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Ontario Fishing Network

Volume 6,  Issue 5 - May 2006

Spinnerbaits:  The Swiss Army Knife Of Lures
by J.P. Bushey

There aren't many pieces of water in Ontario that don't have either smallmouth or pike in them. In a lot of cases, largemouth, walleyes and muskies are also available. Wouldn't it be nice if we had a single family of lures to cast and troll for all of the above? What if it solidly hooked the biters, came through all kinds of cover cleanly and was safe and easy for releasing fish? The good news is you've probably already got at least one in your tackle collection already, and if you fish in Ontario, there's a good chance your favorite water is home to any number of fish species that will clobber it. Small and delicate, big and loud. Surface fishing. Deep structure. High-speed trolling. Heavy cover. No cover. Suspended fish. Tipped with bait. Fished 'naked.' Cold water, hot water, and water that's in between. In their modern form, they've been mass- produced since the late 1960's, and the overall concept goes back over one hundred years. The answer is of course, the spinnerbait, and they're one of my favorite multi-species lures in all seasons. They're cheap to buy, infinitely customizable and one of the toughest lures there is to fish wrong. There's no such thing as the perfect lure, but when you think about the range of species they can be used for and the ways they can be used, spinnerbaits come awfully close.

As long as a spinnerbait is moving forward or sinking, it's working. This is one of its greatest advantages over other lures with a spinning blade on a wire shaft, like the classic straight-shaft spinners we all grew up with. Their large, sharp and stiff single hook can easily be fitted with a second trailer hook, and other than jigs, spinnerbaits are one of the easiest lures to remove from a fish's mouth or a snag. You can also tip them with a number of different plastic or natural trailers to add buoyancy, scent or action. There aren't many other lure styles you can say that about. Spinnerbaits are made to be doctored up or dressed down, and for a lure-smith like myself, they really leave the door open to all kinds of deadly modifications. Listed below are some of our common gamefish and some of my favorite ways to rig and fish spinnerbaits to catch 'em.

Smallmouth Bass:
When the wind blows in clear water, most fishermen like to fire out heavy lures with double willowleaf blades and retrieve them fast within a foot of the surface. 'Burning' a spinnerbait for smallmouths is a well known way to catch not only numbers of smallies, but some really big ones. (It's how I caught my biggest so far.) But if you aren't seeing fish, try changing blade styles, and working right along the rocks. A lot of bass fishermen like crankbaits for jacking over and through rock or firm bottom for their noise, commotion and snag-resistance. But with some practice, you can get a spinnerbait to bang and clang the rocks, and it'll make every bit as much racket as a crankbait, while fishing almost as trouble-free. Rounded blades like #4 or #5 Colorados or Oklahomas (also called 'turtle shell' blades) bounce off cover, throw a lot of vibration and their stubby shape is a good crayfish imitator. Spinnerbaits will wedge up in broken rock, but they can be popped free by changing your boat angle most of the time. The best way to fish rock with a spinnerbait is to bulk up the trailer and your line diameter and carefully pick your way along. When you lose touch with the bottom, slow down just enough to get back on the rocks again. Feel is really important, and so is timing and patience. You won't get as many strikes by staying away from the bottom as you will by staying on it, and you'll lose lures if you're on bottom too much. Smallies eat a lot of crayfish, sculpin and darters from early summer well past Labour Day, and if they're not chasing a spinnerbait imitating a light-coloured minnow fished high and fast, try them right along bottom. For fishing from eight to fifteen feet deep, baits from 3/8 to 5/8 ounce on fourteen to twenty five pound monofilament help you pull off snags and stay close to bottom while your spinnerbait rattles along. On deeper rock, low-stretch line and a heavier lure can be better. I've caught fish as deep as 28 feet on spinnerbaits. In both scenarios, wind seems to help the bass's activity level, and crayfish are the most active when the light is at its lowest levels, either by way of sky conditions or sediment in the water created by wave action. Copper, brown, orange or blue blades with complimenting skirts can be really effective and for a trailer, a chopped down craw-worm adds bulk and the right shape. Cut off 2/3 of the worm section, and rig the lure's main hook with the body of the crayfish, claws wiggling and undulating behind those loud, thumping blades. Big smallmouths love this rig, and not many people I know fish it. You get the scent and realism of a jig with the vibration and noise of spinner blades. Served on the rocks, it's a winner.

