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Fishing Tips & Tactics: Small Lures for Big Bites

Sometimes going small with your baits leads to steady action on trout, bass and crappies.

Fishing Tips & Tactics: Small Lures for Big Bites

Finicky, pressured bass, or those in clear water, are susceptible to scaled-down finesse presentations such as a Ned rig. Pair a light jig with a plastic like a Z-Man Finesse TRD TicklerZ. (Photo courtesy of Z-Man Fishing)

They're easy to overlook. Obviously. For most anglers, lures under 3 inches long and weighing 1/8 ounce or less are typically off the radar.

But for some smart anglers across the Midwest, these little lures are their go-to weapons when lunker rainbows and browns are pushing up into the tailwaters and looking to add some meat to their usual insect diets. They're also ideal for putting slab crappies in the ice chest, especially when the fish are schooled deep in summer, fall and winter. The bigger the crappies, the more they like mini lures, and the baits offer such a variety of depth capabilities that they can reach the fish pretty much anywhere your sonar can scope them out.


When it comes to bass—largemouths, spots and smallmouths alike—cold fronts, clear water, excess angling pressure and other negatives can slow the bite, but the little lures often turn it right back on. Not only that, they’re just plain fun to fish, especially when compared to the drudgery of punchbait fishing, flippin’ or dragging big jigs through the depths. And there’s also the enjoyment of whipping an oversized fish on undersized tackle. It can be a pleasant change of pace after water-skiing largemouths to the boat on 65-pound-test braid.


All this is to say small lures and baits deserve a place in your tackle box. Sometimes they're the necessary antidote to cure negative bites. Other times—contrary to the common "big bait, big fish" logic—these small morsels are the perfect recipe for big-fish action. Whether you're looking to tangle with trophy trout, catch slab crappies or boat more bass, mini-sized lures can be powerful tools in your fishing arsenal.

TAILWATER TROUT

The clear, cold water that flows out of high dams across the Midwest creates year-round fisheries for trout. In the case of Lake Taneycomo, the riverlike lake below Table Rock Dam, it provides just the right conditions to grow monster browns, in particular. In fact, two state-record browns were caught in Taneycomo in 2019—34 pounds, 10 ounces and 40 pounds, 6 ounces, respectively.

And, in an electrofishing survey conducted in the summer of 2020, state biologists reported that 65 percent of this fishery’s browns were greater than 16 inches, with 20 percent greater than the minimum length limit of 20 inches. The wadable upper 3 miles of Taneycomo are ideal for throwing mini lures to connect with some of these big trout.




The flowing water below Wolf Creek Dam on Kentucky's Lake Cumberland is another such example. With water temps consistently in the 50s, big trout thrive here, too. Unsurprisingly, all of the Bluegrass State’s trout records come from this stretch of water, with browns again being the largest specimens. A 21-pound beast caught in 2000 remains the state record.

Prime time in most Midwest tailwaters is late September through November, when jumbo browns move upriver to spawn and also to stuff themselves during the pre- and post-spawn on baitfish coming through the dam. With both of these fisheries—and this is true for pretty much any tailwater fishery—you want to keep an eye on water generation, which directly affects flow. So long as only one or two generators are in operation, fishing conditions are ideal for many miles of the river, and you should have good action throwing mini lures for really big trout. With more generation, fishing may become difficult due to excessive current.

The ability to throw mini lures great distances on ultralight spinning gear is a huge plus when big fish are feeding outside of fly-rod range. You’ll also encounter far fewer line management issues than fly-rodders do fishing the flowing water.


The ’bows and browns in tailwater fisheries often pack on weight because they feed on shad and other edible-size baitfish sucked through the turbines. Imitate that bait with lures like the 2 3/4-inch Rapala CD7 Countdown Minnow or the 2 1/2-inch Rebel TracDown Minnow.

Fishing the lures is much like swinging a streamer with a fly rod. The best shot is across the current, letting the flow sweep it in an arc downstream as you impart slight twitches. If the lure stops, set the hook. You may be into the trout of your life.

GAF-Small-Baits-Big-Fish
Tailwater trout love scaled-down lures. This brookie fell for a Rebel Wee Craw, but big browns and rainbows also eat them, and other small baitfish-imitating cranks. (Photo courtesy of Pradco)

SLAB CRAPPIES

Productive crappie lakes like 11,000-acre Shelbyville in Illinois contain an abundance of sunken brush, river channel ledges and offshore structure that crappies relate to. If it’s a wall hanger you’re after, try targeting suspended fish by trolling crappie-sized crankbaits like the Strike King Pro Model Bitsy Minnow and Slab Hammer around points and creek channels and over brush. In water deeper than 10 feet, consider adding a Mr. Crappie Trolling Weight about 3 feet ahead of the lure to put it down where the fish are. Deeper waters can also be probed vertically with slightly heavier crappie jigs like the 1/8-ounce Blakemore Road Runner, an underspin model.

Conventional 1/8-ounce jigs with size-8 hooks rigged with the 2-inch Berkley Powerbait Power Minnow are also killers, adding scent to a minnow-like appearance.

