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Fishing Smallmouth on Light Line

Troy Thomas

 David Swendseid of Oregon has adopted Japanese finesse techniques for western waters.

David Swendseid of Oregon has adopted Japanese finesse techniques for western waters.

By: Matt Straw

Smallmouth bass guide Chris Beeksma doesn’t hesitate to pursue outsize bass on light tackle.

Scan the Internet for light-line smallmouth tactics and we see players shying away from the cutting edge like coyotes from a fire. Most want us to believe 8- and 10-pound lines are light. One tried to convince me 30-pound braid with a 10-pound leader is “light.”

Ron Lindner used to say he would never fish for bass with anything less than 12-pound line. Old maxims die hard. Still, it’s amazing—after numerous pros have won bass tournaments on 4- to 5-pound braids, fluorocarbons, and monofilaments—that “finesse” is only discussed in terms of jigs weighing 1/8 ounce or more on lines with break strengths of 10 pounds or greater.

A 2016 FLW event at Shasta Lake in California was won with spybaits fished on 4-pound fluorocarbon. The winner, Greg Gutierrez, caught mostly spotted bass in that tournament, but says he likes long rods and 4- to 5-pound lines for all species of bass around any kind of cover. “I’ve been using an 81⁄2-foot Fenwick steelhead rod that’s all but perfect for light-line bass,” he says. “If you’re patient you can land big fish in most environments. I’m not worried when a giant dives into the weeds. Eventually they move. The long rod absorbs stress and shock. Once it starts to shake, put pressure on them and keep doing that until they swim right out.”

Extremely light braids have certain advantages, too. A 4-pound braid can be half the diameter of 4-pound mono, yet the break strength is much greater than the package says—up to double the strength. The equation looks like this: Half the diameter, twice the strength, multiplied by very low stretch equals 10 times the fun. 

Consider a 1/16-ounce hair jig tied with wind-resistant bucktail. The first thing to ask is, why? Too light. Can’t throw it anywhere. The need is speed. Or the lack thereof. Sometimes smallmouths require a tediously slow drop and a super-slow retrieve that won’t drag on bottom. That’s especially true in spring, when the water is clear and cold. A hair jig is ideal then, but 4-pound braids are so thin they allow the jig to fall too fast, forcing a faster retrieve to keep it off bottom. Fluorocarbon sinks, causing similar problems. That’s when 4-pound mono shines. The diameter and composition of mono resists sinking, slowing both the drop and the retrieve. With an 8- to 9-foot rod, it’s possible to cast light hair jigs far enough to escape the spook zone around the boat in clear water with mono.

Fluorocarbon is the choice of many pros, guides, and experts for fishing deeper structure. Gutierrez looks for situations where bass are suspending fairly deep. “When fishing is tough, those fish are catchable,” he says. “When other guys’ fish turn off, those deeper smallmouths are still biting. If I start seeing fish in 15 feet or less, I make longer casts, and the light line and long rod increases coverage exponentially. I can fish a 1/16-ounce jig way out there and slow it down with this tackle. In 25 to 30 feet, with bass suspended 5 feet up, I don’t mind getting close to those fish. I’ve seen this a lot at Lake Havasu, the California lakes, Table Rock—all over the country.

“Out here, 6-pound isn’t really light line anymore,” Gutierrez adds. “I’ve even heard of guys using 2-pound test to get bites. Then again, there are always some guys scoring big with heavy line and 10-inch swimbaits. It depends on the mood of the fish. I tend to believe, especially during tournaments, most smallmouths are spooky most of the time, and light line and finesse produces more bites. Not always the best bites, but certainly more every day.”

In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde, purveyor of Midwest Finesse tactics, would certainly agree. Kehde keeps a counter in his pocket. For him, a 100-bass day is success—no matter what size they are—and finesse tactics are keys to that end. “One myth in the angling world maintains that finesse tactics aren’t effective for pursuing bass in stained water,” Kehde says. “Flatland reservoirs in northeastern Kansas often exhibit a visibility of less than 18 inches, but day in and day out we average 10 bass an hour with Midwest Finesse rigs. A long rod would allow us to make longer casts than with short, cheap rods, but because our waters aren’t crystal clear, we don’t have to make long casts. Therefore, we can use short and inexpensive rods. Frugality is another important element of Midwest Finesse fishing.”

