A grub's augering tail mesmerizes fish of all sorts--trout, walleyes, crappies, pike, lakers, redfish, stripers, white bass, and sea trout. But none match the enthusiasm of smallmouth bass. Its appeal to them seems like natural law, akin to gravity. From the remote lakes of Nova Scotia and Maine to the bustling immensity of the Columbia River, nothing catches bass as consistently.
Some lures are seasonally productive, others deadly in certain conditions. But whether they're active or inactive; spring, summer, fall, or winter; before, during or after a front--a grub can always catch at least a few fish. Even when other lures work better, grubs still score. Open the Emergency Kit for Smallmouth Bass and you find one thing: A 5-inch green pumpkin grub on an 1/8-ounce jig.
Of course, the deluxe kit contains jigs from 1/16- up to 3/8-ounce and grubs in 10 colors (now what would you pay for such a kit?) The instructions read: "Choose weight to match depth. Use a slow, steady retrieve or troll at .8 to 1.2 mph." Worms with twistertails work, of course, as well as craws and tubes. But I think a grub's tail is better at hypnosis.
The Grub Trolls for Thee
Casting and retrieving grubs is our bread-and-butter technique. Trolling is relatively obscure yet positively dynamic. Pull a grub on a jig behind a moving boat, canoe, or kayak and the underwater world gets smaller. The program is simple and should meet the approval of those who typically despise trolling. The rod is held, not placed in a holder. That means the strike is felt and you adjust for depth, adjust speed, and set hooks. No special equipment required. You can quickly reel up and cast to key spots with the same rod.
Smallmouths often move off spots where casting is so effective. Cold fronts are the usual suspects, but other conditions can cause an exodus to deeper areas for several days or the remainder of a season. Sometimes it's fishing pressure. An exodus of fish also can occur when scads of pike invade shallow reefs during or after a big blow. Extremely clear water can push smallmouths deeper in calm, sunny conditions, too.
The primary reason to troll is efficiency. Try it as soon as you discover smallmouths are no longer shallow. I use a 7-foot medium-light power, fast-action spinning rod for 6-pound monofilament; an 8-foot, fast, light-power stick for 4-pound mono or braided lines testing between 4 and 8 pounds. Jigs weigh 1/32- to 3/8-ounce, in several shapes. The grubs I depend on most are 4 to 5 inches long and include Kalin's, Get Bit, Yamamoto, Berkley, Zoom, and Lunker City. Colors cover the spectrum, but natural colors and laminates dominate.
After working a couple key shallow spots and surrounding open water with no success in spring or summer, the typical response is to run to other shallow spots where the wind is blowing in. But trolling toward those areas often reveals where bass go when they vacate a spot. Unless you're on the Great Lakes or a huge reservoir, they probably didn't move far. Even in those vast environments, bass move no farther than they must to find food, comfort, or safety. Start along the sharpest drops in the immediate area, moving to adjacent deeper flats. Slowing down and using sonar begins to fill in those empty spots in that jigsaw puzzle picture of what the area looks like beneath the waves.
Each of your favorite spots is surrounded by other key spots. The largest groups of bass are found where lots of usable spots occur in the smallest possible area. Isolated spots are key when fishing pressure is high. Otherwise, spot density becomes a better key. Every good piece of structure is a small part of a bigger area. The more of that area bass can occupy, the higher the number of fish.
Sometimes the key is not a spot, but a roving food truck--like baitfish in open water. A small school of smelt, shad, or ciscoes is not a food truck. But when a massive school of bait moves past a structure occupied by smallmouths, the bass often slip off their moorings and drift along with the convoy. But when the baitfish move too far, bass slide back to that anchored and reliable food source usually characterized by a steady supply of crawfish, sculpins, gobies, or other structure-oriented forage.
The cool thing about a grub is it can imitate every forage item mentioned so far and more. We can start by casting on top or alongside a piece of structure and make a smooth transition to trolling without changing a thing. Even light jigheads can be trolled relatively deep by adjusting line length behind the boat.
Speed and attitude are critical. A speeding crank-bait, topwater, or spinnerbait often triggers strikes but the most consistent success with a grub is achieved by a slow, steady, horizontal swim. Trolling fast over shallow spots can pay off, but I tend to cast to those spots because it requires some wizardry or a small trolling board like the Off Shore Tackle OR34 to keep the boat over deep water and the lure shallow. Snap the rod tip up or pull it forward occasionally if you must, but it seldom seems to help. Dropping the rod tip back toward the lure, producing slack and letting the jig fall, tends to convince smallmouths to bite better than sudden jigging actions. Swimming a grub steadily on an even keel seldom fails.
