Rippin' Raps for Smallmouths in Cold Water
Rippin’ is so oddly aggressive as to be counterintuitive to anything having to do with smallmouths in cold water, so much so that when it works like magic—absolute magic—one can only utter, Oh My Goodness Gracious, for it is hocus pocus and sleight of hand all rolled into one fantastic package of complete surprise, until the surprise soon becomes the status quo.
The hocus pocus isn’t exactly new, but only a few present-day anglers have experienced the magic of ripping spoons, and the newest rippin’ lure the Rippin’ Rap, a lipless crankbait, which seems to have been miraculously designed to perfectly fit the technique. Other lures in the lipless class are sort of like it, but nothing that I’ve tinkered with quite measures the same. Closest, perhaps, are bladebaits, but even they can’t quite compare. Nor can the tailspinners, popular for many years across the Midsouth.
The best retrieve I’ve found is the same with the spoon and the Rippin’ Rap. Make a long cast, engage the reel, and let the lure sink to the bottom. The line goes slack when the lure touches down. That’s the last time you want to see the lure actually touch down. Position the rod tip at 9 o’clock. With one hand (my left) palming the reel and the other gripping the rod butt, sharply snap the rod tip to 11 o’clock. Immediately drop the rod tip back to 9 o’clock, allowing the lure to plummet toward the bottom. As the rod tip drops and the lure plummets, remove the hand from the rod butt, grab the reel handle, and reel through most of, but not all of, the slack line created with your snap and drop back.
The lure must fall on completely slack line. The next rod-tip snap should rip through a bit of the slack left over from the last snap. That helps to increase the snap speed of the rod tip and thus the snap speed of the lure on the next rip. The alternative to holding the rod as I’ve described is to palm the reel with both hands.
This also is a great technique for walleyes, but they usually prefer a much less aggressive rip—more of a sharp pull. With walleyes at times you can watch the line for a telltale thump. That also works with smaller smallmouths, but for me it has not worked for big fish. For the brutes, I get a rhythm going with the rip-drop, with the lure touching down on the bottom or at least dropping near the bottom for the barest moment before it rips up again. If it sits stationary on the bottom for even a millisecond, it’s too long. Again, don’t wait for the line to go slack as the lure touches down. Get that rhythm going. Picture skipping the lure off bottom, time after time. You don’t feel fish hit; they’re just there on the next rip—magic, indeed.
It’s October 19, 2010. I’m with cameraman Justin Turkowski on Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota. The previous October is when I first started hammering big fish on spoons on Mille Lacs and, eventually, two other Minnesota lakes. This day I intend to repeat the performance for In-Fisherman Television viewers for the 2011 show season. The water temperature is 48°F. Light wind blowing from the northwest. Perfect. I move slowly with the trolling motor, making a controlled drift, wind at my back, down the drop-off edge of a big rocky shoal that runs 10 to 16 feet deep. At about 16 feet, portions of the bar plummet into 25 feet of water, and then there’s a more gradual slide to 35 feet. Here and there on the shallower portion of the huge shoal are subtle rises and scattered rocks.
It takes about two hours to finish the show segment with barrel-chested bronze boys weighting 4 to 5 pounds. Turkowski’s amazed by the technique and we have an hour to kill before heading home, so I tell him to pick up a rod. At first I keep catching, but he’s not. So I stop fishing and start watching him. “Sharper,” I say, telling him to rip harder. “And faster. Just get a rhythm going with the snaps. Don’t let the line go slack when the lure touches down. That means it’s moving too slow. Can’t let the fish get a clue what the thing actually is.”
By that time I have explained while filming that the smallmouth is one of the most discriminating and discerning and intelligent of all our fish—and, perhaps as a matter of having such street smarts, it’s also perhaps the single most curious fish in freshwater. Those characteristics intensify in older, often larger smallmouths. They’ve been around a long time. As I said: Street smarts.
So for smallmouths, retrieves often need to be erratic enough to be highly curious—yet still just barely catchable. Said another way: The retrieve shouldn’t be so predictable that it’s identifiable. Make it curious but not quite identifiable—yet barely catchable. It’s the lure and retrieve in combination, working on the nature of the fish that gets big fish to go. The fish are chasing, chasing, chasing, never quite able to get a handle on what the thing is, until finally—finally—they take a shot at eating it as it falls, or pinning the thing to the bottom.
