Bustin' Bass With Buzzbaits
September 28, 2010
They're large, they're loud, and they are funny-looking, but buzzbaits are also highly effective tools for finding and catching active bass during the warmer months.
What sounds like a motorboat as it churns across the surface? What popular bass fishing lure looks more like some kid's idea of a model airplane than a real fishing lure? It's the buzzbait.
Kissing cousin to the spinnerbait, a buzzbait is a premium topwater bait for a variety of situations in which the angler wants to make a lot of noise and disturb a lot of water -- and a lot of bass. It's a mystery: Does the buzzbait anger bass into striking it, or does the turbulent water and noise simply convince a bass that a good-sized something is trying to get away? We will probably never know, but it's an effective bait that should be in every bass angler's tackle box.
Spinnerbaits look odd, but there's not much in the bass fishing inventory that looks as ridiculous as a buzzbait. There's this big hook hung on the end of a hunk of stiff wire bent like a long L. It's partly concealed by a skirt of some plastic or rubber stuff, and out in front is this big propeller. Some models even have two propellers. Whatever a buzzbait's makeup, it's a strange fishing lure that you would swear should frighten every bass in the lake. The fact that a buzzbait not only works at all but works well just goes to show that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
Far from scaring bass away, buzzbaits often draw bass from a considerable distance. Sometimes when a churning buzzbait leaves a big V-shaped wake on a lake's surface, you'll see a second wake converging on the buzzbait as a big bass homes in on it from several yards away. One thing is sure: Bass don't just strike a buzzbait, they assassinate it.
By design, a buzzbait has two main bass-attracting features. A big propeller blade produces a lot of noise and vibration, and the skirt gives the bass a good, bulky mouthful of color and movement to home in on. Plastic or pork trailers added will increase the size of the offering, and perhaps add their own song of vibration to the general uproar going on at the front end of the lure. The whole thing is nearly six inches long, and you would expect a bass to retreat to its lair with a severe headache after encountering something like that roaring across the surface.
It's great for slop fishing. Lily pads, weeds, brush and even solid wood stump fields are prime buzzbait country. So is a long stretch of riprap or any shoreline feature that lends itself to parallel casting. A buzzbait may look ungainly, but the design is essentially weedless, and you can run a buzzbait through some of the toughest cover without a hang-up. It is also a lure that covers a lot of water in a very short time. Pro anglers often use them to locate the most aggressive bass in a lake and quickly put a limit in the boat.
While you can use a buzzbait in water that is as calm as a plate of glass, it most often works better when there's a bit of wind or small wave action that obscures the view the bass get of this big, clanking, clicking, churning lure. It won't often produce as well in midday as it does at first light or the last half-hour of the day, but some anglers will throw it all day long when conditions are right. An overcast day with a bit of breeze to ruffle the surface is a great time to stick with the buzzbait from start to finish.
While most buzzbaits are much the same -- a spinnerbait-style leadhead and a big hook at the rear, and a long wire shaft bent to position the large blade or wing well above the main wire shaft -- you can also find in-line designs, and ones with the weight suspended below the body. There are also twin designs featuring two sets of blades on separate wire forms side by side at the front. All these odd designs are meant to do the same thing -- make as much noise and surface disturbance as possible. Typical weight for a buzzbait is a half-ounce, but you can get 3/8-, 1/4- and even tiny 1/8-ounce buzzers. Each has its uses.
PUTTING IT TO USE
Oakie Vaughan, a long-time competitor on Western bass circuits, notes that the buzzbait is a fish finder. He also refers to the buzzbait as a lure you need to trust, in order to fish it properly. "It's a bait you have to have confidence in," Vaughan said. "Sometimes I will throw it all day long in a tournament, even when I am not catching fish right away. It's a great searching lure for covering a lot of water looking for aggressive fish."
Vaughan lives in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and fishes a lot on the big Colorado River reservoirs. His home water, Lake Havasu, has in recent years become a prime smallmouth water. While most anglers regard smallmouth as a fish of rivers, it seems right at home in Havasu, a large and fairly shallow water. While most anglers automatically think of buzzbait fishing as something you do for largemouth bass, the smallmouth in Havasu (and most other waters) seem to like it just fine. Vaughan says he likes to fish the shore edge and in the back of the many big coves on Lake Havasu, fishing primarily over shallow water.
"I like to throw a half-ounce buzzbait to get distance," Vaughan said, "and sometimes I will drop down to a 1/4-ounce buzzer over weeds. You can basically throw a buzzbait from March to November on these big desert lakes. I think it is a good lure any time the water temp is above 65 degrees. It's a very versatile lure that can be used in and over a lot of structure. You don't have to have weed beds to fish around."
Manny Freire, a fishing guide in Southern California who often guides anglers on Big Bear Lake -- a high-altitude water that often freezes in winter -- thinks you can employ the buzzbait on bass in colder water. The bass in Big Bear Lake are primarily northern-strain fish that seem better suited to feed early when water temps have just nudged the 50-degree mark.
"I will start throwing buzzbaits well before the weed beds begin to grow. Any time the surface temp at Big Bear gets above 50 you can find some bass shallow. They are often aggressive right after they move up out of deep water," Freire said. He fishes riprap and rocks early in the spring, searching out boulder-strewn shallows where bass have moved in to find water a degree or two above the main lake's temperature.
THE RIGHT REEL
Fishing a buzzbait without ending up with sore forearms requires a special type of reel. A good buzzbait reel has a high enough ratio to allow you to get the bait on top of the water fast and keep it coming, without having to grind the reel handle like you were grinding coffee. A reel with at least a 6:1 retrieve speed is what is needed to lift the buzzbait to the surface and get it to run right through a surface film.
