January 26, 2018
Buzzbait fishing isn't for the faint at heart. There's no gazing off into the distance or talking on your cell phone tucked into your shoulder. It's about direct combat between a bass and an angler and who can outlast the other, in terms of patience and persistence.
At times, expert buzzers must endure hours without a bite. In this situation, many anglers switch to slower presentations or move to deeper water. But those who persist often are rewarded with a flurry of bites from big bass.
Kentucky Lake guide Sam Lashlee, and Bassmaster Elite anglers Jared Lintner of California and Mike McClelland of Arkansas, are buzzbait believers and have a buzzbait on deck most of the year, particularly in late summer and early fall when a shallow bite often resumes. Lashlee guides on the Kentucky Lake portion of the Tennessee River, where his family has lived for many generations. A seasoned tournament veteran, he once won $200,000 in one month fishing a buzzbait. He discovered the power of a buzzbait as a 12-year-old when his dad was fishing a tournament on Center Hill Lake and left Sam to fish from the marina's 200-yard dock. Marina owner Darwin Guard gave Lashlee a fish basket to keep his biggest seven bass as he watched the youngster fish. After the tournament weigh-in, Lashlee placed his limit on the scales. It topped 46 pounds and would have bested the 219-boat field. "I thought it was the most incredible lure ever," he recalls. And Guard could only shake his head at the buzzbait magic he'd witnessed.
Lintner has won team tournaments, pro-am events, and placed well in several Bassmaster tournaments by fishing a buzzbait. "Whether I'm fishing deep or shallow, clear or murky water, I always have at least one type of buzzbait tied on," he says.
In tournament situations, McClelland doesn't put much trust in topwater lures, except a buzzbait. "I'd rather have them hooked on a single hook than a treble hook since my landing percentage is far better. When bass are on a buzzbait bite, they eat it with determination," he says.
Lashlee has been a buzzbait fanatic since his youth. "I'll throw the blades off of it around grass," he says. "On Lakes Guntersville and Chickamauga on the Tennessee River, thick vegetation forms an obvious target by midsummer. Buzzbaits allow you to cover an area quickly and they tend to attract the biggest fish. In lakes and reservoirs with a lot of cover, bass over 4 pounds tend to roam less and relate to isolated cover. They hold near wood or vegetation, ready to attack prey that swim by, including groups of shad that school along the edges of grassbeds, bluegills that dwell within the mat, or crayfish. In that shallow water, a lure moving overhead gets their attention fast."
Lintner believes that weather plays a role in buzzbait success. "The best situation for a buzzbait is when you find bass in vegetation and you have a decent chop, overcast sky, and the water is warm," he says. In August and September, as water temperatures rise from the 70-degree range in the morning up to 80°F, Lintner does best in the middle of the day.
"As water warms, the bass' metabolism speeds up and fish start chasing baitfish. Later, after the first major cold-front passes in early fall, you also have a prime shallow feeding window and buzzbaits become deadly around cover."
Rather than fancasting, Lintner carefully picks his targets. If he spots a stump on a flat, he casts a couple of feet to either side of it to avoid spooking fish holding tight to the cover. If he doesn't draw a strike, he casts beyond the cover and makes the lure deflect off both sides to test the patience of any bass lurking beneath it.
When calm and clear conditions prevail, louder lures can spook bass on shallow flats. Lashlee trusts an 1/8-ounce Strike King Mini Buzz or three-bladed Buzz King Junior in those conditions. "Retrieve it slowly and quietly so it makes a "V" in the water," he says. "When it's calm, subtle lures are best and bass can tune into them easily. When you have some chop, louder lures get the call." For a subtle look and sound, Lintner favors a plastic four-bladed bait since it's quieter than metal and stays on the surface easily on a slow retrieve.
McClelland believes that a blade with holes drilled in it creates the needed subtler commotion. In September when bass feed on small shad and fishing pressure has been heavy, he fishes an 1/8-ounce buzzbait with a clacker. In 2016, he used that setup on the Potomac River to finish high in a tournament, as it easily fished over thick eelgrass mats without hanging up.
