When the subject turns to smallmouth bass, blades pop up. Spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, and in-line spinners all have adherents in the smallmouth world, and some use them exclusively, like Kevin Turner and his side nudge, Carl Zavorka.
Turner makes Turner Marine River Pro Jet Boats. Carl hangs around, kibitzes, and makes coffee runs unless the St. Louis Blues are playing on TV. No matter how many times the Red Wings bust their chops, he’ll be there, staring at the screen. Turner and he can both afford to watch the Blues lose to the Wings because they don’t have to think about tackle or prepare for fishing trips. They fish exclusively for bass, mostly for smallmouths. And all they use, wherever they go, all year, are Kay Key spinnerbaits and buzzbaits. Any color will do, so long as it’s white.
Oh, Turner throws the occasional 4-inch pumpkinseed grub on a 1/8-ounce jighead. Otherwise, he lives by the blade and dies by the blade. The duo travel up from Missouri to Minnesota to fish for smallmouths in the Mississippi River several times a year. Preparation for each trip takes maybe ten minutes. They hook up the boat, toss in a dozen spinnerbaits, four or five buzzbaits, four or five rods, and they’re off. That’s pretty much how they prepare for tournaments, too.
Their River Pro inboard jet has no depthfinders, no GPS, no temperature gauges, no rod holders, and has a tiller-style trolling motor with barely enough thrust to pull them upstream. They can go anywhere in that boat. I’ve watched them climb over fallen trees that spanned the meander they were following. Maps? They need a road map to find a new landing on the river now and then. Otherwise–nah. No maps.
When Turner fishes the river, he puts down the trolling motor and control drifts down one side or the other (sometimes both) one cast length from the bank, and peppers every log, boulder, eddy, and pocket with a spinnerbait. Of course, Carl already covered each spot with a buzzbait from the back of the boat (control drifting is one of the few games in fishing that provides the guy in back with an advantage). And down they go, mile-after-mile, chucking the same baits the same way, over and over and over. How’d you like to go head to head with them over a juicy wager? Licking your chops? Don’t. It’s like playing a numbers game with savants. You can fish ahead of them or behind them with livebait, crankbaits, topwaters–you name it. The weather can be cold, dark, and windy or hot, clear, and still. Doesn’t matter. These guys vacuum smallmouths out of the river like a tornado. They may live by the blade and die by the blade–but it’s mostly live, because a revolving blade is as close as it gets to a universal problem solvent for various species, situations, and conditions in the fishing world.
When it comes to turning blades, people become addicted, like Kevin and Carl. And like so many steelhead fishermen who put in 150 days per year on the river throwing nothing but in-line spinners. It’s like the muskie heads who have 200 bucktails and two jerkbaits, or like “Buzzbait Bob,” a friend of mine who buzzes up largemouths all summer and who never has owned a tackle box. Spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, and straight-shaft spinners can deliver nonstop smallmouth action. But blades can deliver big zeroes, too. If you’re here for blade rehab, you’ve come to the right place.
A blade is a blade is a blade. Unless it’s really small. Or really big. Or painted. Or bent, fluted, drilled, cupped, rounded, squared, taped, dented, flattened, or plastic. Then it’s a modified blade that makes a different noise, vibration, or flash. Each modification has its time, place, and adherents.
Naturally, different blades do different things on a spinnerbait. A Colorado blade is the widest and roundest blade used on spinnerbaits. It creates the most resistance, making it easier to keep high in the water column at slow speeds while producing the most thump. But it’s difficult to burn. A willow leaf blade is long, narrow, and pointed. It creates the least resistance, so it’s easier to burn at high speeds; it produces a more subtle vibration and probes much deeper than a Colorado at low speeds. Indiana blades are a compromise between the two.
Many experts agree that a 3/8-ounce single Indiana or Colorado blade is best for smallmouths much of the time. Exceptions include deep patterns in reservoirs and lakes, where a heavy (up to 2 ounce), single-blade willow leaf is more efficient. Small, tandem willows sometimes work better when smallmouths track schools of smaller minnows. And smallmouths on a shallow reef in wind sometimes can’t resist a 1/2-ounce tandem willow leaf with small blades and lead added to the shank of the hook, burned as fast as a 6:1 reel can crank. (A tail-weighted spinnerbait, when burned and stalled, falls back to the fish tail first. Stall it just as it clears structure.)
Personally, my favorite spinnerbait for smallmouths is a 3/8-ounce Terminator with a single Oklahoma blade (a modified Colorado style) with a pearl-crystal-pink skirt and head. Big single blades deliver serious thump. Active smallmouths are curious creatures. If they feel or hear a thumping blade, they’ll be along shortly.
For Turner, a spinnerbait is the right first choice, second choice, and last choice all day long, almost every day. By contrast, a spinnerbait is a tool I look to when smallmouths are: (1) scattered along the bank in high water in a river or stream; (2) holding tight to wood or weedcover; (3) going nuts along a rocky shoreline where the wind is blowing in and murking up the water; or (4) suspending above structure in a reservoir. At those times, a spinnerbait is the first thing out of my box. But I’m ready and willing to try a spinnerbait in almost any conditions where I find smallmouths I can’t trigger on other things. Revolving blades have a way of making fish bite when they don’t want to. Sometimes.
