Smallmouths cruise slowly by a dense stand of cabbage. They linger behind car-sized boulders. Or both. Visual cues, like flash, color, and profile, can be blocked by intervening weeds, structure, or glare. Vibration can only reach the lateral line from up close and personal.
But sound can reach them from quite a distance. Here's one they can't seem to resist: "Hummmm, rattle, rattle, bbddddrrrrrrrrrriiipppp." That's how I imagined the racket, at least, while watching Al Lindner pump a Rattlin' Rapala almost 20 years ago. He had a casting reel spooled with 15-pound mono — give or take a couple pounds. After letting the lure sink for a second or three, he started retrieving. Then he pulled the lure. Didn't rip it, snap it, jerk it, or stop reeling. Just pulled, then kept reeling steady but quick as he pushed the rod tip back toward the lure. He retrieved it 5 or 6 more feet and pulled it again.
The lure was speeding up, slowing down, and arcing. So were the sound waves as the rattle droned out a steady beat, then intensified, then hummed, then started all over again. So is it the pulsing vibration? The alternating speeds? The less-than-rhythmic cadence of the rattles? The changing flash? The visuals? The sound? All the above? Who cares? It's a standard, go-to retrieve. Speed and contact can be adjusted as needed. Many of us create standard retrieves for every hardbait we own, and those are probably amalgams of things learned from guides, pros, and experience.
Back then, the Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap ruled in the minds of many pros I worked with. It was weighted perfectly for a horizontal retrieve of the kind just described. Recently, a new wave of rattlebaits has been designed to sink faster. Call it the Rattlebait Revolution North. It began when ice-fishing walleye fanatics discovered the LiveTarget Golden Shiner. Lipless cranks enjoyed sudden popularity among ice heads these past few years, and fast-dropping versions like the new Salmo Zipper (unapologetically designed with ice in mind) often apply equally well to open-water smallmouth scenarios.
"I don't know if ice fishing inspired all of them, but new fast-sinking rattlebaits opened the door for new retrieves and tactics," says pro Joe Balog. "The new Rapala Rippin' Rap is like that. I wonder if they designed it in part to be an ice-fishing lure? I think they wanted a dense, fast-sinking lure that could be fished vertically, vibrating on the drop. But it's a great open-water lure. It works dramatically better during spring on Erie's western basin than almost anything else. In 42°F water, a Rippin' Rap can blow a hair jig out of the water."
The Changing Face of Spring
Balog mentions the hair jig because so much attention has been given, in recent years, to sparse, black, bucktail jigs for cold-water smallmouths — a hard program to beat with a hardbait in very clear water less than 6 feet deep. But he says his retrieves work from shallow water down to 20 feet on Lake St. Clair and Erie. "Casting while drifting, I let it go to bottom, rip it up, let it fall back to bottom, and hop the bait. They blast it."
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has been writing about a rip-jigging technique with fast-dropping lipless cranks like the Rippin' Rap — snapping them up the moment they touch bottom. "Stange says he doesn't want it to sit on bottom at all," Balog says. "It's like fishing a spoon or bladebait, but extra aggressively. Great technique, and that shimmy on the fall that's designed into the Rippin' Rap becomes critical."
Balog thought lipless cranks advertised to "shimmy on the fall" were hoaxes at first. "That's how Strike King introduced the Red Eye Shad," he says. "I thought it was bull. Wobble on the fall. Right. Well, it does. I wasn't a believer of the Red Eye Shad until I started using it in spring. And until the Rippin' Rap came along and I discovered ripping baits off bottom, I never zeroed in on the importance of the wobble on the drop.
"Lipless baits work better at the beginning of the year than any other hardbait or spinnerbait, with the possible exception of a suspending jerkbait," Balog says. "At 42°F to 48°F, the options on my deck always include a lipless bait, a spoon, and a jerkbait. We've had days where we couldn't catch them on anything but a rattlebait in 39°F water, but never with a simple cast-and-retrieve. I tend to pull the bait a lot. Not yo-yoing, but pulling it by starting a slow retrieve then pulling it forward, then letting it fall to the bottom. Everybody does it a little differently, but you're pulling it, not ripping it. Some days they want an aggressive pull, but it's not a snapping motion.
"When bass suspend, I cast straight off the bow and let the lure fall and swing back. Then I sweep it like walleye fishermen do with weight-forward spinners," he adds. "You want to move at a moderate pace so a driftsock can help. I let the bait fall to the bottom and let the line swing until it's at a 45-degree angle. Then I reel up, check to see if there's a fish on, then rip it 6 feet off bottom, moving a lot of line. I then reel slack and rip it off bottom again."
Balog favors a Clackin' Rap in spring when smallmouths show a preference for slower speeds. "I work them like craws," he says. "Do they sound more like crawfish at that time of year? Don't know, but that's what I'm trying to imitate in color and action. It doesn't seem sensible to use a rattlebait to imitate a craw, but I have better results some days when flicking the bottom with a slow retrieve, using crawfish colors. When smallmouths respond to a slow roll with periodic pulls — just tapping, almost dragging bottom — I think the Clackin' Rap is the most effective lure out there."
