Top 10 baits and patterns: Minnow madness on Toledo Bend - Major League Fishing

Top 10 baits and patterns: Minnow madness on Toledo Bend

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While he used the same technique as the rest of the Top 10, Dustin Connell dominated the Championship Round at Toledo Bend. Photo by Phoenix Moore. Angler: Dustin Connell.
February 7, 2024 • Mitchell Forde • Bass Pro Tour

You may have heard it referred to as mid-strolling, Damiki rigging, hover rigging, tight-lining, moping. While the fishing world has yet to reach a consensus on the name, the top performers at B&W Trailer Hitches Stage One presented by Power-Pole left no doubt that the jighead minnow is the hottest technique going in the tournament game, particularly when bass suspend offshore.

Despite the vast size and amount of habitat in Toledo Bend, each of the 10 anglers who reached the Championship Round did so by using forward-facing sonar to target pelagic bass that were chasing schools of shad. And just about all of them did so the same way: wielding a soft-plastic minnow on a jighead with light line. Like it or not, this is the new age of bass fishing; even on a lake known for giants, spinning rods ruled.

Here’s a complete look at how the Top 10 anglers caught their fish in the first BPT event of the season.

1. Dustin Connell — 112-4

Dustin Connell used a pair of CrushCity soft plastics to rack up 112 pounds, 4 ounces during the Championship Round en route to his fifth Bass Pro Tour win. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

After spending his week covering as much water as possible, Connell finally found the winning school in a pocket between two major creek arms. He’d checked the area during the Qualifying Round, but with the water clarity on Toledo Bend changing rapidly — clearing up in this pocket while getting muddier farther down the lake — something told him to check it out again during the Championship Round.

The result was an epic final period, which saw Connell catch 20 bass for 58-6 in two hours. He did most of his damage during the final period on a Rapala CrushCity Freeloader attached to a VMC Hybrid Swimbait Jighead. He switched up his jighead size throughout the week but leaned on a 5/16-ounce version during his late flurry. He also used a prototype CrushCity plastic that is scheduled for release this summer at ICAST. Connell wouldn’t disclose much about the bait but did share its name: the Mooch Minnow.

2. Spencer Shuffield — 68-2

Spencer Shuffield showed off his forward-facing sonar skills all week. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

After blasting more than 100 pounds in the Knockout Round, Shuffield’s fish moved on the final day and he could never quite replicate his success. Still, he climbed to second place in the final period and proved his forward-facing sonar prowess all week.

Shuffield did his Damiki rigging with a 3.5-inch Strike King Baby Z-Too on a 1/4-ounce tungsten jighead from Queen Tackle. He threw the bait on a 7-foot-3, medium-light Ark Reinforcer spinning rod spooled with 15-pound Yo-Zuri SuperBraid to a 12-pound Yo-Zuri SuperFluoro leader.

3. Drew Gill — 66-8

Drew Gill introduced himself to his fellow Bass Pro Tour competitors by finishing third in his debut event. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

With a third-place finish in his first Bass Pro Tour event, the 21-year-old Gill showed that his forward-facing sonar skills can measure up against the best in the world. Like just about everyone else, he caught the fish he beamed with a jighead minnow, sticking with a 4-inch Jerk Minnow from Big Bite Baits on a 3/8-ounce ball head. He believes the bait’s keeled belly gives it better movement than others when reeled and twitched.

Gill threw his minnow offering on a 7-foot-6, medium-light Ark Invoker Tour Series rod with a new Ark Gravity spinning reel.

4. Jacob Wheeler — 60-15

Jacob Wheeler used the Freeloader he designed to make yet another Championship Round, making it 21 Top 10s in his past 28 BPT events. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Wheeler rotated between different minnow-style baits and jigheads, catching most of his weight on either a Freeloader or Mooch Minnow from CrushCity. He added Bait-Pop to the plastics and affixed them to VMC Hybrid Swimbait Jigheads in a variety of sizes — anywhere from 1/8-ounce to 5/8-ounce depending on the depth of the fish he was targeting. However, he mostly relied on 3/16-, 1/4- and 5/16-ounce heads.

Wheeler dove into a bit more detail about his bait selection, saying he preferred the Freeloader in more stained water and the Mooch Minnow when visibility increased. The 8-pounder he caught during the opening minutes of the first day of qualifying ate the prototype bait.

“In the cleaner water, where those fish could really see, profile seemed to matter a little bit more, and I still caught them on a Freeloader sometimes, but then there were times that they would shy away from it because they were eating on such small threadfin, and that was when I would utilize a Mooch Minnow,” Wheeler said. “It’s a smaller profile, minnow-style bite that has a little tail towards the back that has a really high-frequency kick to it. It doesn’t have a lot of drag to it, so it’s really a natural presentation. You can reel it, you can shake it, and it just gives the fish a little bit of a different look.”

