August 11, 2020
By Matt Straw
Rubber and silicone undulate and twist, displaying green, a little orange, some white, and more green, coalescing into an impressionistic version of a perch. It slides slowly, effortlessly through weeds, over boulders, flaring here and there with pauses and contact.
“It” is a finesse swim jig with a homemade skirt. Making skirts for jigs and spinnerbaits is a great way to spend time when weathered out, snowed in, or pretending to watch a movie. It takes an immense amount of skill. Not. Easier than painting a flat wall and therefore perfect for unskilled labor like me.
Easy but highly informative. Making skirts teaches us things about the vision of bass—sight feeders of the first order. It highlights the movements that trigger strikes. One of the oldest tricks in the skirt-man’s manual is trimming the legs at different lengths. Short ones spring up when the bait slows a little. Medium lengths flare when the bait hits bottom, pauses, or makes contact. The longest strands flare only on a dead stop. That’s high-octane skirt movement and it’s great for aggressive bass in warm water—not so much for lethargic bass in cold water, pressured bass, or less active bass after a front.
A skirt trimmed to only one length—long—flares less. Skirts should always be trimmed to a length that extends just beyond the bend of the hook so it won’t cause short strikes or interfere with the action of a trailer. But a cold-water skirt should have uniformly long strands all trimmed to a length just beyond the bend of the hook. Bass that are less active for any reason seem to prefer skirts that don’t behave like a Jack-In-The-Box.
Homemade skirts can be tuned in to the season, and every season is spelled YOY. Young-of-the-year shad, chubs, suckers, and perch create the first abundances, depending on where you live. Perch spawn earliest up north at around 46°F or so—becoming the primary source of protein for smallmouths and largemouths from prespawn right into summer. Bluegills, crappies, and golden shiners spawn in the high-60°F range, creating abundances later in the season. Whatever’s most abundant in the waters you fish can be matched, at least impressionistically, with a homemade skirt.
It soon became apparent that the system works wonders with smallmouths and spots, too—bringing “Minnesota finesse” full circle back to its beginnings.
What I blithely call Minnesota finesse has nothing to do with the Ned rig—the driving force behind Midwest finesse. “Midwest-finesse-style fishing pares everything down to its bare minimum—just you, a simple jig, and lively bait and the bass,” says In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde of a style of fishing he’s made famous. (Anybody who hasn’t fished a Ned rig by now isn’t serious about bass fishing.) “Every angler can relate to that. At the end of the day, most of us just want to catch a bunch of fish.”
Bunch of fish, indeed. Universally, finesse for bass means lighter jigs, lighter line, and longer, quicker rods. The combination bewitched me many moons ago. Light-power graphite sticks in the 8-foot neighborhood allowed the drop to 4-pound line while bringing smallmouths over 6 pounds into the boat. Swimming mostly 4- to 5-inch action-tail grubs and worms on a horizontal plane consumed so much of the writing some are bound to be sick of reading about it. Bear with me.
A light jig—1/16- to 1/8-ounce—swims slow. Smallmouths follow for a distance, but the casts are so long, something is bound to happen to trigger a strike before the retrieve ends. Slow retrieves inspire bass to engage in a stealthy, stalking approach. The closer bass get, the more confident they seem to be that the “prey” is oblivious. When the distance closes to inches, the prospect of success must be overwhelming. Rip. Long casts, 4-pound braid or mono, matching the hatch, and slow, horizontal retrieves are the foundations of Minnesota finesse.
But this Gopher-state madness began to rise from that foundation and really began to take form years ago when extended to largemouths. After trying the same ol’ same ol’ for largies with mixed success, I decided the right jig had to be skirted, 1/8-ounce or lighter, and had to incorporate a light-wire hook that could be set with 6-pound mono or fluorocarbon. The search started and ended with the Terminator Finesse Jig. It became the canvas for painting different baitfish with homemade skirts.
One key element of the program is matching the hatch. Skirts can be made with a Jann’s Netcraft Skirt Making Kit. Various colors of silicone strands and round rubber are included. Andy’s Custom Bass Lures Old School Living Rubber is great stuff, too, having more action than silicone. The mix of materials is all about light. Silicone tends to be translucent, letting light pass through. Rubber is opaque, displaying color more consistently in all conditions.
Skirts are easy to make. Keep playing with combinations and you might find, like I did, that tuning color combinations into the waters you fish by paying attention to predominant forage species tends to result in better catches. Having skirts in perch, shiner, sucker, shad, bluegill, and other hues handy customizes strategy to different lakes and reservoirs.
For smallmouths on 4-pound line, I often recommend the 8-foot St. Croix Avid AVS80MLM2 and the 7-foot 9-inch Elliott Rods ES79L-F. But for largemouths on 6-pound, the new G. Loomis NRX 902S JWR, a 7.5-foot medium-power stick rated for 6- to 12-pound test, coupled with a Shimano Stradic 2500HG, and the 7.5-foot medium-power Elliott Rods ES76M-F paired with a Daiwa Laguna 2500 5bi are superlative choices. These combos punch casts way out there, set hooks at distance, and protect light line from rowdy bass, even in tough cover.
“As braided lines have become thinner and thinner, we have found that 15-pound-test is better for us than 8-pound-test for the way we fish,” Kehde says. “Before the advent of these new and super-thin braided lines, we used either 6- or 8-pound-test mono all of the time. We use an 8- to 12-pound-test fluorocarbon leader on the braided line. The leader is about 5 feet long.”
