Lures and Tips the Pros Use to Hunt Bass
By Tim Tucker
Every tournament pro will tell you that the biggest challenge involved in all of bass fishing - from high-stakes competition to a laid-back weekend afternoon - lies in locating individual, or better yet, concentrations of largemouth, smallmouth or spotted bass. It is the dirty work of a job that only becomes fun and glamorous after the fish have been discovered.
All bass enthusiasts fish under time constraints. For the average angler, it might be the daylight hours of the weekend, but the tournament pros feel the pressure of the passing minutes.
Top tournament fishermen place a premium on the lures that, over the years, have proven to be most reliable for quickly scouring water to find bass. Not only do these lures comb the water to make contact with resident fish; they also have the ability to attract bass to them from considerable distances (a precious commodity).
The following are valuable baits of six accomplished tournament pros:
The majority of pros will say that the spinnerbait ranks at the top of their tools best suited for scouting the water for active bass. Carl Maxfield uses a spinnerbait most often because it can cover a lot of ground. "If you use a heavy enough spinnerbait, you can run it fast and still keep it deep enough to hunt fish with it. That is the key reason why a spinnerbait is such a good hunt lure. You can slow-roll it in 8 or 10 feet of water or you can fish it real fast in a foot or 2 of water - and still cover a lot of water with it either way."
Maxfield's choice for a "search spinnerbait" is a 1/2-ounce Hawg Caller model with a gold metal-flake RM skirt that features a special collar that both contains a rattle and locks its silicon strands firmly into place. The spinnerbait most often sports a silver No. 2 Colorado and gold No. 4 willowleaf blade. The final components are a baby-bass colored 4-inch ringworm trailer and 16-pound test Stren Super Tough or Easy Cast line.
His tackle for quickly searching the water includes a 6-foot Shakespeare IM6 graphite rod and matching reel with a 6 to 1 retrieval ratio.
The speed and style of retrieving the spinnerbait depends on two primary factors: the species being targeted and whether he is fishing for fun or profit. "If I am fishing for largemouths in a grass lake, for example, I try to just slow-roll the spinnerbait and let it barely touch the top of the grass, regardless of the depth," he explains. "But with smallmouths in the grass of northern lakes like (Michigan's) St. Clair or the Hudson River, I always rip the spinnerbait real fast."
"The buzzbait is an ideal shallow-water search bait in practice for tournaments because you can get a lot of action and movement out of the fish without hooking a lot of fish - even if you don't bend the barb down on the hook. By working it fast, you can locate fish without catching them. So that makes it an ideal search bait for tournaments."
The Buzzbait is a great hunt lure pretty much year-round except for the extreme cold because it's fast for covering shallow water and it is a reaction bait. When looking for bass, don't look for a single bass - look for an area with lots of fish. If you run a buzzbait through an area that has a bunch of fish in it, you'll probably get a few bites - slow down - get your attention focused on an area so that you can go back and work it with slower baits like a plastic worm, jig or a spinnerbait with a trailer hook.
Ken Cook's favorite for this task is the Buzz Throb, which he designed for Hart Tackle. It is unusual in that it doesn't have the clacking mechanism found on most buzzers. The amount of noise it emits can be altered by simply adjusting the wire to make more or less contact with the offset rotating blade. This enables Cook to have a loud buzzbait for conditions like muddy water or wave action as well as a quieter lure for calm days and clear-water situations.
When hunting bass with this buzzbait, Cook prefers the 1/4- or 3/8-ounce sizes tied to 20-pound test Trilene Big Game monofilament.
Foraging through an area for the most aggressive bass requires more than just a haphazard approach to buzzing the water's surface, Cook says. "Typically when I'm searching, I'm moving the boat real fast, covering a lot of water and trying to parallel to where I can hit three or four targets on one cast," the former fisheries biologist advises. "Make a long cast and drag the bait by two or three stumps, parallel the grass line or riprap or whatever you're fishing. Try to be as efficient as you can by hitting as many different potential fish-holding targets on every cast.
