With the conclusion of the Lake Champlain Elite Series event comes an interesting look into tactics used by the highest finishers. Regular readers here will recognize my complete miscalculation last week, when I somehow convinced myself that anglers targeting largemouth would have any chance against those chasing smallmouth with forward-facing sonar. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so far off in my predictions. Regardless, a review of winning methods brought an interesting concept to light.
Like many smallmouth-focused tournaments of the past, this event was dominated by one single category of lure. Rather than a dropshot, however, the 2023 Champlain tournament will go down as the clash of the jig-and-minnow.
Every finisher in the Top 10 credited some form of jighead and plastic body, most often a shad imitator. Strike King and Z-Man lures got the bulk of the use, thanks to their quivery, lifelike materials. The winner, conversely, relied on a unique creation. More about that in a minute.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen 10 out of 10 in the online photo galleries. Too, a few pros always toss in some obscure bait that likely caught about nothing, but needs some credit with a sponsor. Here, I noticed the same. But the point is this: The new generation of smallmouth fishing – chasing open-water fish with sonar prior to presenting a lure – is currently most efficient using jigs and plastics. Sure, dropshots get a few, but competitors today are learning ways to catch suspended fish on a reliable basis.
You know, it wasn’t that long ago that the country’s top anglers purposely avoided fishing for suspended bass. When I was younger, bass up off the bottom were referred to as “the hardest fish in the world to catch.”
Malarky, said anyone with a little bit of smallmouth knowledge, as methods continued to evolve. Early on, savvy anglers used vertical presentations with metal lures to catch bass holding up off the bottom. I can remember doing so with a Hopkins Shorty spoon around 1990, and I wasn’t the first by any means. This was a time of 2-D sonar and far less efficient trolling motors. Results varied.
Later, it was suspending jerkbaits. At the time, ingenious tinkerers used lead weights and strips to hold down lures like Spoonbill Rebels, Bombers and Rogues, making fantastic catches under certain conditions. Jerkbaits able to suspend right out of the package – originally introduced by Japanese manufacturers – replaced the modified versions, of course.
For a brief period, the Float-N-Fly grabbed hold of the industry, utilizing a small cork to suspend a jig. Most anglers scoffed at the idea, the fixed-bobber requiring extra-long and limber rods. Still effective in cold water, the F&F continues to have devotees.
More recently, I’ve noticed a surge in floating flies without the float. Here, I’m referring to light, fluffy hair jigs, brought to the spotlight by large-scale Canadian bass tournaments where winners scored massive stringers on 6-pound line. There was, and is, something about a lure swimming up off the bottom that bass, especially smallmouth, are attracted to. Experiments are still taking place.
Today, through, things have changed dramatically thanks to forward-facing sonar. Instead of suspending a bait up off the bottom in hopes a bass will approach and eat, competitors are able to watch the response of the fish and react accordingly. Boy, what a change from counting one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, praying something would finally take the slack out of the line, wondering if a bass was even anywhere close.
Now it’s guerilla tactics. As a result, anglers are realizing that lures don’t necessarily have to fall slowly to get bit. A case in point: many of the lures used by last week’s best feature heavy jigheads, often weighing a half-ounce or more, attached to a minuscule body. These, as we know, cast like a bullet and fall like a rock. I can only assume they also show well on FFS. Combined with light line and the ultra-sensitive carbon fishing rods of today, reach and efficiency are increased dramatically. Just get it down there, right?
Maybe not. While the top portion of the field took this approach, the winner lightened up a bit. Japan’s Kyoya Fujita, no stranger to tournament success in his home country, utilized a lighter jig and a unique plastic body that’s designed to hover. The lure, a Jackall RV-Drift Fry, is advertised to be effective in the “mid-strolling technique”, Japan’s more complex study of fishing for suspended bass with Damiki and other rigs. According to what I read, “slack must be mastered throughout the retrieve”, while the Drift Fry produces the “required swim-range control” with its unique lip.
Quite different from a 1/2-ounce ball-head and a Fluke, huh?
In any case, this is the future of much lure design in bass fishing. Baits that appeal to fish visible on a screen and holding off the bottom. Effective lures for open-water fishing and it’s unique set of circumstances.
Especially given attention will be the characteristic of not floating, but not sinking. Mid-strolling, as it’s called.
What a change from Shortys and Spoonbills.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)