New lures hit the tackle shop shelves about as often as a clock strikes 12. But most never catch on and end up in that giant bargain bin of half-priced lures. One bait has turned the smallmouth world upside down, however, and it’s quickly becoming the must-have lure for every angler who likes to chase bass in free-flowing rivers.
Yamamoto Senkos were the first soft plastic “stickbait” to take the smallmouth community by storm, not to mention the scores of largemouths it has produced over the last couple years. The Senko, like most successful baits, also has a dozen or so knock-off versions currently available to anglers. Examples include theWave Tiki Stik, Case Magic Stick, Bass Pro Shops' Stick-O, the Kinami (by Derek Yamamoto, Gary’s son) and the Cabin Creek Salty Sinking Slugger. One thing’s for sure: They’ll catch fish when other lures won’t.
Jeff Kelble was, like so many other smallmouth bass anglers, skeptical when he first tried a Senko. For good reason. These lures are nothing more than a 3-, 4-, or 5-inch stick of soft, salt-impregnated plastic that has a gentle taper on each end—pretty similar to a fat ballpoint pen. They look nothing like any creature in nature and they don’t have fins, legs or any other realistic-looking feature. The 30-year old Arlington, Va., resident was fishing on Maine’s Penobscot River when his guide started throwing one of those soft stickbaits on a rod rigged with 30-pound lime green braided line. Much to Kelble’s surprise, his guide started catching one quality smallmouth after another.
There's nothing fancy about soft stickbaits. The secret lies in the high salt content and slight taper at each end.
“I thought if this guy could catch fish on these lures with that bright line, then there must be something to them. I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in them, although I did catch some decent bass, so I went back to using a Super Fluke,” he recalls.
That was back in 1998, and Kelble, who now has his own smallmouth guide service (www.fishinginvirginia.net), has been using soft stickbaits with incredible success since that first trip. He did, however, work through a learning curve for the best tactics and the best times to use these lures. Now, they are a regular part of his river smallmouth arsenal, and there isn’t a single season when he doesn’t have a Senko rigged and ready to go.
Just what is it about these featureless lures that attract so many bass? Drop one in the water and you’ll see why. Because they are loaded with salt, they have a fairly fast sink rate, something a standard soft plastic doesn’t have. But take a closer look as the lure falls and you’ll see each end of the lure shimmy. It’s that subtle, tantalizing wiggle that the bass just can’t resist.
Soft Sticks Through The Seasons
Although Kelble, who guides on the Potomac, Shenandoah, New, and Susquehanna Rivers, first started using Senkos in the early spring, he now uses them throughout the year with fantastic results. They’ve accounted for some of the largest smallmouths brought to his raft by himself, his friends and his clients, and they have become his first lure of choice when he wants to catch not only quality bass, but numbers of fish, as well.
“I’m going to start using a Senko when the water temperature gets up into the high 30s or low 40s. Anything colder and I’m going to use a tube or a jig-and-pig,” Kelble says. Although he has a hard time attracting clients during the coldest months, he eagerly spends a day on a local river no matter what the water temperature or weather. Some of his biggest fish have come during the worst weather of the winter.
“Big bass are fairly predictable in the early spring. They hold in specific places and if you can identify those spots, you can catch a few. You won’t catch many bass this time of year, but they will probably be the biggest you’ll catch all year,” he adds.
Stable weather and slow current are prime conditions for working the Senko in moving water.
Prime time, at least from the perspective of a recreational angler who favors active fish, mild weather and gentle water, is during the late spring, summer and early fall. That’s when smallmouths tend to be distributed throughout the river, and a scattergun approach of random casting will likely put a lure in front of lots of bass.
Soft sticks are the ultimate idiot baits for beginning and expert river anglers alike, and anybody with the ability to fling a lure beyond the bow of a canoe, raft or johnboat can probably catch a few bass on a soft plastic stickbait. However, there’s more to fishing one of these baits than putting it in the water.
Aside from near-freezing water temperatures, there isn’t a single occasion where Kelble will refrain from using soft plastic stickbaits, except for one: extremely muddy water. If he’s faced with dirty water, he’ll likely use something with more flash and more vibration. Spinnerbaits, crankbaits and hard jerkbaits such as suspending Rogues fit the bill for that situation.
