October 13, 2020
By Matt Straw
The transformative nature of light tackle aimed at big bass has been compared somewhere to the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a gothic novella by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, first published in 1886. The comparison sounded like this passage from In-Fisherman back in the June 2012 issue:
“Mr. Hyde is the dark side of a new trend in light tackle. He’s the antithesis of Dr. Jekyll’s smooth-casting, mild-mannered ultralight rods. Jekyll is the light, trim, erudite stick that feels like it will float away. But, match those rods with braid and Hyde pops up. Even very thin braid. Matched with low-stretch, very light (3- to 6-pound) superlines, Hyde shows up to set surprisingly large hooks from amazing distances and consistently wrangle big bass to the boat. They may feel like panfish rods, but Hyde doesn’t truck with pussy cats.”
That article discussed the tactical and aesthetic advantages of using long, light-power spinning sticks to deliver plastics on light jigs, which Dr. Jekyll can launch out of sight. But what about hardbaits? We all know tiny hardbaits exist that simply can’t be delivered or presented properly on normal tackle. Try throwing a 15⁄8-inch #4 Salmo Hornet anywhere with standard tackle. Even with 6-pound mono or fluorocarbon, it’s not going far.
Worse, with standard or even moderately light tackle, the action of a small lure can’t be felt—at least not as well. Adding insult to injury, it won’t dive very deep. If a real giant engulfs it, the smaller, weaker hooks on little baits can be straightened more easily. Small lures are apt to be overpowered by heavier tackle—more likely to run off kilter with deadened action. Tension on the line is so light it wraps loosely on the spool, eventually causing world-class mats of entanglement.
And what’s the point? Will big bass even eat those little things? Most bass fishermen never find out. Short casts, no feel, loops in the line, lame action, straightened hooks—it’s no fun using tiny lures. Not until Mr. Hyde gets a good grip on you, that is.
Why Go Tiny?
August brings the infamous “dog days” of bass fishing. Bass have been worked over hard for months. Hot water can make them lethargic. Weedgrowth is beyond peak, but thick enough for pressured bass to bury themselves beyond all reach of a tiny lure.
To go all “Minnesota Finesse,” hardball style, on bass means choosing battlefields with common sense. Nothing beats a “bubba rig” (heavy drop-shot) or Tokyo rig on heavy braid for plummeting through weeds to reach bass in a dense veggie bunker. So, while a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach can be almost universally applied in spring, it becomes a game for smallmouths and any bass living in environments of rock, sand, gravel, or marl with thin to nonexistent weeds. Or reserved for periods when bass are highly active, or when they suspend. During stable weather and low-light periods, bass rise up and out of the weeds and can be approached with lighter tackle. Some suspend, depending on the habits of available forage species. But the right battlefields extend from the surface down to 10, maybe 12 feet.
Don’t underestimate Hyde, though. His game is all about thin superline, which shreds vegetation well and boats big fish that try to bury in cover. If, that is, the right stick is employed. But the point is, bass in this August-September time period aren’t always looking for a steak. Pressured, stressed, and lazy bass often prefer a peanut.
In spring and through most of the summer, cold fronts put bass off. But, starting this time of year, cold fronts begin to do the opposite. As days get shorter, sudden barometric changes become a signal to feed. That’s when bigger cranks, spinnerbaits, and topwaters score big. The problem is, climate change is extending summer and diminishing normal autumn patterns. Water temperatures begin to decrease along with the hours of daylight, but in the past decade we have experienced a lot more “reversals”—when water temperatures actually rise for several days, even weeks, during unusual and unseasonable warm spells in September and October.
Reversals make bass lazy. They wait for a kick in the tail fin from Mother Nature—a good old-fashioned cold front to spark a feeding frenzy. During reversals, bass won’t hit much of anything at all. Except peanuts.
Another reason to go tiny is, of course, the barely describable fun of it. It’s mesmerizingly intense to play prodigious, belly-bound, trophy bass on long, light rods and wispy-thin lines. Even more awesome to actually land them, which is generally the case, given the right choice of battlefields.
