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Reflection of winners and spinners

In praise of the fanatical fishing faithful,
who without hesitation sling spinnerbaits in every occasion

Over the past four decades of high-water marks recorded on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail, is there one lure the cast-for-cash pros reach for in their tacklebox for the first cast?

Drum roll, please. The top pros’ money bait is the spinnerbait! Wait a moment, you say. What about the plastic worm? The shaky head craze? The crankbait? All dependable lures, yes, but in their own good time, at the right time.

But, is there another lure built for all seasons? In every water condition — from ultraclear to stained, muddy water — from any depth, along the surface to as deep as 40 to 60 feet?

For his repeated Top 10 finishes from 1969 to 1989, Ricky Green of Arkansas gained the reputation among fellow pros as “Mr. Consistency.” Green, who died in May 2014, had three basic factors for success:

1. How well you know the lake
2. Your ability to eliminate fishless waters
3. Your skill with a spinnerbait

“Unless, for example, snow is falling and it’s miserably cold, I always give spinners the first shot at attracting bass,” Green used to say. “I can’t think of any lure which is more adaptable than the spinnerbait.”

Green was also of the opinion that bass anglers are guilty of one mistake in using a spinnerbait. “They spend too much time in one spot. They won’t cover the water fast enough. My trolling motor is on constantly, moving, until getting a strike, finding active fish, then I slow down and work an area.”

In his mind, there were three basic ways to fish a spinnerbait: the stop-and-go method, fast and a slow crawl.

To fish the stop-and-go method, Green explained, “Cast the spinnerbait about 10 feet past the stickup, brushpile or structure, and as the bait is retrieved past the object, let it settle, then jig it two or three times. If you don’t get a hit, reel in and cast to the next target.”

This stop-and-go tactic is effective during the fall or in summer when bass are suspended, as well as during the spawn or bedding time.

The retrieve that was used in about 75 percent of his casts during Green’s career is the fast gurgling or buzzing method. “During the spring, buzzing the lure in the upper 6 inches near the surface is most effective, but it works in every season,” he once told me.

Such was the fast retrieve Green employed to win the March 1974 Bassmaster Texas Invitational at Sam Rayburn Lake. Headed into the final round, Green was mired in 21st place. He caught a remarkable 90-some bass that day, culled numerous times and weighed in a 10-bass limit over 28 pounds. He modified his fast retrieve to make a wake just under the surface, not breaking it, and gurgling the bait.

“When you buzz a spinnerbait,” he said after the weigh-in, “keep your rod tip high and begin the retrieve immediately when the lure touches the water.”

As difficult as it is for most of us to slow the lure down, the slow crawl is the gear to use when the largemouth seemingly have lockjaw or the water temperature cools in winter. Green’s trick was to cast the spinnerbait against the bank, let it completely settle and then begin to bounce it off the bottom with a slow, steady retrieve, using the rod tip to add action.

The slow crawl method was how Green came up with the 8-pound, 9-ounce largemouth bass at the 1976 Bassmaster Classic that held the big bass record for years. He was working the 5/8-ounce Strike King spinnerbait with a No. 6 gold blade about 10 feet deep along riprap near a bridge.

Questioned about his favorite color combination, Green told the gathered media, “Blue and chartreuse with nickel blades.” But, he added, “match the skirt color selection to the current conditions.”

On bright days in clear water, his choice was white or blue. On cloudy days in clear water, blue, black or chartreuse. And on bright or cloudy days in stained water, white or chartreuse.

Most times, Green’s spinnerbaits sported nickel blades. However, in muddy water, he tried gold, copper or even colored blades. With the stop-and-go method, a spinnerbait with willowleaf blades worked well.

“The willowleaf has a great falling action and will trigger bass to bite,” he preached.

For much of his Bassmaster Tournament Trail success, Green opted for a 1/4-ounce Strike King spinnerbait with tandem nickel blades. When lunker hunting, he used a large pork frog for a trailer. The addition of an eel, frog or plastic worm was the rule in the fall and winter, regardless of the lure size because it seemed to make bass more aggressive.

The other tip that helped Green improve his strike-to-catch ratio with a spinnerbait was adding a trailer hook. He calculated that one out of every three bass he landed was hooked on the stinger hook, meaning they likely would have gotten away otherwise.

Lures and techniques have undergone many changes in recent years, but Green’s advice from decades ago rings just as true today: “Keep it simple. Use the basics. Tie on a spinnerbait or crankbait, pick out a good looking bank near a creek or river channel, kick the trolling motor on high and foam the water. There are always a few bass along the shoreline. It’s a matter of keeping a bait in the water and keeping those gears grinding.”

Buzzing Spinners

The name Joe Wells of Mannford, Okla., may not ring any bells or sound the alarm for students of the Bassmaster Tournament Trail record book, but the soft-spoken Okie perhaps wrote the book on buzzing a spinnerbait. Back in 1968, as outdoor editor of the Tulsa Tribune, I was astounded by the big stringers of bass Wells weighed in when winning the Oklahoma State Fishing Championship. Wells had a case of lockjaw when asked his secret.