By now we've worn the theory out, but it's true that different models of the same lure style often produce different results under different conditions. "Say one guy uses a Rat-L-Trap and another a Red Eye Shad," Balog proposes. "One day the Trap kills them and the next day it's the Shad. Color has a little to do with it, maybe, but it's primarily different sound and vibration patterns appealing to the same fish differently at different times. Why certain baits get bit better some days remains a mystery."
The aggressive nature of the retrieve and the weight involved suggest fairly specific tackle for Balog, who presents lipless cranks on 12-pound Sufix Fluorocarbon with a moderate-power, moderate-action, 7-foot Daiwa Zillion casting outfit. "I use 15- or 10-pound-test, depending on the weight of the lure and the aggressiveness of the retrieve," he says. "I settled on a graphite rod that reacts like glass, but doesn't bend parabolically. It may have to do with the way smallmouths slash at baits that makes that blank more efficient at setting hooks.
"I use 1/2-ounce baits almost exclusively in spring. In shallow water with grass, I use a 1/4-ouncer, but that's only about 10 percent of the time. A 1/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap is a good bait for shallow water." I think their attraction is vibration or a combination of vibration and sound. When smallmouths are feeding, they can get conditioned to particular vibrations, retrieve styles, and sounds. Smallmouths follow these baits frequently. Sometimes the best technique is to let it sit on bottom and they slurp it, especially in fall and in clear water."
A Case for Resting
Paul Delaney, Late Eyes Sport Fishing Guide Service (lateeyessportfishing.com), uses a similar retrieve in spring. But he prefers braided line. "I started using the Rippin' Rap this year," he says. "Great introduction. It opens up new styles of fishing for smallmouths. In spring, I let it make contact with bottom, then immediately rip it up. The quickness of that bait jumping off bottom is more dynamic with no-stretch line."
Delaney attaches rattlebaits to Berkley Cross-Lok Snaps tied to 24 inches of 15-pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon leader material. A small barrel swivel separates the leader and 20-pound Sufix 832. He fishes them on a 7-foot, medium-power, fast-action St. Croix Premier spinning rod.
He typically works the bait horizontally. "Without slowing it down, I try to run it horizontally, alternating between pumping it and swimming it. I hold the rod parallel to the water, trying to keep the lure 2 or 3 feet off bottom," he says. "The bait picks up speed then slows, but doesn't drop. From late spring through summer, that worked really well last year with a 1/2-ounce Rippin' Rap."
Like Balog, I've found that bass may pick a motionless bait off the bottom. After experiencing it several times with a LiveTarget Golden Shiner, I tried it with the soft-bodied Jackall Mask VIB. Following smallmouths would wait a few seconds and pluck it off bottom.
I asked Delaney about it. "I let it sit on bottom, then roll it slightly forward and they pin it to the floor of Green Bay," he says. "It works in spring, but even better in fall, when smallmouths tend to feed on bottom more. Pause after it hits bottom, then give it one aggressive 2-foot rip. Most bites come when you go to lift it again. But sometimes you feel a 'thunk' when it's sitting on bottom." Balog notes the same thing. "We used them into mid-November and bass pounded them on bottom in 45°F water," he says. "But it's less productive in spring."
David Swendseid, bass pro and product specialist from Oregon, notes that rattlebaits seem less attractive to smallies in late summer, an observation shared with Balog and Delaney. "But they work during low-light periods," Swendseid says, "early morning, especially. Once the sun is up, catching them on rattlebaits gets difficult. I experimented for several days, using the sound of rattlebaits under clear water and high sun in late-summer conditions and found bass would chase the bait, visually study it, and track it for a distance. When they were extremely aggressive, I'd catch one out of 15 to 20 fish that followed.
"I learned I could increase my catch ratio 3 to 4 times by making a long cast, drawing fish to the boat, then dropping the bait to the bottom. I'd wait a second or two, then lightly but quickly rip it up a foot or so. Then I'd hold the bait at the top of the rip. No retrieve and no vibration — just the shadlike profile. Bass would smack it more often presented that way than when it was moving. It's a controlled, rip-and-suspend technique." Swendseid uses 10-pound Seaguar Tatsu on a Jackall Poison Heritage, 6-foot 8-inch medium-power rod.
Delaney's spring recipe calls for rare bottom contact. "Rattlebaits start working in the low-40°F range," he says. "In cold water, I make a long cast, make bottom contact, and start retrieving. I visualize how far off bottom it is because keeping it 2 or 3 feet up works best for me. I speed it a bit by pulling the rod forward, then let it slow as I pick up line without letting it fall it to the bottom. I don't want the lure to do any one thing for too long except stay off bottom. I hold the rod parallel to the water and try to keep the line rather tight, so it swims downward with an aggressive wobble after a pump, but not vertically. Smallmouths hit when the bait slows from peak speed. If it touches bottom, I rip it aggressively, turning the handle a couple times to get it back up."
Lipless cranks have changed the smallmouth game by adding retrieve variables. And for such a curious species, it doesn't hurt that smallies can hear them from the other side of the weedline.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is an exceptional multispecies angler and writer who has been working with the In-Fisherman staff for over two decades.