Table Rock Lake in southwest Missouri is famous for clear, deep water, and its largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass. Those fish are equally famous for being difficult to catch under bright skies and in shallow water. Traditionally, high wind, clouds, and passing fronts have been the keys to catching bass in shallow water at Table Rock.
At its most basic, the Midwest finesse rig is a 1/16-ounce jig head dressed with a soft plastic body. For Table Rock, the most productive version day in and day out is a 1/16-ounce button or mushroom head jig with one half of an ElaZtech soft stick bait rigged on the jig.
The two baits in this category are the Strike King Lure Company's Zero and Z-Man Fishing Products' ZinkerZ. Other baits that also work are cut down Z-Man Finesse WormZs or Zoom Trick Worms, mini-creature baits like the Zoom Bait Company's Tiny Brush Hog, and three-inch Bass Pro Shops' Stik-O's or Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits' Senkos. Even half of a Zoom's Fish Doctor will make the rig go.
Jig heads from Gopher Tackle, Outkast, and a variety of generic or homemade heads work well. Plain ball heads and even small football heads in the appropriate weights will work, too. Hooks should range in size from a No. 4 to No. 1. Overall length of a typical bait is 2 1/2 to four inches long, which is well under the size most anglers consider to be finesse tackle. Table Rock's prevailing winds rarely allow the use of jig heads smaller than a 1/16-ouncer, which works well into depths of 10 to 15 feet.
Exposed hooks are effective on most gravel and chunk-rock areas, but a head with a single wire or cable brush guard will work better in and around brush, trees and dock cables. It should be noted that the smaller hooks hang up less when anglers are using a jig without a brush guard, and the small hooks seem to hook bass about as well as the bigger hooks do.
Six-pound-test fluorocarbon line works well with these rigs at Table Rock. Even with a quality fluorocarbon leader, braided line has not been as productive. A reel with a larger spool, such as a 3000-size (slightly larger than most standard medium reels) spinning reel, will help keep line twist down. The big reel causes a little imbalance with the rod, but at the same time, it enhances the light-line experience. Medium-light spinning rods in the 6 1/2 to seven-foot range are ideal. In fact, a rod that would is suitable for drop shot or walleye fishing is about right.
Day after day, PB&J has been the best plastic color at Table Rock followed by any of the watermelon or green pumpkin colors. Even when fish are keying on shad, those colors seem to out-produce the smoke or pearl colors. The color of the jig seems to matter less than it does farther north. Plain brown, black, green pumpkin, or raw lead heads all work about equally well. Bright heads, like red and chartreuse, seem to be a negative.
A well-used ElaZtech bait, such as a 2 1/2-inch ZinkerZ, works decidedly better than a bait fresh from the bag. Roughing a bait up in your hands, or even soaking it in water overnight is a good plan. Super glue is needed to keep baits up on the heads, if that look is desired. The gel glue from Loc-Tite is excellent for this. Allowing the bait to hang loose and flop freely may elicit a few more bites, but it causes more line twist, and it simulates the "pressure" bites common to fishing the Midwest rig on Table Rock, which can be disconcerting at times.
Where Does It Work?
Perhaps the most important factor is that it works in shallow water. Sometimes in surprisingly shallow water, especially for Table Rock Lake anglers who are used to chasing bass around the main lake. The primary depth is from the bank out to about 15 feet. There is something of a "sweet spot" on most banks that begins around three feet and runs to eight feet. This is the same depth where, given normal water clarity, the rocks that extend off the bank become less visible. This is also a key depth for locating any larger rocks, which range in size from big chunk rock to boulders, and if these big rocks and boulders are scattered upon a predominantly gravel bank, it often is an exceedingly fruitful area at which to employ one of the Midwest finesse rigs.
Some of the most productive areas for wielding a Midwest finesse rig on Table Rock are stretches of nothing-looking banks. These may be in coves and creeks, sides of points at the mouths of major creeks or "dips" in the main lake, or even out on the main lake gravel areas. Most of these will have gravel or mixes of gravel and smaller chunk rock. Many of the stretches between boat docks have this rock mix. The back half of small coves, including any subtle points or transition banks located there, are key spots. Tiny features such as a runoff path in the back of a cove, or one creating a narrow and shallow ditch across a flat, may hold several fish in a small area.
