Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Stick Baits: Not Just a Last Resort

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Contrary to what I see the Pros do and what I read in magazines and fishing reports, the tough days on the water out number the good days by an order of magnitude. If you are like me, you are head strong. You will spend 6 of your 8 hours on the water throwing the bait YOU want to catch fish on before resorting to trying something else. I admit it. I think I am smarter than the fish and I think I know what they want. I am frequently wrong.  By the time I realize this, I have used up much of my fishing time and essentially all but given up anyway. I become content to throw a stick bait halfheartedly in the aspiration that maybe a lunker will come and snatch it up, though I all but suspect any bite will be a little squeaker.

In the past, the stick bait has been a last resort for me. When I did use it, it was always on a shakey head and I always used the same technique....dead slow. An inch at a time. A shake here. A twitch there. While dead sticking or crawling a shakey head is a sure fire way to get at least a few bites on the toughest days, the true versatility of the stick bait sometimes gets lost as it is frequently categorized (wrongly) as "last ditch effort bait."

I'm not ashamed to admit that I am sorta-kinda lazy, at least mentally. I like throwing a crank bait and reeling it in. I like throwing a frog out there and hopping it until something smashes is. But, after a few different trips in 2013 where I FORCED myself to get better with finesse baits, I had an epiphany of sorts. I was fishing the Eagle's Wings Tournament and we were fishing brush in 28 feet of water on Holt Lake in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We knew the fish were there, but we couldn't get them to bite. I was dead sticking this stick bait on a shakey head, working it through the brush, with no avail. During one retrieve, I found the top of some brush as I was trying to work the shakey head through, I kept banging the underside of the limb. So, I hopped it hard. The shakey head went through the brush, up into the water column a few feet, and BAM! A nice spot. Odd. So, I cast back out to the same spot, found the brush, popped it off the bottom and BAM! Another nice spot! I did this over and over.

Later as I thought about this, I thought about how I utilize my other techniques. I don't ALWAYS straight retrieve my crankbaits. Sometimes the fish like specific speeds. Sometimes they like it when I hit the breaks randomly. Sometimes then like me to "pump" the bait. What about frog fishing? Same thing. Sometimes they like a constant hop. Sometimes they like me to pause it on blow up holes. In both cases, color and style ALSO matter. So, why is fishing a stick bait any different?

Now, I realize that many of you fishermen are probably rolling your eyes. There are some lakes where shakey head fishing is the only thing that will work consistently, so I am not telling you anything new. You know a hundred ways to get a bite on a stick bait. I know that on many lakes, all people throw is a stick bait backed shakey head. That's ok. Just click on the next post if that's you. It won't hurt my feelings. But, for much of the rest of the sport, stick baits are a last resort. And I am trying to educate these people, who just like me, roll our eyes at the thought of throwing a stick bait.

All of that being said, how can you use that stick bait? Well, like I said earlier...the stick bait offers a ton of rigging options that can be used in ANY setting. Here are my favorite ways:
  • Wacky Rigged
  • Drop Shot
  • Shakey Head
  • T-Rigged
  • C-Rigged
  • Weightless 
To me, each of these lends itself to the cover, terrain, or water column you are fishing. It may be rip-rap banks, grass lakes, deep creek channels with brush, laydowns, fish suspended under docks and the list goes on. That covers the entire gamut of lakes I fish. Let's take a look at these lakes and how I might use them:

If I am fishing rip rap banks on Wheeler, I will back a shakey head with a Sick stick. Throw it out, work it between the rocks and wait for them to come knocking. You can retrieve it as slow or as fast as you would like. You can drag it or hop it. More importantly, let the fish tell you what they want. They may want it to dead stick for a few seconds. They may also want you to hop it around like it's on it's 3rd pot of coffee.

If I am skipping docks on Logan-Martin for magnum spots, I will wacky rig it. Depending on where the fish are holding, I can easily adjust the fall rate. Skip it under the dock, let it fall and hold on!

If I am on Table Rock, I will Drop Shot my way to victory. Or, if the fish are suspending, I will wacky rig it and let it slowly fall between the submerged tree branches.

One of the most surprising technique I have employed in the last few years is a texas rigged stick bait on braid while fishing the thick grass on Guntersville. While lizards are usually my bait of choice while T-rigging on Guntersville, sometimes the fish want a more subtle bait. The stick bait is perfect because it doesn't move nearly as much water. Perhaps more important is it's ability to work in the grass without fouling. The bigger bodies of magnum lizards and ribbon tail worms frequently have problems with this. Either they can't work through the grass without snagging, or they won't fully fall to the hard bottom between the grass. The stick bait has no issues with this, gliding easily between the clumps and falling all the way to the bottom.

