May 15, 2018
By Matt Straw
Head first, casually swimming along,balanced, symmetrical, sipping plankton yet poised to flee for cover in an instant. When a minnow descends, it descends nose down or dorsal-side up—not sideways. Movements are smooth and balanced. Live preyfish tend to be graceful. Even a crawfish doesn't wobble, turn sideways, or swim upside down. So why do so many soft bass baits falter, spin, or swim off to one side? As the years march on, it never ceases to amaze me.
Balance is the goal when tipping jigs with trailers. A trailer can't be overbearing or the package rolls out of control. Hook-sets become problematic. Few anglers would look at a 1/16-ounce jighead in the nose of a 7-inch soft swimbait and think it looks right. It certainly won't fish right. The jig can't sink or swim the lure fast enough to make the tail work. Try to swim it fast enough and the package spins or turns on its side. And a trailer can't be too small for the head or it looks and behaves unnaturally.
Yes, human sensibilities have something to do with it. For me, a jighead should be proportional to the body, with approximately the same head-to-body-length ratio as a minnow. It might be more of an aesthetic than a requirement, but the result seems more natural. There are requirements when matching trailers to jigs, however. If the trailer has an action tail, the weight of the jig must be sufficient to make the tail work on the drop. Otherwise it won't move on a slow retrieve and the lure may list to the side.
Trailers too big for the jig hook interfere with the hooking process. Before rigging a softbait, check if it fits inside the gap of the hook. The plastic body should slide between the point and the shaft of jig hook—if not top-to-bottom, on its side. It's not a requirement, but a rule of thumb.
The new Storm 360GT Searchbaits (which turned out to be one of our hottest river options last fall) come with trailers designed to fit seamlessly with the jigheads. Is designing jigheads meant to only fit and balance perfectly with specific trailers a new trend? Or a ploy that keeps us from buying other trailers to rig on those heads?
Regardless of how we may feel about that, one thing is certain—the 360GT Searchbait is perfectly balanced. It has realistic eyes that seem to see and avoid snags. The head, perfectly fitted to a flat-backed, keel-shaped body with a thumper tail, helps the package glide along. It seems ideal in current areas. It can be fished on a dead drift and catch fish.
The body is wider than it is deep, enhancing its gliding effect. It slips over rocky substrates, hanging up less often than most other combinations of lead and plastic. It slides to the bottom like a sculpin, and has a rattle for creating an effective shaky presentation.
The Searchbait has a small circle on its dorsal side—a target for bringing the hook point out at the precise point for balance, which is critical when threading softbaits onto a jig. When finished, the shaft of the hook should be exactly in the center of the bait, equidistant from both sides and equidistant from back and belly. This is especially true with action-tail plastics. A poorly attached swimbait or grub can turn a jighead on its side or cause it to spin, yielding an unnatural, unbalanced presentation.
All kinds of anglers climb aboard my boat each year, from kids to professional guides. I often see softbaits threaded on wrong—unbalanced, bunched on the hook, or with the hook brought out short, which eventually pulls the bait away from the head. Place the jig against the plastic before threading it on and mark the spot where the hook should exit. With grubs and worms, the point should come out on the seam. If the lure is bunched up despite that effort, do it over. If the hook comes out short or long, pull the point back into the plastic and bring it out so the lure lies straight on the hook. If the hook is too close to one side, try again. Bunched up or poorly hooked plastics swim off-line and bites dwindle.
Jigs with short shanks are designed for fishing livebait. Controlling softbaits demands a long-shank jig hook. For example, a Case Ringworm swims correctly on a Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head Jig with a long-shank, 2/0 Gamakatsu hook. The same lure won't balance with the heavy shank on a Picasso Smart Mouth Plus Jig, which is perfect when coupled with a thicker Keitech Swing Impact swimbait. Worms and soft jerkbaits perform better on light, long-shank jigs. Most smallmouth plastics call for long-shank #1 to 3/0 hooks. A 4- to 5- inch softbait requires a long shank to control the tail.
In my universe, every soft-plastic trailer has a speed limit; maybe not "limits" so much as optimum speeds. A 4-inch ringworm is a dependable trailer on 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jigs. Others may disagree, but a 1/32-ounce jig is too slow and gets overpowered even by the small augering tail, creating a floppy, twisting, unnatural drop. And a 3/8-ounce jig is the opposite, overpowering the plastic. It's too heavy and too fast—even in current. For me, the optimum speed range of a classic ring worm is about .4 to 1 mph. Not that it won't catch fish moving faster or slower, but optimum effectiveness seems to occur within that range.
The ringworm has proven so successful for smallmouths and walleyes it's been hybridized. The Northland Impulse Core Minnow, Berkley PowerBait Beat Shad, and Lunker City Swimmin' Ribster are examples of hybrid ringworms, with slightly heavier bodies and thumping swimbait tails instead of curly tails. So they can be fished faster. In fact, incrementally heavier heads are required to pull them through the water fast enough to make the tail work. Optimum efficiency ranges from 3/32 to 1/4 ounce for 4- and 5-inch baits that are so effective for smallmouth bass.