Oakie noted he was moving up to a new Shimano Curado reel that has a 7:1 ratio. He also said he likes to use a triple-wing design by Gibbs Performance Baits in Lake Havasu City,
since they come up quickly and run a little slower.
Manny Freire agrees, saying he also favors a reel with at least a 6:1 ratio. "It's just too hard on your arms to crank a slow reel all day, and it's very hard to keep the bait up and at speed with a slow retrieve."
You'll also want to select a buzzbait rod that is stiff enough to handle the constant drag of the bait against the rod as it churns along, and most anglers think nothing of moving up to 20-pound-test line on their buzzbaits. Any bass that is provoked into charging a buzzbait running at full speed isn't likely to be line-shy.
The tri-blade designs get up quicker and will run slower. They have more lift than a single-blade style, and some of the big-bladed Lexan or plastic-blade models will run on top with just a little forward speed to keep them spinning easier than the aluminum blade designs, although the aluminum blades will often make more noise. Double-propeller buzzbaits -- those that have two blades mounted side by side on wire shafts -- are even louder than single-wing baits, and will run even slower.
Buzzbaits are essentially weedless, and the single-blade, in-line types may be the most weedless of all. Just about any one of them can be run through some awful stuff without hanging up, and this leads to the best technique for using a buzzbait. It is an ideal tool for fishing over weed beds that haven't grown all the way to the surface. Even a couple of inches of clearance will allow the buzzbait to whir over the weeds, pulling bass out to strike it. You can fish it right in the muck, but you will spend a lot of time cleaning slop off the bait to get the prop turning again.
You wouldn't think that color in a bait that moves so quickly and makes so much noise would be critical. But both Vaughan and Freire made essentially the same choice of skirt color for their buzzbait fishing. The light colors they selected are highly popular where the prime bass forage are silversides, threadfin shad or gizzard shad.
"Normally, I will fish buzzbaits with a white or white and blue skirt, but with the smallmouth on Havasu, I find a chartreuse/white skirt seems to work better. They really like bright colors," Vaughan said. Freire agreed, saying he normally chooses all white, or white and chartreuse for his buzzbait fishing. These colors seem to do a good job of mimicking the body of a threadfin shad.
You can fiddle with skirt and blade colors to a degree. A bunch of nearly identical buzzbaits can be customized with some metallic tape (you'll find it in automotive stores) with different colors and patterns. The blade on a buzzbait can't be rigged with a snap as it can on a spinnerbait, but you can build or buy several identical buzzbaits with different blade colors, and then swap skirts and trailers around to match the conditions you're fishing.
One thing you should consider is adding a stinger hook when fishing open water or above weed beds. Bass often strike short on buzzbaits, possibly because of the retrieve speeds, and a stinger hook gives you just a bit more length behind the skirt to get the point into the bass.
You can also apply a bit of prismatic tape or try your hand with a paintbrush on the blades if you really want to get creative. Many pro anglers tend to prefer dull, solid skirt colors and muted blades for night or fishing in low light, saving their flash and glitter for daytime use. Manny Freire, however, doesn't see a need for going to black or dark colors after dark. "I even use those light colors at night," Freire said. "I don't think you have to use a black skirt or blades on a buzzbait after dark. I know everybody says to use black, but white or white and blue seems to work just fine for me."
In addition to being a good bait for heavy weed and surface cover, it's also a good night or low-light bait. Bass come shallow to search for food during low-light periods, and the noise from a buzzbait makes it very easy for them to find. It sends out a whole range of sounds, from low-frequency vibrations to metallic clicks. This is especially true of some buzzbait designs that have additional small blades positioned so the main blades strike them on each revolution. This clicking noise adds to the general racket and seems to irritate bass even more than the roaring caused by the big blades themselves.
Prior to the introduction of the clicker-blade models, many buzzbait anglers tuned their spinnerbaits so that the main blades tapped against the wire shaft leading back to the hook, to get the same effect. You can do this to any of your buzzbaits by taking a pair of pliers and carefully bending the bait until the tip of the blades just brushes against the wire. If you go too far, the flex of the wire as the lure runs will halt the blade. But a couple of trial runs will generally get things right.
While you're tuning the shaft/blade clearance of your buzzbaits, grab a file and give the hook a couple of licks. Most buzzbaits use a tinned hook of 3/0 or 4/0 as a base, and these could always be sharper than the way they come from the box. Bass do tend to hit a buzzbait hard, but a sharp hook will do more to get solid hookups than all the wrist and forearm action you can muster.
In some situations you'll find that bass will strike short on a buzzbait. For this reason, many anglers add a trailer hook behind the fixed hook to make sure they get those short-striking fish. A large ring-eye hook can be slid on the buzzbait's hook, and held in position on the bend of the fixed hook with a bit of surgical tubing.
While neither Oakie Vaughan nor Manny Freire uses additional plastic trailers on his buzzbaits, it is a method for increasing the overall length and bulk of the bait. A big twin-legged trailer, either of plastic or pork, can make an already big lure look like a real mouthful for bass. There are times when it will provoke strikes from fish lurking under near solid overhead cover in lily pads or tules.
Crashing and bashing the lure through heavy cover is exactly what the doctor ordered for buzzbaits. There's something about a buzzbait bouncing off limbs, stumps and other topwater cover that just gets bass going. I don't know if they take it for something trying to get away, or if they just want to put a stop to all that noise. Whatever the reason is, their reaction is to kill it.
Buzzbaits are perhaps not the first lure most bass anglers reach for, but they have a definite place. Odd-looking and somewhat tiring to fish, buzzbaits used under the right conditions will provoke a lot of bass into making that one mistake that means more fish in your livewell.