February 19, 2015
When North Carolina pro Bryan Thrift won a Stren Series event on Lake Okeechobee in 2006 with a lure few anglers had seen, rumors quickly spread about the merits of ChatterBaits. "I cast it out and swim it like a spinnerbait," Thrift said at the time about his ChatterBait, originally a product of Rad Lures and now owned by Z-Man.
Other pros had been experimenting with bass ChatterBaits, available for a few years but largely unnoticed. Moreover, a few were catching fish and winning tournaments, but keeping their lure of choice secret.
When "secret lures" produce fish on tournament trails, they usually don't remain secrets for long. In the case of the ChatterBait, word spread fast after Thrift's victory, and suddenly everyone had to have one. Other lure manufacturers immediately began production of their own versions of this bladed jig, and with those introductions a new category of lure was born. Blade shapes, head styles, hooks, skirts, and trailer types varied from bait to bait, but all featured a vibrating blade in front of a jighead. Like a Rat-L-Trap or Fluke, many anglers still refer to all lures in this category generically as "chatterbaits."
As popular as ChatterBaits became, many anglers weren't sure what to do with their new toys, and as fishing trends sometimes do, the craze subsided. "It's the best bait that everyone owns and nobody throws," says Tom Redington, a Lake Fork guide and FLW Tour pro.
Redington observed that after the initial frenzy, when nearly everyone purchased ChatterBaits, many anglers didn't give them much of a chance before labeling them gimmicky, never discovering the lures' potential. To write them off is a huge mistake, according to Redington, who uses bladed jigs extensively to catch big bass, both on Lake Fork and on tour across the country. He admits, though, that he nearly made the same mistake. Redington initially caught a few fish on ChatterBaits but didn't investigate their potential. A couple years ago, he dug them out, altered the rigging, and used them in more situations. Bladed jigs now rank way up his list of go-to lures when bass are shallow.
Alton Jones is another big fan. The 2008 Bassmaster Classic Champion has been throwing Booyah Boogee Baits since the first prototypes were produced, and he uses them in a variety of situations. "To me, a Boogee Bait is like a spinnerbait with an attitude," he says. "There's something about the radical vibration that triggers strikes from big bass." Indeed, anglers who regularly use bladed jigs typically turn to them as big-fish producers. Redington fishes original ChatterBaits and has tried virtually every lure of its sort. His lure of choice in this category is the Phenix Vibrator Jig, the lure Brett Hite used to win an FLW Tour tournament on Florida's Lake Toho and an FLW Series event on the California Delta in early 2008. Redington appreciates the Vibrator Jig's long-shank and ultra-sharp Mustad hook. His mainstay is a 3/8-ounce model, but he also uses the 1/2-ounce version.
Brett Hite's wins, which were back to back and at opposite ends of the country, drew tremendous attention to ChatterBait-style lures and their diversity. Hite pointed out that the bait's profile and action, plus its vibration can be altered dramatically by changing trailers. In California, he used a Swimming Senko, which gave it a baitfish profile, and extra vibration in the tail.
Redington typically removes the trailer that comes with a bait, replacing it with a Lake Fork Trophy Lures Live Magic Shad, a segmented soft-plastic swimbait. "It creates a bulky bait with tremendous action that produces big bass," he says. He typically leaves the skirt on the lure to maximize bulk. In many situations, Jones use a Boogee Bait out of the package, including the skirt and split-tailed Boogee Tail. But he sometimes removes the skirt and trailer and rigs a Yum Money Minnow on the hook.
From Clear Lake in the north to Perris Lake hundreds of miles to the south, California is blessed with the finest trophy largemouth fishing in the world. A 22-pound behemoth was reported from Spring Lake in 2008 — one of many in the 20-pound range taken since California began importing Florida bass a few decades ago. 'California is the number one trophy state for bass exceeding 15 pounds, ' says David Swendseid — bass pro and tackle rep from the Golden State. 'A lot of the best lakes right now are being kept quiet. People aren't talking, but Southern California lakes in general and the San Diego lakes specifically are producing massive fish. Even private waters are turning out behemoth bass and great numbers. The California Delta is phenomenal for numbers. We're catching fifty bass from 3- to 12-pounds per day there. And we're getting back to big swimbaits — specifically the new, 5- to 12-inch 'S-stroke' and glide baits which are new out of Japan. ' Other venues of note include Diamond Valley Lake, Castaic Lake, Bullard's Bar Reservoir, Casitas Lake, and Shasta Lake. 'The Delta and Clear Lake have established recent B.A.S.S. records for biggest bass (14.6 pounds) and biggest bag (in the neighborhood of 122 pounds), ' Swendseid said.