Gregg Thorne was co-founder of Thorne Brothers with his brother Paul. Now they own and operate Elliott Rods. In their lineup is a perfect Jekyll and Hyde example—the ES 79L-F, rated for 4- to 8-pound line and 1/16- to 1/4-ounce lures. “Light-power rods need recovery speed,” Thorne says. “The lure is so light it doesn’t have enough mass to load up the rod very well. Small cranks don’t have enough weight to carry their mass. You need a rod that practically loads by itself. When you bring it back it loads and the recovery speed is important because you want it to straighten fast to put more speed behind the lure on the cast. If you deliver the bait with maximum speed you’re going to get maximum distance. But you need some strength in the butt of the rod, so you need plenty of room out front to provide shock absorption for the line and you need sustained pressure with lots of give. Then you need lifting power in that butt. That’s why you need a long stick.”
Fast blanks have recovery speed—meaning they quickly stop waving around on the follow through, letting line maintain a speedy exit through the guides. “And the line today is so good,” Thorne says. “Today, 4-pound is so much higher quality than it was years ago. Anglers fear 4-pound, and they have mistaken ideas about what it can and can’t do. Once a guy gets into a good bass with this kind of tackle, he’s hooked on it. It’s a fun way to catch bass. I took you bass fishing a couple times and you got me hooked on this. Now I have a light-power rod on deck every day.”
Finally, we go tiny because we can. Like never before. Builders are making the rods that make it possible. Other great long-cast, light-line tools include the 8-foot St. Croix Avid AVS80MLM2 (rated for 4- to 8-pound mono), the new 7-foot 4-inch Daiwa Rebellion 742ML+FS (4- to 8-pound), and the 7-foot 6-inch G. Loomis Trout Series TSR901S (2- to 6-pound).
Suffix NanoBraid starts at 2-pound test. The 4-pound is extraordinarily slick and brazenly thin. Berkley NanoFil has a 4-pound version that is equally wispy and slips through the guides like ice on ice. These are the longest-casting light lines available.
It’s hard to beat 4-pound Berkley FireLine, too. The coating protects knots when adding a fluorocarbon leader. So do several other lines, but very few include a 4-pound-test version in the lineup. A fair number of 6-pound braids exist, but those cut casting distance with light lures by 10 percent or more. I like Seaguar Smackdown Gray and PowerPro Super 8 Slick, but the lightest versions are 10-pound test. Those are go-to lines with larger cranks and suspending baits for bass. But 4-pound FireLine, while being thinner than 2-pound mono, probably has the knot and break strength of at least 8-pound mono. FireLine lasts for many years before fraying out—longer if taken care of.
The late, great T. J. Stallings of TTI-Blakemore pitched many a tiny Road Runner. He loved fishing with light tackle and years ago provided us with a great tip for getting more longevity and better casting distance with light little lures. “Braid is only as good as the finish on the line,” Stallings said. “We condition our lines with Blakemore Real Magic the night before a trip. This increases casting distance by 20 percent, and we were already casting things out of sight. When you can hear the braid squealing on the guides, it’s time to recondition the line.”
Top tournament pro and lure designer Gary Yamamoto says he uses braided lines with fluorocarbon leaders on spinning gear for every bass-fishing technique in his considerable bag of tricks. “Even light braids are impossible to break,” Yamamoto says. “The lack of stretch delivers more power on light tackle than heavy mono does on casting gear. Away from heavy cover, big largemouths are no problem, even with lighter braided lines.”
Reels today have the tight tolerances necessary to keep lines thinner than spider web from sinking into roller guides and other parts. John Mazurkiewicz, rep for Shimano with Catalyst Marketing, says new reels would appear at ICAST 2020 that, at press time for this issue, he couldn’t tell me about. “But they’ll be perfect for your light-line techniques,” he says.
Shimano already has the Stradic C14+ FB, which excels with 4-pound braid. The Abu Garcia Revo STX and the Daiwa Excelor LT EXLT1000D are other reels that have performed well for us with light line and little cranks.
