May 26, 2022
By Keith Sutton
Few fishing lures have stood the test of time like the spinnerbait. In America, it’s generally thought that "Big John" Hildebrandt put the first spinner on a shaft in the late 1800s when he fashioned a thin dime and one of his wife’s hairpins into a workable lure. The commonly used safety-pin spinner appeared in the early 1950s, and the Blakemore Road Runner—the first spinner—came along in 1958.
The reason for their everlasting popularity is simple: Spinners catch fish, especially panfish, everywhere. They work equally well at almost any depth from top to bottom, with almost any retrieve and in cover and open water alike. They’re among the deadliest and most foolproof lures around, and if you’re chasing panfish, you’ll be doing yourself a favor if you tie one on.
Spinners exhibit vibration, flash and motion, all of which attract a panfish’s attention. Small versions are fun for shallow, spawning bluegills and excellent for fan-casting to roving white bass and crappies. Yellow perch fall for spinners, too, especially in-line spinners that sink quickly to the depths where perch often feed.
Spinners are available in a mind-boggling array of styles and colors, so it’s easy to get confused when trying to figure out which will work best. Fortunately, we can divide spinnerbaits into three major categories—inline, safety-pin and horsehead—and discuss the different applications to which each is best suited.
GET IN LINE
Inline spinners are built so the spinner blade turns around a straight wire shaft. Below the blade is a heavy, metal body that can be almost any shape, color or size. Popular examples include the very popular Mepps Aglia, invented by Andre Muelnart in 1938; the Panther Martin Spinner with its concave/convex blade (more than 125 million made); Worden’s Rooster Tail, introduced in the 1940s by Yakima Bait Company; and the venerable Luhr-Jensen Shyster, with its no-line-twist eyelet and instant-spin blade.
Because they’re usually fitted with a small treble hook, in-line spinners can easily snag in any type of cover. They work best, therefore, when cast to more open-water structures where panfish might be lurking—places like bridge pilings, riprap, rock outcroppings, boat docks, underwater points and submerged humps. Inlines also can be effectively fished along cover edges. Cast and retrieve along the outside borders of weed beds, willow thickets, brush piles and other panfish hideouts, avoiding the dense cover within.
Some anglers like trolling with in-line spinners, but if trolled too fast, the lures tend to spin and twist the line. A better tactic is to drift-fish with a light breeze that moves your boat slowly across the lake, or use an electric motor to keep your boat barely creeping along. Forward movement should be just fast enough to turn the lure’s blade. The Rooster Tail and Panther Martin both excel when trolled or drifted since their blades turn with little to no effort.
Fishing for big crappies? Some of the best in-lines for these tasty panfish are versions like the Mepps Comet Mino and the Blue Fox Vibrax Chaser that have a plastic minnow body in which the hooks are set.
The spinner part of a safety-pin-style lure consists of a V-shaped wire frame with a small line-tie loop at the point of the V. A small spinner blade is attached to the end of one arm with a swivel. At the end of the other arm is a small clip (like a safety pin) to which you attach a jig, grub or other lure. Well-known versions include the Johnson Beetle Spin and Northland Tackle’s Mimic Minnow.
Safety-pin spinners are great search lures. If you’re not sure what type of structure is beneath the water you’re fishing, or if you’re just trying to figure out where panfish are, take a little safety-pin spinner and fan-cast it in a big circle or semicircle to find fish. As you retrieve the lure, work it over, through and beside woody cover and other hideouts. Another advantage of safety-pin spinners is they don’t require much expertise to use them.
Fishing tiny jigs on a long pole requires a great deal of finesse and patience, and if you lack these virtues, your lure will catch more snags than fish. Safety-pin spinners, on the other hand, are relatively weedless. A youngster or inexperienced angler with little casting experience can fish them successfully. Just cast and retrieve. The lure’s thumping, fluttering action will do the rest.
More fish will be caught if you retrieve the lure as slowly as possible and run it close to the fish. When fishing shallow brush, blowdowns, weeds and other visible cover, cast beyond the cover and bring the lure through it or alongside it. It pays to live dangerously and bump the cover with the spinner, as this often excites panfish into biting.
If the jig or grub clipped to your spinner isn’t producing, remove it and clip on a lure of different size or color. Some anglers even clip on flies like those used to catch trout, which, under the right circumstances (during a spring mayfly hatch, for example), make extremely effective panfish catchers.
When panfish are really finicky, you can also remove the grub or tube body from a safety-pin spinner and replace it with a small live minnow hooked through the lips or head.
You’ll have to retrieve the lure-bait combo extremely slowly so the minnow doesn’t pull off, but this small change may substantially increase the number of fish you hook.
Many have attempted to duplicate the incredible Blakemore Road Runner, but TTI-Blakemore owns the patent for this lure with the pony-shaped lead head. All lures like it (refered to as "horsehead spinners") are knockoffs of this revered panfish catcher.
What makes the Road Runner really special is the fact that the spinner is attached directly beneath the big-eyed head where it’s more easily seen by fish. The blade seldom gets tangled with your fishing line like blades on safety-pin spinners tend to do, and thanks to its unusual positioning, it won’t interfere with hook-ups either.
Horsehead spinners are available in several body styles (marabou, bucktail, curly tail, etc.), two blade styles (Colorado and willow), weights from 1/32 to 1 ounce. In other words, you can find a Road Runner for every species of panfish, from small-mouthed bluegills and white bass to big-mawed warmouths and slab crappies.
Bert Hall, the Missouri Ozarks stream fisherman who invented the Road Runner, often said, "You can’t fish a Road Runner wrong if you fish it slow." In many cases, he’s right; slow is undoubtedly best. But there’s no reason to fish Road Runners at just one speed. Depending on water conditions and the mood of the fish, this famous panfish catcher can be fished slow, fast or in between; deep or shallow; vertically or horizontally.
The simplest method, perhaps, is casting the lure and reeling it in just fast enough that the blade spins. You also can spider-troll with Road Runners on multiple poles, or drop one beneath your boat and fish different depths with little hops and twitches that attract attention from white bass, yellow perch and even pan-sized catfish. The variations are endless, making this one of the most versatile panfish lures in any angler’s arsenal.
Many people remember Virgil Ward for his popular fishing TV show. Few realize he was also a lure inventor.
Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Famer Ward invented what is now known as the Johnson Beetle Spin, one of the most popular spinners ever produced. In the Amsterdam, Mo., plumbing and appliance shop where Virgil and his wife Cleda lived with their family after World War II, Virgil started the Bass Buster Lure Company.
The marabou jig and the fiber weedguard that revolutionized weedless jig fishing were two items he created to help him catch more fish in the Ozark streams he loved to float. Then, in 1948, he combined a Colorado blade, a round jig head, a soft-plastic body and a safety-pin spinner design to create the Beetle Spin, a classic lure for catching bluegills, crappies, rock bass, white bass, yellow perch and other panfish. A simple, steady retrieve with a Beetle Spin will catch almost any fish that swims. Smart anglers carry several styles, colors and sizes every time they go fishing.