Worms For Smallmouth
July 23, 2015
Most would select tubes and do just fine. A 4-inch grub might be a better choice in many places. Tubes catch fish shallow and deep, but rarely excel for suspended fish. Grubs can catch smallmouths in all the places where tubes produce, and more. How about soft-plastic sticks? An excellent choice for the entire water column, but not for the entire year. Spider grubs? Effective, if only in a limited few situations, primarily right on bottom or along the face of bluff banks.
Plastic worms? Not as old as TOM, but a venerable choice. So I must be getting old, having watched the ersatz crawler develop from its infancy. I purchased the earliest Mister Twisters and pre-rigged K&E Plow Jockies and, like everyone around me, stood dumbstruck when they caught fish. Not just a few fish. Lots. Not just little fish, but state-fair-champion mud bathers.
But those were largemouth bass. Smallmouths seemed far less interested in purple worms. A plastic worm had to be purple back then, you see, or it wouldn't catch anything. Black grape was ok. But a red worm? Get serious. While, as certain as the sun rises in the east, some codger will regale me with letters about how he positively smoked smallmouth bass with plastic worms back in the 1960s; it simply wasn't fashionable then. Isn't fashionable now.
I know at least 20 tournament smallmouth anglers who hope it stays that way. Unfortunately for them, it's my answer to ol' TOM.
Smallmouth worms are different. I'm not the world's most prolific or well-travelled largemouth fisherman, but tell me if I'm wrong: Finesse worms catch small bass. I know, I know--many western-circuit bass tournaments are won with finesse worms on drop-shot rigs or presented on jigs in super-clear water. But how many real pigs are caught on tiny little 4-inch worms? Around here, it's rare. To target truly huge largemouths in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (where "truly huge" means something over 6 pounds), we throw jig-n-pigs, crankbaits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, slop frogs--almost anything but a worm. Worms are for numbers when it comes to largemouths.
By contrast, the biggest smallmouths in any system will eat a properly presented worm. Last year, Jimmy and Billy Lindner won the Canadian Bass Fishing Championship with small plastic worms. My partner, Tim Dawidiuk, and I weighed the heaviest one-day stringer in the history of the Sturgeon Bay Open with the help of finesse worms.
In the past 24 months, I've been in the boat with some of the nation's best tournament smallmouth anglers, and many of them said the plastic worm has become their confidence bait, and proved it by pulling one out every time the bite got tough. Two smallmouths that measured 23 inches came wallowing into my net last summer with plastic worms pinned tightly against their snouts.
Worms are versatile and can be presented on drop-shot rigs, Carolina rigs, Texas rigs, and all manner of jigs and hooks. Consequently, smallmouths take worms on shallow structure, deep structure, and suspended in between. Smallmouths eat worms in rivers, in lakes, in reservoirs, and in the Great Lakes.
But any ol' worm won't do. The best smallmouth worms are small--in the 4- to 6-inch range--and we usually cut the 6-inch worms back an inch. Color, texture, thickness, and action are equally critical and have to be carefully matched to every situation. But, rigged right,with the proper care given to all the variables involved, a worm is dangerously right for bronzebacks. Most of the time, nothing works better.
"In clear, cold water, sickletail worms are the best plastic option I've seen," Dawidiuk said after the Sturgeon Bay affair last year, where he also guides for smallmouth bass. "You proved it to me. I've been working with it since, and rigging is critical. But, with the right rod, reel, and line, my clients can cast these things for miles and catch smallmouths they wouldn't otherwise catch with a tube or a grub."
The idea of swimming a plastic bait is old, but even old dogs get new ticks. A worm is, perhaps, at its best for smallmouths when brought back on a straight retrieve--no lift-drop of the rod tip, no speeding up, no slowing down, no drop, and no rise, just a straight, horizontal retrieve.
The trigger is in the action of the tail and the mesmerizing slow-and-steady progress of the bait through the water. Often as not, especially during spring and summer, smallmouths seem to gauge their chances of actually capturing prey by approaching it slowly and watching for a reaction. If they get really close and their target doesn't spook, chances are they'll bite--that's if the bait looks, smells, and performs just right.
The right size, color, and action is critical with smallmouths. Smallmouth bass, as I mentioned, seem not to be worm-oriented in most environments when traditional tactics are employed. But the uncanny thing about worms is how well they imitate minnows. In minnow-imitating colors like smoke, smoke with metal flake, smoke with black flake, green smoke, white, salt-and-pepper, clear-blue, natural shad, amber with black flake, or any of a wide number of related shades, a swimming worm becomes a perfect minnow imitation.
