Being a part of the first Bassmaster Classic Bracket on the Niagara River was a pretty neat deal. It was cool to be a part of something that was sort of unfolding right before our eyes every day. The unique elements of a limited practice, a small field of eight pros, real-time scoring, having a scoring official in our boats and having our rounds streamed live to the internet were all part of an intense new format, never before seen on the Elites Series.
Since finishing second in the event, I’ve had a lot of people who watched it ask me about catching those smallmouths off the North Grand Island Bridge pilings, so I wanted to take a few minutes to break down exactly how I was catching those fish in such heavy current.
First, I ended up fishing those bridge pilings because we only had one day of practice, unlike a normal tournament where we have three days to cover water. We had just 9 hours of official practice and we were allowed to fish about 16 miles of the river. With nine hours to cover 16 miles, I simply went looking for visible current breaks in the river – points, barge tie ups, sunken barges and bridge pilings. Normally I wouldn’t have felt comfortable fishing such obvious structure, but there were only seven other competitors, so I knew there wouldn’t be an immense amount of fishing pressure.
I found my way to the North Grand Island Bridge on the afternoon of the practice day and caught three smallmouth off the first piling I fished. On the next pilling I caught two nice smallies, including one that weighed about 3-1/2 pounds. From that moment on, I knew exactly how I was going to fish the entire tournament. In fact, I needed only one lure: a 4-inch Yamamoto Shad Shape Worm.
I use the Shad Shape Worm a lot when drop-shotting, especially when nose hooking. It’s killer on spotted bass and smallmouth. In heavy current, there is no substitute for the Shad Shape Worm and here is why: that bait is so hydrodynamic, it cuts through the water with very little resistance. Heavy current is one of the hardest environments to make a natural presentation in because the water is so violent, pushing and pulling a lure all over the place, making it look unrealistic. But the Shad Shape Worm on a drop shot has the unique ability to cut through the current so efficiently that it looks just like a little minnow or baitfish holding itself in the current. I have used this technique on other current driven fisheries as well, like the Detroit River, the Columbia River out West and the Three Rivers near Pittsburgh.
The big key to fishing this technique is reading the “seams” created by a current break. A current seam is where water moving at two different speeds meets. Sometimes it can even be where water moving in two different directions meets, forming an eddy. These are the places where smallmouth set up – sitting in the slower water to nab stuff drifting by in the faster water.
On the North Grand Island Bridge on the Niagara River, there were two sets of massive concrete pilings running across the river – the up current pilings and the down-current pilings. The most obvious seams were located behind the down-current pilings. The second set of seams occurred between the up-current pilings and down-current pilings and these were a little bit trickier to read due to all the current. But upon closer inspection I learned that the current between the two sets of pilings was essentially flowing sideways, so to speak. As the current curled in behind the up-current piling, it would then be “pushed” up and around the front side of the down-current piling, forming unique sideways current flows. The current essentially formed an “S” as it came down one side of the upper piling and cut across in front of the lower piling. I confirmed this with my Humminbird 360. Years of this sideways current between the upper and lower pilings had scoured deeper cuts or ditches between the sets of pilings – and this is where many of the smallmouth were set up in about 15 to 19 feet.
Probing those “S” current seams between the piling was tricky because the bait had to naturally flow with that sideways current to look realistic. And this is where the Shad Shape Worm on a drop shot became deadly.
Here are the components to my perfect drop-shot rig at the Niagara River with notes as to why each part is critical:
Lure: 4-inchYamamoto Shad Shape Worm in light green pumpkin candy with a laminated clear belly (catalog color #938). As I mentioned, the design of this worm is hydrodynamic, allowing it to cut the water and look extremely natural, especially in current. The color is a major confidence color for me; it’s my go to color with smallmouth.
Hook: #1 Decoy Shot Rig hook nose-hooked into the Shad Shape Worm. The Decoy has a wider gap for its size and is made from thinner wire, which is critical in hooking fish in current when your line has big bows or swales in it. Just the tiniest bit of line pressure will drive that hook home, assuring a higher landing ratio.
Weight: ¼-ounce Reins tungsten drop shot weight. The size of the weight was a huge factor in getting the bait to drift just right, especially in the S seams between the pilings. Too heavy of a weight would snag and grab the bottom, looking unnatural. Too light and it would rip by too fast. It had to drift perfectly in those S currents, coming across in between the pilings and then naturally turning to drift down the side of the lower piling.
Leader material: About 6 feet of 7-pound test Sunline FC Sniper fluorocarbon. 7-pound test gave me enough strength to fight the smallies in current, yet was thin enough diameter for minimal water drag in the current. I tied my drop shot with about 18 inches between the weight and the hook. Any waterway in the Great Lakes regions is prone to have zebra mussels, which is why I put a lot of line between my hook and weight. As that weight bumps the bottom hitting rocks, it gets nicked up from mussels so I wanted plenty of margin between my weight and the hook.
Main line: Sunline TX1 braid. This is a new product from Sunline. In fact, I swiped some from the Sunline booth at ICAST before heading to New York. It’s absolutely the thinnest, slickest braid I’ve ever spooled up. It cuts the water so effortlessly. I used the yellow TX1 in some cases because I wanted to keep track of my line in the wild current. Whenever the water is swaying and churning your line around like that, you need to know where the lure is at all times. If a fish eats it and moves with it before you realize it, it can put you at a disadvantage when setting the hook. So that yellow TX1 helped me keep track of where my lure was in the roiling current. Also, I used an Alberto Knot to fuse the TX1 braid to FC Sniper fluorocarbon.
These ingredients come together to form the perfect presentation for fishing deep current. The key on the Niagara River was to read the seams between the pilings, pitch the bait out there, let it go to the bottom and then sort of hold tension in my line to “float” the drop shot through the pilings and then down and around the lower piling, making the most realistic presentation possible in that current. If I could get the drift just right, I was rewarded with a bite.
If the fisheries where you live feature rivers or current, try drop-shotting a Shad Shape Worm in and around current breaks and “floating” your rig along the seams and you’ll see just how deadly this tactic can be.