“Surface fishing is no easy game. It’s far more exacting than fishing plastic worms and even more demanding than fly fishing.” —Homer Circle
Any—no, every—angler who picks up a rod loaded with a buzzbait should remember these words of wisdom from one of bass fishing’s pioneers, before launching the first cast.
Without a doubt, tossing topwaters, especially buzzbaits, is a fun way to fish bass, but too many anglers subscribe to the “throw-and-hope” theory. They count on the lure’s gurgle and squeak to turn on bass and bring them in. Of course, that can and does happen at times. But to elevate your buzzbaiting from a technique that’s always fun to one that’s always fun and often productive, requires the firing of substantially more cerebral neurons.
And even when all the brain cells are crackling and the mental grid is charged, it’s easy to become mesmerized by the lure’s steady sputter/glug, and focused too keenly on the exquisite anticipation of a violent strike. That’s not to say you should ignore the bait and what it’s doing. You’ll miss strikes if you do. But there are other things to think about, too, such as the approach, retrieve speed, the lure’s size color and configuration, and the temperament of the bass you’re targeting.
Alton Jones, one of the premier bass anglers on the professional circuit today, takes buzzbait fishing several steps beyond the usual, and when conditions warrant, the lure is standard equipment.
“When I see water at 50 degrees or higher, I’ve got one tied on all the time,” says the angler from Waco, Texas.
He offers sage advice and solid tips for any angler who wants to elevate their buzzbait game. If you’re among that group, read on.
Subtle Or Raucous
The components that make up a buzzbait are relatively simple—a hook, lead head, skirt, wire frame and a blade. But when these parts are assembled they form a fairly complex lure that delivers the ultimate in sight and sound stimulus.
Your first consideration when selecting a buzzbait, more than size or color, should be configuration. There are two distinct categories: in-line and safetypin, sometimes called an offset buzzbait.
In-lines, featuring a blade positioned directly in front of the head, skirt and hook, are quieter, more subtle lures best suited to shallow fish and clear water. A prime situation for the more subdued in-line lure would be when bass are hanging close to the surface near an overhanging willow. Here, you want to catch their interest, without causing so much commotion that you blow them out of the zone. An in-line lure is often the best choice.
The blade on a safety-pin type buzzbait rotates around a wire arm above the lure’s body. Typically, the lure is larger, and the blade moves a lot of water and makes much more noise. It’s the ticket when bass are deep, you need to attract them from a distance or the water is off-color and fish can’t see the lure well.
Size and color are certainly factors to consider, too, but options are limited. Check any mail-order tackle catalog or lure maker’s website and you’ll find that, in general, primary sizes are 1⁄4-, 3⁄8- and 1⁄2-ounce.The bigger the bait, of course, the bigger the noise.
Skirt colors are mainly black or somevariation of white or pearl, with a few chartreuse, blue or yellow hues mixed into the bunch. “Ninety percent of the time,” says Jones, “I’m throwing either black (when it’s overcast) or white (when the sun shines). Sometimes I go to chartreuse, but black and white are the colors I fish most often.”
Perfecting The Chirp
The blade’s unceasing thump, as it chugs across the surface, and the muted vibrations emitted by the undulating skirt certainly pique whatever passes for curiosity in a bass’ miniscule brain. But Jones looks for more from the buzzbaits he fishes.
He wants the lure to produce the perfect chirp—the noise that comes from the back end of the blade’s hub rubbing against the rivet that holds it in place on the wire arm.
Out of the box, a lure’s chirp is typically more like a high-pitched squeak; with time and use, the sound changes. It’s sort of like the first time your pickup’s door throws a tiny, ear-piercing yelp when you open it. A week or so later, assuming you haven’t gone after it with a can of spray-lube, the tone is a little richer and not quite so painful to the ear.
Before making the first cast with a new lure, Jones modifies his buzzbaits in ways that helps them achieve that special sound without first having to cast and retrieve them a couple of hundred times.
More Surface Area
As mentioned, the chirp is produced by metal-on-metal contact between the blade and rivet, a small metal tube with a mushroom-like head.
“The head is rounded back,”says Jones, “which means the contact area where it actually meets the blade is very small. If you increase that area, it’ll make more noise.”
Before ever fishing a buzzbait, he first straightens the end of the wire arm with a needle-nose pliers and removes the rivet. Then, he flattens the head by bending it forward, little-by-little, until its entire surface will make contact with the rotating blade once the lure is reassembled. Sometimes, he adds, it’s necessary to crimp the rivet’s body section onto the wire to keep it from spinning.
