Watch the In-Fisherman staff zig when others zag, as they use overlooked spoon fishing strategies for smallmouth bass.
What are we looking for here?" I asked Gary Dollahon as he handed me a baitcaster rigged with a 1/2-ounce jigging spoon.
"Could be almost anything," he answered with a grin. "White bass are the most likely, but we could catch catfish, crappie, bass or something else."
The multi-species opportunity is a major part of the appeal of cool-season spoon fishing for Dollahon, who operates a public relations company that focuses on outdoors brands. As an all-species angler, he cannot resist the chance to mix it up with a single approach and commonly find fast action.
Heavy spoons made from lead or other heavy metals and designed to be fished vertically with lifts and drops — jigging spoons — have the potential to work well any time fish are deep enough that you can position a boat directly over them and sufficiently concentrated that you can pick an area and stay over it. Add congregations of baitfish, which spoons imitate well, and the potential grows even more.
Those conditions come together on many waterways during late fall and early winter, as various kinds of baitfish and begin congregating in winter holes or along structure at the edges of those holes.
Dollahon and I were reservoir fishing, with his boat positioned over the end of a long point, just up from where the point dropped into a creek channel. The entire area was protected from the wind because of a major turn in that arm of the reservoir, and a series of points provided the fish very targeted structure that was close to the channel's deep water.
Dollahon had used his sonar to look at a couple of similar points near the same channel edge and hadn't seen anything that impressed him.
When he pulled up on this one he immediately reached for a floating marker buoy. The screen lit up with plentiful bait and bigger marks barely off the bottom. He moved just up the point and dropped the buoy.
"I depend on buoys a great deal," Dollahon said. "I'll drop the first near my target area, but keeping it on the shallow side and not directly on top of where I'm going to fish.I don't want it in my way. It's only to serve as a reference."
If Dollahon is working a ledge, he'll typically drop two or three markers before he begins fishing. This helps him visualize the structure and provides reliable reference when fish strike so he can more readily return to the same spot.
The fish atop the point were sufficiently concentrated that dropping a single buoy did the job, and it wasn't long after Dollahon handed me a rod that we both were hooked up with fish. Both turned out to be white bass, as did the majority of the fish we pulled from that spot over the next couple of hours.
However, we also ended up catching crappie and catfish from the same spot using the same approach.
Dollahon actually keeps a jigging spoon tied on a rod pretty much all the time, and he's apt to reach for that rod whether it's hot, cold or in between. Beginning late in the fall, though, when the multi-species spoon bite really heats up, he relies on spoon fishing quite a bit.
Species vary by waterway, and areas will likewise vary, based on the primary forage and game fish. Typical common denominators of key spoon fishing spots include protection from prevalent wind and current, and deep water with shallower structure close to it. In the reservoirs where Dollahon most often fishes, much of the action occurs up major creek arms, not in the main body.
Dollahon's spoon of choice is as simple as it gets, a 1/2-ounce flat-sided, elongated, white-painted lead spoon. He goes through more than a few, so he pours and paints them himself.
For anglers who don't want to pour spoons, good store-bought options for the same basic approach include a Cotton Cordell C.C. Spoon, Hopkins Shorty Spoon and Cabela's RealImage Jig-N-Spoon.
Dollahon ties his main line directly to the spoon, as opposed to using a snap or swivel and leader, and cinches the knot tight.
"I want the spoon to have a controlled flutter when it falls, not to turn or spin as it can and will with a swivel. The idea is to imitate a fluttering baitfish, and jigging spoon rigged this way does a great job of that," he said.
Because jigging is a vertical approach that doesn't lend to searching a lot of water, Dollahon's day generally begins with a fair amount of looking with his electronics.
Before he ever launches, he has a plan based on past success, recent reports or map study, and he generally will graph several spots before he drops the first spoon in the water.
Once Dollahon finds something he likes, he pulls out the marker buoys and sets up his reference points.
While jigging a spoon is vertical, the total approach does not have to be completely stationary.
If the fish are super concentrated, Dollahon will turn the boat into the wind and use the trolling motor to hold position for as long as the fish stay in place and continue to bite.
However, if the fish are scattered along a break or spread across the top of a point or a hump, he will mark the structure in a couple of places and move the boat very slowly from one marker to the other.
The movement is very slow, just inching the boat forward from time to time to cover more territory with his vertical presentations.
For vertical jigging, Dollahon begins every presentation by dropping the spoon all the way to the bottom.
The fish he's targeting are relating to bottom structure, so that's where he wants to work. He snaps the bait off the bottom to work it, but he wants to feel the bottom again after every jigging motion.
"To fish the spoon, I use a very slight jigging action," he said. "Best description is the small wrist flip you use to start a yo-yo at the end of its string."
After lifting the bait, Dollahon follows it back down with a semi-tight line, wanting to control the fall of the spoon, and feel everything. Once he feels the spoon hit bottom, he waits a second or two and lifts it again.
Most fish hit a jigging spoon as it falls. Others seemingly grab it just as it hits bottom because you never feel a separate strike. When you lift the spoon they are already there, and you simply need to add a little power to set the hook.
For cold-water spoon fishing, Dollahon has also found that a shaking presentation will prompt a lot of strikes.
"I'll begin with the spoon on the bottom and will lift it just a foot or so," Donavan said. "Then I'll shake it hard for several seconds, drop it down and jig it a couple of times and then lift it and shake it again. I don't know what it is about the shaking action, but it can really fire them up that time of year."
If the fish are along a slope into a channel, as opposed to a hard break, and in a range of depths, Dollahon may actually switch to casting. The presentation, though, is very similar to his default vertical jigging presentation.
To start he'll position the boat at the deep end of the range where he expects fish to be and cast toward shallower water. He'll then let the spoon sink all the way to the bottom and work it down the slope with the same yo-yo-style wrist flips and controlled drops.
With any presentation, when Dollahon feels anything different he sets the hook solidly, and he does so with the fun and happy realization that the fish at the other end of the line could be just about anything.