December 13, 2017
In the rapidly expanding universe of finesse fishing, few things remain constant. It's not that the plastic has changed much since Nick Creme poured the first rubber worm. And it's not that the shapes have changed much since beaver, creature, and stickworms emerged over a decade ago. The key is that finesse attitudes have gone far beyond light-line, small-lure presentations.
I felt that finesse was based on the speed of the presentation until I met the Midwest Finesse master and In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde. He moves down a bank as fast as any power fisherman and rarely casts to the same spot twice. Plus, he told me to upsize my line from the 6-pound test I consider standard. I used to think that finesse meant light lures until I met TV personality Jarrett Edwards. In 35 feet of water he considers his 1-ounce weight a finesse look if it has a small softbait on it.
Finesse isn't only for small fish. Edwards holds the Colorado state largemouth record, caught on a lightweight Carolina rig. And two of Mike Iaconelli's largest fish have taken finesse rigs. I thought I knew slow presentations but have met anglers who don't reel at all for multiple minutes. Finally, tournament anglers are supposed to be power-focused but a recent trend toward finesse fishing options questions that theory.
This broadening of attitudes is critical for success on the water. Unlike an online angler in a forum who proclaimed, "I generally think of any technique that makes me yawn, stretch, and start to daydream as a finesse technique," the best pros and guides know that finesse keeps them catching fish in different situations. As the division between power and finesse continues to blur, the best anglers tend to pick the right tool for each condition.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is the most serious deadstick basser I know. Other anglers talk about anchoring for bass but few actually cast out and put the rod down. "During unstable weather in summer, or unusually warm spells in fall, go to familiar spots where the bite is always good at that time of year, slow down, and cover water a lot more thoroughly," Straw recommends. "Instead of working a spot for 10 minutes and moving on, stick around for an hour or more, soaking a lure on every key spot until you can't stand it anymore. Then let it sit some more." For largemouths, the key areas are cups with thick vegetation. For smallmouths, look for areas with big boulders in 10 to 15 feet that bass can hide behind.
Straw favors crawbaits with added scent. Texas rig a Berkley Chigger Craw, Strike King Rage Craw, or Yum Money Craw on stand-up jig. Berkley makes a great bass scent, as do Pro Cure, Megastrike, and Gene Larew. For smallmouths, a tube with tentacles to wave in current can be the difference. "Remember, this is a last resort," he says. "When you need a fish and the going has been tough, it's time to stop and eat a sandwich.
"Waiting is the toughest part, as it sometimes takes minutes. And if the lure is a foot or more from a bass, chances are it won't bother swimming over to bite. And when it does bite, you have to wait to set the hook."
Colorado transplant Shawn Rogers guides on Chatfield and Aurora reservoirs in suburban Denver. Bringing his experience from 15 years of guiding for trophy largemouths on Mission Viejo and other lakes in California, Rogers shifted tactics to land the largest smallmouth bass in Colorado. Accustomed to Carolina-rigging 10-inch worms in deep water, he altered his techniques for high-altitude bronzebacks. "I knew the Berkley 10-inch Power Worm was too big for smallmouths so I settled on a watermelon-color Zoom Ultra-Vibe Speed Craw because the size was perfect for smallies." Rigged with a 1/8-ounce tungsten sinker on 14-pound fluorocarbon line and a G. Loomis NRX casting rod, he may spend four hours on a 100-yard dropoff or point. After confirming baitfish in the area (shad in these lakes) and graphing a few larger fish, he settles in.
"Spots are obvious on a map," he says. "Look for sharper drops next to deep water. Time on the water develops knowledge of the spot and if I go two or three times without a big fish, I take that area temporarily off my list." In Colorado, vegetation is sparse and scattered. Key spots are mid-lake humps, points, and drop-offs.