Largemouth Bass:
Most fishermen who flip for largemouths in shallow water use a jig or soft plastic of some kind. There used to be a small group of flipping lures that used a spinner blade along with the rubber body. Mister Twister's Do-Sumpin' Jig was one of them. The blade(s) not only add flash and vibration, they also slow the lure's fall. You also have the option of a horizontal retrieve back to the boat after you've finished working a specific target, like a dock ladder or a tree stump. I'm always amazed at how some largemouth fishermen will drop their jig or lizard into a small area and then simply crank it back to the boat just in time to dump it in another pocket or hole after a few seconds. With the spinnerbait, you still get the benefit of target fishing a small area, plus a shot at other fish on your way back to the boat. It doesn't mater who you are or what you're fishing for, your chances of getting a strike are directly related to how much time your lure spends in the water. I've caught some really nice fish on spinnerbaits that hit well away from cover after they chased the bait out. (Even if you do flip to targets with a vertical, 'jig-type' bait, don't be in a huge rush to get your lure dried off). Spinnerbaits with a short arm between the blade(s) and line tie are the best for really heavy cover, and you can still add a pork chunk or plastic trailer. Feed line off your reel so the spinnerbait falls straight down and doesn't pendulum off course back towards you. Watch your line just like you would with a jig. Big largemouths love blades, and if you fish water that gets beaten by heavy tournament pressure or recreational traffic, it's almost a sure thing that bass in these types of spots are not used to seeing the flash and feeling the thump of a spinnerbait dropped on their nose. Heavy line obviously helps muscle fish out, and it slows your lure down when it's falling. I think you'll be surprised how these fish will suck in and 'eat' all that wire, lead and metal. Largemouth eat flipped spinnerbaits just like soft plastic lures a lot of the time. Reel down and hit the fish hard the second the line prematurely stops, jumps or changes direction. There are days when you can catch bass on fifty different patterns in fifty different types of spots. Flipped spinnerbaits give you a lot of options without changing rods or lures.

Imagine how many walleyes have been caught on a snelled spinner and bait combo over the years! When someone tells me they're catching fish on spinners or spinner rigs, it usually has something to do with livebait near the bottom and not moving very fast. You could do a lot worse if you want to put walleyes in the boat all season, that's for sure. But when walleyes are in the weeds, trolling can be near impossible, and you need a lure with different features to trigger fish and to stay weed-free. Weed walleye can be some of the most aggressive in the lake, and they'll pound a spinnerbait as hard as any bass or pike will. Even in bright, sunny conditions, ramming a spinnerbait over and through cabbage or coontail beds gets a walleye's attention. The idea that these fish need to be babied during bright conditions, or that they'll only bite at low light is one of many fishing myths. In stained or cloudy water, walleyes in the weeds hit spinnerbaits all day. Flat bays in early summer and late summer are really good. Check weeds in four to twelve feet of water. I've even caught them in lilly pads and arrowheads. Bucktail lures are more durable than plastic in cover, and just like pike and muskies, walleyes love them. Use as shorter cast, flutter the lure down and try to hit and run as many weed stalks as you can. Double willowleaf blades spin on a narrower angle and will pick up less debris. They're good for fishing over the weed tops and through open water lanes. Rounded blades have that slow, thumping fall and bounce off cover. The finesses side of this technique involves a Colorado single spin spinnerbait (one blade instead of tandem blades) and a fat, scented grub trailer. No skirt. More jig than anything, it isn't that different than the largemouth technique above. Johnson's Beetle Spin would fall into this category of lures. Lift and drop that baby through the weeds and make as much contact as you can. Tipping with a half nightcrawler or small minnow also works where the weeds thin out, but perch and other panfish will be on your bait right away. Use the same rods, reels and lines you would for largemouths in the weeds. I've caught walleyes over ten pounds in August, on spinnerbaits, deep in the weed cover! Channel edges where deep water butts up into pad beds is another area where walleyes will trap perch and other minnows, and spinnerbaits are very efficient in these conditions, especially in the evenings. Lighter lures in the ounce range can be deadly where weeds are thinner, but I've caught some big walleyes on heavy, muskie spinnerbaits in the thick stuff, too. If the strikes are hard to come by, powering a big, loud and heavy bait will get bit. Once again, you'll miss a lot of good fishing if you follow the old magazine and television myths.

