David Harrison's Introduction to Midwest Finesse in Kansas
June 09, 2016
David Harrison writes about fishing for a variety of publishers, including In-Fisherman. He moved to Lawrence, Kansas, from Colorado in March, and we fished together on April l and May 19. The focus of these two outings was to introduce him to how, when, and where we use Midwest finesse tactics in the flatland reservoirs in northeastern Kansas. We noted that we fish every month of the year, but Old Man Winter has inhibited our endeavors at times. Each outing is a four-hour endeavor, and they are midday hours. As we fished, I occasionally emphasized that our tactics revolve around a recreational perspective rather than a tournament perspective. In other words, we want to elicit a lot of strikes and catch a lot of black bass per hour, and the size of those black bass is not important. Afterwards, we asked him to write about the merits and demerits of Midwest finesse from his perspectives.
Here is an edited version of his observations.
For the past five years, I have followed, quizzed, studied, and gathered as much fishing experience as possible. In Colorado, I worked for a large engineering company, and I fished for walleye, black bass, and trout on a weekly basis and I took anyone from the company who wanted an adventure to Chatfield Reservoir, which is a 1,800-acre flatland reservoir in Littleton, Colorado.
I also worked with walleye and multi-species expert Nathan Zelinsky of Aurora, Colorado, and black-bass expert Matt Endsley of Englewood, Colorado, who helped me to develop efficient fishing practices. (Zelinsky and Endsley are members of Tightline Outdoors, which is a local fishing guide service.)
In addition, I garnered tournament strategies from Dan Swanson. (Swanson was the 2004 rookie of the year in the western division of the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail, and nowadays he is a guide for the Fishful Thinker.)
I used much of what I learned from these experts to produce multiple articles for magazines such as In-Fisherman, Bass Anglers Magazine, FLW Bass Fishing, Clam Ice Annual, and Colorado Outdoors.
When my family and I moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in March, I carried all of this information with me.
Over the years I have read and re-read many of Ned Kehde's articles in In-Fisherman magazine and online. I had especially studied an article by Ned about Brent Ehrler's bass tournament tactics, as well as an article that explained how Terry Bivins of Lebo, Kansas, uses small jigs to catch multiple species in Kansas. I had also exchanged emails with Ned a couple of times a year when his writing sparked an interesting turn in his tactics or they connected with a recent experience of my own. I had also thoroughly enjoyed the historical aspect of Ned's writing because the history of the sport and tactics of fishing must be understood if we want to push the envelope of fishing.
I first fished with Ned at a small state reservoir on April 1, when we fished for three hours and 45 minutes. Then we spent four hours at a different state reservoir on May 19. These trips filled in the voids between the thousands of words that I had read about the Midwest Finesse system.
Here are my observations:
Ned fishes as quickly and efficiently as any master angler I have met. The word "finesse" to me always meant some sort of slower fishing system. Ned had also denounced "power" fishing in his writing so I envisioned a slower pace to the overall tactics. On both outings, we covered at least half of the reservoirs' shorelines and the entire length of the dam in the four hours of fishing.
Ned efficiently narrows down the correct jig, lure, and color for each hour of the outing. He used three rods rigged with different lures on at least two different jig heads, and the second angler followed suit. During the first 10 minutes of every hour, they attempt to determine the most effective design, color, weight, and size of lure. On both trips, we caught three to five fish in our first ten casts, which highlighted the color, jig, and lure style trends for the day. Approximately 50 minutes later the anglers repeat the experiment.
By catching so many fish, the confidence factor builds quickly, and then they shift their focus to the retrieve and location details in an effort to further increase the catch rate.
We did not fish specific honey holes or brush piles. Knowing that Ned had 30 years of experience on these reservoirs, I expected we would be engaged in a milk run to proven spots. Maps for these reservoirs list the GPS coordinates of brush piles, but we did not target these. In fact, Ned did not make specific casts to likely-looking laydowns or work snaggy overhangs. Instead, he made precise casts to the edge of the cover. The best description of the tactics used to find bass would be: "keep moving and search as many locations as possible," which is a tactic all anglers should develop.
