Smallmouth Spinnerbait Finesse
October 05, 2016
I've long subscribed to the notion that by the time you hear about a new method or trend in fishing, it's probably time to move on to something else to keep ahead of the crowd. The quest for unorthodox approaches can be risky, but once in awhile they bring spectacular bites—fishing that's so good you find yourself looking over your shoulder, wondering, "Why hasn't anyone else figured this out?"
But here I'm talking about a spinnerbait—a time-tested lure that's anything but cutting edge. What caught my attention about five years ago was hearing anglers say that spinnerbaits had become archaic; that fish were no longer reacting to them as well as they had in the past, and that swim jigs and swimbaits had more or less replaced them.
To me that meant one thing: It was time to try spinnerbaits again. Reports of the spinnerbait's demise were equally surprising to Mark Copley, Marketing Manager for Strike King Lures, the industry leader in this lure category. "Spinnerbait sales have never been stronger," Copley told me recently. "It's still one of KVD's favorite baits, especially when he's hunting big smallmouths."
More proof: This past March, when Jason Christie nearly captured the 2016 Bassmaster Classic with a single Colorado-bladed Booyah Blade spinnerbait, it confirmed that the spinnerbaits were far from ready for retirement; that select spinners do things so much better than other baits that you can never discount them. For Christie, the situation on Oklahoma's Grand Lake called for a lure with ample flash and vibration. Big largemouths were stationed in shallow brush and stumps, but limited in their strike zone due to cold, turbid water. "The only bait that allowed me to increase their strike zone was a big single-bladed spinnerbait, something they could feel coming," Christie says.
"The versatility of a single blade is overlooked in bass fishing. A big Colorado, like the #5 and #6 I used in the Classic, gives me a lot of control. So even though I was fishing 3/4- and 1-ounce lures, the big blade enabled me to slow the retrieve when I approached cover, yet still keep the bait off the bottom in shallow water."
He led the tournament going into the final day, before falling to second when Edwin Evers weighed a monster sack. Christie coupled the heavy yet compact Booyah Blade with a YUM Pulse swimbait trailer. "A thick plastic trailer like the Pulse adds buoyancy, slowing down the heavy spinnerbait so it fishes like a much lighter lure," he adds. "It also increased vibration as the tail continually kicked back and forth."
On the smallmouth scene, Kevin VanDam fishes a single Colorado bladed spinnerbait in many scenarios. The best settings, he says, are areas with steep vertical structure and cover, like bluffs, boulders, bridges, and standing timber.
"The slow thump of a single Colorado blade allows you to fish multiple depth zones and at various speeds," he says. "I also like to cut down the arm of a tandem-bladed spinnerbait to one-third its length and attach one blade. I do that because it's hard to find heavier single spins that can handle a #4 Colorado. The shorter arm allows the blade to helicopter better on the fall, which helps bass key on it."
Single Spins & Short Arms
Another of these select smallmouth situations presented itself while fishing Lake Minnewaska in central Minnesota. It was early July, and a friend and I collided with a sizeable school of brown bass, milling around dense patches of tall pondweed, growing from a rock and gravel bottom close to the surface in 8 to 12 feet of water.
Casting 3/8-ounce Strike King single-Colorado-bladed, short-arm spinnerbaits, we hooked lots of big smallmouths, including several double-headers. As the lure stalled and fluttered parallel to a plant stalk, a bass would whack it. It was the only lure weedless enough to work cleanly through the vegetation and also helicopter down toward bottom with occasional pauses. It allowed us to cast far to search for fish as well as to let it fall vertically, attracting attention with flash and vibration.
At the time, finding big smallmouths in vegetation surprised me. But an array of similar scenarios since have shown that these habitat selections are far from unusual. For short windows in summer, when water is high, I fish a shallow-vegetation, tree-and-brush pattern on the Mississippi River. When everything is right, I've caught big smallmouths, walleyes, and crappies in the same areas, slightly out of current in little off-river nooks and crannies.