"Then, if you have determined that the bass are target-oriented or shoreline-oriented, change up and make short casts specifically at those targets."
While exploring shallow water for bass, Cook varies his retrieve from steady to fast to methodically slow - and even a stop-and-go cadence - to find the style that the fish will respond to under the specific conditions of that day.
"My goal in searching for fish is exactly that - to find fish," Cook says. "And then I'll worry about figuring out how to catch them as things progress."
The No. 1 hunt lure for Arkansas' Mark Davis is a big-lipped crankbait (a common search-and-destroy tool for professional anglers). But lure No. 1A is, believe it or not, a topwater plug.
As with Cook's buzzer, surface lures like a Heddon Zara Spook and Rebel Pop-R consistently reveal the hiding places of the most active bass in an area for the only man to win both the Classic and Angler of the Year titles in the same season.
"Topwaters helped me find fish in the Classic, so I guess you would have to say they helped me win the Classic," Davis praises. "You may or may not be able to catch them during the actual tournament with the same bait, but you know the general area and, a lot of times, the exact location of bass. Then you can come back and really pinpoint their exact location during a tournament and catch them on a jig or crankbait or hard or soft jerkbait.
"And the great thing about a topwater is that you can see what size the fish are and the whole deal. Whereas with other lures, you can't tell a lot of times. You don't know if that fish that grabbed a worm was a 3-pounder or 11 inches long. With a topwater, you see the fish or at least the size of the wake he creates. So you know what kind of fish you're dealing with."
Davis reserves the Spook (in a black, bullfrog or flitter-shad color pattern) for windy days and choppy conditions. A black-and-chrome Pop-R is better suited for calm days, according to his game plan. The heavier Spook allows him to make longer casts and cover more water, while the small chugger demands shorter casts and a slower presentation. Both lures are usually fished on 17-pound test Super Silver Thread line.
As search lures, these topwater plugs are usually better choices than the more preferred crankbait or spinnerbait in certain situations. That is particularly true of lakes with an abundance of vegetation.
"The way I retrieve a topwater when looking for bass depends on the mood of the fish, obviously," Davis adds. "That changes every day."
"More times than not, you can't really tell how many fish are in an area because there is only a certain small percentage of them that are going to bite a topwater. But in tournament fishing, that is enough - it has done its job. It has told you that there are fish there. You get to see what kind of water it is in, how shallow it is or how close it is to deeper water. Or what kind of water color it was relating to. That strike is the starting point. With that strike, the lure has done it's job."
Bottom-Hugging Hunt Lures
Robert Hamilton's ideas about the traditional Carolina rig just aren't traditional. As he sees it, Carolina-rigged soft plastics can be more than the slow, bottom-bumping baits of old.
"If you had to categorize it, I would say the Carolina rig - day in and day out - may be the best search lure of all," claims the Mississippi pro and past Classic champion. "You can pull it fast. You can pick off the active fish with it and it is relatively snag-free.
"Plus, you don't waste a lot of opportunities with it. It catches those fish that won't chase a bait. With a crankbait or spinnerbait, you have a tendency to fish over top of inactive bass, but you won't with a Carolina rig even if you are fishing it fast."
Hamilton turns to a Carolina rig in practice when searching depths of 5 feet or greater. The rig begins with a 24- to 36-inch leader of 17- to 25-pound test green Trilene XT. Three glass beads sit between the 3/4-ounce weight and barrel swivel to both protect the knot and make noise. His preferred hook for this technique is a 2/0 to 4/0 EWG (extra-wide gap) Gamakatsu version.
The hunt lures Hamilton most often pins to the Carolina rig include a Berkley Power Craw or Lizard, 6-inch curl-tailed worm and a Slug-Go soft-plastic jerkbait. But perhaps his most effective bait for dressing up a Carolina rig is a 4-inch Power French Fry, a straight, crinkle-cut piece of plastic.
