By Dave Motes
Every few years a new hot smallmouth lure comes on the scene. In the eighties we first showed our smallmouth an eighth-ounce white buzzbait and it seemed that we got hits on every cast. Now the buzzbait is a staple but it isn't nearly as effective as it seemed to be before. Then there were the grub years, when the Potomac would produce 150 or more fish per day and it didn't seem to matter where you threw a grub--a fish would pop it. They were skinny little big-headed fish, but they were numerous and some fish topped 18 inches. Now the grubs stay in the bag except in emergencies. Now our spin clients can throw anything they want--as long as it's a Zoom Super Fluke.
This February, when we had a window of warmth, the defining event wasn't the half-dozen or so big fish that came in on jig-and-pig or spinnerbaits; it was the 16 incher I caught on a fluke. Taking the first fluke fish of the year earned me more congratulations from my colleagues than anything else, because it signalled something: the beginning of the season.
I can't explain this enthusiasm except to report that it works and it's fun. It works so well that I'm continually surprised to find my clients unfamiliar with the lure or the concept. I guess the finesse plastic phenomenon has passed in the mainstream bass angler's world, where things move with the commercial rapidity of a 20 foot fiberglass surfboard making 50 knots on six cylinders and nine inches of waterline. For largemouths I'm sure that the finesse plastics are just a standby technique forever second to titanium spinnerbaits and rattleshads. But for us the fluke has become such a staple that it's common to tie them on at the boatramp and make no change all day. Except for retying frays, respooling, and replacing plastic bodies and breakoffs, I probably won't change lures until October.
Finesse plastics first appeared to me on the Susquehanna one June about eight years ago. The earliest incarnation was the Fin-S-Fish, and after that day four or five husky Susky smallies wore them as jewelry. They ate the lure with a thrilling combination of visual and palpable force that has displaced the topwater or buzzbait strike as my January fantasy of choice.
Early on I had to learn the hard way about the proper hookset. Always forceful, I was suicidal that day. Any lure that forces you to learn new knots is a good one. Sluggos appeared soon after, and quickly displaced the Fin-S-Fish in our affections. Sluggos lacked the sexy profile of the Fin-S, but had something better: action and rigability. Their semicircular cross-section and density of plastic made them cast farther and hold their shape better, and reduced the finicky task of rigging them just right. The larger sluggos could take a bigger hook, which anchored them and kept them lower in the water column even in current.
About this time we began to refine our fishing techniques with these lures. They were still in the honeymoon stage, when bass seemed to come for them whenever and wherever they hit the water. But we began to notice how a range of retrieves and applications could be produced, and that's the first thing that has made them such as solid river smallmouth lure: versatility.
The buzzbait, for example, isn't very versatile; chunk and crank and they'll hit it or not. But the finesse plastic can be delivered and fished in a wide variety of subtle ways which work. The Sluggo's density and sink rate taught us to dead-drift it down flats and chutes. This was a deadly refinement to the simple chuck-and-twitch application that we began with. If the lure's head was guided just a bit but it was allowed to wash through strike zones, it would draw more hits and larger fish. That dead-drift is the mainstay of our summertime patterns now. "In all finesse plastics, the challenge is to deliver a straight lure to the fishing spot; it has to be straight and stay straight through the trauma of launch and re-entry.
The first stage of this process is hook choice." After Sluggos came the Assassin. Bass Assassins have a deeper body and a tapered tail--a subtle shape change that brought new techniques and success to our river fishing applications. Sluggos slither; Assassins dart. This is due to the thicker, stiffer body, heavier head, and tapered tail. Assassins also came in a pearly white, which was hands down the most effective color yet. The Assassin held its shape well, cast far, and taught us the most useful aspect of the finesse technique: the WigWag. When cast into moderately slow water, an Assassin would take a radical darting direction when twitched or jerked; that worked well to stimulate strikes but often took the lure out of direct contact with the angler. The result was that a strike seen or felt came at a time when a lot of slack interposed between angler and fish. Inexperienced anglers would miss the hit entirely--resulting in missed strikes or deep-hooked fish--or would set into so much slack that the rod movement caused a yank instead of a sweep and broke fish off, especially the big fish which tended to take violently then speed away, increasing the force of the hookset.
