Think Small to Score Big on Smallmouth Bass
October 08, 2019
When the bite turns tough, downsize your baits to improve your chances.
If you’relooking to catch a giant smallmouth, then you need to see about a visit to Lake Erie. From Michigan to New York, it’s filled with schools of 3-, 4-, 5- and even 6-pounders. Major League Fishing (MLF) angler Dave Lefebre catches plenty of them within sight of his Erie, Pennsylvania, lakeside home, where he leaves his big lures.
Size isn’t the only thing that smallmouth swimming in the shallowest Great Lake share. “They are getting smart,” Lefebre said. Lake Erie’s reputation for bruiser bronzebacks has attracted plenty of local and visiting anglers. And rare is a summer that doesn’t see at least one national tournament launch somewhere on the lake.
All that fishing pressure has affected the smallmouth, making them tougher to catch. It has affected Lefebre, too. He has resorted to drop-shotting 3-inch Yamamoto Senkos on a No. 4 hook instead of the 4-inch baits and 1/0 hooks used by others. He even splits his fishing between 4- and 6-pound-test line. “I never use 8-pound-test line there,” Lefebre said.
Downsizing tackle to generate bass bites isn’t a new phenomenon. Lefebre recently uncovered some Producto finesse worms and mushroom jigheads in his garage that he used to win a local tournament 30 years ago. But the move toward miniscule is becoming a bigger part of daily life for many anglers as bass fishing’s popularity grows, thanks in part to the expanding kayak, high school and college bass tournament scenes.
Lefebre said rookie anglers have access to the same information as the sport’s veterans thanks to the internet and social media. That makes for a shallow learning curve. He points to the speed that anglers adopted the Ned rig, the stubby worm and jighead that is bass fishing’s latest darling. That information availability makes every bass angler better, and they in turn apply more fishing pressure to nearly every bass in every lake.
Fishing pressure is just one way that bass end up with lockjaw. Environmental changes, such as the arrival of a high-pressure system after a cold front, can make bass tough to catch, too. When you run into either, you could call it a day. Or you can dig in, downsize your presentation and catch them.
SIZE ALWAYS MATTERS
When it comes to downsizing, Lefebre’s on a different page—more like pages—than most bass anglers. While there are times when he’ll rig a smaller lure, his approach is broader, finding ways to minimize his line, hook and weight, including jigheads.
In the bigger picture, a 4-inch Senko, for example, isn’t much different than a 5-inch one if you’re still using heavy line and a big hook. “Smaller is stealthier,” Lefebre said. “I’ve seen it millions of times, when the hook size or the line size means the difference between you catching 50 [bass] and catching one.”
Lefebre said his many small tackle adjustments add up to big benefits when it comes to making stubborn bass bite. One of the most important adjustments is giving your lure a more natural action. And in the case of soft plastics, a good place to start is with the hook.
Lefebre said smaller hooks hide in the overall profile of a lure and lack the action-killing weight that comes with larger hooks. Take the popular weightless wacky rig, when a single hook is run through the middle of a soft-plastic worm. Its slow fall and undulations regularly draw strikes from pressured bass. Most anglers fish it with a 3/0 or 4/0 wide-gap hook. “A No. 6 hook makes a lot of difference,” he said.
Lefebre also downsizes his jigs. Everyone knows lighter jigs sink slower than heavy jigs, but their benefits go deeper. A smaller weight, even with a skirt and trailer of comparable bulk, makes less of a disturbance underwater, which is less likely to upset wary bass.
Light weights, 1/4 ounce or less, can improve the bass-catching power of soft plastics, especially when combined with a smaller offering. That was the case during a visit to Lake Champlain, which stretches more than 100 miles between the Green and Adirondack mountains.
