A short history of Midwest finesse fishing for black bass: 1955-2013
January 17, 2013
During the past several years, some of the contributions of the late Chuck Woods have been chronicled in various angling publications and Web sites. Until then most members of the angling world had no idea who Chuck Woods was. Nor were they aware that finesse fishing for largemouth bass originated in and around Kansas City in the 1950s, and that he was one of the fathers of finesse, as well as the creator of the Beetle, Beetle Spin, Puddle Jumper, Texas-rigged jigworm, as well as a plethora of other baits and ways to finesse bass into engulfing his various offerings.
What's more, it is estimated that Woods caught more bass than any angler has or ever will catch in the history of angling inKansas. His biggest was a 10-pounder. All of them were caught on spinning tackle.
In addition to Woods, Ray Fincke, Drew Reese, Dwight Keefer, Harold Ensley, Guido Hibdon, Ted Green, Virgil Ward and Bill Ward played a role in making Kansas City the epicenter of bass fishing in the 1960s, and '70s, and finesse tackle and tactics are what these men liked to make and employ.
At Fincke's tackle store on Southwest Boulevard in the Rosedale section of Kansas City, anglers frequently gathered to hear tales of Woods'angling prowess and watch him fiddle with lures and create new ones. Fincke's shop was a bass club before the advent of bass clubs. It was also where Fincke built scores of rods for area anglers, including his renowned five-foot, four-inch finesse spinning rod that he called the Stinger. The Stinger was made from two Fenwick blanks, which were a C623 Fenwick fiberglass blank and a four-foot, six-inch Fenwick S541 graphite blank. The S541 was an ultra-light blank. To lengthen the rod and add more power to the butt section, Fincke slid a 19-inch piece from the butt of the C623 blank over S541 blank and glued it to the butt of the S541. The butt was also fitted with a nine-inch cork handle. This rod sported five stainless steel guides: a No. 25, No. 16, No. 12, and No. 10. The tip was a No. 8 Carboloy. Ultimately Fincke's influence on finesse fishing expanded across the entire nation when he helped Gary Loomis design a five-foot, four-inch Classic Spin Jig rod in 1983. Loomis called it a magnum ultra-light rod that was ideal for utilizing small jigs, little spinnerbaits and a variety of soft-plastic lures, and in essence it was Fincke's Stinger.
Ensley created the Reaper, which Ted Green manufactured at Mar Lynn Lure Company. And in the back room of Fincke's shop, Woods used the tail of the Reaper to create the template for his Puddle Jumper. Then Green, who often visited Fincke's shop, eventually produced it.
At Bass Buster Lure Company, the Wards manufactured Woods' Beetle, Beetle Spin and finesse-size marabou bass jigs with a fiber guard, as well as several other baits that Woods and Kansas City area finesse anglers used. In fact, Bill Ward created the first marabou jig in 1957. It was a 1/16-ounce white marabou jig. That first marabou jig was brought into being at the behest of Bill Ward's father, Virgil Ward, who was going trout fishing on the White River in Arkansas below Bull Shoals Lake with Harold Ensley who was going to shoot a TV show. Virgil Ward wanted a jig that was similar to the marabou streamer that Missouri fly fishermen used. So, Bill Ward tied several 1/16-ounce white marabou jigs for his father. Bill said it was essentially a Doll Fly with white marabou instead of white bear hair. On that outing with Ensley, Virgil caught an impressive array of trout, including a six-pounder, on Bill's marabou jig. From that point on, the Wards made marabou jigs by the thousands, ranging in size from 1/64-ounce to 1/2-ounce in black, white, purple, yellow, red/white, blue-gray, pink and orange, and bass anglers dressed the jig with an eel.
Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, Guido Hibdon and his brothers caught scores of bass on Ensley's Reaper and Woods' Beetle Spin on the Gravois Arm of the Lake of the Ozarks. The Hibdons also wielded split-shot rigs long before the West Coast folks discovered them. Guido was also a maestro at wielding a 1/16- and 1/8-ounce black marabou jig, and eventually he became a wizard with a tube. Then in the 1980s when Hibdon began his illustrious tournament career, he quickly showed anglers all across the nation that finesse lures and methods would allure bass galore in a variety of waterways, including tidal rivers along the east coast, in the natural lakes from Florida into Canada, in scores of rivers and streams that meander across many areas of the nation, and in many man-made reservoirs that grace our landscapes. In 1991, Hibdon reflected on the effectiveness and the origins of finesse fishing for bass: "Many people don't believe that little baits will catch big fish, but they do. Gosh, we have been proving it for years. And, for years before the guys out West were proving it."