“Because I can rig them weedless, I’ll use them pretty much all the time and under just about every situation. I can throw them into open pockets of thick grass, around heavy wood cover and I can skip them up under overhanging branches along the riverbanks without worrying about hanging up. That’s why they are perfect for anglers of all skill levels,” he says.
Work ‘Em Right
Although they are indeed virtually foolproof, Kelble says there is a right way to fish these lures. The key, he says, is to allow the bait to free-fall toward the bottom as it sweeps downriver with the current. Gary Yamamoto originally designed these lures to work as a soft plastic jerkbait, and they do indeed catch bass when worked with the standard twitch-reel, twitch-reel retrieve used for Flukes and Slug-Gos, but Kelble has found that a “dead-stick” or do-nothing method works best for river smallmouths.
Rigged weightless and Texas-style, a soft stickbait will work wonders when cast across the current and allowed to float and flutter downstream.
“Most of the time, I’m going to cast cross-current and let the lure just float down with the current. I hold my rod tip up high and try to keep as much line off the surface of the water as I can. That helps create a more natural drift and it helps me detect strikes, something that’s not easy to do with these lures,” he explains. “It’s real important to pay attention to your line because strikes can be hard to detect. I look for a jump in my line, I look for my line to stop moving, or I look for it to move up current. When that happens, I take my time and reel down to take up the slack before I set the hook.”
One thing he avoids is casting directly down-current of his raft. Because his boat is moving the same speed as the lure, strikes can be impossible to detect. That can result in a gut-hooked fish, something Kelble avoids at all costs. “The fish will actually try to eat these lures. If you let them have it too long, you’ll foul-hook them every time,” he explains.
Although there are a wide variety of ways to rig soft stickbaits, a standard weightless Texas rig is by far the most popular. And in most cases, it’s the most effective. Although Kelble started out using a 3/0 Extra Wide Gap Gamakatsu hook, he dropped down to a smaller size and now uses a 2/0 EWG for all his Senko rigs, all that is, except for when he drop-shots. When he uses that method, Kelble prefers an Octopus hook, which is similar to a circle hook.
“When the water is cold, I’ll use a nail weight, the kind designed for weighting soft plastics, in the tail of the bait. That helps sink it a little faster, which is important this time of year because the fish tend to feed right on the bottom and they tend to be in the slower, deeper holes. They generally won’t come up off the bottom very far to take a bait, so you’ve got to put it right down in front of them,” he says.
Later in the year, he leaves the weight out, preferring to let the bait sink a little slower.
Stick with a few key colors, though color isn't as big a factor with Senkos, as opposed to some other plastics.
Soft stickbaits come in a rainbow of colors—and a few others that don’t fall into the spectrum—and there are times when any of them will catch fish. These lures are simply so effective, the action, not the color, entices bass to eat them. However, Kelble has a few go-to colors and instead of carrying dozens of different hues, he keeps his color selection limited to a five or six different ones.
“My favorite in the summer, particularly when the water is low and clear, is a solid white Senko. I’m not sure why the smallmouths like an all-white bait, but based on my experience, they really like it. I’ll also try watermelon with black flake and green pumpkin with black flake. Those two colors seem to work pretty much all the time. Another good color is smoke with purple and black flake, and a friend of mine uses the red Senkos all the time and does very well on them,” he says.
In other words, the key is to buy a half-dozen different colors and try each one. Establish a few favorites, stock up on them and fish them with the utmost confidence. And suggests Kelble, don’t be afraid to break the standard color considerations so many bass anglers swear by—dark lures, dark days; bright lures, bright days. There are no rules when it comes to soft stick baits, particularly when smallmouth bass are aggressive, and it may not matter what color you pull out of your tackle box. These lures work like nothing you’ve ever fished before.
Sidebar: Make ‘Em Last
It’s no secret that Senkos are expensive lures. Couple that with their tendency to tear after one or two bass and you might wonder who can afford to fish with them. There are ways, however, to extend the life of these high-dollar baits. Although the ends both taper, one has a fatter taper than the other, but that doesn’t seem to make a difference to the fish. Most anglers simply turn the bait around and re-hook it and keep fishing. Others save their “dead” baits and melt the tear holes back together with a hot knife when they get back home.
“I’ve used glue specifically designed for soft plastic baits with good results. You just put a little dab over the tear and give it a few seconds to set and you’re back in business,” he explains.