Fast and furious
Psst! Wanna know a secret? Rip a spinnerbait this fall for non-stop smallmouth action. Just ask bass legend Kevin VanDam
Jason CohenWhen Kevin VanDam won Major League Fishing’s 2014 Summit Cup (above), he didn’t just beat a selection of the world’s best bass anglers—he put on a clinic of epic proportions. Fishing against such seasoned, top-ranked pros as Brent Ehrler, Aaron Martens and Greg Hackney, he set a one-day MLF record, boating 39 smallmouth bass for a total weight of 82 pounds seven ounces. Remarkably, that weight approached the combined total of the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers. At one point during the event, VanDam even enjoyed an almost unfathomable 30-pound lead. His lure of choice? The humble spinnerbait.
With light-line finesse tactics and ultra-realistic lures all the rage these days, it’s remarkable that this four-time Bassmaster Classic winner still reaches for a spinnerbait. In fact, there’s rarely a time in the fall—especially when the water’s at least moderately clear—that VanDam won’t fling a spinnerbait for toad smallies. And this raises the question: Why would savvy smallmouth go crackers over a lure that, at first glance, looks like nothing in nature? Understand that, and you’ll soon be catching plenty of big smallmouth bass, too.
Gord PyzerPart of the spinnerbait’s autumn appeal lies in the way you present it. By burning it as quickly as possible just under the surface—so close the water sometimes bulges—the bass never get a good look at it. Instead, all they see, not to mention feel and hear, is an exciting explosion of sound and colour. To them, it’s like a frightened school of shiners, smelt, ciscoes, perch, alewife or shad, shedding scales as they panic and crash into each other.
Smallmouth bass are one of the most inquisitive and belligerent freshwater fish species—if they’re not starting a brawl, they’re attracted to one. This underscores what may be the most overlooked strength of casting a spinnerbait for smallmouth. With most search lures, once you catch a fish or see one following, you typically switch to a slower, more refined presentation to mop up. Not so with the spinnerbait, as VanDam brilliantly demonstrated in winning the Summit Cup.
He criss-crossed Michigan’s Grand Lake at a blistering pace, flinging a double-bladed spinnerbait over and around every shallow, isolated piece of structure he could find, looking for a winning pod of bass. Once he found the fish, he locked himself into position and burned the bait over their heads. This fired up the bass into such a frenzy that he was able to turn to the cameraman in his boat and call his shot, cast after cast after cast. It was spellbinding to watch.
Major League FishingThere’s another impressive thing about VanDam’s spinnerbait slam: the early-September morning had dawned sunny, hot and calm, but spinnerbaits generally work best on overcast, cool and windy days. That’s because grey skies and surface disturbances help distort the appearance of the flashing, fluttering bait enough that the bass will come in hot to check it out. So on bright, calm days, you have to retrieve the spinnerbait as quickly as possible to achieve the same effect—and that’s exactly what VanDam did (above).
But you can’t just tie on any old spinnerbait and expect to sucker in the smallmouth. With this fall tactic, heavy metal rules. Even though he was in water shallow enough that he could have waded to shore, VanDam’s spinnerbait of choice was a ½-ounce Strike King model (below). Why? By using a much heavier than normal spinnerbait, you can quickly retrieve it without having it rise up and break the surface of the water.
Not convinced? Try it yourself. First, make a long cast with a ¼-ounce spinnerbait and retrieve it as fast as you can using a speedy reel with a 6.6:1 retrieve ratio. The lure will either lift up and break the surface of the water—a spinnerbait sin—or you’ll have to slow the retrieve to keep it below the surface. Next tie on a ½- or ¾-ounce spinnerbait and do the same thing. The difference will be startling: you’ll be able to rip it back to the boat without it rising to the surface.