Finally, he relented to discuss his deadly method, but tight-lipped said, “There are a few things I’m not going to tell. You’ll have to learn yourself.”

The headline on the article in the Tribune stated, “Buzzing Spinner Drives Bass Wild,” and the subhead advised, “Dust Off Old Lures With New Method.” At the time, 48 years ago, an angler picking up a lure weighing over 1/2 ounce with a lead head, spinner and rubber skirt would suspect the “secret” was to fish down deep and slow.

But Wells and his fishing partner, Bud Bruce, a Tulsa, Okla., car salesman, learned to turn the notion upside down. As a matter of fact, it was Bruce who gave us a firsthand lesson in buzzing a spinnerbait in the backwoods of Oklahoma’s Lake Eufaula.

After watching Bruce rip his spinnerbait across the surface like a fast-buzzing motorboat and get a smashing largemouth strike, the next question was, “Why would a bass bite a buzzsaw?”

“It’s the vibration that makes them strike,” offered Bruce. “They don’t want to eat the bait, just kill it.”

Wells later confirmed the opinion. “Bass are just mean critters, and the buzzing sound makes them mad.” He noted the flash of the big spinner blade might look something like a shad, the largemouth’s favorite food.

At the time, the newly flooded Corps lake was blessed with pockets of brush and standing timber. The thicker the brush, the better, advised my guide, Bruce. He explained, “The idea is to put the spinnerbait over, through and in as many likely looking bassin’ spots as possible.” These spots were mostly no more than a 15- to 25-foot cast away in the thick cover. Bruce said, “If the first sashay over a submerged treetop or bush doesn’t pay off, hit it again and again. Sometimes the bass won’t hit until the third or fourth cast. You got to make ’em mad.”

When you do trigger a bass to strike, the surface blows up, and it’s not unusual for a fish to hit at the side of the boat and throw water in your face. If the bass misses, Bruce demonstrated a quick response. He jammed the rod back into the water and created a figure-eight with the spinnerbait at the surface. Yes, the bass turned back and hit the bait. OK, you go figure why.

After Wells shared his success secret, the buzz bomb attack with a spinnerbait in the shallows became popular. Oklahoma’s Jimmy Houston, later to become a two-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year, praised Wells as “the best shallow-water bass fisherman around.”

Most bass anglers of the day favored the Ambassadeur 5000 reel, but while its 3.5 gear ratio was a bit slow for a buzzing retrieve, it worked reasonably well with a full spool of line. Wells adapted a light saltwater closed-face Zebco 808 for his tactic of buzzing.

The Zebco 808 looked like a green softball positioned on the 6 1/2-foot rod, but Wells had huge hands and could palm the reel, which had a faster retrieve speed and cranked in about 15 inches of line per crank. With 25- to 30-pound-test line on the spool, Wells had a winch. “Get him on top and sled him into the boat,” demanded Wells. “Don’t let him get his nose down.”

How offbeat were the buzzing blades? Clyde Smith of Tulsa, who made a locally popular leadhead single-spinner — The Dragnetter — was even unaware of the use of his bait. “If someone had told me that’s how Joe Wells was catching fish, I’d have thought it was a joke. The Dragnetter was designed for deep holes.”

Houston’s Hot Spots

As for the aforementioned Houston, his spinnerbait savvy is on display weekly as the country’s popular cable television fishing host of Jimmy Houston Outdoors. A master with the blade bait, Houston is a versatile angler with a variety of lures, but as a young lure slinger in the early days of tournament fishing, none was better or quicker with a spinner than the “Oklahoma Kid.”

Houston perfected an underhand loop cast that allowed him to quickly cover an area. His approach was to fish close to the fish with boat and bait at all times.

“What I do is make a 360-degree loop with the tip of the rod,” explains Houston. “The spinnerbait, which I crank all the way up, shoots straight out from the end of the loop.”

Here are the mechanics of the speed cast system: With both hands on the rod handle at all times, switch from the right thumb on the spool to the left when the bait is in midair. This enables the caster to move the right hand to the reel handle, thus to begin the retrieve the instant the spinnerbait hits the water.

The underhand loop cast also keeps a low trajectory, and Houston feathers the line spool with thumb pressure just before the lure lands so “the cast is much less likely to spook the fish.”

As a rule, most of Houston’s casts with a spinnerbait are less than 25 feet in length. “I don’t care how much or often you tell fishermen they can stay close to a bass and still catch ‘em, they just won’t accept it,” Houston says, grinning.

How fast a lure slinger is Houston? A media observer sharing his boat once timed Houston as he made five casts in 17 seconds.

As the TV angler explained, “You’ve only got time to make so many casts in a tournament, but if you can make more casts in the same amount of time … you’re increasing your chances of catching more bass.”

Back in the day, Houston was a contrarian in that he preferred a single blade rather than the tandem-blade rig. He explained, “The tandem blade has a tendency to float on the cast, die in flight and not be as accurate in the presentation.”