Even before Hibdon's tournament pursuits unfolded, Drew Reese of Rantoul, Kansas, used Chuck Woods' Beetle Spin and jigworm at Lake Mead and finished in seventh place at the first Bassmaster Classic in 1971. In October of 1967, Keefer primarily used Woods' jigworm at Long Lake, Wisconsin, to win the World Series of Sport Fishing, which was created by Hy Peskin and Ted Williams (the great baseball player). Keefer wrote in a January 25, 2011, e-mail: "Throughout the 1960s and 1970s I used Chuck's techniques and Ray's rods to win over 20 bass tournaments, qualify for the 1972 Bassmaster Classic and garner five angler-of-the-year awards on the Mid-America Bass Fishing Tour." As high school students, Keefer and Reese worked at Fincke's shop and fished regularly with Woods.
Besides employing finesse tactics, Keefer, Reese and Woods were fond of wielding Bass Buster Lure Company's 1/4-ounce and 3/8-ounce Scorpions on their spinning tackle. The Scorpion was a singled-bladed spinnerbait. It featured a short-wire arm, ball-bearing swivel, smooth-finished-nickel Colorado spinner blade and a short skirt. The Scorpion exhibited a unique wobble and vibration. According to Bill Ward, the wobble and vibration became more intense as the bait aged, and that was because a gap developed between the wire and the lead head onthe hook. That gap allowed the wire and spinner blade to generate an inimitable vibration. Keefer used the Scropion, as well as Woods' jigworm, at the 1967 World Series of Sport Fishing.
It should be noted that the late Harold Ensley of Kansas City won first World Series of Sport Fishing in 1960, and late Virgil Ward of Amsterdam, Missouri, won one, too.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, Guido Hibdon exhibited his prowess with finesse tactics. At the same time Hibdon was working his finesse magic, West Coast anglers were developing their style of finesse angling, which is different from the style that Hibdon and Woods employed. For some unknown reason, West Coast finesse tactics rather than Kansas City finesse began to garner the attention and imaginations of the ardent recreational bass anglers who were not devotees of power-fishing tactics. And most recreational anglers across the nation were in the power-fishing camp. During this period, interest in Woods' ways waned even in the waterways around Kansas City. One reason for that was that Woods died in 1975, and that created a noticeable void at Ray Fincke's tackle shop, and without Woods abilities to continually produce innovative lures and tactics for Kansas City anglers to employ, his style of fishing began to be perceived as outmoded by new generations of anglers. Then as more and more recreational anglers read Bassmaster Magazine and watched its television shows, these recreational anglers became so influence by the power tactics of the tournament anglers that they began to pooh-pooh Woods' ways as a farm-pond tactic for kids.
Drew Reese and Ray Fincke remember Woods as being an extremely versatile angler, who could figure out how catch bass at any kind of waterway. Besides catching untold numbers of largemouth bass with his finesse tools, Woods caught innumerable numbers of largemouth bass by wielding spinnerbaits, crankbaits, seven-inch plastic worms, and big jigs dressed with pork eels. And he employed those baits on the same spinning outfits that he tossed his finesse rigs on, because those were the days when most anglers possessed only one or two rods. Fincke also noted that Woods was always enchanted with the effectiveness of spinners, which is why he always had a Bass Buster Lure Company's Scorpion at the ready. Moreover, he frequently attached jig spinners to a variety of baits, which is how the Beetle Spin evolved. According to Fincke, one of Woods' oddest and effective jig-spinner combos was a vintage Bayou Boogie attached to a jig spinner. But when Woods couldn't allure the largemouth bass with spinnerbaits, crankbaits, seven-inch plastic worms, and big jigs dressed with pork eels, he caught them with his Beetle, jig worm or small black marabou jig affixed to a tiny black eel. In sum, finesse was Woods mainstay, but he could catch largemouth bass in scores of ways.
Woods' finesse ways faded away and were virtually forgotten. But shortly after the turn of the millennium, several recreational bass anglers in eastern Kansas, who had become weary of power fishing and its lackluster catches, began resurrecting and updating the methods that Woods and his cohorts developed decades ago. In order to distinguish these methods from the finesse techniques that are employed in Japan and the Western states, these Kansas anglers called their method Midwest finesse.
Now once again the word has slowly begun to spread that Midwest finesse is the best tactic for recreational anglers of all skills levels to catch bass in a variety of waterways all across the nation.
