Midwest finesse anglers began employing their tactics many years before anglers in Japan and California developed their tactics for enticing fish to bite in highly pressured, clear waterways that often stymie anglers. Roots date to the late 1950s, and by the 1960s and early 1970s, many talented anglers in eastern Kansas and western Missouri relied on these finesse methods.
Kansas City was its center and it involved two groups of anglers. One cadre gathered regularly at Ray Fincke's tackle shop on Southwest Boulevard in Rosedale, Kansas, an innercity suburb of Kansas City. Besides Fincke, this group included Chuck Woods, Drew Reese, Dwight Keefer, Burton Bosley, Bill Ward, Virgil Ward, and a few other savvy anglers. The second group revolved around Harold Ensley, Dusty Ensley, Gayle Marcus, Ted Green, and Guido Hibdon, as well as several other ardent and talented anglers.
Chuck Woods of Kansas City was the father of Midwest finesse fishing. He created the Beetle, Beetle Spin, Puddle Jumper, the first Texas-rigged jigworm, and a number of other baits. He used only spinning tackle and to this day light equipment is at the heart of all Midwest finesse applications, as is a softbait affixed to a jighead. On occasion, anglers employ a softbait on a split-shot rig, slipsinker rig, or drop-shot rig, but across the years, they've found that a jig with a softbait is generally far more effective than other options.
Ray Fincke created a spinning rod that was called the Stinger. In 1983, he helped Gary Loomis design a 5-foot 4-inch Classic Spin Jig rod. Loomis described it as a magnum ultralight rod that was ideal for fishing light jigs, small spinnerbaits, and a variety of softbaits. Fincke's original Stinger was made from two Fenwick blanks. One was a C623 Fenwick fiberglass blank. The other was a 4-foot 6-inch Fenwick S541 ultralight graphite blank. To lengthen the rod and add more power to the butt section, he slid a 19-inch piece of the butt section of a C623 blank over the S541 and glued it in place. A nine-inch cork Tennessee-style handle was affixed to the butt of the C623 blank. The Stinger had five stainless-steel guides: a #25, #16, #12, and #10. The tip was a #8 Carboloy.
Woods crafted the first Beetle in the late 1950s, whittling it out of a Creme plastic worm. In due course, Bill and Virgil Ward of Amsterdam, Missouri, the proprietors of Bass Buster Lure Company, manufactured it and the Beetle Spin. The head of the jig that Woods and the Wards created for the Beetle allowed it to exhibit a subtle wobble. When anglers used the Beetle on that jig without the spinner, it was the first stickbait or Senko-style bait, though Woods' Beetle had a split tail rather than the blunt one on Senko-style baits.
Bill Ward crafted the first marabou jig. And he and his father, Virgil, created the fiberguard for the head of the marabou jig. Like the Beetle and Beetle Spin, a 1/8-ounce black Bass Buster Lure Company marabou jig was one of the standard-bearers for the first generation of Midwest finesse anglers. Often that black marabou jig was rigged with a small black pork-rind eel.
In 1955, Ted Green and Gayle Marcus of Mar Lynn Lure Company in Blue Springs, Missouri, purchased Dave Hawk's Thinga-ma-Jig. It was a horse-hoof-shaped jig that Hawk's dressed with a pork-rind eel, which he used for largemouth bass at Bull Shoals Lake. In 1956, Green and Marcus added one of Bill Norton's plastic worms to Hawk's jig, and named this combo the Skworm-N-Jig. Eventually Mar Lynn manufactured its own soft-plastic worm and a weed or hook guard that slipped over the collar of the jig, called the FAN GARD. In 1960, Harold Ensley of Overland Park, Kansas, used the Skworm-N-Jig to win the World Series of Sports Fishing.
In 1965, Green started manufacturing and selling Ensley's Reaper, which was affixed to either a standard round-head jig or FAN GARD jig. The Skworm-N-Jig and Reaper-and-jig combo caught the fancy of many bass anglers in Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin.
