Hard Metal Rap
While these lures "clang" for more respect, one of America's most respected anglers already knows the tune.
By Darl Black
"What's with that thing?" was the remark from Kevin VanDam's partner at a recent tournament on Lake St. Clair. "Do you really expect to catch a bass using that lure in this situation?" The "thing" was a compact metal lure, and VanDam was about to show him a thing or two.
Jigging spoons, blade baits and tailspinners are three renegade lures often considered outcasts by fishermen brought up on a strict diet of jigs and worms.
These baits do not have the charisma or tournament-winning reputation of topwater, crankbaits, spinnerbaits and soft plastic. Novice bass anglers struggle to understand the basics of how, when and where to fish this category of lures. Even among savvy professional anglers, not everyone fully comprehends the role of hard, metal baits. But for those who do, hard-metal rap is sure to become a big hit.
"I use all three of these lures," says VanDam, the Wal-Mart FLW Tour's Angler of the Year. "The Crippled Herring is my favorite jigging spoon, the Silver Buddy my favorite blade bait, and the Strike King Thruster Tail tailspinner is fast becoming one of the more versatile lures in my arsenal.
"Typically, none of them is my primary bait," VanDam continues. "I can't say I've won a tournament solely with one of these baits. But I have used them in events where I've done really well, where one of these baits caught key fish. Many times I will weigh in 20 bass and five of them will come on one of these three lures. They help you out when it's needed."
With this category of baits, most bass anglers have some sense about their traditional use - basically as deepwater, vertical presentation lures. But for VanDam it's the non-traditional ways of fishing these lures that work best.
"A jigging spoon is a great vertical bait, fished in the deep water of southern reservoirs during the winter," VanDam notes. "Over the years, I've caught a lot of bass doing just that, including a 4-pound largemouth taken in 65 feet of water at Lake Lanier on a Hopkin's Spoon - the deepest I've ever taken a largemouth.
"But that's not the way I fish a spoon most of the time. In clear-water northern lakes, bass are not that deep, and you can't really get on top of the fish to jig vertically. So I work the spoon by casting it."
During cold-water periods of the early spring and late fall, VanDam will position his boat on a drop-off or at the deep edge of a flat. He casts his spoon toward the outside edge of weed growth where the vegetation is beginning to thin. He will fish depths from as shallow as 7 feet and as deep as 22 feet, working the spoon back to the boat with a lift-drop retrieve.
"Let it sink to the bottom with tension on the line as you follow it down. Once it hits the bottom, just lift the rod tip with a short, quick snap and turn the reel handle at the same time to pick up slack line. Do this all the way to the boat," he says. "What I am trying to accomplish is short hops on the bottom. The spoon just flips up maybe 8 to 10 inches then settles back to the bottom."
The ½-ounce Crippled Herring is his preferred model for this technique. He chooses his line diameter to control the rate of the spoon's fall - switching to heavier line to slow the fall of the spoon if he believes that is needed.
According to VanDam, this technique is particularly effective in the late fall just before ice-up. Bass are in their winter locations at the base of drop-offs and the edges of big flats. "This is a great way to cover a lot of water fairly quickly to find fish. The strike zone of a bass at this time is so small that if you choose to fish a tube or grub, it would take you all day to find the bass."
"I learned how to fish a Silver Buddy a long time ago from tournament fishermen up north," VanDam says. "The ½-ounce size is the only one I use."
He stresses the blade bait is an exceptional lure early in the spring, right after ice-out when the water is very cold. His technique is about the same as with the Crippled Herring Spoon, utilizing short hops while fishing the same type of locations as in the fall.
"This technique works great on both largemouth and smallmouth," VanDam continues. "We catch numbers of largemouth in the spring on this lure, sometimes 25 to 30 in a spot no bigger than a boat.
"The spoon does not produce nearly as well as the blade in the spring, but I really do not know why. There must be something about the vibration of the blade over the flutter of the spoon when the water is so very cold."
VanDam fishes the blade bait on southern reservoirs in deeper water than he does up north. "In early spring at lakes like Table Rock or Bull Shoals, the fish are often holding on chunk-rock banks. The key section to fish is where the river channel swings away from the bluff onto gravel flats. I use a blade bait to stair-step down the bluff tailing. This is the location for a big smallmouth, and the Silver Buddy is the lure to trigger the strike."
Tailspinners have been widely used to target schooling bass busting bait on the surface. Because the lure can be cast a "country mile," it has a particular advantage in reaching out to those soon-to-disappear schools of fish.
Since Strike King introduced the Thruster Tail, VanDam has been experimenting extensively with it. He fishes this tailspinner more frequently than other lures in this category and is constantly finding new applications. Due to unique design features, the Thruster Tail can be used successfully in a wider variety of presentations than a typical tailspinner, according to VanDam.
The problems with many tailspinners are line twist and bass coming unbuttoned from the bait. Some features on the Thruster Tail alleviate these concerns. First, the blade is attached with a ball-bearing swivel rather than a clevis. This allows a more vertical fall and a free spinning blade with less line twist. Plus, the Thruster Tail has a hole in the center of the bait for the line to pass through. The split ring with hook attached is then tied to the line. With the bait able to slide up the line, the chance of a bass throwing the bait is reduced.