I’ll never forget years ago when veteran pro Rick Clunn stunned the bass fishing world by becoming the first angler to ever win a major tournament by burning a spinnerbait just under the surface. Lonnie Stanley, founder of the legendary Stanley Lure Company, was fishing the same tournament on the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands region, and he was beside himself. Why? Clunn was using one of Stanley’s 3/8-ounce signature series spinnerbaits, and when Stanley tried to duplicate Clunn’s magic, he couldn’t. It was only after Clunn won the tournament that he spilled the beans; the crafty pro had removed the rubber core from a sinker and wedged it onto the spinnerbait’s hook, making it weigh significantly more. That in turn let him retrieve it much faster without breaking the surface of the water.
There’s no doubt about it—when fishing spinnerbaits for fall smallmouth, speed kills.
Selecting a spinnerbait with the right size, shape and colour of blades is also key. Wide-cupped Colorado blades grab too much water, as do intermediate-width Indiana- and French-style blades, slowing down the speed at which you can wind in the lure. Instead, the spinnerbait must be equipped with thin willowleaf blades (below). They allow for a fast retrieve, and rotate in a much tighter arc to produce more flash.
When water conditions are clear and the sky is cloudless, VanDam favours a combination of silver- and gold-coloured blades. When conditions are overcast, cloudy or raining, on the other hand, he opts for painted blades in hues matching the colour of the baitfish. According to VanDam, painted blades provide the perfect silhouette. The skirts on his big-profile spinnerbaits, meanwhile, are generally blends of white, clear, chartreuse and blue that complement the colour of his blades.
Finally, VanDam always tips his spinnerbait with a short, sharp, free-swinging 1/0 to 3/0 stinger hook, depending on the size of the lure. This helps catch smallmouth that rocket up from the bottom and slap at the bait. On many days, he catches a quarter or more of his fish on the stinger
How you present your spinnerbait to the fish in the fall is paramount. You want to be able to visually follow your lure all the way back to the boat, from the beginning to the end of your casts. At the same time, you want the bass to be able to do the same thing while looking up toward the surface. By experimenting with blade sizes, retrieve speeds and lure weights from 3/8 to ¾ ounce, you’ll be able to keep your spinnerbait just under the surface, regardless of the water depth. And because fall smallmouth typically race up and swipe at a fast-moving spinnerbait, it’s essential to add a short, sharp, free-swinging stinger hook (above). Slide the trailer hook’s eye onto your main hook, then secure it with a tiny piece of pliable surgical tubing.
Major League FishingHaving shared a boat with VanDam over several days of fishing, I can also tell you that the legendary bass magician’s retrieves are never as they appear. It may look as though he’s simply burning the bait back quickly, but he’s also constantly imparting subtle twitches, stops, starts, shudders, flutters and jerks to his presentation.
And there’s something else about the superstar that never ceases to amaze me—no one can cast a spinnerbait as far as VanDam. When the lanky pro hauls back to cast, the fast tip on his seven-foot two-inch, medium-heavy Quantum baitcasting rod bends and practically buckles. The rod loads with so much energy that when he finally unleashes the lure, it sails out of sight. The result? He covers more water and shows the bait to more fish. And to withstand the long-distance, jaw-jacking hooksets, VanDam spools his reels with 17-pound monofilament.
Now that you know why the most successful bass angler in tournament fishing history is so sweet on spinnerbaits in the fall, what are you waiting for? It’s time to put on a clinic of your own.
Fishing editor Gord Pyzer is a long-time fall spinnerbait fan.
Not surprisingly, a spinnerbait is often the pros’ lure of choice for fall largemouth bass, as well, although they tend to present it somewhat slower. Early in the fall, when the bucketmouths have pulled out of the shallows and are moving toward main-lake structures and cover, most pros retrieve the lure at a moderate speed through the top third or middle portion of the water column.
When the water chills after Thanksgiving, on the other hand, slow-rolling a spinnerbait along the bottom is often the best way to catch the biggest largemouth of the year. Use a slower 5:1 retrieve-ratio reel, select a spinnerbait with a combination of Colorado and Indiana blades, and add a soft-plastic dressing to bulk up the bait. This lets you wind it back to the boat even more slowly, with the blades barely flickering, just a few inches above the bottom.