In the early 1970s, Woods, Green, and the Ensleys came together and came up with the Puddle Jumper. Woods whittled it out of the tail portion of a Reaper, and Green manufactured it. For years, Ensley called the Puddle Jumper the world's greatest bait and Woods the greatest angler that he had ever seen.
In the 1980s, Hibdon added a new dimension to the repertoire of Midwest finesse anglers after he crossed paths with Bobby Garland at Lake Mead, Nevada, where Garland introduced Hibdon to the virtues of a tube affixed to a jig.
Ensley wasn't the only finesse angler to fare well in tournaments. Virgil Ward won the World Series of Sport Fishing in 1962 and the National Championship of Fresh Water Fishing in 1964. Dwight Keefer won the World Series of Sport Fishing in 1967 when he was a sophomore at the University of Kansas, and one of the baits he employed was Woods' Texas-rigged jigworm on one of Fincke's Stinger Rods.
Under Fincke's and Woods' tutelage, Keefer and Reese became extremely skillful anglers. As a high school and college student, Reese worked for Fincke and fished regularly with Woods. After Reese graduated from the University of Kansas, he worked for Virgil and Bill Ward at Bass Buster Lure Company for a few years, and from 1970 through 1972, he fished several Bassmaster tournaments, including the 1971 Classic at Lake Mead, where he finished seventh using the Beetle, Beetle Spin, and Woods' jigworm on Fincke's rods. Besides winning the World Series of Sport Fishing, Keefer also competed in the 1972 Bassmaster Classic.
In addition to his duties at the lure company, Bill Ward competed in big-time bass tournaments from 1976 to 1984, and appeared in seven Bassmaster Classics. In the tournament world, Guido Hibdon was the preeminent Midwest finesse angler. He'd been a guide at Lake of the Ozarks, but his tournament career began in 1980. Ultimately, he won the Bassmaster Classic in 1988 and BASS Angler of the Year in 1990 and 1991. He competed on the Walmart FLW tour until April of 2015. Now at the age of 69, he's guiding again at Lake of the Ozarks.
In "The Complete Guide to Finesse Bass Fishing," Michael Jones interviewed Hibdon, who said that "many people don't believe that little baits catch big fish, but they do. Gosh, we've proven it for years, long before the guys out west were proving it."
After Bosley worked for Fincke and was tutored by Woods in the 1960s and early 1970s, he became a noted freshwater and saltwater guide, who competed in a variety of saltwater and freshwater tournaments across the decades. He retired from guiding in 2009, and moved from Florida to Sutton, West Virginia, where he fishes recreationally and regularly uses Midwest finesse methods with great success.
Most of today's Midwest finesse anglers are recreational anglers, like Chuck Woods, rather than guides or tournament anglers. But during the last two years, many guides and some tournament anglers have begun using one of the modern-day classics of Midwest finesse fishing — either a 2½-inch Z-Man Fishing Products ZinkerZ or a 2½-inch section of Strike King's Zero on a mushroom-style jig. ElaZtech baits excel because this material is extremely durable, allowing dozens of fish to be caught on one lure. Moreover, it's supple and lifelike, and floats off bottom.
Since the day Woods whittled the Beetle out of a Creme worm, customization lies at the heart of many of the baits that Midwest finesse anglers employ, and the 2½-inch Zero and ZinkerZ are customized baits, made by cutting a 5-inch Zero or ZinkerZ in half.
In 2006, friends and I began using a 2½-inch Strike King green-pumpkin Zero on a red 1/16-ounce Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head Jig to often catch more than 100 bass in four hours at small community reservoirs in northeastern Kansas. Since then, that setup and its sibling, a 2½-inch section of a Z-Man Fishing Products ZinkerZ, have been the hallmark baits of Midwest finesse fishing. But there's more to Midwest finesse baits than these stickbait rigs.
