Young: There’s a time when you have to ‘stick it’ to river smallmouths

My favorite midsummer pastime has long been fishing for smallmouth bass on the Juniata River.

This summer, however, I’ve only been on the river a handful of times so far due to my personal schedule and the frequent adverse water conditions throughout the month of June. So when I launched my kayak into the river one gorgeous day last week, it felt like a long overdue homecoming. I was optimistic for a great outing and plenty of hook-ups with fat, hard-fighting Juniata smallmouths, and if anything, the day more than met those expectations.

For the past 10 years or so my favorite and most productive lure for catching those summertime bass has been soft-plastic sticks. I also have a pushbutton counter in my kayak to keep track of how many fish I catch each day. Whenever I release a bass, I merely click the counter and don’t have to be bothered with keeping a tally in my head. After eight hours on the water, my counter showed a total of 102 bass, and 101 of those fish were caught on soft-plastic sticks.

The Senko was the first soft-plastic stickbait, and when it was introduced, it created quite a stir in the bass fishing world. The original Senko was a 4-inch model but was soon manufactured in several other sizes and many colors. I first tried a 3-inch Senko for river bass in the fall of 2002 and was immediately sold on the effectiveness of this simple lure. But Senkos are somewhat soft and tend to tear or fall off the hook after just a fish or two. Fortunately, several other manufacturers also began producing soft stickbaits, and the following season, I tried the Bass Pro Shops Stik-O and the Yum Dinger with great success. Not only were they more durable, they also were much less expensive than Senkos.

I’ve found that the 3-inch models are the all-around best size for river smallmouths, especially during the summer. Although most manufacturers make soft sticks in 4- or 5-inch sizes, only Senkos and Stik-Os are currently available in 3 inch since Yum discontinued that size a couple of years ago. I’ve also tried a few 3-inch sticks made by River Rock Custom Baits in Virginia. I was delighted when Bass Pro Shops added several new colors of their 3-inch Stik-Os for 2013.

My two best colors in the Stik-Os have always been green pumpkin and smoke/purple flake, but the new black/red flake, green pumpkin/blue flake, and a really crazy looking color combination called Houdini have really been exceptional producers as well.

Unlike so many soft-plastic baits that have all sorts of built-in action or tantalizing appendages, soft sticks are basically a “do-nothing” bait that looks like a short, stubby worm of some kind. In spite of their rather nondescript appearance, soft sticks apparently hold an uncanny appeal for bass, and I quit trying to figure out why years ago. Most sticks also have lots of salt molded right in, making them heavier than similar-sized soft-plastic lures. Not only do they cast like a bullet, they also sink well.

I rig my 3-inch sticks Texas-style using a size 1 or 1/0 offset-shank worm hook. Some anglers I’ve talked to say they fish soft sticks wacky style – that is, hooked once through the middle of the bait – but I’ve never found that presentation all that effective for river fishing. In shallow water this time of year, I often fish the soft sticks without any weight on the line. In deeper water or areas with a little current, I’ll put a 1/32-ounce Water Gremlin Bull Shot on the line about 18 inches above the bait to help it get down a little quicker.

Most of the time, fishing soft sticks in the river is almost as simple as the bait itself: cast the lure to where the bass should be, let it drift along naturally, and the smallmouths will usually take it from there. For fishing sticks in the summer, I like a 6 1/2- or 7-foot spinning rod in medium or medium-light action with a fast taper and 6-pound-test line. You want to make sure the rod will set the hook well on long casts, so one that is too soft and whippy probably won’t do the job very well. My favorite river bass rods are the Bass Pro Shops Bionic Blade series.

While drifting sticks, I tend to drape the line around the index finger of my left hand in order to feel the slightest indication of a bite and then set the hook almost immediately. Bass will tend to swallow a soft stick and become hooked deeply if you wait too long to set the hook. This can make it difficult to unhook and release the fish unharmed, which is especially troublesome if the bass happens to be undersized.

Finally, in case you’re wondering, the one bass that I didn’t catch on a Stik-O during that trip last hit a crankbait, another of my favorite smallmouth methods.