June 16, 2021
Lures under 2 inches long and weighing 1/8 ounce or less are off the radar for most of us, but for many anglers across the West, these little lures are the "go-to" weapons when fish are finicky.
Not only that, they’re just plain fun to fish, especially when compared to the drudgery of punch-bait fishing, dragging big jigs far down in the depths or winching in crankbaits that fight harder than some fish. And for everything from bass to trout, they produce.
It's no longer a secret that tiny lures sometimes punch the ticket for big bass, whether it’s smallmouths, largemouths or spots. Anglers all over the West have been scoring with diminutive offerings, and perhaps none more so than those in the Ned rig category.
Kansas angler Ned Kehde is credited with devising the lures and the tactics, and Z-Man now owns the original, but there are many other companies making similar rigs. A Ned rig is basically a tiny mushroom-style jig head paired with a soft-plastic tail a couple inches long. The Z-Man variety, rigged with a tail of their super-tough, high-flotation TPE plastic, stands with the tail upright on bottom—the major point of difference between these lures and many other jigs.
The vertical orientation of the jig makes it possible to activate bait movement with the slightest whisper of rod twitch, and often that’s just what bass want, especially in clear water on heavily fished lakes.
Some Ned rigs are amazingly tiny, and yet they’re capable of catching whopper bass. The smallest Power Finesse ShroomZ Ned head offered by Z-Man is a scant 1/10 ounce, the weight of some crappie jigs, but it has a long-shank 3/0 hook easily rigged with a Finesse TRD, Finesse ShadZ, TRD TubeZ or Hula StickZ to make it a killer under tough conditions. The flotation of the TPE tails causes a very slow, meandering drop, which in itself can be a fish-catcher. They’re also remarkably tough, with one tail typically lasting through dozens of fish. Other companies also offer TPE tails and Ned-style jig heads.
While the Ned rig has gotten most of the love lately, quality bass also show a surprising attraction to miniature crankbaits at times, particularly in early spring when they’re feeding on young, fry-size shad. Rat-L-Trap makes their famed lipless version in sizes as small as 1/8 ounce, and when bass are schooling on mini shad, you can’t keep the fish off it. The little Rapala Rippin’ Rap, also a lipless crank just over 1 1/2 inches long, is another killer when they’re on the fry bite.
As the year wears on, tiny topwaters begin to produce. The Heddon Tiny Torpedo is just 1 7/8 inches long, but in fall, as young-of-the-year shad get up to that size and start feeding on top, it performs very well when fished around breaking schools. It makes a surface disturbance out of proportion to its size thanks to a spinning tail prop.
The classic motion is a couple of sharp twitches and then a stop, with strikes usually coming on the stop, but a steady series of jerks can also be effective around schooling fish. Rapala’s little Ultra Light Pop is another good fry imitation at 1 1/2 inches. It’s small but capable of producing a baloop that lures bass of all sizes.
Though I like fly-fishing for trout as much as anybody, if I’m after big browns or rainbows, I switch to ultralight spinning tackle with a miniature lure like the Rebel Tracdown Minnow or Rapala’s Countdown CD03. Bigger trout definitely prefer hard baits. (Of course, in some trout waters, treble hooks aren’t allowed, so you have to swap them for single hooks.)
Anglers fishing mini lures in flowing water are more successful if they employ the same knowledge that fly anglers use to predict where fish will lie and feed in the presence of current. But because mini-lure anglers are imparting movement to the lure rather than working for a dead drift, the fishing is easier. The angler has more options to fish across currents and at greater distances because line drag is less of problem in presentation.
Last September I fished Colorado’s Blue River upstream of Green Mountain Reservoir and found both rainbows and browns in almost every hole deeper than 3 feet, eager to smash a mini Countdown on 4-pound-test mono. The trick was to fish the lure quartering downstream, with slight twitches as it began to speed up at the end of the swing—that’s where most of the fish hit. My little 6-foot St. Croix travel rod was all it took to cover the water.
However, on some larger streams it’s necessary to mend line downstream to prevent drag, just as you do when fly fishing. For those conditions, a longer rod in the 8- to 9-foot range, like those used by Pacific Coast anglers for steelhead, can be advantageous. Those long, parabolic-action rods also really power a mini-lure on the cast, allowing for better coverage of likely holding water.
Don’t overlook critter-type mini baits, either. Rebel’s floating Crickhoppers do well on streams flowing through flat pasture where grasshoppers abound. The Rebel Middle Wee Crawfish is a mini crank that not only whacks lake and stream trout, but also bass, particularly smallies.
Crappie anglers are well aware of the power of jigs in the 1/16- to 1/32-ounce sizes, especially in clear, deep lakes like Arizona’s Roosevelt or California’s New Melones. Add a 2-inch Berkley Power Grub tail and these little jigs become even more effective.
While most fish taken with jigs are caught by fishing vertically over brush and ledges, these days side-scan sonar makes it possible to target suspended crappies anywhere on a given lake. They’re most often found near bait balls or on the edges of drops, and in clear western lakes it’s always best to target fish down at least 20 feet to avoid them reacting to the shadow of the boat.
For the biggest crappies in any lake, many anglers like mini crankbaits. The tiny 1/16-ounce Rapala Ultra Light Rippin’ Rap, the 1/8-ounce Strike King Bitsy Minnow and the Rebel Super Teeny Wee-R Crankbait, also 1/8 ounce, all do the job. The Rapala is best for fish holding deeper than 10 feet, while the others excel for shallow pre- and post-spawn fish on the banks.
One easy way to locate schooling crappies in early spring before the spawn and also in mid-summer when they’ve gone deep is to tow a spread of minis around offshore bait schools, standing treetops and creek channel ledges. As with all trolling, line length, line thickness and trolling speed are all part of the equation in putting the lures at a depth where fish can see them. For crappies, a speed of 1 to 2 mph with the trolling motor on low is just fast enough to bring out the wobble in a mini crank. Let your GPS be your speed control and drop markers anywhere you see bait or fish so that you can repeat your passes over these spots, varying line length and lure type.
Even if you don’t like trolling, it doesn’t hurt to use the tactic to find the fish. Once trolling reveals their location, spot-lock or anchor up and go to work on them casting mini-lures and jigs to run a foot or two above them—crappies rarely go down to take a bait.
RIGGING RIGHT FOR ULTRALIGHT
You don’t have to buy an ultralight rod to fish small lures, though a 5- to 6-foot UL will definitely help. However, you’ll definitely want light, flexible line—either mono or braid—that will slip easily off the lip of the spool. Your distance with 10-pound test may be a third less than your distance with 4-pound test—it’s amazing the difference the lighter line makes.
Tiny lures need light, highly flexible line to work properly. The stiffness of heavier mono or fluoro can take away half their action and cut down on strikes.
Light braid also works well—8-pound-test Power-Pro is so thin and flexible it casts even these little lures nicely. It works particularly well on a 2000-size reel, which has a much larger spool than the little 500- and 1000-size ultralights. The new Shimano Vanford (above) stands out in the class because that reel in the 2000 size weighs the same as most 1000-sized reels (5.3 ounces) and balances beautifully on most UL rods. Yet it holds 165 yards of 6-pound-test mono and retrieves 32 inches of line per crank.