Florida is known for its big bass, and there are a number of techniques that consistently produce fish over 8 pounds. Live bait is one. Sight fishing for spawning bass with soft plastics is another, and both can be deadly.
But for those who just want to "chunk-and-wind," consider this — one of the largest bass ever caught in Florida (18.9 pounds) ate a buzzbait in a St. Johns River grassbed a decade or so ago. That wasn't a fluke. Just last year, a 16 1/2-pound bass was taken on a buzzbait from a small lake near this writer's home.
Buzzbaits may be an underappreciated trophy bass technique in the Sunshine State, but they do draw big bass. In fact, during the 15 years I've spent as a St. Johns River bass guide, buzzbaits have brought in more bass over 8 pounds than all other artificial lures combined.
Backing up your buzzer
While surface buzzbaits are great tools for catching fish, there are times when all they will do is cause a fish to reveal its location. It may be discouraging to watch a big bass blow up and miss a buzzer, but with the notoriously finicky Florida bass, it is not at all uncommon. A prepared angler, however, can still score.
"One of the coolest patterns I've ever gotten on in my life was down in Okeechobee," Grigsby remembers. "I had giant bass — 6- to 10-pound fish — just 'exploding' all over buzzbaits in this one section of grass. I could go down that grassline and guarantee I would get three or four monster boils from big fish. But not one of them would take the bait. All they would do is knock it out of the water. My pattern was to get the big blowup with the buzzbait, then snatch that lure out of the water and immediately throw a plastic worm into the boil and catch the fish.
"What is really neat about bass in grass," he says, "is that when they blow up on a buzzer and miss it, they usually stay there for a brief period of time. That doesn't happen a lot with fish in more open water, which immediately go back to whatever cover they came from. But if you keep a 'comeback rod' handy and can get a weedless bait like a worm, soft jerkbait or big tube right into the center of that boil quickly, you can catch that fish. I never fish a buzzbait in grass without having a soft plastic lure rigged on a rod and right at my feet."
That's good news for anglers who love a quick moving lure and relish a rousing surface strike. But for those who may have honed their buzzbaiting skills on Northern waters, success in Florida often requires an adjustment. Florida bass are known for their discerning nature. And when it comes to surface presentations, they can be a lot more discerning than many might suppose.
"Some bass go crazy over a real big, noisy buzzbait," says veteran pro and TV host Shaw Grigsby. "Spotted bass, especially, will climb all over the loudest bait you can throw, and a lot of northern largemouths will do the same thing. But Florida bass aren't that aggressive. They prefer a softer presentation under most conditions, and how that bait is presented can be very important."Finessing a buzzbait
A staggering array of buzzbaits is available on today's market, and they range from petite 1/8-ounce models up to those sizes that produce a surface disturbance closely resembling a frightened duck. Some even include metal arms that strike the rotating blade for additional sound. All will work at times. Grigsby is convinced that in Florida, at least, less can be best."I've caught bass on big clacker buzzbaits in Florida," he notes, "but the fish have got to be really active and aggressive for those to be effective. The vast majority of the time, a quieter buzzbait with just a 'squeaker' (a rivet on the blade arm that squeaks on the retrieve) is more effective."
Grigsby's "talk softly" philosophy also extends to the size of the lure he selects. While a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce buzzbait is considered standard size by many anglers, he seldom goes that big unless the bass are extremely active, or a surface chop dictates a larger blade.
"It has been my experience that a 1/8-ounce safety-pin type of offset buzzbait is the most consistently effective size in Florida," he states. "It comes through grass very well; it makes enough noise to attract them, but not enough to repel them. This is especially true if there is very little ripple on the water. If I need a little more surface disturbance because of wind, stained water or just an aggressive bunch of fish, I'll go to the Strike King Titanium Elite Buzzbait or their Pro-Glo Pro-Buzz in a 1/4-ounce size. They may seem small, but they'll draw as many big fish as the larger models, and a lot more strikes from smaller fish as well."
One problem with smaller-sized buzzbaits is that a big bass may engulf the entire lure and have the blade and blade arm interfere with the hook-set. While smaller may be better when it comes to getting strikes, there is nothing wrong with an angler stacking the odds in his favor.
"Little baits don't always hook as well as the larger models," Grigsby admits, "so I never fish one without a trailer hook. In fact, a lot of times I will string two or even three trailer hooks behind the bait. (He likes Eagle Claw No. 254s and Strike King hooks.) I've had big bass come up and suck in a 1/8-ounce buzzbait so quietly that I never saw or heard the strike. The bait just disappeared — I felt the weight, and the fish was stuck on the third trailer. Those extra hooks can be real important."
When it comes to selecting lure colors, he is ambivalent on blades.
