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How to catch bass on spinnerbaits

Spinnerbaits are doubtless one of the weirdest but most effective lures available. DALE JOHNSON details how using spinnerbaits saved the day during a recent bass trip and also describes how these lures work and why they are so effective.

ON the way to my latest trip to Glenbawn Dam, in the Hunter region of NSW, my mind was racing with the thoughts of all the flash new top dollar lures I had to test. I couldn’t wait to hit the water to nail some impoundment bass. Just the thought of all the features of these new lures which would give me almost super human fish catching abilities was making me water at the mouth …

Of course, as always happens when you fill your head with such thoughts, things never roll that smoothly. We arrived at Glenbawn to find it cold and drizzling with a two-day forecast of wind that would make tornado alley look appealing.

After going through my little tackle box of tricks, we spent half a day fishing a range of new hard-bodied crankbaits, lipless minnows and blades. I even fished a couple of new plastics I’d recently found. The prevailing weather conditions meant, however, that we had to fish the way the weather dictated. Strong winds had made any open areas too rough to effectively fish. That left two options: fish the few bays totally sheltered from the wind, or fish into the opposite bays with the wind at our backs.

If I have the choice of wind or no wind I know my first spot to try will always be in no wind. That was exactly the plan. It didn’t take long to find that there was very little action in those calm bays, as nothing that we threw was able to turn up any fish.  On to plan B – opposite bays with the wind at our backs. After assessing a few bays we quickly came across a way to let the wind work to our advantage, letting it push the boat into the bay as we worked the sloping edges. Narrow bays that cut into the landscape with edges running parallel with the wind for a few hundred metres proved to be the hot spot. After running through all the flash lures in the box we eventually hit paydirt by running a lipless vibe out from the edge.

The fish were hugging tight to the bottom and only seemed to respond to the slowest of rolls which then posed a new problem – weed. With the weed exceptionally thick in some areas it was almost impossible to run a crankbait or vibe down the bank without getting it fouled up, so it was time to try something new. After diving back into the tackle boxes it was straight to a spinnerbait to solve the dilemma. This proved to be the turning point.

We’d cracked the code, at least for a couple of days, of what the fish were up to. The strong winds saw them hanging in the windward bays, obviously feeding around the edges on food that had been pushed into the bay by the wind. The fish weren’t overly active and keeping the lure rolling slowly along the bottom, but also keeping it free from fouling up in the weed, was the trick to enticing bites.

Fishing light 1/4 and 3/8 oz spinnerbaits proved to be the ideal size for the situation. A slow sink rate and slow retrieve, at times almost “hopping” them along the bottom through the weeds, was exactly what the fish were after and it wasn’t long before we were seeing a fish every 10 or 15 minutes, which we were pretty happy with given the conditions.

Now I’m a bit of a tackle devotee and I love the prospect of fishing with new gear and new technologies but there’s something humbling about these sort of situations, when you’re pushed right back to the roots of it all and find yourself using one of the oldest tricks in the book to catch fish, and fishing spinnerbaits for bass is the perfect example. So let’s explore the good old spinnerbait.

In just about any situation, location and time, a spinnerbait will quite often prove to be just as effective as any other lure you throw. They’re easy to cast, have lots of different designs and features and are very snag resistant whilst still retaining great fish hooking ability. There’s a lot more to these kinked bits of wire than a lot of people realise and if you want to get them to work really effectively, there are a few things you need to think about.

I’ve spoken to a lot of dedicated spinnerbait fishos and heard a number of thoughts as to the most important component of a spinnerbait. Let’s start with the blades. There are dozens of different blade shapes, sizes and configurations out there, but the main models fall into two commonly used shapes. The most recognisable is the “willow” blade. The willow is a long thin blade that tapers down to a pointed end. It looks like a willow leaf, hence the name. This blade shape is ideal for reaching fish in deeper water as it has less resistance and allows for a faster sink rate.  It is also effective when fish are active, as a faster retrieve will often trigger a bite. Don’t be fooled into thinking that features like less resistance and fast sink rates are always a good thing as the opposite can be the case. 

The next main style is the “Colorado”, a shorter, much rounder blade which is commonly the “secondary” blade on a spinnerbait, usually found half way up the arm. The Colorado will make a lot more vibration and flash in the water than the willow and is ideal for fishing dirtier water or darker areas where extra vibration and flash will help fish find the lure.

Unlike the willow, the Colorado is a slower fishing blade as the larger movement and vibration means more resistance in the water. This is quite often a real bonus as a slower retrieve and leaving the lure in a fish’s face for longer will have a better chance of enticing the strike from a shutdown fish. The Colorado blade is also great when you want a spinnerbait to “helicopter”. This is when you let it sink straight down and allow the blades to spin like a helicopter as the lure sinks vertically; an ideal presentation for fishing structures such as cliff faces and standing timber.

Another blade quite common in Australia is the Indiana blade. The Indiana is a mixture of the popular willow and Colorado blades, featuring a longer, thinner profile like the willow but a rounded, teardrop style finish like the Colorado. This creates a very versatile blade encompassing features of both other blades. The thinner, longer profile allows for less resistance and a faster presentation than the Colorado, while the rounded finish still produces slightly more flash and vibration than a willow.

There are a number of other blades that are also frequently used like the Oklahoma, which is similar to the willow. From there they range right through to far more extravagant blades like the Hatch and Whiptail, which feature swept ends to create much more erratic movements in the water and cause a lot more vibration. 