Sorry, Woody. The best part of New York is outside the city. (Way outside.) 'People don't realize how great the bass fishing is in the Finger Lakes and smaller lakes that have excellent populations of largemouths and smallmouths both, ' says multi-species guide, Frank Campbell. 'The diversity of lakes, from the mountains to the flats, is awesome. New York's stream smallmouth fishing is spectacular in the Mohawk River, the Niagara, and dozens of smaller streams that are completely under the radar from a tourism standpoint. That diversity extends to tactics. Anything you like to do to catch bass, we do it here at some point. ' Lake Erie's eastern basin offers some of the finest smallmouth fishing on earth. The opportunites on Lake Ontario are only slightly less spectacular. Lake Oneida and Lake Champlain belong on anybody's top-100 list of North American bass lakes, and over 200 other lakes grace the Empire State, and most have fair to spectacular bass fishing. The porcine smallmouths of the St. Lawrence Seaway seal the deal. New York belongs on this list.
Chris Beeksma guides for smallmouths and other species around Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior. Quality regs (only one smallmouth over 22 inches can be kept) transformed that fishery into one of America's finest. Beeksma sends us photos of 6 pounders way too often. 'We may not have the number of largemouth lakes that Minnesota has, but Wisconsin does have a lot, ' Beeksma said. 'Finding a 7-pound largemouth isn't that difficult, and numbers are great. ' Wisconsin also has Green Bay on Lake Michigan, where an 8.4-pound smallmouth was weighed in at the 2013 Sturgeon Bay Open this year. Smallmouth fishing is nothing shy of stupendous all around Door County on Lake Michigan. Rivers like the Flambeau, the Fox, the Menominee, and the Wisconsin are everywhere in the Dairy State, and most harbor scads of pig smallmouths. The St. Croix River, which forms part of the border with Minnesota, is not only a blue-ribbon smallie hotspot, it's one of the most beautiful streams in America. Below its confluence with the Mississippi, Pools 3 and 4 comprise yet another bassy paradise that the Cheeseheads share with Vikings fans.
'To me, Florida is the big-bass hatchery of the world, whether they go to Texas or California, ' says legendary pro Larry Nixon. 'Lakes here have some deep water, lots of grass, great spawning habitat, and the best fishing is in the heart of summer when nobody knows about it and nobody's there. ' Okeechobee is back. Not news, but along with Lake Seminole, the Harris Chain, Lake Tarpon, the Everglades, the Kissimmee Chain, and several others — Florida can't be bypassed when naming the top 10 states for bass. 'On Okeechobee, that early-morning Zara Spook bite is nothing shy of awesome, ' Nixon said. 'Anglers overlook the St. John's River, too. If you know how to fish tidewater, the St John's is awesome. The Harris Chain has always been solid, and the Toho-Kissimmee Chain is way up there on my list of favorites for numbers of big fish. '
'Texas would be my target if the goal was to catch a 10-pound bass, ' says Nixon. 'Odds are much better in Texas than Florida for a 10 right now because of Falcon, Sam Rayburn Reservoir, and Toledo Bend. And, even though you may have a better shot at a 15 in California, the odds of catching a 10 are probably lower than in Texas. ' The waters Nixon mentions and Lake Fork are legendary, having been consistent producers of giant bass for decades. Nobody of right mind would dispute the awesome capacity of these lakes to generate massive populations of largemouth bass, and it's been going on since the impoundments were created. Lake Amistad, O.H. Ivie Reservoir, Choke Canyon Lake, and several others are 'must include ' candidates for any list of America's blue-ribbon largemouth lakes.