Kehde points out that thicker line can accentuate the attraction of his tactics. “The new super-thin lines prevent our presentations from gliding as effectively as they do with slightly thicker lines,” he says. “There are outings when glide is critical, and some baits glide better on 10- to 12-pound fluorocarbon. And because the water clarity in northeastern Kansas’ flatland reservoirs isn’t as clear as it is in Minnesota, Canada, and Great Lakes, we don’t have to use super-thin line.”

Well, nobody has to use thin lines. Thicker lines slow the fall and accentuate glide—true. And it’s also true that the waters of the Great Lakes region are much clearer than those in Kansas. But some tactics do require lighter line—including many being imported from Japan, where “Far East Finesse” is big.

David Swendseid, who introduced the technique in America, and taught many pros how to fish it, says he prefers to spybait with a long rod and 4- to 6-pound fluorocarbon line. “Spybaiting, is the fastest growing finesse technique in professional angling,” Swendseid says. “It helped FLW pro Greg Gutierrez and Scott Dobson win majors. It recently helped tournament great Kevin VanDam win on the St. Lawrence. And doing it correctly requires long rods and light fluorocarbon lines. Fluorocarbon produces a front-weighted keel effect. It directs the lure. Fluorocarbon is 40 percent heavier than mono, providing more weight to pull the bait forward in linear fashion. Braid and monofilament can’t create the same presentation. I often use 5-pound fluorocarbon on a shallow spool to fish spybaits.” 

Swendseid helped Daiwa perfect three 7-foot 6-inch rods for the technique from the Cronos and Steez SVS-AGS lines. “All are medium-light with a fast tip action and line rating of 5- to 12-pound,” he says. “The point is casting way beyond the fish and bringing it to them at their level.”

As Bassmaster Elite pro Brandon Palaniuk once told us, “I always cast spybaits as far as I can. If I know exactly where bass are, I want the bait to hit that spot about mid-retrieve.”

Swimming a spybait is similar to some of the tactics I use all season long to catch smallmouths with extremely light line. I swim jigs and plastics—mostly grubs, worms, and soft swimmers—at a slow, steady pace anywhere in the water column. A deep swim requires fluorocarbon or thin braid. The shallows often call for mono—unless smallmouths want the pace quickened. And nothing quickens the pace of a jig like the newest, super-thin, super-slick lines from Berkley and Sufix. 

Thin Smallmouth Techniques

Berkley NanoFil is made with hundreds of Dyneema microfibers. Those tiny filaments are linked at the molecular level and shaped into a unified strand, creating a silky-smooth exterior with a diameter so thin you need a spotter out there to see where the cast lands. It races through the guides like slippers on glare ice. NanoFil comes in 1-pound increments from 2- through 7-pound test (then in 2-pound increments up to 12-pound test), and it’s thinner than FireLine in the same strengths.

Sufix responded with Nanobraid, composed of densely braided HMPE fibers. It’s round, slick, thin, and stronger than conventional braids. Nanobraid is available in 2- to 14-pound versions. Nanobraid and NanoFil challenge anglers to do what once seemed impossible: Cast farther than ever, feel gentle takes, and set hooks from a half mile away, then land a 7-pound smallmouth with an impossibly thin 4-pound line. Don’t laugh. It’s been done. (Okay—a half mile is an exaggeration—but these lines cast so far, it really isn’t fair.)

Think about the newest tactics to come along in recent years and one thing stands out: Finesse. For increased stealth and fishing deeper, many new tactics call for 4- to 6-pound fluorocarbon lines. Gradually, even pros and guides are turning to lighter lines and longer rods because of increased fishing pressure. Everybody has a fast boat capable of getting farther from the ramp. Every inch of every waterway is being explored more thoroughly than ever. And a lot of these new tactics come from Japan, where bass-fishing venues are too few to accommodate the swelling popularity of the game. Bass lakes are lined with anglers fishing elbow-to-elbow on weekends, and the bass are spooky.

