You’d think someone who’s caught and released over 23,000 smallmouth bass since catching his first in 1994 would have to lift weights just to carry all those lures he’d used. I chase smallies in my Jackson Kayaks, wearing waders and in my boat. You might be surprised that over the past 25 years I’ve used only a few lures compared to most, but they’ve all been winners. Let me tell you about them and see if I can help you increase the numbers of smallies you catch and release, along with shedding weight from that tackle box and saving you some dollars.
I mostly fish small rivers in Wisconsin and the big waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Early on in my smallie career, it was mostly small rivers, and by far my top producer and what I used almost exclusively was the Rebel Teeny Wee-Crawfish. This little fish catching magnet is 1.25-inches long and has an extremely tight wiggle giving off great vibration. It swims nose down, so very few snags! It comes in many colors, although I think the color is less important than that vibration. All the presentations I’m sharing, I use St. Croix rods which have great products top to bottom in their line-up. And, one model I have come to love are the Mojo Bass rods that range in price from $130 to $150 and use the same blank as the more expensive Avid rods, a great deal. Because of the light weight, I use a 6’6” to 7’ light fast to extra-fast action rod. I’ve had my best luck retrieving it back cross-current or against the current to enhance that wiggle and vibration. You should swim it slow to medium speed. This lure comes with small #14 treble hooks and I change out the back treble with a #10. This slightly larger treble is stronger and helps with hook-ups. Nicely, it does not change the action.
Ever since getting back into fishing in 1992 I would swim curly tail grubs. Well, there are curly tail grubs and then there are the Kalin’s Lunker Grubs. I was introduced to this lure in 2007 and it has been just tremendous. It is designed to be swum very slow and steady. It has a bigger body than many grubs and a very long, tall, whispy tail that undulates unbelievably with that slow retrieve. The Lunker Grub comes in many colors, but I’ve had my best success in the ultra-clear waters of Sturgeon Bay with the 4 and 5-inch in Smoke Salt & Pepper. That fall of 2007 I found that the 4-inch Blue Pearl Salt & Pepper was tremendous on the rivers I fish. These are the primary colors I use, but I’d suggest you experiment. The jig you use is important. In shallower water I like a mushroom head 1/16th ounce jig with a longer shank hook. In deeper water up to 6 to 8-feet deep, I go to a 3/32nd ounce and when a few feet deeper a 1/8th. Fished the same as the Lunker Grubs, the Keitech FAT Swing 3.3 and 3.8-inch versions are outstanding swimbaits I’ve had nice success with this year. I’ve liked Shad, Black Shad, Alewife and Goby for colors, but experiment. For the Lunker Grubs and FAT Swing, I like a 7’ to 7’6” medium-light fast or extra-fast action rods.
The Teeny Wee and Middle-Wee Crawfish, Kalin’s Lunker Grub and Keitech FAT swing can be a great search lure as you try and find those smallies, especially on rivers. If you’ve already found the smallies a wacky-rigged 4-inch YUM Dinger or 5-inch Kalin’s Wack-O-Worm can be just the ticket. I use anything from a #1 to 2/0 wide-gap worm hook for this presentation. It is fished best by casting, letting it undulate towards the bottom, lifting and repeat. Ideally without added weight, this is best used in water under 10-feet deep and I’d suggest natural colors. Another fun and easy presentation is nose hooking a Kalin’s 5-inch Jerk Minnow with the same wide gap worm hook I use for the wacky-rigging. Give white, pearl and brighter colors a try. For these presentations I’m using a 6’10” to 7’ medium-light and medium in fast and extra-fast actions.
I’m not much of a topwater guy, but they can be fun and many smallie angler love the excitement. My problem is there are many blow-ups, but the hookset percentage is lower than I like. One topwater I have had great success with on rivers is the Booyah Pond Magic Buzzbait. This small 4-inch buzzbait comes in a variety of colors, but white and white/chartreuse are my favorites. The best presentation is casting to shore and retrieve perpendicular. Experiment with speed to see what the smallies want. Using this presentation mostly on rivers with many smaller bass, I’m suing 6’10” to 7’ medium-light fast and extra-fast action rods.
One of the most exciting things that I’ve seen during my smallie career is the Ned Rig with Z-Man jigs and soft plastics. I have been using the Ned Rig since August of 2016 and most of the 4,000 smallies since then have been on the Ned Rig. I use the Z-Man ShroomZ jigs mostly in chartreuse. For rivers the 1/20th and 1/15th ounce are best. In Sturgeon Bay and the big water, I also use the lighter jigs, mostly the 1/15th and 1/10th ounce. For the Ned Rig make a long cast, let settle to the bottom and retrieve very slow with a twitch, twitch and at times just let it sit. The magic is in the Z-Man ElasZtec plastic that’s buoyant. So, when using the 2.75-inch Finesse TRD, instead of laying down it sits up off the bottom with current giving it an enticing appeal. This buoyance and light jigs help with vegetation on the bottom and in rocks. I also use the TRD TubeZ, which is also just 2.75-inches long. For the Ned Rig and all the presentations, I talk about, I use 8 to 10-pound test braid or superline with a 30 to 40-inch 10-pound fluorocarbon leader.