Other softbaits with larger or thicker action parts have a broader "sweet spot." Optimum efficiency for a 5-inch grub can range several miles per hour. Threading a Kalin's Lunker Grub on a 1/4-ounce Kalin's Ultimate Darter Jig creates a kind of bladeless spinnerbait effect in shallow water. Ripping that combination over shallow rocks as fast as we could turn our reel handles won a smallmouth tournament for us on Rainy Lake. The nose on a darter head gets pushed a bit to one side, then it overcorrects and so on, creating a wobble. But to achieve that kind of speed, the hook has to be centered perfectly in the lure and the point has to come out on the seam or the package turns sideways or spins out.
Forward speed and drop speed are important factors. Jig weight is merely one aspect of presentation speed. A trailer with a heavy thumping or twisting tail slows the drop. A trailer with a straight or forked tail allows the same jig to fall faster. The shape of a jig has some influence. And the weight of the head is only part of a jig's weight. Jigs with thick hooks fall faster than those with light hooks on the same heads. A 1/8-ounce Z-Man Headlock Jig (which balances perfectly with Z-Man SwimmerZ swimbaits), with its thick hook and lead keeper falls faster than just about any other 1/8-ounce jig. So it requires faster forward speed, unless paired with a thick, heavy-thumping tail (such as on the SwimmerZ).
In clear water with spooky fish, the package should move slowly. Everything should be subtle in terms of size, color, and action. That's when ringworms, grubs, and small swimbaits shine. Balance requires light line and thin-wire hooks. Most smallmouth zealots have tried Z-Man Ned Rigs, composed of Finesse ShroomZ Jigheads and Finesse TRDs. They're designed for light line — like 4- to 8-pound Berkley FireLine or 5-pound Seaguar InvisX fluorocarbon. The low-action TRD performs best when dragged, deadsticked, or shaken in place on bottom, and they balance best with the medium-shaft hooks on the Finesse ShroomZ.
In cloudy water, bright colors, bottom contact, and craw imitations or swimbaits with rattles become more important. Jigs are heavier to increase drop speed, not forward speed. Football heads with spider grubs excel for this situation. Trokar's new Shell Buster coupled with a Yamamoto Hula Grub is a prime example.
Tried and True
Almost any softbait trailer in the 3- to 5-inch range can catch smallmouths, but some jigs and trailers have been phenomenally effective. Last year, the 4-inch Strike King KVD Swim-N-Shiner, coupled with the new 1/8-ounce VMC Boxer Jig, proved deadly for river smallmouths. Like the Storm 360GT Searchbait, the "peduncle" leading to the tail on a Swim-N-Shiner is super thin, producing a good thump even at slow speeds, adding vibration that calls out to touchy bass through current and cloudy water.
The Boxer has a thick, strong hook. Compare it to the thin wire of a Gamakatsu jig hook on a 1/8-ounce Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head Jig. The Boxer requires at least 10-pound line, preferably monofilament or fluorocarbon, or the hook won't set. The Boxer's hook is too heavy to balance well with thin worms and 3- to 4-inch grubs. Dense hooks add weight to the package, too—forcing combinations to be fished at the faster end of the spectrum. Thicker lines slow the drop and forward speeds, however.
I like Trokar's Shell Buster football head, which has a strong, light, super-sharp hook and a helpful keeper on the shank. It balances with every kind of spider grub—the 1/4-ounce best with 4-inch grubs and the 3/8-ounce best with 5-inch grubs, though any combination can be effective. A rod with 10-pound mono tied to a Shell Buster was on my deck—and caught bass—from ice-out to ice-up last year.
Other combos that worked well last year: A 3.8-inch Jackall Glossy Shad on a 3/32-ounce Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head Jig; a TightLines Lures UV Beaver on the new 1/6-ounce Z-Man Nedlock Jig; a Jackall Rhythm Wave swimbait on a VMC Darter Head; and a 3.8-inch Kalin's Sizmic Shad on a 1/8-ounce VMC Half Moon Jig with its larger Barbarian Hook. And when smallmouths get crazy, nothing works better than a Z-Man SwimmerZ swimbait on a Z-Man Headlock Jighead because ElaZ Tech plastics are all but indestructible. Glue one to the head and it can boat 100 bass.
For a quarter century, fox hair tied on an Arkie-style jig with a brushguard, such as Bert Deener's Jigs And Things 1/4-ounce Fox Hair Jig, has been a mainstay for bottom-oriented, craw-crunching smallmouths. Other fine products have come along, like Jimmy D's River Bugs. Lately I've been tipping them with a 3-inch Strike King Baby Rage Craw with excellent results. Fox hair undulates as the claws wave—but only if the bait is threaded on right, with the hook extending through the middle and out at a precise distance from the head. Whenever smallmouths are looking down and feeding on craws, it's best to walk, drag, and hop on bottom with a football head like the Shell Buster or a brushguard hair jig.
Every season I fish with folks who don't know how to rig soft bass baits correctly or get in too big of a rush to do it right. It's the reason for this piece. The difference between catching many or few—small fish or large—often depends on how well you focus when threading on a lure. Like a basketball player at the free-throw line, you have nobody else to blame.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is an ace smallmouth bass angler who seeks to match presentations to the position and mood of the fish.