A technique I have been experimenting with in the last year on Wheeler, I call "flipping the shakey." It employs the same principals of flipping in that you can quickly cover a lot of water by eliminating extraneous time outside of the strikezone and couples the presentation of the shakey head. What do you get? A technique for covering an entire bluff of rip rap bank efficiently with a technique that maximizes bite potential. I can use either a spinning rod or a bait caster (6'6" med hvy with 10-12lb flouro) and a 1/4 ounce shakey head. With the spinning rod, I maintain line pressure with my right hand. With my left, I hold the shank of the hook, pull back and load the rod, then let go. Pop! The bait shoots right where I want it to go. Bounce it down the bluff where the fish are holding (you have to know what depth they hold) and then retrieve. Rinse and repeat.

Now, even within these different techniques, you can customize the retrieve. If you are wacky rigging it, you might pump it through the water. Maybe you like to jiggle it a few seconds after you let it settle to the bottom. You can do the aforementioned "hop" with your shakey head. Go weightless and twitch it on top of a grass mat. Slide that stick bait on a shell bed with a C-rig. Sometimes trying just a little different presentation makes all the difference!

And, speaking of presentation, don't forget about customizing the bait itself. Whether it's a smelly additive, a change in length, or even a completely different looking stick bait. Lately, I have been high on the PowerTeam Lures 5" Sick Stick.. That's not to talk badly about other bait companies. They all make great baits. But, I love the subtle differences in the Sick Stick and how I can use it.  They come in 17 different colors. It will cost you $4.59 for a pack of 7.

What are the little differences I like? It is flat sided instead of round. The flat sides do several unique things. First off, it increases the drag in the water which does a few things. That slows down its fall. The second thing it does is give it a lot more quiver when you raise the tip of your rod. Perhaps the most important thing the squared edges do is to trap air underneath the bait which escapes in the form of bubbles as it falls. So, even if the fish missed it falling into a grass bed, it will see the bubbles and start wondering..."what's going on over there?!?!?!?!"

While figuring out which technique to use on each of these lakes may take a little more expertise, a stick bait is absolutely deadly for beginning fishermen. We all need those confidence days. Days where you catch enough fish that you fall in love with the sport and have confidence to both go out again and to use a specific bait you believe in.

My wife has started fishing with me regularly. Naturally, days when the fish are biting crank baits make it fun and easy for her. But, what about the days where the bite is tough? Women don't really like sitting on the deck of a boat in hot weather, especially if they aren't catching fish. A few trips of teaching her a few basic techniques, mostly dead sticking, she was able to start catching fish on tough days. Check out this day she had on Wheeler!

Even for experienced tournament fishermen, going to the shakey head early may make all the difference. Let's not forget the first rule of tournament fishing: bring in a limit. One thing I did this past year in my tournament fishing was emphasize catching a limit of fish as fast as possible and culling up. This was a departure from my previous years of fishing where I had concentrated on big fish, but repeatedly came in short of the field because I didn't have a limit. Now, I realize that when the fish are active, most techniques are about equal. It takes about the same time to reel in a crankbait limit as a top water limit as a stick bait limit. However, those days are far and few in between. Stick bait fishing is the only technique I employ where I KNOW I can get 5 bites an hour. There is no bigger confidence booster in a tournament than filling out your limit, however small, in the first hour. Even though it may be small, the help to your psyche will do wonders. The opposite is also true. If you struggle all day and pick up the stick bait in the last hour, your are probably mentally frazzled already, and the chances of you making good on those 5 bites you need may not happen.

Going back to the complaints most people have about stick baits. The one I hear the most is that it doesn't catch many large fish. Well, in one of my tournaments this year on Wheeler, power baits weren't producing and Josh and I had to scale down to stick baits. The first few fish were small. But as we figured the technique out, the size went up. And up. And up. We brought in a 15 pound bag on Wheeler in the deep summer including a 5 pound smallie. Almost unheard of.

This year, my partner and I racked up 13 pounds of spotted bass on Logan-Martin lake with nothing but stickbaits! We were catching a fish every few minutes all day!

Using stick baits, you can put as much....or little....effort in to the method and catch fish. It's a terrific bait with a thousand different uses I know of...and more that I don't. It's a bait that must be on your boat deck every time you go out, regardless of what lake you are fishing. It isn't a glamorous bait and it isn't what people consider "power fishing". Yet, it gets a bad name because everyone associates it with light line and dead slow, producing only small fish. It is usually the technique people pick up after abandoning their early gameplan. But it doesn't have to be. If you experiment with it, you will find that it has many killer abilities if you use a little creative thinking. You can maximize it's potential by picking it up early and tinkering with it until you find exactly what the fish want. Then you can load the boat.

Simply put, it is the bait that, if fished , will produce some bites, and if used correctly, and can result in your best day. In 2014, one of my biggest largemouths and my biggest smallmouth both came on a stick bait. So, before you go looking for that next bait that will save the day, maybe consider the stick baits and just think of a new presentation.