The effectiveness of the worm at imitating minnows can be compared with certain streamers in your fly-fishing arsenal. A classic woolly bugger, for example, looks nothing like a minnow lying there in the fly box, with it's chenille body and bushy marabou tail. Put it in the water, however, and nothing looks more like a minnow in the hands of an expert. The tail tapers down and comes alive, undulating this way and that with every puff of side current, every strip of line. By the same token, a worm looks nothing like a minnow in your hand. Put it in the water. On the right jig, in the right hands--presto. Magic minnow look-alike.
When rigged on jigs, actiontail worms in that magic 4- to 5 1/2-inch range look most like a minnow smallmouths want to eat. Most actiontails have a small sickletail or a fairly long rippletail. Either can be effective, depending on the time and place. Sickletails put out a constant but subtle pulse on a steady retrieve. It's a hum rather than a buzz, compared with a 4-inch grub or a long actiontail. Sickletails like the Persuader Curly Tail and the Berkley 4-inch Power Worm excel in clear water, in highly pressured venues, after cold fronts, and in cold water.
"Snake tails" or rippletail worms put out as much vibration as a grub, but probably sound and feel different to nearby smallmouths. The profile is certainly different--long and slender. The blur of the tail imitates the swimming action of a minnow. Rippletails tend to excel in stained or cloudy water, during activity peaks and during summer or whenever the water is warm.
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In spring, during prespawn, smallmouths love smaller sickletail worms presented on a 1/16-ounce jig with 6-pound monofilament. The best tool I've found for this is the Matzuo Heavy Metal Jig, with its realistic shape and holographic fish-head imagery. The one drawback is the premium Matzuo hook. It often stitches itself into the cheek of a smallmouth and becomes almost impossible to remove. But if a smallmouth touches this jig, she's coming into the boat. The water is cold and at its clearest point of the year in most smallmouth fisheries during early prespawn.
On a retrieve so slow that the worm is barely moving forward, a 1/16-ounce head almost perfectly counterbalances the resistance of the worm and the line, creating a presentation that practically hovers in the water column like a suspending jerkbait, especially with the Heavy Metal Jig, which is slightly fluted underneath. Water striking this head pushes it up slightly, allowing an ultraslow presentation. The worm moves forward so slowly, in fact, that the tail has to be designed perfectly to create action. The right sickletails look more natural and work more efficiently at a tedious pace.
Small worms are much harder to cast for distance than tubes and grubs. The perfect rod for zipping these light, small packages way out there is about 8 feet long, with a fast tip and medium power. A 7 1/2-foot rod is adequate, but a 7-footer is too short. The perfect reel is moderate in size. It takes a larger spool to do this right. Small spools create too many coils and therefore too much resistance to reach maximum casting distance. Great reels are the Daiwa SS II 1600 and the Shimano Symetre 4000, filled to the brim with a limp, tough, castable 6-pound line like Stren Magna Flex or Sufix DNA.
The most active smallmouths at this time of year tend to be cruising flats in relatively shallow water, from 2 to 6 feet deep. In calm water, get a boat within 80 feet of them on Lake Michigan and they become acutely aware of it. Their attitude changes. Make long casts with a breeze behind you. Reaching the 100-foot range helps score lots more fish on a calm day. In fact, the flatter the water, the more critical it becomes.
In windy weather with stained water up on some remote lake of the Canadian Shield, you could get away with stiff 10-pound line and a 6-foot rod. But if your buddy has an 8-foot rod and 6-pound line, prepare to get waxed to a high, luminous sheen no matter the weather and water conditions. Long casts and light jigs rule in shallow water.
Light jigs rule in open water, too. "Strolling" a 1/16-ounce jigworm is one of the most effective and consistent open-water techniques we know about. When smallmouths target open-water baitfish like shad, ciscoes, smelt, or alewives and wander off structure, holding around 10 to 20 feet down over 30 to 70 feet of water, using the trolling motor to pull or "stroll" a 1/16-ounce jigworm can win tournaments. (Just ask Jimmy and Billy Lindner.) During summer, a white worm rules in open water. The key is placing the worm back there 80 to 120 feet behind the boat, so it wafts around, slowly rising and falling in the sine wave created by a zig-zagging boat.
Sometimes a heavier 3/32- to 1/4-ounce jig is better for strolling, when bass are deeper. And when casting to shallow smallmouths during summer, a 1/16-ounce head is almost always too slow. Swimming a jigworm continues to be a prime tactic right through summer. Active shallow smallmouths often relate to rock fields, boulders, and piles of broken granite that eat up jigs.