Rogers makes medium-length casts, but with such a light weight in 7 to 15 feet of water, the retrieve is basically "no-feel." To stay focused, he uses the trolling motor to drag the lure and occasionally reels a few times for a dragging action. Casts last 3 to 5 minutes to thoroughly soak the area. His next cast covers the adjacent 5 feet of dropoff. An hour later, most of the point has been covered. These areas don't have larger boulders, trees, stumps, or brush to position the bass. Similar in strategy to trophy hunters everywhere, "big fish eventually show up," and his effort results in photos for his clients and top finishes in tournaments.
"In these local tournaments, anglers roughly split 50/50 between finesse and power-fishing," he says. "Rarely do anglers in Colorado crossover between tactics. Finesse anglers can't keep up on great power bites, but regularly finish higher on average. When a cold front overlaps the tournament day, power anglers quickly drop down the standings."
Across town, Matt Endsley of Tightline Outdoors has fished Quincy Reservoir for almost 20 years. He knows the location of a dozen key brushpiles because he dropped them there with the help of lake officials. Due to stocked trout and relatively stable water temperatures, largemouth bass have a chunky build there. He anchors his boat 25 feet from the pile to start.
In the next hour, he casts about 10 times. Each retrieve of his Texas-rigged watermelon-color Berkley Havoc Pit Boss includes minutes when the lure doesn't move an inch toward the boat. To lure bass from a brushpile, Endsley continuously shakes the line in place without moving the lure forward. A red glass bead between the hook and the 1/4-ounce weight generates a knocking sound with each shake, while the tentacles on the lure vibrate. One, two, or six minutes later, a sideways-moving line signals a bite so he reels down on his spinning rod and sets the hook.
Each brushpile deserves an hour. If only a few fish fall for the Pit Boss, he changes to a watermelon Strike King Super Finesse Worm on a #4 TroKar TK150 Drop Shot hook. The small hook reduces snags in brush. The drop-shot rig allows the lure to be moved by rod shakes without advancing the weight. In most cases he adds crawfish Megastrike flavor to the lure.
For Texas and drop-shot rigs, he uses a long rod with a soft tip to generate the right shake. He prefers the Wright & McGill Skeet Reese 6-foot 10-inch Finesse Tube Jig rod with 14-pound-test Berkley FireLine and a 10-foot leader of Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon. The no-stretch line helps shake the lure while a faster action would tend to move the jig too much.
First covered in the In-Fisherman Midwest Finesse blog, several FLW pros worked in 2016 to develop their finesse skills, then applied these techniques in tournament conditions. Before the 2016 Beaver Lake FLW Tour event, Ontario pro Jeff Gustafson enlisted the help of midwest finesse master Drew Reese and Z-Man company president Daniel Nussbaum for pointers. Reese showed Gustafson how the 1/10-ounce Z-Man ShroomZ jigheads allow the lure to glide and sink while its small hooks keep a Ned Rig from snagging rocks or brush. Around woody cover, they used weedless versions. When the wind picked up, or when fishing deeper water, the 1/6-ounce ShroomZ was easier to control. Gustafson fished a Z-Man Hula StickZ with these jigheads. In practice, Reese set the pace while casting "nothing-looking" banks with the trolling motor continuously running for miles on miles and the fish tally rising steadily. Gustafson finished 11th in the event and gathered important Angler-of-the-Year points.
FLW pro Brian Latimer met Kehde at a media conference and the writer convinced him to develop skills and confidence in midwest finesse tactics. Once introduced, Latimer explains, "We caught fish all day and on every part of the shoreline, but there's a learning curve. Small bass can point out what you need to be doing. This technique may not always be the best choice (because on Champlain or a TVA lake you may need bigger bites from deeper waters), but if bass see a Ned Rig they bite it, even in tough conditions.
"Big bass fall for it when they're shallow. I caught a 6-pound largemouth on it at Pickwick Lake. A key part of this strategy for prefishing and for tournament time is that a professional bass angler spends about 85 percent of the time trying to get bit. When I know that 10 to 12 pounds a day may earn a check and bass are shallow, I work the Ned Rig and midwest finesse tactics into my arsenal."
