August 22, 2016
After decades gathering dust in the bottom of old tackle boxes, a curious little lure has become a bigtime player. It's like that knickknack you've held onto for sentimental reasons, only to suddenly discover it has the value of a FabergÃ© Egg.
Truth is, swimming lures like the Rapala Jigging Rap have been catching bass for quite a while. It's just that few knew about it and they typically tried to keep it quiet. Today, I wonder how many bass and other fish I could have caught with these lures in the past if only I'd tried them.
Fast-sinking swimming lures like the Jigging Rap and Northland Puppet Minnow are acknowledged as fine hard-water lures for walleyes and trout. But the big discovery relates to their efficacy for largemouths and smallmouths—both for casting and vertical jigging in water deeper than about 15 feet.
At last year's Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell, South Carolina, it surprised some that Jacob Wheeler boated numbers of bass with a Jigging Rap. "I didn't know it was going to fish as well as it did," Wheeler says. "But it worked, perhaps because it was something they'd not seen before. Let's be real, bass haven't seen an ice fishing lure in South Carolina."
"I've kept this tactic secret," says Bassmaster Elite Series angler, Brandon Palaniuk. Growing up fishing the deep clear lakes of the Northwest, the Idaho pro and other local anglers fish for bass in extremely deep water—40 to 70 feet—during the Coldwater Period.
"Ten years ago," Palaniuk recalls, "I was fishing a drop-shot rig in 72 feet of water. For some reason, the bass wouldn't touch it. I decided to try a Jigging Rap. First drop, I caught a 4½-pound smallmouth. That experience stuck with me.
"The Jigging Rap drops fast and triggers fish with its directional changes. In open water, when bass are in small areas on structure, or you mark them suspended on sonar, the Jigging Rap can be dynamite. You can fish fast, but with pinpoint accuracy. And bass like its darting and gliding motions, a bit like a vertical jerkbait. Fish often hit it on the pause, too."
The versatility of baits like the Rap and newer entrants like Lunkerhunt's Straight Up Jig extend well beyond winter. In many lakes, however, bass only set up in deep water or suspend once waters cool below 60°F. Exceptions occur in summer, when bass may inhabit deep humps, points, or ledges, or along deep vegetation in ultraclear waters.
"I don't hesitate to use it all year long," Palaniuk says. "I've used them in the mid-summer on drop-shot bites. I've seen situations where fish follow a drop-shot down, but lose interest once it hits bottom. With a heavy jigging bait I can be more creative with lure movement and make them chase by adding quick directional changes."
Rappin' Around Cover
Despite the well-armed nature of these baits—typically with nose and tail hooks, plus a belly treble—fast sinking swimmers can shine near cover, such as the top of brushpiles, openings in timber or above deep aquatic plants. "I can present a #7 Jigging Rap around a brushpile or just above it," Palaniuk says. "I like to pop it with short fast jerks, then let it settle. You can do the same thing in timber, dropping it into gaps between trees. As long as you have a 3-foot circle of cover-free water, you're set."
At the 2015 Classic, Wheeler dropped a glow-pattern #7 Jigging Rap (5/8-ounce) to the bottom on 10-pound-test fluorocarbon near edges of flooded timber in 35 to 40 feet of water. He gave it at least three vertical snaps before letting the bait fall back down and pause. "When you stop it, the tail keeps moving a bit. It's subtle, but that's often best in coldwater situations. At times bass wouldn't hit a drop-shot or jigging spoon, but they'd bite a Jigging Rap."
Although these lures snag readily in rocky areas, swimming baits often draw bites from deep smallmouth bass. The trick can be either working directly vertical, or making short pitches with lighter baits, such as the #3 (5/16-ounce) or #4 (9/16-ounce) Northland Tackle Puppet Minnow. Minnesota Guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl pitches Puppet Minnows for summer and fall smallmouths—or anytime they set up on 15-plus-foot rock humps.
Working the light swimmers on sensitive 7-foot St. Croix Legend Xtreme spinning rods and 10-pound braid, he keeps the lure working just above bottom, popping or sweeping it with straight upward pulls the second he feels it touch bottom. "With braid and that sensitive rod, you maintain good contact, even in deep water," he says.
In snaggy conditions, Brosdahl says working the bait directly beneath the boat can produce bites, as long as you keep it within a foot of bottom. When vertical jigging, it's often necessary to move to stay on fish. Once bites cease, he moves along a drop-off until he marks them again.
He says that when bass bite you often feel the lure go dead, with no perceptible strike, or else detect something that feels slightly softer than hard bottom. Immediately set the hook with a rapid, but not overly powerful sweep. The combination of a small heavy lure and low-stretch line can easily work hooks free from a bass's jaw, so fight fish gingerly.
The Sonar Connection
Beyond the basic fast lift-fall retrieve, a surprising number of bites occur while the bait is resting in place. Another great cover-related presentation occurs in clear natural lakes from late summer through fall, when largemouths and smallmouths set up over coontail, elodea, and milfoil beds in 20-plus feet of water. Drop a #7 Jigging Rap or 1/2-ounce Straight Up Jig vertically, watching its descent on sonar.
Just before the lure reaches the top of the vegetation, stop it and give it one quick pop. Stop again and let the lure glide back to center. Watch the screen for marks, indicating bass. Quickly raise it a foot and stop. Watch for a reaction. Often, a bass races up to tag the lure. Other times, continue working the fish upward in the water column—sometimes as much as 10 feet above bottom, though rarely more than 5 feet above the vegetation.