To compensate we began to use a wig-wag motion of the rod--a very subtle waving rise-and-fall. This motion gave the lure the freedom to dart left, right, up, or down, as it tends to do, but also reduced that motion so that the lure didn't draw out too much slack or belly. This kept the angler in better contact with the lure and improved hookups. After the cast, reel up slack and keep the rod no higher than 45 degrees throughout. Many strikes come immediately as the lure hits the water, perhaps because the splashdown resembles the missed strike of another smallmouth and leaves a stunned baitfish near the surface.
Next, "settle" the lure through the first few feet of the retrieve so it will get a foot or so of sink. This may take it out of the angler's sight; that's ok. As the lure sinks, follow it down by lowering the rod from 45 degrees to parallel to the water, on the principle that when you can you always keep the rod forward enough to set the hook easily. When you are ready to retrieve, simply raise or wag the rod upward from parallel or 30 degrees or so up to 45 degrees or so--not sharply, a very subtle motion. Unlike jigging, when the lift of the rod is faster than the drop, it should be an equal-speed up-and-down; a wigwag. If there is a belly in the line, never fear; if your line is straight or tight to the lure you are probably pulling it too hard. In fact, as I guide, I often detect the strikes of my clients by judging the angle of the line. This lure doesn't have enough mass or water resistance to hold the line straight to a rod at 45 degrees; straight line often means a take. After the wig-wag, more slack will have been left in the line; reel it up as the rod returns to parallel to the water and pause. It's the pause that matters most. The lure should dart left or right six inches to a foot, then curve back toward the angler--that's the line and rod bringing it back under control. Then, in that instant of contol, it will stop and sink again. The action is deadly on river smallmouth. Except in the springtime it is a very subtle and slow retrieve, which means that fished from a drifting boat the angler will pop the lure into likely spots, work it a few times, then "speed it in" to make the next cast. This sequence is effective because it creates a varied approach to cover water and occasionally trigger strikes from the fish that wouldn't take it when it was moving slowly.
In the springtime the lure should be dropped on likely spawning or territorial spots and twitched more quickly and abruptly at first. We call this "Spook-Flukin", because a good angler can get a finesse lure to "walk the dog" like a Zara Spook--deadly on bedding smallies. The best present incarnation of the finesse lure for river fishermen is the Zoom Super Fluke. Zoom is my favorite brand of plastics; they are affordable, durable, and the company is responsive and innovative.
Zoom also sells a Fluke which resembles the Fin-S-Fish; if you're river fishing, get Supers. They're the best finesse plastic out there.
The Zoom Fluke is deeper in the body and longer than the Assassin, which gives it a larger profile--bigger baits catch bigger fish. It also has a more refined rigging structure, with a belly crease which allows the hook to shift in the lure as a fish takes it, which gives a better hookup ratio. The lure has the same tapering baitfish structure but it also has a little tail fluke, which looks good but more importantly acts as a "brake" by resisting the water flow and dampening--but not eliminating--the darting action of the lure. In flowing water that means more control and more connection. Zoom's version also comes in better color spreads with some sparkle and two-tone colors--though regular old white pearl is still the first choice for our stretch of river.
The main drawback to fishing the Super Fluke is rigging and maintaining the lure. It takes practice and the lure is high-maintenance. In all finesse plastics, the challenge is to deliver a straight lure to the fishing spot; it has to be straight and stay straight through the trauma of launch and re-entry.
The first stage of this process is hook choice. In the old days we only had the straight offset worm hook to work with. This was fine, and I confess to a certain stodgy conservativeness when the new wide-gap hook came on the scene. The fact is that hooking ratio depends mainly on the behavior of the fish and the character of the hookset; the real value to the wide-gap hook isn't hooking capacity but quality of lure performance. I'm convinced that the wide-gap hook works better because it "keels" the lure by lowering its center of gravity and letting it track better in moving water. In any event I go with the wide gap for fishing Zoom Super Flukes. As for size, my present first choice is 5/0 or 4/0.
These are large hooks for small mouths, but I consider four key factors here. First, the smaller fish will peck at these flukes but rarely take them, so if you learn to factor out the small-fish hits and not worry about missed hits--even let them go when you can see the fish or don't feel a real take--the larger hook helps to cut down on dink numbers. If you want to, which I do. We're having a big fish year and I don't need to boat every fish that taps at my lure.
