July 27, 2022
Revelations, epiphanies, eureka moments or whatever you want to call those instances of insight when we learn a new fishing technique or better understand an old one are pure gold for hard-core anglers. That's why an outing on Virginia’s James River many years ago still stands out as an important one for me.
I fooled some quality smallmouth bass on topwaters that day when the fish were hitting on the surface. I scored several more when they were in a chasing mood and attacking crankbaits and hard-plastic jerkbaits. But my buddy caught big bronzebacks all day long no matter what the mood of the bass was. He did so by alternately tossing soft plastic tubes, grubs, worms, craw worms and jerkbaits. That day forever changed the way I fish for summertime stream smallies and made me a believer in soft plastics. Here’s how some of the East’s premier guides employ these baits.
COUNT ON 'CRAWLERS
Virginia guide Ken Trail, who operates Rock On Charters (rockoncharters.net), explains why the worm family of soft plastics is so effective.
"The classic 6-inch worm, the 4-inch ringworm and the finesse stickbait all can be worked like either a real creature or some creature that is struggling and dying," he says. "Depending on how you work them and the colors you use, you can make soft-plastic worms look or act like minnows, hellgrammites or, of course, a worm. All this makes them not only great summertime baits, but also great baits throughout the warm-water period."
Trail rigs 6-inch worms Texas-style with a 1/8-ounce sliding bullet sinker and a 1/0 or 2/0 wide-gap worm hook, the latter size if he wants the crawler to descend a little faster. Because of the weedless nature of this setup, the guide reserves it for thick cover.
"Laydowns and brush piles along the shoreline are ideal places to work a worm," Trail says. "Let's say there’s a hardwood that’s fallen straight out from the bank. Throw the worm as close to the bank and base of the tree as you can. Then, slowly work that worm along the tree and up and over every little limb. This is a great tactic during the heat of the day when the only shade is along a shoreline or outside bend."
For all his worm rigs, Trail prefers a medium-weight, 6 1/2-foot spinning rod and a reel spooled with 20-pound braid and a 7-foot, 12-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. That arrangement is also his choice for the other soft-plastic baits, except he opts for 10-pound-test leaders because he uses these other baits around rocks where hang-ups are not as likely.
For days with bluebird skies and dreaded summertime cold fronts, Trail downsizes to 4-inch ringworms and 3-inch Snagler Hellgies. For the former, the guide employs a 1/0 wide-gap worm hook and 1/8-ounce bullet sinker for fishing wood cover. For the hellgrammite imitation, he opts for a 1/8- or 3/16-ounce jighead and slowly swims it through rocky eddies and around current breaks. Of course, most of the time in rivers, anglers will be probing rock cover. Trail’s favorite bait then is a stickbait—a 5-inch Senko—rigged wacky-style and weightless with an exposed size-1 or 1/0 wide-gap worm hook. The larger hook is used when he desires a faster descent.
"Throw stickbaits into eddies or current seams and let them wash downstream with the flow," he says. "Lift them up occasionally and maybe the bass will hit them then, too, or on the drop. Or you can hop stickbaits across the bottom. Dead-sticking a stickworm will also produce."
Virginia's Britt Stoudenmire operates the New River Outdoor Company (icanoethenew.com) and is well known as an expert on tube fishing.
"A lot of people feel that tubes imitate crayfish, and certainly this bait can be crawled across the bottom just like a crayfish moves," he says. "But I think what a tube looks like most, and what makes it such an effective bait, is a madtom, which is basically just a baby catfish that bass see as a big chunk of meat.
"I've watched smallmouths actually dig around in rocks and root out a madtom, then compete with one another to see which one gets to eat it. I think that's why popping a tube across deep or shallow rocks is such an effective tactic," says the guide.
Stoudenmire favors Mizmo tubes in the 4-, 3 1/2- and 2 3/4-inch sizes, and rigs them on 3/8-, 1/4- and 1/8-ounce jigheads with wire weed guards to minimize snags. The guide explains that he can mix and match the size of the tubes and jigheads in numerous ways, and there is no set formula or stream locale that calls for a certain tube-and-jighead combination.
"For whatever reason, sometimes smallmouths will prefer a big tube on a small jighead or a small tube on a larger jighead," he says. "Sometimes it doesn't seem to matter what size you're tying on, and other days it's crucial. What’s important to know is that a tube can be used all day in the summer just about anywhere. And you can master how to use a tube much easier than a bait it's often compared to—the jig and pig.
"Some of the best places to fish a tube are deep-water ledges, main channel drop-offs, big deep pools with rocky cover and, really, anyplace where there's a change of depth," Stoudenmire continues. "Tubes also work great around shady bank cover and shallow riffles, plus cobble bars and visible cover like grass, wood and rocks, and any kind of current breaks or well-aerated water."
Regardless of where you use a tube, the guide maintains that "scratching" it along the bottom is key. Cast this bait upstream and try to keep it in contact with the bottom as much as possible.
"I prefer a rod with a really sensitive tip that telegraphs what kind of bottom I’m working my tube across," Stoudenmire says. "If a tube is scratching against rocks, there's a rough feel and I will slow down the retrieve. If it is moving across sand or muck, there's a mushy feel, and I get the bait out of there. You can increase your chances of a hookup on every cast if you’re feeling friction through the rod tip. Make your tube spend its time where the bass are."
JERKBAITS FOR JUMBOS
Pennsylvania's George Acord Jr., is part of a family that operates Susquehanna Fishing Tackle (sfttackle.com), which also offers guided trips. Soft-plastic jerkbaits play a major role in Acord's summertime game plan. He rigs the Zoom Super Fluke just two ways, and both are weightless and weedless. The first option is with a 3/0 wide-gap hook; the second involves the same hook, but a No. 7 barrel swivel is positioned 15 to 18 inches above it.
"I don't use weights because they hurt the major appeal of soft-plastic jerkbaits—that they look like struggling baitfish drifting downward through the water column," Accord says. "Some of the best summertime places to fish jerkbaits are shallow, rocky or gravelly flats. After the spawn, smallmouths often head to these type of spots to hunt for food.
"I use the barrel-swivel rig to work deeper water," Acord continues. "A good example of this type of place would be shelf rock areas that break off into the main channel. The drop-offs in these spots are major summertime smallmouth feeding areas."
The guide says a third warm-weather hot spot, especially in late summer, is a dam tailrace. Gizzard and other shad and baitfish often come through the dam's turbines, and these disoriented fish cause major feeding events for a number of predators. Acord emphasizes that this is true match-the-hatch angling, and he strives to use jerkbaits of the same size and color as whatever prey species is coming through the dam on a given day. Because the current is often quite swift in these areas, Acord will pair jerkbaits with jig heads that run from 3/8 to 1/4 ounce.
"The baitfish spawn at different times, and there can be different species as well, so there’s a range of sizes that could be predominant on any given day," he says. "Smallmouths get really focused on a certain baitfish profile, so you'd better pay attention to what they're eating.
"Retrieve your baits with hard left, then hard right jerks. Once I get dialed in to what size the fish want, I can get strikes on cast after cast."