Jeff Gustafson's Introduction to Midwest Finesse
April 24, 2016
Midwest finesse tactics played a role in the first Bassmaster Classic at Lake Mead, Nevada, in 1971, when Drew Reese of Rantoul, Kansas, finished in seventh place by using a Beetle, Beetle Spin, and a jig-worm combo, and those baits were the creation of Chuck Woods of Kansas City, who is lauded as being the father of Midwest finesse fishing.
It also played a role in several of the World Series of Sport Fishing tournaments, and the first one was won by Harold Ensley of Overland Park, Kansas, at Union Lake, Michigan, on Oct. 15-24, 1960. Ensley used Mar-Lynn Lure Company's Skworm-N-Jig at that event. The Skworm-N-Jig is often deemed to be the first commercially made jig-worm combo, and Ensley employed it on a spinning rod.
Then when Dwight Keefer of Phoenix, was a sophomore at the University of Kansas, he used a spinning rod and Woods' jig-worm combo at Long Lake, Wisconsin, to win the World Series of Sport Fishing in October of 1967.
Guido Hibdon of Sunrise Beach, Missouri, used his brand of Midwest finesse tactics to help him garner a Bassmaster Classic win in 1988 and angler-of-the-year honors in 1990 and 1991.
Back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, when Chuck Woods was creating his Beetle, Beetle Spin, Puddle Jumper, and other finesse baits, he did not call it Midwest finesse fishing. And Reese, Keefer, and Hibdon did not call it Midwest finesse fishing. Hibdon called it fishing with little baits. Even to this day, Reese calls it light-line fishing, saying that he is uncomfortable with the word finesse, and in his mind, finesse fishing is the province of the Japanese and California anglers.
With the advent of the Finesse News Network in 2007 and 2008, the term Midwest finesse fishing was coined by a small cadre of northeastern Kansas anglers. They did it to distinguish their tactics from those that the Japanese and West Coast anglers employed, and as Guido Hibdon is fond of pointing out, anglers in Kansas and Missouri were using little baits with light line on spinning outfits many years before the anglers in the West and Japan were using them.
The heart of Midwest finesse revolves around a soft-plastic bait affixed to a jig, such as a Beetle, Puddle Jumper, plastic worm, tube, Reaper, and stickbait. And since Oct. 12, 2006, the preeminent soft-plastic bait that these anglers affix to their jigs is either a 2 1/2-inch Z-Man Fishing Products' ZinkerZ or 2 1/2-inch Strike King Lure Company's Zero. The ZinkerZ and Zero are twins, and they are made by Z-Man.
These anglers discovered that a 2 1/2-inch ZinkerZ affixed to a 1/16-ounce mushroom-style jig is an unparalleled tool for catching vast numbers of largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and spotted bass. And even though Hibdon, Reese, and Keefer used historical variations of the ZinkerZ rig in their tournament endeavors, most observers who examined the ZinkerZ rig in 2006 through 2010 dismissed it, saying it is a bait for recreational anglers, not a bait that possesses the wherewithal to use at a modern-day bass tournament.
But that perspective began to change when Stacey King of Reeds Spring, Missouri, used a 2 1/2-inch ZinkerZ rig at a Professional Anglers Association tournament at Lake Lanier, Georgia, on March 31, 2011, and Russ Bassdozer Comeau of Page, Arizona, wrote about it. Since then Larry Nixon of Bee Branch, Arkansas, has used it at the Walmart FLW Tour events at Beaver Lake, Arkansas, and Lake Hartwell, South Carolina. On the Bassmaster Elite circuit, Brian Snowden of Reeds Spring, Missouri, effectively used a shortened Z-Man's Hula StickZ, affixed to a mushroom-style jig at Lake St. Clair, Michigan, on Aug. 27-30, 2015.
The Hula StickZ is the creation of Drew Reese, and essentially it is a ZinkerZ with four tentacles on its tail; thus, it is a combination of a stickbait and a tube, and it is four inches long rather than 2 1/2 inches long.
At the 2016 Walmart FLW Tour's event at Beaver Lake, another convert to Midwest finesse appeared. He is Jeff Gustafson, who is 34 years old and hails from Keewatin, Ontario. This is his fifth year on the FLW circuit. For a number of years, his name has graced the top or near the top of the leaderboards at scores of bass tournaments in Canada. When he is not competing in the tournament world, he is a fishing and hunting guide, as well as an outdoor photographer and journalist and proprietor of Jeff Gustafson Outdoors. What's more, he has a television show entitled "Fishing with Gussy."
