True Confessions of a River Rat

Posted on May 23, 2003

I remember the way it used to be…beautiful scenery, wildlife, unique scents and sounds. The fishing was easy, fast paced, and fun. I learned something every time I went out on the water. Those days have pretty much given way to tournament and club responsibilities. Although those days are not long gone, I see myself heading back to them at a rapid pace. Back to a time when I could target some bigger fish and not be worried about a clock. Back to a time where my next turn could have me spying a deer taking a quick drink or a Hawk or Egret spying the waters edge. Back to a time where I was almost assured solitude and frantic bass action. The fact is, I am a River Junkie….a River Rat. I always was.

I know what you are thinking….”Earthy is the last guy who I would consider a River Rat”. Despite fishing the tournament and club outings these last few seasons, I cut my teeth fishing for river bass many years ago. My summers were spent on the tributaries off the Hudson, wading for miles to catch Smallmouth bass. When I was back on Long Island, I plodded small streams for largemouth. I’ve been successful as a river fisherman and I’ve taken some truly impressive bass doing it. Most of all, I’ve based almost every one of my philosophies on things I learned while on the river. Using that knowledge, I’ve applied the tricks to lake and pond fishing.

These days, the realm of bass boats, big water, and business responsibilities take most of my time up. What went wrong? I long to go back and re-examine some of my past, the part where I did the most growing as an angler and surely the time where I had the most fun. I also wanted to break down the elements that helped me to be successful.

The Transformation
I slipped out of my power fishing phase long ago, thanks to a 13.9lb. largemouth on 6lb. test in the Ocala National Forest. This one fish prompted me to explore the realm of light tackle, something I’ve really prided myself in learning. I got started simply by scaling down my tackle and using it on the same big waters I frequented. This worked well as my catches increased dramatically. I accidentally discovered a gold mine with a side trip to a small flowing stop off on the roadside. This stop led me to explore many of the small rivers and streams here on LI. It was also the water that forced me to realize that I needed to make new baits to become consistent.

In the spring of 1995, my river fishing had become a priority as I looked for new baits that would give me success. The places I fished were full of overhangs and snags. There were plenty of areas that were so thick, the fish never saw a bait before. I set out on a quest to find a good river bait. Something that could penetrate deep into cover, yet not hang up. Something that I wouldn’t be upset over if I lost it. I decided the bait would be a jig. My quest now began as I needed to develop a working bait quickly so as not to miss an entire season on the water without it.

I got hooked up with Charlie Nuckols of Float N’ Fly fame and the rest is history. Together, we designed a great little jig which I tipped with a compact skirt. The next step was a small twin tail curly trailer. Even though the first baits lacked the high tech improvements I’ve since made, they were good. They were also the first true light tackle jig and pigs anywhere. The Bitsy series would not show up until several years later. My first outings proved that this bait was the answer. In fact “The Answer” was the jig’s name for a little while.

The little jig was great for skipping into the snags and it was equally great in hooking the big bass that those snags held. My first two weeks with the jig saw three fish over 6lbs. I took a 9 several weeks later. Most impressive was the extreme increase in my catch ratio. I had several days where I took in excess of 75 bass to over 100 fish on water that had never given up those numbers. I quickly realized that I was targeting a whole new group of fish that lived in a different area than my past quarry. By now I was sold on river fishing, this was what I wanted to do. Every time I got out on the rivers, I learned something new. I still do.

Putting It Together
I moved to establish a tackle box based solely on river fishing needs. I needed something small, as space was at a premium. I put together an assortment of baits that I felt would be effective on smallmouth and largemouth alike. I coupled this with the notion that I wanted to have the most fun as possible. Light tackle was an obvious choice. The following list is what I carry all the time on my local rivers:

20 – 4” handpoured worms – bruised watermelon – pumpkin/chart weenie
12 – 1/16oz. and 1/8oz. micro munch jigs – Blk/Blue – Brown
3 – 1/8oz. Hailey’s Komet Spinnerbaits – Firetiger, chart/white – chart
1 – 1/4oz. Hooked Solid Buzz Beast – White
40 – 4” salty stinker SS worms – Watermelon Magic – Blk/Blue/purple
20 – 2 ¾” Wicked Tubes – Blk/Red flk – Watermelon
10 -1/16oz. and 1/8oz. tube heads
20 – 2/0 EWG hooks
1 – Rapala 3” floater
1 – Sammy 65
10 – size 4 Gamakatsu split shot hooks
2 -1/6oz Roostertail spinners
6 – 1/16oz. and 1/8oz. hair jigs

