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The Finesse 5: Essential Bass Rigs for Deep, Clear and Pressured Water

Employ these proven rigs for finesse-fishing success when summer bass go tight-lipped.

The Finesse 5: Essential Bass Rigs for Deep, Clear and Pressured Water
A wacky rig relies on the fulcrum-like positioning of the hook to impart a tantalizing wiggle at either end of a stick worm. (Photo by David A. Brown)

One of the reasons California’s Bryant Smith performed so well in his 2023 rookie season on the Bassmaster Elite Series (third in Rookie of the Year standings, 13th in Angler of the Year) was his broad range of skill sets. As Smith put it, the diversity of Western fisheries where he cut his teeth prepared him for just about anything he faced on the tour.

Indeed, any Western angler preparing for whatever a fishery might offer must anchor a well-rounded arsenal with a strong finesse game. Sure, those frogs, buzzbaits and heavy punching rigs have their time and place, but for finicky post-spawn largemouths, late-spawning smallmouths or any bass that’s seen too many trolling motors, the lighter, subtler presentations can work wonders.

Whether you’re fishing for hefty Florida-strain bucketmouths on the California Delta, Lake Shasta’s chunky spotted bass or smallies on the Columbia River, the following finesse bait arsenal will keep you in the ballgame.

angler holds two bass
California pro Bryant Smith’s finesse prowess, honed on Western waters, contributed to his success as a rookie on the Bassmaster Elite Series tour. (Photo courtesy of Bryant Smith)

DROP-SHOT RIG

The rig with the greatest diversity and broadest applicability, the drop-shot defines finesse fishing by suspending a soft-plastic bait—slender worm, minnow bait, etc.—off the bottom and allowing you to hold it in position in the water column without having to get right over the fish. There’s nothing wrong with a vertical drop, but if clear water has them spooky, casting a dropshot and lightly shaking the rig, or simply allowing water movement to impart natural motion, often pushes reluctant fish over the edge.

To form the standard dropshot, use a Palomar knot to tie your fluorocarbon leader to a short-shank finesse hook and leave a long tag end of 14 to 18 inches. Pass this tag end through the top of the hook eye and pull it tight. This makes the hook stand out perpendicular to the line.

Attach a sinker to the tag end at a length that will keep the bait in the strike zone. Consider bottom composition and how you may need your bait to stand above vegetation, wood or isolated rocks.

Drop-shot weight shape is often a matter of personal preference, but round or teardrop styles work well over a clean or rocky bottom, while the slender cylinder weights easily traverse vegetation and other cover. Consider, too, that tungsten’s density allows you to use a smaller weight than an equivalently weighted lead option.

Lastly, tying directly to a dropshot weight won’t impact the rig’s effectiveness, but it will require clipping and retying for any size or shape changes. For maximum flexibility, drop-shot weights with wire tension clips allow you to quickly swap them out.

Most Western anglers find braided main line with a fluorocarbon leader offers the ideal balance between stealth and castability. Just consider that a drop-shot likes to spin on long descents, and twisting main line creates a problem that typically arises at the most inopportune moment.

Prevent line twist by linking your main line and leader with a lightweight swivel that’s small enough to pass through your rod’s guides. Also, don’t be stingy with the fluoro leader. Seasoned finesse anglers often rig 10 feet or more so they have plenty of length to handle a few break-offs and/or intentional reties before needing to re-rig a new leader.

Finesse purists wouldn’t dream of using anything but a hand-tied dropshot, but if you’re just learning the finesse game, or you want to introduce kids to the technique and let them take part in the rigging, premade rigs like the Gamakatsu Swivel Shot, the VMC Spin Shot and the Mustad No-Twist Dropshot Rig simplify the process.

largemouth bass
The versatile drop-shot is one of the most widely used Western finesse rigs. Anglers vary the bait, weight and hooking style for different scenarios. (Photo by David A. Brown)

These terminal tackle items comprise finesse hooks pre-mounted on wire stems with line ties at both ends. Connect your main leader to the top ring, add a dropper to the lower ring, add the weight and you’re in business.

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Nose-hooking dropshot baits is standard, but you have options. If fish are nipping your bait’s tail and missing the hook, threading the bait onto a long-shank finesse hook puts the business end closer to the action.

