Throwing the weedless in the kelp is hands down my favorite way of targeting calicos, but it wasn’t always. The first time I saw a weedless swimbait fished was while on a trip with Corey Sanden, who had just released his new bait the MC Swimbaits 7-inch weedless. During that trip I watched Sanden catch multiple bass on the bait, but once I got out on my own boat and started throwing it, I felt like I was doing something wrong and just couldn’t build the confidence to make enough casts to figure it out.
That pattern continued over the next several trips, with my fishing partner Matt Kotch and I making a few casts with the bait before racking the rod and going back to the leadhead and swimbait presentations that we were confident worked. A couple months later I decided to dedicate an entire day to casting the bait and after several hours of watching Matt catch them on a regular swimbait I finally connected. That first fish was followed by many more trips spent figuring out the basics and another four or five years worth of tweaking tackle and presentations to get things completely dialed in.
The good news is that what I’ve learned is easily passed along and will cut way down on your learning curve if you’re willing to forget what you’ve learned or know about fishing weedless baits and just start over with the basics.
The first step in fishing this bait is choosing the right rod and reel combo. I fish a Rainshadow RCLB70XL matched with an Abu/Garcia Toro 60 Beast full of 65-pound spectra. While any 300 sized bait casting reel will work, this 7-foot graphite composite rod with a soft glass tip and a stiff graphite butt section it the key to the presentation. To understand the reason for the short rod and soft tip, you’ll first need to understand the presentation.
When it comes to fishing the weedless bait for calicos, you really need to focus on your short game as most of the action is going to be happening within 30-feet of the boat. In the photo above, Matt Kotch is making the standard weedless cast, an underhand lob, that he will repeat hundreds if not thousands of times per day. While his average cast is probably 20 to 30-feet long, I’ve seen him make 5-foot casts that have resulted in instant bites.
When fishing the weedless bait in the kelp if you can’t clearly see your bait through the entire retrieve you’ll be cutting way down on your hook up percentages because part of the presentation involves feeding the bait to the fish. Sure, you’ll get some blind strikes when you’re not paying attention, but your hook up ratio will drop from 80-90% down to 50% at best.
In this photo Matt is fishing the bait past a stringer that is just off the bow. As you can see, he is leaning over to keep the tip at the waterline to maximize the cast. In many cases the fish will bite right at the boat and you just need to swing them aboard.
In a recent tournament Matt caught an 8.88-pound fish that ate the bait two feet from the rod tip.
Regarding presentation, after making a cast just past a likely looking ambush point in the bed, like a lone stringer or a point, Matt will begin by making a quick retrieve, before slowing it slightly as it passes the ambush point and then speeding it up again. To a bass, I’d imagine that the lure looks like a bait fish that is darting from stalk to stalk to avoid predators. This in turn sparks a predatory response in the bass and they try to eat the bait before whatever they believe is chasing it does.
It’s hard to tell due to the ripple on the water, but a bass has just bit Matt’s lure as he wound it past the stringer in the upper center of the photo. Rather than swinging on the fish the moment it bites, Matt will stop his retrieve and watch the bass to make sure that it’s got the bait completely in its mouth and then wait for the bass to turn to the side before swinging for the fences.
This is where the rod comes into play. As you can see, Matt has the rod tip held at a 90-degree angle to the direction of his retrieve, so if a bass darts out and grabs his bait, the soft tip with give the little bit slack that will allow him to stop winding before the fish feels pressure. If he were using a stiff rod, in the time it took his brain to tell his hand to stop winding, the bait would have been pulled forward a couple more inches and likely out of the bass’s mouth unless the fish absolutely hoovered it.
Once the bass has turned and the hook has been set, the stiff graphite butt section will give you the leverage to keep a trophy fish from tangling you in the kelp. If the fish does happen to get you wrapped around a stringer, try dropping your rod tip and giving it some slack. This motion is usually enough to get the bass pointed in the other direction and swimming free of the kelp.
The final part of the weedless puzzle is to constantly cover fresh water because if there’s a biting bass on any given kelp stringer it’s going to bite the second your lure passes the ambush spot. We will rarely use the trolling motor when fishing kelp because it’s a hassle. Instead I’ll fish from the console while bumping us ahead with the main. If there’s enough wind or current, I’ll normally set up a drift that will allow the conditions to push us along. Fishing fast and covering productive water is the key to catching fish on the weedless, so pay attention to where your bites are coming from so that you can look ahead and find other potential bite zones.