In an April 20 email, Gustafson said the "Hula StickZ was the hot ticket for me last week at Beaver. It was amazing really." Thirteen of the 15 black bass that he took to the tournament's scales were caught on it. At the end of the third day of the tournament, his name embellished the eleventh spot on the leaderboard, and he garnered a check for $12,000. He was merely three ounces short of making the top ten and competing on the last day of the tournament. (It is interesting to note that Andrew Upshaw of Tulsa, Oklahoma, finished in tenth place, and he caught some of his black bass on a Midwest finesse rig.)
We asked Gustafson if he would tell us about how, when, where, and why he decided to use the Hula StickZ. He said he would, and straightaway he said, "I must be clear and mention the fact that I have some of the best tackle sponsors in the fishing industry with Jackall Lures and Northland Fishing Tackle. In most situations, they make a bait that will fit any need that I might have but in this case, the Hula StickZ was something that I had to use. The reality of professional bass fishing is that as anglers we all use whatever we think is going to give us the best chance to win a tournament or cash a cheque."
Here is an edited and condensed version of a 1,037-word email that Gustafson wrote on April 21, describing his days at Beaver Lake and how he got introduced to the Hula StickZ:
Prior to the tournament, I spent an afternoon with Drew Reese at Table Rock Lake, Missouri. Drew fishes the Lake of the Woods, Ontario, where I live, from the middle of May to the middle of September. Across the years, we have become friends, and we have competed against each other at the Kenora Bass International and the Bassin for Bucks tournaments. He had been telling me about the Hula StickZ for a while and wanted to get in the boat with me and show me how he fishes it. To accomplish this feat, he drove four hours from his home at Rantoul, Kansas, to fish with me, and I am truly thankful for all of his efforts.
Drew is friends with Daniel Nussbaum of Ladson, South Carolina, who is president of Z-Man Fishing Products, and Drew played a major role in designing the Hula StickZ.
On the afternoon that we were afloat at Table Rock, Drew showed me how he rigs the Hula StickZ and how he fishes it. He also talked about some it attributes, such as its buoyancy, durability, and the somewhat supernatural alluring qualities of the ElaZtech material that Z-Man uses to make the Hula StickZ. The wind, however, was howling out of the northwest, west by northwest, and west at 25 to 44 mph, and those windy conditions were not conducive for finesse fishing. Nevertheless, we managed to catch a few small black bass. One thing that I took from our outing was that Drew really had a lot of confidence in this little bait; so, I kept one tied on a rod and spent a couple more days fishing Table Rock before heading over to Beaver for our official three days of practice.
My plan heading into the tournament was to fish for smallmouth bass on main-lake pea- gravel points. During the first day of practice, my father, who competed on the co-angler side of the tournament, and I had a good day. We caught some smallmouth bass by casting a Jackall Squad Minnow 115 jerkbait and dragging a green-pumpkin Northland Impulse Tube on pea-gravel main-lake points that were windblown. We also caught a significant number of spotted bass and largemouth bass in the back of some of the feeder-creek arms that were situated in the clear-water areas of the reservoir that lie a few miles from the dam. As we plied these shorelines, it quickly became apparent that the Hula StickZ was a legitimate bait, and ultimately it turned into the best bait in our arsenal. We were basically just fishing long stretches of shorelines that looked good to our eyes, and we avoided a lot of the obvious main-lake and secondary points because they were getting hammered by other anglers. Along these shorelines, we found a number of rock "stick outs" or minor points that had some largemouth bass and spotted bass abiding around them. We also caught some largemouth bass and spotted bass around some laydowns and standing timber along the shorelines.
The wind was quite tempestuous on the first two days of practice, howling up to 43 mph on April 10 and hitting 32 mph on April 11; it dropped to 14 mph on April 12. But during the first two days of the tournament, it did not blow, and I think that adversely affected the smallmouth bass fishing on the main-lake points. Each morning of the tournament, I spent a couple of hours dissecting the main-lake's pea-gravel points, and I caught only a couple of small keeper-size smallmouth bass each morning. When the smallmouth bass pattern petered out, I moved to the backs of the feeder-creek arms, where I had caught a few largemouth bass during the practice sessions.
In the backs of these feeder-creek arms, I basically put the trolling motor down and went fishing. I tried to cover as much water or shorelines as I could, focusing on lairs in water as shallow as four feet and as deep as 15 feet. If there was a cluster of flooded timber, I would cast into it. If there was a laydown in the water, I would cast to it. I would fish all of the docks that I passed with a cast or two. Anything that looked good to my eyes, such as the rock "stick outs" or minor points, I would thoroughly probe. I caught a bunch of fish each day. Most of them were spotted bass, and a few of them were small largemouth bass; then every once in a while I would catch a largemouth bass that weighed between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 pounds.
