July 04, 2014
By Matt Straw With Joe Balog
Late summer is awash in warm water, which sounds nice, but it means there's less dissolved oxygen. The forage glut is in full swing. Fishing pressure grinds on. Big, deep smallmouth bass have seen it all and more. Angling gets tough.
"For Lake Erie bass, mid-summer means mid-July through September," says Joe Balog, one of the nation's foremost experts on smallmouths. "The tournament season starts the last week of June and runs through September. During August and September, deep drop-shot techniques have won more money than anything else for the past several years."
Smallmouths have shifted into true summer patterns on deep, main-lake structures around the Great Lakes, and drop-shot rigs comprise the most effective way to fish deep. "It's very efficient and very precise," he says. "But more than that—it's the only way to consistently catch big smallmouths on the Great Lakes in late summer. Down South you can fish ledges in 10 to 25 feet of water with deep cranks or Carolina rigs. You have more options on those TVA reservoirs. In the Great Lakes you're fishing in big waves over deeper water, and those other methods aren't always feasible."
The tube game, once so popular and effective on Erie, is all but dead, according to Balog. "Drifting and dragging tubes still works," he admits, "but for every smallmouth you hook, you catch a dozen sheepshead, most of which are 6 to 12 pounds. They make tube fishing almost impossible. Anything dragged on bottom dredges up big sheep, and you can't afford that during a tournament. It takes 15 minutes to land a big gaspergou. Drop-shot methods produce fewer sheep and represent the ultimate in precision and placement. Moreover, a drop-shot rig is the only way to create a subtle presentation in big waves."
Unlike the other Great Lakes, Erie can look nasty by late summer. "It's brown or green from dense blooms of algae and plankton," Balog says. "Smallmouths sometimes hold on structures only 12 feet deep. But those fish are susceptible to drop-shot rigs because of fishing pressure and those other factors. Big smallmouths have seen 10 summers of algae blooms and low oxygen, becoming really tough to catch at times."
Around the Great Lakes, Balog looks for "rim structure" during summer. Almost every lake has a soft floor covering its main basin. Somewhere that soft floor has a hard edge—the beginning of the lake's "continental shelf," for lack of a better term. After postspawn, smallmouths begin migrating down toward those last pieces of structure that gradually give way to the lake's softer, sedimented floor.
When do smallmouths arrive on the rim? "You have to take conditions into account," Balog says. "You can generally count on it happening by mid-July on the deepest structures. In some places, that might be 50 to 60 feet deep. On the other side of the lake, it might be 20 to 35 feet deep. Depth isn't important. The outer edge of the last and deepest structure is key. You hear of people catching big smallmouths on a shallow reef that tops out in 12 to 15 feet of water sometimes, but not consistently. It mostly happens where the soft-bottom basin reaches up into shallower water. In late summer, big fish work the deep side of that reef—not like spring and early summer when they're on the shallow side, or all over the top."
Anglers can be boggled by vast Great Lakes structure. "Reefs can be 6 miles long and 3 miles wide," he says. "Big bass and big schools consistently relate to the outside edges of the structure during late summer. The key areas are: 1) where the wind is blowing in; 2) the highest spot; and 3) the sharpest break into the basin. Special things happen when all three coincide. I key on the west break in a west wind.
"The predominant wind sets up currents that bring bait like a conveyor belt, positioning smallmouths on those sweet spots. Bass use key spots on ledges in reservoirs down South the same way. With an Aqua-Vu you may see that a good spot has only 10 to 15 bass, but they're all big. That crucial spot, created by the intersection of structure, wind, and current, always draws the biggest fish. Do they run off the smaller specimens? I don't know—but I hardly ever catch bass smaller than 31â'„2 pounds on rim structure when things are right.
"You catch small bass mixed with large ones on a lake like St. Clair, which lacks deep structure. On shallower lakes, you catch a mix on key spots with thick vegetation. And you have more presentation options. But you often find the drop shot excels there, too. It gets on target immediately, so even in rough water it's efficient. At the same time, a drop-shot rig is extremely subtle. These big bass are old and they've been fished for years. At times, drop-shot plastics are the only thing they open their mouths for."
