September 08, 2020
Do we really need another article about the Ned rig? Put a small softbait on a jighead and start catching fish. What’s so nuanced, so complicated about that? At this point, almost every bass angler on the planet recognizes a 3-inch soft stickbait on an 1/8- or 1/16-ounce mushroom-shaped jighead. That’s a Ned rig, right?
But what about other baits? Anglers have been putting grubs, curlytails, and various other finesse softbaits on mushroom heads for decades; certainly, for years before former In-Fisherman Senior Editor and now Field Editor Steve Quinn coined the term Ned rig.
My friends and I laugh about all the potential “Ned baits” we’ve discarded for years—grubs whose tails had been bitten off and thrown in the scrap heap. But the efficacy of the shape of a barebones stickbait actually has a scientific basis. In Knowing Bass, Berkley researcher Dr. Keith Jones examined the strike responses of bass to six different crayfish-like shapes. The best performer was a completely appendage-free bait shape mirroring a Ned bait. It elicited more strikes than any other version by an almost 2-to-1 ratio, including the second-place shape, a crayfish lacking claws.
Does that mean a small crayfish bait on a mushroom head qualifies as a Ned rig? What about a shad-shaped worm on a weedless jighead? What if you take a Z-Man Finesse TRD (The Real Deal), a classic Ned rig soft-body option, and stick a Neko weight in its tail? Is that a Ned rig? Shouldn’t we ask Ned Kehde?
The modest Kehde, of course, isn’t likely to utter the phrase that’s made him famous anytime soon. He might, however, call out the confusion that exists between the Ned rig and the method he refers to broadly as Midwest Finesse. To hear Kehde tell it, the bass-catching power of his “little jig” is so great there’s simply no reason to change it.
“In years past, we’ve experimented with just about every new rigging refinement you can think of,” he says. “In the shallow impoundments we fish, none have been so fruitful as a mushroom-style jig with an exposed hook dressed with half a ZinkerZ or other finesse worm. Day after day, season after season, it inveigles dozens and dozens of bass.”
The No-Feel Retrieve
I’ve often asked Kehde, who’s a friend and fellow In-Fisherman field editor, about the most misunderstood yet critical aspect of Midwest Finesse. “Probably the most important thing about the way we fish is what we call a no-feel retrieve,” he says. “Most anglers prefer to fish a jig so they’re in constant contact with it, mostly hopping it along bottom. But the way we prefer to fish, if you have constant contact your rig is too heavy.”
Kehde doesn’t mind that many anglers find his tiny jigheads a little on the flimsy side. “I’m primarily fishing from 3 to no more than 12 or 15 feet deep, mostly with 1/32- and 1/16-ounce jigheads,” he says. “One favorite retrieve among Midwest Finesse anglers is something we call swim-glide-shake. We’re retrieving the lure 6 to 12 inches above the bottom, which is difficult to do with a heavier jig. We like to err on the side of lightness.
“I guess you could say we try to use our intuition to figure out what the bait is doing—sort of let the soft ElaZtech material naturally shake, shimmy, and do its thing without getting in its way too much. It sounds more complex than it really is because when coupled with the right line (Kehde prefers 15-pound braid), you immediately detect any resistance the lure encounters. That includes sensing the difference between the lure contacting filamentous algae, a twig, or a lightly biting bass.”
Ned’s description and execution of “no-feel” reminds me a little of fishing a live minnow on a split-shot rig. While you’re using the rod tip to manipulate the bait’s trajectory back to the boat, you’re also relying on its built-in movements to provide much of the triggering power. I’m not sure you can confidently rely upon the “built-in” actions of most soft plastics. But ElaZtech is different. Z-Man president Daniel Nussbaum tells me it’s a unique thermoplastic material originally manufactured for other consumer and medical applications, first adapted for fishing lures by Z-Man over a decade ago. What remains almost impossible to comprehend is the material’s incredible malleability, buoyancy, and action, particularly when you consider a single bait is also durable enough to withstand dozens of fish strikes and catches without requiring replacement.
To give salted ElaZtech baits like a Finesse TRD valuable buoyancy, Kehde soaks them in hot water and stretches them. “Or you can let the bass do it for you,” he says. “The more bass you catch on each bait, the better it gets—the more the fish seem to bite it.
“Removing some of the salt makes the bait more buoyant, giving it a nice subtle glide. The buoyancy is key to our no-feel style of fishing. The more you feel the lure, the fewer bass you catch and vice-versa. With light jigs and small hooks, big hook-sets aren’t necessary. A lot of the success in fishing the lure comes down to instinct and intuition.”
Kehde’s friend and exceptional angler Drew Reese is another ElaZtech believer, perhaps the one angler, other than Kehde, who’s played the most instrumental role in the evolution of the Ned rig archetype. “Kehde had prototypes of what eventually became the Finesse ShadZ,” says Reese, who fished the first Bassmaster Classic. “We went fishing together under some of the toughest conditions, Ned with the ShadZ and I with a tube. He caught seven bass, missed a half dozen others and I never even had a tap.