Hibdon was on the mark in 1991 when he asserted that the little Midwest finesse baits catch big bass. For example around Thanksgiving of 2010, Bob Gum of Kansas City caught a seven-pounder and Dick Bessey of Lawrence, Kansas, caught an eight-pounder. Both brutes inhaled a 2 ½-inch Z-Man Fishing Product's ZinkerZ affixed to a small jig. These two finesse anglers customized the Z-Man's five-inch ZinkerZ by cutting it in half, making it 2 ½-inches in length.
The primary mission of the modern day Midwest finesse anglers is not aimed at catching five-, six-, seven- and eight-pound largemouth bass. Instead, its goal is to catch a lot of bass, which they found to be a difficult endeavor when they employed power tactics, as well as the finesse schemes of the Japanese and West Coast bass anglers. These anglers also contend that the shaky-head jigs and deep-water drop-shot rigs used by most tournament anglers are not part of the Midwest finesse repertoire.
On every four-hour outing, we have a lofty goal to catch 101 largemouth, smallmouth or spotted bass, and we jokingly call this bass fishing 101. Depending on the year, we reached that goal from two to five times a year, but in 2012, we did it only twice. From January of 2008 through December of 2012, I fished 615 times. Some of these were solo outings and on some I was accompanied by another Midwest finesse angler or two. And we caught 22,376 largemouth bass, smallmouth bass,and spotted bass, which equals 36 bass per trip and nine bass per hour.
As long as our waters aren't covered with ice, we fish from January 1 to December 31. About 76 miles from our front door lies a 2,600-acre power-plant reservoir and a 5,090-acre power-plant reservoir, which we usually venture to when ice covers our nearby flatland reservoirs. At times the surface temperature can be as cold as 38 degrees and as hot as 90 degrees. Almost 99 percent of my outings occur during the midday hours, such as 9 p.m. to 1 p.m., or 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. In the winter, we usually fish from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and during the rest of the year, we fish from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but there are summer days, when we fish from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Our finesse tackle revolves around six-foot, medium-action spinning rods that are fitted with medium-sized spinning reels. The reels are spooled with 10-pound-test braid and a five-foot 8-pound-test fluorocarbon leader that is attached to the braid with a Seaguar knot. To the leader, we affix a jig with an improved clinch knot. Throughout the year we employ three sizes of Gopher Tackles' Mushroom Head Jigs: 1/32-ounce with a No. 6 hook, 1/16-ounce with a No. 4 hook and 3/32-ounce with a No.2 hook. The heads of the jigs are painted red, chartreuse or blue.
We do not use any of Woods' vintage lures. Instead, we primarily affixed Z-Man Fishing Products' three-inch Rain MinnowZ, 2 ½-inch ZinkerZ, four-inch Finesse WormZ, four-inch Hula StickZ, 2 ½-inch FattyZ tail, 2 ½-inch FattyZ head that is customized into a tube, 3 ¾-inch StreakZ, three-inch MinnowZ and four-inch Finesse ShadZ to the Gopher jigs with the hooks exposed and devoid of weed guards. Z-Man makes these soft-plastic baits from a product called ElaZtech.
These baits are not rigged Texas style to the Gopher jigs. Therefore, the hook is always exposed. Some Midwest anglers add a weed guard to their Gopher jigs by drilling a small hole in the lead and filling the hole with a short flexible wire or several strands of fiberguard. They also place a drop of glue into the hole. We have found that a small jig affixed to a soft-plastic bait with an open hook catches more largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass than a soft-plastic bait affixed Texas-style on a traditional slip-sinker rig.
As noted six paragraphs above, the ZinkerZ is five-inches long; we cut it in half, making it a 2 ½-inch bait. There will be some outings when we find that the bass prefer the thin end of the ZinkerZ to be affixed to the jig's collar. Then on other outings they prefer the thicker end attached to the collar. But most of the time we can't determine a preference.
We also cut the five-inch FattyZ in half, and we us the tail section the same way that we use the 2 ½-inch ZinkerZ. With the head of the FattyZ, we use a pair of Fiskar Scissors to cut six tentacles to create a tube-style bait that has a solid head. Many of us also trim three-quarters to an inch off the head of the Hula StickZ, and times we rig the Hula StickZ with the tentacles around the collar of the jig.
To the eyes of most anglers, the 2 ½ -inch ZinkerZ on a 1/16-ounce Gopher is a rather unattractive combination, but to the eye of the bass, it has proven to be exceedingly alluring. In fact, it was so effective in the late summer and fall of 2010 that one Midwest finesse devotee sheepishly confessed that he considered the 2 ½ -inch ZinkerZ-and-jig combo in a peanut-butter-and-jelly hue to be so effective that he almost called it a magic bait.