A marina on the Vermont side hosted a bass tournament the previous weekend, and it was still harboring big largemouth seven days later. But being caught, transported and released made them timid biters, refusing time-tested Champlain favorites such as heavy jigs and big soft plastics. Instead, they wanted a small creature bait threaded on a light wire 2/0 hook that was floated under docks and moored boats with a 3/16-ounce bullet weight.
There is a point when weights become too light. Your lure, especially vertically presented ones such as jigs and Texas-rigged worms, must reach bottom, regardless of depth, thickness of cover, or winds and waves that you’re facing topside. You need enough weight to accomplish that, along with enough feel to detect bites. So, keep changing yours with the conditions, always searching for “just enough.”
LIGHTEN YOUR LINE
Lefebre finds big gains in downsizing his line, such as dropping to 8-pound from 12-pound test. “And going to 6 pound test from an 8 pound test line can be night and day,” he said. Lighter lines have small diameters, which are less visible under water, and their increased flexibility allows lures to work better. They quietly slip through water compared to heavier lines, making them harder for bass to feel with their lateral lines.
Giving up strength doesn’t mean relinquishing reliability, too. That’s especially true when you spool your reel with braided line. Its diameter is a fraction of a comparable strength fluorocarbon or monofilament, but it’s more abrasion resistant.
Braided line does have a downside: It’s highly visible, even in a green, brown or smoke color. If you’re concerned about line-shy pressured bass seeing it, use a black permanent marker to chop up its profile by coloring small stretches within the first few feet ahead of your lure. Or tie in a short leader of fluorocarbon line.
If you want to pass on braided line, choose fluorocarbon. It has a touch more stretch than braided line and is nearly as abrasion resistant. But its refractive index is almost identical to water, making it disappear under the surface. Monofilament should be your last choice. Its stretch makes hooksets difficult, and it’s less abrasion resistant than the other two, which doesn’t instill confidence when casting inside heavy cover, where lock-jaw bass tend to retreat.
GO FOR A SPIN
Lefebre freely admits that he’s no fan of spinning outfits. While he’ll use one to fish drop-shots, every other lure, no matter how light or small, is delivered via casting rods. He likes their fighting power and casting control. But they demand the experience of a professional to precisely deliver finesse lures such as shaky heads and Ned rigs. For the rest of us, spinning rods are a better option for downsized presentations.
Spinning reels handle lighter lines better than casting reels. During a cast, line flows off their stationary spool uninhibited. With casting reels, the lure spins the spool, an effort that steals momentum, shortening casting distance.
Don’t downsize your spinning reel with your line and lures. You actually want a bigger spool, such as those on 300 series reels, that lay line down in large-diameter coils. That eliminates the tangles that small-diameter spools breed. And don’t let the extra capacity be a concern. You can fill it with backing instead of more expensive braid or fluorocarbon.
Spinning rods, especially those with slow or moderate actions, cast downsized lures with ease because they need less weight to load. And don’t skimp on the power. A medium or medium-heavy will steer bass away from line-snapping hazards.
While soft-plastic lures are what most bass anglers think of when it’s time to downsize, small power-fishing lures have a place, too. Compact crankbaits, shorter jerkbaits and spinnerbaits sporting smaller blades are all good options when the bite turns tough. They also work when bass are transfixed on small baitfish.
Major League Fishing (MLF) angler Mike Iaconelli found bass feasting on spawning shad during the Bass Pro Tour stop on Alabama’s Smith Lake in May. He started with a swimbait that was about 5 inches long. When they wouldn’t touch it, he switched to a swimbait about 3 inches long. That move helped him catch enough to finish ninth.
Retrieves can be downsized, too. When the sky is low and dark, bass will swim long distances to chase down speedy lures. But as fishing or air pressure increase, they sulk tighter to cover. Getting them to bite may require a slower retrieve. Often the key depth is where you can barely see your lure.
Downsizing isn’t only about scraping out bites. Use it to generate more bites anytime. “It’s the reason I love MLF,” Lefebre said. “You’re fishing for everything. And the last person I want to fish behind is me.”