“He left me with a few of the prototypes and I put one in the water to figure out why it caught so many fish. Just the vibrations of two people walking across a dock 50 feet away made the bait’s tail wave back and forth in the water, while I held the rod steady. I also noted the bait was buoyant, making the tail float up off the bottom.”
Reese, who previously worked for Bill and Virgil Ward of Bass Buster Lures, immediately called and told Nussbaum his thoughts. “I told Daniel ‘you don’t know what you have’ in this material,” Reese says. “It achieves the underwater angle lure companies have been trying to produce since the early 1900s. To make a bait that doesn’t lay flat on the bottom, but that rises up and moves with the slightest underwater currents.
“At first, they wouldn’t make the bait, and I know Daniel thought I was a nut, because I kept calling and bugging him.” That same summer Reese sent Nussbaum a single Finesse ShadZ that had accounted for 137 fish, demonstrating the material’s otherworldly durability.
“Drew was right,” Nussbaum says. “We didn’t know what we had. But eventually with input from Ned and Drew, we made the TRD. I went up to fish with Drew on Lake of the Woods, and found out he’s one of the best anglers with whom I’ve ever shared a boat.”
In addition to helping Z-Man design the Finesse TRD, Reese also created the TRD TicklerZ and Hula StickZ—the bait that caught Reese’s personal best pike, smallmouth bass, lake trout, and a 47-inch muskie. He also helped design the company’s popular Finesse ShroomZ jighead.
Kehde, whose all-time favorite finesse jig has forever been a 1/16-ounce Gopher Mushroom with a #4 hook, ascribes to this configuration for valid reasons. Perhaps the best news for Ned rig fans in years, Z-Man recently released the OG Mushroom Jig, a complete replica of the original Gopher Mushroom, from exact head shape and keeper barbs to hooks and colors.
“Ron Lindner was the first to show me a Gopher Mushroom jig many years ago,” Kehde says. “Unfortunately, the small Minnesota company has gone out of business, so we’re excited about the resurrection of this great jighead.
“To me, a 1/16-ounce #4 Mushroom is the most unbeatable jig in the history of the world. The 90-degree hook-to-eyelet angle and mushroom shape performs beautifully around cover. But the light head allows an ElaZtech bait to do its thing—shake and shimmy—without getting in its way. I know a lot of anglers think a #4 hook is too small, but to me, a bigger hook doesn’t slide through brush or vegetation so well as a #4, which is almost snag-free.
“I also do less damage to fish with a smaller hook. A bigger hook just gets in the way of the bait’s gyrations, sort of neutralizes some of the magic of super-soft, buoyant ElaZtech baits.”
Like the rest of you, I’ve been putting things like Berkley Power Worms, ringworms, Kalin’s grubs, and spider grubs on mushroom jigs for decades. Not sure it even matters whether or not we’ve technically been fishing Ned rigs. Recently, the line’s been further blurred by category-expanding baits like Z-Man’s TRD TicklerZ and TRD BugZ.
Long before I knew I was throwing a Ned rig, one of my favorite finesse bass baits was a 4-inch Lunker City Slug-Go, nose-trimmed by 1/2-inch and threaded onto a 1/8-ounce mushroom head. I’ve had great success, more recently, with Lunker City’s Whipstik, trimmed and fished in similar fashion. A nose-trimmed Z-Man Finesse ShadZ is another sweet tail-shaker.
The aforementioned combos are potent throw-back or sight-fishing baits for spooky smallmouths in shallow, clear water. What’s worked best is an alternating pop-stop-pause retrieve on light spinning tackle, 5-pound-test braid and a 6-foot leader of 5.2-pound-test Seaguar Finesse fluorocarbon. Pick your favorite Ned rig rod, or go slightly lighter with one of my two favorite finesse sticks: St. Croix’s 6-foot 8-inch Legend Tournament Bass (LBS68MLF), or G. Loomis’ 6-foot 8-inch Trout Series (TSR802-2).
Of course, Lunker City has been crafting primo finesse baits for years. The 2.75-inch Grubster is a classic. Their 3- and 5-inch Hellgies represent various non-crayfish invertebrates like dragonfly nymphs and dobsonfly nymphs and have always scored when dragged slowly across rock, sand and gravel, particularly in rivers. A Z-Man TRD HogZ is a similarly shaped 3-inch bait that reminds me of a Puddle Jumper. The bait’s gliding, leg-kicking action has proven to be another terrific river smallmouth bait.
Of course, the surgence of plain 3-inch stickbaits has prompted the mass production of clones such as the Zoom Beatdown Worm, Strike King Ned Ocho Worm, Roboworm Ned Worm, and 6th Sense Ned Fry Worm. Gene Larew’s 3.75-inch Ned Rig Inch Worm sports a tiny paddle tail that very subtly beats back and forth on the swim.
