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Midwest Finesse Goes Saltwater Fishing

Daniel Nussbaum of Charleston, South Carolina, posted a blog on the Finesse News Network about his outings of Feb. 20 and 21, 2022, with Drew Reese of Rantoul, Kansas, on the Crystal River in Florida.

Here is a slightly edited version of his log and several endnotes.

At the Crystal River, Florida, on February 20 and 21, I had the pleasure of fishing with Drew Reese of Rantoul, Kansas, who is one of the forefathers of Midwest finesse fishing.

Drew has helped Z-Man Fishing Products of Ladson, South Carolina, develop a variety of finesse-sized jigheads and soft-plastic baits. He primarily fishes for smallmouth bass in Arkansas, Canada, and Kansas, but he recently spent a few weeks in Florida, pursuing saltwater fish and escaping the woes of the winter weather in Kansas.

The purpose of our Florida trip was for Drew to introduce me to the new finesse rods that he has developed and built. One rod is five feet and 10 inches long. The other is a five-foot, four-inch model.

Both rods are built with high-modulus-fiber graphite (50 million modulus Toray fiber) blanks that I would describe as moderate-fast action and light power. These blanks are enhanced with a Nano Resin System, which prevents compression and impact failures and heightens their lightness.

They sport Tennessee handles and stainless-steel guides. The lightness of the guides and Tennessee handles reduces the weight of the rods. The 5-foot, 4-inch model weighs 1.4 ounces and the 5-foot, 10-inch model weighs 1.8 ounces. And their lightness significantly intensifies their sensitivity.

Each rod is paired with a high-end and lightweight Daiwa spinning reel that is taped to a Tennessee handle rather than affixing it to a traditional reel seat. These outfits are astonishingly light; in fact, they are lighter than any other combos I have ever used. Drew spools the reels with four-pound-test Berkley FireLine, which is a thermally-fused braided line. A six-pound-test Seaguar Tetsu fluorocarbon leader is affixed to the FireLine with a Seaguar knot. The leader is 10 feet long.

These rods are designed for freshwater finesse fishing. Drew has been using short and light rods, such as the G. Loomis SJ6400 and SJ700 Spin Jig rods, for decades. His new rods are considerably lighter than the SJ6400 and SJ700 rods. And on previous saltwater trips to South Carolina and Louisiana, Drew showed me that his light rods, reels, and lines are capable -- in the right hands -- of inveigling an impressive array of hefty saltwater fish.

Drew has a bay boat that he runs when he fishes in Florida, but in order to make sure that we maximized our opportunities to put his new rods to a rigorous test in a variety of situations, we fished these two outings with Captain Brandon Branch of Crystal River, Florida, who is a local guide.

On February 20, Brandon opted to run his 17-foot technical-poling skiff to fish some shallow backwater areas that otherwise would have been inaccessible because of the extremely low tides. The tides are typically lower in the winter, and a full moon and strong offshore breeze resulted in even lower than normal water levels.

The air temperatures were in the low 40s to start the day, and in some areas, the water temperatures had dropped over 10 degrees overnight. Combined with a brisk northeast wind, we knew that fishing would be challenging.

We started the day working three- to five-foot channels that run through the grass flats in search of spotted seatrout. Brandon had caught more than a hundred trout in those areas a couple of days earlier, but with the dropping water temperatures, the fish had moved to other areas.

Next, we fished for snook in a deep hole that is enhanced with a freshwater spring. Because snook have a sharp gill plate that easily cuts light lines, Brandon suggested that I use one of my outfits that I typically use for inshore saltwater fishing rather than one of Drew's rods. My spinning rod was a six-foot, 10-inch St. Croix Legend X with a medium-light power and extra fast action. My reel was a Shimano Stradic Ci4+ 1000 reel that was spooled with 10-pound-test braided line and a five-foot 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.

