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Bass Week: On the Grind for Largemouths

Bladed jigs: deep, shallow, & right down the drop-off.

Bass Week: On the Grind for Largemouths

In-Fisherman contributor and fishery manager Jeff Matity always adorns his bass jigs with a small spinner blade.

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Athletes talk about grinding out wins—doing all the little intangibles that, in total, make the game-winning difference. It’s a football coach or a QB talking about those tough matchups and the effort needed to gain every extra yard and a put few more points on the board.

My fishing buddies and I call days like that “real grinders.” Unfortunately, fishing isn’t football; you can’t make fish bite through will or physical exertion alone. Better to focus on confidence lures fished in classic areas—often transition zones between deep- and shallow-water habitat. Maybe a couple 4-pounders save the day, or a quick flurry of bites in one little pocket salvages an otherwise brutal afternoon.

I usually don’t like those kinds of odds. But they happen, and so how the day proceeds mostly depends on your personality or your hardheaded confidence in certain go-to presentations. Years as a grind-it-out muskie man proved to me that tough days go best by sticking with one or two lures, slugging it out in high-percentage zones until I finally encounter a pocket of active fish. Almost always, I can save a real grinder of a day if I pick up a bladed bait, keep my head down, and just keep slinging. For bass—as with muskies—it’s best, I think, to fish with a loose sort of focus that leaves room to observe your surroundings and still react accordingly.

The deal goes deeper than that, of course. Could be a cold-water, slow-metabolism scenario where bass might pounce on something thumping and flashing and moving slow. Might also be a situation early in spring when largemouths aren’t yet congregated, but beginning to filter from deep to shallow, with fish scattered here and there on various clumps of good cover—a single submerged tree, a sizable lily pad rhizome (these remind me of pineapple plants), or a prime boat dock bordering a rim of curly-leaf pondweed.

A bass being held by the lip with a bladed jig in its mouth.
Coupling flash and vibration with a bottom-grinding football head remains an overlooked combo for bass in transition.

Blades and Bass Vision

As I’ve grown increasingly confident in blade-bearing lures—bladed jigs, chin spinners, and bladebaits—particularly in cool water, I’ve found myself continuously grinding it out with flash and just a bit of water-churning vibration. Something slightly magic, perhaps, about vibration and its attracting powers in cooler water, or during almost any Calendar Period. But more and more, in clear water or stained, I’ve grown confident in the flash factor, that visual sun-reflecting sparkle and on-off flicker playing across baitfish bodies as they turn at various angles to the light.

In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange offers a compelling case also in support of vision (flash) versus vibration. “Why exactly does a largemouth bass so often respond to a spinning object (a spinner), often connected to the body of a jig or weighted hook?” Stange asks.

“In his classic book Knowing Bass, Dr. Keith Jones, who I consider the greatest of all writers about largemouth bass, calls the largemouth the ‘consummate visual hunter,’” Stange says. “Part of their instinctive response to movement includes what Jones calls ‘flash patterns.’ Bass from early on learn to see flash as a predatory cue. Flashy baits—spinning blades—play on the fish’s predatory instincts.

“Adding flash, according to Jones, enhances lure detectability, with some flash patterns simulating baitfish. Meanwhile, others that don’t necessarily match the hatch, so to speak, offer even stronger visual attraction for bass. Jones also reminds us that flash patterns provide the most appeal in waters pervaded by strong directional light, such as the upper portion of the water column in clearer water in strong daylight. Flash steadily decreases with increasing depth where sunlight is randomly scattered.”

Factoring the power of flash versus vibration, I tend to believe, as does In-Fisherman contributor Jeff Matity, that vibration is a ­longer-range inducement, while flash can trigger a strike once a bass approaches the blade-bearing lure. (Flash also can be a strong attentive signal to fish at longer distances in clear water.) “Bass and other species can use their lateral line to echolocate prey from a distance,” suggests Matity, a fishery manager and talented angler from Regina, Saskatchewan. “Vibrations created by swimming fish create unique underwater signatures—water disturbance and displacement patterns—and bass track these familiar baitfish cues via their lateral line.

