Drag Your Way to More Western Bass

No matter what time of year it is, when conditions are tough and you aren't sure where the bass are holding, dragging can be the ticket to a full livewell.

Photo by Tom Evans

By Dusty Routh

My introduction to the concept of dragging for bass came on western Washington's Lake Sammamish in the middle of January. I was invited to give it a try by one of the earliest Northwest practitioners of the method, semi-pro bass angler Paul Hall, who lives just east of Lake Sammamish in North Bend, Wash., and considers Sammamish as his home lake.

In deep winter, when most smallmouth anglers are pining for the arrival of spring, you'll typically find Hall out on Sammamish catching big cold-water smallmouths that are holding deep. His trick? He drags his baits.

Dragging is really quite simple. You essentially drop a plastic grub to a lake's bottom in areas likely to be holding bass, and use your trolling motor to drag the bait across the bottom while also maintaining constant contact with structure.

The day we went it was blinding cold outside. Dressed in snowsuits and armed with hot coffee and a box of doughnuts, we blasted onto the lake in Hall's green sparkle Ranger, and went at it. Standard Northwest dragging equipment consists of a half-ounce football-shaped jighead (unpainted), a Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Super Grub (usually a 5-inch curly-tail in the No. 176 color, which is a night crawler-brown with black flake), and super light 6-pound-test line.

Since that early experience, Hall has put more big smallmouth bass - particularly deep-holding winter fish - in his boat by dragging than I've eaten doughnuts, and that's saying something. As for me, dragging is so effective it is my go-to method for all kinds of conditions, including early spring and summer fishing, when fishing the depths can be frustratingly slow.

In winter, this can be as deep as 30 to 45 feet of water. In spring, when bass start to move up, you can drag in 15 to 30 feet of water. And, in summer you can find fish by dragging from the banks out to 15 feet deep.

"What you're really doing," says San Diego-based bass pro and Yamamoto pro-staffer Bill Schaeffer, "is you're stirring up the bottom which gets the fish's attention, like a crawdad scooting along the bottom, leaving a mud trail."

Light line accomplishes two things: It's hard to beat for sensitivity, since bass don't tend to hit-and-run a dragged grub so much as they simply sup it up and close their mouths; and light line is key to a stealthy approach that won't spook fish if you're fishing gin-clear water.

While it may have originated as a winter technique, dragging isn't just for cold water or deep-holding smallmouths. It's such a simple way to find fish that it's hard to do it wrong, and it can be effective in all kinds of water, in all kinds of conditions for virtually any type of black bass. Most of all, it's a fail-safe, fallback method if you're faced with really tough conditions, such as fishing behind a cold front.

ISN'T THIS TROLLING?
Tournament purists may make the argument that dragging, which is essentially fishing a bait on the bottom and moving it along using a trolling motor, amounts to little more than a fancy name for trolling. The only difference is you're using your electric motor rather than your big engine or a gas kicker, or so goes the argument.

"I think it's a gray area," says Schaeffer, "but everybody does it. Unless they want to add it to tournament rules, that it's illegal to fish using your trolling motor to move a bait, then people will keep doing it because it works. It's very effective, not only for cold-water bass, or really deep bass, but it's a great searching technique, too. A lot of tournament anglers do it during practice days. It let's you cover a lot of ground. You can drag a bait around while you're searching with your electronics. And for just the casual, fun-type bass angler, it's a great way to catch fish."

Besides a simple jighead and grub, Carolina rigs and split shot rigs can be used for dragging, too. "What you're trying to accomplish with whatever rig you're using, is dragging the weight on the bottom and kicking up the mud. The bait floats up behind," Schaeffer says. "The mud trail is the key. That really can get the attention of fish.

"I've seen dragging done with grubs, Senkos, really with almost anything, including little creature baits that look like crawdads. It's even been done with Rapalas or Rebel minnow baits, because they float up behind where the bottom is being stirred up."

THE HISTORY OF DRAGGING

Dragging, a methodology that is fairly new to West Coast bass anglers, originated on the Great Lakes. "It was called 'Doing the Erie drag,'" says Russ "Bassdozer" Comeau with Yamamoto Baits. "It originated with guys dragging tubes, and it started as a cold-water approach. But it was so effective, it became a year-round approach." 

