What is Tight-lining?
There is a technique that many anglers in Tennessee use during colder months that has become a craze in the area. The technique is called tight-lining and it is an awesome way to catch winter bass, especially smallmouth. It’s a finesse technique that catches fish when other techniques fail.
I learned this technique from the one they call the “Godfather of Tight-lining,” Nathan Light. He is the host of a television show called 3B Outdoors and was really the one who started it all. The technique was born when he started using small hair jigs to catch winter bass, but found them to be hard to cast very far. 1/8-ounce hair jigs worked well but he knew that if he could cast further, he would catch many more bass. He started experimenting with small, soft plastic minnows on jig heads to get longer casts, and his fish catch ratio went way up. I have had the chance to fish with him and learn the ins and outs of the technique and he has taught me to love this innovative way of catching bass in cold weather.
The technique involves using a small, 1/8-ounce round jighead, similar to what you would use for crappie jigs, but slightly heavier. You pair the jighead with a small 3-inch shad profile soft plastic and fish it slowly through the water column. It works with the same concept of a Float n’ Fly, but without the bobber. The bait slowly moves through the water with a pendulum action and the subtle action works well when other techniques produce too much movement.
How to Fish It
The key to fishing this technique is using your rod to impart the action on the bait as it is falling. I like to keep my rod tip at the 10:00 position and slowly shake it to impart action on the bait.
I like to keep the boat in 30 or 40 feet of water and cast toward the bank and fish it back to the boat throughout the water column. While it is excellent for smallmouth, I have seen it work for largemouth and spotted bass as well, but often just a little closer to the bank for the largemouth.
Another way to fish it is what Nathan calls “surfing the rocks.” This is great when you are up closer to the bank and keep the bait just above the rocks as you are bringing it back to the boat. Cast it out and let it fall to the bottom and then slowly shake it. When you feel the bait ticking the rocks, lift your rod slightly and try to keep it just above the structure.
Where to Fish It
I look for the same types of places that I fish jerkbaits and crankbaits in the winter. Transitions from bluffs to rocks, steeper points that taper off and other locations that always produce in the winter are prime locations for tight-lining.
The best banks are those that have a 45-degree angle or steeper. These are great places to catch winter bass with just about any technique and I have found that this technique will catch much more bass than a jerkbait or crankbait. The difference is that this finesse approach will work in almost all water temperatures and will even catch the less aggressive fish.
With a finesse technique, usually the clear water is better. Tight-lining is great for clear water, but I have been surprised to catch fish with it in stained water. As long as there is some visibility and not muddy water, this technique seems to work well.
One thing I like about this technique is you can use the same gear you would use for other finesse techniques like drop-shotting. I prefer an Abu Garcia Veracity 6-foot, 9-inch ML spinning rod and Abu Garcia Revo SX reel in the 40 size. The larger spool size helps make long casts with this lightweight bait.
I’ll spool up my Revo with either 6-pound Berkley Trilene 100 percent fluorocarbon or 4-pound test Trilene XL monofilament. I have experimented with braid to fluorocarbon and, for some reason, the straight fluorocarbon or monofilament seems to outperform the braided line with a fluorocarbon leader. I think this has to do with the braid floating and affecting the natural action of the bait gliding through the water. I’ll use the fluorocarbon most of the time, but will switch to the 4-pound test monofilament when fishing very clear water that requires a little more casting distance to prevent spooking the fish.
When it comes to soft plastics, there are many different ones that work. I have seen Nathan use several different brands and they all seem to perform. My best luck has been on a 3-inch Berkley Gulp Minnow. The scent of the bait always seems to do well for smallmouth and really excels when the water is cold.
Tight-lining is a great way to catch winter bass and I think you will be surprised with how well it performs when the water is cold. It is a technique that allows you to reach suspended fish and fish that are used to seeing faster moving baits or only baits that are fished on the bottom. Tight-lining works and I think it will help you catch more cold-water bass.