When throwing jigheads that were 3/8 ounce or lighter, Wheeler used a 7-foot, medium spinning rod from his Jacob Wheeler Signature Series with Duckett Fishing. For 1/2- or 5/8-ounce offerings, he switched to the 7-1, medium model in his new Jacob Wheeler Select line. He said the latter rod has slightly more backbone and a slower tip, which made it better for working heavier baits. He paired both rods to Shimano Vanford 2500 spinning reels spooled with 8-pound Sufix NanoBraid to 10-pound Sufix Advance Fluorocarbon leaders.

5. Zack Birge — 60-3

Zack Birge veered slightly from the rest of the Top 10, relying on a jerkbait rather than a jighead minnow. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

Birge was the lone member of the Top 10 to buck the jighead minnow trend. While he, too, used forward-facing sonar to target suspended bass feeding on shad, he went with the old-school (as in, like, 2022) approach of catching those fish with a jerkbait.

Birge mixed it up a bit, but his primary bait was a 3DB Jerkbait 110 Deep from Yo-Zuri in the ghost pearl shad color. He threw it on a Slasher rod from Alpha Angler — a 6-10, medium, fast model — paired with an Ark Gravity 7 reel, which he spooled with 10-pound Yo-Zuri T7 Fluorocarbon. On the final day, Birge also boated a few scorable bass with a paddletail swimbait on a ball head.

6. Martin Villa — 60-3

Even though he had to borrow some jigheads, Martin Villa started his rookie season on the Bass Pro Tour strong, finishing sixth at Toledo Bend. Photo by Rob Matsuura.

Villa caught some fish on a drop-shot and a weightless soft-plastic jerkbait during practice. But it didn’t take him long to see that the jighead minnow would be tough to beat last week. So, he borrowed some 3/16- and 1/4-ounce Big Bite Baits Swimmer Heads from Michael Neal and paired them with Jackall Rhythm Wag soft jerkbaits. He said bait color didn’t really matter as long as it had a white or pearl belly.

Villa wielded a Douglas XMatrix 704F spinning rod with 10-pound braid main line to a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader.

7. Alton Jones Jr. — 50-10

Another forward-facing sonar whiz, Alton Jones Jr. has now finished 11th or better in seven of his past eight BPT events. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

After trying to make a deeper bite work early in the event, Jones wound up following the same program as the rest of the Top 10. He fished a 4-inch Geecrack Revival Shad on either a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce jighead depending on the depth. He threw the bait on a 7-foot, 1-power Kistler Helium spinning rod with 10-pound Cortland Master Braid as his main line and a 10-pound Cortland XTR Fluorocarbon leader.

8. Justin Cooper — 48-6

Louisiana native Justin Cooper avoided the home-lake curse, making it to the Championship Round and finishing eighth on Toledo Bend. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

A Toledo Bend local and guide, Cooper said he wasn’t surprised by the dominance of the Damiki rig. Given how the lake’s bass behave in the winter — schooling offshore and chasing shad — and the effectiveness of the technique, he figured the only way to compete would be to get on board.

That said, Cooper added a bit of a twist by throwing his minnow baits on a baitcasting setup. He used a 6-9, medium Lew’s Custom Lite rod and a matching Custom Lite reel with a 7.5:1 gear ratio. Cooper said he felt more comfortable with a baitcast rod in his hands, and he had no problem throwing his 3/8-ounce Owner jighead with it. He spooled the reel with 10-pound Sunline FC Sniper. As far as bait, a V&M Vertical Shad in violet shad caught all his fish during the event.

More so than his tackle setup, Cooper stressed that his Garmin LiveScope, which he powers with a Dakota Lithium 135 amp-hour battery, was the biggest key to his success. “That was the key,” he said. “Without it, none of it’s possible.”

9. Jesse Wiggins — 42-11

Jesse Wiggins advanced to his third Championship Round in as many BPT events with a ninth-place finish on Toledo Bend. Photo by Rob Matsuura.

Sponsored by Jackall, Wiggins had a large enough stash of the elusive Jackall DriftFry 4.0 to carry him to a third straight Championship Round appearance. The bait’s molded-in lip and webbed tail give it a unique action compared to other mid-strolling minnows. He attached the bait to a 1/4-ounce jighead.

Wiggins used a 7-foot, medium-heavy St. Croix Legend Xtreme spinning rod with the new SEVIIN GX 2500 spinning reel. He spooled that up with 20-pound Seaguar Smackdown braid and used Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon in either 8-pound or 10-pound test for his leader material.

10. Matt Becker — 28-11

Reigning Fishing Clash Angler of the Year Matt Becker used the Scope Shad to notch another Top 10 at Toledo Bend. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

You probably guessed Becker’s technique. He made his jighead minnow setup with a Queen Tackle Live Sonar head in either 1/4- or 3/8-ounce sizes, attaching a Yamamoto Scope Shad to it. He primarily used a color of his own design, Becker’s grape juice, but also mixed in sight flash and chartreuse blue.