SELECTING THE CORRECT SPINNER BAIT
by Jim Porter
It is a firm rule of bass fishing that the depth (closely followed by the speed) at which a lure operates is the primary criteria for proper selection. I doubt anyone would contest the selection of a shallow crank plug to fish a submerged rock pile 20 feet below the surface as being improper. And, yet, we do not seem to pay that same 'attention to detail' to the selection of one of our most popular artificial offerings, the spinner bait.
For example, think back to the last time someone in your bass club told the group that the fish were hitting spinner baits. Do you recall the questions that immediately followed? 15 out of 20 members asked about the lure color, with four other queries most probably directed towards the blade size (but, only after they had heard the answer regarding color!). The 20th question came from the quiet guy in the third row, and it concerned the depth where the fish were taken and, to a lesser degree, the type and style spinner bait.
For a moment, it seemed like a good question, considering the fellow is one heck of a fisherman. But, then, spinner baits are spinner baits. Right? And, aren't they always fished shallow, around cover? Yep, no need to pay attention to the answer to that one.
We have, again, just come face to face with the major factor responsible for the creation and sustainment of MEDIOCRE FISHERMEN-the failure to ask the proper question, which determines the precise information, required to more catch bass.
If someone says that the fish are really hitting well in famous Belly-Button Bayou (due apologies to Harry and Charlie), there is one single question, the answer to which can tell the questioner about all he needs to know. That query has nothing to do with lure color, brand name, size, rattles, whistles or bells. It is, simply, the depth at which the bass were taken. For that quiet guy at the bass club meeting, the answer regarding the depth of the fish, coupled with the current seasonal conditions, gave him a fine picture of just how to go and catch a limit. In addition, the depth and season information pretty well narrows the answer to the other half of his question, that being the type and style of lure.
An artificial lure is a 'tool' with which to do a job. Each one normally has a specific application. For example, most crank plugs have lips which generally dictate their operating depths. One may run 3-5 feet on a moderate retrieve, while another will remain in the 8-10 foot range. If you change structure depth, you must, for maximum effectiveness, change to the proper depth crank plug. A plastic worm, on the other hand, has no depth restriction, but is definitely more adaptable to dense cover than the plug would be. A quarter ounce, tandem-blade spinner bait would be great around shallow brush, but a dismal failure on the bottom in deep water.
Hammers are not the tools to saw a 2X4 board in half, and screwdrivers were not designed to drive nails very well. Zara Spooks were not made for Denny Brauer to flip along brush lines.
The point to be made is one that all top professional bass anglers fully understand and stress-lure selection is a very deliberate process, involving significant detail. Rods, reels, and lines do not catch bass. The lure does that. If the lure is not properly selected, chances for fishing success will be slim.
And, selection criteria is just as stringent for the spinner bait as for any other artificial. The angler who fully understands this, to include the rationale involved, catches more fish. However, with all the different 'types' and 'styles' of spinner baits available today, selection within that lure family often becomes a headache.
As we progress further into this discussion, we need to be on a common ground regarding certain terminology. When we speak of a 'type' of spinner bait, we are referring to its very basic manufactured shape or style, things that generally cannot be changed. These include factors such as the positioning of the blade(s) in relation to the hook, the size or shape of the overall lure or its components and, in some cases, the manner in which the line must be affixed. In most instances, the 'type' discriminators affect the basic application characteristics of the lure, such as use primarily suited for the surface, mid-range depths, bottom presentations, or very heavy cover. For illustration, we may note that a 'safety pin' type buzz bait is strictly for surface use, while the in-line type lure (such as the Snagless Sally) has its applications both on the surface and below.
The use of the word 'style', on the other hand, implies something entirely different. For example, 'style' can involve the number or size of the blades, the type of skirt material, or that favorite arguing point of all bass anglers, the color. Other examples of 'style' factors are the single versus the tandem bladed lure, the fullness or length of the skirt, a #3 versus a #5 blade, etc. In other words, these are minor features, which can usually be easily changed or modified to suit the situation.
The safety pin type spinner bait is the most widely accepted and used in the bass-fishing World, particularly in the southern United States. It is highly versatile and can be fished in a number of ways and in most any cover. However, it is not well suited for areas of thick surface vegetation. It is a stable running lure, provided the blade size is not too large for the overall lure weight. Usually, a tendency to run on its side or to roll can be corrected by realigning the wire arm holding the blade. If this doesn't fully correct the problem, the retrieve speed or the blade size has to be reduced.
The more popular top water buzz baits are constructed in the safety pin design, using a propeller blade. However, this is actually the least efficient and effective of buzz bait designs. It often does not run correctly, catches a lot of loose vegetation, and has a poor hooking percentage. It will not operate well over the top of thick, surface vegetation. (Refer to the 'in-line' type further on.)
