Advanced worm fishing

These three worm fishing techniques have proved their worth on the Tournament Trail…

After a day and a half of catching bass with spinnerbaits and crankbaits along the edges of docks, the bite has mysteriously ended. Veteran pro Clark Wendlandt, however, never misses a beat. Picking up another rod, he begins swimming a 7-inch plastic worm in the very same water and immediately starts getting strikes again.

At Lake Shasta, nearly all the competitors in the California Western Invitational are drop-shotting soft plastics 35 to 50 feet deep. Aaron Martens does it a little differently and brings in more than 32 pounds, winning by a margin of more than 4 pounds.

During the summer at Buggs Island Reservoir, Woo Daves often fishes a Carolina rig — with a 10-inch plastic worm. He hops the worm fast, using it simultaneously as both a lure and a depthfinder. The big worm eliminates most of the small fish; what he catches are quality bass any tournament pro would welcome.

There is hardly a competitor in professional tournament fishing who, under the right conditions, won't throw a plastic worm. After all, the lure is one of the earliest artificial bass baits developed, and serious anglers learn early how to fish it.

And, as with any lure, some fishermen — especially Wendlandt, Martens and Daves — have pushed beyond the basic cast-and-crawl presentations and developed their own rules for using plastic worms. Over the years, in fact, the plastic worm has become the bread-and-butter lure of these three anglers.

"The plastic worm is an extremely versatile lure because it is made in so many different sizes and styles," explains Wendlandt. "That is what has really allowed me to experiment with various retrieves that match the style of fishing I do."

Daves' carolina rigs

"All of us are constantly looking for an edge over our competition," adds Daves, who credits his Carolina rig with finding the bass that ultimately helped him win the 2000 BASS Masters Classic. "Most often, it will be a different style of retrieve, but sometimes you can succeed by rigging the lure completely differently than normal."

This is how the "floating worm" technique was developed, for instance.

"I like to fish a Carolina rig a lot, so I started experimenting with different worm sizes, weight styles and retrieve speeds, and I have found a particular combination that has worked well for me."

One problem he was originally trying to solve, Daves explains, was retrieving a heavy weighted Carolina rig through rocks. In clear water with a gravel bottom, a light line Mojo rig with its elongated sinker often solves the problem, but Daves prefers to use heavier tackle.

"The first thing I changed was my weight," continues Daves. "I changed from my normal 3/4-ounce bullet weight to an elongated, banana-shaped Lindy/Little Joe No-Snagg Rattlin Weight (same weight) developed for walleye fishermen. Most of their fishing is in rocky water, and this particular sinker comes through without snagging. It sits up in the water and just glides across the bottom. I have really tried to snag it, but I can't."

An added advantage of this particular sinker, notes Daves, is the way it rides in the water — each time he twitches his rod, it causes his lure to rise higher off the bottom, thus producing a much more lifelike action.

The second change Daves made was to a larger plastic worm. His favorites are 8-, 10-, and 12-inch Old Monster Zoom worms. They may catch fewer bass, but the ones they attract are always larger ones. He's used these larger worms successfully in tournaments at Buggs Island, Santee Cooper, Murray and in numerous other lakes.

"One of the problems we all have with a Carolina rig is that it catches a lot of small fish," says Daves. "I would rather not catch those fish and have to release them right back into the area I'm fishing, so I changed to the larger worm. We already know how effective a Carolina rig can be overall, and I've proved to myself that larger bass will hit a larger lure."

Even though he uses an unusually large worm, Daves prefers a surprisingly small hook, either a 1/0 or 2/0 wide-gap Mustad. Smaller hooks allow the worm to fall just a fraction slower, he explains.

The final aspect of Daves' Carolina rig technique is that he fishes it quickly — at least until he feels some change on the bottom. When he detects clay giving way to gravel, for example, or the weight hitting a piece of cover or falling over a drop-off, he immediately slows his presentation dramatically. At that point, he barely twitches the worm along the bottom.

Wendlandt's presentations

Clark Wendlandt's worm fishing centers around two different presentations: pitching/flipping, and swimming. For both, he prefers a 7-inch Gambler Ribbon Tail.

"Flipping and pitching are my favorite ways to fish," admits the Texas pro, "so in that regard, I am always looking for a reaction strike. I like to fish fast and aggressively. My theory is that the bass are either going to hit it, or they aren't.

"The best way to get that reaction strike, I believe, is to always make a vertical presentation. I'll even try to flip over a twig or small branch if I need to, so the worm falls straight down. For some reason, bass seem to hit something dropping suddenly in front of them, rather than something crawling up to them."

The vertical fall is one reason Wendlandt uses the slim Ribbon Tail worm. Its head hides completely behind the pegged sinker, so it doesn't snag on anything. Weights range from 3/16 to as heavy as 1 1/2 ounces, depending on the type of cover he's fishing. He uses a 4/0 wide-gap Owner hook.

"Anytime you're flipping or pitching, you have to determine the depth of the bass in the water column," he continues, "so a heavy weight is not always critical. I find bass by letting the worm go all the way to the bottom, then raise the lure with my rod so I'm searching from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. In most heavy cover, bass are actually suspended, so if they don't hit the worm on the first fall, you can raise the lure and shake it at different depths until you determine where they are."

