By Patrick Rubendall
The anticipation of chasing fat smallmouth bass on open water seems to arrive earlier each year. This past winter it was around Groundhog Day when I first started looking at last year’s photos of trophy bronzebacks on my phone.
I don’t ice fish, so I spend my winter months scouting for deer or coyote hunting. I also talk about fishing with the guys at the gym and browse tackle websites for new and interesting gear, patiently waiting for the ice to melt so I can begin trying to figure out how to catch smallies in very cold and, in most cases, very clear water.
Hunting Smallmouth Bass
One of the great things about smallmouth fishing, especially in the Glacial Lakes of South Dakota, is that you actually don’t need a $50,000 boat with dual HD fish-finder monitors and the latest sonar equipment known to man. A simple topo map and some careful study of the lake basin and shoreline changes can usually tell you all the information you need.
Smallmouth bass are an aggressive, team-player kind of creature. In the winter months they tend to school up in massive groups and find the deepest sections of the lake, which makes looking for them come spring relatively easy.
I look at bass fishing like hunting. I look for edges — changes in the environment that may influence feeding, protection or bedding of the prey I’m pursuing.
With that attitude in mind, I look at a lake’s topo map, find the deepest sections, and then focus on points, flats and islands adjacent to these deep areas. It’s a bonus if these areas have boulders, wood (trees and or stumps), or any other edge or drastic change in structure.
When the lakes finally open up, these are the areas I target first. After figuring out where the fish are, the hardest part of spring fishing is figuring out how to get them to bite.
If you’re like me and grew up in the Upper Midwest, you know all too well the feeling of getting out on the water for the first time each spring and hoping and wishing that you can actually catch something. The likelihood of hammering the fish on the first outing of the year is highly unlikely, so we usually look at the first open-water fishing trip as a way to make sure the boat runs well or to try out the fancy new reel you bought at the sports show.
I’ll admit it’s nice just to get out of the house after a long winter, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been skunked on the first trip out — not to mention the first three trips. But what if I told you about a technique that can actually provide amazing results on smallmouth bass from ice-out until first ice appears next winter?
I am a typical bass fisherman, which means I have way too many fishing rods, lures, plastics and other “essential” fishing gear. As a result, I typically have 15 rods on the deck of my boat, more in the rod locker and enough soft plastics to equip a high-school bass fishing team.
For decades bass fishermen and women have prayed for that one lure, that one presentation that could be tied onto a single rod and thereby render all of the other rods in the boat useless. And, after fishing bass for over 40 years, I finally found the silver bullet.
The presentation is called the Ned Rig. Its origin and true name is debated all over the Midwest. In fact, some people call it the “Midwest Rig,” but you can Google it and decide where proper credit is due. I don’t really care. All I know is it catches my favorite fish like crazy.
While it’s the best bronzeback bait I’ve ever used, the Ned Rig doesn’t discriminate between species. Besides my personal best smallmouth bass, I’ve also caught largemouth, crappie, walleye, northern pike and even bluegill with it.
I discovered the Ned Rig a few years ago, and it has become my most-used bait bar none. I have literally used the same piece of plastic on the same jig head for hundreds of fish.
I’m not here to promote a certain brand, but I’ve had good luck with Z-Man plastics that use ElaZtech technology. These plastics are naturally buoyant, but just because they float doesn’t mean they’re special. Rather, the fact that ElaZtech plastics are, as advertised, 10 times stronger than other plastics is the real difference maker. To this bold statement I can honestly say they seem 100 times stronger than other plastics out there, and the Z-Man baits actually get better with more use.
One downfalll of Z-Man baits is they will melt if left in the sun. Also, they will literally weld themselves to any other type of plastic they come in contact with, including the carpet on the deck of your boat. Leave them in the bag you buy them in, and keep them out of the sun and heat to make sure they stay in top shape and ready to use.
Z-Man makes various styles of soft plastics, but the specific type used for a Ned Rig is the TRD series of baits. TRD? Yep, they are talking about turds, as the shape of the bait is basically the same shape as a typical turd.
Z-Man makes a finesse size that is 2.75 inches long, and they also make a 4-inch big TRD. They also make several sizes of jig heads, which is another important factor to consider because the Ned Rig has to be thrown on very light line and on lightweight jig heads — I’m talking sizes as small and light as 1/20 ounce, 1/15 ounce and 1/10 ounce.
Sounds crazy, right? Yep. Isn’t this story about catching giant smallmouth bass? Yep. So, what makes a school of big smallmouths go crazy over a tiny 2.75-inch turd-looking bait that stands on its tiny lightweight jig head?
My answer is I have no idea. I only know that it works, and about the only thing I can think of is that the presentation somehow resembles a minnow feeding on the bottom. Most predators are opportunists, so smallies must think a Ned Rig is an easy snack. In fact, I’ve seen bass flare their gills, and inhale a Ned Rig from what seems like a foot away.
In addition to the lightweight jig head, another important part of the equation is using light line. I know lots of folks prefer braided line these days, but this a technique that is better suited for 4- or 6-pound-test fluorocarbon or monofilament lines for a number of reasons.
Braided line is pretty buoyant on its own, so a Ned Rig tied onto a braid would have a tough time sinking to the bottom. Some people will use monofilament, but I prefer fluorocarbon. I feel like it sinks more quickly than braided or mono lines, and there’s no arguing that it’s virtually invisible in the water. I have used a fluorocarbon leader on both braid and mono with success, but I’ve also lost some giants because of knot failures with the leader.
For a rod choice I prefer medium-light power with a fast tip in the 6’7’’ to 6’10” range. I like the 6’7’’ rod because I like to fish into the wind, and the shorter rod allows me to really “whip” the light bait when I cast.
Patience is a Virtue
After casting the Ned Rig, you may need to feed it some line to help it sink straight down to the bottom. In the spring when I’m focusing on points that are adjacent to deep holes and ledges, I will watch it sink or feed it line until it stops.
Then comes the hard part, because the key to success with this rig is to wait, wait and then wait some more. For most bass fishermen who are accustomed to covering a lot of water and casting constantly, the waiting game can be torture. I grew up on the James River, and fishing with a Ned Rig reminds me a lot of how we used to catch bullheads and catfish with crawlers.
In other words, using a Ned Rig isn’t as “busy” as casting other types of jigs. With a Ned Rig, you simply cast, let it sink and wait. Keep a little slack in the line, but watch it closely. You can gently wiggle the rod tip with slight movements to make the bait resemble a minnow feeding on the bottom, but the key is playing the waiting game and staying patient.
I like to fish into the wind because it’s easier to keep a soft bend in the line. That way when the line bounces you can slam it home. Remember that you’re using a tiny hook compared to what you would normally use for big bass, so it may take some muscle to sink that little hook in the jaw of a stud smallie.
Whether you are an experienced smallmouth angler or not, using the Ned Rig technique is a blast, and it works just as well from shore as it does from a kayak or boat. If you want to introduce someone new to fishing and watch them fall in love with it, show them how use to Ned Rig this spring.
About the Author: Patrick Rubendall is an avid bass fisherman and public-land bowhunter from Tea, S.D.