Never underestimate how deep bass can go, or how deadly the drop shot rig can be at catching them.
By now, most bass anglers have picked up a drop shot rig and caught fish on it. These ingenious rigs catch largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass at practically any depth, but they really excel when bass are holding at or near their maximum depth range. Despite the drop shot's now widespread popularity, it seems only a few anglers have seen the magic it can wield in ridiculously deep water.
Reigning CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year Aaron Martens is one of them. Charlie Weyer, winner of the 2004 Smith Lake Bassmaster Tour event, is another. Long before they brought their games eastward on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail, these two pros were pioneering the use of the drop shot rig to dredge up heavy tournament catches from deep, clear Western impoundments. And the depths at which they routinely catch bass would baffle all but the most seasoned deep water specialists.
"My deepest fish ever came from around 147 to 150 feet of water," says Martens, a native of Castaic, Calif., now living in Leeds, Ala. "People just don't believe me when I tell them that. In the first tournament I ever won (the 1999 California Bassmaster Invitational at Lake Oroville), I caught all my fish between 80 and 120 feet."
Weyer, of West Hills, Calif., said his deepest ever came from 120 feet. "We have a lot of fish in that 75- to 120-foot zone out here," he added, referring to many of his home state waters and other lakes out west. "Those fish are virtually untouched. Nobody fishes for them, including a lot of Western guys."
Granted, there are relatively few places east of the Mississippi River where bass can be found that deep. Nevertheless, in the heart of the bass belt, there are plenty of clear, cavernous reservoirs where bass can move deeper than most anglers are willing or able to look. A partial list includes lakes like Smith and Logan-Martin in Alabama, Bull Shoals and Table Rock along the Missouri/Arkansas border, and Kentucky Lake. On these famous fisheries and others like them, bass may not dwell in triple-digit depths, but they can come close — especially in late fall and winter.
Shot in the dark
Whenever they find bass lurking somewhere in the abyss, neither Martens nor Weyer has found a better way to catch them than drop shotting. It's been almost a decade since the drop shot rig burst onto the bass fishing scene. Before then, anglers relied on lures like the hair jig, jigging spoon, jig-worm, Carolina rigged soft plastics, blade baits or tailspinners to probe deep structure. Chief among the drop shot's qualities in deep water is that it stays in the strike zone indefinitely and can coax a bass into biting even when the rig is sitting still.
Weyer acknowledges that other lures can be effective in extreme depths, but says the drop shot is still top dog, especially on heavily pressured lakes. "When everybody else is throwing a big jig, deep diving crankbaits, deep spinnerbaits, Carolina rigs or whatever, that's when I catch a lot of fish on drop shots. When fish are pressured, a slow moving, finesse presentation just works better," he claims.
Follow the bait
Bass aren't trying to imitate lake trout when they head for deep water. They would just as soon hang out all year in shallow, shady cover if they could. But you won't find many thick grass beds or miles of lily pads in a highland or canyon reservoir. These lakes are characterized by deep structure, a lack of suitable shoreline vegetation and often moderately stained to gin-clear water color. Bass can plummet to the depths of these lakes for a variety of reasons, such as water temperature, sunlight, oxygen levels and fishing pressure. The primary draw, however, is always the food.
"When you're fishing a shallow pattern, baitfish are more spread out, and so are the fish," Weyer explains. "In deep water, the bait is more condensed, so the bass tend to concentrate, too. For me, that makes them easier to find. At Smith Lake (February 2004), most of the field was trying to find shallow prespawners. I was on a couple of deep structure areas where tons of spotted bass were just stacked up around big schools of bait in 35 to 50 feet."
OK, so just find some baitfish and let the catching begin, right? But there's a lot of water down there, and nothing visible that stands out like a classic tree-lined creek channel or some other textbook cover/structure scenario. What the heck do you look for?