Wood and brush are not necessary ingredients, but they may group fish on an area. Boat docks, especially corners and walkways, are productive. Dock cables that extend well out from the docks will hold fish, especially suspended spotted bass. Resort or community ramps, and the prop wash holes at the ends of them, are prime targets in coves.
On shallow gravel areas, whether on the main lake, or back in the creeks, the Midwest finesse rigs will produce smallmouth. This holds true lake wide, especially from the Baxter area to the dam.
The larger creeks from Kimberling City to the dam provide many areas where shallow-finesse tactics have proven to be effective. One of these shallow areas consist of rounded and flat points that lead into and out of spawn coves. Another one is a 45-degree bank or shoreline that is enhanced with rock transitions or changes from boulders to chuck rocks to gravel. A third area is a small pocket cove. These three features can be found in Fisher, Schooner, White's Branch, and the Cow creeks.
In many cases, it comes down to fishing ugly or bypassed water. In essence, these are the places where most anglers dial the speed up on the trolling motor and get on to the next place they have confidence in.
When Does It Work?
It will catch bass whenever they are shallow on Table Rock, which turns out to be more often than we expect. The basic premise of the system is that catchable bass remain shallow throughout all seasons, in all lakes. Table Rock is a real test of that idea, but the fish are definitely up there to be caught. These may not be the largest or most catchable bass at a given time, but they are available to anglers. Certainly some months have more fish shallow, particularly March through May, but the system works in the summer and fall.
Often there will be other ways to catch fish, even more fish or larger ones. The unique thing about this system is it will almost always produce some fish. Swimming a grub, grinding a Wiggle Wart, or dragging a split-shot rig may be the primary bite at a given time, but Midwest finesse rigs will still catch some fish on the same day. That makes it a potential trip saver for recreational anglers. It is also the ideal bait for that 2 p.m. "just-need-one-more-keeper" stop on the way back to a weigh in for tournament anglers.
It is an excellent bait for taking a second spin through a productive stretch of water, or through an area that should have been productive but was not with a traditional Table Rock bait and method. The little rig will catch fish behind other anglers, including those also fishing more traditional finesse rigs such as grubs and split-shot rigs. It is also a serious tool for anyone fishing from the backseat. Similarly, it will produce fish when they are under increased pressure from tournaments and the fair weather crowds.
The beauty of this rig and system is its ability to catch fish from shallow water on bluebird days, which is a real challenge on any clear, highland reservoir. The absolute best days to fish it are cloudless ones and with very little wind, especially in the afternoon.
How To Fish It At The Rock
A variety of retrieves work when fishing a Midwest finesse rig. Most retrieves involve a good bit of shaking of the rod tip. Deadsticking, swimming, and a drag-and-shake retrieve are all productive at Table Rock. Throw it at the bank and get it headed to the bottom. Shake it while it is getting there. Keep it slow. Keep it close to or on the bottom. Keep it simple. Then make yourself slow down some more. Try not to get caught up worrying about throwing it to cover. Cover is fine when present, but not critical to making the little bait work.
It does fish better on a slack line, including when shaking the bait. Just shake the slack in the line without moving the bait any great distance. If the wind is up, keep your tip close to the water, as when scrubbing a grub, to minimize the slack line exposed to the wind.
Short perpendicular casts allow better presentation and hook sets at some other waterways, but they may not be practical at Table Rock due to water clarity. More often a medium-length quartering cast is best.
When probing a dock, one must use a combination of the rod tip and trolling motor to guide it under the dock corner, presenting a bait in difficult to reach areas. The jig and ZinkerZ also skips very easily, which makes it a dandy combo to employ around docks.
In addition, the jig and ZinkerZ, as well as a jig dressed with Z-Man's 3.75-inch StreakZ, is an effective rig for targeting suspended bass, especially around large docks in the summer and fall, as well as around bridge pilings. If the dock bass will not bite when pitched at with a jig or spoon, they will frequently eat the slower falling and subtly shaking Midwest finesse rig. The typical Table Rock baits that are used around bridge pilings are drop-shot rigs , spoons, pony head jigs, and tubes, but the jig and ZinkerZ or StreakZ can be a potent alternative. In either case, allowing the rig to slowly fall on a slack line with subtle shaking seems to be the most effective presentation. These are situations where the lighter 1/32-ounce heads may come into play in order to slow the fall rate of the bait.
