Kelly Jordon is back in touch with a long-lost friend, and he couldn't be happier. The two were inseparable nearly a quarter-century ago when Jordon, an energetic 7-year-old, frequently wade fished a small creek near his home in central Texas. Clad in sneakers, cutoff jeans, a T-shirt and baseball cap, his traditional summer uniform, Jordon and his fishing partner cast for largemouth and Guadalupe spotted bass in the creek's clear, cool water on sultry summer days.
Jordon's companion wasn't another angler. Rather, it was a 5 1/2-foot, pistol-grip baitcasting outfit. The short rod was a perfect match for the close-quarters fishing conditions. Even as a youngster, Jordon could execute accurate, low-trajectory casts that softly dropped topwater plugs in front of bass he spotted cruising along the bank.
This was before the advent of long trigger sticks, when pistol-grip rods were the standard baitcasting tools for all bass anglers. By the time Jordon began competing in Bassmaster tournaments in 1997, he had long abandoned pistol grips in favor of trigger sticks, as had all but a few professional anglers. It was hard to argue with the success of those who relied on trigger sticks, including his own. Jordon has claimed two CITGO Bassmaster Classic appearances and winnings of well over $300,000.
Jordon felt the eerie shudder of déjà vu during a tournament last spring on Sam Rayburn, when he fished with Oklahoma's O.T. Fears. Among Fears' assortment of rods was a pistol-grip baitcasting outfit. Jordon thought it looked antiquated among an arsenal of trigger sticks. It brought back memories of his creek fishing ventures. Nostalgia turned to enlightenment when the anglers went to work casting spinnerbaits to flooded bushes.
"I had heard that O.T. was a good caster before I fished with him," says Jordon. "He lived up to his reputation. With that pistol-grip rod, he could put a spinnerbait into places I just couldn't touch with my long trigger sticks."
Immediately after that event, Jordon ordered a Fenwick HMG 5 ½-foot pistol-grip baitcasting rod in medium action. He paired it with a SpiderCast reel and 17-pound SpiderLine Super Mono. The short, sweet rod felt familiar in his hands — light, responsive, effortless to cast. More importantly, it improved his accuracy when casting to targets in the 20- to 40-foot range.
Jordon was pleased to learn that most rod makers still offer short-handle rods. Even though professional casters generally eschew them, short rods continue to be popular with weekend anglers who may not be physically conditioned to wield long trigger sticks all day without suffering stiff joints and sore muscles. Then again, maybe "amateur" anglers have a leg up on the pros regarding the advantages of pistol-grip rods.
"In addition to improving my accuracy, a short baitcasting rod gives me more precise control over my baits," says Jordon. "It's hard not to overpower a popper with a long trigger stick. But with a pistol grip, I can easily impart subtle spitting and chugging actions. The rod is just a joy to fish with."
Another benefit is that a pistol-grip rod allows bass to take spinnerbaits and treble-hook lures deeper when they strike, as when fishing with a fiberglass rod. This results in a higher hooking percentage.
Though O.T. Fears is right-handed, he can cast a pistol-grip baitcasting rod nearly as well with his left hand as with his right. He mastered left-hand casting mainly to gain better angles when dealing with challenging targets. In some situations, such as when fishing boat docks, Fears may cast 40 percent of the time with his left hand.
"If I cast only with my right hand, it takes me twice as long to fish a boat dock as when I cast with my right and left hands," says Fears. "By switching from one hand to the other, I can fish the dock from different angles. I can hit all the key spots without moving the boat nearly as much."
And whenever Fears finds himself wedged in a spot where some obstacle blocks a right-hand cast, he casts around the obtrusion with his left hand and never misses a beat.
None of these insights surprises Fears, an old-school bass angler who, as a tad, started out with a metal rod with a pistol grip. Though Fears readily employs trigger sticks for distance work and manhandling bass out of heavy cover, he fishes about half the time with a pistol-grip model. He's convinced the short rod's accuracy gives him an advantage in many situations. How does he compete with the precision of flippin' and pitchin' presentations?
"Not every bass in shallow cover wants a jig or a soft plastic bait," says Fears. "I'll cast a spinnerbait, topwater bait or crankbait into cover where bass hardly ever see these types of baits. I feel confident when I cast behind guys who fish nothing but long rods. I know I'm going to have a shot at plenty of bass that haven't been tempted to bite."
