Two-time Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year Aaron Martens is a finesse specialist in a world where heavy braided line commands an increasing portion of bass anglers' attention. He may be an outlier—many serious anglers still shudder at the thought of using less than 10-pound line in big bass country—but he believes other anglers can benefit from following his lead.
"If you can't afford a boatload of expensive rods, you're better off spending money on spinning gear," he says. "If you go cheap on spinning gear, it's going to hurt you." It's not that he can't flip, pitch, and winch with the best, but rather that he sees a need for going light when others break out heavy gear. "I always have a spinning rod on deck when we're fishing heavily-pressured waters," he explains. "In those situations, it seems like everyone is pitching different versions of the same thing. I often have one drop-shot rod with 8- or 10-pound line and another with 12- or 14-, on a slightly heavier rod for thick cover."
Sometimes the angler whose leftovers he sweeps up are his own. En route to winning the 2007 Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on the California Delta, he put together a 30-pound bag on Day-Two that included 10- and 11-pound largemouths, one caught on 65-pound braid, the other on 8-pound fluorocarbon.
Chris Zaldain of California also plies his trade with a spinning rod where others would employ nothing short of rope. In a 2014 Elite Series event at Toledo Bend, a heavily timbered jungle, he landed an 8-pound 12-ounce bruiser on 6-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon.
"It was a postspawn situation," he recalls. "I'd seen that fish the day before and tried traditional power fishing tactics to no avail. When they get into that postspawn funk and are not locked on beds, they're tough to catch. Four or five other competitors fished that small area as well. I went back with the drop-shot rod and she bit. That rig works when the bite is off and it works when it's wide open."
It Pays to Go Light
While many heavy tackle specialists have reluctantly assimilated spinning tackle and comparatively light line into their arsenals, that combination is still often considered an option only for clear water with few obstructions and small bass. Pros like Martens and Zaldain have turned that notion on its ear, applying the gear successfully throughout the country.
In addition to Toledo Bend, Zaldain has used spinning gear successfully at Lake Fork. "There are lots of 6- to 8-pound fish there, and lots of heavy cover, but it's fished heavily, so I like drop-shotting with 8-pound line. You might get away with heavier line, but I think that bass can detect thicker line more easily their lateral lines, so light line gets you more bites."
During a 2014 Elite Series tournament on New York's Cayuga Lake, when most pros were pitching heavy jigs and big tungsten-weighted plastics into thick vegetation on braid, Zaldain drop-shotted his way to a 3rd-place finish. "When most guys don't think of finesse, that's when I love it the most," he says.
Before moving to Alabama, Martens learned to fish in California, spending countless hours on Lake Castaic, a heavily-pressured reservoir of about 2,000 acres of gin-clear water that's produced countless double-digit bass up to 21 pounds. If the prospect of a 6- or 7-pound bass on light line is daunting, how about a 20-pounder?
"I don't like doing what everyone else is doing," he says. Occasionally that burns him. At the 2012 Bassmaster Classic on Louisiana's Red River, Martens joined many other competitors in the diminutive but productive McDade backwater and proceeded to catch one fish after another as others struggled to get occasional bites. They utilized power tactics while he relied primarily on light spinning gear among the gnarly timber. "I lost a 7- or 8-pounder that might've helped me win the Classic," he admits. "I had a 4/0 hook flex on 8-pound line as it was set in a real hard spot of the mouth and the point never penetrated fully." Since then, he's worked with Gamakatsu to develop stronger hooks that still are thin.
One catalyst in the rise of spinning gear in historically heavy-tackle situations is the increased use of drop-shot rigs. Certainly techniques like a wacky-rigged Senko and shaky-head jig have played substantial roles, too, but no rig is as versatile as the drop-shot. It works with weights from 1/32- up to an ounce, on a corresponding range of lines, and with a vast selection of softbaits.
Most importantly, perhaps, is the ability to position a lure in one spot for extended periods. If one side of a stump is gnarly while the other is rather open, you can present the bait so the chances of success are maximized. Or the lure can be put right in the face of a bedding bass and kept in that irritating position.
Another important attribute of the drop-shot is that an angler can match small prey. At New York's Oneida Lake, Martens was forced to drop down to 4-pound line and minuscule baits because the bass were spitting up inch-long perch and wouldn't bite anything larger. "Sometimes they won't eat anything even two inches long, and even 8-pound line overpowers that little lure. Many anglers don't think they need tiny baits, but in November and December, when you can't get them to bite anything else, I catch lots of 5- and 6-pounders on line as light as 3-pound test."
Light Line Demands Great Gear
Martens has refined his drop-shot tackle over the years to a package he believes maximizes bites while minimizing lost fish. He matches a 6-foot 11-inch Megabass Orochi XX Drop-shot Rod (F3-611XX) with a Shimano Stella spinning reel. "They last forever," he says of the high-end reels. "I have 8-year-old Stellas that have caught thousands of fish and they're still perfect." He uses Sunline FC Sniper fluorocarbon because it's abrasion-resistant and he knows that he can set the Stella's flawless drag at 7 pounds with 8-pound line.
Zaldain uses the same rod as Martens for most drop-shotting, but around heavy cover he switches to the slightly heavier Orochi XX Shaky Head Rod (F3.5-70XX), paired with a 2500-size Shimano Stradic or Sustain.
"Line is the most important element of all," he claims. "I usually use straight fluoro, Seaguar Tatsu. In heavier cover I go with Seaguar Smackdown 20-pound braid, which is super soft and limp, in yellow, and add a 9-foot leader of 6- to 8-pound Tatsu." In those situations, Martens matches Sunline SX1 braid with Sunline fluoro, since that line's rougher coating slices through vegetation readily. He cinches the two together with a "Crazy Alberto" knot.
