Coming across the perfect rod is an epiphany. It's like Christmas morning, only better. Instead of a polka dot tie and new underwear you get a piece of the puzzle that fits, a tool that launches longer casts, presents baits better, and drives solid hooksets. With a smooth reel right for balance and retrieve speed, joy results.
The joy of handling perfect equipment should never be underestimated. Days with no fish can be almost delightful with rods and reels for smallmouth that cast smoothly, operate smoothly, deliver optimum sensitivity, and feel light in hand. Just ask Rob Neumann, our managing editor. Rich Belanger of St. Croix sent me a new Avid AVS80MLM2 last summer, an 8-foot rod built for light line. I took the rod into Neumann's office. He was intrigued enough that fishing, try as we might, suddenly seemed impossible to avoid.
We looked around the office and found an Abu Garcia Cardinal C40LX spinning reel that balanced, filled it with 4-pound Trilene XT and slipped out without anybody seeing us. It would be nice to describe how well the rod worked, but you'll have to ask Neumann. He never set it down all day, happily outfishing me 3 to 1 while I tried to find something that would work better (we were on my spots, after all, so I prefer to think the rod had something to do with it). He was skeptical about using line so light, but boating a couple 4 pounders encouraged him to hang onto that rod until the sun dipped into the trees. Which was fine. Several days later I understood why he never put it down. It was brilliant. It loaded perfectly with 1/16-ounce jig-plastic combos and sent them way out there. It was exquisite for feeling light takes, functional at setting hooks and a joy to play big fish with. And joy (did I mention this already?) should never be underestimated. Matching sensual pleasure at that level with everything else you do to catch smallmouths can be discovered right here.
Cranks, Suspending Baits, Topwaters
One rod cannot suffice for crankbaits. The discussion, in fact, is detailed enough to demand an entire article. Most fisheries, and most smallmouth cranks, when used with braided line, call for a medium-light spinning stick, in my opinion. (Which is also the perfect choice for light topwaters, like poppers.) Many pros today use fiberglass casting rods for cranks, and G. Loomis makes a hybrid glass-carbon Deep Flex rod with an almost parabolic bend for this purpose (the CBR803 DF, rated for 8- to 14-pound line, is right for smallmouths).
On big reservoirs, the Great Lakes, and big natural lakes, most good anglers opt for casting gear, monofilament line and medium to medium-heavy fiberglass rods. For those who prefer to throw cranks with mono, the new Fenwick Elite Tech Crankshaft 50-50 (ECC70M-MF) has a glass top and a stiff graphite butt, facilitating both the retrieve and the hookset. But for those who fish braided line, medium-light power performs much the same way in a graphite blank. The main reason for employing medium-light power is the positive reaction of the rod when retrieving cranks. Resistance from the bill of the crank loads the rod almost half way, leaving little bend to remove on the hookset while leaving a smallmouth little chance to relieve pressure once it touches the point of a hook.
So my favorite crankin' stick is the St. Croix Avid AVS70MLF because it loads as mentioned, and it's a spinning rod. Spinning gear casts farther and covers more ground with cranks when coupled with an American-made Ardent 2500 S filled with braided line, and the same combo happens to be perfect for throwing suspending baits and light topwaters, too. With its tight tolerances, the Ardent continues getting smoother with time, and the braided line allows cranks to dig deeper, and relieves the need for excess power to set hooks. Warning: This rod will feel too light and underpowered the first time you retrieve a crank with it. Don't let that stop you from working with it until you hook and land a few fish. Let some of the power requirement transfer to the line. Braid can handle it. At that point you understand how perfect this rod is for light topwaters, suspending baits and cranks when the target is a big smallmouth bass. Once they touch the lure, they're not going anywhere until you have them in the boat.
But I'm a heretic so what do I know? Chris Beeksma, a smallmouth guide in Wisconsin, prefers casting gear for the giant smallmouths of Chequamegon Bay. "I use the St. Croix LTBC70 MHM Deep Cranker for all my crankbait fishing, even with shallow runners like the Rapala DT 4," Beeksma said. I think the heavier rod gives me better control, especially when pausing, moving or ripping a crank. And it's a great lipless crankbait rod. Always thought I wouldn't mind a longer crankbait rod and voila, St Croix comes out with the 7-foot 10-inch LTBC710HM Magnum Cranker for deep diving cranks, those 16- to 20-foot divers. This rod just tames those bad boys, and the extra length is perfect for long casting, for making cranks change direction, and for handling the extra weight, yet it's extremely sensitive for scraping bills on bottom." Beeksma matches his cranking needs with a Shimano Chronarch 200 SF for distance, a 6:1 retrieve ratio, and smooth delivery.
