It pays to think "outside the box" when assessing how and when to use lures.
Many baits are stereotyped for specific situations, and in the case of soft plastics, that includes how we rig them.
The Strike King Rodent is a good example. The Rodent is a ribbed, creature bait with flat sides and two flat tails embraced by a pair of small legs. It's similar to what some anglers call "beaver-style" lures.
It's mostly used for Texas rigging and flipping into cover, or punching through grass mats, but is more versatile than some anglers realize.
In fact, I hadn't considered it for northern smallmouth until last week while taping "Zona's Awesome Fishing Show" with Mark Zona. The show will air Dec. 31 on the Outdoor Channel.
Michigan smallmouth are pelagic most of the year, roaming offshore to feed on shiners, perch and smelt. During fall, they prefer "lobster" — moving shallow to gobble up crawfish.
Tube baits rigged on open jig heads are a staple for fishing smallmouth in short grass or rocks. We caught a few fish on those, but not as many as we expected.
Bassmaster senior writer Louie Stout, also from Michigan, had told us about catching big smallies on Rodents rigged on jig heads, so I put one on a Strike King Shaky Head football jig and caught a five pounder on my first cast!
When rigged on the jig head, the Rodent is an excellent crawfish imitator. We used 1/8- to 3/8-ounce heads, depending upon the wind.
The lure's action reminds me of my early days when I caught smallmouth on a spade-tail grub that had a similar darting action.
The football head keeps the lure on bottom while the body stands up. The legs and tails continue to move when the bait is sitting still.
Those jigs are ideal. They don't hang up in rocks and they offer a good crawfish action. And since there wasn't much wood, we didn't worry about the open hook snagging.
Now, we also rigged the small rodent on the back of skirted finesse jigs and caught them. It's a deadly combination.
The smaller, 3-inch version worked best because it matched the crawfish. Green pumpkin was the best color.
We fished the bait on spinning rods and 8-pound fluorocarbon, shaking the rods gently on a slack line as we pulled it along the bottom. We imparted short "snaps" of the rod when we felt it pull into the grass or against a rock, and that triggered strikes. It was similar to how we fish Carolina rigs, and when the bass bit, they ate it.
The light line allowed us to make long casts that are critical in clear water and gave the bait a better fall rate.
The experience proved just how versatile these soft baits can be when you think "outside the box." There's no doubt in my mind this tactic will work anywhere in the country where smallmouth are feeding on crawfish.