Willie Sutton and Roland Martin.
What do a famous, long-dead safecracker and the all-time BASS tournament winner have in common?
Their career-long search for more sensitivity.
Sutton, who operated in the 1940-50s, used to sandpaper his fingertips to gain a more sensitive touch. And Martin has considered such drastic measures.
"I remember that the old safecrackers used sandpaper to rub on their fingers," the 19-time winner says. "I don't know if that works or not. I'm going to buy some sandpaper tonight and see if it helps me tomorrow.
"That may be the next step in our quest for more sensitivity."
Sensitivity is the Holy Grail of bass fishing.
It is the ability to detect and interpret the taps, ticks, bumps, pings, mushy feeling and other down-the-line vibrations that separates the nation's touring pros from the rest of us. Through years of on-the-water experience, they have developed almost a sixth sense when it comes to reading any change in the tension of the line during a retrieve.
"Sensitivity is always the key to catching fish," Florida pro Shaw Grigsby emphasizes. "Being able to feel your bait and a strike is everything."
"Besides feeling a strike, sensitivity enables you to learn what is on the bottom of the lake," Texan Alton Jones adds. "And that can shorten your search time. It will tell you if you are wasting your time on an old mud bank or if you've found a stump or a rock or a laydown tree."
Developing a sensitive touch involves more than just physically feeling what is occurring on the lake floor. Expert anglers say there is a mental component as well.
"After you make sure that your equipment is as sensitive as possible, it then becomes a matter of maintaining a mental awareness of what your lure is doing at all times," former Bassmaster Classic champion Ken Cook advises. "It's a combination of feel and vision.
"That amounts to seeing your line. That amounts to mentally noting what normal feels like with a bait, whether it is a crankbait, spinnerbait, Carolina rig, or jig. You have to take notice of what normal is with your retrieve because anything different from that is something you need to know about. It could be a rock or a bush or a bass. You need to be able to assess the changes.
"You also need to train yourself to see the line. Once you know what that line feels like when it's swimming or not on the bottom, you will have a better chance to realize when that feeling changes. It takes a little experience to realize this, but it is the essence of catching fish. You must know what your bait is doing so if it is altered, you can jerk."
The goal, top Japanese pro Takahiro Omori reminds us, is to "try to feel as much as you can. Once you start knowing what is on the bottom, you have to understand your equipment — the rod, the line, even the kind of material (of) your sinker and beads. It all makes a difference in sensitivity."
Fellow Japanese angler and past Classic qualifier Kotaro Kiriyama points out that even the most sensitive tackle won't be enough without the proper amount of concentration. Part of his sensitivity training involves visualizing exactly what his lure is doing throughout the retrieve.
Developing the sensitive touch of a surgeon begins with using the proper tackle.
Amazing technological developments of the past two decades have improved today's rods to their current lightweight and highly sensitive state. Graphite refinement might be the industry's greatest gift to bass enthusiasts.
"It is so important to use only high quality rods if you want to get maximum sensitivity," California finesse master Aaron Martens claims. "And you need to match up your rod choice with your baits and depths. If I'm fishing deep, I want the most sensitive rod I can get. If I go shallow, I might use a little softer rod because I don't need as much sensitivity."
Looking for the ultimate in sensitivity? Martens suggests utilizing spinning gear, which he says is more conductive than baitcasting tackle. He also recommends downsizing the rod and line diameter to get enhanced sensitivity during the times when bass are not aggressive.
To maximize his touch, Cook sticks strictly to graphite rods — not buying the theory of some pros that this material can actually be too sensitive with fast moving lures (causing anglers to set the hook before a bass fully inhales it). He says the luxury of detecting the precise moment when a crankbait or spinnerbait has been interrupted during the retrieve greatly outweighs any possible hooking problems.
"Line size and type are critical to sensitivity," Martens notes. "A low-stretch line, like P-Line, promotes sensitivity. A lot of times if I am fishing really deep and I want to feel the rocks, I go down to 6-pound line so I can really feel the bottom. If I go up to 8-pound, I lose sensitivity."
Roland Martin believes that the advent of braided lines has done as much for enhancing sensitivity as the graphite rod. He calls it the "ultimate in sensitivity" and says "you can put SpiderWire on even the crummiest rod and have more sensitivity than you will with monofilament."
Some anglers get the better of two technologies by adding leaders made of nearly invisible fluorocarbon line to braid. Kiriyama is a big fan of fluorocarbon, for its sensitive transmission.
Bullet weight design and composition is another area where the industry has done fishermen a major favor. In recent years, companies like Lake Fork Trophy Tackle, Penetrator and Excalibur have introduced sinkers made of tungsten, which has proved to be a more sensitive material than lead or brass.