Seeing Deep and Sideways
Bass pro Joe Balog says the most important tool for successfully applying the deep drop-shot technique is a side-imaging sonar unit. "I received the first Humminbird side-imaging unit on Lake Erie and immediately saw it as vital," he says. "Some key spots don't look productive on 2-D sonar. The last seams of rock bordering the soft basin are hard to find. They show on a graph, but they stand out much better with side-imaging. That final piece of rock that forms the outer edge of the structure is a huge find. Don't lose it."
When side-imaging shows a rock finger reaching toward the basin flat, he scrolls over with the cursor and creates a waypoint. "When you come over a spot, side-imaging tells you exactly what you're looking at. You see the difference between clay and rock, and you can see why one spot is going to be hot and the other not, even though they look similar on sonar.
The final rocks can stick out into the softer substrates and those protrusions are gathering points. Sometimes you see a boulder set into the clay. Scroll over with the cursor and put a waypoint on it so you can accurately drop on the key spot with the most precise method—deep drop-shot rigging. It's one of the most valuable methods for bass fishing on the Great Lakes. An Aqua-Vu is a powerful tool, too—but I'd have to say side-imaging is even more effective for finding key spots on a daily basis."
Plastics And Scent
"A number of plastics I've used with drop-shot rigging have come and gone in terms of effectiveness," Balog says. "That could be due to popularity and pressure. The ones I continue to use most are the Yamamoto Shad-Shaped Worm, the Jackall Crosstail Shad, and the Poor Boys Goby. Goby shapes have been less effective the past few years despite the abundance of those fish. Little finesse worms like Strike King's Finesse Worm or KVD Dream Shot are great. Other times, the Roboworm is it, or a Berkley Gulp! Finesse Worm. I use the Gulp! 5-inch Sinking Minnow, too. That bait was better than live leeches at one time, but not so much now. Trigger X was awesome 2 or 3 years ago and last year less so on Erie. But on St. Clair you didn't even need to move it. They ate it consistently."
Balog is a firm believer in scent. "I always add scent to drop-shot baits. Smallmouths have time to inspect and I think it's critical in summer. I use garlic scents. Right now I'm using Kick'N Bass and I soak 'em. I can smell the garlic on my partner's bait in the back of the boat when he lifts it out of the water to cast again. That's how much garlic we're using. Pros swear the garlic-impregnated baits work consistently better than unscented baits. If it isn't impregnated with garlic, I put scent in the bag and let it soak all summer."
He uses 4- to 5-inch worms mostly, but occasionally 7-inchers. "I'm not afraid to try bigger baits," he says. "It might only be a 10-percent solution, but sometimes they want a bigger bait. I don't worry about color. Most of my baits are smoke, purple, and green pumpkin. But I'm more concerned about scent."
"For me, deep means 25 feet or more," Balog says. "Drop-shot rigging on the West Coast is popular but quite different from Great Lakes methods. On these massive waters, wind creates big waves and you must have two things, the right rod and the right hook."
Continued after gallery...
Berkley Gulp! Floating Dover Crawler
Berkley PowerBait Power Minnow
Gamakatsu Split-Shot Drop-Shot Hook
Strike King Fat Baby Finesse Worm
Yamamoto Shad-Shaped Worm
Drop-shot rods from most manufacturers are too light and too fast, according to Balog. "I was using technique-specific, 6.5- to 7-foot medium-light, drop-shot rods that work well in normal conditions at normal depths, but I kept losing deep fish in deep water. Fishing a buddy tournament one day, we hooked about 14. My partner boated 7 of 7. I lost 4 and felt pretty bad. We compared equipment. The only difference was the rod. His was a beefier, medium-action, medium-power rod. I started using one like that and stopped losing fish. I use a Daiwa Steez Fle-X-Lite, 7-foot, medium-power model. It's almost parabolic with a medium taper and medium power. It has a slightly slower reaction time, like an older graphite rod that flexes down into the meat. But it's heavy enough for redfish or pike."
