Throwing Swimbaits for Bass

“The mouths on these bass are bigger than a paint can,” explains guide Andrew Grills when clients question his lure selection. “From October until bass head to spawning areas, I rely on big jointed lures to catch bass at Lake Fork.  “Large lures draw bass in from greater distances because they can see them and feel them from afar. Some of my clients cringe when the lures land and make a huge splash. They’re used to pitching little jigs into grassbeds. But I feel that the big splash actually attracts big bass. They hear it and think that another bass is feeding.”

Grills got on the swimbait bite years ago when he lived in Tennessee and fished Lake Cumberland, Laurel River Lake, and small impoundments there. Not known for lunker production like Lake Fork, he nevertheless found that big baits like the 8-inch Huddleston Deluxe caught largemouth bass of all sizes but were especially effective for the biggest fish in the system. “I read Bill Siemantel’s book, Big Bass Zone, and that got me dialed into fishing big baits and learning about the behavior of lunker bass.

“Single-jointed glidebaits excel in cool water—during fall and into winter and into the early Prespawn Period,” he says. “At these times, Texas bass tend to move shallow and hold around hydrilla and milfoil beds, or else they suspend in standing timber. On sunny but cold days, bass suspend near the surface among the timber, absorbing as much sunlight as they can. That’s when glidebaits are so effective for big fish. We see that pattern from December into February. On those days, an 8-inch glidebait often outfishes any other lure.

“When I started fishing these baits on Fork around 2012, it was like magic. No one was using them and I can recall days when we caught 30 bass that averaged 7 pounds. Now, this technique has caught on and a number of other guides specialize in it, so bass have become a bit more jaded to it.”

As a former resident of Ojai, California, David Swendseid has been involved in the swimbait scene for most of two decades, and has traveled to Japan to consult and advise companies about the U.S. market. In return, he’s brought back information on new lures and developments.

“In Japan, swimbaits have a long history, as trophy bass seekers have designed and used them on the lakes that produce huge bass, notably Lake Biwa, where the world-record bass was caught in 2009,” he says. “While that bass was caught on livebait, the previous Japanese record of 18 pounds was caught on a 12-inch Roman Made Mother, an iconic wooden lure produced by Toshinori Takeyama, a lifelong angler who frequently fished Lake Biwa and observed the behavior of largemouth bass there. He started his lure company in 2006 and it has grown, though production is limited. It takes over 12 hours for him to hand-carve and carefully balance each lure to run perfectly, which he verifies by tank-testing.

“In the last couple years, I’ve watched their use expand across Texas and into other southeastern states and the Northeast,” he adds. Matt Servant, designer of Matt Lures, released the Strong Shad last year. “I sold my first 300 in two days,” he reports. “They’re going all over the country, and I sell more in New England than in California or Texas.” Swendseid notes that scarcity of lures and their expense have encouraged copycat production. “It reminds me of the way hand-poured plastic worms became the rage in the 1990s across ­California,” he says.

In addition to catching huge bass, swimbaits are known for helping to locate bass that may not bite immediately. “Bass seem fascinated by these lures,” Swendseid says. ”I’ve watched 2-pounders approach a 10- or 12-inch lure and swim around it as if they’re inspecting it. One great way to locate big bass is to retrieve them past docks and boathouses to draw giants out from underneath. They may not eat the swimbait, but they sometimes can be caught on a jig or Senko. It’s amazing to see how far big bass track them. You have to be careful or you can shift the fish’s position, moving shallow fish into deep water and vice versa.” In some ways, this form of bass fishing has more similarity to muskie fishing than standard bass tactics.

Pro Perspectives

Brandon Palaniuk of Idaho has been one of the hottest anglers on the Bassmaster Elite Tour since breaking onto the scene in 2011. He’s 6th among all bass pros in the bassfan.com ranking. Growing up in the West, he saw the allure of big baits early on.