With this style, the exposed hook helps secure quick connections, but around grass or any potential snags, it could become a liability. Avoid the headaches by Texas-rigging your bait for a weedless presentation.

Lastly, if your dropshot bite fizzles, the fish might be growing wise to the standard look. Switch things up and rig your worm wacky-style through the center to show them something new.

angler holds large bass
Similar to the wacky rig but with some modifications, the Neko rig’s hook is closer to the bait’s head, while a nail weight causes a nose-first fall. (Photo by David A. Brown)

WACKY & NEKO RIGS

Whether used as follow-up for missed topwater bites, a taunting presence to redline a fry guarder’s aggression or a slow-sinking meal option for fish holding deeper in the water column, the wacky rig is the ultimate deal closer. The simple stick worm with a finesse hook impaled through the side or tucked under an O-ring contracts when tugged, then wriggles at both ends on the free fall.

Anglers throw this bait just about anywhere from grass edges to docks to bluff walls. The wacky rig casts well, skips smoothly and delivers a lifelike image that fish in all moods will bite.

While we’re in the neighborhood, we should also wave at the Neko rig. Kind of like a wacky rig with superpowers, the Neko typically finds its hook placed a little farther forward and set through the worm in parallel, rather than perpendicular, fashion. (Like the wacky rig, you can run the hook into and out of the worm, or tuck it under an O-ring.)

The biggest difference between the wacky and the Neko is the latter includes a nail weight stuck into the bait’s nose. This affords longer and more accurate casts, creates a faster fall and ensures a nose-down bottom profile to mimic a small fish or invertebrate feeding. The Neko is used to target the same areas as a wacky rig, but with greater precision. Plus, the Neko’s fall rate really shines when time is tight.

soft-plastic bass lure
The simple shaky-head rig is effective for picking apart a wide range of bottom compositions. (Photo by David A. Brown)

SHAKY-HEAD & NED RIGS

Often considered the go-to problem-solver when deeper fish play hard to get, the straightforward shaky head is literally a lead-head jig designed for shaking a finesse worm. Head styles vary from rounded for a rocking presentation that traverses a variety of bottom makeups to flattened forms designed to stand firmly on hard bottoms.

For pure open-water scenarios with minimal snag risk, worms threaded onto shaky heads with molded keepers on the hook shank perform well. The more common style includes a screw-in keeper angled below the head, which holds the bait securely for weedless rigging (the hook point is buried in the worm).

Shaky heads are a good choice for walking and wiggling across sand, gravel or scattered rock, while targeted presentations to larger rocks, bluff edges and brush piles also fit the form. For added attention, dip or spray the tail chartreuse to mimic sunfish tails or black to imitate baby bass.

A relatively new accessory, Floatzilla Tails have added a new dimension to the shaky-head game. Essentially a flotation capsule, this item includes a wire pin that screws into the worm’s tail and holds it upright. This helps ensure bass spot the bait, while the in-your-face attitude ratchets up the taunting.

A complementary rig to the shaky head is the Ned rig, which was born in the Midwest but is applicable anywhere fish need finessing. Clearly different than the shaky head but similar in its bottom contact strategy, the Ned rig’s smaller profile typically pairs a 3-inch stick-style worm (a full-size worm cut down to size also works) with a rounded, mushroom-style head that bumps and wiggles its way across the bottom. Ned heads with weed guards excel on cluttered bottoms, while optional screw-in tail spinners enhance the appeal.

When bass are pinned tight to the lake floor because of fishing pressure, unfavorable weather or simply a feeding preference, the Ned offers fish an appealing profile that’s easy for them to catch. Along with that stubby stick-worm template, experiment with different tail styles and body profiles.

Looks may vary, but a lot of the appeal rests on the way you work the bait. Think barbecue: Low and slow. But don’t overlook the occasional hopping or swimming presentation.

bass caught on swimbait
When a small swimbait needs a boost, thread it onto an underspin for added flash and vibration. (Photo by David A. Brown)

SMALL SWIMBAIT

When bass are relating to baitfish higher in the water column, 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-inch paddle-tail swimbaits are must-have plastics for Western fisheries. They are good for covering a lot of water; cast and retrieve a paddle-tail swimbait on a straight line or interject a few pauses and twitches to simulate a struggling baitfish. This easy-to-work bait plays multiple roles well.