Almost immediately, I hooked onto a 30-inch snook with a four-inch Z-Man's perfect-perch Scented Jerk ShadZ affixed to a 3/16-ounce Z-Man's Trout Eye Finesse Jighead, but the fish spit the hook at the boat after a five minute fight. Just a few minutes later, Drew hooked onto a fish with his five-foot, four-inch rod while employing a hopping presentation along the bottom with a Z-Man's smelt TRD TicklerZ affixed to a red 1/10-ounce Z-Man's Finesse ShroomZ jig. Somehow, his four-pound-test FireLine and six-pound-test fluorocarbon leader stayed intact, and he managed to land a beautiful 26-inch snook.

After the snook action died down, Brandon poled us through some shallow grass flats in one to two feet of water and even less water in a small backwater area that was loaded with redfish. The wind chop made seeing the fish difficult, and they were extremely finicky due to the clear- and cold-water conditions. Over the next few hours, we managed to sight cast to a number of redfish and landed a half dozen or so. Once again, the TRD TicklerZ rig was the ticket. Drew caught more than I did, but I did have a chance to tangle with a 27-inch redfish with one of Drew's outfits. I am certainly not accustomed to fighting saltwater fish on four-pound-test line, and a fish like that typically takes a few short minutes to bring boatside on standard inshore tackle, which is spooled with 10 to 20-pound-test braided line and a 20-pound-test leader. Drew's finesse tackle turned that into a ten minute or so fight, and the redfish made several strong runs and a few laps around the boat before we were able to grab it for a few photos prior to the release. Fighting a redfish on such light tackle was an absolute blast, and a very different experience than what I am accustomed to, but Drew's tackle was definitely up to the task.

As the afternoon wore on and after we had circled the shallow backwater area several times, it became apparent that the redfish were well aware of our presence, and they had locked down. Therefore, we made a run to a shallow creek that wound through a jungle of mangrove trees. Brandon poled us quietly up the creek with the incoming tide and nosed the boat into a series of small pockets with slack water where the redfish were dwelling. With the high sun and protection from the wind offered by the mangroves, we were able to easily spot redfish along the edge of the mangroves on the grassy bottom. Unfortunately, the fish were very lethargic, finicky, and generally uninterested in our offerings. We made perfect presentations to another 20 or so redfish, but only one showed interest in feeding, and I missed that one on the hookset.

I do a fair amount of sight fishing for redfish in South Carolina and mostly use seven-foot rods. Conventional wisdom maintains that longer rods allow anglers to execute longer casts and shorter rods offer more accuracy. I have always felt that my seven-foot rods were a good balance between casting distance and accuracy. Thus, my initial concern with Drew's short rods was they would inhibit my abilities to make long casts. But I was pleasantly surprised by how far and easily they could launch a light jighead and a soft-plastic bait. As this outing unfolded, I ended up gravitating towards Drew's shorter and lighter rods. And I quickly learned that the snapping motion I typically use when casting with my seven-foot rods did not work well with Drew's finesse rods; my snapping casts usually resulted in the bait landing about 20 feet from the boat. Drew explained to me that I needed to use more of a sweeping motion and resist the urge to snap my wrist sharply when casting. And Drew's sweeping tactic alleviated any issues with short casts. In terms of casting accuracy, the rods were outstanding, particularly in close quarters like in the mangrove creeks we fished during the end of our outing on Feb. 20

On Feb. 21, we had another guest join us, so with a crew too large for Brandon's technical-poling skiff, he opted to run his 24-foot bay boat. With the extreme low tides, the larger boat limited our options as its draft is too deep to access the shallow backwaters and creeks we fished on the first day. Therefore, the game plan was to drift across deeper grass flats and cast for spotted seatrout. Our expectations were low as other guides reported very slow trout fishing the prior day, but we were pleasantly surprised with steady action throughout the day.

We targeted deeper grass flats in four to five feet of water. As we slowly drifted with the tide, we would cast downcurrent with several different Z-Man's ElaZtech finesse baits affixed to 1/6-ounce Z-Man's Finesse ShroomZ jigheads, and of course, we were using Drew's finesse rods. This style of fishing was much different than what we did on the first day, when we were primarily sight fishing and casting at targets when we spotted fish. On the second day, our goal was to blind cast and cover as much water as possible to locate concentrations of fish, and then anchor down with the Power Poles once we found a school.

