Bass ears aren’t much to look at, and that’s probably just as well. Beyond the fact that a set of mouse-like ears would look goofy on a largemouth bass, the added flaps wouldn’t be very hydrodynamic.
Maybe because there are no visible ears, bass fishermen often don’t give much thought to the significance of sound in triggering reactions from the fish. Bass do hear, though. In fact, their ears, which are internal, and their lateral lines, which sense vibrations, combine to provide them a good sense of what is moving or making sounds around them.
If you ever question a bass’ ability to hear, drop something on the floor of the boat while you’re looking at a fish and watch it scurry for cover. Every bass fisherman has been reminded at some point of the importance of limiting sounds that could scare the fish. However, smart fishermen take that a step further by seeking ways to use sound to their advantage in order to gain the fish’s attention and help the bass home in on lures.
True hearing and detection of vibrations are somewhat hard to distinguish with fish, and in truth the two senses work together because many of the same occurrences that create sound waves (such as something banging on the bottom of a boat) also add vibrations that the fish’s lateral line detects. However, those fish-attracting vibrations pushed out by a big-bladed spinnerbait or a wide-kicking crankbait are probably better discussed at another time. Here, we’ll focus on true sounds such as rattles, splashes and the smacks of lures banging against brush or other cover.
Several types of lures, including topwater plugs, crankbaits, jerkbaits, lipless crankbaits, hard swimbaits and even spoons, sometime come sound-equipped in some sort of way. More often than not, one or more metal balls is housed in a sort of chamber, and the balls rattle or clank against each other and against the walls of the chamber when the lure is put into motion.
Lures designed to make sound are typically billed as such on their packaging, so pay close attention to that when you are buying new lures. Two similar looking lures fill very different niches if one is a rattler and one is a silent runner.
Although many lures use somewhat similar types of sound systems, the specific sounds different lures put out vary substantially. Some are loud. Others are more muted. Pitches vary likewise, and some lures clack methodically with each side-to-side movement while others rattle almost constantly. The size and shape of chamber, the size and number of balls, the materials that the balls and the chamber are constructed from and the way a lure swims all impact the specific sound any given lure makes as it moves through the water.
For heavily stained water, sight-impeding cover or other conditions that cause bass to really need help finding a lure, volume is the biggest concern. The more sound a lure sends out, the more likely the fish are to find it, and they probably won’t be fussy about the sound. In many situations, though, the tone and the pitch can make a significant difference, with the bass showing preferences to certain specific sounds. In fact, more than one once-popular bass lure has fallen out of favor with fishermen after the manufacturer changed the type of plastic the lure was made from or the type of pellet used for rattles. A lure that looked and swam the same as its predecessors changed its sound and simply didn’t produce as many fish any more.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula for knowing the perfect sound. Finding the lures that put out the right sound for the waters you fish and for the techniques you favor calls for experimentation. What is important to understand is that two manufacturers’ rattling crankbaits that look very similar may not make the same sound, and the bass may very well favor one over the other.
The way you work a sound-equipped plug also has a major impact on the sound it puts off. Just as a lure may send out more flash when it’s jerked hard, a rattling jerkbait rattles louder with decisive tugs, and sometimes a combination of hard (loud) jerks and silent pauses is the ticket to getting the bass’ attention and making them strike. Rattling or knocking topwater lures, on the other hand, tend to work best with a steady, rhythmic sort of a presentation that helps fish hone in on them.
Crankbaits, including lipless and traditional sorts, can be swam steadily or pulled and paused, with each sound cadence having virtue at times. Generally speaking, though, incorporating some retrieve pauses is a good thing, and often either a pause or a return to motion will serve as a strike-triggering mechanism.
Just because a lure doesn’t come with built-in rattles doesn’t mean you can’t use sound to your advantage. Various types of rattles are made specifically for inserting into worms and other soft-plastic lures or clipping onto jigs, spinnerbaits or worm hooks. In addition, some weights designed for rigging tubes or plastic worms contain their own rattles.
An alternative to adding a rattle for worm fishing is to use some combination of brass, glass or tungsten beads or clackers and weights strung together on the line. Such a combination creates a knocking sound, instead of a rattling sound, which sometime is the “right” call for the bass. Another virtue of this type of rig is that it can be built from components you probably already have in your tackle box, even if you don’t own any insert rattles.
One real advantage of adding rattles or using some sort of a clacker rig when you fish with a plastic worm is that you can add appeal to the offering when it is in the prime zone. Any time you feel brush, bigger rocks or other changes in the bottom consistency, slow the horizontal movement of the lure but jiggle the rod tip to shake the rig and make some noise. Then move it just a little and shake it some more. For specific fish-holding spots that are deep enough to fish from directly above, you can simply drop a rattling worm rig to the bottom, shake it and wait for the bass to get aggravated enough to attack.