Wrist roll cast
The basic wrist roll cast used by Fears and Jordon begins with the rod tip held low and toward, or slightly askew, of the target. Whip the rod tip in a low, backward oval by rolling the wrist and forearm back and up and around forward in a tight, continuous motion. When the rod tip sweeps forward at the bottom of the revolution, ease thumb pressure on the spool, and the lure sails just above the water, straight away from the angler. Snub the spool with thumb pressure to land the lure lightly.
The wrist roll excels for getting baits under overhanging limbs and through narrow openings, and you rarely find yourself fencing with limbs, as you often do when working close to brushy cover with a longer stick. The effortless wrist roll is also more efficient than casting a trigger stick.
"I like to fish with guys who have long rods," says Fears. "I know I'll be making three casts to their two. And I won't be working nearly as hard. Long rods wear you out."
Fears wore out his competitors when he won a Bassmaster SuperStars tournament on the Illinois River. He was fishing a chocolate-colored backwater where the bass were backed up tight to shallow wood along the bank. Using a pistol-grip rod and a 3/8-ounce Bulldog spinnerbait, Fears dissected logjams and fallen trees with short, accurate casts.
"The bait had to be dead-on target," says Fears. "Several times, I had to make the blades hit the wood to get strikes."
Fears refers to the surgery he performs with a short rod as "finesse baitcasting." His scalpel is a 5-foot, 10-inch stick made by Quarrow Rods of Broken Arrow, Okla. It is part of the company's Dream Catcher series of graphite rods, designed by Fears. The line of 23 rods includes everything from light spinning to flipping styles.
Abu Garcia's T Pro 300CLW baitcasting reel has served well atop the pistol grips of Fears' baitcasting rods. The reel's low profile and smooth casting performance is just the thing for serving up baits with a wrist roll cast. But Fears has recently switched to Abu's new low profile Törno reels, which feature the free-flowing InfiniSpool.
"I've never seen anything like the InfiniSpool," says Fears. "It's going to help a lot of fishermen cast better than ever before."
Quarrow's 5-foot, 10-inch pistol-grip rod, which Fears believes to be the perfect length, has a thicker grip than that on similar rods. This helps prevent the rod from twisting in the hand during the wrist roll cast.
Quarrow offers the rod in two powers — No. 5 and No. 6. Fears opts for the lighter 5-power most of the time because it better handles the 1/4- to 3/8-ounce lures he normally casts to shallow cover. He switches to the 6-power when casting lures that weigh ½ ounce or more.
A tandem 3/8-ounce Bulldog Super Dog spinnerbait is paired with Fears' pistol-grip rod more often than any other lure. Fears designed the lure with triangular blades that put out intense vibrations. His favorite color combination for dirty water is a fluorescent orange lead blade ahead of a gold main blade, and a chartreuse head dressed with a white, chartreuse and yellow skirt.
Not that Fears reserves a pistol-grip rod for muddy water only. He frequently catches clear water bass by "finesse baitcasting" to hydrilla, boat docks, boulder-strewn banks and all manner of wood cover.
Fears concedes that a pistol-grip rod lacks the leverage of long-handle trigger sticks, but he believes the additional muscle isn't needed when making short casts. He is convinced that steady rod pressure does a better job of embedding the hook than a sharp snap-set.
"It's hard to appreciate the advantages of a pistol-grip rod until you try one," says Fears. "I've converted a lot of guys who have fished with me in tournaments, but short rods haven't caught on with many other pros. I hope it stays that way."
When Fears must alternate between long casts to isolated objects and short casts to cover, he often calls upon a 6-foot, 8-inch pitchin' rod to perform double duty. His lure in this instance is typically a spinnerbait or a topwater plug.
The pitchin' rod provides the leverage needed for long casts, but not the accuracy of a pistol-grip rod for close-quarter work. Fears overcomes this handicap with an odd, but effective, loop cast.
Fears sets up the loop cast by leaving 2 feet of line between the lure and the rod tip. He holds the rod high in the direction of the target. Then, in a continuous motion, he drops the rod tip to start the lure swinging forward, lifts the rod back up to make the lure circle up and back around, and then dips and lifts the rod as the lure swings forward at the bottom of the loop.
When done correctly, the lure slings close over the water and under overhanging cover. Stay away from cover when learning this cast, because your initial attempts are likely to be well off-target.