"The type and shape of a weight can make a difference in sensitivity," Martin explains. "Tungsten is a real hard material, so it enables you to feel vibration better.
"Shape of the weight is important, too. If I'm fishing a soft or nonsnaggy bottom, I like to use round or blunt weights. It allows you to feel the difference between muck and silt and sand. If you go to a Mojo-type weight, you won't feel anything in that stuff. A round weight also stirs up the bottom and attracts fish. Also, tungsten weights are a lot shorter and fatter, and they work to feel the bottom better. If I'm fishing snaggy stuff, I go to a football- or Mojo-shape weight."
When it comes to sinkers, the pros say there is no discernible difference in sensitivity between a pegged and free-moving weight.
Cranking king David Fritts has often said that he can detect times when a bass just approaches his diving bait. If that were true, he would have made a good safecracker.
Fritts believes that baitcasting reels are the most overlooked tackle components when it comes to robbing sensitivity.
"If you want the most sensitive reel possible, go back to the older reels," he says. "Nowadays, everybody wants anti-reverse. Everybody wants reels that are real tight, thumb bars and all the good stuff. That way, if you pitch into a spot and a fish bites, you can jerk and your reel handle won't pop back.
"The truth is the looser your reel, the better you can feel your bait. That's why I use a Lew's BB1N and 1NG. They've been around forever. If I use one of the newer Lew's or any other new reel and throw my crankbait out, I cannot feel my bait half as well. It's because the reels are so tight. In other words, when you stop the handle, there's no play. On the other hand, using my old Lew's and the old Amabassadeurs, when you stop the handle, it clicks back. Because the reel is so loose, you can absolutely feel your bait so much better.
"That's why I called Browning the other day and ordered 45 of the old reels. Hopefully, that will last me as long as I want to fish."
To understand when a bass has taken a lure, it is vital that an angler know the basic movement and feel of each individual bait. Most pros have mastered this concept.
Fritts has such proficiency with crankbaits that he has learned the subtle differences between a Rapala DT-15 and a Norman DD15 or a Bagley version.
"I can't tell people how to do it because it's something they've got to learn," he admits. "There are a lot of good crankbait fishermen out there. The difference is that I can tell when my bait is around a fish. I don't have to catch a fish to know that it's there. I can feel the fish come up, and if it pushes my bait. But you have to realize that's because I know every single move that this bait makes."
Many pros, including Martens, believe that hand-poured soft plastics enhance sensitivity — claiming that their extra-soft texture convinces bass to hold on to them longer. Kiriyama agrees and insists that hand-poured baits transmit vibration better than injected plastics.
Sensitivity can also be enhanced by the way the rod is held, according to Grigsby.
"Gaining more sensitivity can be as simple as changing your grip on the rod," he says. "Move your grip to a position that allows you to have direct line contact. With a baitcaster, you can do this by palming the reel or holding the rod just above the reel and touching the line with your index finger. With spinning or baitcasting tackle, relaxing your grip allows the rod to transmit vibrations from the bait or a fish. This will greatly increase line sensitivity."
Ken Cook points out that rod positioning can improve sensitivity as well. When fishing plastics, a higher position (10 to 11 o'clock) allows the line to drop at a near 90 degree angle, which promotes feel by transferring any activity to the rod quicker. He also recommends using the reel to take up slack. That way, if you detect a strike, it's a simple matter of lowering the rod tip, reeling in the remaining loose line and setting the hook.
BASS winner Takahiro Omori believes that the famous Japanese attention to detail translates into a significantly better ability to feel strikes.
"In Japan, because we fish in lakes where there is so much fishing pressure, we have to have everything right," he relates. "That way you don't miss the bites. Some fish do not take the bait good. They just tap it because of so much fishing pressure we get."
Omori, who has proved to be a bilingual bass master, offers one final piece of advice for fishermen in their quest to gain more sensitivity:
"Just fish more. That's the only way you learn that a log is a log, and a bite is a bite."
Dealing with wind
Wind has to be the biggest culprit when it comes to robbing an angler of sensitivity.
Virginia pro Rick Morris offers some tips for that situation.
"When you're fishing points, for example, you want to fish the sides and try to stay out of the wind as much as possible," he says, "because the wind is definitely going to take away some of the feel from your bait and line.
"When I am caught out in the open and can't get away from the wind, I try to point my boat into the wind and cast straight back over the motor. It's important to make a shorter cast than normal. With that wind and commotion, those fish aren't going to spook very easily anyway. I use a shorter cast and keep my rod lower to keep the bow out of my line as much as possible. I also try to keep the boat as still as possible. Keeping the boat from drifting will help."
Tim Tucker's Bass Sessions 2003 covers the national tournament scene on the Web at www.timtuckeroutdoors.com.