It Looks Like What?

Ever looked at a bass bait and wondered why in the world any fish in its right mind would ever try to eat it? So have we. (April 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Why in the world would a bass eat a spinnerbait?

It looks for all the world like a hairy safety pin. It definitely doesn't look like anything natural that swims, crawls or floats on the water.

Yet millions of bass have been caught on spinnerbaits.

Poll the top-ranked professional bass tournament

fishermen at any given time and you'll find that they all have lots of confidence in spinnerbaits as fish-catching tools. But no one knows exactly why. Oh, everybody may have an opinion -- but until we can communicate with fish, we'll never know the exact reason.

And fishing lures -- not just spinnerbaits, but many others as well -- are proof that the most realistic or lifelike imitation isn't always the best one to use to catch a fish.

Look at soft-plastic crawfish baits, for example. Over the years there have been numerous imitation crawfish that were virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Some were even molded from actual crawfish. Their dimensions and proportions were exact, and sometimes the colors were so realistic as to make an angler do a double-take.

But look at what's consistently sold the best through the years: not those lifelike, down-to-the-last-tiny-detail plastic crawfish. It's usually those baits that have a vague passing resemblance to a crawfish that sell the best. And that's because those baits catch fish.

Look at the Larew Salt Craw. It's won numerous big-money bass tournaments, and is a staple in the tackle boxes of thousands of fishermen. Never, by any stretch of the imagination, would anyone look at a Larew Salt Craw and confuse it with a real crawfish. It's about the right length for a medium-sized crawfish, and has a couple of pincers trailing behind it -- but that's about as close as it gets. And the best colors of Salt Craws often don't resemble any crawfish you've ever seen. When was the last time you saw an electric-blue crawfish with hot-pink pincers, or a junebug-colored crawfish with silver pincers?

If you stop and think about it, few lures actually look that much like a living creature in the food chain. Oh, there's a slight similarity -- but what predator in its right mind would actually mistake some of the most effective lures on the market with anything alive?

Confusing a red-and-white topwater chugger with an actual wounded baitfish would be about like you or me confusing a cow with a minivan. Yeah, they're about the same size; yeah, they both move forward; yeah, they might even be of a similar color. But mistake one for the other? I don't think so.

Sure, part of the explanation is probably that bass, and other predator fish as well, are just mean, nasty, territorial creatures. They don't always strike something because they think it looks like food; sometimes they strike out of just pure aggression or territoriality.

Even flyfishermen -- who, I believe, first dreamed up the "match-the-hatch" theory of trying to make your artificial lure look as much as possible like whatever the fish are feeding on at the moment -- don't always follow their own advice. They often resort to throwing such contraptions as fluorescent-pink woolly boogers or, one of my favorites, the "dead chicken," which looks like something you pulled out of your household broom. Those odd-looking baits get thrown not because they're precise imitations of some aquatic insect or small prey fish, but because they catch trout.

I've often heard the tale -- I don't know whether its true or not -- of the two fishing guides who were arguing about what were the best lures and baits. One took the position that you could catch a fish on just about anything if you put it in front of a fish at the right time.

He grabbed a salt shaker off of the table and said, "I'll bet you 100 bucks I can catch fish on this!" His buddy took the bet.

The first guide purloined the salt shaker, took it home and drilled a hole through the bottom and lid, passed a wire through it, and threading a treble hook on the end. Sure enough, he caught fish by trolling the shaker -- and won his bet.

That's not any more offbeat than another lure in favor called simply a tube lure. It's a treble hook on a short length of leader wire. The wire is threaded through a few inches of surgical rubber tubing, and an egg sinker and a swivel are fastened at the upper end. I've caught dozens of fish on that contraption, and my guide told me that some of the local anglers make their own tube lures using soft drink straws instead of rubber tubing.

"I heard a couple of guys arguing about which work better: the straws from McDonalds or the straws from Burger King," the guide said, "I thought they were joking, but they were having a serious argument about the colors in the straws."

Now, I could ramble on for the entire length of this article about some of the strange baits that anglers use for various techniques, but bass lures alone provide plenty of fodder for discussion.

And I'm not even talking about some of those really weird baits that hit the market now and then -- the ones with blinking lights or glowing inserts or electronic buzzers and chimes. I'm talking about your plain ol' ordinary, everyday bass baits. It's often true that the ones resembling nothing that lives are the baits that catch fish most effectively.

Spinnerbaits are the most obvious example. I've heard and read a handful of theories about why spinnerbaits work. Some say that it resembles a small baitfish (the hook and skirt) chasing an even smaller baitfish (the spinner blades). I've got a few spinnerbaits with twin or triple upper arms. One has two or three small blades on each arm. The sales pitch that came with that lure said that the nine small blades spinning resembled a small school of baitfish being chased by the lower portion of the lure.

Yep. And I've got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.

I've heard professional bass anglers argue in seminars that the whomp-whomp-whomp of a spinnerbait with one large Colorado blade duplicates the frequency of sound made by baitfish swimming. Sorry, I can't buy that one either.

A few years ago, another writer and I became enraptured with observing bass and sunfish under water. I purchased a Nikonos underwater camera body and lens and a big detachable flashgun. My friend and I spent a good part of three s

ummers diving and snorkeling in a couple of gin-clear streams, observing bass and the local varieties of sunfish and baitfish.

Sometimes we took turns fishing and observing. We'd locate some nice-sized bass in a logjam in a bend of the creek or hiding beneath overhanging ledges along undercut banks or at the entrances of submerged caves. Then one of us would fish, using artificial lures, live crawfish, live minnows, or whatever came to mind, while the other lay in the water observing or attempting to capture the action in photos.

