Spinnerbaits for bass are extremely popular with anglers, but not many realize all the things these baits can do. MLF pros show why they are underrated.
In 1893, a plumber named John J. Hildebrandt from Logansport, Ind., “borrowed” one of his wife’s hairpins. He drilled an offset hole in a reshaped dime and slipped the hairpin through the hole.
Then, he fashioned an eye so he could tie line to it and attached a hook. When he pulled his invention through the water, the dime wobbled around the pin, giving off flash and vibrations.
Many people laughed at the device — until “Big John” started catching fish! Then, the contraption attracted so much attention that the plumber couldn’t keep up with demands to make more lures. In 1899, he founded the Hildebrandt Lure Company, ending his plumbing days and casting his way into fishing lure lore.
Hildebrandt’s design gave birth to an entirely new family of lures, which eventually evolved into his own company’s Snagless Sally in-line spinnerbait. A century and countless innovations later, spinnerbaits still catch fish, but with all the realistic baits entering the market, not as many bass anglers throw them anymore.
“Spinnerbait fishing is somewhat of a lost art in my opinion,” said Major League Fishing pro Mike McClelland. “In tournaments, we used to see spinnerbaits on the decks of 75 percent of the boats, but we don’t see that anymore. However, in the past few years, I’ve seen a resurgence of people catching fish on spinnerbaits.”
Few lures have the versatility of spinnerbaits, which can catch fish from the surface to the bottom. However, most anglers barely tap into the full potential of these baits.
They simply reel them steadily the way they fished for decades. They might slow-roll spinners over the bottom, buzz them across the surface or wake them just under the surface, but they still just chunk and wind, chunk and wind.
Baitfish don’t swim in a straight line. They dart, weave and hide. Instead of expending precious energy chasing healthy baitfish, bass look for injured shad so add erratic movements to a presentation.
“An erratic presentation is what catches bass, period,” emphasized Kevin VanDam, four-time Bassmaster Classic champion and MLF angler. “I don’t just cast it out and burn it back. I jerk it, twist it and make it run erratically. Make the blades flare, the bait jump and the skirt pulse. A bass might spend less than 10 percent of its life actively feeding. During the rest of the time, they might strike at a target of opportunity, but they are not actively looking to eat something.”
Spinnerbaits come in many configurations.
Colorado blades sink faster, making them better for fishing deep water. Colorado blades also create more vibrations, good for dingy conditions.
Willow-leaf blades create more lift and cut through grass better, making them popular for fishing shallow weeds. They also generate more flash, making them excellent choices when bass actively chase shad.
Since blades create lift, spinnerbaits inherently rise in the water column when retrieved. Therefore, most people consider them shallow-water lures, generally fished in water less than 10 feet deep around logjams, blowdowns, stumps, rocky piles, riprap and other visible cover. Ambush predators, bass hide in thick cover and wait for morsels to come to them.
Many anglers just fish the periphery, but largemouths hunkered down in impenetrable cover might never see a bait brushing the edges, so anglers need to probe every bit of cover possible.
Shake the rod tip as the lure approaches where a bass might hide. Pause a moment to flare the skirt, and smack baits into logs, stumps and other hard objects. The wires on “safety-pin” spinnerbaits, preferred by most anglers, help deflect objects, allowing the lures to slip through entanglements. Occasionally pause to let the bait sink with the blades turning and flashing.
Anything that makes a bait stand out might provoke a reaction strike.
“An experienced angler can look at a spot and consider cover, shade, current, depth and other factors to figure out where a bass should be,” VanDam noted. “Sometimes, when fish aren’t feeding aggressively, we have to throw numerous times to one spot that looks like it should hold a bass. Bang the bait off every limb and stump. Hit it from several different angles until you finally tick one off enough to bite. Sometimes it takes multiple casts to really work a bait intensely before a fish bites.”
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Wire arms can deflect hard objects, but not grass. When fishing around aquatic vegetation, anglers might consider throwing in-line spinners, like Hildebrandt’s original Snagless Sally.
Some people work spinnerbaits through broken vegetation patches like conventional buzzbaits or wake them down open seams and pockets, keeping the lure just below the surface to provoke reaction strikes from aggressive bass. Still others attach spinner blades to soft-plastic worm tails to create more action when working weeds.
“One of the most successful techniques for me is waking or bulging,” McClelland advised. “I’ve heard people say to never break the surface with spinnerbait blades. That always seemed strange to me since we catch a lot of fish on buzzbaits and topwaters. I like to run a bait right under the surface and make a boil on the water so it looks like something blew up on prey. Rather than running it straight, I jerk it almost like a topwater bait so it boils the water.”
For really getting down in the weeds, most people throw jigs or Texas-rigged soft-plastic tubes and worms. However, anglers can use spinnerbaits to make a big commotion in thick grass patches.
