Dead Drifting, Not Jerking
Last February accounted for more 20-inch river smallmouth in my trip report log than any month so far this year. I expect this month to beat it.
The pattern that works for so many big river smallmouth? To tell you Òsuspending jerkbaits over ledge trenchesÓ would only tell you about 30% of the story. The other 70%, the important part is how long between jerks. To be honest, unless the water is fairly stained, the jerks are inconsequential.
Know that this tactic isnÕt one that gets numbers of fish, itÕs a ÒHail MaryÓ or Òswing for the fenceÓ type proposition. But if you are fishing for river smallmouth this winter, you are likely used to hours of inactivity. Most people canÕt handle it. Most anglers jerk too often.
Late December two years ago, I was five hours into catching a whole lot of nothing besides pneumonia. I had fished tubes, hair jigs, the suspending jerkbait and even a slow-rolled spinnerbait without so much as a nudge. The wind had picked up, my gloves were soaked and starting to crunch with ice as I flexed my hand to warm them up. The chill had permeated my body and mind.
Launching a Lucky Craft Pointer 100 jerkbait into a huge foam eddy, I had thoughts of leaving with hours of daylight remaining. I even thought of how I could spend the rest of the day being more productive than just sitting there, stewing about not being able to get any pattern going. I could clean the garage. I could pour more jig heads. I could do something other than freezing my tail off in a kayak, not catching anything! My confidence meter was zeroing out.
I reached around behind me to grab a sandwich with one hand, still holding the jerkbait rod in the other. I hadnÕt twitched the bait in over five minutes. I had given up. Chewing on the mouthful of PB & J, I see the bright yellow braided line hop like someone had flicked it. My reaction was delayed by disbelief. I swung the rod hard, feeling a snag. I thought pessimistically, ÒIt must have drifted into a log.Ó
Then the snag throbbed. The half consumed sandwich fell into my kayakÕs soggy footwell, my drag zinged and a powerful infusion of adrenaline warmed me to my bright red finger tips. The fish even jumped at kayak side while I fumbled for my net. An especially rotund 20-inch, 5-1 smallmouth had turned despair into optimism.
The concept of pauses a minute or longer wasnÕt new to me, but the ÒIÕve lost track because IÕve given upÓ attitude had me thinking of how to attain such unintentional patience again.
After taking a photo and releasing the toad, I resumed jerkbaiting in the traditional method. Jerk, jerk, jerk, pause of 10 seconds, resume. Two hours passed, I became complacent, ate another sandwich paid less attention, then nailed an 18 incher.
By the time last February rolled around, I was practiced at catching big smallmouth in 38-degree water on jerkbait pauses of two minutes or longer. ValentineÕs Day last year was especially amorous in terms of the smallmouth loving a Pointer 100 drifting over their lair motionless.
By the end of February I had my four- and five-year-old out there on the cataraft doing it with me.
How I attain the dead drift depends on the craft I am in. I fish in kayaks, in my cataraft and in other peopleÕs jet boats on occasion. The one constant in how itÕs done is establishing the proper amount of line tension, and maintaining that loose connection to the bait at a constant tension.
You donÕt want to keep the line tension so tight that you move the suspending hard bait. You also donÕt want to throw so much slack into the line that when big brown chomps down on it, you never feel the hit. ItÕs not like jig fishing, when you can maintain that reassuring hard connection to the bottom. You have it out there in space, doing something, but preferably nothing.
If I am in a kayak, I cast cross river and either speed up or slow down my kayaks drift to maintain the same drift speed as the jerkbait. My preferred rod in the kayak is a spinning rod, a St. Croix Legend Tournament Big Cranker. It has a moderate action that helps keep the hard charging smallmouth buttoned on what is often a single treble hook connection. The line is bright yellow 15 lb FINS braid, connected to a 10-pound Bass Pro Shops fluorocarbon leader of about seven feet long. The bright braid often helps you see a bite before you feel it, so keep your eyes on it.
When I am in a jet boat or my cataraft, I anchor up and pick apart an area, dropping the anchor, working the water below me for 20 to 40 minutes, then lift the anchor again and work a different lane. The rod I prefer in that situation is also a moderate action St. Croix. This time itÕs a baitcaster, a 7-10 Magnum Cranker. Instead of drifting at the same speed of the suspending jerk, I have the rod tip follow it down on semi-taught line. With a sloth-like downstream swing of almost 16 feet, I can lower the minnow imitator down slowly, presenting a convincing injured minnow posture.
Without the lowering downstream slowly tactic, a jerkbait thrown from an anchored boat does two unnatural things. On the swing downstream it moves like a pendulum weight, with the nose of the bait pointing toward you, and crossing current at an angle that neither healthy nor injured minnows do. Following a good hard rip to get it down in the water column, the bait will be pointed in some direction. Let it maintain that orientation in a path that parallels the current: straight downstream.
No oneÕs eyesight is good enough to see underwater and know that you are doing it properly, so concentrate on how the bright yellow braided line looks above water. From the end of the initial short yank, position your rod tip so that the line coming off of it slopes a gradual bow down to where it enters the water. The shape of this curve is something that you will have to monitor, so that when you get bit, you know that you got it right, and need to replicate it henceforth. If the line is too straight, you are pulling the bait in. If the line lays on the surface in curves, you have too much slack to feel any bite.
When the rod tip has followed it downstream to the point where you feel that the bait is going to start to wobble in place and point toward you, release more line while swinging your rod tip upstream as far as possible before engaging the reel again. This will produce some sort of action to the bait. ThatÕs fine, but donÕt get sucked into trying to rip the bait. Your goal is to purchase another 16 feet of line to slowly lower the bait over the next ledge trench.
In terms of likely locations, current protection is key. Find large eddies that seem to trap foam bubbles and never release them to the next pool. Depth helps provide an added buffer to what these fish endure during a high water event in the winter. Steep banks leading down to these waters often gives away their location. Pools with greater volume wonÕt have the speed of current that could require more energy than their cold water slowed metabolism can take.
Done properly, this anchored boat, dead drift presentation can take 10 minutes to drift the eddy. Many jerkbaits wonÕt suspend properly out of the package to maintain a middle of the water column presentation. IÕve had my best luck with Lucky Craft Pointer 100Õs. Whether they suspend, float up slowly or sink slowly also depends on the water temperature, as it effects water density. I prefer one that suspends perfectly, will go ahead and fish one that sinks slowly, and will throw away or add Suspend Dots to ones that float up even a little.
Probably the best advice I can give anyone on how to attain this technique properly is to forget about it. Forget that you are fishing. Launch it out there, let the mechanics of letting out line or pacing the slow drift be secondary to something else. That something else could be an audio book on an MP3 player or a conversation with your fishing buddy at the back of the boat. Enjoy the beauty of being on a mid-Atlantic river in the winter and forget about the jerkbait. A big smallmouth will bring your mind back before you know it!
EditorÕs Note: Jeff LittleÕs new DVD on River Smallmouth Winter Patterns will be available in early 2013. His popular River Kayak Fishing Skills, River Smallmouth Summer Patterns and River Smallmouth Fall Patterns DVDs can be found on page XX.