As I dissected the shorelines, I employed a variety of casts. Sometimes I would make a cast straight in front of the boat -- especially around a cluster of flooded timber. Most of the time, as I moved the boat slowly with the trolling motor along the shorelines, my casts were aimed at 45-degree angles in front of the boat. If I saw something near the water's edge that I thought might be worth a cast, I would cast to it. I had enough confidence in the Hula Stick rig that I thought that I could get a bite on it anywhere I could put it in front of a bass.
I used green-pumpkin Hula StickZ. It is a color that I have a lot of confidence in, and at Beaver it was simply working. Day in and day out, I am not too concerned about color. In my mind and from my experiences, it is much more important to find fish and put the right presentation in front of them rather than experiment with a variety of colors. Of course, there are times when color is important, but for me green pumpkin is about as solid as it gets.
I fished the Hula StickZ on a G. Loomis NRX 842S rod, a Shimano 3000 Stradic CI4 reel that was spooled with eight-pound-test PowerPro braid with a six-foot eight-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. I affixed the Hula StickZ to a green-pumpkin Z-Man's Finesse ShroomZ jig, using both the weedless and non-weedless versions. The hook is exposed on these jigs, and if I was fishing around flooded timber, I would use the weed-guard model. If it was calm, I used the 1/10-ounce Finesse ShroomZ jig, and if the wind was blowing or it was deeper water, I used the 1/6-ounce Finesse ShroomZ jig. The ElaZtech material that Z-Man constructs the Hula StickZ out of does not sit well on the collar of a traditional jig -- even when a dab of super glue is applied to the collar. (Drew, by the way, was the primary designer of the Finesse ShroomZ jig.) The buoyance factor of the Hula StickZ is a great attribute, and when the head of the jig is flush to the bottom, the tail end and tentacles of the Hula StickZ are often at a 90-degree angle from the bottom, and the torso and tentacles subtlety quiver during a deadstick presentation. And the more I could let the jig sit on the bottom the more effective it was. In fact, I caught one of my bigger largemouth bass when I made a cast to a boat dock, which was surrounded by 18 feet of water, and I had a wind knot in my line. It took me about 20 seconds to pick the knot out, and when I tightened up my line, it had moved about six feet, I simply set the hook and reeled in a three-pounder.
It should be noted that there were a lot of black bass on spawning beds during this event, and I quickly found out that the Ozark black bass are not all that easy to catch when they are spawning. So, I made the decision that if I saw a bass on a spawning bed, I would make a cast or two to it, but if that bass failed to respond to my presentations, I moved on. It is probably safe to say that some of the fish that I caught were on deeper spawning beds that were not visible, and that was the reason why I tried to fish as slow as possible around different types of cover where they might be a spawning bed. The reason why I choose to use slightly heavier than necessary jigs stemmed from the fact that I was not getting bites while the bait was falling; everything was happening while I was dragging, shaking, and deadsticking the Hula StickZ rig along the bottom.
In sum, I caught 13 of the 15 fish I weighed on the Hula StickZ. The other two were caught on the Jackall jerkbait while I was just moving fast on the trolling motor. Not only did the Hula StickZ earn me $12,000, it also garnered me some valuable points in the Walmart FLW Tour's Angler-of-the-Year race.
(1) Here are three links to columns about Drew Reese and the history of Midwest finesse fishing:
(2) Here are four links to more information about Jeff Gustafson and Jeff Gustafson Outdoors:
(3) Here is a link to a YouTube that features Gustafson inveigling a handsome largemouth bass along one the shorelines that he was dissecting with a Hula StickZ rig at the Walmart FLW Tour event at Beaver Lake: https://youtu.be/3hE862DV-YA. It can be seen at the 3:45-minute mark.
(4) Here is the link to Russ Bassdozer Comeau's story about Stacey King using the ZinkerZ rig at a Professional Anglers Association tournament at Lake Lanier, Georgia, on March 31, 2011: http://zmanfishing.com/cms/squad_detail.php.
(5) Here are two links to Midwest Finesse columns about Z-Man's Hula StickZ: https://www.in-fisherman.com/midwest-finesse/finesse-news-networks-gear-guide-hula-stickz/; https://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/drew-reese-z-mans-hula-stickz/.