By Mitch Eagan, Outwrite Contributor
Cast. Reel. Stop. Twitch and pause. Twitch, twitch. Pause. The rhythm of your retrieve is limited only to what your brainwaves can beckon.
A smallmouth bass in proximity takes note of your bodybait suspended motionless in the water column. You make another sharp, downward rip of the rod tip and the lure scurries askew and stops. Sunlight reflects from it like the beam of a spotlight echoing off a mirror. As slack line is reeled in the fish erects its dorsal fin, spins, flares its gills and attacks what it thinks is dinner. The wallop is so powerful it torques your wrist.
Soft plastics that imitate critters crawling along bottom fill the majority of tackle totes of smallmouth aficionados. And that’s okay because crawfish and aquatic insects make up the majority of a smallmouth’s diet. But contrary to popular bass beliefs, fishing low and slow with creepy-crawlies isn’t always the finest bass catching methodology. Minnows and young-of-the-year fishes are equally as sought after as smallies hunt them down just as doggedly.
Casting suspending bodybaits for brute bronzebacks and retrieving them with a tug and purposeful lull is the perfect year-round ploy for emulating the finned fishes big bass eat. It’s not just the lure’s action, but lack thereof that entices bass to whack them no matter the marauder’s mood.
Casting suspending baits for smallmouths isn’t “alert the media” news. Back in the late 1970’s it was realized that lures that didn’t float or sink, but hung right in the water column when paused were often smacked more often than those worked with a steady retrieve.
Back in the early days of this revelation, anglers would bore holes in the bellies of Rapala Original Minnows, slide the prescribed mass of lead weights in so the lure would suspend as perfectly horizontal as possible, then close up the gaps with epoxy and touch up the paint. It was a time consuming task but well worth the effort. As word spread of the suspending bait’s effectiveness, the soon-to-be-doctored floating balsa lures started disappearing off store shelves.
Since that formative era, companies like Rapala began mass producing bodybaits that suspended without needing a handyman. And the baits have come a long way; most are now molded from plastic, have weight-transfer systems for long-distance casting and to keep the lure from spinning and tangling midair; and come in every imaginable shape, size and color.
The Rapala Husky Jerk persists as the benchmark suspending bodybait. It casts long and rattles, literally, the cages of smallmouth bass. Comes in every size and finish to match your neighborhood hatch, too.
One misnomer still stuck in the minds of small-jaw fanatics is that suspending bodybaits only work when fish are foraging below a lake’s façade during the coldwater periods of pre-spawn and late fall – nothing could be further from the truth. While the lures do shine during these periods, suspending bodybaits work anytime and anywhere smallmouth swim.
Freshwater fish are truly cold blooded. This means their body temperature duplicates the surroundings; smallmouth bass, included. In coldwater fish not only won’t, but cannot catch up to a lure fished too aggressively. Besides that, the very forage these lures are imitating are also lethargic and unable to dash away from predators.
When water temperatures are in the 40s and 50s, the lure should move less and park longer; sometimes sitting still up to 30 seconds between twitches. As water temperatures warm, however, the rip of the rod tip can become more erratic and with tighter intervals between twitches. By the time water temps reach 70 you can entirely eradicate the pauses, your rod tip continuously snapping and the lure endlessly darting to and fro – this versus a steady retrieve.
Overall, no matter the season, the key to success boils down to varying the twitch and pause until you get hit. The hard part is remembering exactly what speed and pause time worked so as to repeat it…
To evoke the correct lure action takes a rod and line that matches the task at hand.
Rods, whether spinning or baitcasting, should be on the long side; up to 7 feet to cast lures extended distances. (The waters smallies swim are often very clear and long casts away from the boat or shore are necessary). The rod should be medium-action, yet with a soft tip – the medium power of the midsection and butt for muscle to work the lure and set the hook; the forgiving tip section aiding in casting the lure without it somersaulting in the air. St. Croix, for example, has designed a 6-foot 8-inch “jerkbait” rod in the Legend Tournament Bass series explicitly for this technique.
Using the right line, too, is essential in making the lure come alive. It should have little or no stretch, yet be soft enough to cast like a demon. 10- to 17-pound-test Sufix 832 is where it’s at. The dense property of fluorocarbon, too, such as found on Sufix Castable Invisiline 100% Fluorocarbon in the same pound test is a suitable alternative for twitching suspending baits. Both superline and fluorocarbon are sensitive and even the lightest hits can be felt telegraphed through the line, rod and into your hand.
Any Where, Any Place, Any Time
Minnows and young-of-the-year fishes are equally as sought after as bottom dwellers – smallies will hunt them down like CIA operatives. And suspending bodybaits, which emulate baitfish, work wonders anywhere smallmouth wander, whether that be a natural lake, reservoir, river or Great Lake.
The key to using bodybaits is varying the action and amount of time between moves. That, and use equipment that makes the lure come alive. And don’t forget: These lures will catch brute bronzebacks year-round no matter what others may say.
Mitch Eagan is an outdoor writer and photographer who hunts, fishes and lives within the mosquito-infested cedar swamps of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.