To get the proper action and hook-setting response from a rod, Hamilton uses a 7 1/2-foot fiberglass flipping stick. "The way to work the Carolina rig, as well as set the hook, is to throw it out and sweep it to the side," he explains. "I don't want my lead to come up off of the bottom at all. And a flipping stick lets me maintain contact with the bottom.
"Once the bait reaches the bottom, I sweep it to the side about 90 degrees. Reel up the slack and come sideways with it again. And when I get a bite, I always set the hook to the side, which gives you more positive pressure with a Carolina rig."
In his short, but brilliant career, former Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam has become known as a "fast fisherman," one who prefers to cover expanses of water with a quick-moving lure. His successes with a spinnerbait and crankbait have been well-chronicled.
But one of his best search lures is a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce (depending on the depth) Strike King Bootlegger jig with a Riverside Big Claw plastic trailer.
"To me, a jig is a real good lure to hunt fish with because it is a bait that you can put in a lot of places," the Michigan pro says. "You can cover a lot of water in a day with a jig.
"Plus, it's a target lure so you can put it right in there where they live. I let it hit the bottom and if a bass doesn't take it quickly, I put it in another spot. You can just pick the cover apart in a real hurry. Remember that if I pull into a big bay that is full of laid-down trees, stumps and logs or grass or brush, I'm not necessarily looking to catch 30 bass if there are 30 living there. I am just trying to get a few strikes to help me determine what the pattern is on a given day. And fishing a jig real fast can be one of the most effective ways to do that."
VanDam, who utilizes darker colored jigs for off-colored water and lighter shades for clear conditions, relies on a plastic trailer during practice days because it requires little attention and doesn't dry out. A pork tantalizer like the Strike King Pigtail is substituted when he begins actually casting for cash.
"The key thing when you are searching for fish is that you don't have to hit every spot with the jig," he adds. "Because I am looking for areas that have at least a small concentration of fish. If I go through an area real fast without hitting all of the targets and get two or three bites, I've got a pretty good idea that I can come back and work it a little more thoroughly and get five or six bites."
Arkansas pro and five-time B.A.S.S. winner Ron Shuffield is one of many top pros who first explore bass habitat with a crankbait when looking for fish. But, many times, his most reliable tool is a lipless crankbait.
"A Rat-L-Trap to me has always been a good reaction bait and that's what you want when you're searching for bass in practice," Shuffield says. "I probably catch as many fish on it as I could some other crankbait, but I get a lot bigger fish to bite it because of its noise and action."
Shuffield, who has taken four big-bass awards in recent BASSMASTER™ events, believes there is no better hunting lure in the spring when the bass are staging on the flats on both sides of the spawn, as well as in the fall when fish have a tendency to school up and chase pods of shad. A lipless crankbait like his beloved 1/2-ounce Rat-L-Trap is unsurpassed when it comes to drawing out bass in weedy areas where they are usually difficult to position, he believes.
The Rat-L-Trap, which is usually tied to 15-pound test Triple Fish line, is fished on a 7-foot medium-action Pinnacle fiberglass rod. Shuffield's most productive colors for locating bass are the chromes (with blue, black or gold backs) and chartreuse patterns. The exception is the early spring when a red or reddish-crawfish configuration is more effective. And he occasionally removes some of the BBs in the lure to reduce its rattle when fishing for pressured bass (a modified Rat-L-Trap produced the top bass - 8-pounds, 15-ounces - in the 1995 BASSMASTER tournament on Seminole).
"When it comes to locating fish, I don't put the Rat-L-Trap in the crankbait category," Shuffield says. "It's more what I call an idiot bait. You take it, throw it, crank it and there's not a lot you have to do to it. You might rip it on several retrieves, but it doesn't take a lot of thinking to throw one and catch fish on it."
Shuffield downplays his own ability to manipulate the Rat-L-Trap, but not its significance of attracting long distances strikes. It is just one of several "bird-dog" lures that the pros have grown to appreciate over the years.