By now you’ve noticed my fondness for small baits. It is not a mistake. I feel that by decreasing the size of my baits, I increase their appeal to more fish. For just plain overall fun, UL is the way to go. Now if I was trying to win a tournament, my lure choices would be upgraded. In truth, none of the gear I use is what most would consider UL. I do not use those cheesy whippy style rods that lack backbone. I prefer shorter 5’6″ to 6′ rods that have a good solid backbone to set the hook. I’ve used a Cabela’s Tourney Trail 5′ UL rod for the better part of 10 years with total satisfaction. It has taken at least one 9lb. largemouth in its day.

My newer rods are BPS Extremes and Bionic Blades in 5’6″ Light or 6′ light action. If I didn’t fish tournaments, I’d use these all the time. I mainly opt for the Tica SB500 spinning reels which has been flawless for me for two full seasons. On longer rods, I switch to a Stradic 2000. As far a as line is concerned, I’m a Yo Zuri guy. I love the 4 and 6lb. Hybrid and X-Tex. I’ve experimented with Berkley’s Iron Silk and it is gouging a small place in my heart as well. For hooks, I’m sold on Hookerz hooks. These are every bit as sharp and durable as Gammies and I almost can’t tell them apart. I also have a fondness for TTi hooks from Daiichi. The sharper the better. Especially when dealing with light tackle. I’ve applied this to my tournament fishing and although my gear is upsized, I rely solely on 6 and 8lb. test. I’ve only lost two fish in two years of tournament fishing due to break off’s. One was small, one was big. But I don’t let it bother me. The gains far out weigh the losses.

How to Achieve Success – The Micro Munch Way
I have scaled down my tackle so much over the years, it would be sickening to most anglers who are used to carrying a giant overstuffed possum belly box. I usually take along one small box that would fit in my vest pocket, maybe two boxes. Keeping the theory less is better in mind, I approach my fishing the same way. I’ve looked back at my all time favorite and successful methods of fishing and simply stuck with them while virtually eliminating almost all others. If I could only fish half a dozen baits, this would be my game plan….

Green Eyes Worm Works SS Worm: The Salty Stinker is a handpoured version of the infamous Senko. There are a ton of differences, but I think over all it is as good as and often better than the 6 buck per bag wonder. Best of all, I don’t worry about a ton of guys beating my bass senseless with it, that is a job left up to me to do. This is a salty stickbait that I can pour in any color I imagine. Believe me, I have colors in my bag that guys would salivate over if they could see them. I also use a large amount of scent in these baits making them unique to the Senko. While not quite as heavy, it still falls very quickly. This is basically the only worm entry I need. This bait can do it all. I generally Texas rig it weightless. I’ve made a decent tournament living by wacky rigging it as well. In rivers, the Wacky rig can be devastating. It is quickly becoming one of my favorite methods. I like to mojo or split shot rig these baits as well. There is just something about watching your split shot bait creep over a sand flat in crystal clear water with a big bass following it. This bait is all that, and I’m dead serious about that! It led me to a highly successful tournament season last year that included 4 first place finishes, 4 second place finishes, a Classic win, and over all Angler of The Year title. This season we have 5 victories with it and we are not finished fishing yet. It most certainly outclassed the other baits thrown by almost every other guy on a consistent basis. Earthy’s color choice: Watermelon Magic. I also make several colors solely for the waters I intend to use them on. These are obviously secret, you can’t expect me to give everything up. Some of those colors are Peconic Death, Maratooka Murder, and Swan Magic. Don’t ask, you can’t find them anywhere. I can’t be bought as some things must remain sacred. There is no doubt in my mind that these colors usually outfish others on the specific water they were intended for.