The safety pin spinner bait does, however, have one application for which it is the only type suited-that being deep and slow bottom fishing. This is often the way to a limit of winter bass and involves a one-half to one ounce lure with a single #5 to #7 blade. It is effectively worked down the face of a bluff in jig fashion or pulled slowly along the bottom near a major drop-off. The single blade style would be the best choice.
The 'type' we choose to call 'L-shaped spinner baits are actually a group of hybrids using selected characteristics of a number of lures. Examples of this bait are the Bass Pro Shop's "Spinner Jig", Strike King's "Jig-n-Spin" and Lunker Lure's "Spring Bil". Generally, these lures are lead-head jigs with a straight piece of wire molded into, and protruding out of, the head. At the end of the wire are a swivel and a spinner blade. The primary difference in this type and the 'safety pin' is that the line is tied to the lead-head, rather than at a bend of the wire frame.
We found the L-shapes spinners to be a somewhat unstable, unless the retrieve was slow. However, they have a very enticing action that does attract bass well. This 'type' spinner bait should be used around sparse, open-water cover, in that it fouls easily in grass and hangs up in brush. If a long, narrow willow leaf blade is used (this allows the lure to sink in a more controlled and stable manner), this bait has proven productive for flipping. But, again, it hangs up easily.
The 'in-line' spinner bait is probably the most underrated bass lure around. Although the original 'in-line' Mepps spinners have caught more fish, of more types, and hold more records than all other lures combined, few bass anglers would even consider one as a tournament weapon. We appear to have a mind-set against this type of lure. I expect the reason to be that it just doesn't seem glamorous enough. Now, this perception does not exist in the northern portions of the country, and 'Mepps' is nearly a Holy word in Canada and Europe. If bass (smallmouth and largemouth), giant pike, muskie, or lunker trout are the targets of anglers in these parts of the world, the 'in-line' spinner is nearly always the first lure considered.
This is not to say that your average bass angler does not use the 'in-line' spinner bait, although he may have never equated it to the same family as the Mepps. The very best buzz baits are all of the 'in-line' design. One primary reason is that they can be fished right across the top of the thickest cover. In addition:
Possibly the world's bestseller, and certainly one of the most effective, is Bass Pro Shop's "Uncle Buck's Buzzer". Strike King's "Timber Spin" and "Timber Buzz" are two more good lures of this type.
- there is no stability problem
- the lure is virtually weedless
- and, the lure has a very high hooking percentage.
Of all the 'in-line spinner baits around, the Hildebrant "Snagless Sally" has to be considered the all-time classic. Sporting a Colorado blade, excellent weed-guards and a plastic skirt, the "Sally" is both a great surface and sub-surface lure. It is perfectly at home in the thickest of cover.
The 'in-line' spinner can be retrieved at any speed in the top water role, but requires a slow retrieve below the surface. A thin pork trailer, such as a 'bass strip', adds extra attractiveness to the lure.
Well, so much for 'types' of spinner baits. That part told us about general selection criteria for major applications. Now, let's get into some nitty-gritty detail of just how to really select a spinner bait for a specific purpose. To do this, we shall address selected 'style' features and their applications.
There are those who swear by tandem bladed spinner baits and those who definitely prefer a single blade. The only real difference is the amount of drag (resistance) created during the retrieve, although one can argue for the amount of flash. When intending to fish the spinner bait very shallow, or to just be dimpling the surface slightly, always opt for a tandem blade style. It will ride more shallow at a slower retrieve speed and with less requirement to hold the rod tip high. Plus, since this type presentation is usually related to shallow, thick cover areas, the longer arm associated with the tandem blades adds stability and guards against snags.
The dual arm spinner bait is a special purpose lure. The best example I know is the time-proven Shannon Spinner, with its hair body and small blades. This lure is the one to reach for when 'jungle fishing'. With its two wire arms guarding the hook, it will come through virtually anything. This 'style' is fished very slowly, very similar to swimming a worm along. A pork trailer makes this bait more effective.
The single bladed, short arm spinner bait is the usual choice of most anglers and it is the most versatile. It can be fished from top to bottom. Unless you intend to fish your spinner bait extremely shallow and slowly, use the single blade. It allows one to experiment with depth and speed, something which the tandem blade style does not do well.
The style of blade used on a spinner bait affects retrieve resistance and sound created. The cupped Colorado blade provides maximum drag and, therefore, allows more shallow fishing at a slower retrieve speed. It also generates a strong, 'thumping' sound as it spins. The plain Colorado blade (less the cup at the tip) has less resistance and a slightly less-intense sound.
On the far end of the shape scale we find the willow leaf blade. It has a much smaller drag (resistance) factor and allows the use of tandem blades (for extra reflective/flash surfaces) without having to fish the tandem bait quite so shallow. It addition, this blade shape creates a more pleasant 'whirring sound as it spins, rather than the deep throb of the Colorado style. We have found, through direct observations, that the relatively quiet willow leaf blade is much less likely to spook skittish bass than the other shapes.