Fishing right on bottom in these cover types can be frustrating, inefficient, and far less effective than simply retrieving a jigworm by reeling it in slowly with a steady, horizontal retrieve. The best jig for summer is a little heavier, and my favorites remain Gopher Tackle Mushroom Heads and Inhaler Legacy Locs from 3/32 to 1/4 ounce. Over a pure rock field, the Mushroom Head with the VMC Vanadium-series hook excels. The hook is light and thin, so it doesn't add much weight to the package while delivering sure hooksets with 6-pound line.
In woodcover, reeds, or cabbage, the super-sharp hooks on a Legacy Loc can be buried into the worm, which forces a change to heavier 10-pound line to ensure penetration. I use a heavier-action 7-foot medium-power rod with the Legacy Loc when I present worms in rivers. One fabulous river worm is the Yamamoto 2 Series or Stretch 40, which has a thicker profile and is so heavily laden with salt that it sinks almost too fast even without weight attached. The Stretch 40 can be fished down to 15 feet in current with a 1/8-ounce head, which is great because a lighter jig wedges into fewer snags in flowing water.
In reeds and weeds, I often find that a worm with a base color of watermelon or pumpkin works best, and a sickletail grabs fewer stalks than a rippletail. Rippletails, however, put a lot of smallmouths in the net during summer. Worms like the Zoom "C" Tail and the Zetabait Gillraker are great all summer for strolling, pitchin', and swimmin' or dragging.
SPILT SHOTTIN' AND DRAGGIN'
In-Fisherman Managing Editor Steve Hoffman would rather split-shot a worm than fish it with a jig when the water warms in summer, especially in water shallower than 8 feet. "My favorite is a 4-inch Berkley Power Worm with a sickletail," he says. "Most fishermen who split-shot for largemouths fish it to maintain bottom contact. For smallmouths, I feel it's more efficient to swim it. I cover open water with it. It's not a slow technique. Even with a fast reel, I'm crankin' it almost at a slow spinnerbait pace, holding the rod tip down in a ready position for hooksets.
"The split shot takes the bait down, like a jig. But unlike a jig, you have separation between the bait and the sinker, so the bait has a slight side-to-side action. You have to rig the worm perfectly on the hook. I use a straight-shank #1 Aberdeen worm hook, and I rig the worm Texas-style, which gives it more of a keel effect. You have to bring the hook point right out on the seam. I like the tail pointing down because I feel I get more action and it tends to roll over less. I use 6-pound line to make the longest possible casts to spook fewer fish in clear water. I like clear line, because smallies don't crash into these things. The bite has a real spongey feel, and I can see bites better with clear line.
"I typically use a 7-foot medium-power rod to make longer casts, and I use a 1/16-ounce Water Gremlin Bull Shot, because it comes through weeds better than a traditional round split shot. I place the shot anywhere from 8 inches to about 18 inches from the bait, depending on how far I want to cast. The closer to the bait you place the shot, the farther it casts." Hoffman is fishing in natural lakes around wood, docks, and weeds, which calls for Texas rigging. "Even in areas that are wide open, like bare gravel banks and swimming beaches where smallmouths just cruise through, this is a great subtle bait for covering water.
"The keys are (1) bringing the hook point out on the seam and (2) the keel effect of the hook sticking out of the bottom of the worm, which combine to balance the rig so it comes through the water without rolling over. You should be able to fish a split-shot rig fairly quickly without any twisting or spinning."
Senko-style worms in the 4- to 5-inch size range that now flood the market are, as should be expected, highly effective for smallmouths. "I rig Yamamoto Senkos on a Texas rig, unweighted, with a 1/0 Mustad Mega Lite hook," Hoffman says. "Just let it fall and drag-hop it along bottom. Just a slow lift. Actually, I'm trying to drag it, but it lifts off bottom and I let it fall back.
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"The fall is the key to a Senko. It's a dropbait for smallmouths. The tail vibrates on the drop, so I use this bait when smallies are pinned to the bottom. In water deeper than 8 feet, I put it on a 3/32- to 1/8-ounce Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head. Same thing. Try to drag it and let it drop. The Senko is as close to a magic bait as you can find.
"It's almost like fishing livebait, because it's both effective and fragile. But you can rig it backwards after a fish tears up the head, and it's just as effective. After a second fish rips the other end, I wacky rig Senkos to get one more fish out of the bait. A wacky-rigged worm or Senko is absolutely deadly around docks, with that gull-wing action flopping past, the fish can't resist it. If I've already hooked a big bass under a dock on something else, I'll throw a wacky-rigged Senko in there, deadstick it and, more often than not, hook them again."
Wacky rigging--slipping a baitholder-style hook right through the middle of a worm and letting the ends dangle to each side--is completely under utilized for smallmouths. It excels around docks, wood, and shallow boulders when retrieved with a slow twitch-twitch-pause cadence. A wacky worm dropped vertically and deadsticked around cover that holds smallmouths is another prime option. The best worms for wacky rigging are straight, no-action units with thick rounded tails, like the V & M Finesse Worm or the Assalt Salt Stik.