In relatively shallow prairie lakes in the Dakotas, a vegetation and tree pattern is often available, which is overlooked for smallmouths during summer and early fall. In many lakes, of course, smallmouths frequently feed on perch and crayfish within forests of pondweed, coontail, and sandgrass. Further, catching big smallmouths in shallow bulrushes and even pads is far from abnormal.
For all these situations, a go-to bait continues to be a single-Colorado-blade spinnerbait. Recently I've also been trying larger Oklahoma blades, a football-shaped blade that seems to produce perhaps even more "thump" than a similar-sized Colorado.
The most successful models have a short upright arm, as KVD suggests, particularly when jigging the lure or allowing it to helicopter, which is often a key part of the presentation. The best versions for smallmouths are often smaller, too. The Bassdozer Short Arm Thumper is one of the only remaining short-arm, single-blade models available, and it's a fantastic smallmouth lure. Zorro Baits Short Arm Aggravator is another good one, based on Stan Sloan's classic design.
The main problem with selecting a single spin these days is that at least 90 percent of the market consists of big tandem spins—mostly willowleafs or willow-Colorado combinations. Some of the few available are marketed as "night spinnerbaits," which is fine, because they come in black, purple, and red patterns, which smallmouths love. Strike King's Tour Grade Night Spinnerbait is a great one, as is Booyah's Moontalker and Strike King's Midnight Special. I sometimes cut about three-quarters of an inch off the arm and reattach the blade to increase flutter and vibration.
Getting the bait to run true—so the blade hums along in harmony and alignment with the head, hook, and skirt—is critical. I prefer baits with an open R-bend, which I feel creates more intense vibrations at low frequencies. R-bend baits also tend to run truer than closed-frame styles. I also like a bait with a broader head, as opposed to flatter, keel-shaped heads. That's because these lures often work best when you can jig them, and allow them to flutter on a semi-slack line. A flatter head is more balanced for vertical approaches.
Stepping back for a broader perspective, the choice to throw a spinnerbait today is more ambiguous than ever, given the proliferation of swim jigs and swimbaits. What tips the scales in favor of the single-blade spinner often relates to vibration. It's apparently long been the opinion of lure manufacturers that "sound" should be loud and easily audible to human ears. But the most important sound cues from a bass' perspective emanate from the subtle swimming pulses of preyfish—tails thumping, bodies contorting fluidly through the water. They're mostly not detectable by human ears—as opposed to the rattles inside a lipless crank—but they're beautiful music to a bass' lateral line.
According to Dr. Keith Jones in his book, Knowing Bass, the lateral line is "used more for detecting minute prey movements or the charge of an oncoming predator . . . Different parts of the lateral-line system specialize in different things. The head region, with its elaborate array and higher concentration of sensors, specializes in more detailed vibrational analyses of objects at close range. Given its extensive use in feeding, it is no surprise that the lateral line is tuned to the subtle low-frequency vibrations put off by small prey, being most sensitive in the neighborhood of 100 cycles per second."
While no data exist on the similarity of fish movements and those produced by metal blades moving through the water, both fish and Colorado blades give off low-frequency vibrations most detectable by bass. Further, a broad Colorado blade, which pulses slower, yields a lower frequency vibration than narrower willowleaf or Indiana blades.
Beyond the versatility of a Colorado blade and its ability to work slow or fast, and to pulse enticingly on the drop, anglers can alter vibration output by changing lure speed—a nearly unique trait among bass lures. This is especially important, though rarely acknowledged, given that everything in water moves in constantly changing—rather than static—vibration (frequency) patterns. Finally, it's possible to produce lower-frequency vibrations by choosing a deeply cupped blade, or one stamped from thinner metal.
Certainly, flash also plays a role. While tradition suggests the need for both flash and vibration in murky water, I've often found these factors to be even more important when fishing in dense cover—even in super-clear water—such as when retrieving through vertical vegetation, which makes it difficult for predators to see prey.
Here's where things get interesting: the skirt. I have no idea why more anglers haven't discovered the effectiveness of spinnerbaits adorned with natural hair and fur instead of silicone and living rubber. About four years ago, I tied a handful of marabou spinnerbaits on worn Strike King and Stanley frames, and have been shocked by how favorably smallmouths respond to them, compared to those with synthetic skirts.
