-pound smallmouth bass on the Jerk ShadZ fished on a slow, straight retrieve, and I followed suit with a three-pounder on the StreakZ with a vertical presentation several feet below the surface right under the boat. During the next 60 minutes, we caught a few smaller smallmouth bass, which provoked us to move and search for faster action.
We focused on smallmouth bass feeding on crawfish on rocky terrains. Therefore, we changed our baits and presentations to mimic the forage. To accurately match the size and color of the crayfish, we used a green-pumpkin Hula StickZ and a green-pumpkin T.R.D. TubeZ, and they were affixed to 1/10- and 1/15-ounce Finesse ShroomZ jigs. We fished these baits using Drew’s favorite retrieve for this style of fishing, slowly swimming the bait for the first one-third of the way back to the boat, then allowing the bait to drop straight to the bottom while giving the rod a few gentle shakes. Drew explained that the smallmouth bass would follow the bait out of the shallows during the swimming portion of the retrieve, then they would engulf it as the bait settled to the bottom.
At our next few stops, we found fish, but they were reluctant to bite. On many occasions, we saw fish on the sonar directly under the boat in eight to ten feet of water, but dropping our baits straight to the bottom on those marks did not yield the strikes as it usually does in those waters. By 11:00 am, a soaking rain set in, but we pressed onward in search of better action.
Around noon, we pulled into a rocky bay with several boat docks and finally found actively feeding smallmouth bass. For the next two hours, we experienced steady action by casting towards the shorelines and dropping to marks on the sonar under the boat. While earlier, the smallmouth bass that we were seeing on the screen of the sonar were reluctant to bite, but all of a sudden most drops on the smallmouth bass under the boat yielded immediate strikes. At one point, I successfully dropped to and caught four smallmouth bass in a row using the T.R.D. TubeZ ; it was ‘video game fishing’ at its finest! Under continued steady rain at 2:30 p.m. and tangling with more than 60 smallmouth bass, we decided to go to Drew’s cabin.
After a short nap at the cabin to shake the last bit of jet lag from the day before and an excellent dinner of fresh walleye tacos, the rain cleared, and we headed back out on the water for a quick evening lake trout session. Drew had told me how effective our Finesse ShadZ is on lake trout and wanted me to experience it firsthand. As we idled along, he explained that many anglers troll for lake trout all day to catch one or two fish, but he guaranteed that we would hook one in less than thirty minutes.
Upon arriving at Drew’s spot right in front of his cabin, which is covered with more than 150 feet of water, we quickly marked several lake trout suspended off the bottom. Drew kept moving though, explaining that he was looking for fish closer to the bottom because those were easier to catch. A couple of minutes later, the sonar showed a lake trout directly on the bottom, and we dropped our pearl Finesse ShadZs on 1/4-ounce custom jigs straight to the bottom. This vertical presentation was simple; once the bait reached the bottom, we lifted the bait a foot or two off the bottom and let it suspend in place for a short spell, and then we occasionally let it settle back down to the bottom and lifted it up again and allowed it to suspend. As Drew later demonstrated for me, when the Finesse ShadZ is simply held in place, its thin whip-like tail virtually never stops moving and looks just like a live baitfish. Many anglers, Drew said, make the mistake of moving their rod too much, but the key with the Finesse ShadZ is to let the bait sit still and do its thing.
Within ten minutes, I felt a sharp strike, and my rod doubled. Since we were using only four-pound line, Drew quickly instructed me to flip the anti-reverse switch on my reel and back reel to avoid breaking the light line. After a spirited fight punctuated by a couple of knuckle-busting runs from the surface all the way back down to the bottom, Drew slid the net under my first lake trout – mission accomplished!
On day two, we were joined by brothers Bill and Ken McGhie for a two-boat excursion. On the agenda for the day were walleye fishing, a traditional shore lunch, and another afternoon of smallmouth bass fishing. After receiving several reports of slow walleye fishing from guides at nearby lodges, Bill picked up some live minnows to make sure we were able to catch enough fish for lunch, but as it turned out, we would not need live bait. We started off dropping the pearl Finesse ShadZ to the bottom on reefs in 20 to 30 feet of water, and we soon had limits of walleye in the livewells. Just as with the lake trout fishing, the most effective presentation was dropping the bait to the bottom, lifting it up a foot or so, and holding it motionless, allowing the tail of the bait to do the work.