The eight Z-Man soft-plastic baits noted above accounted for about 85 percent of the 22,376 largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass that we have caught since 2008. The other baits that we used were a YUM's two-inch Wooly Beavertail, YUM's four-inch Muy Grub, Gene Larew Lures' three-inch Baby Hoodaddy, Gene Larew Lures' 3½-inch Long John Minnow, Strike King Lure Company's Zero, Strike King Lure Company's four-inch Finesse Worm and Strike King Lure Company's Bitsy Tube. At times, we also used marabou-tailed and wooly or tinseled-bodied 1/32-ounce and 1/16-ounce jigs made by the late Leroy Spellman of Mt. Vernon, Missouri. Our favorite Spellman jig was a silver one, but his black, brown and olive ones were effective too. It needs to be noted that before we discovered Z-Man's 2 1/2-inch ZinkerZ and four-inch Finesse WormZ, we worked primarily with Berkley Four-inch Power Worms and Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits' three-inch Senkos.
From our experiences, Z-Man's ElaZtech finesse baits are the best soft-plastic finesse baits ever created. We find that they elicit more strikes than any of the other soft-plastic baits in the world. Furthermore, they are so durable that the same bait can be used to catch 150 or more bass, and as these lures become more worn and torn, they become more alluring and inveigle more bass. Another positive feature is that the well-worn ZinkerZ readily absorbs a nightcrawler or crawfish scent, and since 2011, we have been applying Pro-Cure, Inc.'s nightcrawler Super Gel to our Z-Man baits.
In northeastern Kansas, our most fruitful colors have been black neon, black and blue, Junebug, white or pearl, peanut butter and jelly, pumpkin-chartreuse, and green pumpkin.
We retrieve these lures five different ways: swim and glide, hop and bounce, drag and dead stick, straight swim, and drag and shake. We rarely probe water deeper than 12 feet and prefer depths of one to eight feet -- even in the dead of winter and heat of the summer.
Because the weight of the jig-and-soft-plastic combo is extremely light, neophytes to Midwest finesse often complain that they can't feel what the lure is doing and where it is -- especially when it is windy. Unfortunately the no-feel element of the retrieve becomes so disconcerting that many neophytes give up before they master the manifold virtues of the no-feel presentation.
About ninety percent of the time, we shake our rods during the retrieve rather than holding them steady and implementing the do-nothing retrieve that Charlie Brewer of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, popularized decades ago or the I-Motion tactic that some Japanese finesse anglers have recently discovered. Sometimes the shakes are slight and intermittent. At other times they are vigorous and constant.
One of the critical factors of each outing revolves around determining the type of shakes and size of the jig that are the most productive.
In the waterways that we fish, we ply a lot of shorelines. We rarely probe brush piles or similar objects, and that's because we suspect that many of the bass that inhabit those confines are relatively inactive. What's more, our tackle isn't suitable for extracting bass out of those quagmires.
Instead we spend a lot of time focusing on what Guido Hibdon used to call nothing-looking areas. We have found that the bass that inhabit these featureless areas are often overlooked by other anglers, and we also suspect that these bass are more active than the ones that are buried in brush or other objects.
We also probe beds of submerged vegetation, such as coontail, bushy pondweed, milfoil, and curly-leaf pondweed, as well as the outside edges of patches of American water willows.
There many weeks throughout a year that we find riprap and rocky shorelines, as well as shallow offshore rocky humps, to be more fruitful than the featureless shorelines and patches of vegetation. This often occurs for a month after the spawn and during many weeks during the fall. We have noticed that the rocks pay good dividends when the curly-leaf pondweed wilts in June and some of the other vegetation disintegrates as the water temperature drops in the fall.
We prefer to make a 35-foot cast that is virtually perpendicular to the boat. If an angler's cast lands too far ahead or behind the boat, the subtlety of the no-feel retrieve gets impaired. And on a windy outing, it is often best to shorten the cast to less than 35 feet. Although we have found that perpendicular casts and retrieves are better than ones tossed in front and back of the boat, but there have been some outings -- especially since the advent of the largemouth virus in 2009 at several northeastern Kansas -- when the casts and retrieves that are made towards the back of the boat allure more bass than perpendicular ones. Casts in front of the boat, however, are rarely effective -- except when the bass strike on the initial fall of the bait or within a few feet of the initial fall. In short, when the bass strike on the initial fall, the angle and distance of the cast is seldom a critical factor, but the angle and distance becomes critical when a finesse angler has to execute an alluring no-feel retrieve.