Second reason is hook weight. Though the fluke is a surface/subsurface lure, the main problem is riding up to the surface or "skating," which will occasionally move some fish but in many situations results in fewer good strikes. The 4/0 and 5/0 offset or wide-gap worm hook by Gamakatsu or Owner is on a heavier gauge wire than the 3/0 hook so we get maximum sink.
And the third reason is the same: bigger hook, maximum keeling. The final factor is that the larger the hook, the more solid and durable the rigging of the lure--which as we will see is the key drawback to fishing this lure with inexperienced anglers. The heavier hook seats more firmly in the plastic and stays seated longer.
Gamakatsu and Owner hooks are very, very sharp, and they stay sharp, which is worth the extra money they cost. The fluke is a high maintenance lure. Rigging and keeping the lure rigged is tough work. The key problem is that any flaw in the line of the lure will make it spin, which will reduce strikes to zero and line twist to maximum. Strikes and hooksets will usually bend the lure, and most hooked fish seriously dislocate it, so anglers spend a fair amount of time tinkering. Add to that the tendency of the plastic to tear and wear and you have a lot of potential trouble.
One solution to that is to rig hooks on 18 inch lengths of leader material with a snap swivel. For clients I'll rig a rod and give them a spare rigged lure; they don't actually change it often but the rigged lure serves as an example for them to look at to maintain the one they're fishing. The swivel cuts down on line twist and I can use a more durable and heavier diameter of leader like a fluorocarbon--low visibility and more resistance to the rock that big bass love to nuzzle into when hooked.
One good side to the lure is that it's almost snag proof. It will slither through grass, tickle over rock, and clatter out of tree branches easily. I always tell my clients to cast at the cover--up on the rocks, or onto the grass--because a gentle steady pull will deliver the lure very tight to the cover. I'd venture to say that more underwater snags on Flukes are big fish than actual snags. Fluke hits are amazing. They combine the lovely "tunk" sensation of a strike on a falling lure like a jig-and-pig or a tube with the visual stimulation of a surface strike. For most surface lures the hit is all visual, and for most subsurface lures the hit is all palpable. With flukes it's both. Also it's a different kind of surface hit--a boil-up rather than a blow-up. This is due to the fact that the lure isn't in the surface film but below it, and the fish can turn on the lure more efficiently--and take it more cleanly, if the hookup ratio is any measure.
Another advantage over surface plugs is that the fluke has a single large hook and so boated fish are much easier to handle, and I'm one of those that believes that single hooks hold better than trebles. Many fluke hookups are accidental. My wife recently caught a big smallmouth that blew up on the lure as she began to reel it in--an almost simultaneous splash and sizzle of line running out against the drag.
I also often have clients who hook fish--often good fish--when the lure isn't maintained at all, such as when the angler is teasing out a snarl or taking a drink of iced tea. In this case the lure must be sinking, perhaps with a little motion from line drag, when the fish takes. In many cases a light tension on the line seems to lead to hookups even if the angler takes a long time to notice that a fish is on. Unfortunately, such careless fishing often leads to deep-hooked fish.
When bass are taking Flukes well, they quickly blow them back into the grinder area of their mouth. When they are not taking well--pecking, bumping, or lipping lures, they can be hooked by simply reeling up against a strike and setting firmly, with steady pressure, when the weight of the fish is felt.
One drawback to the fluke is that it's a big hunk of plastic and the hook will occasionally take a bad angle into the fish's mouth through the plastic. For that reason I recommend taking extra care to maintain strong pressure against a hooked fish in the first five or ten seconds of contact. That's when most strikes are missed.
The bottom line is to use the reel to maintain the lure and use the rod to work it. When a strike is detected, speed reel to the tension and then sweep, still reeling to maintain tension. Fish barbless and you will kill fewer fish. Perhaps the best testament to the effectiveness of the Fluke on river smallies is the names. Fin-S-Fish never really caught on, but we still call them interchangeably Sluggos, Assassins, or Flukes. More names equals more respect. Zoom Super Flukes are carried by Galyan's, K-Mart, Sports Authority, and all spin-tackle shops. They are in high demand in this area. All of the light colors work well though we favor Pearl and the white with blue flecks for Potomac smallies.