If the blade is painted, Jones also scrapes the finish from the rear of the hub with a pocketknife to ensure raw metal meets raw metal.
One final tweak the angler makes to perfect the chirp is to bend the blade lengthwise while it’s on the wire arm.
“I guarantee that few fishermen do this, or even know about it,” he says.
With one index finger wrapped around the wire at the front of the blade, and the other wrapped at the rear, he gently pushes against the center with both thumbs.
“Bend it just until the blade will no longer rotate when you blow on it from the front.”
He then reverses the lure, and with fingers and thumbs in the same position, bends the blade and arm back toward straight until the blade barely rotates in the blown air stream.
“This creates friction all along the length of the blade; you can’t believe what it does to the sound.
”All of these alterations may seem like tiny details, but in Jones’ experience, “they make a big difference in the intensity and quality of the sound the lure makes.”
Fishermen who cast buzzbaits on aregular basis know they work and sound better with time and use. Many of them even employ the old trick of holding the lure outside the truck window on the way to the lake and letting the blade spin wildly in order to break it in.
Jones has a different thought. He says the contact points between the blade and rivet and blade and wire are different when the lure moves through air as opposed to water.
“It’s better to break-in a buzzbait in the same environment you’ll use it—water,” he says.
“Hold the blade under running water, preferably in a bathtub where the flow has more velocity and volume, for 10 to 15 minutes. The metal pieces will ‘groovein’ together just like they would if you were casting and retrieving the lure.”
This step, he concludes, is the last one. “Always finish any changes you make to the blade, rivet or arm before you break the buzzbait in.”
Analyze And React
It’s easy to get lost in the adrenaline-rush of a near miss when a fish reacts to the lure but doesn’t quite hook-up. Smart anglers, or at least those who are paying attention, process that data and use it to make sure the next bass is a biter, instead of a looker.
A missed strike indicates that the presentation is close, but not spot-on. Often it’s just a matter of changing lure speed, but it could mean a bait swap is in order. Downsizing is an option that works many times, but Jones also thinks in terms of color.
“A black blade has a less visible profile,” he says. “Going to a black blade is like downsizing without really scaling down.” Another option is to change the skirt to a more muted shade, or to something less bulky, or to something that’s totally different.
When traditional buzzbaits elicit follows, but no strikes, Jones may strip the skirt completely and thread a 4-inch plastic grub on the hook. “It changes the bait’s appearance, and sometimes tones down the profile just enough to make them bite.” Lately, he’s been doing the same thing with a 4-inch tube. Jones threads the hook through the center of lure’s nose, then forces the hollow plastic body up over the buzzbait’s lead head.
“I’ve just started experimenting with this rig, but it looks good. When you put on a white tube with no skirt, it perfectly imitates a shad.”
Whether he’s targeting largemouths in the spring, summer or fall, Jones thinks about lure placement before making a cast.
Early in the season, for example, when he’s focusing on protected spawning areasthat warm more quickly than other parts of the lake, long casts are mandatory.
“The top inch of water will be warmer,” he says. “Think about it as if you are going into a cold house. You turn up the thermostat, and where do you stand? Next to the heater vent.
“These fish will be near the surface, and they’ll spook if you get too close to them with the boat. Really, if you see the fish, it’s too late.”
The trick is to make long casts over areas where you think bass are holding. In fact, cast 15 to 20 feet beyond the target area, he explains, because “you want to let the lure get gurgling and chirping before it comes over the fish.”
Lure speed is an important factor, too, especially when the water is relatively cool and fish are lethargic.
“The best retrieve is as slow as you can pull the bait, and still make the right noise,” says Jones.
You can give the lure more lift, he explains, by bending the blade’s rear lobes a little farther. It allows you to slow the retrieve without reducing its action or noise level.
In other situations, as when the water is warmer and bass are relating to lay-downs or overhangs, a more precise surgical strike might be what’s needed.
“A lot of times, bass will be aggressive enough to hit a buzzbait, but not enough to run 20 feet to hit it. Aim at specific a target,” says Jones. “And make the bait bump cover—every time you get the chance.”
A stump, an overhang, rip-rap or even weeds on the surface, whatever it is—force the lure to make contact, he says. “The sudden change in the bait’s cadence is what often triggers a strike.”