Make no mistake. I'm a life-long smallmouth addict! I've had opportunities to sample some of the best fisheries across the U.S. Yet the thrill of chasing these special fish isn't diminished when I can't cast a line on world-class water. If I must work a little harder to catch fish, it makes the reward that much sweeter.
Fortunately, the lures I use today for summer smallies on northern lakes are more effective than what we had 25 or 30 years ago. Incorporating presentation innovations into my repertoire has made summer fishing more enjoyable.
When smallies answer the dinner bell, they often move shallower on points, closer to deep weedlines, onto shoals, or near the crest of mid-lake humps to feed on crayfish or bottom-hugging preyfish. A shaky-head worm hugs bottom, works through cover or in open areas, and imitates a variety of small prey. Little wonder it works so well.
It's almost impossible to screw up a shaky-worm presentation. Thread a 4- to 6-inch worm onto a light jighead, cast it out, let it settle on the right type of bottom, and then do about anything you want with it. Drag it, hop it, shake it in place, or deadstick it. Usually the best move is to combine techniques in one retrieve. That's the way my wife does it.
"Darl says a shaky head is perfect for me because I'm a nervous bundle of energy and need to be constantly dancing a jig. Like Taylor Swift says, 'Shake, Shake, Shake'," muses Marilyn Black.
"My usual shaky worm is the Lunker City Ribster," she says. "Compared to thinner worms, the thicker, ribbed body of the Ribster offers more water displacement, one key in drawing attention from bass. But I don't limit my choice to one worm. I experiment with different lures when action slows, including Senko-style baits. And I often choose a worm with a chartreuse or orange tail.
"The Jewel Squirrel Shakey Head is my favorite head. Its football shape with a horizontal line-tie close to the head reduces snags, and its fine-wire hook provides good penetration with light line. My shaky spinning outfit is rigged with 6-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon. I generally rig the worm with the hook point exposed. But when we fish around vegetation, the worm can be rigged texposed on this head, too."
With shaky worms, Marilyn and I target gravel or scattered rocks on points, flats, or just beyond deep vegetation, as on well hard-bottom outcrops on mid-lake humps—places you expect smallies to forage on bottom-dwelling prey. On a relatively calm day, a 3/16-ounce head gets the job done—just enough weight to stay on bottom and provide a good sense of feel to depths of roughly 20 feet. Switching to 1/4-ounce may be necessary under breezy conditions or to probe deeper.
One of the most exciting smallmouth lures in recent years has been the hinged-head jig with a free-swinging hook. This concept was introduced by Gene Larew lures as the HardHead, designed by lure maker George Toalson.
"I came up with the idea while trying to figure out how to get more lively action out of a shaky-head," explains Toalson. "I thought about how a football head rolls or kicks left or right every time it ticks something on the bottom, and got to thinking how much more action would be imparted to a lure if the hook had swiveling action. With a little tinkering, the Hardhead was born. You can fish a HardHead in the same areas you'd target with a shaky worm."
Toalson designed the hinged head for use with a worm, but when pro angler Tommy Biffle put a Gene Larew Biffle Bug on the Hardhead, the combo became an instant hit. Anglers initially viewed it as a largemouth lure, but after Toalson took the HardHead north to Mille Lacs Lake, he realized it was a great a smallmouth lure, too.
"With a fixed hook molded in a jighead, the head restricts lure action. But the swing-hook design allows maximum action," he says. "Every time the head bumps something, the soft body flops and bounces in every direction." But he points out that you don't fish the HardHead like a conventional jig, but rather more like a crankbait. "Keep the lure moving steadily but always maintaining bottom contact so the head is continually bumping obstacles. If you're hanging up with the HardHead, you're reeling too slowly. Don't fish it with a stop-and-go cadence."
Toalson recommends using the 7/16-ounce head on flats where depth ranges from 6 to 10 feet, and the 11/16-ounce model for depths down to 20 or 25 feet, adjusting weight if the weather throws more wind your way. If smallmouths are located near the bank or around docks, a lighter head may be appropriate.
Even though the standard HardHead with swiveling hook generates noise as it's dragged, Toalson suggests inserting a rattle into the bug or using the Rattlin' Crawler, which includes a rattle, when the water is dingy or during low-light periods. Forsaking his heavy-line roots, he fishes it on 12-pound Gamma fluorocarbon in clear smallmouth waters.
"Thinner line allows me to fish the lure faster and deeper."
As commonly happens after a few years of success, there are now several similar jigheads on the market. Bronzeback fishing buddy Bryan Stuyvesant makes his own hinge-head jigs in his basement shop, incorporating a slightly smaller hook that he prefers for smallies.Drop-shot Rigs
When smallmouths aren't feeding in areas where a shaky-head or hinge-head jig produces, they may be suspended just off the bottom in slightly deeper water. These active and neutral-mood bass are usually susceptible to a drop-shot rig, with a small worm a foot or more above the weight so it flutters and drops unrestricted.
