The Story Behind the Story
Mark Zona is an admitted tackle junkie who tries to stay in-the-know on just about all things bass. Every once in a while, he’ll keep a secret for himself that could be a game changer.
For years, he’d fished a soft-plastic jerkbait and swimbait on a Tex-posed hook only to be met with a 65% hook-up ratio. Spotted and smallmouth bass notoriously swat at baits and their aggression compromises their aim.
By chance, Zona met an “older-than-me gentleman” 7-years back that teased Zona with tales of rigging a Strike King Caffeine Shad as a line-through with a treble hook. “you’ll never miss them,” he promised Zona. The gentleman promised to bring in a pop-rivet, yes like the one in the hardware store, and would show Zona his way of rigging.
Until then Zona had spent copious hours in his fishing bunker trying everything- even converting the inside core of a ballpoint pen to work as a line-through channel for the bait. Sure, it worked, but after a strong cast or a fish catch, it would fall out.
The gentleman wasn’t chasing unicorns- Zona’s hook-up ratio increased to 99%. Zona totally gives credit to the gentleman for hatching the brilliant rigging trick.
“You take the hollow sleeve out of the pop rivet. In a pop rivet it’s basically a tube with a circular plate on the end of that sleeve,” Zona started. “He showed me how to push it from the back side where the “v” is in a Caffeine shad on the belly, push it up in there towards the nose, and use that nail to clean out the inside of the rivet and then your line slides right through it.”
Zona decided to tie on a treble hook with a split ring and went to Thousand Islands the following week,“the holy grounds of burning a Caffeine Shad or a soft plastic jerkbait” and quickly learned “you hook them all!” He could count on one hand with fingers to spare how many he’d shared the secret with over the past 7-years.
Once Strike King introduced the Rage Swimmer, Zona applied the same rigging logic to solid body soft-plastic swimbaits. The results were flawless.
High Percentage Targets
Zona has great confidence in the Strike King Caffeine Shad and Rage Swimmer when targeting schooling fish, aggressive smallmouth, suspended fish, spotted bass, and largemouth when they won’t quite commit. “Whenever you throw a full body swimbait or a soft-plastic jerkbait that you are not completely hanging up from cover, rig it this way,” Zona said.
Zona will zip a Caffeine Shad along the waters’ edge and kill it letting the bait sink briefly before speed reeling again. Let the fish tell you what they want as sometimes a twitch-kill-kill-kill-twitch retrieve might be needed.
Regardless of the size of Rage Swimmer that Zona is throwing, a straight steady retrieve works best.
It’s important to match the components to the size of the bait. He’ll vary line size from 15- to 20- pound BPS XPS fluorocarbon and he’ll always tie it to a split-ring rigged with a round bend hook. The split ring acts as a buffer between the hook and the bait.
With a 4.5 – 5inch swimbait, a #2 hook works best while a #4 is the deal with a 4’ Caffeine Shad and a #5 on the Magnum size. Zona is adamant that a Lazer Trokar round bend treble hook is an important part of the equation.
When targeting smallmouth, pearl, pink, and chartreuse are great soft-plastic stick bait colors while swimbaits should be natural hues like shad or bluegill.
A full-body soft-plastic swimbait or jerkbait fish well on a G-Loomis NRX 873 CRR with 14- to 20-pound BPS XPS Fluorocarbon while the NRX 894 JRW excels with the Magnum Caffeine Shad or magnum paddle tale swimbait on 20-pound line. A Shimano Metanium XG allows Zona to not only work the bait quickly but take in line rapidly once he gets bit.
“Don’t hesitate on them. When your rod barely starts to load, hook him,” Zona advised.
When the Planets Align
Little did Zona know, Bassmaster Elite angler Ott DeFoe was struggling similarly. One day while fishing a clear water river system back in Tennessee, DeFoe could see fish engulfing his soft-plastic swimbait but could never get the hooks into the fish as the bait was rigged weightless with a belly-hook and he had a bow in his line.