While the bite was never hot and heavy, we steadily picked away at the fish throughout the day. Strikes were split evenly between seatrout and ladyfish – an aggressive long, silvery fish that fights hard with fast runs and numerous jumps and is normally labeled a 'trash fish' despite the fact that it is a close relative of the tarpon. These fish seemed to be foraging on small baitfish, and the most effective plastics were a three-inch Z-Man's midnight-oil Slim SwimZ and a four-inch Z-Man's perfect-perch Scented Jerk ShadZ, which were affixed to the 1/6-ounce Z-Man's Finesse ShroomZ jigheads We presented these rigs by employing either a slow swimming retrieve or hopping them along the bottom. Most of the trout were in the 13-inch to 15-inch range, and we did catch several in the 17-inch to 18-inch range that accompanied us back to the marina where they were turned into blackened fish tacos. The highlight of the day for me was hooking into a five-pound pompano, which was the largest one Brandon had seen in several years, and it took more than 10 minutes to land on Drew's finesse tackle. During this six-hour outing, we lost count of the number of fish we caught, but I would estimate that we landed somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 70 seatrout and just as many ladyfish, along with the pompano and a few small flounder. That is a catch of about 130 fish and a catch rate of 21 an hour.

Constantly casting and retrieving, as well as feeling for the subtle tick that is indicative of a seatrout's strike, gave me even more appreciation for Drew's finesse outfits. The rods are incredibly light in the hand and result in far less fatigue than the heavier tackle I typically use. Just as noticeable was their extreme sensitivity. I've read before that lighter rods are far more sensitive than heavier ones, and that makes sense intuitively to me, but these rods are so lightweight that the difference in sensitivity is very noticeable.

I have spent close to 20 days on the water with Drew during the last eight years, and I am convinced that there is some real merit to the finesse system that he uses: light braided line, light fluorocarbon leader, light jigheads, light wire hooks (always needle sharp thanks to the hook sharpener that hangs from a lanyard around his neck), and small ElaZtech plastic baits. He has me convinced that with this system, you will get more bites, feel more bites, hook more fish, and ultimately catch more fish -- perhaps not always the largest fish, but definitely the most, and some surprisingly large ones too. The rods he has developed definitely have merit and are an important part of the system. Drew's whole message to me is that a large portion of the anglers out there don't care about winning tournaments, but they just want to have fun and catch fish. After fishing with Drew's rods for a couple of days, I can certainly attest to the fact that using Drew's rods make catching large and small fish one of the most enjoyable outings that I have ever experienced.

These rods will definitely be part of my arsenal going forward as soon as I can get my hands on some, which has been a problem since the Covid pandemic erupted and the creation of a multitude of supply-chain problems.

Endnotes

(1) We have waited to publish this log until the blanks for Drew's rods were available for anglers to purchase. And as of May 10, we are delighted to announce that they are finally available at Mud Hole Custom Tackle. Here is a link to Mud Hole's website:

https://mudhole.com/products/mhx-66-light-elite-pro-rod-blank-neps78lmf-mhx?utm_source.

For more details about Drew's rods, please see the article at this link: 

https://www.wired2fish.com/tackle-tips/the-history-and-evolution-of-the-tennessee-handle-for-bass-fishing-rods

And see the July 16 log at this link:

https://www.zmanfishing.com/cms/chatter/midwest-finesse-fishing-july-2021/

(2) Ladyfish are endowed with small, razor-sharp teeth and a bony throat plate that is situated between its jawbones, which can wreak havoc with a Midwest finesse angler's six-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. It is somewhat similar to what happens when Midwest finesse anglers tangle with a northern pike.

During the two weeks that Drew fished at Crystal River, he tangled with several hundred ladyfish, and he estimates that somewhere between 15 to 20 percent of those ladyfish cut his leader. At times when he got tired of retying his leaders, he attached a four-inch piece of 25-pound-test fluorocarbon as a shock leader to his six-pound-test leader, but to his chagrin, the shock leader dramatically reduced the number of strikes that his Midwest finesse rigs elicited.

