Of all the lures the tournament pros have at their disposal, the ones they talk the least about are the best big bass catchers ever made. Look in an Elite pro's tacklebox and you won't see them; they're hidden in the rod locker or perhaps under the console. When these lures are used — and they certainly are — it's nearly always when no one else is around.
"What you're seeing," notes veteran pro Gary Klein, "is a learning curve in progress with a number of pros.
Swimbaits have always been categorized as specialty lures for trophy bass in California, but we're trying to figure out how to adapt them to tournament competition around the country, which is a completely different type of fishing."
Swimbaits are also among the very best lures for teaching anglers about bass behavior, continues the Texas pro, who's been actively studying swimbaits for the past five years. Because bass frequently follow swimbaits, they not only betray their presence to a fisherman, they also reposition themselves.
"When you combine these two elements," Klein continues, "you can force a bass to make a commitment. It either has to strike or turn around and leave. I don't know of any other lure that does that."
To accomplish this, the key is an uphill retrieve that draws one of these followers into shallower water.
Frequently, but not always, a slow, nonthreatening retrieve works well because, as Klein also points out, bass are curious and the prospect of such an easy meal will actually turn nonfeeding bass into feeders. But, as the depth decreases, the options a bass has diminish accordingly, so it must strike or return to deep water.
Conversely, Klein and other pros like Skeet Reese and Kelly Jordon are recognizing that swimbaits can be extremely effective in deep water, too. During the Bassmaster Elite Series event at Grand Lake last season, Klein caught two 4 1/2-pounders 34 feet deep, and Reese has caught bass deeper than 40 feet on swimbaits.
"Living in California, I've been exposed to the swimbait culture since the big baits began showing up in the early 1990s," Reese says, "and it's been interesting to see how they have evolved and improved. But it has really been during the past five years or so that I have truly recognized their versatility. You can now cover the water column from top to bottom with different swimbaits; they're just larger lures than we normally use, and that's how I look at them.
"In a tournament, however, they can be your best friend or your worst enemy. What I want to learn is how to use them to perhaps catch just one or two quality fish per event, regardless of which lake we're fishing."
To that end, the eight-time Classic contender has simplified his swimbait classifications to "surface lures" (floaters/shallow runners), "medium runners" (slow sinking) and "bottom bumpers" (fast sinking). This is also how some manufacturers classify them, and Reese now has some of each type with him at every tournament.
"When the water temperature is the coldest, in the 40s to the mid-50s — the winter prespawn when bass are not aggressive — I use a fast sinking swimbait on the bottom like a jig," Reese explains. "I just crawl it along the bottom, hop it a little bit and drag it back.
"The bottom composition really determines which swimbait I'll use for this. If the bottom is hard and I don't have to worry about hang-ups, I'll use a swimbait with an exposed hook, but if I'm fishing over vegetation or brush, I'll use a different swimbait that's weedless."
"Normally," adds Klein, "your first cast to a piece of structure with a swimbait is the one that produces some activity. Very, very seldom do you keep catching quality bass on the same spot, so I rarely make more than three or four casts with a swimbait.
"What you have to recognize is that even if you don't get a strike on those casts, any fish down there have certainly taken notice of the lure. If I know I'm truly on a good spot, I'll stay and work it with other lures. The 10-pound, 8-ounce big bass I caught at the inaugural Amistad Elite event in 2006 hit a jig, but it was a swimbait cast just before that told me the fish were there."
DEEP: 10+ FEET
Kelly Jordon, winner of four BASS events, including the 2006 Elite event on the Potomac, has spent years experimenting with different swimbaits at Lake Fork, and likewise has gained enough confidence that he always has some in his boat.
"Although I personally believe they're best in clear water or during the spawning season, they have also opened up a new dimension of deep water fishing for me," he says, "so I'll use them anytime from the postspawn through the summer.
"For example, a lot of times you'll see schools of baitfish on your depthfinder, often over some kind of structure. I'll take a fast sinking swimbait and free spool it through the school until it reaches the bottom. Then, I'll just let it sit there; often a bass will pick it up. That doesn't happen often with a jig or plastic worm.
