Advanced How-to – Throw Darts When it Gets Tough

Power Pole

by Dan O’Sullivan

Four Sizes of Darter Heads

Four Sizes of Darter Heads (Top to Bottom) 1/4, 3/16, 1/8 and 1/16 – ounce

We are entering one of the more difficult times of the year to consistently put bass in the boat.  Things are changing in almost every region of the country.  The fisheries are at some stage of transitioning through the turnover, into the late fall or even icing over in some areas of the country.  Things can be flat out tough.

With my fishing experiences being based in the West largely, I’m fortunate to get the chance to fish year-round.  We’ve spent many days on the water when it has been cold, blustery, rainy and on some bodies of water, I’ve fished in hail and snow.  Of course, those days were during tournaments, but even with fun fishing, I will go when cold weather base layers and Gore Tex are required.

I have been fishing since I was a kid, but I was only able to participate in tournaments and the hardcore bass fishing scene after my college baseball career was over.  At 23 years old, I had career ending shoulder surgery in the middle of November, then came home for Thanksgiving and was fishing nine days after shoulder surgery on the California Delta with the guy I fished the first couple of tournament season with.  Suffice it to say, I taught myself to cast and pitch left-handed in my dorm room; but, I was less than effective.

I went back to school following Thanksgiving and finished the semester, took finals and moved home to Northern California.  It seems like it didn’t take me but five minutes to sign up for my first tournament; a two-day Pro-Am on Folsom Lake near my home.  I signed up as a non-boater

Northern California Pro Dave Rush Fishes a Darter Head at Lake Oroville

Northern California Pro Dave Rush Fishes a Darter Head at Lake Oroville – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

and spent as much time on the water as I could with friends who had boats and were practicing for the event.

This is where I learned about throwing darter heads and soft plastic worms, leaches and other baits.

What is a Darter Head?
A darter head is like any other lead jighead poured on a hook.  But, instead of Shaky style heads or ball heads, gopher heads or mushroom heads, which are largely round, a darter head is bullet shaped.  The advantage to a darter head is that it tends to create a wandering, spiraling action on the fall, instead of a straight lift and fall of a round head.  Unlike Shaky style heads, the darter head allows for an open hook, because the worm is threaded onto the head and not rigged Texas Style.

Most of the darter heads I have fished come with a 2/0 or 3/0 90-degree round bend hook on them.  While that is the norm, there are times with spotted bass and smallmouth that a smaller, size 1 hook actually increases the hook to land ratio of the finicky fish.  As a rule, I always start with the larger hook, then if I get a few short strikes, I switch to the versions with smaller hooks.

The Two Versions of Darter Heads

The Two Versions of 1/8-ounce Darter Heads one with a 2/0 hook and a smaller one with a size 1 hook – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

I rig these heads with four to six-inch soft plastic worms, with small creature baits, minnows, grubs and small swimbaits.  These baits give me the flexibility to present a variety of baits to bass that might appeal to them no matter what their current forage preference might be.

I most often toss these on six-pound fluorocarbon line, or a 10-15-pound-test braided line with an eight to 10 foot length of six-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.  I prefer a 7′ to 7’3″ medium action spinning rod and medium sized freshwater spinning reel.

I choose the size I am going to throw based on the conditions.  Of course I prefer to throw heavier versions because it allows me to get the lure down faster and keep bottom contact.  However, I have found times that even in deep water, I needed to throw something fairly light in order to get bites.  I carry four sizes of heads; 1/16, 1/8, 3/16 and 1/4-ounce models are always in the boat.  I let the fish tell me what they need, but generally focus on the 1/8 and 3/16-ounce sizes as a starting point.

Where to Fish the Darter Head
My first experience with the darter head was at Folsom Lake outside Sacramento, Calif.  My friend who had introduced me to tournament fishing ran in a circle that included the owners, sales manager and pro staffers of Galaxie Marine in Auburn, Calif.  We fished around the owner, and we spent most of our day throwing 1/16-ounce darter heads with small, three-inch reaper style baits

A Variety of Darter Head Baits

A Variety of Baits can be used on Darter Head – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

to the rip-rap of the dam, and we managed to pick up a few fish here and there.

After that, they became a staple in my tackle box.  I started experimenting with them on long points, rocky bluff-type walls, bridge pilings and rockpiles offshore.   Because they are an

open hook design, darter heads are not particularly effective when fished around brush or grass.  In those areas, I would turn to a Texas Rigged worm on a sliding slip sinker.

The darter head is excellent for water that is clear, to moderately stained.  In water that is too dirty, it tends to get lost in the water color.

The main retrieve is to utilize a subtle, drag and shake technique; much like you would a jig in cold water.   Keeping contact with the bottom allows the worm to wiggle slightly while the

head crawls along the bottom.  While I have used this technique for years, it is also the type of retrieve I could easily use with a round ball head style jighead.

The Author with a Four Pound Folsom Lake Spotted Bass caught with a Darter Head

The Author with a Four Pound Folsom Lake Spotted Bass caught with a Darter Head – photo by Austin Yancey

On the fall is where the darter head shines.  Having the ability to slightly hop the worm, allowing it to fall back to the bottom creates an enticing, gliding / spiraling fall that draws strikes.  I like to lift the head off of the bottom, shaking while I do, then let the head fall on a semi-slack line giving it a chance to glide or spiral, while maintaining enough feel to detect a slight bump on the fall.

I also like to use the darter head on vertical structure like bluffs and bridge pilings.  I cast the lure up to the structure, and let it fall as close to the wall or piling as I can, then wait for it to stop.  if I pick up and there is weight on the other end, I set the hook because it is more than likely a fish on the other end.

When hooksetting is important that you not overpower the setup.  I tend to merely reel set by speeding up my reel handle to take the slack out of the line and penetrate the hook.  Using a snap hookset will likely break the line with this light gear, especially if the fish on the other end is a quality one.

I tend to use the backreeling technique with a darter head.  The line is light, and I don’t want to suffer a break off from a stuck drag.  Also, because this is an open hook jig, I want to keep the fish from coming to the side of the boat too quickly where it can start thrashing and throw the hook.

I have caught largemouth and spotted bass over five pounds on the darter head, and know of many trophy fish in each subspecies that have been taken on the setup.  However, it is truly a great numbers presentation, and can make for a fun day on the water, or a great way to fill out a tournament limit.

The darter head was one of the first lures I learned when preparing for competition here in the West.  I have a true love for it, and have taught many people to love bass fishing with it.  Give it a try, and share it with someone you want to introduce to the sport, it can hook them for life.