Houston, who now fishes Booyah spinnerbaits, years ago designed his own 1/2-ounce model — the Redman spinnerbait — with a short arm and a No. 5 blade size. It was marketed by Norman Lures at the time and had a “hammered” style blade in a gold or copper finish.

He avoided the nickel or silver finish for the same reason he seldom threw a chartreuse color spinnerbait — because that’s what everybody else was fishing.

If he had his pick of the cover for fishing a spinnerbait, Houston would take a fallen log over a tree stump most times. Running a spinnerbait down a fallen log — say 30 feet in length — as opposed to the 3-foot strike zone around a stump provides about 10-to-1 odds of getting a strike on a cast.

This thinking explains why Houston has always preferred to work close to the cover and the fish, rather than making long casts and wasting time on retrieving through “dead water.”

Houston credits much of his approach to spinnerbait fishing and lure concepts to association with Bassmaster pros like Green, who were extremely close during their Tournament Trail days.

Winner Spinners

Along the Bassmaster Tournament Trail, no doubt, spinnerbaits have a lasting legacy. From Bobby Murray’s historic win at the first Bassmaster Classic at Lake Mead with Stan Sloan’s long-arm Zorro Aggravator, to the following year at Lake Percy Priest, Tenn., when Don Butler claimed the Classic title with his own 1/4-ounce S.O.B. (Small Okie Bug) spinnerbait.

As for historical spinnerbait finny facts, the first-day leader at the 1972 Classic was none other than Green, who shared his opening-round pattern success with his friend Butler, who rallied to victory. Green finished as the Classic runner-up. 

At the 1976 Classic at Lake Guntersville, where Green landed the 8-pound, 9-ounce Classic record, the news quickly spread to tournament officials with a network of CB radio communications in each contestant’s boat.

The news from the press angler’s CB radio in Rick Clunn’s boat surely alarmed the other contenders. Clunn, the 1976 Classic champion, boated four bass and 25 pounds in an hour. At the final weigh-in, Clunn revealed he was buzzing a tandem-bladed spinnerbait along the surface.

Ken Cook, a former Oklahoma fisheries biologist, saw his life changed in a flash when he collected a $100,000 payday as winner of the B.A.S.S. MegaBucks fish-off on the St. Johns River in Florida. Cook’s magic moment came with a gold-bladed spinnerbait, the Golden Eagle, and established the blue and yellow skirt as the “must-have color” for spinnerbaits.

So, if angling history does repeat itself, expect the coming of a spinnerbait renaissance, a revival of the glory days of spinners and winners.

Spinnerbait Tactics The Pros Use

Feel The Spinner’s Vibes

“If you can’t feel a spinnerbait’s blades’ vibrations, it isn’t working properly, so maintain a tight line even as you allow the lure to drop. Since largemouth bass will often grab a falling spinnerbait instead of smashing [it], set the hook whenever you feel the vibration stop or halt.”

– Ray Scott, B.A.S.S. founder

Bump The Stump

“That’s my motto for fishing this wonderful chunk of metal and lead called the spinnerbait. Whether it’s a boat dock, a patch of lilies, a stickup or a stump — bump it! Head the lure past so close to the cover that the blades are interrupted in their normal rotation and momentarily flutter and pause before the spinners quickly resume the rotation. Big bass will slash into a spinnerbait when it looks crippled in this moment of flutter.”

– Roland Martin, nine-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year

Reverse The Skirt 

“The number of ways in which a spinnerbait can be fished is limited only by your imagination. I prefer to reverse the skirt on a spinnerbait, putting it on backwards, because this creates a ballooning effect that adds to the action, and it also helps to eliminate short strikes. Some bassers will add pork rind or a chunk as a trailer on a spinnerbait, but in my opinion, this helps create short strikes; a trailer on a spinnerbait can easily flip over the hook point and cost you a fish.”

– Bill Dance, Practical Black Bass Fishing

Short-arm Baits

“For drop fishin’, when you’re either running a spinnerbait over cover and letting it free fall on the outside of a bush, treetop or working down a steep ledge, I’d reach for a 1/2-ounce single-spinner with a No. 4 or No. 5 Colorado blade. The single blade with the shorter arm spins downward with a ‘helicopter’ fall. A tandem-blade design spins, but often falls flat when the blades collapse.”

– Tom Mann, Secrets of the Bass Pros

Muddy Water

“One of the most discouraging sights to any bass angler is to encounter muddy-­water conditions. But, spinnerbait fisher­men believe if you can see a spinnerbait 4 inches under the surface, the water is fishable. You may want to concentrate on the lower end of the lake, which, although stained, may not be so muddy. Large-bladed spinnerbaits that move a lot of water will attract bass to bite by vibration, rather than sight. Some of the best bass spots in muddy water are around shoreline vegetation, which helps filter out the silt.”

– Rick Clunn, four-time Bassmaster Classic winner

Originally appeared in Bassmaster Magazine June 2016.