"I start looking for creek channel bends next to main lake and secondary points," Weyer explains. "Any sort of saddle or little hump out on the deep end of the point can be a honey hole, especially ones with rock piles and brush. These are rarely visible from the bank though, so you've got to pay constant attention to your graph."
Deep schools of bait typically move up and down those points, holding at sharp breaks and other drastic — though in some cases, subtle — bottom changes, often on the deeper side of the structure. Weyer attacks the scene from two primary angles, uphill and down.
"Most people will cast shallow and work the rig out to deep water," he says. "That will work a lot of times, but they can often pull the bait right over the top of fish that are hugging bottom around a key piece of structure or cover. That's why I'll usually turn around and fish it uphill, starting deep on the bottom and working it up the slope, so it's always in contact with the bottom."
Slow and low
In parts of spring and most of summer, bass will make feeding migrations up and down steep points and other bottom structure that extends between deep and shallow water. During coldwater periods, the fish tend to stay deeper longer, because they're staying where the bait is. The drop shot rig can be placed anywhere in the depths and kept there for as long as it takes to get bit.
It is often said that it's impossible to fish a drop shot wrong. But, of course, no single retrieve style will work all the time — this is bass fishing, after all. Martens and Weyer rely on two or three simple presentations.
"I'll either cast it or drop it straight down, depending on the depth," Martens reveals. "Once it's down, I'll either shake it, deadstick it or drag it. It's so versatile, but like any other bait, you've got to figure out which way the fish want it. It seems like more and more, I'm just keeping the rod tip high and letting it (the rig) sit, especially in late fall and winter."
His typical rig consists of a small, size 2 to 1/0 Gamakatsu Split Shot/Drop Shot hook tied above a drop-line of varying length and anchored to a 3/16- to 1/4-ounce Kanji X-Metal or Tru-Tungsten drop shot weight. He'll go heavier if needed in Eastern waters, but "anything more than that and the fish will laugh at you out West," Martens insists.
He prefers short, straight- or cut-tail Roboworms at a maximum length of 4 1/2 inches. Martens' typical tackle for the job includes a 7-foot, medium-light action MegaBass spinning rod with a Daiwa 2500 Capricorn reel (for 4- to 6- pound Sunline fluorocarbon), and a 6-foot, 10-inch baitcaster with a Daiwa Z-Series reel (for 7- and 8- pound fluorocarbon). "High speed reels are a must in deep water," he adds.
Presentation and tacklewise, Weyer is on the same page, but with a twist. "Basically, what I'm doing is just nudging the bait on a slack line — just barely crawling it," he says. "If they're aggressive, I'll shake the heck out of it. But since the drop shot has been getting so much press and publicity, a lot of times you can't even shake the worm anymore. You just have to slowly drag it — maybe shake it every once in a while."
He also favors Gamakatsu hooks and many of the same Roboworms as Martens, and, although he has grown to like the X-Metal tungsten weights, Weyer has long been a fan of the cylindrical Mojo weights for drop shotting.
"I pinch the ends of the Mojo weight, and I'll put a bend in it, like a banana," he explains. "It doesn't get stuck in the rocks as badly. In practice, I'll use the cylinder, but in tournaments I always go with tungsten because it's twice as sensitive." He ties his rigs with 8-pound Seaguar Carbon Pro or Seaguar FW for 35- to 50-foot depths, and 6-pound for serious deep water duty.
Limits and kickers
Sometime during its rise to fame, the drop shot rig developed the reputation as a small-fish "limit getter," and deep structure fishing often carries the same dubious distinction.
Martens and Weyer have done much to disprove such theories. Each has boated multiple largemouth over 10 pounds on drop shots from below 50 feet, and both have won tournaments by catching hefty stringers over consecutive days from deep water.
"(The drop shot) just out-fishes everything else in deep water, period," Martens says. "There were just a few of us who learned about it early on, and we kept it quiet for awhile. But once it broke loose, it was like a tidal wave. Still, a lot of people don't fish it, and that's a good thing for those of us who do."