The New Kid on the Block: As of today, 8-11-03, I have a new completely round handpoured StickBait. This was accomplished by making a double sided mold. I changed the plastic and the salt to put together my greatest hand poured creation. This is a bait that can run with the big boys. My 4″ Salty Stinker SD Super Duty is durable, salty, heavy, and it absolutely reeks of garlic. In one week of testing the bait has taken two 5lb. largemouth, a 4 and three 3lbers. That is only between 3 anglers testing it. I’m more than excited about it. To make thing even more interesting, I also made a 3 inch version designed specifically for drop shotting and UL wack rigging . This one has a small hookslot molded in to the plastic.

Micro Munch Tackle-Wicked Tube: This is a fat walled tube that is put through a process to impregnate it with an unbelievable amount of scent. The tube itself is based on Mizmo’s Bad Boy series. While I prefer to Texas rig the tube, I’ve become accustomed to slipping in a tube head of about 1/16oz. or so and slamming river bass on the head with it. It has become extremely productive for me and it has given me tournament success as well. I like to use a slip in head that is custom made for me. It features a Gamakatsu hook and if a bass breathes on it, I know I’ve got him. Thick tubes are very durable, these have tremendous amounts of salt and scent that is baked into the bait. Earthy’s color picks: Smoke Purple, Black Red Flake, Smallmouth Special, and Missouri Roadkill.

Micro Munch Jig: This is the bait that really got me interested in catching big bass on light gear. This little jig fished with its trailer or a 3” Yammie craw is just a super deadly offering for bass. In rivers, I kill with it. The recent upgrades to a HydroSilk skirt and Black nickel Mustad hook have made this great little jig even better. I love to skip this bait into, under, and thru anything I can target. It falls slowly and is often just the ticket to a good day. The trailer I have been using is a handpoured replica of Zoom’s Skinny Chunk. It is a craw imitator and coupled with the jig, is perfect. Earthy’s color pick: Black Blue Purple, Watermelon Magic, and Camo. Among its list of conquests are two bonafide 9 pound LI largemouths.

Green Eyes Worm Works SS Minnow: Appropriately named by Paulie of Hooked Solid Baits, it is no wrecked ship. This little 4.5” stick of dynamite can be skipped and twitched anywhere. Its super soft composition gives it such great action in the water. I love its little forked tail. I pretty much only fish it in Pearl White, although I do make a few other colors. This bait replaced my love affair with the 3” Slug Go. The Slug Go is a great little bait, but I needed something a little bigger with a sexier sashay. I built it myself and they jumped all over it. I rig the bait with either a 2/0 or 3/0 Hookerz EWG. I significantly upped my bag in a recent tournament with these baits. This one has plenty of scent and salt as well, two secrets for success. Earthy’s color pick: Pearl, is there any other? OK, Pearl with red tail.

Micro Munch Tackle: Hailey’s Killer Komet Spinnerbait – This is the pride and joy of the fleet. I made this small spinnerbait with the Strike King Mini King in mind. I took what I liked about it and what I hated about it and went to the drawing board. Although the bait has undergone a transformation or two, the current model is the absolute best I can produce. I incorporated a 3-D Scale pattern minnow head with 3-D eyes built on a Gamakatsu hook. That is only for starters. From there I designed several cool Hydro Silk Skirt colors and matched the components with a Sampo swivel, Gold and Silver plated Magnum Willow blades, and a unique quick change system. My prototype bait caught 130 bass out on the first day of testing at the Proving Grounds. This bait is great fished on 6lb. test and a spinning rod. I make them in 1/8oz. and 3/16oz. This bait is deadly fished in current eddies and pockets. I prefer to fish it with the current rather than against it. Earthy’s color pick: Lavender Shad, FireTiger.

Excalibur Spitting Image Jr. – I have Mr. Xiques to thank for getting me into this gem. This bait rekindled my love for topwater bassing. Its unique shape makes it move like no other bait. It moves extreme amounts of water. I’ve used it for smallies and largemouth in current with a high degree of success. Check out the bootleg colors in BPS. They offer a signature series with 4 custom colors. There a few very nice colors there. Hint, hint.