“They’ve become part of my everyday arsenal,” he says, “but lately the Bassmaster schedule has not been conducive to fishing glidebaits, due to timing and location. But they pack so much fish-attracting power, you have to think about using them, especially in fall and early spring.

Swimbaits for Big Bass

“Like jerkbaits or crankbaits, each model and size fishes differently. Some have a tight cutting action while others have a wide, methodical glide. And as with jerkbait fishing, anglers need to become familiar with each lure and how it can be manipulated to appeal to bass in various conditions. Lures with a single joint exhibit more gliding action. Adding joints makes them more flexible, so their actions are more sinuous but they lose that straight gliding action. I love glidebaits in cooler water, but there are conditions for a more realistic swimming action, particularly in warmer water conditions when bass are suspended.

“There’s a steep learning curve to fishing these lures, but the rewards are worth it. Keep experimenting with rod movements and what’s been called ‘the rate of stall.’ That’s the pause at the end of the glide when bass often inhale the lure. Or at times they hit when it changes direction. One of these days I’ll win a tournament on these baits.”

While many touring pros have embraced softbody swimbaits for fishing reservoir ledges or shallow cover, relatively few carry a selection of big jointed hardbaits and the tackle to put them into action. But the shift is on in the pro ranks, in large part because tournament weights keep rising, placing more emphasis on catching big bass.

Jason Kincannon of northern California is an up-and-coming FLW Series pro who has incorporated glidebaits into his mix of presentations. He’s scored well on the Onimasu from DUO Realis and the Roman Made Negotiator, as well as an 8-inch lure he builds himself of resin and hand-paints. He’s caught several spotted bass over 10 pounds in northern California on his creation, as well as big largemouths in tournaments on the California Delta and Clear Lake.

The Forage Connection

Largemouth bass are notorious for their omnivorous appetites, consuming lots of crayfish in waters nationwide, as well as occasionally feasting on frogs, ducklings, and snakes and small mammals. But for swimbait aficionados, it’s fish prey that’s of most interest, as these lures imitate various baitfish.

Early on, stocked rainbow trout nourished the potbellied giants of lakes Castaic, Casitas, Otay, and Miramar, changing the face of bass fishing in the early 1990s, and igniting the big-bait phenomenon. Lure designers built baits to imitate the sinuous, near-surface swimming of stockers, adding joints to make them more lifelike, in contrast to classical crankbaits. Though we seem to have hit a hiatus in production of giant California bass, those glory days initiated the swimbait boom that continues today.

“What makes Lake Fork such a good lake for big swimbaits is our population of large gizzard shad,” Grills says. “In early spring and fall, bass feed on them around shallow vegetation and in pockets. And gizzard shad stay shallow during winter, unlike threadfin shad. I run down-imaging to scan the timber, finding shad and bass suspended high in the wood. You can’t pick out fish from timber on 2-D sonar, but they show well on down-imaging. Bass are dialed into feeding on large shad so these 7- to 10-inch lures fit their search profile.”

Gizzard Shad Swimbaits for Bass

Many jointed lures closely imitate shad, including the Bull Shad line created by “Triton Mike” Bucca of Georgia, and the SPRO BBZ Shad. Grills favors Andrew Hinkle’s Hinkle Shad as well as the 9-inch HPH Gliding Gizzard.

The Idaho lakes where Palaniuk learned to fish big baits contain kokanee, a landlocked form of sockeye salmon. Native to some waters, kokanee also are stocked into deep oligotrophic waters to create fishing opportunities. These smaller versions of sockeye retain some of the food value of their anadromous cousins, though most range from 8 to 15 inches in length. But that size, of course, is ideal for big bass.

“In Idaho, kokanee salmon are a prime forage for big bass,” he says. “Our smallmouths can reach 8 pounds on a diet of kokanee, and our largemouths grow well, too, considering the coolwater nature of these waters and the short growing season.”

Big bluegill-shaped models are available for waters where they comprise the key forage, often smaller impoundments and ponds. The Jackall Gantarel and Giron and Biovex Joint Gill are examples, along with the big Shellcracker from Black Dog Baits. Others have narrower bodies that evoke herring or large minnows, such as the Savage Gear 4Play Herring Swim & Jerk and the Biovex Joint Bait.

