Bass fishermen everywhere know how effective a jigging spoon can be in catching fish, but few, if any, have ever experienced the lure's explosive action quite the way Mark Stevenson has. The Lake Fork guide once found a school of fish on the edge of a 32-foot ridge, and in 20 minutes he caught nine bass.
Not too remarkable, except that all nine of those bass weighed between 9 and 11 pounds.
"The action stopped when my two clients each lost big fish simultaneously," explains Stevenson, a veteran guide who once held the Texas state record with a Fork bass weighing 17-10. "There were plenty of bass still there, and I can only dream about what we might have caught."
Over the years, Stevenson has enjoyed the type of fishing success most anglers can only dream about, and surprisingly, more than a little of it has come through his skill with a jigging spoon. On Fork, at least, Stevenson has redefined the way these lures can be fished.
The two types of spoons Stevenson uses most often are the plain, flat-sided jigging spoon (the most well-known is the Hopkins spoon); and its cousin, the curved, teardrop-shaped flutter spoon (also known as a "shoehorn spoon" because of its shape). On occasion he also fishes a sidewinder spoon, which has both curved and straight edges. Weights range from about 1/4 ounce to more than 2 ounces.
"Even though the more common jigging spoon is normally fished vertically, and the flutter spoon is usually cast and retrieved like a swimming bait, both are more versatile than most anglers realize," explains Stevenson. "Both are designed to mimic small baitfish, like shad, so one of the primary ways I like to use them is as a search bait to help me locate bass.
"Spoons will easily outfish conventional deep water lures like Carolina rigs and Texas rigs, especially after bass leave shallow water in late spring. You can fish them very fast and generate both reaction strikes and feeding strikes, or you can slow them down and have a finesse-type presentation."
What's important, emphasizes Stevenson, is to realize both types of spoons, especially the jigging spoon, can be cast and retrieved horizontally as well as jigged vertically, and that both jigging and flutter spoons will catch bass throughout the year — not just during the winter months.
"The traditional way of fishing a jigging spoon is straight up and down by the side of the boat, and when you do this, you can effectively cover the first 3 or 4 feet of the water column above the bottom," continues Stevenson. "This is an excellent technique after bass have been located, because it allows you to continually keep the lure in that strike zone.
"The disadvantage is that you can't cover much water, and this is why I think learning to use a spoon as a search bait adds an entirely new dimension to the lure."
Jigging and flutter spoons can both be fished as search baits throughout the summer and winter, or basically anytime the fish are not in shallow water. They also can be used practically anywhere you think bass may be holding. Stevenson particularly likes to concentrate on ridges and points — the places bass may gather in large schools before moving deep after spawning, or before they migrate into the creeks in the autumn.
His presentation for these places is to make a cast and let his jigging spoon sink, then rip it upward with his rod tip. He lets it fall on a completely slack line and then rips it upward again, repeating the sequence all the way back to the boat. It's not a time for line-watching, since most strikes are easily felt.
Once a school of bass is located this way, Stevenson gradually moves closer until he can actually start jigging vertically to the fish. This is the technique he used when he and his clients caught those nine giants that day at Lake Fork.
"I started using a spoon as a search bait more than 25 years ago," Stevenson remembers. "I had been catching a lot of bass on Lake Palestine in East Texas as they migrated down a creek channel. This was before Carolina rigs became known, so I was using a Texas rigged plastic worm and even a hair jig, but both were extremely slow presentations. I did a lot of hunting and pecking to find fish. I started using a spoon simply because it was so much faster."
Stevenson certainly doesn't take any credit for being the first to emphasize casting a spoon. In some regions of the United States and Canada, casting is the primary way to fish them, and it has been for decades. This is particularly true of the wobbling flutter spoons like the famous Daredevle, which catches a wide variety of freshwater gamefish with a simple cast-and-wind presentation. In fact, because of their wobbling actions, flutter spoons are not well-suited for vertical jigging.
"They tend to 'hunt' too much," says Stevenson. "When you drop a jigging spoon, it falls pretty much straight down, so you can put it right on top of bass. Flutter spoons do just that — they flutter from side to side until they may end up 4 feet away from your target. If you're jigging anywhere close to brush, a flutter spoon will find it.
"I tend to use a regular jigging spoon more for my search bait because I can cast it a long distance very easily, and I can control its fall better. Then, as I move closer to the school of fish, I can switch to a vertical presentation without ever changing lures."
Stevenson says a common misconception about using a jigging spoon is that all bottom jigging is the same — you just raise and lower your rod, and the bass will do the rest. Having designed his own jigging spoon, the Limit Getter (Johnson's Custom Baits, 903-763-5028), Stevenson knows better.
"Using a jigging spoon correctly requires conscientious control," he says. "You have to concentrate on what you're doing. When bass are biting, the fishing is easy, but when they're not biting, which is most of the time, the only way you can catch them consistently is by paying attention to what you're doing.