Simply drifting with the breeze is often all the motion required with the jigs.

Another great crappie spot is massive Rainy Lake on the Minnesota-Ontario border. Though it's more often thought of as a prime walleye, smallmouth and pike lake, it’s also noted for producing big catches of whopper crappies in fall. The fish form huge schools prior to ice formation, mostly hanging out in the numerous bays at 15- to 40-foot depths.

The 1/8-ounce jigs noted above, fished vertically below a quality sonar, can create video game fishing where you watch the fish swim up and take the lure. Locals say the trick is to drop the jig within a couple feet of the fish, hold it there and then just shake the rod. The fish, some up to 17 inches long, swim up and latch on.

Massive Kentucky Lake and its sister lake, Barkley, are also well-known Midwest crappie destinations where mini lures regularly score plate-sized fish. By late September, crappies that have spent the hotter months deep return to shoreline brush, docks and ledges where they can be targeted with slow-trolled mini lures.

Note that "slow" means very slow when it comes to crappies, sometimes only 1 mph. An electric troller on its lowest speed setting is about right if there's no wind pushing you. Some pros put out a drift sock to slow the boat when wind is an issue.

Crappies, like bass, often feed on shad fry in late fall, sometimes even chasing the little baitfish to the surface. Find one of these feeding frenzies and you can have a ball with a tiny floater-diver like the Rapala F05 or F07.

More commonly, though, you'll want to put your lure at 8 to 14 feet to bring it just above the pods of fish. Getting tiny jigs and crankbaits deep depends both on line size and on the amount of line you put out. Lighter tests and longer lines place the baits deeper—of course lighter tests also translate to the occasional lost lure when pulling around the brush that crappies love. Drop down to 4-pound-test mono for catching fish over gravel bars, ledges and humps where snags are few, but consider going as heavy as 8-pound test around woody cover.

BASS BONANZA

While largemouths are noted for preferring large baits, they also eat the minis on occasion. Spotted bass and smallmouths, on the other hand, actually prefer smaller lures most of the time. Whether you're chasing bucketmouths in Kentucky's Green River Lake, spots on Barren River Lake or brown bass in Sturgeon Bay or Lake St. Clair, keeping an ultralight spinning outfit on deck and rigged with a mini-sized lure is an ace in the hole for many smart anglers.

The Ned Rig is currently the most notorious of the mini lures due to its tremendous success on professional bass fishing circuits, and it can benefit your weekend angling as well. Basically, the idea is to use a very light jig head with a small soft plastic, move it very little and convince spectator fish that pass up larger or faster lures into becoming eaters.

Anglers new to the finesse fishing game may find it hard to believe that a jig head intended for catching quality bass can weigh only 1/10 ounce, but that size is one of the most effective, particularly in clear, cold water or where the fish have seen lots of pressure. The jigs have a long, slow fall, especially when rigged with a high-flotation TPE tail like the Z-Man Finesse TRD TicklerZ or Hula StickZ. They stand on their heads on the bottom, ready to dance and wiggle at the slightest twitch of the rod tip.

These jigs are not the only option for scoring with mini lures, though. When vast schools of young-of-the-year shad gather along shorelines and in creek mouths in fall, a little baitfish imitation, like the slow-sinking 2 1/2-inch Rapala UL Minnow or the 1/8-ounce Rat-L-Trap, can be pure poison.

It's not hard to find these aggregations on many lakes. You'll see the flutter of the little baitfish on the surface even when nothing is chasing them, as they often feed on plankton at the surface. You'll also see the occasional shower when a bass, crappie or other predator rushes them. Kingfishers can also reveal shad schools with their vertical dives, and smaller herons and egrets love the little baitfish, too. Look for them on the shorelines.

Big fish eat smaller fish. It's just a simple fact, and something that savvy anglers should never forget. And mini-sized versions of common lures represent the perfect way to feed a delectable morsel to predatory fish, whether it's a trophy trout in a tailwater, a hefty slab on a reservoir, a football-sized bronzeback in big water or a bulky bucketmouth in the shallows.

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Shimano Vanford F 2000 spinning reel. (Photo courtesy of Shimano)

GEAR UP

To get reasonable casting distance with most mini lures, you'll need an ultralight spinning rig. When it comes to rods, look for a parabolic-curve design rather than the fast-tip models, which don’t play well with mini-sized lures. On the other hand long-taper rods load a lot better with light baits. Lengths of 6 to 7 feet are best, though some specialist trout anglers buy steelhead rods up to 10 feet long to really reach out on big tailwaters.

Regarding reels, a tiny 500-size spinning reel is not the best choice for long casts because the miniature spool doesn’t let line flow freely like a larger spool does. Opt instead for something like the new Shimano Vanford F 2000 ($229.99; fish.shimano.com), which is an ultralight reel with a larger spool and frame. It weighs only 5.3 ounces, yet casts a mile with 4- and 6-pound-test mono or 8-pound-test braid. It also allows much quicker line pickup thanks to a 6.1:1 retrieve ratio.

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