By contrast, Minnesota finesse calls for 4- to 6-pound mono, fluorocarbon, or braid. Most 6-pound braids actually have break strengths of over 10 pounds. The smaller diameter means several extra yards of casting distance, with the right rods and reels, but it also means a faster retrieve as the smaller diameter cuts through water faster. Have combos with different kinds of line on deck to play with drop and retrieve speed. For smallmouths on rocky structure, 5-foot, 6- to 8-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leaders are right. For largemouths around weeds and wood, go with 10-pound.
Light jigs have a lot to do with all kinds of finesse. “All of our presentations are focused on what we call a no-feel retrieve,” Kehde says. “To accomplish it, we use lightweight jigs, like the old Gopher 1/32-, 1/16-, and 3/32-ounce Mushroom Head Jig. Bobby Garland won a tournament in New Mexico in the 1980s using a 1/64-ounce jig with a Gitzit trailer. Bobby influenced Guido Hibdon to use smaller jigs and Hibdon became one of the forefathers of Midwest finesse.
“One favorite retrieve among Midwest-finesse anglers is the swim-glide-shake,” Kehde says. “We keep the lure 6 to 12 inches above bottom, which is difficult to do with a heavier 1/4- or 3/16-ounce jig. We like to err on the side of lightness. I guess you could say we use intuition to figure out what the bait is doing—letting the soft ElaZtech material naturally shake, shimmy, and do its thing without getting in its way too much. It sounds more complex than it really is because when coupled with the right line (Kehde prefers 15-pound braid), you immediately detect any resistance the lure encounters. The most misunderstood yet most important thing about the way we fish is that no-feel retrieve. Most anglers prefer to have a jig in constant contact with bottom. But the way we fish, if you have constant contact it means you’re fishing too heavy.”
For Kehde, the jig is in free-fall a lot, which is deadly with a Ned rig. By contrast, Minnesota finesse is all about slow, horizontal retrieves on a tight or semi-tight line. The jig is seldom in free-fall with a few exceptions. When seeing followers that won’t commit, try letting the jig fall to bottom at least once during each retrieve. Rest it there for several seconds to half a minute. Followers get jumpy and often pluck the jig off bottom, or strike the moment the retrieve is resumed.
And the steady retrieve can be modified. Play with speed. Fast is good around emergent weeds, and moderate speeds work over submerged weed tops. But slow and steady tends to be the answer 8 days out of 10. At slow speeds, a light jig can be finessed off weeds. Heavier jigs fall when shaken free and retangle, and tend to drag filaments and “branches” into others and the plot thickens.
Pushing the rod tip toward the jig occasionally, causing a brief pause, flare, and fall, provides another way to trigger followers. Otherwise, most days, the success of Minnesota finesse depends on a long cast, letting the jig hit bottom, and starting a slow retrieve. If the jig drags on bottom, speed up. If it never touches bottom, slow down. If bass are grouped in depths of 18 feet or deeper, switch to a 1/4-ounce jig and follow the same procedure.
The narrow, pointed nose on the Terminator Finesse Jig allows it to slide through cover and sneak into the strike zone of bass. Because the jig is light and doesn’t fall heavily into cover and wrap or stick, the wire weedguard is adequate to excellent for protecting the hook from weeds and wood.
Slow, steady, horizontal swimming presentations with skirted Finesse Jigs are what Minnesota finesse is all about. The 1/8-ounce Finesse Jig is my go-to most of the year, but especially early. It allows super-slow retrieves in water 4 to 12 feet deep. And it doesn’t need to be near bottom. Start by reeling quickly over the weeds, then slowly halfway down the stalks or along the inside and outside edges of the weedbed. By late summer and early fall, as bass move into 18 feet of water or deeper, a 1/4-ounce Finesse Jig can be super effective slow-rolled near bottom, especially for heavily pressured fish.
Plastics for tipping can include small creatures, craws, soft swimbaits—almost anything. Typically, I tip with 5-inch Get Bit Grubs, Kalin’s Twin-Tail Grubs, or Z-Man Finesse FrogZ. FrogZ are just under 3 inches long, but the bow-legged shape allows the heavy paddle tails to fight though any interference from the skirt and keep on flapping in mesmerizing fashion. As one foot flaps down, the other flaps up in irresistible alternation. Thump, thump, whack. Bass attack.
Head color, by me, should always be green pumpkin or black, but Minnesota waters tend to be pretty clear. “Former Gopher Tackle owner Conrad Peterson constantly urged me to fish ‘red, red, red,’ regardless of water clarity,” Kehde says. “But when red isn’t going, I like blue and chartreuse, too. A blue jig is especially effective during the bluegill spawn.” Might have to try that.
“We are shallow-water anglers (in Kansas) from January 1 to December 31,” Kehde says. “We probe from the water’s edge to about 12 feet of water. At times we have fished in 15 feet of water, but it is rare. Simplicity and frugality lie at the heart of Midwest-finesse fishing.”
Simplicity, yes. But Minnesota finesse and frugality don’t necessarily jive. Seriously fine equipment forges better angling skill. Reels with any hitch in the get-along miss strikes. Rods with an absolutely perfect balance cast farther and have the backbone to set hooks at distance, yet protect light line against rogue combatants like muskies, pike, and catfish in the 20-pound range. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to drop a thousand bucks to do it right. The Daiwa Laguna 2500 5bi recommended earlier is silky smooth yet sells for only $40 or less. The rods mentioned are a bit more pricey, at $250 and up, but, well, they have to be felt to be believed.
Casting and slowly reeling may sound tedious and boring. Just try it, in any conditions. It won’t be boring for long.
*Matt Straw is a longtime In-Fisherman Field Editor and multispecies expert.