What Can Be Expected?
Fish, and lots of them. Note, that is fish, not just bass. If you do not enjoy catching fish, this is not the technique for you. The Midwest finesse rig is a phenomenal way to catch shallow-water smallmouth, and a very good tactic for catching the other bass, but it will catch everything that swims in the lake. On a recent trip to Table Rock, the little rig produced channel catfish, goggle-eye, crappie, a variety of sunfish and all three bass species.
- This Table Rock Lake channel catfish was enticed by a PB&J ZinkerZ.
It does, on some days, produce large quantities of short fish along with some keeper-size bass. This makes it great for kids and folks who don't fish frequently. It should be fun for anyone who likes to catch bass, but some tournament anglers see catching short fish as a negative. That is sad in more than one way.
If you are using regular plastisol baits on a jig, short fish can quickly decimate an angler's supply of baits, which can be a tad expensive, too. But when an angler uses ElaZtech baits, expense and supply are less of a concern. In fact, ElaZtech lures can withstand the abuse rendered by scores of fish before they need to be replaced. And when they are glued to the jig, they do not need a lot of rerigging throughout a day's fishing. The one attached to the catfish in the photograph above came at the close of a recent outing at Table Rock, and that ZinkerZ was retired with dignity when rerigging in the evening.
Bites tend to be similar to a grub bite or standard finesse pick-up (shakey head, mojo rig). Some fish will swim off with the bait, some will tap it (especially if deadsticking on the bottom), most will simply "load up" or "get heavy" in the classic sense of a pressure bite.
A Little Fish Bait?
The Midwest finesse rig just flat catches keepers at Table Rock. Frequently it does it in water and under conditions that provoke dumb and doubtful looks from other anglers. It catches them in the morning, the mid-day, and in the heat of the afternoon, and it does it in water usually less than 10 feet deep.
Across 16 years of fishing Table Rock, averaging 20 to 30 days per year since 2000, catching keepers in shallow water, especially without wind or clouds has always been a challenge. Conventional wisdom and experience state it is just not that kind of lake. We fish deep here for a reason. Thus, this system provides an alternative approach, at least for several months of the year.
It will occasionally produce a big fish, but most keepers caught will be 16 to 18 inches long. A truly big fish is difficult to deal with on light tackle, small hooks, and without much water under them. And while the hardcore tournament crowd scoffs at little keepers, anyone who has ever weighed only four keepers on a Saturday afternoon knows why weighing five is always better.
And yes, as previously noted, it does on occasion produce vast numbers of short fish along with the keepers.
Why Does it Work?
As a bit of speculation, it is similar to a human snacking in the evening. After a big meal, another steak dinner with all the sides may not be at all appetizing. However, a bowl of peanuts or snack mix can cause a feeding frenzy.
This rig seems to work like that bowl of snacks. It is a size that is easy for a fish to eat without expending much energy. It is not threatening or shocking to the fish. It moves along naturally, vaguely representing several different types of forage simultaneously, without looking specifically like any one thing.
It also forces you to slow down. Way down. On Table Rock it is generally much easier to fish too fast than too slowly. It keeps the big motor shut off, the trolling motor down, and your bait wet.
It works. It looks a little goofy. If you show it to someone else, it looks more than a little goofy. But so does flipping a jig spoon in boat slips, or heaving the wad of wire and swimbaits that makes up an umbrella rig. Ever throw a bubblegum float worm or Fluke? All of those techniques produce keeper bites at Table Rock in spite of looking and feeling strange initially.
It is adaptable. Make it fit what you like to do. Fish a crankbait all day, then use a Midwest finesse rig to finish a limit. Use it close to the ramp early in the day to try for a quick limit, then chase better bites with a football jig. Throw it on a tough day just to stay out of the zero column. Like any other technique, don't force it.
Use it to put your family on easy fish at Table Rock. Kids and spouses don't necessarily care about fishing all day for one five- pound bass. They like bites, action, and easy fishing. Instead of dragging them out in pleasure boat wakes on the main lake during the summer to drop shot or swim a grub, take them into a quiet pocket and let them play with some brown bass. They will want to do it again.