Falcon Custom Tackle makes a tactic-specific hook called the "K" Wacky that has weight added to the shank just below the eye. This simple addition to the hook makes wacky rigging much more efficient, keeping the presentation from rolling over, turning sideways, or snagging. The weight forces the hook to point up at all times. Falcon also makes a wireguard version.
The art of dragging a worm is simple. I prefer dragging a white, black, crawdad, or smoke blue-flake actiontail worm on a 1/8- to 3/8-ounce ballhead jig like the Owner Ultrahead or Yamamoto Round Head. Carolina rigging works, too--especially with a floating finesse worm, like the Venom Air-Light.
Just about any worm style can be dragged effectively, but I usually start with a rippletail style, like the YUM Ribbontail, which is a 6-inch worm. A 6-inch worm cut back to 5 inches is perfect for draggin' and one of the go-to styles for strolling, because its added bulk keeps it from falling fast on a light head. By late summer, lots of smallmouths in natural lakes and southern reservoirs are down 20 feet or more on humps, submerged islands, gravel flats, and other features.
Lots of anglers drag tubes for these deeper bass, but worms work better in many cases because bass aren't conditioned to them. Just drift in the wind with the line out at anything from a 60- to a 45-degree angle and keep the jig right on or just above bottom. Use a drift sock to slow the boat in a stiff wind, or use the trolling motor to aid the drift in a slight breeze, but keep the boat moving between 1.5 and 3 mph. Match the weight of the jig to the depth and speed, from 1/8 to 3/8 ounce, on 6- to 8-pound line.
In the Great Lakes, southern reservoirs, and northern natural lakes, some or all smallmouths drop deeper by midsummer, down to deep humps, shipwrecks, rockpiles on flats, and gravel bars in the 18- to 25-foot range. This move to deeper water accelerates through fall, as more and more bass leave shallow habitat. During August up in the north country, a number of smallmouth tournaments were won on drop-shot rigs last year.
Drop-shot rigging is relatively simple. A hook is attached 6 inches to 6 feet up the line, depending on where you're marking fish on sonar or how far off bottom you're getting bit. This is accomplished by tying a palomar knot, leaving a tag end long enough to place a worm the desired distance above bottom. The only tricky thing about this is getting the hook to point up on a tight line, which simply requires a little practice with the knot. (Start by threading the line up through the eye of the hook with the point facing up and it should work right, depending on the hook style being used.)
If the knot becomes too problematic, Gamakatsu and Bait Rigs Tackle now have pretied rigs available. The Bait Rigs version comes in a kit with Reeper-style plastic worms, sinkers, and instructions. The weight provided in the kit is a Bakudan sinker from Lunker City Tackle, which clips right on the end of the line.
The unique placement of the bait up the line provides activity in a plastic bait that can't be achieved any other way. A finesse bait like the YUM Shakin' Worm is a potent tool on a drop-shot rig. Leaving the weight on bottom and twitching slack into the line and simply drawing it taut again makes a worm look more alive than the real thing. Even better, it can hang motionless between attracting motions, hovering off bottom. No other technique can accomplish this in quite the same way.
One of the critical factors of drop-shotting is line angle. When drifting a flat or using the trolling motor to circle a hump, don't let the line trail out at more than a 45-degree angle. A 90-degree angle is, of course, straight up and down. Anything from 90 degrees to 45 degrees is most efficient. A 6 1/2- to 7-foot spinning rod is optimum
Drop-shot rigs probe every nook and cranny of those deep holding areas smallmouths use from late summer through fall. When smallies turn off completely after a cold front, a drop-shot-rigged worm planted right in their faces and left there to work for several long minutes can at times be the only way to catch any number. Some of my favorite drop-shot tools are worm variants with a minnow profile, like the Reeper Tail from Bait Rigs Tackle (Bait Rigs now offers a Drop-Shot Kit replete with prerigged hooks, leaders, weights, and Reepers). On a drop-shot rig, the Reeper rolls, twists, and undulates like a baitfish in severe pain or distress. Many other styles of plastic work well on drop-shot rigs, however, so we'll save the complete story on this potent option for another article in the near future.
However you rig it, the right worm is invaluable for smallmouths. At the very least, put a few 4-inch sickletails and 1/16-ounce heads in the box before heading out this spring. The results of that experiment will almost certainly have you hunting for more styles, shapes, and colors of these venerable baits before long. Who knows? Maybe the worm will become your answer to ol' TOM, too.