Spinnerbait and jig rattles typically don’t call for extra effort from a presentation standpoint. The natural swimming motion of a spinnerbait or hopping action of a jig is sufficient to make the rattles sound, and they simply serve as an added attraction.
For finesse type situations or times when the “surprise element” is important for drawing strikes, it’s important to land a lure as quietly as possible — even pitching onto the bank and slipping the lure back into the water. In many cases, though, the splash of a lure’s landing gets a fish’s attention and entices an investigation. Even a fish startled by a lure that lands almost on top of it often circles back to get a look at the invader, which is why it’s good to let a topwater lure rest for a moment or two before beginning a retrieve. It’s also why a bass so often will attack that lure as soon as it starts moving!
During the spring and summer, bass associate splashes with meals because the splashes they hear are often caused by dragonflies or misdirected terrestrial insects landing on the water, or by other game fish attacking baitfish on the water’s surface. When they hear water splash, whether from a lure landing or from a topwater lure dancing across the top, they seek the source of the splash to see whether it looks like dinner. Except in the case of a fast-falling lure and deep water, where the lure will drop quickly out of the sight of any fish that comes to investigate, it’s a good idea to hesitate just a moment or two between any cast and the start of your retrieve.
Most topwater lures rely on some type of splashing sound to get a fish’s attention. Wake baits are the major exception. Unless they are rattle-equipped, these wide wobblers rely mostly on a bass’ sight and on vibrations detected by the fish’s lateral line. Walking lures make a slashing sort of a noise, and many are equipped with loud knockers that click with each side-to-side movement. Prop baits, poppers and chuggers make the most noise and probably create the sound that most closely resembles a baitfish fleeing an assault or a predator attacking baitfish on the surface.
Crankbaits specialists understand how critical it is to “hit stuff” as they work lures, whether that means banging a rocky bottom as the lure crosses a point, bumping brush and rolling around it or by hitting a dock support on the way past it. Most fish hit immediately after the lure hits cover, and any bait cranker who simply chucks and winds, giving too little thought to bottom depths and to angles that allow them to bump more cover, will almost surely catch far fewer fish overall.
A crankbait bouncing off cover has a couple of important appeals. The first is a visual strike-triggering mechanism when the lure makes a sudden directional change. As important, though — if not more so — is the sound of the lure slapping the cover. The sound alerts nearby bass to the lure and often draws them out of cover to attack. Plus, if it’s a rattling crankbait, there’s typically a simultaneous break in the rattling cadence — another strike-triggering mechanism.
Although no bass angler is more intentional about bouncing a lure off cover than a skilled crankbait fisherman, the same principle applies to working most bass lures. Whether you’re swimming a spinnerbait through middle depths, bouncing a Texas-rigged worm along the bottom or even walking a topwater lure, when it’s possible to bang your lure against some type of cover, do so. Sure, you’ll snag your lure a few extra times each day with that type of approach. But if you can call the bass in and trigger some extra strikes, it’s well worth spending a bit of time popping lures out of laydowns or from beneath rocks and even losing a lure or two.
Being intentional about banging cover means giving extra thought to boat positioning, casting angles and lure presentations. At times it also impacts lure selection. You’ll sometimes want to switch to a crankbait or jerkbait that runs just a teeny bit deeper in order to hit the bottom or select an offering that is more snag-free so that you can hit more cover and make more noise without losing your lure.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE
As valuable as sound can be as a fish attractor, at times veteran anglers prefer silent presentations, believing rattles or other sounds would do more to spook fish than to attract them. Quiet lures tend to excel under those conditions that make fish the fussiest: clear water, bright sunlight, or heavy fishing pressure.
Fishing pressure can be an especially large factor if a certain bite is going strong and virtually everyone who is bass fishing is throwing a rattling lipless crankbait or shaking a rattle-equipped worm. Bass seem to grow conditioned to lures they are seeing — and hearing — a lot. They can become wary for a whole season. During those times, eliminating the sound element can make all the difference in your day on the water.
When the fish aren’t biting and it seems like they should be, it might be time to remove the rattles from your tube or worm or to dig for a crankbait that is not equipped with sound chambers. An “in-between” alternative in similar situations is to keep throwing sound-making lures but to switch to slower or steadier presentations that lessen the effects of the sound, or to switch to a lure that makes a distinctively different sound, such as a single-ball clacker instead of a multi-ball rattler.