Stuyvesant learned about drop-shotting in the early days while living in California, then imported the technique to Pennsylvania where he shared it with me. The latest upgrades in sonar have made drop-shot fishing for smallies more precise than we ever imagined when it first surfaced some 15 years ago.
"Whenever smallmouths get finicky about feeding and nothing seems to be working, yet we see fish marks on sonar holding a bit above bottom, it's time to drop-shot," says Stuyvesant. "While 10 to 30 feet is the typical depth range that I drop-shot on natural lakes, I've caught smallmouths as deep as 50 feet on Lake Erie."
His drop-shot rod is spooled with 10-pound Seaguar Smackdown braid to which he attaches a 6-foot length of 8-pound fluorocarbon with back-to-back uni-knots. Next, he ties a #1 Gamakatsu drop-shot hook to the fluorocarbon about 2 feet from the end. A clip-on drop-shot weight is attached to the tag roughly 18 inches below the hook.
Having developed uncanny skills with sonar, Stuyvesant is a firm believer in never deploying a drop-shot rig until he sees suspected smallmouths. On tough-bite days, he spends considerable time slowly surveying structure to locate fish marks just above the bottom. When he spots fish, he drops a Roboworm at least 98 percent of the time.
"I run traditional sonar and down-scan sonar side-by-side on my screen," he says. "Down-scan is better at showing structure details, but traditional sonar is better at identifying suspended gamefish. Trying to identify fish by species isn't an exact science, but after a while you begin to get confidence in identifying the marks you see. You need to spend a lot time with sonar, and it helps to get assistance from someone who's even more experienced. If you see only one suspected bass on a spot, you rarely get an immediate bite. But if I see two or more fish on screen, I can almost guarantee I'll have a bite on the first drop."
I'm not as dedicated as Stuyvesant to dropping only when I see fish. When on a good piece of deep structure that should hold smallies, I'm comfortable casting a drop-shot rig and dragging it back to the boat like a Carolina rig. This approach works often enough to keep me doing it.Underspins
Open-water roaming bass schools are tough to intercept. Yes, they're usually relating in some manner to a point or mid-lake hump in their pursuit of baitfish, but you're never sure where they are unless you spot them on sonar while cruising or see them blow up on the surface.
In the old days, I kept a spinnerbait at the ready for unexpected bait-busting schooling action. Today a bass-size underspin jighead has replaced the spinnerbait. Popular ones are the Road Runner Casey's Classic Runner, Buckeye Su-Spin Blade, and Sworming Hornet Fish Head Underspin.
Dressed with a 4-inch fluke-style softbait or swimbait, this rig offers a far more realistic baitfish profile than a spinnerbait. The single willowleaf blade offers enough flash to sell the package without overdoing it. You can cast an underspin jig much farther, too. These features are important when fishing clear water.
I have one of these lures rigged on deck, awaiting the right situation. When I see busting smallies within casting distance, I fire this lure past them and bring it through the area, dropping it deeper if the school has sounded. It's also great for counting down and swimming at mid-depth to probe an unidentifiable school of suspended fish. Within the shallow environment of typical northern lakes, I use a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce underspin on the edges and over the top of submerged vegetation and boulders as well.Wacky Jigheads
When an underspin doesn't draw a strike from suspended bass, my go-to bait is a 4-inch stickworm wacky-rigged on a jighead. The idea of using a weighted wacky-rigged worm to drift through suspended open-water bass goes by several names. I like to keep things simple so I refer to it as a wacky worm on a jighead.
Choose a wacky jighead with a short-shank wide-gap hook, available from Jackall, Gamakatsu, Owner, VMC, and others. Or in a pinch use a standard ballhead jig. The weights of specialty heads range from 1/32- to 1/4-ounce. I prefer a 3/16-ounce head most of the time as it provides about the right drop speed for the lure I typically use, which is a 4-inch Yum Dinger. If there's a wire guard on the head, I trim it off for open-water fishing.
Flip it out toward suspended fish visible on sonar, strip off line, and begin lightly shaking your rod tip, feeding additional line if needed. Should the wacky worm reach bottom without being intercepted, I give the rod a full sweep upward and let it drop back 5 feet once more, in case a bass has followed the worm down on the initial drop but needed an extra incentive to bite.
Patience is required to drop a lightweight worm through 20 or more feet of water. This technique isn't for everyone, including Marilyn. But if nothing else is working on those calm, sunny summer days, this presentation just might hook you up with brawling smallmouths.
*Darl Black, Cochranton, Pennsylvania, is a veteran freelance writer and photographer who frequently contributes to In-Fisherman publications. He and wife Marilyn operate Blackwolfe Communications, LLC.