February 25, 2014
By Cory Schmidt
Underwater, vague crystalline shapes flicker and vanish amid veils of filtered light. Behind a curtain of coontail, someone's watching. Flitting between openings in the grass, a shimmering legion of shiners stays on alert. But their beating tails and pulsing fins leave a virtual trail of bass breadcrumbs.
Amid the quiet drama, a slice of silver appears—alone, isolated from the pack. The courageous, perhaps clueless preyfish lands softly on the sand, hovers a moment and then shoots up and away. Boom, hook-up!
These past seasons, I've been catching lots of big smallmouth and largemouth bass on bladebaits. Here in Minnesota, few anglers employ this tactic. From the Great Lakes to western and southern reservoirs, small cadres of anglers have wielded blades with confidence. A few have learned how to waylay impressive catches beyond the traditional deep structure or the customary coldwater periods of the blade's terrain.
At the August 2000 Bassmaster Top 150 event on the Potomac River, for example, Carl Maxfield of South Carolina wielded a 1/4-ounce Silver Buddy in 80°F water to outduel Rick Clunn for a first place finish. Lately, Michigan pro Scott Dobson has been on a tear with the same lure, winning regional events on shallow timber-laden reservoirs.
Blades Then and Now
Crafted by Buddy Banks over 30 years ago, the Silver Buddy remains a model of simplicity and still is a favorite. Popularized by Tennessee smallmouth legend Billy Westmorland, this slab of stainless steel has produced countless monster smallmouths on hill-land impoundments. Its magic resides in the precise thickness of the steel, which produces a distinct thump and vibration. Westmorland called the Silver Buddy the greatest smallmouth bass lure ever. On Dale Hollow Reservoir, he used it to boat smallmouths to 8 pounds.
Buddy Banks recently revealed Westmorland's secret for cold-water success: While anglers tend to rip it hard to feel the lure vibrate, Westmorland did the opposite. He'd let it hit bottom and slowly move it 6 or 8 inches, almost like dragging a jig. Then he'd let it sit on a slack line, sometimes for many seconds, before pulling it another 6 or 8 inches. He found that smallies often vacuumed it off bottom.
Introduced by James Heddon in 1959, the Sonar is another classic. Earlier, Cotton Cordell had introduced another standard, the Gay Blade, in 1954. This was said to be Cordell's favorite lure. The Reef Runner Cicada, a Scott Stecher original, remains a staple blade in many arsenals. Its deep concave blade body produces intense vibrations and a darting flutter on the fall.
Recently, Japanese designs have made a big impact. Two offerings, Nories TG Jaka Blade and Ecogear ZX series, caught my attention last year. The TG Jaka Blade is a slim bait with a weight-forward tungsten head. It has two double hooks, which allows it to slide through timber and sparse vegetation. Protruding from the belly on a swivel is a miniature willowleaf blade that flickers on the upstroke, as well as imparting vibration and slowing its fall. It's become a favorite of Dobson, who works this lure around shallow stumps.
With a shrimplike appearance, the Ecogear ZX (available at -leesglobaltackle.com or tacklejp.com) has twin #8 octopus hooks attached to a split ring on separate 2-inch sections of braided line. When you pump the rod and let the bait flutter back, the hooks swing, producing an extraordinary undulating effect. Last fall, I caught several 4- and 5-pound largemouths on it, along rock ridges in 15 to 25 feet of water.
Brainchild of Florida guide Steve Niemoeller, the Steelshad is an elongated bait, built of thin metal to allow anglers to bend it for unique action and directional pulls. In-Fisherman Senior Editor Steve Quinn was introduced to it while fishing with Niemoeller and has used it to catch largemouth bass, as well as whites and hybrid stripers. "At times," he says, "bent versions work better, as fish strike when it lifts off bottom at an angle. The slightest bend gives it new action." Another unique blade that's become a favorite is Sebile's Vibrato. The 1/2- and 3/4-ounce sizes excel for combing moderate to deep structure away from heavy cover.
This past fall, I cast 1/2- and 3/4-ounce Vibratos in a gold pattern across deep points and averaged about 10 big largemouths per trip. On my first outing, the water was 67°F, and on the last one in early November, it had dropped to 44°F. As the water cooled, bass responded better to the 3/4-ounce size clunked aggressively into the bottom.
The Glassie Vibe by River2Sea has a thin likelike body, its lead weight encased in a translucent plastic shell. Like the Vibrato, the Vibe is longer and thinner than traditional shad-shape styles. On the vibration spectrum it fishes "quieter" than others, a fine match for waters with perch, shiners, smelt, and other slender preyfish.
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Balog on Blades
On lakes Erie and St. Clair, Great Lakes ace Joe Balog has been slinging blades for years. He prefers them early in the year—prespawn and postspawn—and in fall once water temperatures drop below 60°F through early November. "Blades exhibit subtle characteristics that fish key on at those times of the year," says the runner-up at last fall's Bassmaster Northern Open on Lake Erie, "something about the short lift-drop and flash on or near bottom.
"On St. Clair, smallmouths switch from gobies to small shiners in fall. Shiners stay close to the bottom and we work bass bladebaits accordingly." Unlike traditional retrieves in which anglers aggressively sweep the lure in high vertical arcs, Balog prefers short, methodical rod lifts.