OK, now that I’ve shared my arsenal, let’s see what four of my friends who are top Wisconsin smallie anglers and guides tell us about their favorite smallie lures.
Chris Johnson, FishCrazy Guide Service
In Door County, on the waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan, it’s tough to miss Chris Johnson, Fish Crazy Guide Service, in his 24-foot, white, center console, flats-style boat and that big white 300 hp Mercury Verado engine. Chris guides from opening day until well into the fall and only guides for smallmouth bass.
Chris looks at his lure selection for different water temperatures, and tells me, “in cold water a few things stand out. A jerkbait and a hair jig will select big fish.” He likes to keep it simple, and with jerkbaits he likes to keep it simple using natural colors with the orange belly, but occasionally he gets funky with a color like clown. Chris says being flexible is key, because you just don’t always know what the smallies want. With jerkbaits, Chris notes, “in cold water, I might reel down, give the bait a twitch, let it sit while and drink a half-cup of coffee before tickling it for a few-inch move. Other times a rip and jerk or two might be the ticket. Being willing to experiment and adapt to the changes in your presentation that will trigger a strike.” He throws a variety of jerkbaits from Berkley and Megabass. For hair jigs, Chris likes those tied by Howie’s Tackle in Sturgeon Bay, and his favorites are 3/32-ounce black hair jigs in a combination of marabou and deer hair.
As the water warms into the middle to upper 40’s, Chris adds the Kalin’s Lunker Grubs and swimbaits. For grubs he will slow rolling them, use the swim and pause technique, along with lifting and dropping. Also, for warmer water, tubes in the 2.5 to 4-inch size join Chris’s line-up. He uses his own ¼-ounce jigs with 2/0 hook and most often simple drags them slowly with the occasional lift and drop. Chris tells me, “I primarily use tubes from the Berkley family, but also like those from Get Bit Baits, Gitzit and ISG, with pumpkin based colors my best producers.” He noted, “As the year develops, so does the bait selection. Including drop shotting, rattlebaits, topwaters, spinnerbaits and others. Things change so fast and you must always be willing to do the same. Junk fishing is a term that comes to mind.”
Chris makes sure his boat is stocked with every rod and reel combo he might need. He says, “I always have rods to cover 3/32-ounce Hair Jigs to one-ounce spinnerbaits, and, even California-style large swimbaits.” For tubes, swimming grubs and swimbaits, Chris uses 7’2” medium action rod with extra fast tip. For his hair jig fishing he jumps to a longer 7’6” medium action rod and for jerkbaits a 6’8” casting rod with a medium fast action. Looking at the line for his spinning set-ups, it’s 10-pound braid with a 14” fluorocarbon leader, and for his jerkbait lures with the bait cast set-up, it’s 12-pound fluorocarbon.
Steve Mortenson, Anglin Adventures Guide Service
Steve Mortenson is a smallie guide and angler who guides and fishes over 100 lakes, mostly in Winnebago, Waushara, Waupaca and Green Counties in Wisconsin. He also heads north to lakes in Oneida and Vilas Counties. Steve tells me, “about 20 years ago I was fishing some tournaments and doing talks at fishing shows. My Anglin Adventures Guide Service began when attendees would ask me if I’d take them out to show them the excitement I’d talk about at the shows.”
When I asked Steve what his top few smallie lures were and how he presented them, he said, “my top overall smallie lure for both lakes and rivers is the soft plastic tube.” He uses the ISG Intimidator 4-inch tube in green pumpkin with purple flecks and the Bass Kandy 4-inch tube in green apple with purple fleck, rigged on 3/16, ¼ and 3/8- ounce tube jigs. Steve noted, “I always add one important thing, crawfish scent is a must”. He presents the tube by casting as far as he can, lets it sink to the bottom and with a straight drag retrieve, using the rod tip to move the tube about 10 inches at a time. For tubes, he likes to use a 6’8” medium action spinning rod with a good quality 2000-size spinning reel.
Two other top producers for Steve are spinnerbaits and swimjigs. For both presentations, he varies the speed of the lure just below the water surface until he catches a few fish, which tells him what’s the best speed. He likes a 5/16-ounce spinnerbaits with white and chartreuse skirts, with one large diamond shaped gold blade and smaller silver Colorado blade. The Super K ¼-ounce swimjigs are his favorite in the color ice out, a white variation. For spinnerbaits and swimjigs, Steve uses a 7’ medium action rod and low-profile bait cast reel with at least a 6.6:1 gear ratio.
Another favorite presentation for Steve is drop shotting. His two favorite soft plastics for this technique are the Strike King Perfect Plastic Drop Shot worm and 4-inch Roboworm Drop Shot worm in the color, Aaron’s Magic. He casts, lets it sink to the bottom and tells me, “the key is not to shake the lure while keeping it 10” to 14” off the bottom, slowly taking in line about every five seconds.” With drop shotting, Steve prefers a 7’2” medium action soft tip rod and slower 5.2:1 retrieve ratio spinning reel.