“When fishing scattered grass on a river channel edge, I’ll throw a spinnerbait out and let it fall down in the grass,” explained fellow MLF angler Gerald Swindle. “I lower my rod tip down to about 8 o’clock. Then, I rip the rod tip up to about 11 o’clock and let the bait fall back down into the grass to trigger a reaction strike. Once the bait starts falling, the blades tinkle together to make a little noise. When it hits bottom, I rip it back up out of the grass again.”
During temperature extremes, bass frequently go deep and don’t want to chase baits so anglers generally fish weighted plastics. However, slow-rolling spinnerbaits parallel to dropoffs or along bottom contours can prove highly effective in the winter or summer.
“Most people work a spinnerbait too fast, especially in the pre-spawn period,” said John Murray, professional bass angler. “When I’m fishing cold water, I really want the blades to turn at the slowest movement. I barely move the bait. In cold water, people cannot reel a spinnerbait too slowly.”
Even when slow-rolling, vary retrieves. Move the bait several feet with the rod, not the reel. Then, pause to reel up the slack as the bait slowly sinks with blades fluttering. Many anglers “yo-yo” baits in deep water, but they can also employ this method to some extent in the shallows.
Pop a bait off the bottom and let it drop. As the bait falls, blades turn almost like helicopter rotors. Lethargic bass in deep water many not run down fast baits, but they still notice erratic movement. Quite often, bass attack baits as they sink because they imitate dying baitfish.
“I like to use a spinnerbait like a jig on the bottom,” Murray said. “I use a 3/4-ounce jighead and let it fall to the bottom. I’ll pull it up 18 to 24 inches off the bottom so the blades start turning and then ‘kill’ it. On a steep bank, I let it follow the bottom contours as it sinks with controlled slack so I can keep in contact with the bait. It works like a jig, but gives fish a different look with more bulk and movement to it.”
Since spinnerbaits can tempt bass from top to bottom, they make particularly effective lures for fishing vertical cover, such as standing timber, bulkheads and bridge or dock pilings. These objects give bass superb cover. Fish often suspend higher in the water and hover close to vertical objects. Anglers might sit in 60 feet of water, but catch bass suspended a few feet deep.
“I might be working the bait over deep water, but I’m still fishing it close to the surface,” McClelland advised. “When bass suspend on standing timber, dock or bridge pilings, let the bait just sink out of sight. It’s all about determining where fish are holding. Much of that depends upon where the baitfish are.”
Most anglers probably use white, chartreuse or some combination of those two colors. Black spinnerbaits work well at night or in muddy water because they give off excellent silhouettes. Red spinnerbaits work in early spring when bass feed heavily upon crawfish.
Natural shad patterns tempt bass feeding upon threadfins. Sometimes, if fish grow used to seeing particular bait profiles, anglers might try throwing something entirely different, experimenting with colors.
“For colors, I just try to keep it simple,” Swindle stated. “I usually throw white or white and chartreuse, but I also try to throw what I call a ‘soft’ shad color, like a subtle smoking green or blue shad, but not so bright in the water. I fish white and chartreuse when the water is stained and when trying to throw off more flair or contrast in the water. In clear water, I stick with natural, soft shad colors.”
Also try different blade colors and configurations. Most anglers stick with silver, nickel, gold or some combination, but colored blades work in different situations. In general, use brighter colors during sunny conditions.
On cloudy days and low-light conditions, gold reflects better in the water. Adapt blade sizes, shapes and colors to the dominant forage in any particular water. In the spring, use orange or red blades, especially in stained water, to simulate crawfish. In the summer, chartreuse blades mimic bluegills. In the fall, white blades imitate shad. Try different colors, configurations and combinations to see what fish want.
“The blades need to mimic what the fish are eating,” Murray explained. “When I’m fishing cold, muddy water, a spinnerbait is my No. 1 tool. In those conditions, I start with a 1/2-ounce chartreuse and white spinnerbait with a gold Colorado blade in front and a silver willow-leaf behind it. I prefer a Colorado when fishing muddy, dingy water because I want more vibration. Sometimes, just switching to a different blade size will make a big difference to the fish.”
Of course, anglers can catch bass by simply reeling in a spinnerbait, making it a great choice for children or novice anglers. However, to put more fish in a livewell, take full advantage of everything these versatile lures can do by adding flair to the presentation.
A Second Chance
When a fish misses a bait, most people immediately throw that same lure back into the spot again. Sometimes, that works, but usually it doesn’t. Instead, follow up with something completely different.
“It’s very difficult not to throw the same thing back into a hole where a fish struck, but bass very seldom hit the same lure twice,” said Peter Thliveros, bass pro. “Anglers can throw endless numbers of things back into a pocket for a second opportunity at a bass, but the key is being prepared to do it. I’ll drop what I’m throwing and pick up something different every time.”
Thliveros recommends tossing soft-plastic temptations as follow-up baits behind something noisy like a spinnerbait. A fluke, wacky worm or similar bait stays in the strike zone longer, tantalizing fish. Jerkbaits, Texas-rigged worms and jigs also make excellent second-chance options.