At the other end of the size spectrum lie 4- to 6-inch stickbaits like the Yamamoto Senko, Berkley PowerBait The General, Yum Dinger, and Z-Man ZinkerZ and Giant TRD.
To make non-buoyant, PVC baits stand head-first on bottom, Lunker City offers the Ned Head, a mushroom jig with a flattened crown. Berkley’s Half Head is another popular mushroom-style jig among other recent arrivals. Z-Man offers ShroomZ Jigheads and the OG Mushroom head, a facsimile of the discontinued Gopher Tackle Mushroom jig. Eagle Claw Trokar Pro-V Finesse jigs, in standard and weedless versions, have tungsten heads, with molded baitkeeper, while Lazer Sharp Pro-V Finesse jigs have lead heads. Brian Schmidt Baits’ Ned Dred Finesse Jig has a mushroom-shaped head and Gamakatsu hook with a natural feather collar and sparsely tied silicone fibers.
All Terrain Rigging
Addressing the central issue here, almost every jig or plastics company now offers a different take on the Ned rig. Does a weedless jighead rigged with a 3-inch finesse bait constitute a Ned rig? Technically, no. Yet no fewer than a dozen companies now offer some form of weedless Ned jig. Most of these such as the Trokar Tungsten Weedless Pro-V Finesse Jig simply add a wire weedguard to a mushroom head. Others, like Owner’s Block Head Offset Jighead couple a mushroom head with an offset hook for Texas-style rigging.
The weedless jig I’ve fished most is Z-Man’s Finesse BulletZ Weedless Jighead. This one stretches the boundaries even further, swapping a mushroom for a tapered bullet-head, molded on a custom #1 VMC EWG-style hook. This is a cool jighead that I’ve used to snake through vegetation with a TRD MinnowZ and a TRD CrawZ. The design of the jig and keel-weighted hook necessitate use of an ElaZtech bait that won’t tear when you pierce the head and slide it over the weight. Once it’s rigged, though, the bait stays put for hours, days, weeks. To maximize hookups while maintaining a measure of snag-resistance, I prefer to Texpose rig baits with a partially exposed hook.
Alabama based guide Joey Nania says rigging Finesse BulletZ jig with a TRD MinnowZ goes where traditional Ned rigs can’t. “I like to rig a Smelt or Hot Snakes pattern TRD MinnowZ with a 1/10-ouncer and skip it under docks,” he says. “Or try rigging the same bait on a 1/6-ounce Finesse BulletZ for casting into deeper schools of bass.
“The jig’s keel weight makes the bait glide and slide horizontally, rather than sink nose-down,” he says. “It’s like an improved version of a slider head, except this jig perfectly matches 2- to 4-inch finesse baits.
But what if you decide to forego the jighead altogether and fish the same bait with a plain hook and a nail weight? Is this a Ned rig? Several manufacturers offer Neko-style nail weights compatible with finesse-sized baits. VMC offers an easy-to-use Neko Weight; Damiki and Mustad also make similar screw-in or nail-style weights.
Major League Fishing and Bass Pro Tour angler Mark Daniels calls a so-called Ned-Neko rig an “always on deck technique.” “I’ve always got a medium-action spinning rod on the casting deck, Neko-rigged with a Z-Man Hula StickZ—that’s my favorite finesse bait. The Finesse WormZ is another fish catcher. Both baits shine for skipping around docks. But with a heavier 1/6-ounce weight, I also like to fish the setup for spotted bass as deep as 30 feet.”
To rig, Daniels inserts a Z-Man Neko ShroomZ nail weight into the head (ringed) end of the bait, and impales a #2 Owner Sniper Finesse Hook 1/8-inch forward from the egg sack. He spools with 15-pound Seaguar Smackdown braid and a 6- to 10-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon leader. “While traditional Neko-rigging requires the angler to slide a rubber O-ring over the bait, under which the hook is planted, ElaZtech is tough and tear-resistant enough to eliminate this extra accessory, Daniels says.”
One other ingenious alternative to the Ned-Neko—the so-called Tiny Child Rig (TCR)—was created by Kyle Peterson of Wired2Fish. “It’s sort of a Texas rig in reverse,” he says. “I needed a hydrodynamic finesse bait I could drop straight down into and pull cleanly out of logjams, brushpiles, and heavy vegetation. This led me to Texas rig a Z-Man Finesse TRD with a Neko-style hook and Neko ShroomZ weight in the thicker end. Looks like a miniature pogo stick hopping along bottom, but bass eat the heck out of it. So fun and easy to fish, even your 5-year-old could do it.”
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, exceptional multispecies angler, contributes to all In-Fisherman publications, often on emerging tactics and tackle topics.