Going deep with swimbaits

Although Elite Series pro Ray Hanselman perfected this strategy on Texas’ Lake Amistad, it has applications in lakes across the country.

If your travels should take you to Lake Amistad in the next few months, make certain you pack some swimbaits with the rest of your tackle. And on your lake map, mark Burro, Box, Caballo, Tule and Zorro canyons as places to throw those swimbaits.

The only difference about using swimbaits here, however, is that you’ll be fishing them deep, maybe as far down as 25 or 30 feet, depending on the lake level and how the bass are feeling. If the water is clear, as it usually is on Amistad, and you’re anywhere around fish, you’re going to get hit by what you’ll swear was a bolt of lightning. It’s that sudden, that electrifying, that good.

It’s an experience second-year Bassmaster Elite Series pro Ray Hanselman has felt hundreds of times during his more than two decades as a guide on the famous Rio Grande River impoundment, and one he never tires of. Fishing swimbaits deep probably didn’t originate on Amistad, but it has been practiced there at least since the late 1990s, and today Hanselman doesn’t leave the dock without having several of them rigged and ready to cast.

“In clear water like we have in Amistad, you don’t have to be as close to structure or cover as you do in stained water, which is one reason swimbaits work so well here,” Hanselman explains. “If you’re within 10 feet of the fish with your bait, you’re perfect. Bass feel the lure coming through the water, and even if they don’t actually see it, they move up to investigate. Here, the larger bass feed on big gizzard shad, and that’s what our swimbaits represent.

“Personally, the prespawn and postspawn seasons are my favorite times for swimbaits, but honestly, out here they’re really a year-round lure. Some of the pros were fishing swimbaits deep with a lot of success on Lake Lanier during our second Elite event of the 2019 season, so deep swimbaiting certainly is not confined to Amistad, either.”

Ray Hanselman is only fishing his second year on the Elite Series, but he has been a guide for more than two decades. He has spent countless days plying the deep, clear water of Amistad with swimbaits and has big bass to show for it.

Deep swimbaiting is not hard to learn, but it does take patience. It’s not about covering a lot of water, but rather making long casts, counting the lure down to a certain depth, then retrieving it slowly but steadily, the way a gizzard shad usually swims. The real secret is where you fish, and that’s where Burro, Box, Caballo and those other canyons become important. On Amistad, practically every canyon offers not only depth but steep edges where the depth changes abruptly.

“Out here, paralleling ledges is a good place to start, and it’ll be a good starting place anywhere you have deep, rocky structure,” Hanselman explains, “but you don’t have to limit yourself to rocks. On Lanier, fishermen were retrieving swimbaits over flooded timber that topped out about 30 feet deep. Table Rock has both rock and trees where swimbaits can be effective, and some fishermen are using swimbaits up on some of the Tennessee River lakes, even though the water isn’t always as clear. When the water has just a slight stain to it, you just have to work your swimbaits closer to the structure.

“I’m fishing places, not for specific fish I might see on my electronics. I don’t like to idle over fish, even those in deep water. Rocky lakes especially will have huge, flat rocks that form ledges, shelves or even points. They may be 30 or 40 feet deep and drop off to a hundred feet, or more.

“I try to parallel the edge of that dropoff with my retrieve, so I’ll make a long cast along the deeper side of the ledge, because this is frequently where bass will gather in schools. They’re off the lip, not on top of the ledge. I do know from my electronics how deep the top of the ledge is, so I count my swimbait down until it’s about 10 feet above that lip. For example, if the lip is 25 to 30 feet deep, I’ll stop my bait between 15 and 20 feet down.

“Then I’ll just slowly start reeling it back. I’ll make 10 or 12 turns of the reel handle, then stop and let the lure sink a few seconds, then make another 10 or 12 cranks, stop, and let the swimbait sink again. This is because the lure will rise naturally as you’re reeling.”

In both the prespawn and postspawn periods, Hanselman also targets the last underwater ledge or breakline leading into a spawning flat or bay. On Amistad and other deeper, clear-water lakes, bass often spawn on the main lake rather than in shallow coves, and on Amistad in particular, big largemouth have been known to spawn as deep as 20 feet. Again, the retrieve is a slow one, with the lure on the deeper side of the break and about 10 feet above it.

