The “Lucky” 7: Western Bass Fishing’s Must Have Lures
Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
Walk the isles of a store like Fisherman’s Warehouse or Sportsman’s Warehouse and you’ll see bass lures 1,000’s and 1,000’s of bass lures. You’ll see chatter baits, jerkbaits, poppers, walkers, swimbaits, crankbaits, jigs, spoons and a veritable sea of soft plastics in an infinite array of shapes and sizes.
For the beginning bass angler, walking those isles can be a daunting and intimidating task. Which lures should an angler choose? Does this bait appeal to the bass or just to bass anglers? Will this bait catch fish at Folsom Lake or other reservoirs or is it more of an offering for the delta or Clear Lake? In the end without instruction or advice our bass angler is left hanging and he ends up choosing a collection of lures at random, gambling that the baits he buys will catch the interest of the bass.
I’m not the world’s best bass angler. In fact I didn’t catch my first respectable largemouth until I was in college. I’m certainly not in the league of Bobby Barrack, Gary Dobbins, Randy Pringle or Kent Brown. Heck, a lot of the time I can’t even keep pace with many of the talented amateur anglers I meet while fishing in Vince Harris’s Future Pro Tour, yet every year I catch hundreds of bass.
The one advantage I have over most other bass anglers is that I have the ability to fish with and question many of the best bass anglers in the state. If I want to know how to fish a jig or a plastic worm for trophy size bass, I pick up the phone and call Larry Hemphill. If I want to learn something about finesse fishing or structure fishing I get in contact with Don Paganelli of Paganelli’s Bass Fishing Experience. The next thing I know we are out on the water and Don is showing me some of his tricks.
With this sort of advice and instruction I’m able to tap into all the on the water experimentation that Larry and Don have done over the years. As a result, I eliminate a lot of the trial and error that most anglers struggle with. Instead I have the luxury of cutting to the chase, and employing proven tactics and lures from the first minute I hit the water.
So what have I learned over the years? Well obviously not enough or I would be me winning all those boats rather than the Barracks and Dobbins of this world!
Seriously though by collaborating with talented, experienced anglers I’ve learned many key factors that add up to bass fishing success and I’ve also been able to establish a short list of lures that are relatively easy to fish and highly effective in a variety of situations and at a variety of different waters.
I call these lures the “Lucky 7”. Let’s explore the “Lucky 7” and the next time you find yourself at the tackle shop you won’t have to roll the dice and hope the lures you select will catch fish. Instead, you’ll be able to pick out lures with the confidence of knowing that they are proven performers.
The Senko is testament that at times simplicity is the best solution. The Senko is basically a fat salt impregnated plastic worm that doesn’t look like much and when in the water it doesn’t do much. Well, not much beyond catching lots of fish.
There are a lot of bass pros out there who shall remain nameless that absolutely hate the Senko. They hate them because they view the Senko as the great equalizer. It is a lure that takes very little skill to fish and yet allows the novice to achieve results as good as those attained by the professional with years of experience.
There are a couple of ways to rig and fish Senkos. They can be Texas rigged and fished along the bottom like a traditional plastic worm. Since Senkos are fairly expensive, if you want to fish it like a plastic worm economically speaking you’re much better off using a standard worm.
To get the most out of your Senkos you want to “wacky rig” them. To wacky rig a Senko you simply tie a medium size octopus hook to the end of your line and then hook it through the center of the bait. Senkos are dense baits that sink fairly quickly without adding additional weight. When hooked wacky style, the ends of the worm shutter and vibrate as the bait sinks and bass just can’t seem to resist it.
One of the reasons the Senko is so great for the beginner is that the less movement the angler tries to impart to the bait the more fish they’ll catch. All you need to do to catch fish on a Senko is to cast or drop the bait near bass holding structure and let it drop on a semi-tight line. When a bass hits you feel a tap or the line will take off moving laterally through the water. When you sense either of these cues, set the hook and you’ll have a bass firmly attached to the end of your line.
The first plastic worms hit the market back in the 1950’s and bass anglers have been busting fish on them ever since. However ,the lures anglers used back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s bare minimal resemblance to the high tech, super soft, custom poured offerings that are available to anglers’ these days.