Studio photo of a ReelBait Flasher jig.
ReelBait Flasher

“As a bass tracks its target via vibration, say approaching within 20 feet of the object, vision also becomes a factor,” he says. “The first thing it’s likely to see is the flash of baitfish scales. In terms of triggering power, flash can be a deal-maker—a final inducement that compels a hunting bass to eat. For these reasons, I can’t imagine fishing any jig that isn’t adorned with some style of spinner blade.” (Fish also can use vibrations to determine strike trajectories when they’re honed in on a baitfish and within striking-distance range.)


Stange notes another curious aptitude of bass. “Jones reminds us that bass are much better at separating motions than we are, with the ability to separate images spinning or moving three times faster than we can,” Stange says. “According to Jones: ‘Long after the rotating blade of a spinnerbait becomes a blur to our eyes, a bass continues to see the moving blade as a distinct image across a wider range of speeds.’ Bass are much more tuned into spinning motion, perhaps another reason oscillating blades can be so attractive.”

An angler holding a large smallmouth bass in a boat on the water with a bladed jig in its mouth.
Pro bass angler Miles Burghoff grinds up a big smallmouth. Smallmouths also are visual feeders by nature and equally attracted to the flash of a willowleaf blade.

Hex Blades on Edge

Of course, none of this surprises fans of bladed jigs and spinnerbaits, anglers who continue hooking big largemouths around shallow water vegetation and timber. But the idea of taking a bladed jig deeper, it seems, is just beginning to register on the radars of top-notch anglers.

After six years of secretly fishing bladed jigs on deep offshore structure, Bassmaster Elite Series pro Buddy Gross recently divulged details of a phenomenal deep ledge pattern on Tennessee River impoundments like Nickajack and Chickamauga, and Lake Guntersville right across the northeast Alabama border. Gross has boated several five-bass limits weighing at least 30 pounds, slinging a big 3/4-ounce homemade bladed jig.

Made to match larger shad and other sizable baitfish, Gross’ deep blade pattern features a modified spinnerbait with a long-shank 7/0 hook and a white Super Zoom Fluke trailer. He shaves the skirt and skirt collar off the jighead, allowing him to snug the 5.25-inch Super Fluke tight to the lure, creating a seamless presentation. He cuts the wire arm off the spinnerbait head, leaving just enough wire bend to accept an original ChatterBait blade. The customized combo, he believes, offers a tighter swimming action than a traditional bladed jig, which Gross finds more closely imitates large gizzard shad frequenting deep river ledges.

Studio photo of a Picasso Shock Blade Tungsten Knocker  Heavy Cover.
Picasso Shock Blade Tungsten Knocker Heavy Cover

He says that while he uses the lure anytime January to June, he’s yet to try it beyond Tennessee River reservoirs. But he also thinks the lure could prove exceptional anywhere bass key on large shad or other XL baitfish.

Leaning even more on the grinding side of the equation, other anglers working deeper rock or other hard-bottom structure have discovered a hybrid football/bladed jig archetype that adds flash and vibration to a previously subtle presentation. Freedom Tackle owner Michael Tamburro, who helped design the ChatterBait Freedom CFL in concert with Z-Man, says the lure’s hex-blade continuously collides with its interchangeable football-shaped head, adding extra clacking noises as the lure thumps its way across the substrate. It’s ‘grinding’ at its core, taking two disparate successful lures and combining them into something akin to a deep-diving crankbait.

“We used a lead-free zinc football head and quick-change hook attachment that allows the back end of the lure to pivot and swing freely as you retrieve it,” Tamburro says. “Anglers can also change out the heavy-duty VMC flipping hook with a smaller, lighter hook for pairing with smaller finesse-bait trailers. This free-swinging hook design also yields awesome hookup rates. When a bass attempts to inhale the lure, the free-swinging hook pivots into the jaw without resistance, while it also doesn’t allow bass to gain leverage against the weighted head or easily throw the lure.”