"I do so many things with the Thruster Tail that is has become a year-round lure for me," VanDam says. "I always seem to have one tied on a rod."
Among his favorite techniques with a tailspinner is when he is on an offshore crankbait pattern. "For example, I pull up on a deepwater ledge or point, catch a couple of bass on a crankbait real quick, then nothing. A tailspinner becomes my follow-up bait to check for suspended fish or other inactive bass around the point or ledge. With the tailspinner I can fish it from the surface to the bottom on a single cast. And when it hits bottom, I rip hard and let it flutter back down. I'm imitating dying or wounded shad - a deadly technique."
Another of his offbeat tailspinner techniques involves fishing on a flat where the average anglers would throw a spinnerbait or lipless crankbait.
"Say there's a flat with scattered grass, or perhaps a more solid weed bed growing several feet below the surface which is not uncommon on natural lakes. Or it could be a large sand bar flat like on St. Clair or a chunk-rock bank in a highland reservoir. Rather than a spinnerbait, I'll throw the Thruster Tail and retrieve it over the top of the grass or cover to imitate a small baitfish. It's provides a small, natural-looking profile, while the vibration and flash draws strikes."
Mike Iaconelli offers no hesitation when asked to choose his favorite season to chase smallmouths.
To effectively fish a tailspinner on a flat, particularly one with vegetation below, depth control is important. VanDam chooses different line size to allow the bait to run deeper or shallower as needed by a particular situation. He chooses 14- to 20-pound test line in order to keep the bait above the weeds and drops down to 10-pound line to take the tailspinner deeper.
Another presentation for a Thruster Tail is standing timber. VanDam relates a story about filming a television show during which the host started out using another brand tailspinner to jig in the trees. When VanDam switched to the Thruster Tail, both anglers noted the Strike King bait fell more vertically. Also, the nose design kicked the lure away when it contacted tree trunk or limbs.
"I also love to throw the Thruster Tail around bridge pilings any time of the year," VanDam continues. "It's possible to cast it out and swim the tailspinner along the top of the water column. Then on successive casts, count it down the water column and retrieve at different depths. Continue going deeper until you end up jigging it straight down. You don't know where the bass might be located on a piling - 5, 10, 20 feet or deeper. In the summer, they are usually in the top 10 feet, but in cold-water periods they may be in 30 feet. With a tailspinner, it's possible to cover all the depths effectively by slowly working the bait down a level at a time."
VanDam employs the same rod-and-reel combo for all three lures. His selection is a 6 ½-foot medium-action casting rod with a high-speed retrieve reel. The fast reel enables him to quickly pick up slack line when hopping baits on the bottom and make speedy retrieves when casting one of these heavy weights to schooling fish.
So what happened during that St. Clair tournament when a partner questioned the use of a tailspinner as a spinnerbait over the flat? Well, VanDam caught keeper smallmouth on it, several of which ended up in his bag for weigh-in. While VanDam didn't score the win, he did manage to finish a respectable sixth under some tough conditions.
His advice? "Don't you be caught without hard metal in your tackle box."
Traditional Spoonin' is Sweet Music to Anglers
Jigging spoons are typically used for fishing deep structure, such as a river or creek channel, particularly during a cold-water period.
"During winter, deepwater bass in southern reservoirs are relating to shad," explains VanDam. "Find the bait, then you'll find the bass. I'll cruise back and forth in creek arms until I locate the balls of baitfish.
"This kind of fishing is all about electronics. I do not even drop a spoon down until I see the right stuff on the sonar. I look for a lot of bait in conjunction with a depth change-sometimes you will see large marks that may be bass, sometimes you don't. First find the activity zone of the bait and then follow that depth until contact with structure is made. The key zone is often 35 to 45 feet deep."
When VanDam drops a jigging spoon down to deepwater bass, he pays particular attention to his line in order to detect a strike. "I've had the best success by snapping the spoon and following it back down on a semi-tight line. You want the spoon to flutter down, not be lowered back on too-tight line. Bites are subtle, rarely knocking slack in the line - white bass and stripers do, but not black bass. If the spoon does not fall all the way back after a snap, or you feel a slight tick or see the line jump, set the hook."
The basic design and weight of these hard, metal lures often permit bass to throw the bait with a shake of the head. As already noted, fish loss is reduced by the line-through design of the Thruster Tail tailspinner. VanDam, however, takes an additional step to lessen the chance of losing bass.
"By replacing the stock hook with a No. 4 Mustad UltraPoint Triple Grip, I've been able to keep more bass hooked on a Thruster Tail than any other tailspinner type bait. Bass do not throw a Triple Grip nearly as easily as standard trebles," VanDam says.
"Likewise, I also change the stock on all my spoons to a UltraPoint Triple Grip. I would very much like to switch Silver Buddy hooks for Triple Grips, but using a split ring to attach a hook on a blade bait throws the lure out of balance. And it's that fine balance that puts out the great vibes."
Content provided by Bass Fishing Magazine, the official publication of FLW Outdoors