Now when you hit the worm section at a tackle shop you’ll see fat worms, short worms, long worms and everything else in between. You can ignore most of them since there are really only two types of worms that you need. For day in day out reservoir fishing you want a selection of soft hand poured “western style” straight tail finesse worms in 4 inch and 6 inches sizes. For the delta, Clear Lake or anytime you suspect a larger than average largemouth maybe on the prowl you’ll want to add a few husky swimtail worms in 7.5” and 10” sizes.
With hundreds of different choices, worm color can be another point of confusion for the beginner. Basically you want finesse worms in both dark crawfish colors and light baitfish colors. When it comes to the color of your big worms, stick with dark hues such as black, dark purple or dark brown.
Worms are one of the most versatile bass fishing baits both in terms of rigging and presentation, yet the beginner should take a keep it simple approach. You’ll want to Texas rig all your worms since this renders them weedless and you’ll be able to fish without fear of snagging.
A Texas rigged weightless worm will catch bass, but for maximum effectiveness you’ll need to add enough weight to get the worm down quickly and keep it near the bottom. When fishing with finesse worms, the simplest and most effective weighting option is adding 1, 2 or 3 split shot to the line about 18 inches above the worm. This will allow your finesse worm to glide effortlessly along the bottom with a tantalizing motion.
When using large worms you’ll want to thread a bullet weight on your line prior to tying on the hook. This way the weigh will ride against the head of the worm as you make your retrieve.
There are really only two things to remember when fishing plastic worms. First, you want them to stay on the bottom and second, move them slowly and pause your retrieve often.
One of the nice things about fishing a plastic worm is that once a bass grabs the bait it will typically hang onto it for an extended period of time giving the angler plenty of time to set the hook. A lot of anglers that are new to fishing plastic worms are uncertain what a strike will feel like. The two most common bites are signaled by a series of taps or by a rubbery sensation. When you feel either of these sensations, drop your rod tip, reel up the slack and slam the hook home.
Overall grubs don’t get much acclaim, which is strange since they are such deadly offerings. There are a number of different types of grubs on the market. The single tail grub and the twin tail hula grub that boasts a soft plastic skirt attached to the end opposite the tails are the most commonly used and useful here in the west.
Single tail grubs do a wonderful job of imitating a fat baitfish and provide unmatched versatility. They can be hopped along the bottom, swam past middle depth structure or burned just below the surface when bass are busting bait in open water. When selecting single tail grubs I like to stick with baitfish colors such as pearl and smoke/flake.
Single tails grubs can be rigged on a variety of different jig heads. It wasn’t that long ago that round jig heads were the standard choice, but these days things have changed and most anglers prefer to employ an 1/8 to 1/4 ounce darter head.
Hula grubs are bulky baits that do a wonderful job of imitating a crawfish. For this reason I prefer hula grubs in dark natural colors such as root beer/flake or watermelon/flake. Hula grubs can be effectively rigged on darter heads, but most experienced anglers prefer to team their hula grubs with a football style jig head in the 1/4 to 1/2 ounce range. At times bass will slam a hula grub that is swimming off the bottom, but in most situations dragging then along the bottom with the occasional hop thrown in for good measure is the way to go.
When a bass strikes a single tail grub, you’ll typically feel a series of taps and then the rod will load up and the bass will be hooked. When you feel the initial taps the worst thing you can do is react by setting the hook or slowing the bait, since the bass is typically grabbing at the baits tail. If you keep the bait moving at a steady pace the bass will get more aggressive and eventually inhale it. A strike on a hula grub feels pretty much the same as a strike on a plastic worm in that you’ll either feel some taps or the sensation of a solid rubbery weight. Since the hula grub sports an exposed hook point you don’t need to set the hook as hard are you do when using a Texas rigged worm.
Rip baits or minnow plugs as they are known in non-bass fishing circles have a thin profile that is highly attractive to bass and other gamefish. There are two basic types of rip baits that should be found in every bass anglers tackle selection.
On one hand there are the floater/divers that dive on the retrieve and float back to the surface when the retrieve is stopped. On the other hand there are the suspending/divers that holding in the water column without sinking or floating when the retrieve is stopped. Floater/divers are a great choice when the bass are holding in shallow water or when the water has a high degree of clarity. Suspending baits are used when the bass are holding in deeper water.
