Using Spinnerbaits to Catch Bass

Where to Fish, Retrieves and Tackle to Use, and Much More

A tandem-blade spinnerbait fooled this largemouth bass. Photo © Ken Schultz

A spinnerbait may not look like natural forage, but it evidently appeals to the predatory, reflexive instincts of bass as much as to its hunger instincts. We have to assume that a bass strikes a spinnerbait because it looks like something vulnerable, or because it produces vibrations that sound like something it ordinarily eats or might eat.

Whatever the case, a spinnerbait is a versatile lure, as might be inferred from the wide assortment of blades, colors, and sizes available. It’s a good lure for fishing in and around such cover as lily pads, grass, stumps, brush, treetops, boat docks, rock piles, logs, and similar fish-holding places. It’s primarily fished on a standard cast-and-retrieve, usually in shallow or intermediate depths, where it is most productive for the average angler. But it can also be fished in deep water.

Shallow Retrieving; Visible Strikes

The most common technique of fishing a spinnerbait is to retrieve it from within a few inches to several feet beneath the surface. If the water is clear enough you can see and watch the retrieved lure coming through the water. Nearly every time, if you can see the lure, you will see the fish strike it. Sometimes a bass seems to dart out of nowhere. Other times it comes from right where expected. This is very much like surface fishing; the excitement of anticipating and seeing the strike is always present.

Even when the water is murky and you can’t see the lure, you usually know about where it is located as it swims, and the strike may create a splash or boil on the surface. Spinnerbaits are usually struck from the side, suddenly forcing the lures sideways as if pushed by a gust of wind. When this happens, jam the hook home fast. 

Another distinct advantage of this angling style is that you can see the fish that attempt to strike the bait but miss it. You can often see if a bass misses the lure, hits short, or is merely taking a close look. Sometimes these fish can be caught with another cast of that spinnerbait in the same area, or with an alternative lure that works more slowly.

It is also beneficial to watch the lure as it is retrieved right to the boat. Sometimes, particularly on shallow, stumpy flats, a fish may come from almost under the boat after the lure, yet turn away at the last second as the lure nears the boat. Chain pickerel and northern pike characteristically follow this lure right up to the boat, sometimes striking at boatside. If you see this, you can be prepared.

Start Shallow Retrieve Immediately

When working the shallows it’s important to begin retrieving a spinnerbait the moment it hits the water for maximum effectiveness. This is to prevent the lure from touching the bottom or grass, moss, or other items that might foul the blade and cause it not to spin. No spin equals no fish. Remove any debris from a blade or spinnerbait arm.

Getting the lure working the moment it enters the water is no problem with spinning tackle, since you can flip the bail immediately and begin retrieving. But right-handed baitcasters will have to switch the rod to their left hand during the cast so they can engage the reel as the lure hits the water, or their lure may get fouled initially or fall too deep to fish the nearby cover.

Sometimes bass are holding by objects at a level deeper than your lure is being retrieved and will not come up for it, even though you’re fishing in what is generally considered shallow water. If you're fishing a spinnerbait close to the surface with poor results, try letting it sink out of sight to a depth of between 4 and 8 feet, and retrieve it steadily at that depth. Occasionally, you'll have to fish a spinnerbait out of sight right along the bottom like this, in intermediate or greater depths.

Get Close, Bump, and Roll

The shallow-cover places where most anglers successfully use a spinnerbait necessitate getting the lure as close to the particular object as possible. Do this by casting the lure beyond the target and bringing it back into contact with it, then continuing on. Make several casts to each object, from every angle, paying particular attention to the deep and shady sides.

An effective method for working weed beds and weed lines is to crawl a spinnerbait slowly over the tops of grass that is submerged a few feet. For grass beds with definable weed lines, however, it may be better to cast parallel to the edge or bring the lure over the top and let it flutter down the edge. For lily pads, it’s best to work the channel-like openings, but don't be afraid to throw into thick clusters and far back into pockets, then ease it over the pads and drop it in another pocket.

Perhaps the most reliable pattern for spinnerbait fishing, especially in the spring, is working the wood. This includes stumps, logs, and stickups. Make sure your spinnerbait is close to these objects; in fact, bump them with the lure at times. The momentary fluttering of the bait's blades and the object contact seem to produce strikes. Stickups, bushes, and floating logjams (as often found in coves) also are productive. Get your lure well behind objects before commencing the retrieve. Boat docks and houses, too, fit in this category.

A very worthwhile tact is to let a spinnerbait roll over a log and flutter down before the retrieve commences, or to bring it alongside a bush or the limbs of a fallen tree and stop the lure so that it flutters deeper. Bass often strike when you do this rather than just pulling the lure directly away from such objects.

Best Seasons

Spring and early summer are prime times for spinnerbait use. In spring and early summer, spinnerbaits allow you to cover a lot of ground effectively and quickly, while you watch your lure work and see strikes. Midsummer is generally not a very good spinnerbait time, but this is all relative. Smallmouths in deep water are very susceptible to spinnerbaits fished at night in the summer.