The case has been started for the Avid AVS70MLF as an all-purpose rod. It works well with anything light, including jigs, tubes, spinnerbaits, and drop-shot rigs. But Beeksma likes a different all-around stick. "Many if not most of my clients prefer spinning rods and the St. Croix Legend Tournament LTBS70MF is what I have my clients use 75percent of the time for tubes, worms, topwaters, jerkbaits, and spinnerbaits," he said. "It's a great all around rod for folks who cannot afford or just don't want specific rods for specific tactics."
Cory Schmidt, field editor for In-Fisherman, is big on swimbaits. He throws a variety of hard-body swimbaits for smallmouths. "Rod characteristics need to be very specific," he said. "Swimbaits tend to be heavy, so the cast is more of a lob. The tip has to be fairly soft, yet the spine requires better than average power to achieve any distance. And you don't haul back and pop the hookset like you do with other techniques. When you feel a thump, drop the rod tip down, reel up and sweep set or you'll miss.
"The soft tip is the number one thing. In order to propel the baits and in order to set the hook, there's a delay. You can't just set. You'll lose most fish. Just reel down and sweep to load the rod. Typically, with smallmouths, you're not using the big swimbaits. The 4 inchers are optimum. So I use a Shimano 7-foot Crucial CRC-X70M rod and Shimano 1200 Citica reel to throw lipless swimmers like the jointed Castaic Catch 22, and the Tru Tungsten Tru-Life 4-inch swimbaits. Heavy baits like these balance better with casting gear, in my opinion."
When using soft boottail swimbaits (the kind that demand tying on a jig or hook), Schmidt prefers spinning gear. "These are not technically swimbaits," he said. "For action-tail plastics like the Castaic Jerky J on a jighead, I use a St. Croix Premier 7-foot medium-power rod with 15-pound Power Pro and a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader to match with 1/4- to 3/8-ounce heads. You're swimming it, not jigging it. My reel of choice, in that case, would be the Daiwa M-Cast. There are certain times when each of the two primary types of swimbait becomes an awesome choice for smallmouths." Be ready when it happens.
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Kevin VanDam is from Michigan, surrounded by Great Lakes. "A drop-shot rod for smallmouths needs to be a little different up here," he said. "The water is so clear you can't always approach the fish as closely. You really need to make longer casts." His choice is a 7-foot 4-inch Quantum Tour Kevin VanDam TKVDS744 coupled with a Quantum Tour PT 30 spinning reel.
Longer rods provide more room to blend qualities, which is crucial when those qualities are divergent from one another. "Drop-shoting requires a soft tip section, so the fish can't feel you," VanDam said. "But it also requires a stiff spine. In Lake Michigan, it's not uncommon to find smallmouths deep on wrecks, and deep hooksets with drop-shot rigs demand rigidity from the handle to the midsection. This rod offers both qualities. It's sensitive and versatile. Sometimes you need a rod to do more than one thing, and this longer rod really adapts well to a lot of clear-water situations."
The Quantum Tour PT 30 VanDam uses is about as smooth as it gets, with very little oscillation, creating much better feel. Another rod that performs admirably with drop-shot techniques is the Kistler He69MHS, mentioned in the section devoted to dragging tubes, when combined with the American made Ardent S2500 spinning reel.
Float Rods And Reels
Floats are used for many things in smallmouth fishing besides presenting synthetic hair jigs. Slip floats suspend leeches, minnows, and baited jigs. Fixed floats suspend wacky-rigged worms, nose-hooked flukes, and tube jigs. All of that, and far more, can be accomplished in style with one rod.
Tim Dawidiuk is a smallmouth and salmon guide and the owner of Howie's Tackle in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin—home of some of the world's best smallmouth fishing. "One of my favorite all-around smallmouth rods is the St. Croix Legend Tournament Slip Stick," Dawidiuk said. "It's a telescopic 8-foot spinning rod that fits in any rod locker. Great all-around rod for big water, because you can throw grubs on 1/8- to 1/4- ounce jigs out of sight, you can throw jerkbaits, you can throw cranks, pitch tubes—it's not designed for any of that but it's one of those rogues that apply to everything. I sell that rod in my shop and, for a high-end rod, it sells really well. I match it with the new U.S. Reel Super Caster 230 for better distance in this ultra clear water."
Dragging Tubes/Football Heads
Casey Casamento, a smallmouth guide on Lake Champlain for 8 years with the Aidirondack Champlain Guide Service, depends on being able to feel light takes in deep water when dragging tubes for smallmouths.
"I use the 6-foot 9-inch medium- heavy Kistler He69HMS with 8- to 12-pound test," he said. "The fast action in the tip is perfect for detecting light bites. The backbone provides good hooksets in deep water. You want something that has enough backbone, when you snag up, to get off a rock or pull free from zebra mussels. The sensitivity is excellent, and that's the key. Sometimes the pickup is so light, you really need superior sensitivity, especially when smallmouths are deeper than 20 feet. This rod is much lighter and much more sensitive than any I've used for dragging tubes. I match it with the Shimano Symetre 2500. Smoothness is critical, here. You need a reel that won't make you feel bites that aren't there in water this deep."
