Crankbaits and spinnerbaits will put aggressive fish in the boat, and jigs and worms may be more suitable for fishing around heavy cover. But when it comes to trying to catch fussy fish or drawing a lot of bites during the day, finesse tactics win out every time.
Perhaps that's why finesse techniques continue to gain popularity throughout the country. Tactics that were once limited to clear waters of the West and North have proved to be equally effective from Texas to Florida, and all points between.
Defining finesse fishing isn't as easy as it was when West Coast anglers first brought it to the Bassmaster Tournament Trail 20 years ago. In the minds of Western anglers, finesse fishing means fishing slowly with small baits and light line in deep water.
"That's the purest sense of the technique," says Californian Don Iovino, one of finesse fishing's pioneers. "Nowadays, the term 'finesse' is overused and abused. We're hearing about finesse cranking, finesse flipping, finesse spinnerbaiting. In my mind, if you're not delivering smaller baits on light line in deep water, it's not finesse fishing."
That's what finesse rigs do for fishermen when the bass aren't cooperating. When the bites aren't coming frequently enough, there's nothing sissy about a subtle approach that keeps you in action all day.
Definition aside, Iovino admits that anglers who utilize small plastics in finesse presentations — even with heavier lines — in shallow water are going to catch more fish when conditions are right. And those conditions occur more often today than ever before.
"Today's bass fishermen are so well-educated and fish the lakes so hard that the bass are reacting more adversely to all the pressure," says Iovino. "So, anytime you can scale down your lures and present them more naturally, you're going to catch more bass. But I believe if you use lighter lines and smaller baits, you're going to catch even more fish."
Iovino also dismisses the argument that finesse fishing only catches small fish, an issue he debates in his book, Finesse Bass Fishing and the Sonar Connection (www.iovino.com; 818-848-6180). Because finesse fishing is so appealing to all sizes of bass, the technique will produce additional smaller fish. But it catches big ones just as readily as it does little ones.
"I'm not saying that big bass don't eat big baits, because we know they do," wrote Iovino, who has caught bass up to 18 pounds on 4 1/2-inch worms and 8-pound line. "But what about when you find lower or higher water temperatures, low oxygen content, poor pH levels or a different forage availability? Those situations make bass less willing to hunt down bigger prey."
So, what are some of the most popular finesse presentations? Here's a look at those that are fooling bass nationwide:
Split shotting — Western pro Sean Minderman says the split shot rig is as good or better on the third day of a tournament as it was on the first.
"If the fish are aggressive, they'll bite a worm, regardless of how it's rigged," he offers. "But when they stop biting other presentations, the split shot will catch them when all else fails. It is my No. 1 confidence rig."
The split shot is a modified Carolina rig designed for spinning tackle, lighter line and small soft plastic baits. There are as many rigging methods as there are lures that can be fished split shot style. Some anglers simply pinch a round, mash-on sinker on the line about a foot above a soft plastic lure.
Others add sliding sinkers above the split shot for more weight, or opt for a cylindrical "Mojo" sinker that is secured onto the line by threading a rubber-bandlike material through the sinker. This technique is said to be less likely to damage monofilament than are conventional pegging methods.
Minderman, on the other hand, pegs a small glass bead on the line with a soft rubber "peg." The pegged bead allows the sinker to slide freely, but separates it from the lure.
The Spokane, Wash., pro loves to split shot leech-type soft plastics, 6-inch straight-tail worms, lizards and small jerkbaits, such as the Zoom Fluke.
"When the bass are real fussy, a 3-inch leech or Reaper is great," he explains. "But sometimes they want a bigger bait, so you've got to experiment. The Fluke is a little larger, and it glides in a manner that fish can't refuse."
Drop shotting — The hottest finesse tactic to be developed in recent years is a staple among Western anglers and is becoming popular in the Midwest. And while it is very effective in deep, clear water, drop shotters are learning that the rig is far more versatile than previously believed. It can be fished shallow like a split shot rig, and it catches fish in stained or clear water.
"You really can't fish it wrong," says 2002 CITGO Bassmasters Classic contender Mike O'Shea. "You can throw it shallow and drag it like a split shot rig, or shake it vertically. The bait is always doing something, and it imitates an injured baitfish as well as or better than any other presentation."
Drop shots are rigged by tying a small finesse hook onto the line with a Palomar knot and leaving a longer tag at the end, where the sinker is attached. By placing a soft plastic lure above the sinker, you give the bait a swimming action and keep it positioned above the fish, or in the face of suspended fish.
Distance between the lure and sinker can be critical, and you should experiment to determine what works best. The shaking action causes the lure to quiver while the sinker stays on bottom, so it requires a more refined action than the traditional drag or hop retrieve.
"Bait often suspends off the bottom, and the drop shot gives your lure more natural appeal in that environment," explains Iovino.