San Diego-based bass pro Bill Schaeffer says Western anglers started using a variation of dragging by split-shotting and dragging Reapers. "I finished a few firsts and seconds in California (tournaments) using Reapers this way," he says. 

Seeking a way to catch fish in winter, Northwest anglers quickly adopted dragging when pioneers such as Washington-based Paul Hall used the method on Lake Sammamish and Lake Washington. It became so effective that it's now used as a year-round, go-to method for bagging bass.

-- Dusty Routh 

 

RIGGING UP
Depending on the water you're fishing, dragging a traditional jighead and grub is best done in combination with light line and a fairly heavy jig weight. You want your grub to constantly stay on the bottom, with enough matter and heft to it to make that telltale mud trail that bass find so attractive. Football-shaped jigheads seem to work best because they tend to make the biggest, muddiest trail, and the bait is positioned with its hook up as the grub sits on the bottom. This makes for solid hook penetration through the hard upper portion of the bass's mouth. In other words, lasting hooksets.

For line, Paul Hall uses 6-pound green McCoy. Schaeffer is a fan of Maxima in the ultra-green. "In really clear lakes," Schaeffer says, "you'd think you'd want to use clear line. But I've seen sunlight really light up a clear line all the way down the water column. I think it's best to go with a smoked or slightly

colored line."

It's a matter of personal preference, but a double clinch knot positioned in the center of the jig eye seems to be the most effective for tying the jig on vertically so that it sits correctly on the bottom. Add scent to the grub, like Pautzke's Krill Gel Scent or Smelly Jelly, liberally applied so that you can achieve a scent trail to go with the mud you're kicking up. In water where there's heavy concentrations of crawfish, go with a craw scent.

Most jigheads right out of the package will be sharp, but be sure to keep them sharp during the course of the day for the subtle bites you'll often encounter. Hooks will dull and hook points will even cave in as they're pulled over rocks, timber, weeds and sand. In addition to the traditional football-shaped jighead, Owner makes a Stand-Up Head model in a 3/8-ounce size that's perfect for dragging.

One of the real standards in the West for grubs is the aforementioned Yamamoto 5-inch single tail in the No. 176 color (night crawler with black flake). This is particularly good for deep or stained water. So is the No. 159 (blue black/chartreuse). Another option is the smoke/large black flake (No. 150), which is terrific to use in clear water. To complete your arsenal, also carry No. 140, which is a cinnamon brown/green flake.

Kalin's 5-inch Pumpkin/S&P is also a deadly grub for dragging. Its fat profile is not only highly visible but it displaces a lot of water. For dragging in shallower water and broken rock bottom, you can sometimes get away with a slightly lighter, 1/4-ounce jighead adorned with a Mister Twister 4-inch curly-tail Exude. This is a thin, solid black grub with a slime coat that leaves a significant scent trail.

DRAGGING YOUR BAIT
Once you're rigged, lower your grub all the way to the bottom and keep it there as you move along with your trolling motor on the lowest possible setting.

If you're not dragging along the bottom, meaning that you're feeling every bump, weed, indentation and rock, then you're not dragging it correctly. You should be able to constantly feel the bottom. This usually requires a never-ending cycle of releasing and taking up line as bottom and depth contours change while you move over structure.

With time and experience, you'll learn to recognize structure on the bottom by how you feel it coming up your line and into your rod blank. Little clicking-type vibrations means small, broken rock and pebbles; gentle pulls back at the rod tip means sand or mud that's uneven or lumpy; climbing up and dropping means big rocks.

All day long your rod tip will be bending back and easing forward as the grub moves along the bottom. The tricky part is knowing when the pull back is a fish and not another rock, weed or sandy hump. When in doubt, of course, set the hook. With time you'll be able to recognize a fish since it's a slightly odd and just slightly different feel than the bottom.

