By Darl Black

Fishing guide Jim Duckworth has been chasing smallmouth bass across Tennessee for more than 25 years. For 20 of those years he has been casting Bandit crankbaits in pursuit of his favorite species.

With warmer weather just around the corner, Duckworth is cleaning the dust off a special box of Bandit 200 crankbaits that he uses only during the prespawn smallmouth bite.

“With so many bass anglers employing a suspending jerkbait at this time of year, I believe it’s a good idea to change up now and then so fish are not seeing the same lure profile and same color patterns all the time,” he said. “Bandits have been my favorite crankbait for smallmouth during the rest of the year, so it seemed logical for me to employ a Bandit for staging prespawn bass, too.”

One thing he does to the baits is slow the flotation characteristic for prespawn smallies. He wants to get as close to neutral buoyancy as possible. To make a bait suspend, some anglers drill holes, add BBs and then seal the hole. Others will wrap lead solder around the hooks.

“The easiest method is to add adhesive lead foil strips to the under belly of the bait,” said Duckworth.
Smallmouth bass on Tennessee’s highland reservoirs begin moving to prespawn staging locations when the water reaches 54 degrees. Because water temperature affects lure suspension, to insure each Bandit suspends properly at water temperatures around the mid-50s, Duckworth first fills his kitchen sink with water. Then, with the aid of a thermometer, he adds ice to adjust the temperature downward to about 55 degrees.

Next, Duckworth adds between 5 and 7 lead foil strips behind the front hook until he achieves the correct nose-down suspension. After the baits are dry, he applies a coat of fingernail polish over the strips so they don’t come off.

He fishes these suspending Bandits on 5-1/2-foot medium-action pistol grip rod, explaining that the short rod is less tiring to work with a jerk-pause retrieve, and that the bait moves a shorter distance than if using a 7-foot rod.

“During the early prespawn, smallmouths are not very aggressive,” he says. “They are staging to acclimate themselves to the warming temperatures. Sure they are willing to eat, but they aren’t willing to expend a lot of energy to chase down a meal. Move the bait too far or too fast at this stage of the game, and smallies will ignore it. But, move it a little bit on a horizontal plane at the same depth as the fish, and smallies will slide up to it and suck it in.

“I’m also a firm believer that a bright, bold color can irritate a smallmouth into striking at this time. That’s why my two favorite Bandit colors for prespawn are Red Crawfish and anything with a lot of chartreuse on the sides.”
Duckworth is very specific as to where he fishes suspending baits on highland reservoirs such as Dale Hollow and Center Hill.

“It’s simple: points! Once that magic 54 degrees is reached, I fish only points until the spawn is over.”

He explains that on highland reservoirs, smallmouth bass suspend off points typically 8 to 12 feet down over deeper water. They hang out there until the shallow water stabilizes around 60 degrees. Then they begin moving to the bank. After the spawn, those same smallmouths move back to prespawn locations to recover before scattering around the lake.
“The Bandit 200 dives to around 8 or 9 feet on monofilament line,” explains Duckworth. “But when the 200 is turned into a suspending model and fished on sinking fluorocarbon line, that crankbait will achieve a depth of 10 or 11 feet, which is deeper than most normal lip jerkbaits can achieve.”

Duckworth says the most productive points during the prespawn are ones with a 45 degree slope and a bottom of chunk rock.

“Ideally I look for small boulders roughly 18 inches in diameter. The 45 degree angle is important because on sunny days some bass slide shallower to soak up the radiated heat. Of course the reverse is true, too. If severe cold front blows in, bass usually drop a little deeper.”

When he leaves the ramp, Duckworth follows a particular routine. He runs across several points with side imaging sonar, checking them to get an idea how deep the smallmouth are and how far off the bank.

“Under average conditions, smallmouths are usually suspended 10 to 12 feet down over about 20 feet of water. It’s the perfect depth for my suspending Bandit,” exclaims Duckworth.

“When I reach the point where I want to start, I turn off the sonar and simply rely on my Navionics Lake Map to follow contours. I believe the pinging of sonar beam spooks fish, so I never run sonar when bass fishing.”
Duckworth makes a long cast, cranks it down with a half dozen turns and then stalls the bait.

“I twitch it a little then pause. Then, I turn the handle to move the bait about 1 foot and stop again. After a several-second pause, I twitch the bait once or twice. I continue with a twitch-pause until the bait reaches the boat.”

Even though Duckworth likes his modified Bandit, he does not ignore the traditional long minnow jerkbait.

“There will be two rods rigged for each client in my boat – one with a Bandit and one with a Suspending Rogue. Both baits will be fished on each point. Sometimes the Rogue may out produce my suspending crankbait, but the Bandit inevitably catches the bigger smallmouth. Just last spring, my doctored Bandit was responsible for two 5-pounders and one 6-pounder on the same day at Center Hill. That’s a great day!”