By Jonathan LePera
Special to BassFan

There will always be resident populations of smallmouth that reside in shallow water throughout the summer. Those that roam deeper water will suspend to chase bait or hunker down on structure and attack the bait clouds that hover above them. Canadian smallmouth aces Jamie Bruce and Erick Hodgins have found that fishing an underspin is often the best approach to those nomadic smallmouth.

Hodgins is a well-respected angler who calls Lake St. Clair home, with Lake Erie nearby. A talented multi-species pursuer, Hodgins decided to build an underspin that would handle the punishment fish could dish out.

He settled on a design that eliminated the blade attached to a wire. He found that once fish thrashed in a net or on the deck of a boat, the wire would bend. That wire can only be bent back into place so many times before it eventually breaks.

Hodgins and his business partner Derrick Soulliere designed the Reel Method Original Fluorocarbon Underspin to capitalize on fluorocarbon's refractive properties. More importantly, the blade undulates freely during the retrieve, enticing vicious strikes yet collapsing inside the fish's mouth, allowing for sure hooksets.

Hodgins keeps an underspin rigged up all year.

“I’ll fish it bottom to top, just like a swimbait, but with some added flash,” he said. “Anytime there's baitfish around, it excels.”

Studying smallmouth behavior with live imaging has profoundly influenced his success with an underspin.

“I sometimes fish it like a spybait, watching the 'Scope, counting it down and keeping it at a certain level. Other times I use a little pop, getting it to flare and trigger a bite,” Hodgins said. “I find those big smallies will often lock on and follow for a while, regardless of whether it's a glide bait, swimbait or even a jerkbait. Sometimes that extra snap triggers a bite. There is a lot of subtle imparted action overlooked by many people”.

Courtesy of Erick Hodgins
Photo: Courtesy of Erick Hodgins

Canadian angler Erick Hodgins always has an underspin rigged up and ready to go.

Sometimes Hodgins will even yo-yo the bait, employing a lift-and-fall cadence that varies its path in the water column 2 to 3 feet, up and down, always maintaining contact with it.

Scene out of Shark Week

Every angler has that day on the they'll never forget. For Hodgins, he was fishing in 22 feet of water on Lake St. Clair and began seeing large dark spots on the water, which he soon realized were emerald shiners. Once he got close enough to 'Scope the area, he witnessed a 30- to 40-foot school of baitfish. On the bottom were “hooks,” which he assumed to be smallmouth. Hodgins will never forget what happened next.

“Just like when you watch those Shark Week shows, you see a shark coming through a school of sardines, and the patch opens with the shark in it. Well, the school of emeralds would break apart, and there would be one bass on the 'Scope,” Hodgins said. “We were flipping the underspin into the school, and they were plowing it. I think the flash as it was falling imitated a wounded baitfish”.

When fishing the bait faster, in deeper water or in windy conditions, a casting rod like the 7’6” Shimano Expride fishes 5/8- to 3/4-ounce lures best on a 10- to 12-pound fluorocarbon line.

When fishing underspins weighing between 3/8- and 1/2-ounce, he prefers a spinning rod, like a Shimano Expride 7’2” medium-heavy action paired with a reel spooled with 10- to 15-pound Seaguar Smackdown braided line with an 8- to 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. For head weights that are any lighter, Hodgins opts for a Tactical Fishing PowerShot.

His favorite soft-plastic trailers are the Keitech Fat Swing Impact (2.8 to 3.8”), Strike King Z-Too (3.5- 5”), Z-Man Jerk Shadz (3.5- 5”), and Tactical Panic Minnow (3.5-4.5"), depending on the daily conditions and baitfish size.

Though he tries to match the hatch, Hodgins attempts to fish pairs with a hint of chartreuse, knowing that smallmouth are infuriated by the color. Regardless of how hard they hit or how subtle the bite, he recommends anglers wait until the rod loads before swinging back with a vengeance.

Finding Bait Clouds is Key

Since 2005, Bassmaster Opens Angler Jamie Bruce has been a fan of underspins. He prefers a model with small blades that allow him to burn the bait, employ the "hover stroll" technique, or hop it with a lift-and-drop cadence.

Courtesy of Erick Hodgins
Photo: Courtesy of Erick Hodgins

The blade on the Reel Method underspin is attached with fluorocarbon line instead of wire.

Bruce has never strayed from the Smeltinator underspin designed by his good friend Bryan Gustafson, owner of Lake of the Woods Outdoors. Recently, Northland Tackle acquired the rights to the Smeltinator, which is available throughout North America

Bruce says wind can help break up the surface, adding flash and attraction to the bait.

“It gives you more forgiveness on your cast. You often must land the cast perfectly with a Northland Smeltinator,” he says.

Bruce's key is finding clouds of bait and fish that don't sit still. At times, he’s found fish in 60 feet of water chasing clouds of bait from 30 feet down to within 5 feet of the surface.

Lake of the Woods in northern Ontario is not only the home of 2023 Bassmaster Classic champion Jeff Gustafson, but also Bruce’s home waters. Bruce and his wife won a local Bass N’ Bucks tournament targeting clouds of smelt suspended off a piece of structure.

Using Garmin’s LV34 LiveScope system, Bruce deciphers bass within the schools of bait. Unlike most anglers who like a crystal-clear screen, he pumps his settings close to the max, preferring to decipher the image on the screen instead of allowing the filters to eliminate essential images and data Bruce could use to catch more bass.

Specifically, he will shut off noise rejection, leave the "ghost tree" setting on and his gain near 78 percent.

“I crank the color gain and zoom up to the point I can recognize interference from the bait,” Bruce said. Then he’ll hunt the bass down.

He also rigs an independent 16-volt Powerhouse Lithium battery directly to his 'Scope to reduce voltage drop and maximize power, resulting in more definition for his Garmin GPS Map 8612 unit.

Bruce recalled that during the 2022 Bassmaster Open on Lake Hartwell, en route to placing 18th, he quickly figured out that casting past the fish did nothing to spark their interest.

“Cast which direction they are facing, somewhat like leading ducks when hunting them,” Bruce said.
"You had to land it on them, and with the reaction and the flash, they ate it right away."

In stained water, smelt or minnow head colors with realistic matching plastics in baitfish patterns are good choices. Bruce has confidence in the 2.75” Rapala Crush City Suspect swimbait.

“Even though it's tiny, it's made of TPE plastic, so if one rocks it and doesn’t get it, it won’t rip my bait or pull it down,” Bruce said.

Bruce fishes a 7’3” medium-heavy 13 Fishing Envy spinning rod paired with a 13 Fishing Aerios 3000 spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Suffix 832 braided line and a 9-foot leader of 15-pound Suffix Advance fluorocarbon.

“I don’t worry about line size,” Bruce said. “I’d rather get them to the boat, flip them in and cast back out there."