Studio photo of a ChatterBait Freedom CFL jig.
ChatterBait Freedom CFL

Rising Major League Fishing Pro Circuit star Miles “Sonar” Burghoff says that unlike some bladed jigs that tend to plane upward during the retrieve, a ChatterBait Freedom CFL is built to stay on bottom. “Reel this bait as fast as you want,” says Burghoff, who also calls Tennessee River fisheries his home. “Certainly, I’ve found that the lure shines when you slowly drag it across rocks or yo-yo it down a ledge. But the lure’s blade-to-jighead construction keeps it down during the retrieve, so you can really dial up the flash and vibration, even in deeper water.

“I’ve been throwing this lure in places I used to fish a crankbait,” Burghoff adds. “Especially in that 10-foot zone and deeper, with a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce size. In current, over shell beds and gravel bars, or on deeper grass, this ChatterBait comes through cover surprisingly well, but also gives bass a different look and sound than a traditional swing head or football jig.”

When he’s working slower-moving crayfish patterns, he adds a buoyant Z-Man Turbo CrawZ as a trailer. For mimicking shad, he goes to a RaZor ShadZ and retrieves the lure with a slow, steady swim, just inches above the bottom—occasionally pausing to maintain bottom contact. Beyond the ChatterBait Freedom CFL, Phenix’s Stand Up Football Wobble Jig and Picasso’s Shock Blade Tungsten Knocker—designed by the late great Aaron Martens—each offer alternative deep blade options. Built on a one-piece 97-percent tungsten football head, the Shock Blade—like the ChatterBait Freedom CFL—emits a constant clacking noise as the blade collides with its heavy metal head.

Studio photo of a Phenix Stand Up  Football Wobble Jig
Phenix Stand Up Football Wobble Jig

Willow Vibing

Operating with amped up flash and subtler scales of vibration, willowleaf-bladed jigs like a Z-Man WillowVibe or underspins like the Gamakatsu Spinner Swimbait Hook effectively ply both shallower, near-surface zones as well as deeper structure and edges. Matity notes that a narrow-bodied willowleaf blade spins the easiest and offers the brightest flash, but also puts out a higher-frequency vibration that displaces less water. Given a bass’ acuity to best perceive lower-frequency vibrations, such as that of a Colorado blade, you could surmise that the flash-intensity and bass-catching efficacy of a willowleaf blade proves Dr. Jones’ beliefs on vision—that flash is perhaps even more critical than vibration.

As Matity also suggests, a slender #3 or smaller willowleaf blade adds the restrained illusion of baitfish flash—just enough scale-reflecting sparkle to deliver triggering power at close range. While an underspin style lure slices through water and allows rapid retrieves, such as for targeting schooling, shad-feeding bass in open water, the WillowVibe operates on different angles.

A bladed jig up close.
There's something slightly magic about vibration and its attracting powers in cooler water.

Rather than oscillating in a straight, streamlined orientation parallel to the hook shank, the WillowVibe connects blade to line tie amidship, turning deflection points closer to perpendicular. When you “start” the WillowVibe with a straight, moderately slow retrieve, the blade moves through the water in an upright, vertical orientation that pulses the rod tip and flashes in a more defined rhythm. Created by ChatterBait inventor Ron Davis Sr., it’s really one of the more remarkable newer lures I’ve fished, brilliantly devised to retain constant depth control.

But beyond its palpable vibration, you shouldn’t expect the lure to function like a traditional bladed jig or an underspin. Rather, the WillowVibe shines as a slower-moving, subtle swimbait delivery tool, adding random jukes and left-right-left hunting action during rapid accelerations or pauses. In two years of fishing this lure, I’ve found that it shines when dressed with a 3-inch paddletail swimbait or shad-shaped worm, retrieved slow, just off bottom—or on again, off again—along 5- to 15-foot edges or flats endowed with sparse cover. For slower work and in deeper water, a trailing Fish Arrow Flash J or Z-Man Finesse ShadZ subtly tail-wags as the lure speeds up or stops and pauses. At rest, the Finesse ShadZ’s tail ascends and hovers off bottom, matching a minnow feeding head-down in the substrate—a by-product of its buoyant ElaZtech composition.

For slightly faster retrieves, a paddletail like the 3-inch Keitech Easy Shiner, Savage Gear Ned Minnow, or Z-Man Slim SwimZ imparts tail-rocking action and accentuates the lure’s tendency to juke and jive. With either type of trailer, a steady retrieve followed by a sudden stop and sink maneuver makes the lure shimmy randomly—an action that frequently induces a bite.