I tell Turkowski: “The key is driving them crazy with the retrieve until they can’t stand it.”
I don’t know how far some of the fish might be following, or how many of them often might be following at the same time, before they decide to take a crack at the lure. At times, given using superline, I can actually feel them swim by, trying to eat and missing—or they’re just barely touching the line as they swim by, trying to get a handle on what the thing is.
Suddenly, Turkowski’s rod is bent over, his eyes are wide, and for a moment he can’t speak. “Fish on!” I say. “Yeah,” he says. “It was just there on the snap. I don’t believe it. It really is magic.”
The technique is wind dependent, in that you can’t effectively rip with a bow in your line from wind blowing from the side; so casts must be made with the wind in your face or, much better, at your back. In a light breeze casts can be angled 30 to 45 degrees left or right of dead down wind. With modest wind, say 8 to 10 mph, casts can be angled about 20 degrees left or right of dead down wind. Any heavier wind means dead down-wind casting.
Make long casts; the technique works best at a distance. I don’t catch fish vertically at the boat. Strike productivity declines by the time lures are within about 50 feet of the boat. Casts of 150 feet are possible with the Luhr Jensen Tony Spoon, the best option I’ve found to date; casts of 120 feet are possible with the middle-size Rippin’ Rap, the #6 weighing 1/2 ounce. At long distance a rod-tip rip moves the lure 4 or 5 feet forward and up perhaps 2 to 3 feet, before the rod-tip drop has the lure plummeting in knuckle ball fashion, downward and backward on a slack line. Closer to the boat, apparently rod-tip rips move the lure too high and too vertical.
I’ve caught fish using this approach on several portions of the Great Lakes; two Missouri River reservoirs in South Dakota; many portions of Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods, Ontario; Spirit Lake, Iowa; Pool 4 of the Mississippi River; and four Minnesota lakes, including Mille Lacs. Regrettably, I haven’t had a chance to try the technique on Midsouth reservoirs.
On natural lakes, the Great Lakes, and the Canadian Shield, the best spots have been rock-gravel-sand shoals 10 to 22 feet deep, adjacent to extensive shallow, rocky habitat on the inside, and bordered by rocky breakline drop-off edges 25 to 40 feet deep on the outside—deeper wintering habitat. Rocky humps well away from shore have also been important on the Great Lakes. The fish use this habitat all fall, but really flood the areas when temperatures drop below 50°F, with the best temperatures in the mid-40°F range.
On the Dakota reservoirs, the best spots have been lipped areas on deeper points inside of or at the mouth of major creek arms. On Pool 4 of the Mississippi, the fish have been on rock-gravel main-channel banks in 8 to 15 feet of water—at times in the river portion of the pool, but particularly in Lake Pepin proper, which is a reservoir-like portion of the pool. Again, water temperatures in the mid- to upper-40°F range seem important.
But I admit that there’s a lot I might not know, including absolute temperature ranges within which rippin’ works. Top-notch professional angler Joe Balog, a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications, who’s an expert on smallmouths in lakes St. Clair and Erie, tells me he also uses a less aggressive approach with the Rippin’ Rap at times. So does Guide Paul Delaney, who fishes extensively on the Green Bay portions of Lake Michigan, as well as Lake Michigan proper. Balog also spends a lot of time fishing the bigger Rippin’ Rap, although overall, the middle size is most productive for both Balog and Delaney.
A surprise for me was catching fish like this during the spring Coldwater Period. I thought the technique would be too aggressive for those fish. I have long said, however, that even when fish seem tentative, it often pays to go more aggressive, instead of tempering back even more. Fish can’t react to extremes if you don’t offer them extremes to react to.
Rippin’ covers a lot of water fast, should you want to. I prefer to move with the trolling motor, staying well upwind of potential spots; but at times I also anchor to thoroughly work over high-percentage areas. I have a Minn Kota bowmount trolling motor with an i-Pilot system that allows anchoring the boat in place without dropping an anchor. It’s remarkably effective in most wind conditions.
