Bassin' With Weightless Plastics

Looking for a bait with a soft touch, low-impact entry, and a slow, natural drop that drives bass bonkers? Throw weightless plastics at 'em. You'll love it, and more importantly, so will they.

Photo by Ronell Smith

After a surprisingly long, arcing cast, the plastic overshoots the water's edge and lands on a gray mud bank. Splat. I work it down the bank, into the water and move it toward a slight current -- just like I meant to do it that way. Letting it drift, the weightless worm sinks a little. I only have to twitch it a time or two. It lifts and falls and swims, mostly on its own, and after a while it ends up somewhere near the bottom. I pop it up and down a couple of times, reel it halfway to the surface, and then let it drift again. Real natural, real delicate, unhurried. I bring it back to the boat this way and cast again.

"Weightless Senkos," says my bass partner, who's teaching me this method for the first time. "Killer."

I didn't have much experience fishing weightless plastics back in those days, so I was skeptical. At first I wasn't sure how far or how accurately I could throw a plastic bait without weight, but quickly learned how to make it sail with light spinning gear. Bigger and heavier plastics offered even more distance and increased accuracy.

"Nice, slow drop," my partner points out. "Killer." I sure like the action on the bait. Without the bullying presence of an artificial weight, plastics in the water move seductively smooth and look natural, whether "natural" imitates a lizard, worm or crayfish.

It's my third or fourth cast. This is easy fishing. We're working a patch of shallow water at the far north end of a reservoir in early July. Current from incoming creeks create a slight river affect. The water is doing most of the work, helped along by my occasional jerking and twitching of the bait. A few times I bring the worm right up to the surface until I can just barely see it, then I let it fall again. It goes where it wants to go, does what it wants to do. I keep my rod tip low, as my buddy instructs, and give it plenty of slack line. Very natural. It's the Grateful Dead approach to bass fishing.

"Do this kind of fishing much?" I ask him.

"All the time," he says.

I cast again. "Man, with 8-pound-test and my whippy Lamiglas rod, I can throw this thing really far." My black Senko hits a willow.

"That's really good," my sensei points out. I think, of course, that he's giving me grief, but he's sincere for the distance I'd just cast. Rather than pull it loose, I give it line and let the plastic ease into the water. Bang! A beautiful take as a 2-pound black bass erupts from the water.

DELICATE FISHING

"Delicate" isn't a word I'd use to describe bass fishing. Bassing is a macho sport. Its lures carry macho names, its boats have macho names -- it's all about big, loud, bright, obnoxious, in-your-face fishing, which is akin to its Southern roots. Guys down Dixie way like it that way.

Here in the West, however, bass fishing is just a wee bit more of a gentile sport than it is in other parts of the country. Why that is so is not necessarily because of our liberal upbringing ("Can't we all just get along?") or some politically correct blather ("SUVs kill.") dumped on us from the first grade on. Rather, our gentle approach to bass fishing comes in reaction to fishing in clear-water reservoirs in which bass can see you from a half-mile away. It resulted in a proven technique we affectionately call "finesse" fishing -- the California cool of bass angling.

There's a lot to bass fishing -- pulling crankbaits all day, fishing deep water with heavy jigs, tossing double-tandem spinnerbaits for 16 hours -- that's not as pleasant as we'd like it to be. All of those methods are good ways to catch fish, but they certainly aren't fun.

If you want real fun, real finesse, check out weightless plastics. You'll be quickly converted, just as I was.

WHAT, WHEN AND WHERE

My day on the water that first time using weightless plastics produced 23 bass between 3 and 10 p.m. The water was clear and shallow -- perfect conditions for finessing weightless plastics. High summer is an excellent time for this approach, but you can use it all the way back to early spring, too, particularly when bass are moving up shallow in preparation for spawning, and on their beds during the spawn.

It's a perfect approach to shallow, grassy points, emerging lily and dollar pad fields, fishing over heavy vegetation, and working shallow flats and gravel bars. If you're in heavily wooded water, it's fantastic for that, too. It's also an excellent way to fish the backs of shallow bays and coves, and along the faces of rock dams.

Because -- obviously -- sink rates are slow, weightless plastics are good to fish in about 10 to 12 feet of water, and even better from 1 to 7 feet. You can work them as a topwater, lifting and dropping the bait near the surface, slowly keep it suspended as a mid-depth bait, or let it fall all the way to the bottom and just kind of snake it along. Best of all, you can do all three approaches on the same cast.

The choice of the actual bait is up to you. Fishing weightless can be done with an incredible variety of baits, ranging from Senkos to Yamamoto Super Grubs, to creature baits, tube and magnum tube baits, single and double-tail grubs, ripple-tail worms, ribbed worms -- the choices are endless. Just about anything plastic can be fished without weight.

I tend to use tubes and grubs for smallmouth bass, and larger worms (ribbed and ripple-tailed), creature baits like lizards and crawdads, and "straight" baits like Senkos, on largemouth waters. Weightless lizards top the list for spawning fish.

Weightless plastics are terrific for reservoirs, lakes and ponds, and they've also earned their place on more than a few rivers. Smallmouth bass, for example, love a good double-tail grub, and floating one of these weightless along undercut banks in the summer can provoke ferocious strikes. Weightless grubs are perfect for plopping into shallow backwater eddies and adjoining sloughs.

And, if you like, skip weightless plastics under docks, overhanging willows and trees.

AND HOW

Spinning gear is a good choice for this kind of fishing, allowing you to throw a much lighter bait than you could throw with conventional gear. I favor a 7-foot light-action rod for this type of fishing. If you're using heavier plastics, like a 7- or 9-inch Senko, you can go with heavier line and baitcasting gear, but if you're using a finesse appr

oach like a small double-tail grub, 6- to 8-pound-test and spinning gear is the ticket.

A hook's weight will influence casting distance and action on the lure. I've come to favor worm hooks with an extra-wide gap. They add a little more weight and help with hooksets (keeping in mind that you're working with slack line a lot of the time). You can finesse your hook, too, by using smaller, fine-wire hooks, which free up the bait to act even more naturally.

You can rig up using the same method you'd use for fishing with weights, a la Texas-rig weedless style. A favorite method is to nose-hook the bait, and then "skin hook" the point just up under the outer skin of the worm. Or you can use the wacky worm style, sticking or rubber banding the hook at a right angle in the middle of the plastic.

It's easy to over-fish weightless plastics if you're accustomed to fast and furious retrieves, such as those used at times for spinnerbaits and crankbaits. This is slow, easy fishing, using occasional jerks, twitches, lifts and drops to impart action.

If you choose to fish wacky-worm style, the less action you impart, the better. Use a slight twitch followed by a completely slack line drop, and you'll have all the action you need. In fact, a lot of the success to weightless fishing has to do with not over-controlling your bait. That suggests fishing with slack line in the water, whether it's drifting in current or letting that bait flutter and fall on slack line. It helps to keep your rod tip low to the water.

Weightless plastics are best employed under specific conditions. They are not typically successful when used to fish deep water, as a run-and-gun seeker lure, or in a strong wind. Calm and shallow are keys to success with this method.

A take on a weightless plastic is a thing of beauty. Often, it's a grab and a run in which the fish tightens any slack in your line and all you have to do is swing! At other times, however, you have to pay attention to your line to detect the take. Use a hard hookset, and hang on.

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