Cleaning up with finesse techniques has become a major part of Kevin VanDam's approach.

As most people know, I’m a power fisherman at heart. I’ve built my career on fast, power techniques that are best suited for covering a lot of water, exploring a lot different cover and locating groups of fish quickly.

Early in my career, I never used the “F” word in my boat: “finesse,” of course. My version of a finesse bait was a tube on a spinning rod, which I used mostly for smallmouth in the Great Lakes. Back then, I could power fish through an entire tour season and do just fine without finesse.

But in the late 1990s, things started to change. The popularity of bass fishing exploded, tournaments became more numerous across the country and fishing pressure began to play a role in tournament strategy.

Also during that time, waters in our lakes began to clear considerably. Clean-water initiatives from the 1970s and 80s were starting to pay off, keeping silt and sedimentation from entering lakes. In addition, invasives such as hydrilla and zebra mussels were drastically clearing up water in major bass fisheries across the country.

Around that same time, a few of my competitors from the West Coast – guys like Aaron Martens and Brent Ehrler – really opened our eyes to how deadly finesse techniques could be. At that point, I knew I would have to make finesse a bigger part of my tournament game.

When Do I Use Finesse Techniques?

The hardest part of adapting to light line and smaller baits wasn’t the mechanics of it; like I said, I grew up throwing a tube on spinning gear on the Great Lakes. My challenge was finding exactly where to apply finesse in my game. For me, a technique has to have a time and a place – a specific purpose – to earn a spot in my boat.

In order to better see where finesse fishing could fit into my overall fishing strategy, I took a hard look at where my tried-and-true power techniques were failing me. Power fishing is great for finding productive areas and groups of fish for the tournament, but during the tournament, I felt like I was leaving fish behind at times. I could catch a few cranking, winding or ripping, but once they wised up (which is a given these days) the smart ones were snubbing me and biting the lighter lures of my California competitors.

With that, I found the perfect application for finesse in my game: to clean up anything I missed.

I still search in practice with fast-moving baits. And I still start tournaments with a powered-up arsenal of crankbaits, jerkbaits, swim jigs and vibrating jigs. But these days, before I leave a productive spot, I reach for the spinning rods to clean a place up.

Finesse baits like a drop-shot or Ned rig are part of the key to adding fish to SCORETRACKER®. Photo by Garrick Dixon

Big Wins on Finesse Baits

Sometimes I’m truly amazed at how many more fish I catch off a spot on finesse techniques while playing clean up.

Over the last five years, I can attribute several of my wins directly to cleaning up with finesse. At an MLF Cup on the upper Mississippi River several years ago, I found a big school on the last day with a jerkbait. I wore them out for an hour or so before the jerkbait bite died. I was about to leave the area to search for another school when I picked up a shaky head to get the scraps and proceeded to catch fish for another hour straight.

I piled enough fish on SCORETEACKER® that final day to win the event.

At another event at Cayuga, I found a bunch of fish punching milfoil with a big weight and heavy line. The big weight got me going with a good start, but then the fish wised up to the beefy tackle. I thought the place was played out until I pulled out a Neko rig and caught them one after another on the exact same spot where they wouldn’t touch my punching rig anymore. That finesse clean up earned another trophy.

These days, cleaning up with finesse has become a critical part of my tournament game in the name of defense. It used to be that leaving fish behind wasn’t a big deal as long as you caught the best ones off a spot. But now, in the every-fish-counts format of MLF, leaving fish behind is like leaving money on the table – literally. I have to make sure I get everything I can off a spot before I leave it – or someone else will.

As for my cleanup arsenal, my four finesse go-to techniques are a drop-shot, a Ned rig, a Neko rig and a shaky head. In my next blog, I’m going to define some parameters for when to use each of these rigs, and will divulge a few of my favorite baits for cleaning up with finesse.