By David A. Brown
A former Bassmaster Classic champion and veteran FLW Tour pro, Jay Yelas is no stranger to big bass. However, the Oregon angler knows that nabbing big bass often means throwing smaller baits. In his view, small swimbaits exemplify this premise.
“Especially on public lakes that get a lot of fishing pressure, most all of the fish have been caught before and you’re trying to recapture the same fish,” he said. “So, having a small, natural profile in your bait makes a big difference, because these are educated fish.
“I think it’s easier to fool a fish with a smaller swimbait than a big one because it looks more natural in the water.”
Water clarity is another big consideration in Yelas’ bait selection. Specifically, fish have to make quick decisions in stained to dirty water, while clear water gives them plenty of time to examine their potential meals.
“If you have two foot or more, especially when it’s up to four to five feet of visibility, the smaller swimbaits really are more effective than larger bait,” Yelas notes.
Moreover, just consider what bass find every fall — young-of-the-year baitfish that are typically smaller in profile. Predators will often become so focused on a particular meal size that they’ll ignore the larger offerings.
Lastly, Yelas notes the meteorological relevance of smaller swimbaits. Cloudy, overcast, windy and/or rainy conditions — such days may open the door for those full-sized swimbaits. But when clarity and calm define your day, downsizing to a less intrusive profile, especially one with an ultra-realistic form, is the way to go.
“Most of the time when you’re fishing, you’re not confronted with adverse conditions like that,” Yelas said. “When you have a higher sky, sunshine, a light breeze; in those conditions, a smaller swimbait is more effective.
“Day in and day out, it’s a better mousetrap for catching numbers and big fish.”
FIT FOR THE TASK
Yelas puts several Yamamoto swimbaits into action, from the Heart-Tail swimbait to the Swimming Senko; but he’s particularly fond of the new Zako. Made with a plump, ribbed body and segmented tail section, this bait sports a profile and action that resembles natural forage from bluegill to larger shad.
Enhancing the bait’s performance, a flanged tail design keeps the motion tight and realistic, while those tail segments create an accordion-style movement that collapses on impact to allow the fish to engulf the bait.
“The Zako has a unique action because it doesn’t have the paddle style tail that many swimbaits do — it has more of a natural forked tail,” Yelas said. “This presents a more natural image in the water.
“A paddletail swimbait has a big wobbling action, but the Zako has more of a subtle look to it.
As Yelas points out, the Zako performs well across a diverse array of applications from reaction style fishing where he’s covering water to find aggressive fish, to more subdued and target-oriented presentations. Here’s a look at how he fishes this bait.
Back of the Bus
Yelas said his top technique for Zako use is on the back of a spinnerbait of a vibrating jig. His ideal scenario: stained to dirty water with wood, rock, docks or vegetation.
“This is an excellent trailer because from the side profile, it looks just like a baitfish to a bass,” he said. “That jointed tail gives it a natural swimming action.
“With the big swimbaits, the craze right now is those glide baits, which have a real subtle darting action. That’s kind of what the Zako has.”
Authentic appearance is essential and that’s where a key design point — the center line on the bait’s top side. This visual reference ensures dead center placement so the bait always aligns properly.
“That’s basic rigging, but it’s very important because you want to rig it so the tail is always standing up and on a side profile it looks like a fish moving through the water,” Yelas notes. “If you don’t rig it right, it’s not going to look as appealing to the fish.”
Yelas typically pairs a white Zako with a white or chartreuse/white vibrating jig or spinnerbait. He’ll also use a green pumpkin swimbait with a dark skirted vibrating jig — green pumpkin or black, most commonly.
“That white or white/chartreuse Zako is an excellent combination for the spring shad spawn,” Yelas points out. “Around grass, when the bass may be eating shiners or bluegill, that’s when you want to go with green pumpkin.”
In another reaction style presentation, Yelas rigs his Zako on a swimbait style lead head jig. For depths to 30 feet, he’ll go as heavy as an ounce, but for the more common scenario of shallow to mid-range, a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce head does the job. Unpainted heads can work in a pinch, but he prefers to match jig head colors to his bait choice.
“This is a slow to moderate pace on the retrieve,” Yelas said. “You can fish this around grass, brush piles or offshore humps and ledges. You want to let it sink to the bottom and then just use a steady retrieve.
“Of course, if you’re fishing brush, you don’t want to let the bait sink to the bottom — you’ll hang up. You want to keep it up in the water column. That’s where the lighter head will help you finesse it around the structure.”