Two words: Lake Guntersville. Catches are phenomenal right now and it's on the bucket list (pun intended) of every angler who really understands bass fishing in America. 'Alabama's a great bassin' state and certainly belongs on any top 10 list, ' says bass pro and TV host Shaw Grigsby. 'Alabama probably has the best spotted bass fishing in the country on the Coosa and Alabama Rivers. In Guntersville you've got massive largemouths, and trophy smallmouths on Pickwick, Wilson, and Wheeler. ' Pro angler and bass guide Brent Crow claims you can catch a 10-largemouth, a 6-pound smallmouth, and a 5-pound spot all within an hour drive. 'You could do it in the same day, if you get lucky, ' Crow laughed. 'It might be the only place in the country where you could do that. Smith Lake in central-western is another great spotted-bass resource. Logan Martin and Lay Lake on the Coosa River are about 50-50 for largemouths and spots with awesome trophy potential. For my money, bass-fishing heaven is right here in Alabama. '
Georgia, home of George Perry's famous world-record largemouth (22 pounds, 4 ounces), is the spiritual Mecca of the bassin' world. It has to share some world-class waters, like Lake Eufala with Alabama, and Clark's Hill with South Carolina. But it has Lake Lanier all to itself. Lanier, like Jackson Lake, was a spectacular largemouth fishery for many years but is now dominated by spotted bass. 'Spots are really taking off in Georgia, ' says former resident and In-Fisherman Editor Steve Quinn. 'And they're getting bigger. Lanier is producing unbelievable numbers of 5-pound spots. ' Huge spots are more common than ever on Lanier and Jackson right now, while historic West Point Lake continues to produce great fishing for largemouths. Bartlett's Ferry (aka Lake Harding) is a small but prolific lake that produces great topwater bites almost year 'round. Bassin' rivers are everywhere in Georgia and are completely overlooked. Pressure is minimal and you can find five different species of black bass in rivers like the Chathootchee, Tennessee, Yellow, South, and Coosa. Lake Oconee, Lake Sinclair, and Lake Hartwell round out a list of prime bass attractions that cement Georgia squarely on this top-10 map.
Surrounded by Great Lakes, Michigan is an obvious angling paradise, but few folks from other states realize how magnificent the bass fishing really is. The Wolverine state borders Lake Erie, arguably the finest smallmouth water on earth. Michigan shares Lake St. Clair with Ontario — a world-class stage for equal numbers of 4- to 6-pound smallmouths and largemouths. Grand Traverse Bay, Saginaw Bay, Big Bay de Noc, Little Bay de Noc, the Portage Chain, the Sylvania Tract, Elk Lake, Torch Lake, the Beaver Island archipelago, Lake Charlevoix and 11,000 other inland lakes with bass populations might be enough to lift Michigan to the top of this list. But wait: Michigan has spectacular river fishing for smallmouths in the Grand, Muskegon, AuSable, Menominee, Tequamenon, St. Clair, and many other streams. The bayous on the lower Grand bristle with porcine bucketmouths. (No wonder VanDam's so good. He couldn't fling a dead cat back home without hitting a bass.)
Minnesota has world-class smallmouth fishing in the Mississippi River, Mille Lacs, the St. Croix River, and several other waters. A 4 pounder lifts no eyebrows here, and catching multiple 5-pound bronzebacks in a day is common for good anglers. Smallies over 7 pounds are caught every year — sometimes an 8. And Minnesota lays claim to over 13,000 natural lakes — more than any other state. Most harbor impressive populations of native largemouths, smallmouths, or both. Since Minnesota is primarily a walleye state, bass remain relatively under pressured — even though popularity of bass fishing continues to rise. Minnesota isn't the place to find trophy largies over 10 pounds, but it's a place where catching over 100 per day, with several over 5 pounds, just might be easier than anywhere else. Lake Minnetonka, nestled into the urban outskirts of Minneapolis, is a national treasure. But it's the smallmouth fishing that sets Minnesota apart. For size and numbers right now, only Great Lakes fisheries surpass the Gopher state.
In Them Ol' Brown Fish, Billy Westmoreland details how he caught more 10-pound smallmouths in Dale Hollow than, well, the remainder of the human race across the rest of the planet. If Georgia is the spiritual Mecca of largemouth fishing, certainly the Volunteer State maintains that distinction for smallmouth anglers. Center Hill, Pickwick, Wilson, and Old Hickory certainly stir up the echoes of a halcyon past, yet all probably retain the potential to produce a world-record fish. Like Georgia and New York, streams and creeks get overlooked for smallmouths in Tennessee. 'I weighed a 10-pound, 3-ounce largemouth on Chickamauga this year, ' says FLW pro Wesley Strader. 'The Tennessee River has been on fire from one end of the state to the other. Chickamauga has been just nuts. The great thing about Tennessee is the diversity. We have lowland reservoirs full of grass, highland reservoirs like Center Hill dominated by rock — you can pick the kind of water you want to fish here. Largemouth fishing has never been as good as it is right now on Chickamauga, Kentucky Lake, or Douglas Lake. In fact, bass fishing is better now than at any point I can remember. '
Early Season Success
ChatterBaits and their kin have proved most effective during the Prespawn Period. "When everyone else is throwing a Rat-L-Trap, you can catch fish behind them on these baits because they're very different from what the fish have been seeing," Redington says. He admits having lost some of that advantage at Lake Fork because his bladed jig-Magic Shad combo has become so popular for targeting early-season giants there. But it has other advantages. He likes a Vibrator Jig better than a lipless crankbait for fishing over grass because it ticks the grass nicely and he can easily pull it free with the braided line he always uses with it.