Zaldain keeps lure choice simple, relying largely on a Strike King KVD Finesse Worm, which reminds him of hand-pours from California and has a stretchy texture that fish hold onto. Green pumpkin with a dyed chartreuse tail is his go-to color. In smallmouth country he relies more on Strike King's Dreamshot, often in watermelon candy craw (purple and green flake).
Martens has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars of his colleagues' lunch money with Roboworm products. "In cold water, or when bass seem to want a smaller bait, I go with the skinny one. Even the 4-inch Roboworm gets their attention because it has so much movement. In warmer water, I use a thicker worm like the Fat Worm or the Zipper stuff. Occasionally I use a fluke or a creature bait, but the straight tail is hard to beat."
Martens adds that the greatest revolution he's seen in recent years is in the quality of hooks. A thin 4-inch bait doesn't work well with a beefy hook. But in the past the "right" hook couldn't withstand the surge of an 8-pound bass. "I've lost more bass over the years by hooks opening up than by breaking off," he says. "Any time you hook a big fish in a tight spot, you run the risk of the hook flexing." He uses hooks from #1 to 2/0 and he says Gamakatsu's new Tournament Grade Steel helps keep fish stuck.
Zaldain uses a drop-shot style hook in open water situations, but around heavy cover he can't nosehook plastics, so he switches to a Rebarb round-bend hook and Texas-rigs lures. Both pros favor tungsten weights because they get down faster and transmit bottom contact better.
As the popularity of drop-shotting grows, anglers find the need to expand and refine their finesse options. Martens has long been a leader in this arena, using hair jigs in the 2002 Classic on Alabama's Lay Lake and a variety of miniature baits, such as the "horsey-head" jig and 2-inch Optimum Swimbait he employed two years later at Lake Wylie in South Carolina. Over the years, he's also relied on a refinement of an old-school option. The scrounger-style head is a small jighead with a clear plastic collar that causes an attached softbait to tremble, wobble and deflect. Like the drop-shot, it can be paired with a wide variety of baits, though Martens tends to favor fluke-style lures.
Shaky-head jigs remain a player, but the latest trend splits the difference between traditional heavy lures and tiny finesse baits. "Power shaky heads" are heavy and match large trick worms or even a 10-inch ribbontail. On the large impoundments of the Tennessee River, Zaldain uses a 1/2-ounce jig on 8-pound line where most anglers use far thicker line. It falls faster on thin line and fetches him more bites.
Indeed, finesse is more an attitude rather than a rigidly-defined set of line or weight parameters. While many pros would consider 12-pound-test line too light for the big Kentucky Lake ledge-dwellers, Martens often gets the job done there with finesse gear—10-pound braid with a 10-pound test fluorocarbon leader. "I use that when they stop biting anything else," he says. "If the current slacks, I may even go down to 8."
Other baitcast-friendly lures can work better on spinning tackle. Martens likes Megabass topwaters like the Megabass Dog-X and smaller Pop-X on a spinning rod with 10-pound braid and a mono leader for situations when fish are spooky in clear water and long casts are essential.
One little-discussed part of A-Mart's finesse repertoire is his use of in-line spinners. "I always keep them in the boat," he says, "typically small Rooster Tails and Panther Martins. I pull them out when bass are eating dragonflies or mayflies. When they're in that mode, that's all they want."
Fighting a Bully
The aversion most anglers have to using spinning tackle and light line in thick cover and around big fish is that every second of the fight is nerve wracking. Certainly it's easier to winch in fish on heavy braid than it is to get them back to the boat on sewing string. But when small baits are the only way to get bites, light stuff is essential. Both Zaldain and Martens have developed strategies for minimizing heartbreak. Neither pro likes to backreel, so they depend on butter-smooth drag systems.
"I set my drag on the tight side because I don't like it to slip on the hook-set," Martens says. "Drags are so smooth that I only break off once or twice a year. Once you set the hook, you know pretty quickly if you need to back it off."
Zaldain sets his drag at about 85 or 90 percent of lockdown, with just a bit of slip. "But I adjust it on just about every fish," he says. "Try to gauge how big it is, then adjust the front drag as the battle goes on.
"The biggest mistake guys make is that they set the hook like they would with a jig rod. You can't do that with a drop-shot or shaky head because everything is lighter." He prefers a reel set. While reeling fast, he lowers the rod from 11 o'clock to 9 o'clock, then raises it to get penetration.
To avoid break-offs, Zaldain says it's imperative to minimize line twist. At the end of each cast, he manually closes the bail to avoid slack and to avoid adding a twist as the bail flips. "Take your time landing them," he adds. "You have to be aware of nearby cover and keep fish out of it. If there's a rockpile to the left, sweep the rod to the right. Then all you have to do is keep a tight line. If you keep the rod bent and take your time, you can land most of them."
Martens uses his trolling motor to steer fish in the desired direction, moving them away from cover and out into deeper water. "It's a big mistake to fight them at the boat," he says.
The light-line alternative in heavy line situations is based on the idea that you can't land the bites you don't get. It's increasingly favored—and not just by those raised in California—as a means of beating the competition on pressured fisheries or where strikes are hard to come by. "In many situations, the lighter your line, the more bites you get," Zaldain says.
It's also a strategy that makes sense when you need to match small baitfish. "I use spinning tackle for anything that's difficult to cast on a baitcaster," Martens says. "You may only weigh a couple of fish doing it but that can be a big help in a tournament."
Indeed, in even the thickest jungles there are times when it's necessary to go light. Caution makes sense, and there are certainly times when heavy gear is in order, but leaving the light tackle at home can leave you with a mighty light bag at the weigh-in.