We execute the swim-and-glide retrieve by holding the rod at the two-o'clock position, but if the wind creates a bow in our lines, we drop the rod to the five-o'clock position. As soon as the lure hits the water, we begin shaking the rod as the jig combo falls towards the bottom. We begin the retrieve by slowly turning the reel handle when the jig combo is a foot from the bottom, and we try to keep the jig combo slowly swimming a foot above the bottom. The glide component comes in when we stopped turning the reel handle and allow the jig combo to pendulum towards the bottom, and then we commence the swim when the jig combo is six inches off the bottom. On steep shorelines that have erratic or regular features, it is sometimes difficult to keep the jig combo swimming a foot off the bottom; therefore, we have to test its depth by allowing the jig combo to glide to the bottom before we commence the swimming motif.
Because the wind blows so frequently in northeastern Kansas during the midday hours when are afloat, our rods are often at the three to five o'clock position with all of our retrieves.
The hop-and-bounce retrieve is achieved by dropping the rod to the five-o'clock position after the cast and holding it there during the retrieve. After the cast, we shake the rod as the jig combo falls to the bottom. Once it bounces on the bottom, we hop it off the bottom by moderately rotating the reel handle twice and then pause. As it falls back to the bottom during the pause, we shake the rod. We continue this reel-pause-and-shake motif for the duration of the retrieve.
The drag-and-dead-stick presentation is normally performed by the angler in the back of the boat. He casts the jig combo towards the shoreline and allows it to fall to the bottom as he shakes his rod. His rod is held at the three- to four-o'clock position, and he merely drags the jig combo slowly across the bottom as the boat moves along the shoreline. The angler often drags the jig combo until it is behind the boat. As he drags it, he occasionally shakes his rod, and periodically he takes some line off his reel, creating several feet of slack line, which allows the jig combo to lie dead still on the bottom for five seconds. This is our deepest presentation; at times it plummets into 12 feet of water or deeper.
The straight swim is primarily executed with a single-tailed grub, but in 2010 the grub for some unknown reason was rarely effective. So we often employed the straight swim with the Finesse WormZ and the Finesse ShadZ, and it worked well. It is a long-cast tactic, and some casts reach 60 feet -- especially when the wind is at our backs. We retrieve it at a variety of depths and speeds, depending on the disposition and position of the bass. It is particularly effective when bass are piscivorous and foraging on wind-blown shorelines, inhabiting the top portions of massive patches of submerged vegetation, or pursuing suspended baitfish across flats. Sometimes the retrieve is occasionally enhanced with some shakes and subtle pauses, but we primarily swim without executing any shakes and holding the rods, depending on the nature of the wind, from about the two to five o'clock position.
About three years ago, we added a fifth retrieve, which we call the drag and shake. It is an extremely slow presentation. It is often executed by the angler in the back of the boat. Most of our casts are perpendicular to the shoreline or the lair that we are probing, but the casts for the drag-and-shake routine can be made at 45-degree angle behind the boat or even directly behind the boat. And often a 3/32-ounce Gopher jig is the best one to use with the drag and shake. In some angling circles, this tactic is called strolling. At times, we shake the rod incessantly, and then there will be outings when we shake it infrequently. The shakes are dictated by how the bass want the bait to move, or at least how we think the bass want the bait. Because we are dragging a 3/32-ounce jig on the bottom, there is more feel to this retrieve than with the other four retrieves. We execute it with the rod tip pointed at the surface or at the five o'clock position. We implemented this retrieve into our repertoire after the largemouth bass virus erupted in several of our reservoirs in northeastern Kansas during the past four years. In our eyes, the bass weren't as aggressive foragers after the virus began to work its dastardly effects.
Since the 1950s, Chuck Woods and his successors have exhibited that these Midwest finesse tactics will allure largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass galore in all kinds of lakes, reservoirs, creeks and rivers. Thus, in the years to come, if recreational anglers will utilize these tactics and tools, they will catch more bass than they have ever dreamed about catching, and they will tangle with some lunkers, too.
I am indebted to Burton Bosley of Sutton, West Virgina, the late Ray Fincke of Overland Park, Dwight Keefer of Phoenix, Arizona, Kansas, Drew Reese of Rantoul, Kansas, and Bill Ward of Warsaw, Missouri, for helping me write this history.
For more information about Chuck Woods see:
"The Puddle Jumper By Chuck Woods"
"Finally A Photograph of the Great and Late Chuck Woods Has Been Uncovered"
"Legends of the Heartland"
Since August of 2011, we have posted scores of blogs about how, when and where to employ Midwest finesse tactics. To read those, please scan "Ned Kehde's Blog" by clicking on the older post link near the bottom and on the left hand side of this link.