Both Latimer and Gustafson have experienced situations where Ned Rigs outproduced other presentations by a large margin. "When following a competitor's boat through an area, finesse techniques can be critical," Latimer says.
Andrew Upshaw of Oklahoma has been using light mushroom-style jigs and shortened stickworms at FLW tournaments since 2014. At the Beaver Lake event, he used approximately 3 inches of a Gene Larew Salt Flick'R worm to finished 10th, one spot ahead of Gustafson. When paired with a fast-action, 7-foot, medium-power Lew's Custom Lite Speed Stick Series spinning rod and a 3000-size Team Lew's Pro Speed Spin Series reel with 8-pound-test Lew's APT Fluorocarbon, Upshaw works the lure in all sorts of banks and points before each event to explore the shallow portions of the lake.
Gene Larew just released the Ned Rig Inch Worm, designed by Upshaw to be used with light jigheads. The worm is marked in one-inch segments, indicating the right place to shorten and customize the lure. With scissors, an angler can adjust the 3.75-inch Inch Worm to match conditions.
Finesse Savvy from Power Pros
Bassmaster Elite Series angler Brent Chapman knows that power-fishing isn't the only game in town. "Some days are finesse days," he says. "Weather conditions and fishing pressure are factors. Sometimes, often later in an event when you know an area, you've dialed in a group of bass, but need a few more fish to weigh in. That's when I downsize line and lures." This move doesn't always imply using softbaits, as a small crankbait or spinnerbait may be the ticket.
When finesse conditions arise, Chapman has been using a neko rig with a 3/32-ounce Eagle Claw Tungsten Nail Weight and a Tightlines UV Finesse Worm. The TroKar TK150 Drop Shot hook rigged one-third of the way up the bait (toward the weighted end) creates a pivot point for the lure to hop and slide. Fancasting ahead of the boat across a shallow flat or over a point produces fish when bites are tough to get.
Pro Mike Iaconelli recalls catching his largest bass on a finesse bait. "At Lake Amistad, I was prefishing and hooked a 14-pound 1-ounce bass in 2 feet of water," he says. There, he also weighed his largest bass caught in the tournament on a shaky-head worm. "Finesse fishing is always an option," Iaconelli says, "especially when you encounter ultra-clear or muddy water, fishing pressure, weather events, and lack of current."
For Iaconelli, turning to a finesse rig is not a daily hunch or knee-jerk reaction to slow fishing. He starts each day with a finesse plan. Lack of current, especially in tidal situations, prompts a change from power-fishing to finesse that can be timed by consulting tide tables. Accurate weather predictions also suggest when to change tactics. Sun conditions and air pressure can affect bass location and activity level.
The most common finesse rig on his deck lately has also been a neko rig. He worked with Berkley to develop the Havoc Flat Dawg, which is designed to accentuate the rig's attraction. The lure has a fat end to accomodate the weight, a tapered end for extra motion, and an oblong cross-section to accentuate the reverse jigging action that separates neko rigs from other designs. In many cases the weighting, and thus the fall-rate, of a finesse lure is key, so having several setups on deck helps.
To match the Flat Dawg, Iaconelli worked with VMC to develop a straight-shank Neko Hook and matching Neko Rig nail weights from 1/32 to 1/8-ounce. VMC also offers a Half-Moon Wacky Weight that looks like a Neko Rig nail weight, but with an exposed mushroom head to make contact with rocks and sand. Insert the hook into the lure with the point toward the weight and finish with the hook parallel to the lure (in wacky-rigging the hook sits perpendicular to the lure). The hook should be closer to the weight than the tail.
Today, finesse represents a continuously evolving system for lures of all sorts to be presented in response to suboptimal conditions. Although new designs, riggings, and line options emerge, the confidence and attitude to use finesse rigs at the right time on every trip keeps experts on top.
*David Harrison, Lawrence, Kansas, is an avid angler and freelance writer. This is his first contribution to Bass Guide.