Runs, Riffles, and Eddies… all comes down to current breaks anyway
I’m not much for giving reasons for why I throw one bait over another at any given time. I just do it without thinking too much about it. Call it intuition. I can tell you how employ these baits and what to look for out on the water. When it comes to rivers or streams, I look for two things: first; current and current breaks. Everything else is secondary. Temperature, oxygen, forage, and anything else is on the back burner here. This is why: the anatomy of a basic stream is broken down as a series of pools connected by runs or riffles of faster moving water. Within those runs are current breaks or eddies. These eddies contain slack water or sanctuary from the moving current. They are natural funnels that draw baitfish and predatory fish alike. They are predictable ambush points that a seasoned river angler can not only see, but pretty much find with little or no effort. A current break can be as simple as the lee side of a boulder or as difficult to find as a group of underwater stumps providing slower moving water within a run. I look for obvious current breaks. Logs hanging into the water from the shoreline, giant rocks and boulders, anything that provides an ambush point. River bass are notorious for waiting in ambush. Generally, you will not see to many bass fighting the current on a regular basis.

One of my favorite ways to fish current is to pick apart the slack water current breaks. You can do this by making multiple casts to the eddy area or actually drifting your bait into the eddy. Chances are your bait will get popped if you get in the zone. Like I stated earlier, these bass make the most of their feeding opportunities. They will not hesitate to nail a properly placed lure.

I’m pretty much against drawing a bait against current and fishing it back to me. This not only is low percentage as few fish will be in direct current, but the bait usually will have trouble running true. It is possible to pull the bait past a rock or obstruction and drop it behind it but these are not the best ways to approach moving water bass.

You can certainly target fish in slower moving runs. Often there will be shoreline current breaks that hold fish. I know of a great run in Catskill Creek that has a protected area in midstream. The rocks really cut the current flow and the smallmouth hang out there. I took my wife there several years ago during a heat wave. The air temp was in the high nineties and the water wasn’t too far behind. We found that spot and cast small jerkbaits to the fish who were more than eager to pounce on them. Once hooked, these 12 and 14 inch bass tail walked and gave the best aerial show I’ve seen. It was like they all went to the same school and learned to jump 3 feet out of the water together. I had fish run towards me and skyrocket out of the water almost over my shoulders. It was amazing and impressive. Best of all, it was fun and hot action on a super hot day.

Fishing these large slow moving sections of river can be a high percentage way to put your bait in front of the most fish. I’m not going to tell you that you will always light them up in the pools. I will tell you that generally, you will find a decent amount of fish that reside in pools. I prefer to fish pools with a tube bait. I remember my youth spent on the tributaries off the Hudson river. Shallow water creeks full of smallmouth and occasionally largemouth. Some of these memories center around one specific pool that is about 50 feet long by 20 feet wide. Full of boulders, it slowly creeps to about 8 feet deep. Along the shallow slope just beyond the small waterfall at the pools beginning, there were some huge shale or slate rocks that were as big as Cadillacs. Just off the lips of these rocks, the rock bass and smallmouth stacked deep. Perhaps they were undercut and the fish actually got under them. I never took he time to investigate. What I did know was that if I chucked my 2.5” Gitzit to the lip, I would be greeted by a hard strike almost every time. This was the perfect ambush zone. The fish would lie in wait for hapless morsels to drift by them and then they would pounce. I never really got all that many lunkers in these small creeks but occasionally I’d get a fish up to 4lbs which is impressive in waters this small on light tackle.

I noticed that larger fish liked the baits moved slowly along the bottom of these pools. At times I’d get a savage strike only to realize that a very big Walleye had latched on to my bait. River Walleyes can grow big and fat. I’ve seen several over 8lbs. Add to that the possibility of nailing a large brown trout or snagging a giant sucker and the sporting potential in these little waters is good. If I want to target the bottom of a pool, one of the methods I employ is the split shot rig. A small split shot craw will usually do the trick. I like the 3” Guido bug by Luck E Strike in natural shell .

Inflows and Waterfalls
Just below every inflow and waterfall is slow moving water. This water is generally super charged with oxygen and cooler than the rest of the river. Predatory fish will always be close by. The inflows tend to carry bait into the river. I target the first current breaks just beyond the inflows. This is the logical ambush point that bass should use. It is close to the inflow and the fish can utilize the benefits of the inflow. It is interesting to note that you don’t need a significantly sized inflow to attract fish. A mere trickle can do the job. I’ve noticed that on these small creeks, a rainstorm and runoff can often turn the fish on. Imagine that, some muddy water washing in small creatures, one would think that bass would ignore the murky water altogether but this simply is not the case.