Even with the popularity of braid and superlines, Steve prefers basic 10 and 12-pound monofilament. In clear water, he does add a six-pound fluorocarbon leader of 12 to 20 inches.
Andrew Ragas, Northwoods Bass Fishing Adventures
How does a young guy get the best of both worlds? Andrew Ragas loves designing web sites in the Chicago area for his more traditional career, and from May to October spends two weeks a month in the Minocqua, Wisconsin area with his Northwoods Bass Adventures Guide Service. He grew up at his family’s summer place in Minocqua in the 1990’s, but it wasn’t until the mid-2000’s that he really got the smallie bug, starting his guide business in 2017. He notes, “I typically fish all the lakes, rivers and flowages located in the entire 50-mile radius surrounding Minocqua in Vilas, Oneida, Iron and Forest Counties.” And, he mentioned that on a typical day he might hit two to five different lakes, laughing, “If there’s a road and boat access, I’ll fish it.”
Andrew has his favorites lures based on time of year. In the spring its 5” Kalin’s Jerk Minnow and suspending jerkbaits like the Rapala X-Rap and Lucky Craft Pointer minnows. Summer finds him going to 4” swimbaits and paddletails like the Kalin’s Sizmic Shad, Strike King Rage Swimmer and a few others. He swims these on 3/8 and ½-ounce Trokar Boxing Glove Jigs and the Freedom Tackle Hydra Swinging Head Jig.
He also likes squarebill crankbaits, some topwaters and tubes. Andrew tells me, “I like baits that push a lot of water and create commotion, like the Rapala X-Rap. I also like 4” to 6” walk-the-dog style topwaters like the X-Rap SubWalk and Skitter V.” He adds 3/8-ounce hula grubs on ½-ounce football head jigs, deep diving crankbaits and blade baits in the fall. Because the forage base in the clear water lakes he fishes are cisco and smelt, he mostly sticks with natural colors in whites and crystal patterns.
When asked about his rod and reel set-ups for his various presentations, Andrew tells me, “For all of my jigging tactics I use 6’10” to 7’6” medium heavy fast action rods with both bait cast and spinning reels spooled with 10, 15 and 20-pound braided line with an 8, 10 or 12-pound four-foot fluorocarbon leader depending on the braid.” For his casting applications a 7’ to 7’6” medium to medium heavy combos with monofilament or copolymer lines in the 10 to 12-pound range. When fishing suspending jerkbaits and jerk minnows, he goes with a 7’ medium heaving rod and size 30 spinning reel spooled with 8-pound copolymer.
Dale Pavey only guides occasionally, but he does know how to catch smallies and some true monsters. Like me, he got hooked on smallies from the very first one he caught. But, unlike me, much younger at age 12. His early smallie days were spent on rivers in Illinois and it wasn’t until he moved to Wisconsin that his smallie numbers and numbers of larger ones took off.
Dale targets smallies about 50% of his fishing time, spending time on rivers and several lakes in Southeast Wisconsin, and, some amazing lakes in the Presque Isle, Wisconsin area. He fishes some lakes that hold smallies quite deep, but tells me, “I have six northern Wisconsin lakes I fish that are over 70 feet deep, but I generally don’t target smallies deeper than 25-30 feet because pulling smallie from deeper than that you risk hurting the fish.” Rocky rivers are what Dale looks for and up north his best success is on lakes with good populations of cisco, smelt and overpopulated with rusty crawfish.
When asked his top smallie presentations Dale’s said his favorite is the Strike King KVD Sexy Dawg, Jr. As he notes, “mostly because it’s so much fun to catch fish on this spook-type topwater, which, is best on overcast days, but I’ve had some great spring and fall days in the middle of a sunny day.” Next on Dale’s list is a spinnerbait, especially when there’s a good wind. He likes white or chartreuse skirts his favorite spinnerbaits have one white and one chartreuse blade in the ½ ounce size, going heavier in big winds.
The first two lures Dale mentions, he fishes quickly. His third he fishes very slow. It’s a 4-inch Yamamoto Senko wacky-rigged with a smaller tungsten jighead. He explains, “I also love drop shotting the Senko using a ¼-ounce weight, and, I’ve caught some nice smallies on the 5 or 6-inch Senko, but, the 4 inch is best for catching numbers of smallies”. A few more of Dale’s favorites are. A Mann’s Baby 4 or Storm Wiggle Wart for rivers and he loves jerkbaits, X-rap and xr4 in Olive Green. He also mentioned hot pink as a great smallie color.
Dale tells me, “for my topwater presentations, I use a 7’ medium action rod and mono line, so the line doesn’t sink. And, for my spinner baits it’s a 7’ or 7’6” medium heavy action rod with 20-pound braid. For my drop shot presentations, I prefer a 7’ medium-light action and like using fluorocarbon line.”
So, now you have my top lures and presentations, along with the bonus of learning even more from four of the top smallie anglers and guides in Wisconsin. I hope this helps you catch and release more smallmouth bass than you’ve ever caught before. Take this information and hit those wonderful smallie streams and lakes across the country. If you have any questions, please email me at email@example.com