Last fall, I discovered the Schmidterbait while browsing inshore tackle at the Charleston Angler in South Carolina. Conceived by master fly and lure maker Brian Schmidt (no relation), the Schmidterbait—a finesse-sized marabou spinnerbait—can be fished on a flyrod or light spinning tackle. Schmidt fished a version of the lure for two years before fly tackle giant Umpqua Feather Merchants licensed it for its product line.
Today, Schmidt crafts amazing custom flies and lures for his own business, brianschmidtbaits.com. To Schmidt, whether you call it a fly or a lure doesn't matter. It works both ways, and catches fish whether you're a purist or not. What I've always admired about craftsmen like Schmidt, Larry Dahlberg, and Kelly Galloup is that while they often wield flyrods, they never doubt the efficacy of traditional tackle.
"Materials like marabou move through water more naturally and dynamically than most synthetics," Schmidt says. "They're not as tough, but they catch more and bigger fish, especially in tough situations." For Schmidt, the issue was how to target big spooky bass lying in deep pockets in vegetation. "A jig can often get the job done, but when bass get touchy, they won't respond; they want something that almost hovers, or a lure that flutters and pulses on a slow drop.
"I fish highly pressured lakes that have mats of thick vegetation," says the Colorado-based angler. "Bass live in these dark holes between the mats. I needed something that can easily move through the 12 inches of open water between the surface and the plant tops, and be subtle enough to creep up on these fish, while still making a disturbance to get their attention."
Far from your typical spinnerbait retrieve, Schmidt uses a Sage Bass II flyrod or a medium-light spinning rod to make short underhand pitches with the lure, which weighs 1/8 ounce, dry. He strips and sweeps it with the rod tip before pausing and letting it slowly flutter, slightly nose-down, with the small Colorado blade strumming along on the light-wire shaft. He says it sinks about a foot every 2 seconds.
What makes the Schmidterbait castable on a 7-foot medium-light spinning rod and 4- or 6-pound-test Sufix Nanobraid or Berkley NanoFil is that when saturated, the lure nearly doubles in weight. It's like an un-weighted softbait that sinks slowly, with natural moving fibers and vibration. The fine marabou fibers that make the lure pulse and breathe seductively on the stop-and-go also make for an odd toothpick-thin presentation when retrieved straight ahead. "I knew the bait needed more bulk," he says, "so I looked at traditional spinnerbaits with plastic trailers. I decided that inside the tufts of marabou, I'd tie a bulked-up body with short strands of contrasting white Krystalflash or Flashabou, as well as ostrich feathers, which extend an inch or so past the marabou."
Ostrich, Schmidt says, adds a bit more bulk than marabou when pulled through the water, and it's tougher, giving the lure more durability. He also notes that the ostrich tail works like a softbait trailer, undulating as the lure moves through the water. (Avoid mixing marabou or other natural fibers with a softbait trailer or a mess can ensue.)
He makes two sizes—the original 1/8-ouncer with a #1.5 Aspen Colorado and a Magnum, made with a 3/0 hook and #4 Colorado. In case you think the lure is for fly fishers only, Schmidt notes that he recently sold 45 of the hairy spinnerbaits to a tournament bass angler in California, who's experienced tremendous success with it in super-clear SoCal impoundments.
On smallmouth waters like Minnesota's Mille Lacs and relatively clear portions of the Upper Mississippi River, I fish similar 1/4- and 3/8-ounce marabou spinnerbaits among trees, vegetation, and big rocks. On lakes with boulders, a black-white, black-red, or solid white hair spin has been a wonderful smallmouth bait. Cast to individual boulders or slow-roll the lure as it approaches a boulder, killing it to flutter into the dark crease on the rock's shady side. If a bass doesn't bite as the lure flutters down, one may sprint to snatch it as it moves past the rock.
All summer, I love working these baits across rock spines in rivers during low water. Grind the spinnerbait across the rock crown before jigging it with short hops on the slack current side. Be one of the first to test this class of baits on your local waters. And you may need to glance clandestinely over your shoulder to escape exposure.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler with a diverse background. He particularly likes trying novel baits in novel situations.