June 17, 2021
By Dr. Jason A. Halfen
Whenever we hit the water in pursuit of our favorite fish, the objective is to trigger strikes by appealing to our targets’ many senses and making them believe that our lure is destined to become their next meal.
One critical component that makes its way into lures that repeatedly fool fish across the country and around the world, in both freshwater and saltwater, is the deceivingly simple spinner blade.
Every year, innumerable trout attack in-line spinners in rocky streams and mountain ponds, countless bass hammer spinnerbaits, and scores of walleyes chomp undulating spinner rigs.
Indeed, most anglers at some point have relied on a spinner blade of one design or another to catch fish. But what are the factors that make these blades so effective?
Knowing the reasons fish eat them will help you select lures with spinners that best suit the species and the water conditions.
Spinner blades uniquely appeal to a fish’s senses of sight, hearing and vibration to draw predators from afar and elicit bites. Rotating on a clevis or a ball-bearing swivel as the lure travels through the water, both metallic and painted spinner blades create a whirl of flash and color that replicates the randomized reflection of ambient light off the bodies of baitfish—especially when they are fleeing for their lives.
Moreover, the rapidly spinning blades create distinct sound waves that propagate long distances throughout the water column, giving spinner-based lures true long-range appeal. Few fish can resist these compelling, biomimetic sensory inputs, which they associate with vulnerable prey and their next meal.
Shape and Size
Three basic spinner blade designs dominate contemporary lurecraft. They differ mainly by shape, which gives each one specific characteristics that anglers can use to their advantage.
The Colorado spinner blade is deep and wide, with a shape that resembles a soup spoon. It spins effectively at relatively slow retrieve or trolling speeds, and emits the deepest thump as it rotates. Because this low-frequency sound travels the longest distance through water, the vibrational signature of Colorado blades has the longest-range appeal to predator fish.
Slightly more tapered and not as deep, Indiana blades are the workhorses of spinner-containing lures. Many of the famous (and incredibly effective) Mepps in-line spinners incorporate Indiana-style spinner blades.
They have been fooling freshwater fish from muskies and bass to trout and walleyes since the 1930s. The first lures I ever cast as a young boy for Wisconsin bass and pike were Mepps spinners, and their unique synthesis of elegant simplicity and long-term fish appeal keep them in my essential tackle collection even today.
With a slender and more pointed profile, willowleaf spinner blades are designed for fast presentations, like burning spinnerbaits for bass at the surface or speed trolling for walleyes. Catching less water than their Colorado and Indiana counterparts, rotating willowleaf blades emit the highest-frequency vibration pattern, delivering short-range sensory overflow that can result in bone-jarring strikes.
Angler ingenuity and the desire to show pressured fish something new frequently pushes the boundaries of spinner-based lure design into unique shapes and blade configurations. One of the areas where this is most apparent is in the musky universe, where large in-line spinners—collectively known as bucktails—have been fooling these freshwater apex predators for decades.
Not satisfied to burn bucktails equipped with a single rotating blade, custom lurecrafters have engineered massive lures sporting twin Colorado blades in sizes up to No. 10, which produce tremendous flash and a unique vibration pattern in the water that translates into enormous muskies in the net.
Retrieving these baits over the course of a long day is a real workout, but the results frequently speak for themselves.
More recently, small accessory spinner blades have found their way onto the bends of treble hooks for hardbaits, and onto pins that can be inserted into soft plastics, providing an extra twinkle of flash and whir of sound that can help convince a wary fish to strike. A walk through the aisles of your favorite tackle shop will reveal spinners, both large and small, as important hardware in a vast library of lures.
If you’re interested in adding the visual and auditory appeal of spinners to your fish-catching arsenal, two configurations will cover a lot of territory and a wide range of species. Here again, it’s important to select a blade shape that is best suited to the presentation.
The classic in-line spinner in various sizes is a great choice for many freshwater species, from bluegill to pike and more. Many of my smaller in-line spinners, like those I cast in shallow, rocky streams for brown and rainbow trout, are equipped with Indiana-style blades and dressed with a little squirrel hair or bucktail to enhance the lure’s visual appeal.
My musky tackle is heavily weighted toward in-line spinners, in both single and twin-bladed configurations. These lures will capture the attention of even heavily pressured fish, especially during the warm summer months.
A second lure style that puts the spinner blade front-and-center is the safety-pin style spinnerbait, frequently associated with bass fishing but equally effective in inshore environments. Choose spinnerbaits with Colorado blades for slow-rolling presentations in cold water, or when stain or turbidity reduces visibility in the water column. In clear water, when it’s time to turn-and-burn, willowleaf blades are the perfect complement to fast retrieve speeds.
Having a selection of different spinner blades enables you to match blade choice to not only water conditions, but also the activity level of the fish. Choose the right spinner-equipped lure, and few fish will turn up their noses at your offering.