If there's no pickup, Jordon may start slowly reeling the lure back, keeping it close to the bottom. Periodically, however, he'll burn it for five or six reel cranks, then "kill" it so it sinks back to the bottom. This is a variation of a similar Lake Fork technique used with heavy, big blade spinnerbaits that often produces big fish.
"Most of the strikes come as the swimbait is falling after you stop burning it," notes Jordon, "and they're really hard. There's no doubt whatsoever that you've provoked a bass, and it's about as exciting as it gets."
MIDRANGE: 5 TO 10 FEET
Many pros have discovered swimbaits are excellent lures for midrange bass, especially those fish that are suspended in or over cover such as vegetation and standing timber.
"This is when you choose a slow sinking swimbait," says Dean Rojas, who believes swimbaits are at their absolute best in lakes that have the potential of consistently producing bass over 5 pounds, although he uses them in other lakes, as well.
"The biggest problem swimbaits pose for tournament pros is time," he says, "because what a pro needs most is a fast 2-pounder. At the same time, however, tournament pros are realizing that a swimbait just might be the best lure choice in some situations, such as drawing suspended bass out of cover."
Slow sinking swimbaits are cast and simply counted down to whatever depth the angler wants to cover, then reeled back. Different speeds that allow the lure to rise and fall or stop and go can all be tried; the fact that swimbaits not only get the attention of a bass but also cause it to follow is what sets them apart in these conditions.
If you don't think this technique works, ask California pro Fred Roumbanis, who used it during the 2006 Elite tournament at Amistad to boat 101 pounds, 13 ounces, and finish second. All he did was make long casts, then slowly wind his lures back, letting them run about 5 feet deep through submerged timber.
SHALLOW: 3 TO 5 FEET
"You can fish swimbaits shallow, too," says Reese, "burning them on the surface. It's a good spawn and postspawn technique when you know bass are shallow but can't specifically see them.
"I use a 5-inch swimbait around boat docks, the edges of grasslines and even laydowns. You can use a lot of different lures in places like this, but a swimbait is different because it's larger and creates more commotion."
Jordon fished swimbaits at Sam Rayburn during the second 2006 Elite event, catching bass in 3 to 5 feet of water on flats laced with subtle ditches. He was just fancasting the lure and reeling it slowly straight back.
"In this sense, swimbaits can be good search baits, and I do know quite a few pros use them this way in tournament practice, simply to tell them if bass are present in an area, what type of cover they're on, and how aggressive they are," he says.
Both Rojas and Reese also use swimbaits for bedding bass when they're sight fishing.
"A lot of times a bass won't react to a small jig or plastic worm, but a much larger profile swimbait can make them totally agitated," Reese notes. "They either hit the lure and you can catch them, or it fires them up enough that they'll hit something else."
"One problem you do have with this technique," cautions Rojas, "is foul-hooking a fish. All you do is pitch the swimbait into the bed and let it sit there, and unless a bass truly hits the lure, it's easy to hook them on the outside of the mouth, which is not a legal tournament catch."
"Part of the attraction of swimbaits to me," concludes Klein, who has worked closely with former BASS winner and swimbait designer Bill Siemantel, "is knowing that when I use a swimbait, I'm fishing for a different class of bass, a larger elite fish that is basically overlooked by the majority of anglers.
"And the best part of all is that the lure itself is teaching me about those fish."
RIGGING FOR SWIMBAITS
Because swimbaits come in a variety of sizes and weights, describing the proper tackle for them is difficult. For the "true" swimbaits, however
those at least 5 inches long — a few basic rules have been established:
Rods range from heavy and medium-heavy action 7-foot, 6-inch flipping sticks to more specialized swimbait rods, which may be as long as 7 feet, 11 inches. Their primary characteristics include a relatively fast tip (for casting) matched to strong butts and midsections. A number of companies, including Lamiglas, Quantum, G.Loomis, Shimano, Okuma and others, are making specially designed swimbait rods like this today.
Serious swimbait anglers are using baitcast reels that generally have a larger line capacity than their other tournament rods. Round, wide-spool reels are very popular. For line, virtually nothing below 20-pound test is used, and 50-pound braid is popular. Some of the newer, more cast-friendly fluorocarbon lines (20-pound test) have their fans, too.
The Swimming Pool
3:16 Lure Company
A.B.T. Lure Co.
Optimum Bait Co.