The best speeds for trolling plastics on jigs range from .8 to 1.2 mph. That narrow range defines the most effective presentation about 80 percent of the time. With the boat still, make a long cast and let the jig fall for five seconds. In most cases I'm searching structure, so if the grub never touches bottom, I slow down, feed more line out, or try a heavier jighead. If the jig is skipping constantly on bottom, I speed up, shorten the line, or switch to a lighter jig. Adjust line length until contact is made and adjust accordingly. A 1/8-ounce jig trolls along near bottom in 10 to 17 feet of water at those speeds, with the correct amount of line out.
When I suspect smallmouths are suspended and shadowing ciscoes, alewives, smelt, or shad, I look for schools of those species with sonar before I start trolling. I start with a 1/16-ounce jig 50 to 80 feet back because smallmouths are seldom more than 12 feet down in open water.
Finding structure that holds fish near one of your prime spots is exciting. Side-imaging sonar cuts the time required by 75 percent. My Humminbird 998C sniffs out key spots off my trolling path--spots I could have missed or spent too much time to find. The nice thing about side-imaging is how the distance to an object is measured and the direction is clear. If a spot off to the side appears to hold multiple fish, I throw the motor into reverse for a second, reel up quickly and cast well beyond it, allowing the jig to sink to bottom before starting a slow, steady retrieve that keeps the grub on a horizontal plane. Again, if it doesn't hit bottom, slow down. If it drags, speed up slightly.
Sit with the rod comfortably level to the water, the tip pointing back toward the lure. Trolling positions you for a sure hook-set. Strikes can feel like almost anything--a slight increase in weight, a strand of grass, a peck, a tap, or a thump. Set the hook on every indication or change in weight. Nothing there? Slow down, drop the rod tip, and resume.
Whether trolling or casting, the proper jig shape either accentuates an action or provides stability. Experiment to determine which style triggers fish best on any given day. Most if not all shapes work, though some excel in specific situations. The one key attribute is a thin-wire hook and a small barb. Thick-gauge wire won't penetrate well at distance with stretchy monofilament lines and leaders. Even with braided lines, it's better to be safe than sorry. Quality hooks put more fish in the photo album.
A standard ballhead like the Gamakatsu Round 26 or Owner Ultrahead Round is my go-to style because it adds or subtracts nothing with respect to tail action. The round head is steady--best when bass prefer a slow, horizontal swim. Trolling works best when smallmouths slowly overtake it, seemingly trying to avoid a chase. If the supposed preyfish doesn't spook, wary bass seem to take it as encouragement to continue stalking.
Bullet- or cone-head jigs from Kalin's, Owner, and others cause grubs to wave slightly side-to-side as the pointy nose tries to center itself but consistently overcorrects a tiny bit on each side. Bullets drop slightly faster on slack line. Both characteristics appeal to bass that are a little more active after moving off prime spots, but it can be hard to predict when a bullet will outperform other shapes.
Football heads can be awesome trolling tools when smallmouths are pinned tight to structure, hunting gobies, sculpins, or crayfish. In those cases, occasionally dragging a jig or stopping periodically so the presentation falls to the bottom for a slight pause can be highly effective. The hook stays up, keeping snags to a minimum as the jig rolls over rocky structure. I often troll with 1/16- to 3/8-ounce Gamakatsu or Lunker City football heads.
Some shapes stay up a little higher than others of the same weight. Swimbait heads of various shapes with a fluted underside, like the Northland Slurp! Jig Head or Matzuo Heavy Metal Head may fall as fast as a ballhead, but consistently ride a little higher when trolling or making long casts and retrieves. An entirely flattened jig, like the TC Tackle Glider Head, rides even higher and falls much slower with an enticing flutter--like a struggling, dying baitfish. The lip is turned up slightly, accentuating the lift on a steady pull, circling on the drop. All these heads are optimal for trolling over suspended bass in open water or trolling across structures that rise relatively high off bottom.
Tail up or tail down? Take your pick. When grubs get chewed up I turn them around and thread them back on with the tail down to catch a few more with no observable loss of effectiveness. The critical thing is running the hook straight through, bringing the point out precisely on the seam. Otherwise the jig can spin and twist your line.
Every turn of the boat speeds and raises the lure on the outside of the turn, while slowing and dropping the lure on the inside of the turn, which suggests making longer, more subtle turns when trolling softbaits. Why not troll with a spread of crankbaits on line-counter reels to cover the same area with more precision? I've tried it many times and it sometimes works. The grub's subtlety, natural appearance, and softness translates into more hookups for me, especially in heavily-fished waters. And the efficiency of simply reeling up to use the same tackle to cast when concentrations of bass reveal themselves adds fishing time to the day.
The final bit of persuasion is that smallmouths sometimes follow baits quite far without striking. How often have you seen fish follow baits up to the boat only to turn away? It happens often in clear water and questionable weather. The cure is keeping the lure coming slow and steady.
By MATT STRAW, In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, has been an avid smallmouth bass chaser for several decades.