The same rod functions well for football heads, but I opt for a Fenwick Elite Tech ECR70MH-F coupled with a smooth Abu Garcia Soron SX60 spinning reel. In case you've been in a coma, Fenwick rods have made a serious comeback, and this one has the action and power you need to throw a 1/2-ounce head a mile, and the sensitivity to allow you to measure how big the grains of sand are on bottom. Hooksets are never a problem, and this rod is light yet recovers extremely fast (doesn't wave or bounce), which is important when trying to achieve distance with heavy jigs. The bigger Soron reel permits longer casts with 10- to 12-pound mono, for better coverage on expansive flats.
Pitching tubes, worms, grubs and other plastics on 3/32- to 1/8-ounce heads or split-shot rigs is the bread-and-butter of smallmouth fishing. Light line, in the 4- to 8-pound-test range on medium-size spinning reels matched with a sweet, sensitive graphite stick fills this bill nicely.
The best sticks for this are medium in power with a fairly fast or moderate action. Slow actions work best for lobbing things like livebaits or heavy swimbaits, but a faster action matched with the right power translates into longer casts and higher sensitivity. When dropping, swimming or "nodding" plastics, smallmouths tend to follow and strike and the hookset should be immediate. The faster the action, the better, but to cast accurately with any distance, the key is to find a rod that loads slightly from the weight of a 3/32-ounce jig. Just let the jig hang there on the rod tip and see if it bends down an inch. If not, the rod is too fast in action or too heavy in power to cast for distance with light jigs and plastics.
To cover all these bases, Bruce Holt of G. Loomis designed the Bronzeback Series SMR822SGLX. "It's got a real sneaky soft tip," Holt said. "Very sensitive. It's scary. You need to watch the tip. Even the finest rods in the universe can't always allow you to feel a light strike, but this tip snaps even on the lightest takes. I use it for tubes, grubs, and split-shot rigs with lizards out here on the Columbia River. It casts 80 feet with no problem with plenty of power to set hooks at that distance. I designed the rod because we have a lot of wind here, and 6 foot 10 inches is an optimum length for making low casts in heavy wind. I use 6-pound Yo-Zuri Hybrid line and the result is awesome for this kind of fishing." Holt pairs it with the Shimano Symetre 2500, but I team it with a similar sized Team Daiwa Advantage 2000A, another fine smallmouth reel.
Float & Fly
"Length is critical to manage a lot of line outside the tip when casting," Holt said of my favorite float & fly stick, the 9-foot 6-inch G. Loomis SMR1140S. "The tip has to be light and soft so the fish has no idea anything is up. It feels too light when you shake it. It's slow, but not parabolic. The whole rod builds up plenty of power along its length. The power is in the lower half. We call it a progressive power taper, wherein power builds exponentially as the rod bends. The bridge effect increases power as you need it. If you need to pull really hard, the power is there." Once this rod is loaded on a fish, it's not getting off. I match it with a Daiwa Steez 2500, one of the lightest reels on the market, to make this rig less wieldy. Few reels have a smoother drag, which is critical with the 6-pound lines so vital to this technique. Float-and-fly fishing also demands a lob or swing cast, making smooth line delivery critical.
Mike Thorson, premier rod designer for Batson Enterprises, points out that smallmouth fishermen tend to throw spinnerbaits in open water, across a flat, a reef, a rock point, or similar structure. "You don't need that short, close-cover rod you fish in heavy trees or around docks," he said. "Most guys are using 6-foot 6-inch to 7- foot rods to throw 1/4- to 3/8-ounce baits long distance and to get better hook-setting power. The taper is pretty severe. We call it extra fast, but the whole idea is to lighten the tip."
What about those "all around rods?" I use one for spinnerbaits much of the time (the same St. Croix Avid AVS70MLF I use for suspending baits, topwaters, and cranks.) But when I know spinnerbaits comprise the main thrust of my tactical approach, I opt for the G. Loomis Bronzeback Series SMR822C, a 6-foot 9-inch casting stick rated for 10- to 17-pound line. The best action for a spinnerbait is delivered by an excessively fast action, yet with a taper that is quite severe, offering excess power in the butt with a fast but forgiving forward section that stands up to the weight of the lure yet really loads on the forward cast to punch a wind-resistant bait out there. The SMR822C delivers on both counts, then drives the hook home with authority.
Casting sticks are right for spinnerbaits, especially when using a left-handed reel. Stop the bait just over the water with your thumb to get it turned toward you and engage the reel as it hits the water. No switching hands with the left-handed Shimano Curado, a smooth reel with a drag that can stand up to that accidental 50-pound muskie you keep dreaming about.