Simplicity and frugality have been guiding lights of Midwest finesse fishing. Across the years, we've found that anglers don't need a vast array of state-of-the-art lures to catch scores of black bass on each outing. Nor do they need expensive rods and reels, hi-tech electronics, or posh boats. Our finesse tactics don't revolve around the versatility ethos that permeates many angling circles. One reason for that is that versatility tends to be the antithesis of simplicity and frugality. Some observers complain that this style of fishing is too austere. Nevertheless, this tactic has helped anglers of all ages over the years catch 100 bass in four hours, and catching that many fish is a lot fun and makes a believer of anyone.
Here are the basic Midwest finesse baits, jigs, rods, lines, and reels that Midwest finesse anglers employ:
Creatures — Gene Larew Baby Hoodaddy
Grubs — Z-Man 3½-inch GrubZ
Stickbaits — Half of a Z-Man ZinkerZ; Half of a Strike King Zero; Z-Man Hula StickZ; Z-Man Finesse T.R.D.
Tubes — Strike King Bitsy Tube; Mizmo Bait Company Teaser Tube
Worms — Z-Man 4-inch Finesse WormZ (often shortened by 3/4 inch); Z-Man Finesse ShadZ
Jigs — Gopher Tackle 1/32-, 1/16-, and 3/32-ounce Mushroom Head Jigs; Z-Man 1/15- and 1/10-ounce Finesse ShroomZ
Dave Reeves of Lansing, Kansas, makes a 1/16- and 1/8-ounce mushroom-style jig with a weedguard. They're called Ozark Finesse Heads because they were made to answer the specific challenges of the Ozark lakes, such as Beaver, Table Rock, and Stockton lakes. The name of Reeves' company is Prescription Plastics.
Spinning Rods — Some of us old-timers who ply the flatland reservoirs of northeastern Kansas relish short rods with Tennessee-style handles. They say that a short rod, like Fincke's Stinger or the late Billy Westmoreland's vintage Light-line Special rods work best rod for most Midwest finesse presentations. But short finesse rods are scarce nowadays. The scarcity of short rods stems from the fact that it's fashionable for West Coast finesse anglers and drop-shot anglers to use long rods, and the industry tends to focus on such trends. So most Midwest finesse anglers use either a medium-light-power or a medium-power rod with a fast action, ranging from 6 feet to more than 7 feet long. A few opt for light-powered ones with a fast action.
Some spurn frugality and choose expensive models, and they love them. Several experts favor the 6-foot 7-inch, ultralight-power, fact-action G. Loomis Trout Series Spinning Rods, which cost $385. Others like the 6-foot 6-inch, medium-light-power, fast-action St. Croix Eyecon Jig-n-Rig rod, which costs $119. Others order custom 7½-foot rods. Lew's 6½- and 7-foot models also are popular, at $100 to $140. And there are many alternatives.
Chuck Woods, who was an extremely frugal angler, taught us that high-dollar rods don't make anglers better. As a disciple of Woods, I've been using a half-dozen 6-foot, medium-power Shakespeare Synergy Spinning Rods costing $20 since 2005. During that decade, I've caught 31,581 largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and spotted bass in northeastern Kansas on them. I've not broken a rod, but have replaced several tip-top guides.
Line — Midwest finesse anglers use a variety of lines. Some old-timers are monofilament devotees and spool with 4- to 8-pound. Others favor the long-casting and longevity of braids from 3- to 20-pound-test. Most affix a fluorocarbon or mono leader of 6- to 10-pound-test. Some anglers who use 3-pound-test braid, such as PowerPro Microline, forego a leader. And a few spool with 6- or 8-pound-test fluorocarbon. I use 6- to 10-pound braid with a 6-foot fluorocarbon leader of 6- or 8-pound test.
Reels — The only consensus among Midwest finesse anglers about spinning reels is that wide spools are best. Some use expensive reels, costing several hundred dollars. Others lean toward inexpensive ones. I use Abu Garcia Cardinal Four reels, occasionally a Cardinal Three. I've owned them since the early 1970s, and I've customized them to a manual bail system. –
In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde, Lawrence, Kansas, is a veteran contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Check his regular blog about finesse tactics at in-fisherman.com.