"There are subtle differences in how blades should be worked in each environment," he says. "On St. Clair, it's best to cast and let it free-fall. Once it hits bottom, lift it just far enough to feel it begin to vibrate. Once it's thumped bottom two to three times, I drop it back down. Let it settle for a second or two between lifts. Fish often slurp it right off bottom. Last fall, it was calm and we could sight-fish in 12 feet of water. We watched big smallmouths swim over and wait until the blade sat motionless on bottom. When it did, you'd see your line jump and could set the hook."
On rocky sections of Lake Erie, in contrast, Balog says it's more common to fish aggressively. "On many days, we've had to rip the blade as hard as possible, pulling it 5 to 10 feet on each sweep. It depends on where the fish are hovering in the water column, as well as water temperature, bottom structure, and prevailing forage."
While some anglers prefer medium-power spinning tackle, Balog opts for a 7-foot Daiwa Tatula triggerstick (TAT701MRB) and 12-pound Sufix fluorocarbon. The slightly stiffer fluoro prevents hooks from fouling the line, which often happens with braid. He says the Tatula flexes like a crankbait rod. The combination works blades smoothly, while the rod and line have just enough flex to keep bass pinned. A similar option I've used is St. Croix's 7-foot 1-inch Rage (RC71MF), a medium-power, fast-action caster with a fine blend of sensitivity and flex.
Balog also stresses the importance of hooks. "I've yet to find a bladebait that comes with the right hooks. I downsize trebles on all of them. On a 1/2-ounce Silver Buddy I use two #6 Gamakatsu round-bend trebles on split rings." And he always uses a small snap.
Campbell's Sonar-Sonar Pattern
At the eastern end of Lake Erie, veteran guide Frank Campbell uses bladebaits in the Niagara region. Campbell typically wields a Heddon Sonar on both sides of the Summer Period. "Soon after ice-out, blades start working," says the multispecies guide. "Postspawn is my favorite time to rip blades like the Sonar. When smallies suspend off bottom, they slide into deep areas close to spawning flats. After spawning, big females often suspend several feet off bottom. A blade becomes highly appealing then.
"Emerald shiners are key forage early in the year, while gobies become more important in fall. I try to match the baitfish in color and size." Campbell says he rarely catches fish on silver baits anymore, even in Erie's super-clear waters. "Gold is highly effective as a shiner imitator, as is green. White and brown patterns work well, too, especially once bass focus on gobies."
Campbell fishes bladebaits on calm days when bass may refuse a tube or even livebait. "I use the graph to find individual boulders in 15 to 25 feet of water. We do the same thing in fall when fish are along quick drops in 25 to 45 feet of water."
Once he locates a big rock, baitfish school, or individual bass on the graph, Campbell drops the Sonar. He calls this interactive approach "Pac-Man fishing," as he watches the lure and the bass' reaction on the screen. For imitating large shiners or smelt, he opts for 1/2-ounce blades, while the 1/4-ouncer excels for mimicking small baitfish.
In shallow water, a vertical approach sometimes spooks fish, as bass scatter from the boat's shadow. In those situations, Campbell tries to spot rocks and other cover, then casts the blade and works it near cover with short rips of the rod tip. If bass are nearby, strikes usually occur within a few rips.
In water deeper than 15 feet, his vertical Pac-Man approach usually proves deadly. "We drop the blade to the level of fish or cover we see on the screen. Once it's in position, I give the bait a 3- to 5-foot upward pump, not a hard rip. Then I pause and let it flutter back while following the blade on a semi-taught line. If that fails to get a strike, we may raise the lure a little higher to make fish chase. In any case, we react to what we're seeing on screen."
Campbell says that smallmouths often bite at the top of the stroke, when the bait's reached its peak and has just begun to drop. "It's important to keep your rod in position for a hook-set. I tell clients not to hold the rod too high or they're out of position when a bass bites."
Campbell spools with 6- and 8-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon. He prefers Fenwick's 7-foot 4-inch medium-power Elite Tech Smallmouth spinning rod, as its extra length easily imparts the right action to lures and provides control over hooked fish.
Few anglers I've fished with work blades more precisely than Scott Dobson. "People limit blades way too much," he says. "I've been fishing them in non-traditional spots—3 feet of water around dock posts in spring or openings in shallow cover. They can outperform lures such as heavy jigs in a variety of locations."
Dobson, who relies on a chrome 1/2- and 3/4-ounce Silver Buddy, extols its reflective value. "On sunny days, a stainless-steel, non-plated Buddy is second to none," he says. "I can see it shimmering like a mirror in shallow water.
"Most people fish bladebaits in 20 to 30 feet of water, but they can work as well on shallow flats or around cover. With two double hooks, Nories' TG Jaka Blade is sweet option around stumps in reservoirs. I won a local tournament targeting individual stumps, fishing it like a tube or jig. Holding the rod at about 3-o'clock, I keep the blade within 6 inches of bottom, giving it short sweeps with the rod tip. When a bass hits, I don't truly set, but lift and start reeling.
As a bladebait rocks back and forth, it flickers in the sun, attracting the attention of any nearby predators. Whether in shallow or deep water, a bladebait can be a powerful tool, and one that's powerfully overlooked.
*Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an In-Fisherman Field Editor. An avid bass angler, he contributes regularly to Bass Guide.