The trusty original willow and Colorado variations are productive fish catching tools, so I won’t go into too much detail about the others.

Before I give the blade topic a rest there is one more thing to look at – colour. Straight silver and gold are the two colours you’ll mostly see on a spinnerbait but there are plenty of other options available like copper and painted blades. Once you start talking paint, you open up a whole new world as you can get absolutely any colour and pattern combination you can possibly think of. Sticking to the basics, however, silver is great for a subtle approach like in clear water or the middle of the day with a lot of light. Gold will produce maximum flash in murky or deep water, or at low light times.

Now you know what to look for in a blade to suit what you want to do, what about the body and skirt? The first thing to consider here is the colour. Spinnerbaits are great for being a modifiable lure, blades can be swapped and changed to suit what you want and so can the skirts. If you really want to, you can make any colour mixture that tickles your fancy.

There are, however, a number of fairly standard colour options that work a treat. Bright fluoro and chartreuse colours are great for extra visibility in dirty water and solid colours like black and dark purple also work well as they create a solid silhouette for fish to see. Colour combos like black & purple and black & red have been around since the beginning and they are perfect examples of great dirty water colours. If you’re fishing much clearer water, go for the natural approach. Very light translucent greens, browns, tans, reds and clear skirts are all ideal colours to fish in clear conditions. Having said that, don’t be afraid to throw a solid dark colour every now and then, especially if fish aren’t responding to a natural colour.

Now to the weight of the lure. I’m sure the first things you will think about when it comes to weight are casting and sinking. These are two key factors when selecting your spinnerbait. You will need to determine what sort of weight is going to best suit your depth and fishing conditions. A light spinnerbait is perfect for shallow water and subtle approaches, as well as fishing a very slow presentation through deeper water. Heavier spinnerbaits will sink faster and allow you to fish deeper water more effectively but are also very handy if fishing fast flowing shallow water as you can sink them down a couple of feet quickly before the current sweeps them away from where you need them to be.

With a bigger weight comes a larger body and this can be a setback when you’re looking for a subtle approach. There are, however, some new designs on the market which ingeniously hide the bulk of the weight within the skirt rather than all in front of the skirt like traditional styles. This allows for a slightly heavier weight while retaining a smaller body profile – very clever.

Now that the obvious is out of the way there is something else to think about when it comes to weight – stability.  A spinnerbait’s blades and weight need to match up well to keep the lure stable in the water. A rule of thumb is that the bigger the blade, the more weight you will need to keep it stable. If you were to take large blades typically found on spinnerbaits designed for cod, for example, and put them on a ¼ oz spinnerbait designed for bass, the weight wouldn’t be enough to stabilise the lure. In most cases you’ll find the lure will still track straight in the water but the blades will want to drag and the body and skirt will pull forward, giving the lure a “laidback” stance in the water. The reverse will happen with a very heavy spinnerbait with only tiny blades on it: the body will drag and the blades will pull forward creating a “hunched over” look. The body weight to blade size ratio is fairly forgiving and you don’t have to be a scientist to get the right set up, but if you go to extremes you will find your spinnerbait with a strange pose in the water. The good thing about spinnerbaits is there isn’t a single one that isn’t set up ready to go straight out of the pack, so you aren’t going to encounter any of these problems matching weights and blades until the day you need to replace something – hopefully a bent blade from a great catch!

Now let’s talk variations. The first is what’s commonly known as a “buzzbait”. These have the same design features of a normal spinnerbait, with one key difference – the blade. A buzzbait’s blade is a large “prop” style blade, which spins in a single direction and churns up the water as you crank the lure across the surface, creating a lot of noise and leaving a great bubble trail. A buzzbait will work sub surface but their home is on the surface, so you will need a consistently brisk retrieve to keep them where they are happy.

The second spinnerbait variation is a lure I am very fond of – the chatterbait.  A chatterbait is a hybrid of a skirt tail jig and a spinnerbait. Imagine a spinnerbait with the entire wire frame replaced with a single flat blade that rocks back and forth when retrieved and you have a chatterbait. They produce a similar vibration and flash as spinnerbaits and also retain great features, like being very snag resistant, but come in a smaller package. You don’t have as much freedom in blade selection with a chatterbait, although there are some wild designs available featuring wire arms and extra blades coming out in every direction!

So, is there anything else? Of course there is, what are you going to hook the fish with! When it comes to hooks the main design is a single upturned hook. This design is what gives a spinnerbait snag resistance. With only a single hook hidden in that bulk of skirt and tucked away below a couple of spinning blades, it is easy to see that at times hook up rates can drop a little. If this is the case, adding a “stinger” or “trailer” hook behind the main hook can turn a bump into a solid hook up, although the lure will become more prone to snagging. It is very simple to add a stinger to your spinnerbait and there are a number of hooks on the market designed just for that purpose. The Owner spinnerbait trailer hook and Gamakatsu spinnerbait trailer hook are good examples. Gamakatsu also make another handy one, the Siwash fly hook, which is  traditionally used for tying large saltwater flies but also makes a fantastic trailer hook. Slide your stinger on and add a small lumo bead to stop it from slipping off the main hook.

Another worthwhile modification is to add a soft plastic trailer. A paddle tail plastic or curl tail grub rigged on the main hook to poke just out the back of the skirt can be a great extra attractant.  Get some spinnerbaits in your kit, you’ll be amazed at how versatile they are.

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