There are situations, of course, in which flipping and pitching won't work. In these cases, Wendlandt resorts to a swimming worm. Frequently, after flipping his plastic worm into brush without a strike, he will swim the worm back through the cover.

"You always swim the worm with your rod tip, not with the reel, because you have better feel and control over it," he emphasizes. "You can't do this very effectively around thick vegetation, but it works well around wood cover, especially when I'm seeing a lot of baitfish.

"When baitfish are plentiful, especially in the post-spawn season, bass seem to want to chase them."

Wendlandt also relies on a swimming worm whenever bass stop hitting moving hard baits, like spinnerbaits and crankbaits. He feels bass eventually grow tired of seeing those lures; by changing to something completely different — a swimming worm — he can spark their attention again.

Martens' drop-shotting

Few have mastered the technique of drop-shotting more completely than California pro Aaron Martens. In just four years of BASSMASTER Tournament Trail competition, he has used drop-shotting to take him to two victories, 13 Top 10 finishes, and three consecutive BASS Masters Classics. What separates Martens from his competitors is how he adjusts his drop-shot rig to suit different lake and water conditions.

"Many fishermen don't realize how much you can fine-tune a drop-shot for smooth or rough bottoms, clear or stained water, or even for the activity level of the bass," explains Martens. "It certainly is not limited to deep, clear water lakes, either. I have fished a drop-shot in less than 10 feet of water, and I've caught bass right behind other anglers who weren't getting any strikes at all."

Interestingly, he adds, a drop-shot doesn't even have to be fished like a drop-shot. During the 2000 BASS Masters Classic in Chicago, Martens used a tiny 1/16-ounce sinker and barely kept it in contact with the bottom as he fished the Calumet River, right behind several other competitors. He was actually swimming his drop-shot worm to make it more closely imitate the baitfish he had observed along the shoreline.

The basic drop-shot rig Martens often begins with has either a 3/16- or 1/4-ounce sinker, 6-pound-test P-Line, and a very skinny 4 1/2-inch RoboWorm on a Size 1 Gamakatsu split-shot hook. If the water is very clear, he may rig the worm 10 to 12 inches above the weight, but if he determines bass are suspended — as they were during his 1999 California Western Invitational win at Lake Oroville — he will put his worm as much as 3 feet above the weight.

"To me, this is one of the critical aspects of drop-shotting," notes Martens. "In stained or dingy water, I start with my worm just 3 to 5 inches above the weight. That's because bass normally do not suspend that much in off-colored water; they simply move shallow. In the spring, when bass usually relate more to crawfish, I also start with my worm just a few inches above the weight.

"Whenever I don't get any bites with the worm rigged that low, I gradually move it up the line."

The higher the worm is up the line, however, the more difficult it becomes to attract bass to it. Martens solves this problem by the way he works the lure.

"You have to make sure you shake the worm — not the weight," he emphasizes. "You do this by shaking your rod tip with a slack line. You don't want to move your sinker around, because that will attract bass to it, instead of to your worm. Once it hits bottom, make sure you have some slack in the line. You'll still feel bass take the lure."

For added sensitivity in detecting light strikes, Martens prefers low-stretch lines, and he regularly uses some of the new fluorocarbons. He also holds his rod between the 9 o'clock and 11 o'clock positions, which gives him a better feel. His rods include a 6-foot, 10-inch MegaBass spinning rod for deep water or long casting; and a 6-4 medium light spinning rod for fishing vertically with light line.

His weight selection depends on the situation. For smoother bottoms, he uses round tungsten sinkers because they won't get snagged as easily and because they seem to better telegraph the composition of the bottom. On rocky bottoms, he uses a heavier football-shaped sinker. And around larger boulders, riprap and grass, he uses a cylindrical Mojo-type sinker.

Sinker weight depends greatly on how the rig is being fished. For suspended bass, such as those close to steep bluff walls, a weight as light as 1/16 ounce works better because it falls more slowly. A light sinker also is preferred in shallow water.

When bass are very close to the bottom in deeper water, or when he's casting and gradually working the drop-shot back, a heavier weight (3/8 to 1/2 ounce) takes the worm to the bottom faster.

"At Lake Champlain, where the bottom is very rocky and rough, I fished a drop-shot with a 1/2-ounce sinker in about 30 feet. I was alternately shaking the worm and then dragging the sinker across the bottom," Martens explains. "It was windy, and there was a lot of current, so the heavier sinker also helped me stay in contact with the bottom."

Some people are fishing drop-shots with 1-ounce sinkers on 20-pound-test line with larger plastic worms. This is a deep water technique in which anglers want the lure to fall fast and generate reaction strikes; it's a trick that has proved successful with Hula Grubs and spider jigs over the years.

"The key," concludes Martens, "is to realize there really is no such thing as a standard drop-shot rig. If you're not getting any strikes the way you're fishing, you should continue to modify it until you do. Once you have it right, bass can't resist it."

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