"Most anglers fish a spoon too fast and hard for the conditions. When you really snap your rod tip up, that spoon may jump 3 or 4 feet off the bottom, which really only works a small part of the time. You can start by doing this, but don't keep doing it if you don't get any strikes."
Instead, he advises, it's often better to use the spoon more as a finesse lure. After letting the spoon fall completely to the bottom, raise your rod tip slowly and just enough to bring the lure a foot or so up from the bottom. Then let it back down on an almost-tight line.
The way a spoon is lowered — on a tight line or a slack line — has been a matter of debate among bass fishermen for years. Some favor a tight line because it lets you feel the lure as well as any strikes that may occur. Slack line proponents say a spoon on a tight line has no action whatsoever; it's better to let the spoon wobble as it falls.
"I let my jigging spoons fall on a semitight or semislack line," Stevenson says. "Even on a tight line, a jigging spoon is going to spin because of line twist, but I do want a little more action, so I try to lower my rod tip at about the same speed the spoon is falling. You'll develop this rhythm pretty easily once you start fishing a spoon."
The dreaded bane of all spoon fishermen is line twist, since most spoons are tied directly to the line. Even using a split ring doesn't prevent line twist with a spoon. The simple act of jigging the lure upward causes the spoon to spin, and the more vigorous the jigging motion, the quicker and more severe line twist becomes.
Stevenson, however, has figured out a surprising way to take advantage of line twist, which works particularly well when bass are not active. He raises his rod so the spoon is just 3 or 4 inches above the bottom, and holds it there. The spoon begins unwinding, and more often than not, this is when bass will strike it.
"It's a good way to catch big fish," he points out. "I have brought up bass that actually had red clay on their stomachs because they were literally lying on the bottom. I never saw the fish on the depthfinder, only what appeared to be a rough, uneven bottom."
A flutter spoon, such as Acme's Sidewinder, is much better suited for those times when bass are either active or suspended, notes Stevenson. It falls slower, and with its more erratic side-to-side motion, it tends to generate more reflex strikes. It's also the best choice in late summer and early autumn, when bass are often seen breaking the surface as they feed on small shad.
"Everyone knows how easy it is to spook surface feeding fish and send them down," he explains, "but generally you can cast a spoon farther than other lures, so you can avoid spooking them. All you have to do is let the spoon sink a couple of seconds, then start swimming it back. Just swim it, drop it and swim it and drop it again, and you'll normally get all the action you can handle."
At Fork, Rayburn and other lakes where early spring vegetation is still submerged, Stevenson frequently fishes a flutter spoon right over the top of the grass, just like others use spinnerbaits and lipless crankbaits. When he does this, he exchanges the lure's treble hook with a single 2/0 hook with a weedguard.
"I think a flutter spoon has two advantages in a situation like this," he smiles. "First, very few, if any, other anglers will be doing it, so you're able to give the bass something else to look at. At Fork, the bass simply stop hitting spinnerbaits a little later in the spring because they've seen so many of them. When you change to a flutter spoon, you start getting strikes again.
"The second advantage is that a flutter spoon has a more subtle presentation than a spinnerbait. You can vary your retrieve speed with a spinnerbait, but you're still going to have blade vibration. You can fish a spoon slow enough so that you hardly have any vibration at all, or so fast that it sounds like a boat propeller. Either way, a spoon still looks like a baitfish."
Spoons can be fished successfully with a variety of lines and rods.
Stevenson uses 14- to 17-pound-test Excalibur monofilament (he may go as light as 12 or as heavy as 20, depending on depth and lure weight), and he prefers a 7-foot medium heavy Quantum Tour Edition TEC 706F rod. A medium action rod will provide better feel of a spoon, but it may not hook fish as well in deep water. The 7-foot length allows him to move line (and his spoon) easily, particularly on his ripping retrieve, because of the leverage it provides.
At least two manufacturers have flexible spoons that can be changed from straight jigging spoons into curved flutter spoons just by bending them slightly. These include Stevenson's Limit Getter, along with the Sof-Spoons developed by Angler's Technology (www.sof-te.com), which are made of an aerospace industry material known as Flexisil. A Mann's Mann-O-Lure can also be bent into a flutter spoon with a little effort, to totally change its action. Most spoons are not really made of lead, as is commonly believed, but rather of stamped metal — and these cannot be bent very successfully.
"A spoon is probably the best all-around deep water lure for anglers who have not fished very much," concludes Stevenson, "but in truth, they're excellent choices anytime bass are deeper than 10 feet.
"I have several spoons tied on my rods every single day."
Steve Price's popular book, Best Bass Tips, describes more than three dozen lure fishing tricks and techniques professional anglers use to increase their catches. It's available for $16.95 from Globe-Pequot Press at 800-962-0973, or at www.globepequot.com.