April 01, 2021
Destin DeMarion knows his way around the big waters of Lake Erie and spends a lot of time searching for big smallmouth bass. Beginning when the ice goes out and up until prespawn time, smallmouth bass are aggressive, can be caught both by power fishing or finesse fishing and are just plain big. Great lakes smallmouth bass are prevalent in the 3- to 5-pound range and DeMarion frequently catches them up to 7 pounds under the right conditions. Depending on the Bassmaster Elite Series schedule, if time allows, DeMarion spends his free time on the vast waters of the great lakes fishing for giant bronzebacks.
Here are his top 5 baits and presentations to catch the biggest early spring smallmouth bass on the Great Lakes.
For DeMarion, a swimbait is an effective method to cover water while still fishing slow enough to tempt a lethargic bass. When the ice first goes out, deeper water is his target and he used the swimbait to pick over the deeper portions off offshore humps and reefs and works his bait parallel to the contours on sharp drop offs.
“I really like a slower casting reel when the water is super cold just after ice out. A 6.1:1 or a 6.3:1 ratio reel does the trick, as it helps me keep the bait on the bottom but isn’t too slow so I can catch back up to the fish after a hook set. The key with the swimbait it to fish it fast, but slow.”
Barely turning the reel may get boring, but to catch bass under 40-degree water temperatures, it has to be slow. He likes a bit heavier swimbait head when he is fishing deeper water and his go to is 1/2-ounce up to 3/4-ounce depending on the depth. He pairs the head with a color to mimic shad, shiners, and alewives, and makes a super long cast.
“With a Cashion 7-foot or 7-foot, 3-inch casting rod, I can make long casts and the medium-heavy fast taper tip allows me to detect bites and get a good hook in the fish. The fast tip gives some delay so the fish can eat it good before I set the hook. I pair it with 12-pound Gamma Edge Fluorocarbon line which also helps get the bait to the bottom.”
DeMarion will switch over to a spinning rod if needed with a more finesse approach. Although the tactic doesn’t change, the smaller bait helps him trick big bass when the water is super clear. A 7-foot, 6-inch Cashion rod paired with 10-pound Gamma braid and a 6- or 8-pound leader. He prefers a 1/8- or 3/16-ounce ball head, again, depending on the depth.
2. Ned Rig
The Ned rig is another bait that will produce when the water is really cold. A versatile bait that mimics a variety of bait fish. When the water is dirtier, he will look to mimic goby and perch using easier to see darker colored baits. Likewise, in cleaner water, a natural looking bait helps mimic shad or other bait fish.
“When the fish are tight to the bottom, a Ned rig will get bites when they don’t want to react to a swimbait or other moving baits. You are not looking for action, just a subtle bait that looks natural to the fish. I like a Cashion 7-foot or 7-foot, 2-inch medium action spinning rod with a little power to get a hook set on a long cast and with a bigger hook.”
An Owner block-head jig in 3/16-ounce is DeMarion’s go-to and the medium action rod allows for a super long cast while still giving him the ability to get a good hook set. A similar set up on all his spinning combos, 10-pound Gamma braid to an 8- or 10-pound fluorocarbon leader.
Another good way to pick off cold water bass with a subtle approach is the dropshot. If he sees a bass on his graph while covering water with a swimbait, the dropshot is his choice to drop straight down. He adjusts the leader a bit shorter than other times of the year as the fish are closer to the bottom and a 6- to 8-inch leader works well. Otherwise, he will adjust the leader length based on the fish's activity level, and at most up to about 2 feet.
“For the dropshot, I like a little shorter rod as it helps when fishing vertical. A Cashion 6-foot, 9-inch medium-light or 7-foot medium action, with a fast or extra-fast tip. The short rod for fishing right below the boat and the longer rod when I am casting it around. I use the same braid to fluorocarbon leader, and I can downsize line without worrying. Gamma makes a super tough line that has great action and is very hard to break.”
He sticks with the 10-pound braid to a 6- or 8-pound Gamma leader. The Gamma line is durable and holds up to scuffs and knicks from rocks or zebra mussels. DeMarion prefers a size 3000 spinning reel, which is typical for all his set ups. The 3000 feels comfortable in your hand and still holds enough line to assist with making longer casts. Like the Ned rig, he rotates to the dropshot simultaneously to mix things up and he completes his rig with a swimbait or worm style bait.
When the water warms to above 40-degrees, the fish get active and get on the moving bait a lot better. DeMarion starts covering the big sand and rocky flats/humps with a diving crankbait to find roaming smallmouth, and will switch to a lipless bait when he gets around grass.
“A 7-foot medium up to a 7-foot, 6-inch medium-heavy rod is pretty much my setup. For the shallow diving baits or a squarebill, the shorter rod works best. For deeper divers and lipless baits, the longer rods help make long casts. I prefer graphite and composite rods over glass as I feel like I can get a good hookset and keep them pegged better through several jumps.”
Like most, a slower reel such as a 5.1:1 to 6.6:1 allows the bait to be fished along at the right speed while making him feel like he is fishing faster. Same with the swimbait, you have to fish fast, but slow. For line, the 7-foot rod is paired with 10- or 12-pound Gamma while the longer rods could be anywhere from 10- to 15-pound. The lighter line offers less resistance when trying to get a bait deeper and the Gamma doesn’t affect the action of the bait much even at a higher pound test.
“The sand and rocky flats and humps could be anywhere from 5 feet to 15-plus feet and the key with a crankbait is to cause a commotion. You want to be deflecting off rocks and ripping baits from whatever vegetation is in the area. If it is just sand, get the bait to the bottom and allow the bill of the bait to leave a sand trail as its worked back to the boat. If you don’t know which depth range the fish are in, work from deep to shallow and back and rotate crankbaits until you get bit.”
Like a crankbait, the jerkbait is a big-time player as the water warms, but sometimes the fish will suspend and will react to a jerkbait even if it is a bit colder. He likes a shorter rod for throwing jerkbaits but opts for a faster reel to keep up with fish that swim towards the boat.
“A 6-foot, 9-inch or a 7-foot medium rod is my go-to. The medium action and moderate taper let’s me give the bait an erratic action and the 7.3:1 or faster reel lets me catch up to them when the make a run to the boat. A graphite or composite rod is fine for getting a hook in them and has some give to keep them on even when they jump.”
For line, not much difference from anything else, but the range is bigger. The change in line from 8-pound test to up to 14-pound test is not so much about invisibility in the water, although that does play a part, but controlling the depth is the key.
“A jerkbait will play from low to mid 40-degree's water temperatures up through the spawn. I throw it in the same areas that I do crankbaits. I will mix in a shallow running jerkbait depending on the depth and if the fish get suspended over deeper water, the Mega Bass +1 or +2 will get down to where you need it – 6- to 12-foot. I let the conditions dictate the bait. If the crankbait bite changes or slows, or the fish get suspended, I can get them to come up for a jerkbait better at times.”
Bonus Bait: Fish Sense Binsky Blade Bait.
“The Binsky is a great vertical presentation from ice out on, but really shines in cold water for lethargic or finicky bass. Can be jigged up and down, cast and hopped or even ripped in grass like a lipless crankbait. I use a 7-foot medium action Cashion rod with 12-pound Gamma fluorocarbon.”
*Bait Hack – DeMarion replaces the back treble with an Owner flashy accent for added attracting power.