After three seasons of trying, I learned that underwater photography is an art in itself. It's a whole other discipline from shooting photos above the waterline.

But I came away after three summers of watching bass, convinced that those bass knew exactly what they were doing 99 percent of the time. The older and bigger the bass got, the harder they were to tease into making a potentially fatal mistake.

We watched one big female for two seasons. She lived in one logjam all one summer. She wasn't there the next summer and we thought she had been caught or moved on. But we found her again, halfway through the second summer, a few hundred yards downstream in another logjam. She stayed back in the dark beneath the logs during daylight hours. I don't know whether she ventured out at night or not. We only dived once or twice at night. The presence of cottonmouths in that creek made me a bit jumpy after dark, so we did most of our observing during daylight hours.

I used a 14-foot-long crappie-fishing pole to push tiny crawfish -- caught just upstream -- back into the logjam. Once in a while the big female would ease out to where a wee bit of light shined through the logs and take a closer look at the crawfish. But she would never eat it, even though I took pains to hide the hook so that it wouldn't be visible. We caught lots of small bass using that technique, but the bigger bass always stopped at the last second before inhaling the bait with a hook in it.

More than once I saw small bass charge around a bigger, more wary bass and take the bait right from in front of the bigger bass' nose. Of course the smaller bass got hooked as a reward for their rude behavior.

There may be a lesson there about respecting your elders. But my point is this: If a bass can tell the difference between a free-swimming or free-crawling crawdad and one with a small hook hidden among its legs, then how in the world could it be possible for a bass not to see the difference between a real crawdad and one that's made out of plastic or rubber?

I don't believe bass hit most lures because they believe the target it food. I think they hit mostly because they're mean, territorial and brutish. Bass don't like anybody or anything very much.

I recall a conversation I had several years ago with Dr. Loren Hill, the fisheries biology professor and researcher at the University of Oklahoma. Hill spent considerable time studying bass behavior and was involved in development of fishing products like the Color-C-Lector, a device that told anglers what colors were most visible down in the depths where light fades and colors disappear.

I asked Hill if lures that were exact copies of living creatures were necessarily more effective than lures bearing little resemblance to anything alive. I don't recall his exact words, but I do remember the gist of his answer: Aggressive and territorial behaviors, not hunger, were more likely to get a bass caught.

Does that mean that anglers shouldn't use lifelike lures? No, not necessarily. Numerous realistic-looking lures are on the market -- soft-plastic baitfish, some crankbaits, and others -- that look remarkably like the real thing, and catch bass very well.

But anyone who's spent much time on the front deck of a bass boat can tell you that some of the most un-lifelike lures sometimes produce the best results.

But (you might argue) some lures don't look very lifelike, yet they may make sounds or vibrations that resemble something like a food source might make.

Maybe, but I'm a skeptic.

I've caught a lot of bass on buzzbaits, but in all of the thousands of hours I've spent on the water, I've never seen or heard anything that made a steady, noisy, splashing path across the surface of the water.

Many anglers, pro and amateur alike, can testify that a Rat-L-Trap or similar lipless rattling crankbait is one of the most effective bass lures in certain situations; they catch fish. But I can't imagine any creature living in the water that makes a sound like one of those loud-rattling baits.

If you're fishing in a metal boat, you can hear a Rat-L-Trap rattling away, getting louder as it approaches the boat during your retrieve, because the metal hull conducts some underwater sounds pretty efficiently.

I've heard freshwater drum drumming through the hull of a metal boat. I've heard a couple other sounds I couldn't identify though the hull. But I've never heard anything that even closely resembled the sound of a rattling lipless crankbait.

Look in my tackle box, though, and you'll find a whole tray full of Rat-L-Traps in various sizes and colors.

What's the point of all this rambling about lifelike lures? It's to point out that a perfect photocopy of a fish pasted on the side of a crankbait, or a perfect mold of a living crawfish, may not be the lure that triggers a strike from the bass swimming beneath your boat.

It may be that a lure that's the most visible, the most irritating or most intrusive is the best bait at any given moment. It might be that the silliest looking lure in your tackle box is the one that will win the tournament on any particular day.

A few years ago, a certain famous lake was drawing legions of anglers from throughout the nation because it was producing so many bass of 10 pounds and bigger. Several of the best bass guides there began using a lure called the PHish Stick. It looked like something a dog might leave on your lawn. Anglers referred to them as "cigars," "bubble-gum cigars," and a few other names that we can't repeat here.

There was no way you could ever confuse a PHish Stick with anything that swam in that lake: It was just a thumb-sized piece of plastic in which you could hide a hook. Then you could fish it, weedless, as a surface lure. It worked really well for fishing the tops of matted hydrilla or other vegetation, because the hidden hooks allowed it to be worked without hanging up or gathering big globs of algae or hydrilla. You could even walk it like a Zara Spook once you got the hang of it.

The bass loved it. I caught numerous bass on several trips I made to that lake using those fantastic PHish Sticks. I fished them at other lakes, in farm ponds and elsewhere, especially if there was matted vegetation on the surface. It frequently produced results, even though it was the most no

n-lifelike looking lure I could imagine.

I could cite other examples of silly-looking lures that outperformed more realistic lures, but the point's already been made: Matching exactly the "natural" foods that a bass might eat in a given body of water isn't always the best way to catch fish.

Sometimes you just have to try the brightest, shiniest, gaudiest and/or noisiest lure in your tackle box. It may not look real -- but the results it gets can be!

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