DeFoe went through his tackle and found a threader from a mojo sinker. He tried to get line to pass through the bait but to no avail- it was too soft. When it did work, his swimbait wouldn’t swim right no matter how he rigged the treble hook.
Some 4 years ago, realizing that he needed to pull the hook against something, he rigged a barrel swivel onto the split ring and then the treble hook. Then, he pulled the first eye of the barrel swivel into the bait and pushed it towards the nose. He rigged one prong of the treble hook into the stomach of the bait and it finally swam good and caught them good. “The first fish I caught on it was a 5-pound largemouth,” DeFoe recalled.
The rig worked like a charm as the bait would slide up the line and away from the fish. He used the rig a good time before introducing into his arsenal on the Elite series.
DeFoe and Zona found themselves at a Bass Pro engagement and the pair as usual headed to a corner to chew the fat about fishing. DeFoe confided in Zona and let him in on his secret not knowing that Zona had an impressive one of his own.
DeFoe went back to the drawing board eventually eliminating the barrel swivel and keeping the split ring and treble hook. “I actually put a rivet in the nose of the bait to keep it from tearing out. There’s still an open section of plastic in there but you go from having one rigged on the back where the treble pulls against it, you could catch 2-5 fish on a bait. If you put the one on the front, you can catch 12-15 fish on a bait or until they snip the tail off it,” DeFoe explained.
The needle he now uses to thread the line through is the Offshore Angler Rigging Needle sold at Bass Pro Shops.
The Smell of Victory
Fast forward to the Mississippi River in LaCrosse, Wisconsin for the Bassmaster Elite tourney September 8 – 11, 2016. DeFoe was strong enough in the points that he didn’t have the pressure of being on the bubble. He turned his attention towards formulating a solid game plan.
Being a river system, DeFoe expected fish to be shallow and had his soft-plastic paddle-tail swimbait rigged and ready. He targeted a known community hole as it was a spillway that he believed harbored some impressive fish. On the Wednesday of practice, he proved his hunch correct catching a 2 ½ and a 3-pound largemouth.
DeFoe was dialed in to what his bait was doing and what the fish wanted. On the first day and second morning, he fished a standard swimbait retrieve- slow and steady.
When he returned to the same spot on the second afternoon, he slowed down his retrieve and immediately was met with success. Before the day was done, he’d tricked the big fish of the tournament, a 6.1-pound largemouth.
“What I noticed was happening was I was just bringing that bait back with the speed of the current. All I was doing essentially was keeping the slack out of the line,” DeFoe started. “I truly wasn’t making the bait swim, I was letting the current wash it back and forth and tail kick back and forth and the bait is rolling around in that turbulent water, it had plenty of action but it was action that the water was imparting on it.”
On a #1 VMC Round bend treble hook, DeFoe rigged a 6-inch swimbait. He used a solid white pattern with a slightly darker back during the mornings, on rainy days, and when it was really cloudy. He switched to translucent colors once the water had 3- to 4-feet of visibility and when the sun was high. If DeFoe didn’t have 2-feet of visibility, this deal might not have worked.
He’ll most often fish the bait weightless when fish are shallow and feeding. “I’ve caught fish on it in water down in the 50s but it’s usually a 60-70 degree when I do best on it,” DeFoe said.
Back home, most often DeFoe uses the bait to make pinpoint casts. “That bait rigged like this- it skips like a flat rock. I can skip it up under overhanging trees and in places that you can’t do with a lot of other baits.”
DeFoe likes to throw the bait on a 7’0” medium-heavy Fenwick HMG rod paired with a Pfluger Supreme Extreme XT casting reel (7:1:1) spooled with 15-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon.
DeFoe keeps fish care products like Catch and Release Calming Livewell Additive at the ready in case a fish is hooked good or has a wound. He’ll actually put the product right on the wound of the fish which he has found success with.
Both Zona and DeFoe advise anglers not to be lazy on the hookset. “A lot of times, the really good bites are a really good thump and the line goes limp so I reel about two cranks and once I feel pressure, I’ll set the hook,” DeFoe said.