Jones favors a Boogee Bait for prespawn fishing when a hard cold front passes and the water temperature drops. "The big females that have moved up and are almost ready to spawn strike Boogee Baits when almost nothing else is working," he says.
Jones and Redington generally rig with swimbaits for prespawn fishing, favoring the large profile of this big trailer and its natural swimming motion. They employ slow steady retrieves, often over vegetation, regularly hitting the tops of the grass with blade and jighead.
One of Jones' favorite applications has nothing to do with tournament fishing. Because of its intense vibration, he's found a Boogee Bait one of the most effective night-fishing lures. "At night, I let it sink to the bottom and work it by lifting it up and letting it fall," he says. "They hit it on the fall."
On summer days, Redington and Jones use these lures to catch big fish on offshore structure as well. Fishing ledges and humps they might otherwise work with deep-diving crankbaits or Carolina rigs, they either slow-roll the baits just off bottom or use a lift-and-drop presentation. Jones notes, however, that the structure must be mostly free of brush or other woody cover because they hang-up readily. "They're dynamite for reservoirs like Kentucky Lake and Alabama's Lake Wheeler, where key ledges often have mussel beds on them. These baits tend to produce the biggest fish in the school."
Redington often chooses a Vibrator Jig wherever one might select a spinnerbait, but in some spots it offers particular advantages. He strongly prefers it around grass, for example, because the stalks can't wrap the blade and impede it. He holds his rod down and plows it through the vegetation, slicing weed stalks, all the while expecting a bite. He also fishes Vibrator Jigs year-round around docks. "Especially when rigged with the flat-sided Magic Shad, I can skip it way up under a dock," he says. While his typical retrieve is steady, he often pauses and lets it drop a bit as it passes dock supports and corners. As he does so, he keeps the line tight, pulling just slightly to keep the blade vibrating.
Jones adds that it's good for schooling bass. "I keep a Boogee Bait rigged with a Money Minnow handy. This rig casts far to reach schools that suddenly crash the surface. This combination screams 'fleeing baitfish,' and its hard thump helps fish zero in on it." He's found that he sometimes must experiment with retrieve cadence, though he catches most schooling bass by reeling slowly and steadily, holding the rod tip high to keep the lure just beneath the surface.
Jones also reaches for a Boogee Bait when heavy rain or wind murk the water. "People often think fish won't bite at all, but I've found they perceive and strike a Boogee Bait under those difficult conditions." In murky water, he retrieves it as slowly as possible while keeping it off bottom and with the blade vibrating. "In muddy waters, bass hold close to wood, rocks, or other cover, and they won't move far to hit a lure," he adds.
Redington fishes a Vibrator Jig on 30- to 50-pound-test braid, using a 7-foot 3-inch, medium-heavy Dobyns Champion 743C casting rod, and high-speed reel. The long rod helps make long casts sometimes needed for big, spooky bass, while its backbone delivers solid hook-sets in thick vegetation. He favors translucent colors for the Magic Shad, including blue glimmer and shad colors for clear water. In stained water, he picks a chartreuse-white or orange-green Magic Shad for his trailer.
He puts a drop of Superglue on the nose of the swimbait and on the base of the jighead, since the pulsing action of the tail and surrounding grass otherwise pull the tail down. Jones fishes Boogee Baits on 17- to 20-pound-test Silverthread Fluorocarbon, spooled on an Ardent XS 1000 reel and Kistler 6-foot 10-inch medium-heavy Z-Bone rod. "Fluoro line, combined with the micro guides on that Z-Bone Rod, enhances casting distance dramatically," he adds.
If you have bladed jigs tucked away in the garage, best to dust them off this spring. While no bait's guaranteed, they can up the odds for big bass this season.
*Jeff Samsel, Clarkesville, Georgia, is a freelance writer and photographer.