Buzz bait blades come in two and three blade propeller styles, and in both metal and plastic. Our experience finds no appreciable difference in the number of blades or the materials used, versus bass-catching abilities. Also, we would opt for the metal blades, in that they withstand abuse better.
Blade size is a factor that can be varied to affect sound and retrieve resistance. Generally, we would stay with #5 blades, unless in exceptionally murky water. Then, one might consider moving up to the #7 size. The heavier sound created by the large blade provides the fish a manner in which to locate the lure.
There are exceptionally large spinner baits available on the market. The primary use would be to deter smaller bass by the sheer size of the lure. We have found this particularly useful on new lakes with massive concentrations of yearling fish, and on big Lake Okeechobee when out for only lunker Florida bass.
Blade finish can be particularly significant in helping to attract bass. While one purpose of the twirling blade is to generate sound, the primary purpose is for flash and attraction. During underwater observations of the various available blades on the market, it was found that the Strike King "Diamond Leaf" finish was a runaway for most visibility at a distance. Another Strike King finish, called a "prism bar", was a reasonable second.
Surprisingly, hammered finishes were found to be less visible than a plain surface. Silver and chrome were more visible than copper, and willow leaf blades had more flash and visibility than the oval, or Colorado, style. We expect that the latter finding may be due to the fact that the willow leaf rotates more rapidly than other blade shapes of a comparable size. Based on our findings, painted or non-reflective blades produce poorly and, therefore, are to be avoided.
When we speak of the wire blade-arm of a spinner being a selection factor, we are speaking only towards the 'Safety pin' type. The long arm style has some definite advantages in heavy cover areas, in that it provides maximum fouling and snag protection. The reverse of this benefit is that the long arm also prevents the bass, on some occasions, from getting to the hook. Because it acts as a longer lever arm, it also allows a given size blade to generate more vibration and sound. Tandem blades should only be used on long-arm spinner baits.
The short arm spinner bait has a number of good points. First, it provides a high degree of lure stability during the retrieve, allowing for a higher retrieve speed when necessary. It is also excellent for 'drop fishing' on bluff faces and for the 'yo-yo' retrieve smallmouths favor so much. Finally, it does not act to protect the hook from the bass.
Spinner bait bodies usually come with a lead head, a hook and some body dressing. That dressing may be in the form of a skirt, a soft plastic body, or a solid-bodied spoon.
The plastic skirt is the tradition style and most used by today's bass anglers. Whether the material is strand rubber or plastic does not seem to matter one bit to the bass. However, rubber does not hold up well, neither during use nor storage . So, we recommend plastic skirts.
For the past 12 to 15 years, a small cult has professed that a lurecannot be truly productive unless it has some type of rattle or noisemaker. Accordingly, crank plugs, plastic worms and even spinner baits have become subjects of 'shake me and I'll rattle' designs. We looked into this and found that real baitfish and worms do not rattle very much. In addition, with the spinner bait, the blade appears to provide all the sound/vibration necessary to attract the bass, and to target the bait in muddy waters. In fact, it was also noted, on a number of occasions, that the more noisy lures actually repelled the bass, rather than serving to attract. The jury is not fully in on this one yet, but we have found nothing to tell us that 'more noise is better'.
There are two thing no spinner bait should ever be without-a trailer dressing and a stinger hook.
A trailer is just an adornment of pork or plastic, which we add to give the lure more action and appeal. It is not meant to add more body bulk or weight, nor to slow the sinking rate of the lure. If those were the needs, we could just go to larger or smaller lures. The trailer creates no added noise and does not interfere with the hooking process, but it does usually seem to draw more bass to the bait. They are most helpful for spinner baits that are being fished slowly and erratically.
Stinger hooks (see photo) are meant to increase our percentage rate of hooked bass. Use a stinger hook any time you can, particularly on buzz baits. However, it may not be appropriate when fishing heavy cover or grass. You may stay fouled more than you fish. To prevent undue fouling, always position the stinger hook securely in place through the use of a bit of small plastic tubing. It only takes a moment to rig out and is well worth the added effort. A weedless stinger hook is fine, but check the wire guards often. They often spring open just from the force of hitting the water.
Spinnerbaits with the open 'R' bend at the tie point can have the knot or snap slide up or down the wire. But, a small piece of plastic tubing our the end solves that (see photo).
Color is always last in any written piece I author because it is the last thing the angler needs to consider. Past successes with certain colors generate confidence in the angler and cause him to fish that color harder and keep the lure wet longer. Since dry lures catch darn few bass, this can be a positive factor for color selection. However, if you are in the correct seasonal posture and presenting your lures at the proper depth, color will not be a significant factor. The angler must learn that this is true, or he will be doomed to carry nine 'possum-belly tackle boxes throughout all eternity.
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