North Carolina FLW pro Matt Arey stresses the importance of electronics for such presentations. He fishes heavy swimmers from Lunkerhunt—including the 1-ounce Hatch Spin—and says schooling bass in eastern reservoirs can be fleeting. Finding big schools of shad on the screen is the first step. He then makes long casts with the Hatch Spin, allowing it to helicopter to a desired depth by counting it down. If bass are present, they usually bite. But if Arey fails to get a bite, he keeps searching with sonar.
Palaniuk, who presents these lures vertically 80 percent of the time, uses a Humminbird Onix 10 to position his #7 Jigging Rap slightly above fish he marks. "If I see fish move up to the lure, but won't bite, I drop it just past the fish's level and stop," he says. "Then I snap it back up. Usually, once I see a fish move up toward the bait, I know I've got him. In deep water, you can see bites as the fish signal overlaps the lure signal. I use sonar to anticipate bites and set the hook before I feel the fish. You have react quickly; keep slack out of your line or you miss strikes."
Given the sensitive, fast-reaction nature of this technique, specialized tackle maximizes catches. Brosdahl prefers spinning tackle, braid, and a sensitive St. Croix rod, and I concur. One top combo is a 6-foot 8-inch St. Croix Legend Tournament Bass, medium-power, extra-fast action, with a Shimano Stradic 2500 and 15-pound PowerPro braid. A second rod for working heavier baits like the #9 Jigging Rap is a medium-heavy power, extra-fast 7-foot St. Croix Legend Xtreme (LXS70MHF) with the same reel and 20-pound braid.
Palaniuk sticks with spinning tackle, too, preferring a 7-foot, medium-power Abu Garcia Fantasista Regista rod with an Abu Garcia Revo MGX 20 and 8-pound-test Berkley FireLine Crystal. He adds a 10-foot leader of 10-pound-test Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon. Most anglers favor a fluoro leader for its stiffness, which prevents hooks from fouling in supple braid. He runs an extra-long leader to ensure that the knot enters his spool before the fish comes boatside.
Some anglers prefer to join braid to fluoro with a small swivel to minimize line twist. Palaniuk connects his Rap with a #5 or #7 snap swivel. It allows the bait to spin and reduces line twist, and also gives a bit more freedom of movement. Custom Jigs & Spins offers the Rotating Power Minnow, a smaller swimming lure with a built-in, free-spinning eyelet that eliminates line twist.
Compact swimming lures—which some anglers refer to as "vertical crankbaits"—are a growing category. In addition to lures from Rapala, Northland, Lunkerhunt, and Custom Jigs & Spins, Moonshine Lures offers the Shiver Minnow, a deeper-bodied slashing swimmer that's become popular in some areas. In the same family of heavy vertical baits are lures like Lunkerhunt's 15/16-ounce Hatch Natural and Hatch Spin—another heavy hybrid that shines in shad scenarios.
Matt Arey used a Hatch Spin to finish high in a North Carolina tournament last fall, making long casts to spooky fish schooled up within 20 feet of the surface. He likes the lure's fast sinking, darting cadence, augmented by its small willowleaf blade. Undoubtedly, the Hatch Spin's shad profile and lifelike finish add to its appeal. He also appreciates its merits when worked across deep clean bottoms of reservoirs, along points, channel bends, and intersections of creek channels with the main lake.
Many of these 1/2- to 1-ounce swimmers represent the most efficient way to fish deep, clean-bottom areas, since their weight enables long casts and quick, effective presentations in 20 to 50 feet of water. After several seasons of experimenting with the Jigging Rap, catching many 3- and 4-pound largemouths in deep drop-shot or jigging-spoon scenarios, I've begun to test an alternate, the Shiver Minnow. Moonshine Lures owner Tom Gudwer told me about the lure's ability to walk-the-dog, a random side-to-side slashing motion that's worked on all kinds of fish around his Upper Peninsula, Michigan, home waters.
"The thing that separates the Shiver Minnow," Gudwer says, "is that it darts randomly when you pull it, and then rolls on its side when you kill it. It's a sequence of moves I studied in live baitfish before creating this lure. When baitfish begin to die, they roll over sideways and flutter to the bottom."
This past summer, Missouri bass pro Stacey King fished 1/2- and 1-ounce glow-white Shiver Minnows on Table Rock Lake, Missouri. Given high water and a shallow thermocline, King found schools of walleyes, smallmouths, and spotted bass occupying 15- to 20-foot gravel points near brush. Ordinarily the domain of a jigging spoon, he cast the Shiver Minnow and experienced an incredible multispecies bite. "It's a fun bait to fish," he says. "It sinks to the bottom in about a second. I'm still learning its proper cadence, but short, fast jerks trigger fish, as does letting it sink on a semi-slack line."
Gudwer adds that the Shiver's relatively flat sides and deep body make it shimmy sideways when you pull it. "Depending on whether you work the rod with long or short pulls, it's possible to get it to walk-the-dog, moving up to 4 feet laterally, with each long fast jerk." The presentation is reminiscent of working a Zara Spook. There's something appealing about the darting and slashing of this retrieve, whether on top with a walking bait, subsurface with a jerkbait, or closer to bottom with a heavy swimmer.
"I haven't found many places where it won't work," Palaniuk says. At a summer 2014 Bassmaster Elite event at Cayuga Lake, New York, he grabbed an early lead by dropping Jigging Raps on deep bass. Ultimately, he finished eighth, but the fish he caught with that lure inspired further experiments on lakes like Table Rock and Bull Shoals, and back home at Coeur d'Alene Lake in Idaho. "If I find suspended fish or deep structure fish, a Jigging Rap is one of my go-to presentions. I kept it under wraps for a few years, but you can't keep something this good a secret forever."