This technique is also highly effective during the fall drawdown, when probing isolated structure comes into play. Bass are in major food mode and the Zako offers a convincing profile.
“The bass are really keyed in on the shad this time of year,” Yelas said. “The bass are going to be where the baitfish are, so the number-one thing is staying near the food supply.
“During the fall of the year, the fish aren’t thinking about anything but feeding. This is where shad-looking swimbaits, like the Zako really come into play. It’s a highly effective way to catch bass in the fall.”
When hydrilla, milfoil or eel grass tops out and forms dense mats, bass leverage the shelter, shade and ambush points created by this mass of vegetation. The fish therein see a lot of frogs and punch baits, but Yelas likes to mix up the “looks” by running a swimbait over and around prominent grass mat features like points, cuts and edges.
Obviously, this is no place for open hook rigging, so Yelas uses a 5/0 wide gap hook for a weedless presentation that allows him to fish his Zako just about anywhere. Belly-weighted hooks in the 1/4- to 3/8-ounce range facilitate the long casts often needed to probe a far point or reach fish chasing bait through an inner grass mat lagoon.
“That’s a totally different presentation, but a lot of lakes have grass (especially in the fall) and Texas-rigging the Zako allows you to pull it right through the vegetation without snagging,” Yelas said. “I like a slow to moderate retrieve, just ticking it through the grass.”
As for timing, Yelas offered this tip: “Around grass, swimbaits seem to shine in low-light conditions; early and late, anytime it’s cloudy or breezy. If you get some cloud or wind in the middle of the day, they’ll bite that swimbait.”
And remain ever watchful for targets of opportunity. Fall grass beds are typically packed with shad and this does not go unnoticed by Mr. Big Head.
“The bass are chasing shad around those grass beds, so that’s (the profile) they’re keying on,” Yelas said. “Swimbaits are dynamite in this scenario, especially on those outside edges with scattered grass.”
Early spring finds prespawn bass roaming the perimeters of spawning grounds. Eagerly anticipating the right combination of warmth and lunar phase, these staging fish will feed heavily on meals that look a lot like a Yamamoto Zako (or vice versa).
Later, when the fish are just getting established on their beds, those hefty females can be ferociously protective, with encroachments eliciting violent responses. Swimming baits across their radar can trigger eye-crossing attacks, or at least the kind of boils or blow ups that identify hot spots.
The only problem is that the heavy splash of a full-size swimbait either spooks the fish off the bed, or alerts them to a potential threat. However, the moderate entry of a small swimbait like the Zako is much less intimidating and, indeed, is more likely to have the fish looking for something in need of a good chomping.
Depending on scenario, you could target spring bass with a Zako rigged on a swimbait head or rigged weedless on that belly-weighted hook. The latter excels for prespawn searching around rock and wood, while sneaking into a heavily-vegetated spawning zone requires that weedless rig.
TRY THESE, TOO
Rounding out the small swimbait’s diversity, Yelas nods to a couple more options:
Flipping — Rigging the Zako on a stout flipping hook with a 3/8- to a 1/2-ounce bullet weight and send it into laydowns and pockets in emergent vegetation or dock shadows. As Yelas points out, the full-figured Zako’s front half bears a strong similarity to a tube — a proven bass-tempting profile. Pair that with this bait’s motion-heavy tail and you have an enticing package that shows the fish something they’re not used to seeing.
Ball-and-Chain — When the fish are deep and the bite is tough, Yelas won’t hesitate to stick a Zako on the back of a Carolina rig. A different look than the worms and creature baits typically riding at the end of that long leader, the small swimbait profile can prove to be a real head-turner.
TACKLE & TIPS
For all of his presentations, Yelas likes a 7-foot, 3-inch heavy action Kistler KLX rod and a 6.4:1 Team Lew’s Pro baitcaster. He’ll use 12- to 17-pound Lew’s fluorocarbon line, based on his application, depth and cover.
“A high gear ratio is not important with swimbait fishing because you’re not winding those baits super fast,” he said.
Summarizing his firm belief in stealth-sized swimbaits, Yelas said: “Baitfish size, water clarity and fishing pressure all add up to reasons why smaller swimbaits can be effective. This is something that serious anglers need to look hard at and add to their arsenals.
“These baits can boost your consistency because you can catch a big fish on a large swimbait, but you’ll get a lot more numbers of fish on smaller baits — and you’ll get big fish in the mix, too.”