Studio photo of  ChatterBait WillowVibe with a StreakZ 3.75 and Finesse ShadZ
ChatterBait WillowVibe with a StreakZ 3.75 and Finesse ShadZ

During what was likely the best largemouth bite I experienced all last year (during postspawn), more than 90 percent of strikes during an hour-long window happened right as I stopped the lure, following a 5-second straight swim sequence. During that hour, a 3/8-ounce WillowVibe/Finesse ShadZ combo caught over 20 largemouths 2 to 5 pounds each—all along the same 50-yard stretch, a steep 5- to 15-foot ledge peppered with milfoil, coontail, and elodea.

Let the lure sink to bottom before lifting and giving it a long, sideways pull of the rod, making the WillowVibe sing through your rod tip. The pull should propel the lure forward approximately 10 feet before you stop, retrieve slack, and immediately do another pull—always discerning the lure’s vibration, telling you its tracking and talking to bass. Alternatively, you can also simply swim the lure with a steady rotation of the reel handle, occasionally speeding up, slowing down or stopping to let the lure juke and jive.

Joey Nania, an Alabama based BASS Opens competitor, gives the under-the-radar bladed jig equally glowing accolades. “In the right conditions, a WillowVibe is one of my favorite baits,” says Nania, the 2021 Bassmaster Central Open Champion. “Especially in stained and off-colored water, current, rock, and ledges down to about 22 feet, the WillowVibe has been a big surprise this year.

“I’ve always valued a bait that could do different things—pull off two or more totally different actions—within the same retrieve,” he says. “The lure swims and hums along or slashes erratically, depending on retrieve speed alone. The reason it’s so compelling to fish, I believe, is that it emits a totally different sound and underwater signature than any other lure fish have seen before. On Logan Martin Lake this past year, I caught 60 spotted bass with the lure in three hours.”

Nania propels the compact WillowVibe up to 70 yards per cast, preferring spinning tackle with 10- or 15-pound-test braid. He says you can also throw the lure on casting tackle and 14-pound fluorocarbon.

“A slow, steady retrieve produces a rhythmic vibration,” he says. “You can throw it in 6 inches of water, start the retrieve immediately, and occasionally flick the blade through the surface or even bulge it on top. For suspended fish, count it down and keep it at any depth to about 15 feet with a steady retrieve. Give the WillowVibe little twitches to make it randomly jump and dart. It’s also a ledge killer at places like Lake Guntersville.

“Let it hit bottom, tightline it, and give it a couple quick snaps. You’ll also appreciate how well it comes through and out of rock crevices. A fast pop frees it. Otherwise, as soon as you feel the blade stop humming (the lure feels dead), it’s usually because a bass has inhaled it and you need to set the hook. Dial it in and you’ll be hooking bass on almost every cast.”

A man standing in a boat on the water holding a large largemouth bass.
The author with a large largemouth.

Bladed jig and WillowVibe inventor Ron Davis, certainly among the most imaginative lure craftsmen today, offers another perspective. “Truthfully, there’s nothing ‘finesse’ about the WillowVibe,” Davis says. “I chose a willowleaf over the traditional hex-blade for this lure because it leaves more room to oscillate from side to side, flashing and giving off a high-action, high-frequency vibration—more of a buzz than a thump. The rest of the secret lies in precisely calculating the right blade-to-jig and line-attachment locations—or pull-points—which determine the lure’s oscillation, stability, and vibration. Put it in the wrong spot, and you might make the mistake of never tying the lure on again. Get it right, though, and you’ll open a whole dimension of blade bass fishing.”

I like the sound of that, mostly because Davis is dead on. By now, most of you have felt the power of a bladed jig for big largemouths. Blades, jigheads, and soft plastic trailers, however, work way beyond obvious shallow cover. The choice to fish them in non-traditional transition areas—deep, shallow or in between—can suddenly convert a real grinder of a day into one you’ll never forget. 

Cory Schmidt is a longtime In-Fisherman Field Editor who contributes insightful articles to all In-Fisherman publications, often writing on emerging presentations and lure trends and developments.

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