If you're dragging a Carolina rig with a floated bait behind it like a minnow stickbait (a floating Rapala, for instance), the strike will be easier to detect since it will likely be a lot more violent than the simple supping of a grub off the bottom. The same holds true for plastics on a Carolina rig, such as a Reaper or creature bait.

TO THE BANK & BACK
Another way to drag besides fishing vertically is to drag somewhat horizontally, from the bank back out to the boat. This is a dynamite little trick used extensively by Ron Colby, 2002 Bassmaster's Classic qualifier and 2001 and 2002 B.A.S.S. Federation Western Division champion.

"In the spring, especially in early spring, the fish will be fairly deep, so you're dragging in deeper water," Colby said. "But once (bass) start to explore for pre-spawn and spawn, they'll be moving closer up. That's when I throw the thing right up on the bank - out of the water so it doesn't even splash - and I drag it back down the bank."

Colby claims this is also a great method for determining the depth at which fish are holding in relation to the bank. "If you fish from the edge of the water on down the bank and you hit fish at 10 feet and your boat's in 20 feet of water, you know you can move up," he says. "It's a great way to find fish if you aren't sure exactly how deep they are."

Colby has put the hurt on some big fish this way, including lots of 7-pound Delta largemouths and plenty of 6-pound bronzebacks in his home state of Utah. "Dragging is a great way to fish, in the spring especially," he reports. "That's when the bass are really keying on crawdads. If you're in a lake where that's the primary forage, dragging grubs in browns and greens will get their attention."

Colby also says that when bass key on perch fry, as they do in many Western lakes, dragging will help you stick some hawgs then, too. "I like a chartreuse/black grub then," he says. "It mimics a perch color, which is really effective in the spring."

One of the dangers of dragging down a bank, however, is the sudden lack of feel when a fish hits and swims out, moving toward you. "It's a pretty soft bite to start with," Colby explains. "Then sometimes they'll pick it up and swim right at you so you don't feel anything for a second. That's when experience helps, because once that's happened to you a few times you'll know what it is and you'll know to crank up and set the hook."

Rather than using packaged football-shaped jigheads, Colby fishes his own hand-poured round jigheads with No. 1 or 1/0 hooks. "I've always fished that way," he says. "When I first used grubs, I used a round leadhead or a darthead, and dragged grubs along the bottom. It was the best way to catch bass. If the bite was tighter, I'd use a split-shot rig, Texas-rig the grub on a 1/0 hook, and drift or drag that right on the bottom. It's very productive when the fishing is slow."

LIFT & GLIDE
Another way to fish a jighead and grub, which amounts to a variation on dragging called "swimming," is to lift and drop your rod occasionally as you move along.

This way of grub fishing has become a signature style for Gary Yamamoto. He lowers his grub and jighead to the bottom, then does a rod lift up to the 10 or 11 o'clock position in a kind of lift-and-glide motion that picks the grub up a few inches and swims the grub's tail. He then slowly drops the rod, which again swims the tail, and lets the grub glide back down until it hits bottom again. The bait moves in almost a pendulum motion. There needs to be enough weight -again, it's important to fish a fairly heavy jighead - to make that pendulum swing correctly.

You can combine dragging and swimming as you cover different structure to determine what the fish respond to best.

DRAGGING SPEED
Determining the proper speed of your dragging, meaning how fast you're moving the bait across the bottom, is a matter of experience, what the fish seem to want, conditions such as wind and depth, and the composition of the bottom.

"When I come across significant structure, like two or three rocks, I'll drag it over them, and then stop and let it sit," Colby says. "Then I'll drag it just a little. You kind of have to let the bottom dictate the speed."

What the fish have to say about speed is also critical to Colby. "I let the fish tell me that," he says. "The most important thing is, at least for how I fish, is to stay in contact with the bottom at all times. It's harder than it sounds. A lot of guys aren't on the bottom and don't know it. But I keep my rod at 9 o'clock and kind of sweep it, parallel to the water, and pull the bait along, so it doesn't lift."

Colby points out that you've got to be in tune with your equipment to detect a strike. "I like to use light line, small grubs and a really sensitive rod," he said. "You're looking for the weight change that indicates a fish has picked up the grub."



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