Light Tackle Lunkers

Heavy gear and sledgehammer tactics aren't the only way to catch big bass. Light tackle will get you more bites and just might be the ticket to the bass of a lifetime.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Steve Duniphan

Using light tackle to fish for largemouth bass is as much a state of mind as is it tackle selection. With the right equipment and a little know-how, light line tactics will help you catch more fish and give you more opportunities to take trophy fish.

Yes, it's true that you're going to lose some fish along the way by using 4- and 6-pound-test lines. Get used to it! But it's just as true that you'll get more bites - including bites from lunkers - by using light equipment. And more bites means more fish, and more big fish! After all, you can't catch 'em if they don't bite.

For the most part, light line and small baits dictate the use of spinning tackle. Nothing else is as well suited to handling the spider-web-thin lines or to casting the little baits that often go with them. Baitcasting gear is usually too heavy for such efforts, and most spin-casting reels lack the kind of drag system needed when battling big bass on thin lines. Fortunately, there are lots of quality light and ultralight action spinning rods and reels on the market.

Find a rod that has plenty of backbone near the handle, but enough tip action to cast little lures. Rod lengths in the 5 1/2- to 6 1/2-foot range are usually about right. And be sure to select a model with plenty of guides on it. Rod guides help to distribute the pressure on the rod and ensure that the rod is working properly for you when you lean back on a good fish and try to work him toward the boat.

Reels are another vital consideration. First and foremost, they must have a quality drag system. A sticky or sporadic drag is probably the No. 1 cause of break-offs and lost fish when using light line. There's simply very little margin for error when using 4- and 6-pound-test line. The drag should be smooth and easily adjustable - even when you're fighting a fish.

Ultimately, you need to choose tackle you are comfortable with. Make sure the bail on the spinning reel doesn't slam up against your knuckles when you turn the handle and that the rod is stout enough that it doesn't sway in the breeze.

Quality line is essential for all types of fishing, but it becomes even more important when you're talking about light lines. With little margin for error, premium lines earn their keep and are worth the extra money.

Select a line with a small diameter and very little memory. Limpness is a valuable quality for line when using light tackle. It ensures that casting will be much easier and that lure manipulation appears much more natural.

Perhaps the greatest threat to light lines - outside of obvious abuse - is line twist. Lures like spinners and plastic worms have an ugly tendency to twist line, weakening it and rendering it almost useless as it coils and snarls at the reel. Unfortunately, some line twist is unavoidable, but it doesn't have to be a disaster.

One way to control the damage of line twist is to use swivels ahead of those baits that cause the most problems. This is relatively easy to do with spinners, but a bit of a problem with plastic worms and the like.

Another way to combat line twist is to close the bail of your spinning reel by hand rather than mechanically by turning the reel handle. This will significantly reduce line twist at the source - your reel - by avoiding the pickup of slack line and twisting it in the process.

Finally, you can avoid lots of line twist by not reeling against the drag. When you set the hook on a good fish and it starts to strip line from your reel, don't crank on the handle! You're not gaining ground on the fish when you do; all you're doing is twisting the line.

Fishing with light lines also requires that you get the most from what strength they offer. This means tying good knots and maintaining your line.

When you tie your lure on, wet it before you pull it tight. This will keep from bruising your line, a mistake that a trophy fish won't let you forget.

And you must regularly check the last couple of feet of your line for frays and abrasions. It's the last few feet that are most likely to show signs of wear and tear as they come into contact with rocks, stumps and other types of cover. But even if the line appears to be just fine, you should always re-tie after catching a couple of fish. A bass' mouth is a rough thing, and it can seriously damage your line or knot. Losing a few inches of line to re-tying is a small price to pay for a solid connection that could save you the fish of a lifetime.

Much has been made here and elsewhere on the need to inspect your line for abrasions. It really can't be overemphasized, especially when using light line. Light tackle anglers seem to be in two camps when it comes to inspection methods. There are the finger checkers and the mouth checkers. Finger checkers pass the line between their fingers and feel for the abrasions. Mouth checkers pass the line through their lips and over their tongue. Find the method that seems most sensitive to you and use it regularly.

We live in an era of great wealth when it comes to light and ultralight baits. There are more small baits to choose from now than at any time in angling history, and these baits are better than ever.

Small baits have an advantage over their bigger brethren because there's less of them to see and to reveal them as fakes. It's also true that small baits don't discriminate against certain-sized bass. Fish both large and small will eat little lures, but only the largest bass will typically strike a big bait. That means more strikes for the light tackle user.

By far, more bass are caught on small plastic worms than on any other light tackle bait. The reasons for this are simple. Small soft-plastic baits are bite-sized for almost every bass, and they tend to be fished very slowly and methodically, in contrast to a lot of other baits.

When picking soft-plastic lures to be used on light tackle, there are a couple of important considerations. First of all, they should be extremely soft so that the hook can easily penetrate the plastic when you're fishing them in a self-weedless manner. Second, use light wire hooks to get better hook penetration. Third, use small diameter baits that are well suited to these light hooks, not bigger, thicker baits that will "choke"

a hook and prevent a good hookset.

A 4-inch plastic worm fished Texas-style on a No. 1 hook with a 1/8-ounce sinker is about as good a "numbers" bait as you'll ever find. Such a rig catches bass of all sizes and under almost any conditions.

Light tackle crankbaits have come a long way in recent years. Today there are dozens of models to choose from, many of which were originally designed to catch crappie or other panfish rather than bass. Whether you choose a diving model or a lipless one, there are few better ways to cover lots of water fast.

Spinnerbaits aren't commonly associated with light tackle fishing, but savvy anglers know that the spinnerbait's flash and vibration can be the ticket to dingy-water bass. They're especially deadly when bass are targeting small baitfish that are best imitated by a small spinnerbait.

In-line spinners are traditional light tackle favorites, and few baits will draw strikes from more species than these little gems. They're also remarkably easy to fish - just cast and crank to imitate a wide variety of baitfish.

Tiny topwater baits are another light tackle favorite. When bass are focusing on small terrestrial creatures, like bugs, or little forage fish, there's no more exciting way to take them than on top.

Whatever baits you choose to use, it's vitally important that the hook or hooks be pinpoint sharp. Without a lot of line strength, you need sharp hooks to penetrate the tough jaw of a bass. That's not going to happen without very sharp hooks.

As long as you're going to be using light tackle, you might as well do things right all the way around. That means adopting the light tackle attitude: more strikes through smaller lures and better presentation. We've discussed the small-lures aspect of light line fishing; now it's time to finish it off with a little light tackle philosophy.

Stay true to the roots of light tackle fishing by being very stealthy on the water. Light tackle is just part of the stealth equation. Small baits and light line may prevent a bass from recognizing your bait as a fake, but even the best lure won't get bit if you charge into a quiet cove and slam your electric motor into a stump and then drop a tackle box. Make sure your presentation is as finely tuned as your gear and you'll take more than your share of trophies.

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