Over Hanging Cover
I have fished so much over hanging cover in my day that it forced me to become an accurate caster. Either that or I would lose a ton of baits. Early on, I learned to skip baits into tiny openings in the bushes and tree limbs that littered the surface of my waters. I actually learned to do this out of necessity rather than by simple curiosity. The bass that I targeted had a knack for burying up in these areas. They were obvious places that were in thick spots. They provided slack water and current breaks as ambush spots. Best of all they were and are overlooked by anglers not willing to risk their baits. I learned quickly that you have to be in it to win it. I made myself an early promise to never fish a bait that I could not afford to lose. That way I would not be upset if my line parted. Jigs and soft plastics are perfect low cost, highly effective baits that I don’t worry about if I lose. Let’s be real, I wouldn’t be throwing a Pointer or other Lucky Craft bait into this maze of snags and tangles.

Much of the cover I was fishing was either flooded bushes or low hanging tree limbs. There are a few places I fish where these areas are so tight, the only way to fish them is to get on your knees at the water line and parallel cast or skip to the fish. I learned the hard way to always know what direction you will set the hook before actually setting the hook. After I snapped a rod and lost the fish on an errant hook set that clipped a limb that was 4” around, I decided to refine my hook setting to a side set rather than my over the should violent swing set. With that said, you should always be thinking about your next move. Make sure you know where your foot in landing as you take a step. Make sure you know how far the current is going to push you if you get off the trolling motor while fighting a fish. Calculate this ahead of time and you’ll be better off in the long run. It is funny, these days I get some funny looks when the guys on my club see a bow saw in my boat. You can bet that I do some on the water grooming to get myself into some tight places.

I always approach my fishing in stealth-like manner. Less is better and silence and precision are paramount. I prefer to wade or float these small creeks and streams. This way I am one on one with the bass. I always approach from downstream and move upstream. My reason for this is simple. Any debris I may kick up will drift away from me and not spook fish. Also, I prefer to work baits back to me with the current rather than against it.

I wear dull or neutral clothing. Olive, beige, tan are all good options. I prefer to wear aqua socks or dive boots to navigate the rocks. If you move slowly and with care, you’ll be fine. My biggest problem is with stubbing my toes, not slipping on rocks. I prefer to approach with the sun in my face so I do not cast a shadow and spook fish. Besides, it gives me a kick ass tan too. I walk slowly and attempt to not be too loud or clumsy. It can mean all the difference in the world.

The Explanation and Wrapping This All Up

Please keep in mind that I am a cop, not a salesman. I really don’t want anyone thinking that the purpose of this article is to hawk baits. True, I do have a small bait company and true, these baits are all my own. You must understand that even if I did not have a bait company, these are the baits I would use. I subscribe to several theories when it comes to tackle. 1 – Throw what other people don’t have or can’t have. 2 – If you can’t find it, make it yourself. 3 – Make it the absolute best quality because I am the one fishing it.

The process that I went through as I was attempting to form a light tackle river box was long and arduous. At the time, there was no light jig or decent light spinnerbait. I looked for alternatives to Senkos and Gitzits and Zoom Flukes and Slug Go’s. I came up with the baits you just read about. They have helped me accomplish so much in such a short time. I could go on and talk about them for hours, let alone every other bait I’ve created, but I won’t. The nuts and bolts of this article was based on an extreme feeling of pride and sense of accomplishment that is due to my fondness for building better baits. Sure, I fish other baits that are not my own. I’m not much of a crankbait guy, but I will endorse Spit N’ Image Jr’s, Sammy’s, Mudbugs, and Rapala Minnows. I’m a huge Yamamoto grub guy and I have a love for unique California Drop shot baits and handpours that even I can’t understand how they make them. They have all helped in my quest for consistency. Those of you who know me realize that I have so much energy and confidence in my homemade lures. It’s just that I am set in my ways and talk about things that work for me. I base my successes on my time out on the water fishing. I fish with my own baits and I write articles. Those baits are a large part of my success. So it makes sense that I talk about them.

I know there is a fairly decent sized following of guys who would agree with that. Thanks for your support and I look forward to designing some great baits in the future. It all comes down to catching fish. If you need it, I will build it and they WILL come.

by Craig DeFronzo (Earthworm 77)

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