Jig-style baits are the bread-and-butter tools for taking cold-water river smallmouth bass. Tube jigs, grubs and hair jigs can all be productive.
Within these choices there are refinements one can make to up the likelihood of being bitten by a cold-water smallie.
Traditionally, tube jigs are fished with a tapered jighead that is inserted into the hollow body of the tube. The open jighead is exposed, and while this makes for a good situation in regard to hook-ups, it’s also quite snaggy.
To get a bite under early-spring conditions, it’s often necessary to fish the bait ultra-slow, i.e., with finesse. And the areas you’re going to target are rocky, with just a hint of current. Add up these factors and you’ll find the classic tube to be hung up a lot.
I’ve found it to be a better option to rig the tube Texas-style, with a light slip sinker and light wire wide gap hook — 3/16-ounce is often the perfect weight for the bullet-shaped sinker, as eighth-ounce is normally too light to provide a level of feel, and a quarter-once a bit too much. I also like to use a fairly thin-bodied tube, like Canyon’s original Gitzit, Warrior Baits’ Teaser Tubes, or Bass Pro Shops’ Tender Tube. These 3- to 3ﾽ-inch tubes fish well with a 2/0 to 3/0 wide gap hook. The combination of a thin wire hook and slender tube results in good hookups with the Texas rig.
Twister-tail grubs like the original Mister Twister and Venom’s Galida Grubz are another mainstay offering for any cold-water river smallmouth trip. The thin tail of the grub elicits action, even when the bait is at rest. While the small diameter of a grub precludes practical rigging Texas style, you can reduce hang-ups by fishing it on a standup head or a football head.
Finding the correct football head for a finesse smallie bait can be a challenge, as most jigheads of this style are relatively heavy, and are formed on heavy wire hooks.
But if look around on the Internet you can locate football heads on light hooks in the 3/16 to quarter-ounce range.
Some days smallies will shun a full-sized grub. Often they’ll respond to a more compact grub like the Undulator or Chilly Willy, made by Pennsylvania-based Winco’s Custom Lures. Both of these lures feature flat/ribbed bodies, with subtle tails, particularly the latter bait.
Several years ago I was shown this grub-related trick by longtime Susquehanna River guide Dave Neuman: Using a standard 3-inch grub, he trims off all but about a half-inch of the tail. He then splits the remaining flap of tail, creating in essence a compact split-tail grub.
Neuman rigs the grub on the jighead so the tail is horizontal, rather than the traditional rigging that would have the tail running vertically. He commonly takes Susqy River smallies on this setup in sub-40-degree water temperatures.
In the case of bucktail jigs, the tier has the option of determining the look of the jig by altering the amount of hair he or she uses. Minnesota-based jig maker Jim DeZurik once told me he prefers to keep his dressings rather sparse, feeling this provides the profile and action he’s looking for. I can attest to his design’s effectiveness in cold water.
One might not consider a hard jerkbait to be a finesse offering, and looking at it simply from a hardware aspect, I’d agree. But finesse fishing isn’t completely about the baits themselves, but how they are fished. Few lures can be fished with the range of actions as can the hard jerkbait. And in the ultra-cold water of early spring the key is ultra-slow.
Over the years I’ve discovered that at some point during the day, most often later in the afternoon when the water has reached its pinnacle for the day, river smallmouths will frequently become a bit more aggressive, moving into shallower water, often near the mouth of an incoming stream (which is likely warmer than the main river during a day when it’s been exposed to the sun’s rays).
A hard jerktbait in the 4-inch range like Rapala’s Husky Jerk, XCalibur’s Xs4, and Yo Zuri Sashimi Suspending Minnow excels at triggering fish foraging on these rocky flats. Simply make a cast close to shore, impart a slight twitch, and then allow the bait to hover in the current. The vast majority of hits will occur on the pause, usually with the first 10 feet of the retrieve.