Pike are naturally associated with the spinnerbait, and they love them all season! July and August aren't exactly the prime months for big fish, but I use spinnerbaits in deep water off points, shoals and weedlines at this time. The fish start around 36 inches and run into the 40's. It's a big fish technique. While other fishermen are beating the shorelines for hammer handles in the summer, fishing deep structure with a specialized spinnerbait will get you into the better fish. Thin, low-stretch line like in the thirty to fifty pound range is what you need to keep your lure down and to set the hook when you're a longer distance down and away from the boat. Lures for this technique are from 5/8 to 2 ounces, with small, willowleaf blades (like a #4 or #5), and skimpy skirts/trailers. Bucktail really works well for deep fishing and it holds up to a pike's mouth better than plastic. Take the two arms of the spinnerbait and squash them together, closing the overall gap. This accomplishes two things. First, it helps the lure pull less water and run deeper. Second, the blades will clang and bang off the wire arms and leadhead as you hit the bottom. Dick Pearson call this technique 'rock rolling' and it works equally for big pike as it does for muskies. It's basically a modified jig-type retrieve. Fire the bait out, watch the bow in your line and wait until it drops. This is when your spinnerbait has hit the bottom. Then slowly begin reeling while lifting and dropping, staying right on the lake's floor. Slow, steady speed is the key, with pauses and bumps mixed in. The bait bumbles along with a lot of sound and big pike love it. It takes patience and gets tougher and tougher as the wind picks up, but the fish are big and this is where they spend the majority of their time. Fishing a gradual slope out into 35 or 40 feet of water is common. Depending on the lake or river, you might need to go shallower or deeper with a heavier or lighter bait. Black, white, purple, green and silver are all good deep-water colours, and you'll catch fish on the hot colours too. It's the sound and vibration that triggers pike in this case. Outside the weeds, in transition areas from firm to soft or hard bottom, this technique is deadly. Parallel the edges and don't be afraid to work the spinnerbait until it's right under the boat. Rip and drop it back. Big fish will chase the lure off bottom and smash it on its way back to the surface. Crankbaits simply do not have the same dive-curve as a sinking lure like a spinnerbait. They barely tick their max depth before arcing back towards the surface. Spinnerbaits let you stay deep a long time, and this is where you'll run across the biggest pike in the summer. Jigs are great to, but they lack the flash and thump you get with the overhead blades. Smaller blades really help the lure fish deep, and thin, split tail trailer work better than the fat, buoyant grubs used elsewhere. Tipping with a dead, three to five inch chub or sucker is also good. You'll pick up muskies, smallmouth and some big walleyes using this technique too. Use a short, heavy leader directly to the lure with no snap. A split ring works well. Algae and moss on the deep rocks has a nasty habit of clinging to anything it can, and you'll find snaps pick up a lot of extra bottom junk. When summer turns to fall, deep spinnerbaits fished slowly around structure is one of the best techniques there is for a big pike.

They love spinnerbaits as much as pike, and I think that spinnerbaits are the most underrated and misused muskie lure there is. If you haven't tried trolling them close to the boat in shallow weeds, you should! It's at its best in off-coloured water, but it works in clear water too. Angle your rods down and back, and experiment with the amount of line you have out. Big fish will hit spinnerbaits a rod length from the prop, and fishing this close to the boat gives you amazing control in heavy cover. Not many guys troll in the days and weeks around Opening Day, but muddy transitions where the new weedlines will form in 8 to 15 feet of water outside the spawn sites produces some nice fish early in the season. In this case, mid to large-sized baits with a lot of colour, thump and flash seem to be best. Willowleaf blades as large as #7 or #8 really irritate fish, and you can fish them at a range or speeds. Spinnerbaits are the best of the best when it comes to releasing muskies quickly and safely, and single hooks dig in and hold. When the weeds come in thicker later in summer, make trolling passes that run the edges, the tops and the open points/pockets. Lures from three to six ounces track well at higher speeds at this time, and muskies love them. The key is fishing with as little line out as you can get away with for sharp turns and control. Heavy-duty leaders from 130# to 200#, heavy rods and reels with a smooth, loud clicker are important. On big rivers in Eastern Ontario and Quebec, muskie trollers perfected this technique, and it works all over the Shield and Kawartha lakes. It won't take you long to sift through the big bays, narrows or other areas where the weeds and forage fish are thick. Crankbaits are good too, but spinnerbaits are in a league of their own for contact fishing shallow weeds. You can also position them right in or just outside the propwash using heavy, streamlined lead weights. I carry weights from six ounces to one pound, and they'll keep your spinnerbait right in the turbulence. It's amazing what all that churning water does to a lure! Really adds some intense, erratic movement, and muskies feel it on their lateral line long before they see it. A big, sharp single trailer hook really helps when you're trolling, and most trolling fish are hooked solidly. Size 6/0 to 7/0 work on most spinnerbaits you'll be using.

And there you have it. You can use spinnerbaits for anything, anywhere this year! On-line retailers are making it easier and easier to source quality components for building your own lures, and I'd urge you to try it. Swapping out blades, skirts and trailers takes only a few seconds. Most of my best spinnerbaits are ones I've built or ones friends have built. They've got the exact configuration needed for the conditions, and I really enjoy making them from scratch all winter. They're so versatile! I have at least one tied on in my boat all season. Some of t he techniques listed might seem a little off the beaten path, but isn't this usually where the best fishing is anyway? Isn't it time you nailed a nice one on a spinnerbait?

Fishing and the Wind  -
   by Justin Hoffman

Catching Walleye during a Spring Mayfly Hatch
   by Tim Allard

Spinnerbaits:  The Swiss Army Knife of Lures.
   by J.P. Bushey

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