When big bass spit up minnows 2 inches long or less in August, it’s not an anomaly. Several things might be happening. A fresh crop of shiners, fatheads, gobies, panfish, or something else born midsummer could be blooming into the most abundant source of food. Or bass are being lazy and losing interest in a bigger, faster take-out menu. Or this year’s perch have grown out of the preferred range, their spiny dorsals suddenly serving as an effective deterrent.
At the very least, ultimate finesse with tiny lures should be worth a try. Most bass enthusiasts—especially smallmouth anglers—already know that plastics in the 21/2-inch range can entice giants sometimes, and can be pitched on standard drop-shot gear with heavier line. But that “fear of 4-pound” Thorne mentioned dissuades anglers from trying to throw things like the Norman Deep Tiny N or the #4 Rapala Glass Shad Rap. Both are 11/2 inches long and light as fly specks. Yet both can get down 5 to 6 feet on a long cast and trolled to 12 feet deep when using 4-pound braid, which cuts through water more efficiently than mono.
“With the right equipment and the right line, some ultralight lures get down there,” Thorne says. “When there’s an abundance of small forage in the water, little cranks can be highly effective.”
But, even with light tackle, little baits can be highly ineffective if overpowered. Light lures can’t be manipulated with the same amount of force as average-sized to large baits. Give yourself a boat-side demonstration with each one before putting it in play. A #6 Rapala X-Rap, for instance, might spin or turn upside down when worked with the kind of heavy snaps that make a #8 X-Rap “walk” just right. Tiny Glass Shad Raps and Salmo Hornets can handle more speed and force, but make sure of a lure’s limits before wasting time and effort at the end of a long cast.
One tiny crank that gets plenty deep is the new Rapala Ultra Light. For such a small bait—11/2 inches long—it delivers big wobble and roll. It dives to 8 feet on the cast and levels out with attitude. It has a buoyant body that backs quickly out of cover when paused. The Ultra Light is small in size, but weighted to cast like baits twice as big. That’s one key to this style of fishing—finding lures that cast and fish bigger than they are.
The 2-inch RPRO5 Rapala Rippin’ Rap is one of those lures. It has a hard-vibrating action that suggests something bigger than it is, and it casts like a bullet. Minnesota guide Tony Roach likes to rest this bait on bottom, rip it up, and let it drop when big smallmouths are keying on smaller forage.
But the reason for fishing light, quite often, is pressure. Small, subtle baits come into play like the 2-inch Berkley Flicker Shad (model FF5H5M). Get the wind behind you to get real distance, but it can reach out beyond the spook zone around the boat with a full spool treated with Real Magic. The Glass Shad Rap is another subtle bait, and it’s made for long casts.
When bass are busting small minnows on top and leaving stunned 2-inch minnows floating around, try a Heddon Teeny Torpedo. At only 11/2 inches long, it’s a heavyweight among lightweights for bringing big bass on top. Reel it steadily or move it with short, subtle pulls—just enough to create a bubble trail with the small propeller on the tail. But light tackle can handle the next largest Torpedo, and standard poppers, too.
Small crawdad imitators like the 2-inch Rebel Crawfish have been smallmouth mainstays for years. Not to be confused with the Teeny Wee Crawfish, which is just over an inch long and a true ultralight lure.
Note that recommended baits aren’t ultralight but light. I’m not ready to miniaturize down to baits Ant Man could cast with his 2-inch stick, especially when targeting 5- to 6-pound smallmouths. Probably won’t ever be. The rods suggested are rated light in power, not ultralight. They can set fairly large, thin-wire hooks at a distance, protect light line, and whip big bass to the boat. And they can handle slightly larger baits than most that are highlight here—baits like the Lucky Craft Pointer 78, a host of smaller, shallow-diving cranks, and whatever you choose that doesn’t overload the rod or make setting hooks problematic.
Bass often inhale little cranks aggressively, prompting gratitude for that blend of properties a longer rod allows for. A vicious take that snaps the upper section of the rod down is a catalyst that instantly transforms Jekyll into Hyde. And, being one himself, he can handle monsters.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw has been writing on bass topics for In-Fisherman for almost three decades.