Around shallow vegetation including waterwillow, hydrilla, and eelgrass, McClelland fishes a 3/8-ounce War Eagle Buzz Toad buzzbait, matched with a Cabela's BZ Toad. He finds that the Toad increases the lure's buoyancy and helps it dance over topped-out vegetation without stalling. "And its kicking feet add to the surface commotion," he says, "which is especially important over grass. I also lather the lure with Smelly Jelly, which helps prevent tangling in weedstalks and provides a positive flavor when a bass mouths it."
He also adjusts lure color to weather and water conditions. "A gold blade seems to work best under cloud cover and nickel excels under a bright sun," he says. "Clear water calls for a green pumpkin or bullfrog BZ Toad while white is best in clear bright conditions."
"The windier it is, the more aggressive bass become at this time of year," Lashlee adds. "I want the loudest, fastest buzzbait then. I've had a lot of success in those conditions with the new Strike King Swinging Sugar Buzz. Its blade can be adjusted to strike the head as loudly or softly as you want by bending the wire."
He often removes the skirt on buzzbaits and replaces it with a swimbait. "The Strike King Swimming Caffeine shad adds weight and buoyancy," he says, "so I can cast it farther in the grass, and it helps the lure rise fast and stay on top during slow retrieves. I use a 3-inch bait on small buzzbaits, and a 4-incher on standard lures. And I add a white Rage Craw for maximum surface commotion."
Lintner has had the opportunity to work on design teams for several brands of buzzbaits. He worked with Eco Pro Tungsten on the War Cry, which has a tungsten head that creates a sharp clacking as the blade hits it. "And its tungsten head isn't damaged by the blade as lead ones are," he adds.
He field-tested the Jackall Firecracker at Lake Nacimiento, a deep and clear spotted bass lake in California where 8-pound limits can win tournaments. "I caught a 4- and a 3.5-pounder right away. That's a lake that gets pounded. When the prop hits the body, it makes a unique sound that fish haven't heard," Lintner says.
When fishing lunker factories like the Cal Delta and Clear Lake in California, he goes big with the double-bladed D&M Double Hammer Buzzbait. "I'm trying to catch the biggest fish in the area," he says. "I superglue a 6- or 8-inch lizard or a Lake Fork Toad on the hook to further bulk its profile. Big fish eat big baits."
Lashlee modifies buzzbaits to make them loud and squeaky by bending the blades and crimping the rivet to prevent it from spinning. Sometimes he even drills out the blade where the wire goes into it, to increase its squeak. "Bending the wire arm to make the blade hit the head creates sounds that drive bass crazy," he says.
In-Fisherman Senior Editor Steve Quinn witnessed Lashlee's buzzbait expertise during a trip to Kentucky Lake out of Paris Landing. They'd run downriver to a wide, flat area just off the main channel where a series long bars topped out at 4 to 6 feet where they'd found healthy strands of mixed hydrilla and Eurasian milfoil. They caught a few bass by pitching jigs into pockets and working softbaits along the edge until Lashlee suggested a buzzbait.
"We caught a pack of 4- to 6-pounders over the next two hours until it was time to head in," Quinn reports. "But whenever a lure got straightened out a bit from a catch or from dragging in a haul of grass and didn't clack as well, it was ignored. Lashlee could hear when a buzzer got out of tune and he showed me how to bend it downward so it would clack again. That loud sound seemed to make all the difference.
"Since then, I've had a lot of success by tuning buzzers this way, particularly when fishing grass mats. It's tricky to do, as you want it to lightly flick the head as it spins. If you bend it too much, it stalls on occasion. And as you fish the lure, the wire tends to bend back to its original shape so you have to rebend it every 20 minutes or so."
When you study them, buzzbaits are more versatile than at first glance. At times, they work best with a moderate chop that disguises the lure somewhat. And in slick water, Lashlee often selects a small buzzer that ripples the surface without splashing.