Western drop shotters use 4- and 6-pound line because of the depths they are fishing. It's not uncommon to catch bass from desert lakes with the drop shot in 60 feet of water, so the smaller line gets to the bottom fast. It also gives the lure more natural action.
Doodling — Refined by Iovino and utilized by nearly all Western anglers, this method triggers bites by the "shaking" of a worm in the face of fish you know are holding on deep structure.
"Whereas the drop shot is a great technique for locating and catching nonpositional fish, worm shaking is good when you can see them on your graph," says Californian Mike O'Shea. "Those fish are usually holding on a specific type of structure (i.e., rockpile, deep bush, hump)."
The object is to maintain bottom contact with a Texas rigged soft plastic, usually a worm, and shake it on a slack line to cause the sinker to flop around on the bottom.
"If fishing rock, the sinker will clang a little and create attention," says O'Shea. "More importantly, I want the tail to quiver. The subtle presentation gets you a lot of bites from neutral fish."
O'Shea rigs his doodling rod with a 1/4-ounce slip sinker, 8- to 10-pound Maxima monofilament with a 4- to 6-inch hand-poured, straight-tail Roboworm.
Shaking can be done with spinning tackle, but the method tends to create line twist.
"The doodle rod must be soft so it doesn't overwork the bait and sinker, yet stiff enough so you can feel with it," says Iovino.
Also, ultrasoft hand-poured worms are best, because they produce a better quivering action with little effort.
Tube crawling — Skipping 3- and 4-inch tube jigs over gravel or sandy bottoms and patchy weeds is a great way to mimic shallow water crawfish and shore minnows — prime targets of bass feeding on the flats.
When the cover is sparse, the bait is best rigged by inserting a tube jighead through the rear opening, so the leadhead is concealed in the tube and the hook is exposed.
And because the hook is exposed, it can be fished on line as small as 4- to 6-pound strengths and medium light spinning rods. The advantage? The tube dances more realistically on smaller line, and a conventional hook set isn't required. When the strike occurs, simply put a bow in the rod and start winding.
For BASS pro Chip Harrison of Bremen, Ind., crawling tube jigs in a fast, erratic manner is akin to fishing a crankbait, but with more finesse. He pumps his 7-foot rod tip rapidly, albeit horizontal to the water, to resemble a crawfish scooting along the bottom.
"Although I'm moving my rod tip fast, I'm only moving the bait a few inches at a time to take the slack out of the line," he describes. "You can hop the bait, too, but that takes it too far off the bottom."
When Harrison feels pressure, he pulls and winds his reel quickly. It may be a fish, or if the bait has caught on a weed or the bottom, the rod pressure causes the lure to pop free from the snag and can trigger a reaction strike.
Slow fallers — There's something to be said for fishing soft plastic baits without added weight. A slowly sinking lure is irresistible to suspended bass or fish feeding near the surface.
Slow fallers include soft baits that are Texas rigged or fashioned wacky style, the latter of which is an unorthodox rig gaining popularity from Texas to the northern lakes region.
"The wacky rig is one of those things that work when the fish don't seem to be interested in anything else," says Texas pro Todd Faircloth. "It is also deadly during the prespawn, spawn and postspawn seasons."
Floating straight-tail worms in 4- to 7-inch lengths are preferred by most wacky riggers. The hook is placed in the center of the worm so that both ends dangle freely beneath the hook. It can be rigged weightless — great for ultrashallow or suspended bass — or with weight placed on the hook shank or in the nose of the worm.
Faircloth prefers the latter. He inserts a finishing nail into the nose to add casting distance and get the worm to sink faster. He normally rigs the bait with a 2/0 wide gap Gamakatsu hook.
"Use the smallest weight you can," he explains. "If it's windy or I want to fish faster, I'll use a bigger hook to help the bait sinker faster. The nail inserted into the head helps the worm glide nose-first, and when you twitch it, the worm will flair, and the added weight gives it more action."
Bass generally hit the worm during the descent, and even though the hook is in the middle, you rarely miss the strike.
The weightless French fry is another effective finesse trick that has emerged from the Midwest for clear water fishing. Anglers there rig it on spinning tackle and 8- to 10-pound monofilament.
"It's a technique for fishing in an area where you know the bass are, but they won't bite anything else," says Pierceton, Ind., pro Ken McIntosh. "The weightless French fry may be the best rig for prespawn, spawn and postspawn bass that are cruising the shallows or spawning flats."
Most anglers rig the French fry so that the broader, ribbed edges are flat. That causes the bait to catch more water and sink slower.
"When you see it in the water, you think that no respectable bass would hit it because it doesn't look like much," says McIntosh. "That's hardly the case. That rig has saved my fanny in a lot of tough tournaments."
Louie Stout has co-authored Secrets of a Champion with Kevin VanDam. It is available for $16.95 (plus $5 S&H) by calling 800-544-9343, or writing KVD Publications, P.O. Box 174, Jones, MI 49061.