"I don't think the blade color makes much difference at all," he explains. "On my TV show we have shot underwater video of buzzbaits on the surface, and with the water disturbance produced by the blade, all you see are bubbles and splash. The color of the blade gets lost in all that. I'll fish whatever color blade comes with the bait."Skirt and head color, however, is a different matter. In fact, one could say the issue is so sharply defined as to leave no room for shades of gray — it's as stark as black and white.
"White is a key color," he says. "It's something bright that they can easily see. Black can also be a very strong color, and that can sometimes make a big difference. I have fished a spot with a white buzzbait, not gotten a hit, and then turned around and fished it again with an identical buzzbait in black and had fish crawl all over it. It does pay to experiment with those two, and there are times when a chartreuse bait will also be a good bet. But beyond that, I don't see much reason to stock a lot of buzzbait colors. Once you have those basic colors and sizes, the presentation becomes the important part."Read the grass
"Any place — anywhere in the country where you catch bass on buzzbaits — there is some form of cover holding that fish," declares Grigsby. "It may be submerged cover that is not readily visible, or it may be emergent cover that is. But there will be something there to hold that fish, because bass don't often bite a buzzbait very far away from some type of fish-holding cover. Buzzers are basically an ambush/reaction lure."
What separates Florida from much of the rest of the country is the wealth of aquatic vegetation in the 2- to 6-foot-depth range. It is premier bass-holding cover; it provides shade, cooler water temperatures, oxygen and prey. A bass can ambush any forage item that wanders into range, from any direction, and from virtually any place in the grass. The amount of area that needs to be covered can be staggering.
"It's not like fishing isolated cover in areas to the north," Grigsby notes. "This isn't a situation where you bang a buzzbait down one side of a stump and don't get bit, and then hit the other side and get a strike. Target areas in grass are not that clearly defined. You do need to cover a lot more water. But there are high percentage target areas in any grassbed — even those that look like one big monoculture mass. Once an angler gains experience and starts really 'looking' at the grass, they become evident. And those are the areas I want to hit."
Regardless of whether the grass is submerged (like eelgrass, peppergrass or hydrilla) or emergent (like reeds or Kissimmee grass), there will be open holes, cuts, extending points or other "differences" that not only stand out to the angler, but to the bass as well. Another high percentage target is an area where submerged vegetation meets emergent grass. All of these are worthy of attention, and Grigsby wants to make certain he gives them his best presentation."The longer bass get to look at a buzzbait, the less likely they are to hit it," he states. "I think one of the key factors in a buzzbait presentation is to plan the retrieve so the bait is visually shielded from the bass until it enters the strike zone. The bass will hear the commotion the bait makes, but it won't acquire it visually until it enters the strike zone. That can be tough to do sometimes, especially if you are just throwing over a large area of submerged grass. You really can't see what is down there nor how the bass are relating to it. But in a lot of situations, you can exercise some control over that."One obvious situation is where open pockets, cuts or points exist within an area of surfaced grass. The grass will shield the bait until it reaches the opening, or edge.
"I like to try to keep the sun in my face when I am working an edge situation," he explains. "Bass often lie on the shady side of a grass edge, open pocket or another object because it helps camouflage them. If I'm casting into thicker grass on the sunny side and retrieving the bait to the shade, I have that shielding effect."Wind can also be an aid. Bass often face into a wind or current, and keeping the wind at one's back will bring the bait from the blind side.
"Sometimes you just have to cast randomly and cover a wide area," Grigsby says. "But anytime you can identify a potential strike zone and keep the bait shielded from the fish until it gets there, you've increased your chances of a hit."
While a subtle sounding bait and a careful presentation are keys to success, Grigsby has a few more refinements in his bag of tricks.Fine-tuning"I can't remember catching very many bass on a high-speed retrieve," he explains, "and I think a lot of anglers fish a buzzbait too fast. The retrieve that works best for me is a slow one that just keeps the bait on top. I want to hear the blade squeak and see the water gurgle. But at the slowest speed, it will do that. I like a steady retrieve, with just an occasional short twitch thrown in."Slower also seems to be the right option for rods used with buzzers."I miss more strikes on graphite rods than I do on glass rods," Grigsby notes. "I think it's because I feel the strike, or maybe just the water disturbance as the bass blows up on the bait. It causes me to pull the trigger too soon. Because of that, I went to a Quantum 706 Tour Edition fiberglass crankbait rod. The 7-foot length gives me plenty of hooking power with the 20- or 25-pound Stren line I use, and that softer rod action delays my hook-set just enough to let the bass get the bait."Lastly, Grigsby notes that one can have too much of a good thing.
"You can overbuzz a spot and turn the fish off to buzzbaits," he states. "You'll catch fish the first day, fewer the second and darned few the third. They say bass have small brains and not much memory, but I'm here to tell you they remember buzzbaits real well! If I have a good buzzbait spot, I want to hit it at the prime time, and not more often than once every four or five days.""Subtle" and "buzzbaits" aren't words normally used in the same sentence, but they're a winning script for Florida anglers.