In at least one case, we fished a shoreline that Ned had not fished in his life. We fished one shoreline that failed to yield a bass. And as we fished these two problematic shorelines, the boat kept moving, and we kept searching.
The jigs are light, weighing 1/32-, 1/16-, and 3/32-ounce, which are sizes that Midwest finesse anglers use at the flatland reservoirs in northeastern Kansas. The heavily salted lures, such as the 2 1/2-inch Z-Man's ZinkerZ actually increase the weight of the rig, so distance is not an issue. I made a comparison test with a spinnerbait cast, and the casting range of the ZinkerZ rig equaled the range of my casts with my spinnerbait. In my introductory trips, where we probed dams, shorelines, and patches of aquatic vegetation, long casts were not required.
The jig hooks that we used are small: a No. 4 on a 1/16-ounce jig and a No. 6 on a 1/32-ounce jig. I had purchased the Z-Man's Finesse ShroomZ jigs and VMC's Half Moon Finesse jigs to use on Midwest finesse rigs in Colorado, and these jigs have large hooks. Ned still uses the original Gopher jigs in the smallest hook sizes for all of his fishing. These small jigs and hooks play a big part in keeping the jig out of the rocks and weeds, and during the eight hours that we fished, we were plagued with only five snags, and we easily liberated all but one of the baits from the tackle-eating terrain.
The small hooks have never been a problem with hooking or landing fish.
The lines and rods are heavier than you would think they would be. I almost bought a light-action rod before I left Denver, but it is not needed for Midwest finesse applications in northeastern Kansas. A medium-action rod with eight- to 10-pound-test braided line or Berkley Nanofil and eight- to 10-pound-test fluorocarbon or monofilament leaders casts efficiently. The heavier leader is actually an integral part of the system as it slows the sink rate of the jigs. Shorter rods make for better jig control and are easier to store and manage in a boat. Ned recommends larger reels to allow better casting and less coiling of the line.
The technique seems to catch all of the bass in the area. (See endnote No. 1.) In one case, we caught 20 fish from a point. A few minutes later we caught five larger fish from a laydown near that point. The system caught 32 largemouth bass in one pass along a 300-yard dam. Finding and catching 100 fish in four hours requires this level of efficiency from a presentation but few anglers can fathom the sheer numbers of fish that can inhabit a shoreline right at their feet.
I have not been present for an entire season, but from the years of trip reports on the In-Fisherman website, I know water temperature does not affect the willingness of bass to strike Midwest finesse rigs. Bass move with the seasons, so the location of the fishing needs to be adjusted, and most of the time, the rig shines in the winter when power fishing techniques begin to fade.
The technique should work in most black-bass lakes. Northeastern Kansas' flatland reservoirs have a wide variety of shoreline cover and lengthy riprap dams for anglers to fish. In comparison, some Colorado and western Kansas waters are void of shoreline vegetation (but they do have shoreline rock and a riprap dam). Adapting the technique to an offshore ledge or underwater reef would not be a stretch although I did not fish any such features with Ned on the first two trips. The fascinating part of the two trips is that Ned admitted that, either due to darker water or black bass behavior, he has never seen a bedding bass in the reservoirs he fishes, but I am sure that he has caught spawning bass.
The details that are highlighted in the paragraphs above pale in comparison with the skills needed to become proficient at the "no-feel" retrieve that is integral to the success of Midwest finesse fishing. On the first trip I made the mistake of treating the system as a crankbait and would begin reeling slowly once the lure touched the surface. On most occasions the rig should be allowed to sink on a semi-tight line, and then one of the six Midwest retrieves is employed by swimming it, dragging it, shaking it, gliding it, deadstick it, strolling it , etc. (See endnote No. 2 to attain more information about Midwest finesse retrieves.)