Here’s where patience may be as important as anticipation. Bass in these places at this time of year frequently gather in schools, and repeated casts may be necessary to get that first strike. Then, hopefully, that strike triggers a wolf-pack instinct in the rest of the school, and those fish literally fight to get to the swimbait. Hanselman has had plenty of 30- to 40-fish days when this has happened, as well as five-bass, 40-pound catches.

“Later in the summer, I use a technique I call ‘bustin’ ledges,’” Hanselman continues, “which is a slight modification of an old striper presentation we used before I ever started guiding. I’ll get along the face of a bluff or ledge where it makes that sheer drop down into much deeper water, and just free spool the swimbait straight down beside the boat. Again, I don’t go to the bottom but stop between 30 and 50 feet down.

“Then, I’ll just slowly and steadily crank it up and drop it again. I’m not jigging the swimbait because I’m reeling it up slowly but steadily, but the concept is similar. The father of one of my best friends was a striper guide, and while we caught our share of striped bass doing this with big striper jigs, we also caught a lot of 8- and 9-pound largemouth, too.”

Strike King Rage Swimmer

For this presentation, Hanselman uses Strike King’s 4.75-inch boot-tail Rage Swimmer, rigged with a 1 1/2-ounce ball head. For his other swimming-retrieve presentations, he uses a 7-inch Top Shelf Magnum Series Swimbait (Topshelflures.com). It’s a line-through bait featuring a treble hook and, like the Rage Swimmer, is usually a translucent smoke color with a touch of purple to imitate the gizzard shad. He fishes with 12- to 20-pound Gamma fluorocarbon line (he tries to go as light as possible) spooled on Shimano Curados with slower 5.5:1 or 6.2:1 retrieve ratios.

Top Shelf Magnum Series Swimbait

Rod-wise, Hanselman uses two rods he helped design for Power Tackle, both 7-foot, 10-inch models designed specifically for swimbaits. They are the SB-UM-R-5 (medium/heavy) and the SB-UM-R-4 (heavy action). Power Tackle should sound familiar, as the company is owned by well-known Bassmaster Opens fisherman and lure designer Tim Reneau. Reneau fished and tested equipment on Amistad for years when he lived in Del Rio; he has since relocated to Richland Springs, Texas, and can be contacted at 830-734-2021 (info@powertackle.com).

Mike Hawkes, a former Bassmaster Classic contender who has often competed against Hanselman on Amistad, remembers his first deep swimbaiting experiences on the lake more than 20 years ago. He drifted one of the early boot-tail swimbaits on a Carolina rig across wide flats 15 to 25 feet deep. Because the lure itself, a 5-inch Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper (reactioninnovations.com), was weightless, it rose above the bottom and produced an extremely lifelike swimming action.

“Carolina rigging a swimbait like that is not a presentation that many fishermen use anymore,” notes Hawkes, “but it certainly hasn’t lost any of its effectiveness. We caught a lot of big bass that way. If the wind is from the right direction, drifting like we did is a good way to cover a lot of water, and those types of swimbaits are perfect for it. Reaction Innovations produces a larger version, the Big Dipper, that also works well fished this way.”

Of course, not every bass that sees a swimbait hits it. As in every lake where swimbaits are used, some bass simply follow the lure. Hanselman describes these as “cold trailers,” and he’s had a few he could see that were much larger than the 10-pounders he’s put in the boat.

“Sometimes a quick twitch, or maybe a short cadence of twitches and then stopping the bait, triggers a strike,” he suggests, “but just as often the fish just turns and heads back into deep water. You never know, but when you do see a giant following your swimbait like that, it’s good for at least a hundred more casts, regardless of how good or bad your day has been.

“Then, when you do get a strike, it’s sudden and hard. There’s no question something has your bait, and it only takes a few strikes like that to get you addicted to this type of fishing.”

Originally appeared in Bassmaster Magazine July/August 2019.