"At times, buzzers work on schooling bass," Lashlee says. "In that situation, a heavy lure with a small blade allows you to cast far to reach fish. And you can work it fast to get fish feeding before they swim back down.
"During the heat of summer, a fast retrieve can stir up a bite that almost seems like a reaction or aggravation strike. When bass are aggressive, I fish it fast and cover as much water as I can and contact as many fish as possible. But even in summer it pays to experiment with slowing the lure to a crawl if a fast retrieve isn't working, just as you would with a topwater plug."
Lashlee uses his rod tip to change a buzzbait's sound. "In wavy conditions, I hold my rod tip right at the water's surface so the blade creates a plowing motion against the waves. And to maximize a lure's squeak, I keep my rod tip high," he says.
Lintner finds that an irregular cadence sometimes works best. He twitches the rod during the retrieve to flare the blade to stimulate a bite. "That retrieve mimics what happens when a lure hits a piece of cover and caroms," he says.
Some anglers miss bass on buzzbaits when they set too quickly, but Lashlee has a recipe for success. "I call it 'drop and feed,'" he says. "Don't set the hook. When a bass rolls up on the lure, lower your rod and give it a little slack and then pull and see if the fish has it. If you don't feel anything, keep reeling until you feel pressure, then drive the hook home with a hard pull across your chest off to one side. This method tends to hook bass farther back in the mouth, so they don't throw the hook as readily on a jump or dive."
To make long casts and to set hooks well, these experts favor long rods. Lashlee uses a 7-foot 4-inch heavy-power Duckett Micro Magic rod paired with a Lew's reel with a 7.3:1 gear ratio. The stiff rod is somewhat unorthodox, but it works for him, particularly in thicker vegetation where bass can bury down in the mat and you must break them loose from weedstalks and wind in the bass, plants, and all.
When fishing a small buzzbait (1/4-ounce or less), he uses 17-pound monofilament line in moderate cover, 20-pound around matted grass, and 50-pound Vicious No Fade braid in the thick stuff. "Its length allows you to easily steer the lure toward pockets and pieces of cover," he adds.
McClelland favors a 7-foot 4-inch medium-heavy-power Falcon Signature Series rod. For 3/8- and 1/2-ounce baits, he fishes 50- or 60-pound Sunline FX2 braid on a Cabela's Arachnid reel with 8:1 gearing. Lighter baits call for a 7-foot 2-inch rod with 30- to 40-pound braid and a slightly slower reel.
Lintner uses a 7-foot 5-inch medium-heavy G. Loomis IMX rod paired with a Shimano Metanium MGL HG reel with 7.4:1 gearing. "I don't like too stiff of a rod. If a fish comes up and eats the bait and you're too quick, you often pull it away from the fish, especially with braided line," he says.
Early Fall Buzzin'
Quinn has a lot of experience with buzzbaits in early fall. "As water temperature falls throught the 50°F range, vegetation on middepth flats thins, providing better feeding opportunities for big bass," he says. "In clear lakes with lots of shallow cover, a good buzzbait bite can last until the water cools below 50°F. A big, slow-moving single or double buzzer lures bass to the surface, and effectively combs broad areas for active fish. Work the lure through pockets in the grass over the edges of vegetation. In this situation, calm water improves the surface bite.
"In reservoirs with a shad prey base, cooling water also brings a strong shallow bite as bass push the big baitfish against rocky flats or vertical banks in the main lake or near the mouth of major tributaries. One November, I enjoyed a hot buzzbait bite, fishing with Jim Dill, owner of Crock-O-Gator Lures. Dill consistently finishes high in fall events at Lake of the Ozarks, fishing buzzbaits almost exclusively. Retrieve slowly, and it helps if you can run the lure into rocks, wood, or dock posts. Fall bass hold shallow there, 2 to 6 or 7 feet, until the water turns cold."
A buzzbait plodding along the surface with a bass careening out of the water to smash it is what bass fishing is all about. Once you get that feeling, you become another buzzbait believer.
*Jonathan LePera, Port Robinson, Ontario, is an avid bass angler and freelance writer.