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Z-Man Baits Dominate Pro Kayak Derby

Jody Queen wins Hobie Bass Open Series on the Susquehanna River

It’s undeniably big water, but Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River might also be the coolest place on earth to stalk smallmouth bass via kayak. During and after the recent Hobie Bass Open Series (BOS) tournament—July 31 to August 1— a majority of the 139 kayak-fishing competitors came away in agreement: This is one special place for smalljaws.

Less certain, however, were the competitive paddlers’ notions on where to begin searching for said bronze bass. “The Susquehanna is an awesome fishery, but on a river that’s up to a mile wide, it can be hard to know where to cast first,” noted eventual tourney winner, Jody Queen. “You’ve got dozens of islands out there, and each one features entire networks of little critter hideouts created by boulders, grassbeds and fallen timber. Throw in all the countless subtle current seams and pushes, which create conveyor belts of bass food, and things can get interesting.” 

Further confounding the fish-pattern process were decisions regarding which baits to bring and which ones to leave in the truck—a key strategic maneuver given limited kayak storage space. For Z-Man pros Queen, Drew Gregory and Ryan Lambert, however, the choice distilled down to a handful of tournament tested gear: Gimme a couple Z-Man blades and few bags of ElaZtech® softbaits, and I’m good.

Queen’s day-one smallmouths ate a finesse-rigged Bang StickZ.

Queen, who’s hails from West Virginia but calls the Susquehanna his home river away from home, wielded his usual one-two punch of tournament-winning baits—a ChatterBait JackHammer™ and a shaky head-rigged Bang StickZ™. “Spent a lot of time on day-one probing laydowns around islands. I pitched the shaky head near high-percentage woodcover spots,” explained Queen, who won the same Susquehanna BOS event in 2020. “The Bang StickZ required me to slow down and fish with finesse. It produced some good bites that first day. But I was constantly noticing bass blowing up on baitfish, which presented the perfect opportunity to get aggressive with the ChatterBait.”

Focused on willow grass beds, Queen swam a 3/8-ounce bluegill-pattern JackHammer and 3” MinnowZ™ trailer through the grassy danger zones. “The Gold Rush MinnowZ pattern just looks like it belongs in that environment,” observed Queen. “Lots of suckers, chubs and perch that seem to have that same amber gold color. The MinnowZ also has a big round boot tail that displaces a lot of water.” 

Starting at the tips of islands, Queen worked the lure fast to trigger angry-aggressive smallmouths. “Often, I’d bulge the blade in the surface film, similar to a wakebait. Most of these spots held just 6- and 18-inches of water; super skinny stuff. The biggest fish came off the up-current sides of grass beds. You looked for a ‘push,’ formed by current contacting the shallow structure. Once I worked the tips, I’d drift down either side of the island and cast the current seams. I also worked small clumps of eelgrass growing in slightly deeper gaps. You’d just make out these dark spots in the water, indicating grass, and often, a bass would be waiting. 

Ryan “Lunchmoney” Lambert’s tournament big bass ate a ChatterBait JackHammer. (Image courtesy of Hobie)

“The water was so stained you wouldn’t see the strike. Instead, you feel the blade go dead and then hit something that felt like a brick wall—that’s a river smallmouth in a nutshell. They’re absolute pit-bulls in that current. Tons of 16 to 18 inchers here, and plenty of 20s, too. Just a blast to fish this river.”

Adding up to another big win, Queen caught, measured and released five bass for 91-inches on day-one and 92.5 on day-two. He edged nineteen-year-old Ewing Minor by just ¾ of an inch. Minor, who currently leads the Hobie BOS Angler of the Year race, said he caught every one of his big bronze bass on a 3/8-ounce ChatterBait JackHammer in locations similar to Queen’s. 

Further proving the power of the ChatterBait for big smallmouths, Z-Man pro Ryan “Lunchmoney” Lambert lipped big bass of the event—a 20.5-inch monster with a ½-ounce white JackHammer and white RaZor ShadZ™ stuck in its craw. 

Gregory’s customized, double-skirted SlingBladeZ spinnerbait enticed plenty of big bites.

Logging 181 total inches of Susquehanna smallmouths, Drew Gregory earned a solid third place paycheck, bolstered by an impressive 92.75-inches of bass on day two. “I started out fishing wood along the banks and hooked a giant on a spinnerbait, but lost the fish in the current,” recalls Gregory, a perennial winner on multiple kayak tours. “I found that by bending the arm of the ¾-ounce SlingBladeZ™ down toward the hook, you could fish the bait a lot faster. Also added a second skirt for extra bulk and visual appeal. The Spot Remover color really shined in the dirty water.” 

Gregory finished his customized spinnerbait with a StreakZ 3.75—a finesse-size fluke bait with a subtle split tail. “That size trailer was perfect because its tail extended just an inch beyond the skirt, coercing bass to bite the hook. When you’d burn the spinnerbait, the StreakZ’ split tail kicked and fluttered a lot like an escaping minnow.”

A spinnerbait tactician, Gregory believes a Z-Man SlingBladeZ often works better than a ChatterBait, with numerous tournament wins to prove it. “River bass respond beautifully to flash, and the lure’s willow blades maximized my ability to reel the lure as fast as possible, while maintaining ample flash and vibration. To me, a well-designed spinnerbait like the SlingBladeZ  hooks and holds fish exceptionally well–even better than a ChatterBait.”

An elite kayak designer, Gregory also credited his Crescent Kayak CK1 Venture, a super stable 11-foot fishing platform. “The Crescent’s efficient frame allowed me to paddle four miles upstream each day,” he said. “The boat’s stability let me stand and fish whenever I needed to get a better perspective. And its shallow draft let me sneak in and back out of real skinny water—places other kayaks couldn’t go—with no problem at all.

“In lots of these shallow zones, bass were busting the surface almost non-stop. But you’d go through long funk periods with bluebird skies. And then, several times throughout the day, you’d feel the weather change and the bass would go on a tear for little five minutes bursts. Those brief activity windows produced several of my key bass on day-two, including a 19-incher and several 18-pluses.”

Approaching the final few Hobie BOS events of the season—including the upcoming Mississippi River tourney in La Crosse, Wisconsin—Gregory trails Minor in the Angler of the Year standings by mere points. But don’t overlook Queen; or Z-Man kayak star Kristine Fischer, who’s always on the verge of an epic bass event. Regardless of who’s name highlights the leaderboard, the odds are sure to favor Z-Man for the win.

About Z-Man Fishing Products: A dynamic Charleston, South Carolina based company, Z-Man Fishing Products has melded leading edge fishing tackle with technology for nearly three decades. Z-Man has long been among the industry’s largest suppliers of silicone skirt material used in jigs, spinnerbaits and other lures. Creator of the Original ChatterBait®, Z-Man is also the renowned innovators of 10X Tough ElaZtech softbaits, fast becoming the most coveted baits in fresh- and saltwater. Z-Man is one of the fastest-growing lure brands worldwide.

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Source: Huntinglife