After an excellent shore lunch of fried walleye, I felt like I needed a ‘shore nap’ but managed to drag myself into the boat with Ken for more smallmouth bass fishing. Ken’s approach was different than Drew’s, but it is equally effective. While Drew primarily fishes larger areas and casts to targets, Ken prefers to focus on individual spots and fish vertically by positioning the boat directly over his target. That afternoon, he targeted rocky points in eight to twelve feet of water and quickly moved from one spot to the next to hit as many locations as possible during the course of the afternoon.
Ken explained that he prefers to fish vertically because it results in less hang-ups than casting around the small boulders that litter the bottom. About 90 percent of the time, he uses a green-pumpkin Hula StickZ on either a 1/10- or 1/6- ounce Finesse ShroomZ jig. There soon became no doubt that his approach is effective; while I made casts around with several other baits to no avail, Ken started hooking bass almost immediately. Before long, I was fishing the Hula StickZ vertically and on the bottom like Ken and enjoying steady action, too. In just a few hours of fishing that afternoon, the two of us boated more than 60 smallmouth bass in the one to two pound range.
On my final fishing day, Drew and I drove north to Kenora, Ontario, to meet FLW Tour Pro Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson for some smallmouth fishing in the Kenora area. We met Gussy at Lake of the Woods Sportsmans Headquarters, where I was pleased to find a healthy ElaZtech assortment. Judging from all of the empty pegs, it looks like the baits are selling well up there.
Fishing with Gussy was an absolute blast, not to mention a very informative experience.
We focused on shallow water (less than ten feet deep) and scouted out shorelines with a mix of smaller rocks, sand, and grass. Gussy explained that these areas held more crayfish than other spots, and whenever we found all three of these features, we hit paydirt. Drew and I used Hula StickZs, Finesse T.R.D.s, and TRD TubeZs in crayfish colors like green pumpkin, Canada Craw, and California Craw, and we affixed them to either a 1/10- or 1/6-ounce Finesse ShroomZ jig. Gussy worked with a similar finesse rig, as well as a topwater popper and a spinnerbait.
The smallmouth bass were plentiful to say the least. Most of them were small, but we eventually ran into some in the three-pound range. In some areas, particularly when we ran across thicker grass, we found hordes of pesky northern pike, while in rockier spots with a steeper drop, we found the walleye to be plentiful.
While we were fishing with Gussy, I found that our new 1/8-ounce skirted ShroomZ Micro Finesse Jig with a Finesse T.R.D. trailer was particularly effective, and the bulkier profile seemed to attract the larger smallmouth bass. Again, Drew’s swim-deadstick-shake retrieve proved to be the most effective and helped minimize snagging in the rocky shallows we targeted. On many occasions, the smallmouth bass had several followers, and dropping a bait under a hooked fish resulted in multiple double hookups and several triples as well. By the end of the day, we tallied more than 130 smallmouth bass between the three of us along with countless pike and walleye and even a few outsized yellow perch.
Overall, my second Canada adventure was just as enjoyable and educational as the first one. It definitely spawned several ideas for new products or extensions of current product lines that will assist northern anglers in the future. While Drew cautioned me that the fishing late in the season can be tougher than earlier in the summer, it is hard to complain about catching more than 250 smallmouth bass in three days along with plenty of northern pike and walleye and my first lake trout. A huge thanks to Bill, Ken, Gussy, and especially Drew for putting me on a ton of fish and schooling me on western Ontario fishing.
(1) Here is the link to Nussbaum’s 2013 “Z-Man Goes to Canada” column: http://www.in-fisherman.com/midwest-finesse/z-man-goes-canada/.
(2) Here is a link to a column about how Drew Reese employs Z-Man’s Midwest finesse baits at the Lake of the Woods: http://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/z-man-goes-to-canada-an-update/.
(3) Jeff Gustafson is more than a professional tournament angler. He is a talented multispecies fishing guide, a prolific freelance writer, the host of a television program about fishing, a multifaceted angler, and a gracious man. Here are four links to more information about him: www.gussyoutdoors.com; https://twitter.com/GussyOutdoors; https://www.facebook.com/gussyoutdoors; https://www.instagram.com/gussyoutdoors/.