On the second trip we worked a rip-rap dam for most of the outing and I used my experience fishing dams in the past to "calibrate" my mind as to where the lure was as it sank and generally allowed the lure to glide back towards the boat after it landed inches from the water's edge. When the slope of the dam was steeper, I did not reel and I allowed the boat's movement to glide the lure away from the shore. Eventually I developed the ability to control the jig at the same angle as the dam, and that allowed me to keep the rig just above the rocks, which is a key to fishing any riprap successfully. When I was able to balance the angle of my cast, the movement of the boat, the glide of the lure, and the sink rate of the lure, I was rewarded with a fish. In some cases I allowed the lure to swing and drag behind the boat, and my experience with drifting nymphs and streamers through moving water on trout streams paid dividends. This attention to these details doubled my catch from the first trip to the second one.
In fact, a fly-fishing presentation for black bass or saltwater species is similar to the no-feel retrieve of the Midwest finesse anglers. The floating fly line, light fly, and the strip-strip-glide retrieve (the standard retrieve of a Clouser minnow on any saltwater flats fishing situation) matches the Midwest finesse system. In all, anyone who focuses on the presentation will learn the basics of the no-feel retrieve soon enough and will enjoy countless numbers of black bass strikes.
The technique was more effective than I expected in weedy areas. As we motored to a main lake point that had an inside bushy-pondweed edge as well as some paths through weeds that did not quite reach the surface, I abandoned the Midwest finesse rig, and I employed a spinnerbait that allowed me to quickly explore the area with vibration and flash and allure the largemouth bass from the weeds. As has always been the case, Ned caught three fish to my zero. I returned to using a Midwest finesse rig and added to the total bass count after a few more casts.
I have minimal data on the effectiveness of other presentations when fished side-by-side with Ned's tactics. My walleye fishing background leaves me with only a freshman-level understanding of common black bass techniques, and the times during the two trips with Ned that I fished a Texas-rigged Berkley Pit Boss, generic spinnerbait, Johnson Thinfisher blade bait, and Rebel Crawdad crankbait did not produce significant numbers of bass. The only additional data comes from the other anglers who were afloat, and they were not catching 22 largemouth bass per hour in the same locales Ned and I were plying.
The one limitation of Midwest finesse fishing that I have noticed thus far is that the rigs cannot be punched through the heaviest of cover nor worked efficiently over large areas of heavy vegetation that cover the surface of the water. At some point a punchbait, a spinnerbait, buzzbait, or frog lure would be needed to identify if there are catchable largemouth abiding in these areas. Ned informed me that in a month or two the patches of bushy pondweed, American pondweed, Eurasian milfoil, and coontail would be better for catching largemouth bass, and that is because they would form more of a distinct edge, and then Midwest finesse anglers focus of the edges of those patches. And during our outings, we kept the boat moving and quickly started to find bass once the thicker weeds thinned out.
The rig catches all sizes of fish. My personal best largemouth came in Colorado using a rig with a no-feel retrieve on an inlet flat. As we moved along the shorelines on these two Kansas trips, the most fruitful locations contained either large numbers of average-size largemouth bass or the largest one of the trip. In one case we caught small largemouth bass and crappie along a weed edge, and then as we rounded an underwater point where two submerged creek channels intersect, the largemouth bass we caught were the largest ones we caught that day. Ned's logs note that there are many outings when a big largemouth bass or a smallmouth bass is caught along with scores of small ones.
This brings us to how Midwest finesse fishing fits into the tournament-preparation process. Pre-fishing for a tournament is a strange brand of fishing. In short, catching is not as important as learning. The faster an angler can learn where the largest fish in the lake are residing and what they are eating gives that angler a better chance of winning. In many cases, a describable pattern emerges after the first five fish are caught in any situation. In Ned's famous article about Brent Ehrler's win at Table Rock Lake, Missouri, in 2010, Ehrler caught only six keeper-sized bass, but those six bass gave him a fundamental understanding of what was transpiring with the black bass at Table Rock. (See endnote No. 6.)
