I’m fascinated by fish. Since my early childhood, I’ve always wanted to learn more about them in a constant quest to uncover secrets behaviors. I suppose the underlying reason is to become a better angler and catch more of them, but just observing the habits of fish is often enough for me.
I find myself contemplating their choices. By that, I mean that I seem to spend a strange amount of time attempting to learn, or justify, why fish do what they do; specifically bass. The reason for their location on any given day takes up a bunch of my energy. Occasionally, I find myself fascinated with their spawning behaviors but most commonly I wonder why bass strike certain lures more than others.
I vividly remember the first time I ever saw a new-age California swimbait. Before me, I was sure, was the answer to the prayers of bass fishermen everywhere. An exact replica of the things that bass eat, right down to the last hand-painted scale.
Yet to my surprise, following the introduction of this and other "perfect" lures, the fishing world didn’t change and neither did the fish. Sure, the new baits caught their fair share, but bass still hit buzzbaits like they always did.
So what gives? How is it that we’ve advanced so far with all aspects of lure design, yet 40-year-old crankbaits fetch a hundred bucks on eBay?
The answer, I’m sure, lies in the reason for my fascination.
Throughout history, we’ve seen a transformation of popular lures for bass fishing. This is understandable, as the bass fishing public gets on something hot – something that works better than what’s out there – and the market responds.
Early on, most bass fishing with artificial lures was done with topwater baits. Primitive lure-makers carved their creations from wood, attached hooks and hauled them out near the lily pads.
Soon thereafter, various jigs cycled through the freshwater fishing world after coming ashore from the sea, and modifications were made to put them in front of hungry bass.
Various subsurface lures and crankbaits came on to the scene after designers attached a diving lip to their wooden topwaters; one, in particular, caught a 22-pound bass, back before World War II.
Wire-framed lures were constantly changing, eventually evolving from spinning baits to spinnerbaits. Later, plastic changed everything, both in hard forms and soft.
So, by about the time “organized bass fishing” started, we were left with a pretty good road map of lure categories that would take us into modern times. Sure, there have been monumental advancements: lipless crankbaits, tube lures, soft jerkbaits and stick baits, the aforementioned swimbaits. One could argue that the ChatterBaiot is a whole new category of lure in itself, and I’d probably agree. But then where do we put underspins, spybaits and umbrella rigs?
In any case, the sky’s the limit on lure design these days. And, as the designers constantly try to build a better mousetrap, I wonder if they're taking the wrong approach.
Some time ago, various lure manufacturers began to push the envelope in other directions. Sound became a big thing. We briefly touched on lipless crankbaits, but it bears mentioning that the advent of rattles in plugs briefly blew the doors off the bass world. The Rat-L-Trap quickly became the hottest lure in the world but, after prolonged exposure to the ears of bass, it, too, settled down.
Scent was next; for a time, millions of dollars were pumped into the research and development of scented fishing lures. Berkley devoted nearly all of its resources toward development of scent-based products in the ’80s and ’90s, resulting in the wildly popular PowerBait and Gulp! brands.
Scent additives and attractants became the all the rage; Fish Formula, Berkley Strike and Dr. Juice were names that cycle through my head. Obsessed with that, as well, I remember buying a secret, unlabeled potion 30 years ago that I still hoard the last drops of.
The appeal to the other senses; here is where I feel breakthrough lure design is going. Scent, taste, sound, even touch. As we increase our understanding of the reasons why bass are attracted to and strike a lure, perhaps we’ll better harness this other energy?
Still as obsessed as ever, my readings today often bring up the topic of “feel” within a lure category, specifically the feel associated with the lateral line and sensory organs on bass. Most notably, Doug Stange of In-Fisherman Magazine continues to make the case that certain lure categories – often soft-bodied swimbaits – feel more natural to bass than other baits, resulting in superior performance at times.
It’s theories like this that make me wonder. The same questions pop in my head that did so when I was a child. How did those bass find my jig in that muddy water some 30 years ago? Why did the smallmouths of Lake Erie absolutely prefer lures flavored with garlic? And just what did those Florida fish think a bubblegum-colored worm really was?
Like anyone else, I continue to pick through my lures, often trying those that rarely catch anything again and again. Perhaps I can unlock a secret set of variables that bring them to the forefront. Or maybe the manufacturer was out to catch me instead of a bass.
I go back to the old reliables. Some, I swear, look terrible, but continue to perform. Then I think back to the first time I saw a California swimbait, so sure my world was about to change.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)