Pliers, scissors and files: implements of primitive dental care, or essential tools used by savvy anglers in search of a competitive edge? I would argue in favor of the latter, as an increasing number of anglers explore bait hacks: home-brewed customizations of standard commercial lures to differentiate them from the pack, alterations that trigger strikes from more fish – especially when the bite turns tough.
If you’re a frequent reader of post-tournament press releases, then you’ve encountered plenty of instances when the victorious angler professes to using a pre-production, homemade or custom lure of their own design in order to secure the championship. These top-level bait hacks are some of the most closely guarded secrets in the world of professional fishing, developed over years of methodical experimentation, and rarely discussed within range of microphones or inquisitive eyes. For these tweaks, additions to and deletions from standard, off-the-shelf commercial lures, success is measured not by the number of smiles and happy memories created, but rather by a precise accounting of paychecks cashed and titles won.
If you’re wondering what professional bass anglers do when they modify their baits, and why they dig through their compartments in search of pliers, scissors and files in the first place – then you’re in luck. In this article, we’ll explore some of the most potent bait hacks used by competition anglers. These modifications span nearly the entire range of presentations that any angler might use to tempt and trigger bass and include proven ways to customize jigs, soft baits, hard baits and topwater lures. So, grab your tackle boxes and gather your tools; it’s time to hack with the pros.
Shape that jig
“I will trim the skirt so that the longest strands don’t go beyond the bend of the hook.”
Jigs are among the most versatile tools in the modern bass angler’s arsenal. A deceptively simple synthesis of lead, steel and rubber, jigs are effective in the shallows and out deep, in heavy cover and open water, triggering bites from bass that swim anywhere on the globe. You can hop ’em, drag ’em, swim ’em or just let them sit while their undulating skirts do the work. Professional anglers all agree: one of the rods on your front deck needs to have a jig tied on, all the time.
Greg Hackney knows a thing or two about jigs. A prolific flipper and jig pitcher, the 2014 Bassmaster Angler of the Year has finished in the money nearly 150 times during his professional career, and recently expanded his trophy collection by capturing the 2018 Major League Fishing World Championship. As much as he loves to fish the jig, Hackney notes that, “there’s not a single jig made that I use as packaged. Each one gets trimmed, modified or customized – every time.” Hackney sets his sights on two different jig components when it’s time to start hacking: the skirt and the weedguard.
“I want the skirt to be full, but not long. Typically, I will trim the skirt so that the longest strands don’t go beyond the bend of the hook,” asserts Hackney.
“That compact skirt focuses the fish’s attack on the hook, rather than letting fish nip at long strands, helping me convert more strikes into positive hooksets.”
Hackney continues, “I also like to collar my skirts and shape them, so they have shorter strands close to the head and longer strands that trail toward the hook. That shaping is all about profile, giving the jig a very bluegill-like appearance. Another benefit is that when the strands aren’t all the same length, they don’t stick together in the water, giving the jig a lot more action when it’s at rest – which really triggers lethargic fish.”
File that bill
“I take a cheap wood or metal file, like you’d find at any hardware store, and file down the bill”
During the heat of summer and into the fall, one of the best ways to target bass on offshore humps is with a deep-diving crankbait. In recent years, the popularity and productivity of this presentation has spawned a unique, purpose-driven collection of tools and tackle, with each piece dedicated to getting baits to dive deeper.
“Gosh, I sure love to crank,” states Cody Meyer, a veteran of the FLW Tour who, like 79 other pros, has joined the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour for its inaugural season. While his west coast roots and extensive experience on super-clear, highly pressured fisheries have made him a finesse fishing aficionado, Meyer has a soft spot in his heart for hard baits with big bills.
“One of the tricks I’ve perfected, one that will make a crankbait dive even deeper than normal, is to shave off some of the bill – to sharpen it – by filing off some of the plastic from the bottom side of the bill,” whispers Meyer. “I take a cheap wood or metal file, like you’d find at any hardware store, and file down the bill on a Strike King Extra Deep Diver, like the 5XD, 6XD, 8XD or 10XD. You have to be careful, removing material evenly and in small portions – but when you do it right, you get those baits to dive deeper without affecting their action.”
Why would an angler want even more depth from baits that already dive into the 15-25 foot range? Meyer explains, “with this trick, I can make a smaller-profile bait, like the 4.5-inch-long 6XD, dive into the range that is normally reached by only the 5.5-inch-long 8XD. When the bite is tough, that smaller-profile bait can trigger bites when larger cranks get ignored – it’s a common finesse fishing approach that is applied here to cranks.”
Chop that prop
“Remove that front prop, the one up by the nose of the bait.”
Whether it’s a popper, a hollow body frog or a walking bait, topwaters are proven producers in shallow water and can also call fish from the depths to engage in a surface attack.
“As a Florida guy, you know I love catching ’em on top,” quips Bobby Lane. A past champion on both the FLW Tour and the Bassmaster Elite Series, Lane also captured the big trophy at the 2017 Major League Fishing World Championship. Fishing this year on the MLF Bass Pro Tour, Lane understands the nuances of provoking strikes on the water’s surface.
“Prop baits are one of the classes of topwater lures that often requires some attention,” states Lane. “What I will frequently do with a prop bait, which typically has two props and three sets of treble hooks, is remove that front prop, the one up by the nose of the bait. The rear prop still provides plenty of commotion and creates a nice bubble trail, and having the front end of the lure clean provides me with several distinct advantages.
“First, removing the front prop creates a more streamlined bait with less wind resistance. I like to use 30-pound-test Spiderwire Ultracast when I’m fishing prop baits, which I can throw a country mile when the front prop is off. With clear water or pressured fish, more distance on the cast means more fish in the tank.
“Once that lure is in the water,” continues Lane, “having the front prop removed means that it catches less grass and vegetation, particularly as the day continues and other anglers or pleasure boaters have torn up the grass beds.”
Lose those legs
“Remove the front legs. This gives the bait a slender profile”
Soft-plastic baits represent the ultimate playground for bait hackers. Trim a little here, add a piece there, then a splash of contrasting color – it’s all possible with today’s extensive library of plastisol creations.
“Flippin’ and pitchin’ soft baits – that’s definitely a strong suit of mine,” notes Tommy Biffle, a seasoned veteran and past champion in every major bass tournament circuit, who has transitioned from the Elites to the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour. “I love fishing plastics so much that many years ago, I partnered with Gene Larew to develop a line of signature soft baits. But even those baits, which work great right out of the package, can be modified for tough conditions to make them work better.
“Take the Biffle Bug, which helped carry me to victory on the Elite Series – it’s an awesome pitching bait and is great on a HardHead jig when worked along the bottom. But when the bite gets really tough – like post-frontal conditions, clear water or heavily pressured fish, it’s easy to customize the Biffle Bug to increase its appeal. I designed the bait so that it’s easy to use scissors, or even just your fingers, to remove the front legs. This gives the bait a slender profile, which appeals to fish looking for a compact presentation.”
Biffle continues, “the body of the Biffle Bug is unique in that it’s solid up near the jighead, which helps the hook stay in the bait better, but hollow on the other end, like a tube. That slot makes it easy to load up the bait with scent, or to add a rattle, which helps fish locate the bait in dirty water. By using their imagination, an angler can tweak the Biffle Bug to fit a wide variety of conditions.”