Except for the ladyfish that severed Drew's leader, he did not lose any other species of saltwater fish that he hooked, and he tangled with hundreds of them. And all of them were caught on his short and light rods, light reels, light lines, and Midwest finesse rigs .

In fact, throughout a calendar year, he rarely loses a freshwater fish. He attributes this achievement to the fact that he is never in a hurry to get a hooked fish near the boat. Most fish are lost, he maintains, when they are near the boat. Instead of horsing a hooked fish to the boat, he allows a hooked fish to swim until it tires itself out many yards from the boat. As the fish swims, the needle-sharp and light-wire hook on the jighead becomes deeply and thoroughly embedded into the flesh inside the fish's mouth. Then, as the fish becomes fatigued, Drew can gingerly lead it towards the boat and eventually lift it into the boat.

Many years ago, stretching back into the 1960s, the great and late Chuck Woods of Kansas City, Missouri, who we often describe as one of the primary founding fathers of Midwest finesse fishing, taught Drew, who was a teenager, not to briskly set the hook and vigorously battle a hooked largemouth bass. He told Drew to set the hook by using his reel to quickly take up the slack in his line, and once the slack was removed, he should lift his rod temperately.

Drew notes that even when Chuck would elicit a strike from a largemouth bass with one of his jig-worm rigs in a pile of brush or in a submerged tree, he would not attempt to vigorously pull the largemouth bass out of the limbs. Instead, Chuck would gingerly lead the largemouth bass out of the limbs by using his reel to remove the slack in the line, and when the slack was removed, Chuck would lift his rod with a temperate pull, which effectively set the hook into the flesh inside the mouth of the largemouth bass. From Chuck's many years of catching untold numbers of largemouth bass around piles of brush and submerged trees at various waterways in northeastern Kansas and northwestern Missouri, he discovered when a largemouth bass strikes an angler's bait around a submerged tree or brush pile, it will instinctively leave the confines of limbs or brush. So, it is unnecessary and unwise to attempt to extract a largemouth bass from the limbs by forcefully setting the hook the way we often see power anglers wield their hefty and long rods.

It is interesting to note that during the spring of 2021 at Bull Shoals Lake, Arkansas, Drew used one of his new spinning rods to catch a seven-pound, five-ounce largemouth bass on four-pound-test FireLine and six-pound-test Seaguar Tetsu fluorocarbon leader affixed to a Z-Man's TRD TicklerZ rig. It was caught around a submerged cedar tree by employing the tactic that Chuck taught him decades ago.

Moreover, when Drew spent several days fishing on Lake Michigan during the summer of 2021, he tangled with an array of hefty and cantankerous smallmouth bass with his new spinning rods. And nary a one was lost.

For more insights on Chuck Woods, please see the article at this link: https://www.in-fisherman.com/editorial/legends-of-the-heartland/156351

For more information about Drew Reese, please see these links:

https://zmanfishing.com/cms/boathouse-1

https://zmanfishing.com/cms/boathouse-2

https://www.in-fisherman.com/editorial/drew-reeses-history-midwest-finesse-fishing/155654

https://www.in-fisherman.com/editorial/drew-reeses-history-midwest-finesse-fishing-part-two/154732

(3) Capt. Brandon is a devoted gag grouper angler. And he told Daniel and Drew that he is hoping to use Midwest finesse tactics to catch gag groupers on some of the shallow-water rock piles and rock ledges that grace the underwater terrains of the Gulf's coast in the vicinity of Crystal River, Florida.

Brandon's email address is Bbranchfishing@gmail.com.His phone number is 352-601-7948. His Instagram link is: https://www.instagram.com/crystalriverfishingcompany/

(4) If anglers have any questions about these two rod blanks, Stuart Crawford of Mud Hole Custom Tackle will pleased to answer them. He can be reached at this email: scrawford@mudhole.com.

Moreover, if anglers would prefer to have a master craftsman build their rods, Stuart will provide the names of several talented rod builders.

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