by M.L. Anderson
I have been bass fishing for several decades now, and bass fishing has evolved over that time, to say the least. It isn’t just the equipment and tackle that changes with the years – the popularity of various techniques seems to wax and wane as well. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the bass themselves. Bass still eat and behave as they always have, so old methods that have been replaced by sexier ways of presenting a bait will still work. This winter, when the cold water has you contemplating a drop-shot rig yet again, try reaching for one of these three rigs instead. They are all tried and true, even if you may not have tried them in a while.
My buddy Don Iovino invented doodling back when we were still using triangulation to find our secret honey holes. This is how it worked: you’d find a hump with your depthfinder, and then you’d look around and find things on shore that you could line up with – say a tower on one side of the lake and a weird tree or cactus on the opposite side. Then you’d need two more things in the other two directions. When you needed to find that spot again, you’d mosey around until those things lined up for you. Even if you had GPS back then, the government scrambled the signals on purpose -- you couldn’t get accurate readings at all, so they were fairly useless for fishing back in the day. Iovino, still an amazing fisherman, was a master at finding and re-finding underwater structure.
Don started out doodling with live bait for trout, then decided to try it with plastics and immediately began winning tournaments. The basic rig is light line, a 5/32- to 3/16-ounce brass sinker, a 8mm faceted glass bead, and a finesse worm. The basic technique is shaking the rig on the bottom while keeping the line taut enough to be able to feel the bite, which usually feels sort of like you got stuck on a rubber band, although I’ve had the fish hit it pretty hard at times, too. The brass sinker and glass bead click together when the rig is shaken, attracting attention by sending vibrations through the water. This isn’t a technique that is usually used to cover water, but it sure can put fish in the boat once you’ve located them.
Here are some tips to fine-tune your doodle rig. First of all, if your soft worm keeps sliding down the hook, try using piece of heavy mono – stick it through the eye of the hook, right through the worm and out the other side. Clip it off so it doesn’t stick out of the worm. You can also peg the bead just above the worm to keep it from bumping the plastic. Use a rubber nail to keep from pinching the light line. Never peg the sinker though, obviously, or it won’t click on the bead. Always use attractant on your baits. Also, never use plastic beads: they don’t have the right sound. The brass sinkers not only sound better, they are good and hard so you can feel the bottom better. Stick to natural colors and try to match the crawfish and baitfish where you are fishing. Most of the time Iovino uses straight worms, and in really cold water he splits them lengthwise up to the egg sack and melts a little piece of worm in the slit to keep it open. That makes more vibration in the water. If you’re catching a lot of fish on the doodle rig, try using a little bit bigger bait and see if you can get bigger bass to bite, or use a curly tail or a paddle tail. Lastly, if you’re not getting bit, slow down. Doodling has to be done very slowly to be effective in very cold water. Keep it in the strike zone.
If you’re fishing over grass or a deep muddy bottom, a drop-shot has the advantage of keeping your bait at the same distance off the hard bottom and above any mess down below. However, with a split-shot rig, the bait is free to dip and float behind the weight. Pull the weight and the worm darts forward and dips. Stop the weight, and the worm drifts slowly to the bottom. This rig is one you can cover some water with, although you have to move it slower than you would a Carolina rig. You can use a split-shot rig to probe structure or cover, skip it under a dock, or fish it down a bluff or a channel. I have caught so many fish on a split-shot rig that I couldn’t begin to guess at the number.
The biggest drawback to a split-shot rig is that it can get hung up, especially if you make a long cast with it. So don’t cast. Instead, drop the rig right over the side and let out line until you’ve reached the bottom. Move the boat very slowly and just drag the rig behind you. I use a Dobyn’s spinning rod with lots of backbone and a fast tip. You also need a good spinning reel that can take up a lot of line in a hurry. I don’t use braid because a little stretch is beneficial, I think, so I just use 8-pound-test mono. I hold the rod loosely in my hand and point the tip toward the lure. This helps it go over things instead of snagging on them. If it does feel like the lure is snagged, it’s easier to go back and get it rather than break off and have to re-tie. Usually, once you get over it, it comes right off. The bite is usually a little fast tug, and all you have to do to set the hook is swing the rod to your side and keep good pressure on the fish while reeling. The sharp, thin split-shot hooks will slide right in – no massive hookset required.
The better the fish are biting, the heavier your drop-shot and the faster you can move. When things are really shut down you may have to move it just a couple inches at a time. I usually start out a bit fast and slow down if I have to. Also, the tougher the bite, the longer your leader should be. And when I’m bouncing a split-shot rig down a wall, I often shorten the leader to just six inches or so. If you think you’ll be moving the weight a lot, you can use a small brass sinker and peg it with a rubber worm. Then you can move it around as much as you want. Pinching a lead split shot on is fine, but it can damage the light line so make sure you check often. Break offs are heartbreaking on a slow day. Whatever you do, don’t use those removable split shots with the ears on them – they’ll give you the line twist from hell. I’ve also used a swivel and a mojo weight at times, but swivels do hang up more, and you can’t quickly change leader length either.
If you want the bait to drop really slowly, try a tube bait and put a piece of Styrofoam peanut in it to make it buoyant. I’ve even seen guys inject air into baits with a syringe but I haven’t tried that. The best thing about splitshotting is that it’s so easy. It’s the perfect rig for a beginner, as long as the guy running the boat is considerate.
Slow-Rolling a Spinnerbait
I remember fishing a tournament at Pleasant in early February when a cold rain driven by a nasty wind was pelting us all day. The long boat ride back to Humbug Creek was daunting, but we hunkered down and made the run. Only two other boats joined us back there, and the three of us ended up taking first, second, and third place in that tournament. All of us were dragging spinnerbaits around the trees in the back of that big cove.
On a dark nasty day like that one, a chartreuse bait with gold blades did the trick, but the key is how you fish it. We like a heavy bait that will get down to the bottom and stay there, with a big Colorado blade that is buoyant enough to stay up when you’re moving the bait slowly. The key is to keep the rod tip pointed at the bait and let the line right in front of the reel slide between your fingers. Don’t squeeze the line, just hold it so you can feel what it is doing. Keep the line taut. First thing in the morning, even in winter, try fishing flats close to drop-offs. We were fishing all around the trees and paying particular attention to cuts and channels. Even though it was cold and nasty, those fish weren’t all that deep – 20-25 feet max. But they were staying close to cover and structure, and if you didn’t get your bait right there, they’d let it pass by. We lost a lot of spinnerbaits that day, but that nice fat check was more than enough to cover it.
These three techniques are among the first ones I ever learned, and they work so well that I find myself going to them constantly, especially in tough times like the dead of winter or a very hot summer day. All three of these techniques can be used at a variety of depths, but they excel at deep water, so they’re perfect for this time of year. Give them a shot.