Many northern lakes, where the water doesn’t get extremely hot and fish stay relatively shallow, can provide summer spinnerbait action that rivals that of early season. And in some well-timbered lakes where bass remain in shallow to intermediate depths through summer, spinnerbaits are quite effective. As the water cools in early fall, spinnerbaits again become primary bass lures, and when fished slowly and deep in the winter or early spring, they are also productive.

Deep Spinnerbait Use

Although it has been long taken for gospel that spinnerbaits are only for fishing in water that is as deep as your fishing rod is long, or where you can see the lure from the time it hits the water till the time it gets back to the boat, this is not the case. Deep fishing with spinnerbaits is something that many bass anglers have overlooked in the past, preferring to use a deep-diving plug or a Carolina rig worm for probing the nether regions of lakes and reservoirs. However, the vibration of big-bladed spinnerbaits in deep water can be enticing to larger bass. Spinnerbaits do indeed have merit for fishing along sharply sloping shorelines, dropoffs, rocky ledges, and among deep timber, whether on a lift-and-drop motion, in a series of short hops, or on a straight retrieve at a deeper-than normal level.

Where there is submerged cover in deeper water – points, open-water humps, stumpy flats or ridges near deep water, ledges, and assorted vegetation – you can make a long cast and either let the lure fall to the bottom, or count it down to the proper level, before beginning the retrieve. Watch the line for indications of a strike as the lure is falling, and once it has reached its desired level, start a slow steady retrieve. If you crank the reel handle too fast, the lure will rise and lift away from the bottom of the desired zone, so be sure to reel slowly to keep the spinnerbait in the right place.

You may need a very heavy spinnerbait for this, one in the ¾- to 1-ounce range, to get to and stay at the right level. Larger lures are harder to cast than smaller spinnerbaits and may require the use of a two-handed rod, both for casting and retrieving comfort as well as accuracy. If you can’t find such a heavy spinnerbait, or are pressed to use a lighter one, then try putting a rubber-core sinker onto the shaft of a lighter lure, camouflaged by the skirt.

There are different opinions about using single or tandem blades in deep water. Most people are likely to find a single large Colorado blade very effective, especially in the dark and dirty depths. In addition to producing a lot of vibration, the single Colorado also spins when the lure is on the descent, which can provoke strikes on a falling spinnerbait (say one that is dropped off a deep ledge), or when it is retrieved in a short-hopping motion rather than on a steady retrieve. When short-hopped, a deep spinnerbait is worked more or less like a jig, but if the blade doesn’t spin on the descent as well as on the ascent, then it’s not that effective. Tandem blades often do not do that.

Line, Bait Arms, and Blades

Keep in mind when fishing a spinnerbait deep that the size of your line may be an important factor. In shallow water, line diameter is not that critical to spinnerbait success or to effective action, but in deep water, a line with a heavier diameter may not fall as well as one with a smaller diameter, and thus tends to ride up. I’ve gravitated more toward using a thin-diameter microfilament (braided) line with a hybrid fluorocarbon leader, so the line is sensitive for feeling a strike yet tough enough for hard hooksets and for pulling the lure free when it gets snagged.

Also, using a short-armed spinnerbait has an advantage for blade action as well, again especially on the drop. Therefore, a shorter arm helps with a single-bladed spinnerbait, but a longer arm is better for tandem-blade baits. However, you don’t want the rear blade to extend beyond the hook. 

Speaking of arms, heavy-duty spinnerbaits usually have a closed-loop line tie, whereas lighter duty spinnerbaits, including most models for bass fishing, have an open line tie. The latter is fine if you tie your knot directly to the lure. While I do not recommend using a snap or snap-swivel with a spinnerbait fished for bass, many anglers use these, and this is problematic with open-line tie spinnerbaits, as the snap or snap-swivel sometimes slips onto the upper arm and fouls the lure up. Incidentally, if you use a spinnerbait for northern pike or muskies, you may be using a snap tied to a wire leader, and then you must use a lure with a closed-loop line tie.

Rods, Reels, and Gear Ratios

Since heavy spinnerbaits are required for deep water, a fishing rod should be stout enough to make long casts, set the hook when a long length of line is out, and also move a good-sized fish off or out of cover if necessary. A 6 ½- or 7-foot medium-heavy action rod fills that bill, provided it can also transmit the feel of the lure working.

In general, baitcasting tackle is best for spinnerbait use, except when using the lightest versions for small fish. A baitcasting reel does not need a lot of line capacity for spinnerbait use, but it should be filled to capacity for the sake of casting efficiency as well as retrieval. Since it is common to fish a spinnerbait at a moderate-to-fast retrieve, especially in shallow water, reels with a medium or fast retrieval ratio work fine; however, using a high-speed reel can lead to fishing a spinnerbait too fast on those occasions when it is necessary to fish a spinnerbait slowly. For really slow fishing, a slower retrieval ratio is advantageous, as it is difficult to deliberately fish a high-speed reel in a slow mode for long periods.

There are a lot of good spinnerbaits on the market, including many that are made and sold within a localized area, so you shouldn't have to look far to find variety. If you keep a supply of extra blades, barrel swivels, trailer hooks, beads, and skirts (save the parts of discarded lures and buy replacement skirts)you can modify your spinnerbaits as necessary, and you'll be able to enhance the lure's effectiveness and increase your angling success.