When a small swimbait alone isn’t enough to entice fish, try it on an underspin. The added flash and vibration of a blade hung from the lead head helps draw in distant fish and stimulate those closer targets that need a little more convincing.

Used in conjunction with forward-facing sonar, the underspin’s a good tool for intercepting fish on the move. When you spot them chasing bait schools, lead the pack and drop that flashy teaser in front of the feeding fish. Or, if the fish are on the bottom, ticking it over gravel or rocks just fast enough to turn the blade can make big things happen.

FLOAT-N-FLY

A true stealth player, this rig typically gets the call when you need to mimic tiny forage like pond smelt or juvenile shad. Nothing more than a small hair jig (the “fly”) suspended beneath a float, this setup is ideal for targeting suspended fish, especially when temperature extremes have them feeling lethargic.

The idea here is to present an easy snack for fish that don’t feel like moving far. When they’re fired up and blasting topwaters or smacking big swimbaits so hard they knock slack in your line, this is not the rig to use. But when fish are holding steady in the water column, pouting over uncomfortable conditions and snubbing most everything else, the float-n-fly will put them in the boat.

Power Trip
  • When a standard drop-shot won’t get a sniff, go big or go home.
baitcasting reel
Whereas a standard drop-shot rig is typically fished on medium spinning tackle, a baitcasting outfit is a better bet for the beefed-up power-shot rig. (Photo by David A. Brown)

Most Western anglers would agree the drop-shot rig will tempt bass just about anywhere you care to throw it. The only problem is that tempting and catching are two different concepts. To ensure the latter keeps pace with the former, it’s often necessary to upsize the tackle with what’s known as the power-shot rig.

Longtime Western tournament pro Joe Uribe often turns to this beefed-up version of the drop-shot when he’s fishing around heavy cover like in the California Delta’s weedy waters or Clear Lake’s tules and pad fields. His setup typically includes a 6-inch Roboworm Fat Worm in the “margarita mutilator” color on a 4/0 Roboworm Rebarb hook with a 5/16-ounce Voss tungsten weight.

“For me, when fishing is tough, that’s my confidence bait,” Uribe says. “As much as I want to power-fish like [many other competitors], I know that keeping that power-shot in my hand will deliver the bites.”

Rather than the medium spinning tackle and light line common to standard drop-shot duties, Uribe uses a 7-foot-2-inch Performance Tackle Powershot rod with a Daiwa Tatula 100 SV reel carrying 30-pound Sunline high-vis braid and a 12-pound Sunline FC Sniper fluorocarbon leader. Uribe describes the right presentation as deliberate and diligent.

“I keep it simple and make precise casts,” he says. “This rig allows me to make a finesse presentation around cover that’s too heavy for a traditional drop-shot.”

More Energy, Less Bulk
  • Lithium deep-cycle batteries from X2Power offer increased performance.
lithium marine batteries
Photo by David A. Brown

Whether you live to fish or fish for a living, you probably work non-stop for every bite and count on your boat’s electronics, trolling motor, shallow-water anchor and live-well pumps to do the same. That calls for deep-cycle batteries that deliver consistent power until your last cast, and now might be the right time to upgrade yours.

X2Power understands the demands of avid anglers and offers a range of lithium deep-cycle batteries that ensure better performance with more usable energy, longer running time and up to four times faster charging than lead-acid, AGM and gel batteries. X2Power’s lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries are also lighter, more tolerant of vibrations and cold temperatures and have a much longer life (backed by a 10-year, 2,000-cycle limited warranty).

There are nine models available ($99.99 to $1,049.99; x2powerbattery.com) with capacities ranging from 9 to 125 Ah to suit your needs and fit various sizes of boats and kayaks. All incorporate a management system that controls battery parameters to protect against overcharging and excessive discharging. Seven of them also include Bluetooth technology, enabling you to easily monitor battery performance with your smartphone or tablet. Should limited space aboard your boat be an issue, X2Power even offers a 36-volt model capable of running any of today’s most powerful trolling motors while taking up the room of just a single group 31 battery.—Alex Suescun


  • This article was featured in the West edition of June-July 2024’s Game & Fish magazine. Click to subscribe.



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