Midwest finesse is the fastest way to catch five fish in a majority of situations. It does not need to be fished slowly. It is effective around many types of cover. It works in shallow water as well as deeper areas. During both of my trips, it was apparent to me that the smallest largemouth bass, which are less than 12 inches long, as well as a number of average-sized largemouth bass, which range in size from 12 to 16 inches, were inhabiting shallow-water areas either near aquatic vegetation or rock. We also knew that we could catch and cull five largemouth bass that would weigh from 11 to 12 pounds, and we could accomplish this feat in less than four hours, and in many cases, less than 30 minutes of fishing. At many tournaments, 11 pounds is enough for an angler to get a check, and, at times, it might win an event anywhere in the country. (For more information about the 11-pound phenomenon, see endnote No. 3.)
Pre-fishing for a black-bass tournament revolves around understanding the lake and tracking down the largest bass. At the two reservoirs that we fished, Ned has occasionally caught largemouth bass that weighed as much as five pounds, so we know they exist. It is very common for larger bass to forage on a different food source than smaller bass. It is also common for larger bass to feed at night (which does not help a tournament angler). To me, the number-one advantage of Midwest finesse fishing is to know where the large bass are (or are not) during the middle of the day. At the two reservoirs that I fished with Ned, the largemouth bass that were bigger than 16 inches were not inhabiting the areas where we caught 69 in three hours and 45 minutes on April 1, and 88 in four hours on May 19.
To confidently learn the whereabouts and size of a reservoir's black bass in a few hours is gold to a tournament angler. At the two reservoirs that Ned and I fished, we did not probe open-water areas with electronic devices, and we did not dissect heavy cover. But a talented and versatile angler could confidently probe those open-water and heavy-cover scenarios, and by using the necessary tactics, this angler could unlock a secret or two about these locales in a few hours. After a tournament angler's morning bite wanes, and by knowing the bite rates between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. and the size of the black bass, it will provide the tournament angler with some options.
These observations from my two four-hour expeditions only begin my journey to learning to catch bass of all sizes in multiple conditions and parts of the country. By employing multiple presentations and learning the local lakes, I will continue to build on these findings. I will also compare my results to the detailed logs that Ned enters into the Midwest Finesse column. Stay tuned.
(1) After I wrote this article, Ned had the opportunity to take part in an electrofishing survey at a community reservoir that had seemingly dropped in largemouth bass production through the years. For more than a year, Ned has been worried that the fish numbers in this lake were down, and this had adversely affected his catch rate. Quite the opposite has occurred. In fact, about 60 largemouth bass were surveyed at one very small section of a shoreline where Ned would catch from five to 15 largemouth bass. Now Ned suspects that this reservoir's largemouth bass have been pummeled by Midwest finesse anglers since 2006, and that they might have become extremely wary of Midwest finesse tactics. He also hypothesizes that the reservoir's managers have sprayed the Eurasian milfoil and curly-leaf pondweed too often, and it has affected the location and behavior of the largemouth bass. (For more information about the electroshocking survey and Ned's persepective, please see the May 26 log at this link: https://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/midwest-finesse-fishing-may-2016/.)
(2) The column at this link explains how to employ the six standard Midwest finesse retrieves: https://www.in-fisherman.com/midwest-finesse/six-midwest-finesse-retrieves/.
(3) This is a link to Ned's Midwest Finesse column about how Shin Fukae won the Walmart FLW Tour's Wal-Mart Open at Beaver Lake, Arkansas, in 2006: https://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/a-midwest-finesse-tribute-to-shin-fukae/.
(4) For more details about David's and Ned's April 1 outing, please see the April 1 log at this link: https://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/midwest-finesse-fishing-april-2016/.
(5) For more details about David's and Ned's May 19 outing , please see the May 19 log at this link: https://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/midwest-finesse-fishing-may-2016/.
(6) For more information about Brent Ehrler's tournament preparations, please see the story at this link: https://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/brent-ehrlers-winning-bass-tactics/.