One technique is called Mid-Strolling in Japan, though Swendseid has been using it for years and calls it Western Shaking. “I use tiny 1/16-ounce tungsten heads tipped with a DUO Realis V-Tail Shad or other soft plastic,” he says. “The bait has to get way out there, dropped to the desired depth, then shaken and retrieved loosely at the selected depth. The bait strolls back to the boat, maybe down 12 feet over 20.  It’s deadly for smallmouths and postspawn largemouths that move off flats and into deeper, more vertical topography. Here, getting lures as far away from boat noise as possible reaps more benefits with each passing year. That means light lines and long rods.

“These longer rods are rated for lines as light as 5-pound test,” Swendseid says. “I use them for an array of presentations. A fast tip improves accuracy and distance. The length manages big bass during a fight and provides more and better tension during the fight—harder for them to create slack. And a longer rod helps greatly when mending or manipulating line to direct a lure.”

Gutierrez light-lines 4-inch plastics on Frenzy Baits articulated 1/16-ounce Wack-A-Sack Wacky Jigs. “It adds freedom—gives it that little sashay,” he says. “The Duo Realis V-Tail Shad is a great bait for light-line tactics—lifelike, but heavily salted. It casts far—that’s the advantage of salt. It helps keep the bait down there, too. And they have a lot of wiggle. I put a heavier weight on and drop it down to fish with that Wack-A-Sack.

“I can fish a 3/16-ounce jig down to 30 feet with 6-pound line. If bass are 5 feet off bottom, I cast it 25 to 30 feet and let it swing down to the fish and work it vertically. That pendulum swing on a tight line works well when bass are suspended. Gamma Edge has a lot more sensitivity than most fluorocarbons. It’s a little denser and I can feel light tics deep in the water column. Sometimes the line just goes slack.

“I can fire them way out there with longer rods—some over 8 feet long,” Gutierrez adds. “At 40 feet, I can count it down and walk it through the water column at different levels. Let the articulating jig kiss bottom and the plastic flips, shudders, and swings, adding a jolt to the lure, and light line allows it much more freedom. With heavy line, you can’t cast as far or get deep fast, and baits don’t perform as well. You can cast a 1/16-ounce hair jig out of sight with  5-pound Gamma fluoro, and it gets deep quicker. I can take bass at 22 to 35 feet with that setup all day. My rod sponsor, iRod, just came out with a 7-foot 7-inch rod designed for long casts with light line and I can’t wait to get my hands on one.”

The key is having a rod long enough, fast enough, and in a power range light enough to protect thin line and wear down big smallmouths. A number of companies have introduced longer rods designed for light line, like the new Vexan C-72-L-S—designed for trout, but with a light power and fast tip rated for lines down to 2-pound test. James Haworth, owner of Tackle Industries and maker of Vexan Rods: “Longer rods make it easier to cast lures farther with less effort and less fatigue. Our rods are made with a modified IM8 blank with the trade secret Titan technology to give them super strength, flexibility, feel, and years of durability. Ten guides are used instead of the standard eight. Additional guides create smoother casts.”

Anyone familiar with my writing knows I use a St. Croix Avid AVS80MLM2—8-foot, medium light—with every kind of 4-pound line. One of my new favorites is the St. Croix Legend Tournament Bass LBS86MLXF (8.5 feet) Hair-Jig, Drop-Shot Rod. Who wouldn’t love it, having written about hair-jig tactics for over 30 years? A rod designed for light, wind-resistant hair jigs? Brilliant. These rods can catapult 1/16- and 1/10-ounce jigs out of sight and set hooks way out there. The big bend, telegraphing excitement the whole way, won’t let a trophy fish get slack line.

Another key is a premium light-wire hook—the kind found on light Wack-A-Sack, Gamakatsu, VMC, Owner, Keitech, Lunker City, and Z-Man jigs. Thin-wire hooks penetrate with less force applied. Even with low-stretch braids, go with premium, low-diameter steel wire hooks.

Light line isn’t just for wide-open spaces. Even bass in cover can be beaten down with these sticks and the right hooks. Have faith. You can land giant bronzebacks with thin line. And it’s more fun that way.

In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is a smallmouth expert and often contributes articles on tackle systems and refinements.