The Mindset of Finesse
Finesse fishing is not just a weightless 4 inch plastic worm on a size 4 hook or even a weightless salmon egg impaled on a size 14 hook, fished on 2 pound test line. It’s a state of mind not limited to freshwater, even though traditionally we think of heavy sinkers and big hooks in the brine.
How equipment is handled, cast placement, retrieve and hook set all involve subtle intricacies that define the word finesse. Among anglers, it has come to be associated with light tackle and light lures, but live lining a weightless blue crab for tarpon, for example, involves using big game tackle, yet it’s all about the light touch: giving line when the crab wants it, carefully retrieving slack. The last thing you want happening is to be caught unawares while picking up slack if a hundred pound tarpon hits.
I don’t think of all the fishing I do as quite being finesse. On occasion, I rip a crankbait to provoke reaction strikes from smallmouth and largemouth bass. I love to fish a Gotcha jigger off a pier for Spanish mackerel, which involves fast, snappy retrieves. And I like to soak bunker or clams in the Jersey surf, weighted by heavy pyramid sinkers. I fish other ways not so subtly. Yet, if you take the classic author Izaak Walton at his word—who was not averse to bait fishing—and agree that fishing is a contemplative recreation, any way we approach it involves finesse as a state of mind.
Why Mood and Attitude are Everything
Before I get into details on how to fish with a light touch, even an extremely light touch, I want to point out that mood and attitude encompasses everything you do on an outing. Mood may change, and if you begin in a bad one, it’s good if you end in high spirits, but preparation, getting psyched, can put you on the spot from the start. I know of no better way to get in the mood than simply organizing gear and tackle before I go and I usually do this immediately before leaving. If I get up at 3:00 a.m., the last thing I do before sleep is prepare. We have our favorite lures and memories attached to rods and reels, etc., and by sorting these things out by hand, awaken the mood before we get on the water.
It’s important because the background of the mind that searches for fish, chooses which lures or bait and what techniques to try, measures casts and retrieves, has a deep role in the efficacy at which the game will be played. A positive mood and attitude are not just about having good time regardless of catch and don’t distract from fishing unless the mood happens to be about something else. Positive mood makes possible ideas about how to go about fishing on a particular outing, ideas that arise more and less spontaneously because you are attuned to what you’re doing.
A lot has been said about confidence being key, and we become confident by having a store of successful results. It’s always hardest for the beginner, although all he needs is determination, quality tackle, and some pointers and he will become confident in due time. Deeper than confidence is this quality of mood associational in character, since it begins with the value you have for lures and other tackle you own, other memories and special success. Ideas about the outing you face already begin to form before you do a lot of the conscious thinking about just how you will fish faced with the conditions. You shouldn’t have to think much about the mood; the mood is about the outing ahead of you and sustains you while you are on the water. But being aware that the background of your mind is in your favor, which is not the same as conscious thinking, can certainly increase the ease of thinking and the odds that you will have a good, successful outing.
Mood is finesse. It is subtler than thought and can at times reveal itself as amazingly intricate as the substrate for ideas that present themselves complete and lead to a catch. More than once I have been certain that casting to the right side of a brushpile, for example, would result in a catch. I made the cast perfectly almost without effort and set the hook. The highest moods are spirited; agency beyond ordinary control guides action.
How to Respond Instead of React
Too often I see anglers either stuck on complicated choices, not really knowing what to do and fretting about it, or rushing ahead of themselves to try to catch what they don’t reflect about first. Fish are marked on the graph under the boat. Trout rise. Bass leap for damselflies. Stripers blitz against a jetty. What do you feel? Is it a gut reaction that clouds the mind, a great urge to make a catch as if you could grab the fish? That’s better than indifference, but using a little finesse will organize an approach rather than defeat the purpose.
The ability to think coolly when confronted by a bonanza of opportunity is difficult and it hurts when you screw up. But most outings are mundane by comparison and many cast with uncertainty, flogging away at a general sense of reward’s lack. If they just enjoy being out, this may suffice. But fishing is about catching fish; if they say, “It’s fishing, not catching,” this describes a blithe salve to lack of success, but everyone who fishes wants to catch, not that any of us do every time.
Simplifying choices of lures and presentation depends on your response to the water you fish, rather than reactions to descriptions of three dozen techniques or 50 lures in a catalogue. If it doesn’t distract you from tending to the water with interest and purpose, all that is fine, and every cast should be meant, not thrown away. That’s difficult sometimes and thinking about what might work instead can draw interest on knowing those dozens of techniques. But try them out patiently. In the end, that’s how they are really learned.
Light Lures and Bait, Light touch, Stance
No lure is subtler than a size 32 dry fly, but a single salmon egg fished on a size 14 snelled hook, with a size 18 snap, no more weight, and casted halfway across North Branch Raritan River on spinning tackle may impress for the effectiveness implied. Weightless plastics and tiny jigs, plugs, and spinners all have uses especially when fishing is slow. I used to catch largemouth bass in 40 degree water just after ice out by retrieving an eighth ounce Johnson Beetle spin on the bottom so slowly that the little Colorado blade barely turned. My preferred method for catching fluke in the surf is with my 5 ½ foot St. Croix medium power spinning, six pound test, and size 6 plain shank hooks tied to 8 pound test fluorocarbon for assurance against those teeth. I use medium split shot, wade, get wet, and fish close with live killies when fluke are there, loving the feel of live bait.
The possibilities for light spinning tackle, as well as fly tackle or even big game, are up to you. Marty Roberts catches oodles of hybrid stripers on Lake Hopatcong by using light spinning, 4 to 6 pound test, a size 6 hook, and a medium to large split shot, even 30 feet down or more. He once caught a musky fishing this way.
Since I don’t use circle hooks unless I’m soaking clams or bunker, part of my game involves setting the hook before a fluke or smallmouth bass swallows the bait. And I miss hits, but like it this way. I’ve used the same light Mustads since 1975. Setting the hook, when you think about it, is an entire angling domain. Different species take bait, soft plastics, and so on differently. The first hit I got from a sheepshead, using a mole crab, was a moment I still remember. I was perplexed: “What do I do?” It was a series of very quick taps as if the fish was chewing off bits of the crustacean’s shell. And sheepshead proved difficult. But by tuning in to the feel, I learned quickly and got results. The moment I felt a distinct jab, I set the hook.
Stance can make a difference. My son, Matt, discovered that by leaning over a pier rail, pointing his rod downward, and using the tip to direct his weighted shrimp bait beside pilings, he got unwilling pompano to take. On another occasion, he had to stand on the gunnel “to feel I’m part of the action,” not advisable if the water is cold.
In general, the more composed your stance, the more willing you are; you’re going after the fish and able to interpret the tell-tale signs that lead to catches.