And sometimes, big spinnerbaits catch big smallmouths. David Lane of Baxter, Tennessee, used a 5/8-ounce Kay Key Aggravator last March to land a 9-pound giant on Center Hill Lake–one of the three biggest caught anywhere in the last decade. The wind was blowing into the bank where Lane was fishing, and the water was murky–a classic spinnerbait scenario for trophy smalljaws. Some reservoir fishermen have turned to the 2-ounce Ledgebuster when big smallmouths hold tight to deep structure. Where smallmouths over 7 pounds are possible, big blades (up to a #7) turn big fish. Sometimes.
A buzzbait, Carl Zavorka’s pet, is something I use in rivers when I want to cover water fast, looking for fish. Smallmouths will blow up on buzzbaits when they don’t necessarily want to bite them. The famous Lindsay brothers, Dave and Norm, who have won most of the major smallmouth tournaments in North America at least once, taught me that a buzzbait can make smallmouths look up even when they want to look down. When they know bass are using a piece of structure, yet they can’t get them to go on the usual techniques, the Lindsays pepper the structure with buzzbaits, then go over it again with plastics or small marabou jigs. The buzzbait is an attractor, and the catching comes later. Except for Carl.
Carl throws buzzbaits when the water temperature is anywhere from 33F to 90F. And, for some unfathomable reason, he catches smallmouths throughout that range. He’s a one-trick pony, stuck in buzz mode. If you’re a normal human being, don’t try this at home. It won’t work. It requires a savant’s touch. But he who lives by the blade, dies by the blade. Carl dies out there sometimes, and he doesn’t care because he’s addicted to burbling blades and surface explosions.
But he has a point to make. He fishes rivers most of the time, and river smallmouths tend to react to buzzbaits differently. The optimal placement is to cast upstream or across the current. The retrieve and the current act together to constantly drag a buzzer downstream. When a buzzbait churns over a boulder or log, any smallmouths using that cover have to make a quick decision. It costs too many calories to chase, then work back upstream to the prime holding spot. Consequently, river smallmouths react to buzzbaits more often than smallmouths in still water.
Few people throw buzzbaits for smallmouths, it seems. That alone makes buzzing a viable option. I use buzzbaits to find active fish. Then, in most cases, I work them over with something else. The optimal bait is a 3/8-ounce delta-blade model, though triple blades tend to work better in murky water. Small twin props like the Terminator Tiny Twin (only 1/8 ounce) can be more effective in low, clear conditions. Buzzbaits can be effective when smallmouths reveal a tendency to hit almost any style of topwater bait. Check the buzzbait bite whenever bass are willing to come up top because it covers water faster and attracts bass from greater distances.
A straight-shafted spinner is another killer in current, but single-hook and weedless adaptations from Mepps and Terminator have created optimal presentations for woodcover in reservoirs and natural lakes.
Terminator’s Snagless In-Line Spinner comes in 3/8- and 5/8-ounce sizes. It sports a single offset hook and a shad-style plastic trailer, which can be replaced with a worm, grub, or any other style of plastic. The Snagless In-Line is amazingly effective in wood, getting through tangles and logjams at least as well as a spinnerbait while offering a completely different look and feel to the bass. The Oklahoma-style blade also creates a different and unique combination of sound and vibration.
Mepps has several similar products, including the Weed Master and the Black Fury Combo. The Weed Master sports a weedguard skirt over a treble, and the Combo carries a single Mister Twister Keeper Hook for burying the point into plastic trailers to keep the hook from fouling. The Snagless In-Line and the Combo can be walked over and through serious woodcover and weedcover on a tight line, which elevates the portfolio of the straight-shafted spinner. Always classic river options, straight shafts now demand equal time in still water.
The classic situation for an in-line has always been, from my vantage, “push” areas in rivers where the bottom rises and pushes the water up. This happens in the tailout (downstream lip) of big holes and along the front face of a riffle or rapids, where sand or mud bottom over deeper water gives way to hard bottom in shallower water. Smallmouths cruise the upstream face of these push areas. The art is to match the size of the blade and weight of the spinner to the current so it doesn’t drag on bottom (too heavy) or lift to the surface (too light, or the blade’s too large). A #2 or #3 blade is optimal in most river situations, but drop down to a #0 in really small streams.
Smallmouths like hair on spinners, in many cases. Squirrel or deer hair adds a little buoyancy, which can be a plus in current. I’ve taken quite a few tournament fish with a dressed-out #3 Black Fury. Hair adds sinuous motion to the bait in still-water applications, too. A bucktail spinner can be deadly for smallmouths in natural lakes. Bulging a bucktail pulls bass up out of boulders and weededges in many of the same situations that call for a buzzbait. The difference is, bulging can take smallmouths when buzzbaits don’t. And working bucktails slower in heavy wind is vastly underappreciated.
Blue Fox, Mepps, Worden’s (Rooster Tail), and Terminator all make spinners with natural or synthetic hair, and these baits are notoriously absent from the boxes of smallmouth fishermen, which makes them even better baits because fish don’t see them often. I can’t count the number of smallmouths I’ve dislodged from big bucktails intended for muskies. But the number I’ve watched inhale smaller in-lines has to be 10 times greater.
But the bottom line is the blade. A spinning blade can hypnotize, mesmerize, and stupify smallmouths, which are curious creatures anyway. Flash and thump will bring them in for a closer look. Live by the blade to locate fish and roll with the good times. Whether or not to die by the blade, when the fish blow up and miss or turn away by the boat, is your call. Hypnotist, wake thyself!