You don’t need a wide range of color schemes in your rip bait collection. A few natural colored baits for times when the water clarity is good and some brighter colored clown or firetiger finish baits for times when the water is stained will cover 95% of the situations you’ll encounter on the water.
To the causal observer working rip baits looks like an aggressive approach, but in reality it takes a lot of patience to fish a rip bait properly. When using a floating/diving model the proper technique is to pull the bait under the surface, twitch it 2, 3, 4 or 5 times and then let it float back to the surface and let it set.
When using a suspending bait the approach is almost identical. After casting the bait out, reel it down to maximum depth and pause. After the pause rip the bait a few times and then let it pause again. Whether you are using a floater or a suspender, it is during the pause when the majority of strikes typically occur. The colder the water or the more pressured the bass are the longer the pause you will have to use to trigger strikes and that is where patience figures into the equation.
For the uninitiated the term walking bait refers to surface lures such as Zara Spooks, River2Sea Rovers, Yo-Zuri Banana Boats or Cordell Pencil Poppers. These baits have no built in action, but when twitched steadily along they walk back and forth. This type of retrieve is known as “walking the dog”. For whatever reason this back and forth motion drives the bass crazy and huge surface explosions are often the result.
These baits are attractive to bass of all sizes, but they have a special appeal for larger than average size fish. I absolutely love working walking baits. In my observations, I haven’t noticed that one species of bass like them more or less than another species. Indeed, many times, while fishing at lakes such as Shasta, Folsom or Berryessa, I’ve caught smallmouths, spots and largemouths, practically on back to back to back casts.
These baits come in a variety of different sizes and finishes. I prefer the large models in clear, pearl white or baitfish colors.
These baits are best fished on braided line. The key to hooking fish when they strike is to keep the bait moving until you feel the strike. Your instinct will prompt you to set the hook when you see the strike and this will result in missed opportunities. Since braid has no stretch you can simply focus on keeping the bait moving no matter what you see and the fish will almost always hook themselves.
Crankbaits are great for covering ground and seeking out active bass. You’ll want a selection of cranks in both baitfish and crawfish patterns. To cover all the depths you are likely to be confronted with you’ll want shallow, medium and deep running baits.
The key to catching fish on crankbaits is to avoid fishing them in open water. You want your baits bouncing off, the bottom, rocks and other structure. Sure this approach will result in a few lost baits, but it will also result in hooked fish. When I meet an angler that tells me they can’t seem to catch fish on crankbaits, I can almost guarantee that they are fishing the baits in open water to avoid snagging up and loosing lures.
Depending on the temperament of the bass, they will show a preference for the bait to do certain things when it makes contact with structure. When they are sluggish they typically react to a bait that pauses after contact. Bass that are more active typically like a bait that keeps moving at a steady rate after bouncing off structure or even a bait that accelerates and darts away after striking a solid object.
Swimbaits are the elephant rifles of bass fishing. They are the tools you pull out when monsters are on the prowl. Fishing swimbaits whether you prefer a hard bait like a River2Sea King Kong or a molded soft plastic trout is pretty simple and straightforward. You simple toss them out on a long cast and then retrieve them slowly and steadily. The hard part is convincing yourself that a bass will actually hit such a massive offering and having enough confidence to keep throwing the bait until something happens.
There are many dozens of different swimbaits available on today’s market. Some are designed to sink slowly or even to float when at rest. These baits are intended for working shallow water structure, but in clear water situations they can pull large bass out of deep water too.
These are the baits that I recommend the beginning swimbaiter to get started with. Other types of swimbaits are heavily weighted and sink quickly. These bait are intended to be counted down and can be used around deep water structure. For the novice, these fast sinkers are easily snagged and lost. Since swimbaits typically cost $20 or $30 or more you obviously don’t want to loose too many of them.
In terms of tackle, most successful anglers fish them on heavy baitcasting gear loaded with 25 pound test monofilament. The heavy line often enables you to pull your baits free of snags and it also helps you to subdue those big hard charge double digit bass!