Occasionally, for ultimate precision, I drop an anchor to fine-comb a spot that I think attracts moving fish. I have a spot like that on Mille Lacs. After anchoring, I catch 4 or 5 fish in the first 10 minutes or so, wait another 10 minutes and catch another couple. When the big move from shallow to deep is on, it’s possible to sit there all day and continue catching fish.
Details & Fine Tuning
For me, the perfect rod-reel setup is a 6-foot 6-inch to 6-foot 10-inch casting rod with a little bit longer handle, medium power and medium or medium-fast action, with a low-profile reel loaded with 20-pound braid. I’ve been using Sufix 832. Double the end of the braid with a two-wrap spider hitch and use back-to-back uni-knots (three wraps each is sufficient) to couple a leader section of fluorocarbon to the braid. I use a 4-foot leader with a break strength of 20 pounds for spoons and 15 pounds for the Rippin’ Rap.
One of my favorite rod-and-reel combinations is a 6-foot 10-inch Fenwick Elite Tech Smallmouth Series rod coupled with the Abu Garcia Revo MGX reel. There’s a similar 6-foot 9-inch rod in the Smallmouth Series, but I like the little-bit longer handle on the longer rod for this technique. My favorite rod since their recent introduction is a 6-foot 6-inch Abu Garcia Villian, along with the MGX. For me, at 5-foot 9-inches tall, the 6-foot 6-inch combo is just right. If you’re taller—say 6 feet or over—you might prefer a 7-foot rod.
I have no experience using spinning combos with this technique, but friends use them successfully, including both Joe Balog and Paul Delany. Another great Lake Michigan Guide, Captain Bret Alexander also prefers spinning tackle. With spinning tackle, a 6-foot 6-inch rod would be the minimum length, with 7 foot probably being standard. Use lighter line like 6-pound Sufix 832, or 10-pound Berkley FireLine, but stick with the heavier fluorocarbon as leader to maintain abrasion resistance. The ultra-thin diameter superlines aren’t abrasion resistant.
Mentioned earlier, the best spoon I’ve found weighs 5/8 ounce, the Luhr Jensen Tony Spoon, a lure I call a paranormal smallmouth spoon, because it looks more like a standard pike design than the more common slab spoons often considered smallmouth fare. I haven’t done well casting slab spoons. The Tony Spoon isn’t widely available, but at press time they could be ordered online from Academy Sports. Solid silver and solid gold are the only two finishes. I’ve done best with gold.
I add to the front of the Tony spoon a “Clacker Assembly” standard on ReelBait Fergie Special spoons. It’s also sold separately as a 2-inch section of wire with two glass beads sliding on each side of a brass weight. A split ring is required to attach the Clacker Assembly to the ring on the front of the Tony Spoon. The Assembly adds a bit of clacking sound to the spoon, and it also helps to keep the spoon from tangling on itself as it falls.
Of the three sizes of Rippin’ Rap, the middle size, the #6, weighing 1/2 ounce works best, although I’ve caught fish on all three sizes. Tie direct to the split ring with the leader and you’re set. When lots of pike are present, I add a 12-inch section of tieable 20-pound wire (American Fishing Wire Surflon Micro Supreme) to the end of the leader to keep from losing Raps to biteoffs. My favorite color is Gold-Chrome, but I also do well with Chrome Blue, and Dark Brown Crawdad.
I think it’s the combination of intense vibration and rattle, plus the compact size of the Rippin’ Rap, that makes it good in this instance. It’s easy to rip because it’s so compact, and also falls quickly, yet erratically back to the bottom—lots of flash, too, on the rise and the fall.
One of the most common connections in fishing is in the bite-trigger power of a lure that moves up and down. The up-down is found in the subtleness of a hair jig as the angler swims it along, mostly on a horizontal plane, but also always nodding the lure ever-so-slightly to give it life. In contrast is the starkly aggressive nature of this rippin’ system. I think many of you will find it remarkable and a lot of fun.
Oh My Goodness Gracious! Might as well start practicing.