Lure Selection

The history of jointed solid swimbaits can be traced to Allan Cole’s A.C. Plug that appeared around 1990. The array of big jointed swimbaits continues to grow, though a few have fallen by the wayside. But their popularity, especially in California and Texas, has anglers shelling out $100 to almost $500 for a single bait. What luremaker wouldn’t want a piece of that pie?

“Today, anglers find the most diverse array of swimbaits ever,” Swendseid says. “To define their actions, you have to get the lures and fish them. There are many subtle and not-so-subtle differences among models in running depth, sink speed, motion characteristics, and resulting action.”

Because each angler fishes differently, you find divergent opinions on favorite models, which benefits the industry. Understanding how to manipulate a particular lure and make it tempting to bass in various moods is key to success. Perhaps more than any other technique, time on the water is required for mastery.

Roman Made Swimbait

Roman Made Mother

Given their popularity and record of success, Roman Made lures are the standard other jointed swimbaits are compared to. Most popular are the mid-size Negotiator and gigantic Mother, 12 inches and almost 11 ounces. There’s also a bluegill-shape South, named for South Lake Biwa where bluegills abound. Takeyama’s latest is the 9-inch Mudai, with a taller, almost carplike profile and brilliant scale finishes.

Shortly after Roman Made lures rose to prominence, the Japanese company deps released the Slide Swimmer in 7- and 10-inch versions. The larger 250 model has become a favorite of big-bait fans, including swimbait guru Butch Brown who fishes the San Diego area and catches many giants.

The Onimasu from DUO Realis is a 7.5-inch glidebait available in models that slowly rise when paused and those that slowly sink. The 188F slow riser fishes down to 2 feet, which enables anglers to work it above thick vegetation. Both models have wide gaits, gliding about 3 feet to either side when twitched. These two lures are the first models in company owner and lure designer Masahiro Adashi’s Prometheus Project, which promises more fine swimbaits soon.

Onimasu Swimbait for Bass

DUO Realis Onimasu

Megabass president Yuki Ito designed the I-Slide 185 to solve a quandary with big baits—converting followers into hookups. Sharply snapping it forward, then throwing slack line toward the lure makes it spin around to face a following bass, a move that rarely fails to generate a strike. This motion is enabled by the asymmetric placement of weights inside the lure.

Last year Duel introduced the Hardcore Ninja Twitch’n Glider, a slow-sinking 7-inch lure that weighs 25⁄8 ounce. It pivots cleanly when twitched, turning 180 degrees, and boasts a fine finish. It’s available in 8 colors at a price that won’t put off anglers wishing to enter the glidebait game ($37.99). And River2Sea’s S-Waver has been a popular mid-size jointbait since its release about 6 years ago, known for its classic S-action on a steady retrieve. Now there’s a big cousin, the S-Waver 200 that’s 8 inches long and 3.5 ounces. At $48.29, it’s similarly priced to tempt big-bait fans.

Another popular Japanese company, Evergreen, offers the ­single-jointed Timberflash and Timberflash Jr., which run less than two feet deep. With a swimbait-style, they’re versatile and can be worked in walk-the-dog cadence or retrieved slowly and steadily in an S-pattern, snaking along under the surface. And their Noisy Dachs is a unique 7-incher with a hard boot-tail that clacks against the lure’s rear joint as it’s retrieved, hence the name.

A leader on the European scene, Savage Gear is making inroads in the big-bait market with an array of lures. Two new offerings fit the glidebait family, the Glide Swimmer and Shine Glide. Meanwhile, Westin revealed the new Hypoteez gladebait at the ICAST Show this past July. Its smeltlike shape stands out, and its dimensions (7½ inches and 19⁄16 ounces) make it an option anywhere. Made of ABS plastic, it has semisoft lifelike fins and handpainted hues.