Deep drop-shot rigging generally requires less power on the hook-set, which is aided by the right hook. Premium drop-shot hooks are light, thin, and super sharp, requiring far less force than a big offset hook buried in plastic. I use Owner Mosquito Hooks, VMC Spin-Shot Hooks, and Lazer TroKar Drop-Shot Hooks with great success in average depths, but Balog finds special needs down deep. "I tried every hook on the market until I found the Gamakatsu Split-Shot Drop Shot Hook," he says. "It's a straight hook, not offset, and has a longer shank and longer throat. I use a #1 and it seems to bite better than anything else. I've used the VMC Spin-Shot Hook and I like it, but I have more confidence in the Gamakatsu. You need to boat at least 9 out of 10 to compete in a 3- or 4-day tournament. I've refined the technique to where I might lose one bass all week. You're only hooking 7 or 8 fish per day sometimes, so you need the perfect rod and hook."
Balog loads a Daiwa Steez reel with 6- to 8-pound Sufix Invisiline, depending on the environment. "Light, nearly invisible line is critical," he says. "The average guy sets the hook too hard. These are light, small hooks. A firm sweep-set is all you need. If you don't break the line on the set, you can lose bass only two ways—by pulling too hard and losing skin-hooked fish, or when they come directly to the surface and jump. Most bass are hooked in the roof of the mouth. The only thing holding them is that little piece of skin. If you don't pull hard, you almost never lose one."
He uses a 3/8-ounce, cherry bomb-shaped lead sinker about 80 percent of the time. "I use 1/2-ounce sinkers 15 percent of the time, and on rare occasions in hard current I use an ounce," he says. "With little wind or current, I might drop down to a 1/4-ounce, or when bass want the bait sweeping along with the current. But it's rare.
"Round weights provide the best feel and the best connection with the bottom on rock or sand. I use cylindrical ones on Lake St. Clair around weeds. I don't want to lose $12 in weights every day so I use lead instead of tungsten. Cabela's, Bass Pro Shops, Eagle Claw—lots of companies offer less expensive drop-shot weights.
The distance between hook and sinker is a point of contention. Most pros tie the hook with a Palomar knot and leave a 12- to 16-inch dropper, attaching the weight 8 to 12 inches below the hook.
"I use a longer leader," Balog says. "Every so often a competitor gets on stage and says he got 'em with a 2-inch leader, but that's rare. I've never felt I could have done better with a shorter leader. I don't want the bait to hide behind a basketball-sized rock or big submerged log. For me, 18 inches off bottom is most visible most of the time. That's where I start, but I've solved major struggles by switching to a 5- or 6-foot leader. It tends to happen after the spawn, when bass suspend a lot. It's a horribly difficult rig to tie, with a 5- or 6-foot tag end off a Palomar knot. It can't be any longer or it becomes unwieldy to cast."
"Retrieve angle can be extremely important at times," he emphasizes. "Pulling the rig into current is best sometimes. In other situations, dropping it right on their heads and letting it sit on a tight line is key to getting bit. At other times, they want it moving with the current. Pay attention to fish positioning and how they are biting, or not biting. Big smallmouths relate to current and how current affects baitfish. Unless your lure is moving toward them in the current the way it naturally would, they may not bite. But sometimes a lure's action when it's pulled into current seems to trigger strikes."
Every day is about trial and error, but Balog finds he rarely drifts far with the current. "I almost never drift," he says. "I use my Minn Kota Terrova iPilot to get above fish and stay there. I may slide back real easy, for a bit. That can work. But sometimes you have to push into the current or stay directly above them to get bit. Sometimes you slide, sometimes you push, sometimes you hover."
Sinks fast. Stays in their face. Surgically precise. Leaves bass nowhere to hide. Works overtime on the specific rim. Deep-drop shots are one of the few tools to bust late summer wide open.