For fishing shad-based fisheries like Lake Fork, the Hinkle Shad, produced by Andrew Hinkle, is a favorite. Like the deps Slide Swimmer, it’s single-jointed and capable of gliding 4 to 5 feet to each side on a strong twitch-and-pause retrieve.

Roman Made lures with single top hooks are no longer available, but Kaesu of Japan offers the Kotetsu, a 6-inch, single-jointed narrow-bodied bait. It’s armed with a pair of stout hooks that extend upward, allowing it to glide among deep cover without snagging, exhibiting a unique wandering action that’s enabled by its near-neutral buoyancy. This effect is achieved by its construction of “chemical wood.” The front hook rides on a wire harness while the rear one is attached internally.

Tackling Up

Some of these lures match muskie baits in size and weight, so even the heaviest “normal” bass tackle, like extra-heavy flippin’ sticks, are too light and not the appropriate action. “Length helps with long casts and to maneuver the lure,” Grills says, “so I prefer an 8-footer with good backbone that’s rated for 2 to 5 ounces. But you don’t want a broomstick. A rod with parabolic bend helps in working the lure and in battling big bass.

“You lose fish with a rod that’s too stiff, since it’s hard to keep slack out of the line. You’re making long casts and the bass are generally shallow so a lot of them come up to jump. That’s dangerous, so I keep the rod low and crank hard. I tell my customers, ‘Keep his mouth full of water so he can’t jump.’ If you can keep the bass from diving and get it on top and coming toward you, odds of landing it are good. Anglers new to the technique often raise the rod, which encourages bass to jump, and you have no control over them with the tip high. If it’s down, you sometimes can prevent them from jumping.” Grills adds that G. Loomis is working on a new model designed for this technique.

Rod Setup for Swimbaits

Sticking big bass on weedless swimbaits requires a stiff rod and an over-sized reel.

For reels, Grills picks Shimano’s Tranx, a favorite since it came out for muskies and saltwater gamefish. “I fish the Tranx 300HG with the Negotiator and HPH Gliding Gizzard, while the 400 model is ideal for the Hinkle Shad and deps 250. I always change hooks to Owner 36 trebles. It’s a strong hook that isn’t too thick. It sticks fish that swipe at the lure, which they often do with big, wide-gliding lures.”

He spools 25-pound Berkley Big Game Mono for heavyweights. “Mono stretches more and that’s a good thing with these lures,” he says. For smaller lures like the Roman Made Negotiator, I downsize to 20-pound fluorocarbon. Braid is no good. It can catch in the reel or on a guide and you break off these big baits.”

Palaniuk has similar preferences, and notes that getting tackle in tune is critical. “Fishing swimbaits is a whole system that involves rod, reel, line, and lure,” he says. “You need to match rod choice to each lure, since different actions are suited best to different swimbait styles. Glidebaits require a rod with parabolic action to make them glide from side-to-side and to keep bass hooked. With a pair of sharp trebles, setting hooks isn’t an issue.

“But for a Huddleston Deluxe or other big softbaits, you need a stiffer rod since you often have to turn the bait in the bass’ mouth to set that single hook. With a weedless model, you need an extremely stiff one.” He’s working with Alpha Rods in Washington on a set of swimbait rods and favors the Abu Garcia Revo Toro Beast reel. Other anglers favor big, round reels like the Shimano Calcutta 400 and Cardiff 400.

You can find a good selection of rods from custom shops or small companies out west. Roman Made offers two rods to match the Negotiator and the Mother, while iRod offers a Junior Swimbait and a Large Swimbait model in their Genesis II line. Dobyns Rods’ Champion and Fury series also include some popular models.

Among big bass enthusiasts, glidebaits are today’s hot ticket. In part, that’s because the key to success lies in the hands of the angler that learns the retrieve cadences that turn these hunks of wood and plastic into magical lunker catchers. The lures come to life with twitches and turns you perform like a puppeteer, manipulating the combination of rod, reel, and line, and ultimately, the desire of big bass to bite.

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