The coolness of the recently departed summer night lingered in the air as professional bass angler O.T. Fears brought his boat off-plane and drifted toward a shallow flat dotted with old stumps.
This had the makings of a buzzbait morning, a surface celebration that is universally revered by all bass enthusiasts. The weather was stable, the bass were shallow and locked into an aggressive mode.
Reaching into his huge tacklebox, Fears grabbed several buzzbaits still in their packages. After freeing the safety-pin-like baits, he took a pair of pliers — and cut the lure in half.
"You'll find very few tournament pros — or even experienced fishermen — who fish a bait exactly the way it comes out of the package," Fears says in response to an astonished look. "I modify baits a lot of different ways — some in little ways and and some in major ways. I guess you could say this would be a major way."
Although the country's lure manufacturers have refined the technology necessary to supply the average angler with a ready-to-go, sure-fire fish-catcher, years of experience have enabled the tournament pros to develop an insight into largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass that most of us will never attain. They have discovered small behavioral quirks and sure-fire methods of taking advantage of them. And they have found ways to modify artificial lures to make them more effective and productive.
Tricks of the trade, so to speak. And every top bass pro will tell you that it is the little things that separate the best from the rest.
In many cases, these lure modifications are only a slight, enhancing twist that makes the bait perform better. In others, the lures undergo a complete personality change. But all have a common result — they produce more bass under a wider variety of fishing situations.
O.T. Fears, a three-time qualifier for the prestigious BASSMASTERS Classic and past Red Man All-American champion, certainly understands the value of bait alteration. And he vividly demonstrated it on that calm summer morning.
Most people wouldn't abuse a buzzbait the way Fears routinely does with his pliers. But this is a man with a definite purpose.
Fears calls it "hinging the bait." That involves cutting the buzzbait wire in half about a half-inch above the leadhead. He then attaches the two ends to a split ring by twisting the ends of the wire. It looks like a buzzbait from hell, but Fears sings its praises.
"What this does is allow the bait to ride lower in the water, which gives you a higher percentage of the fish that you hook than you will get with a standard buzzbait," he explained. "The split ring works like a hinge and allows the hook to swing free. That gives you another advantage. If a bass ever wraps you up in a bush with a regular buzzbait, he has a lot of leverage to use to his advantage. I'd say that 99 percent of the time a bass will use that leverage to twist free. But that is practically impossible with this bait."
The Oklahoma pro went on to prove his case convincingly to his skeptical fishing partner, who insisted on throwing a conventional buzzbait.
These noisy surface lures are routinely modified by knowledgeable anglers — though not as drastically as Fears. While buzzbaits are among the most exhilarating lures to fish because they produce a senses-startling assault that is played out before your eyes, it can be a frustrating lure as well. It is often not a very efficient lure for actually hooking bass.
For that reason, most of the modifications done to buzzbaits are meant to increase its hooking ability. Most bass pros bend the wire of the bait to make the hook and leadhead ride lower in the water. And if the hook is bent precisely, the blade will tick the shaft as it rotates, making a louder noise.
In the realm of artificial lures, crankbaits are among the most likely to be altered, despite the fact that these baits have few components. Although wooden baits are far easier to alter, plastic crankbaits don't escape from the pro's tendency to give them his personal touch.
The most common modification involves exchanging the factory hooks for larger, stronger versions. Although the manufacturers have made major strides to improve the hook quality on their crankbaits in recent years, almost all of the top tournament pros prefer to replace them with hooks that are a size larger, which increases the percentage of bass that they are able to boat. And many insist on using a wide-throated hook like a VMC model.
Losing fish is a major consideration with crankbaits and the object of much modification. But it might surprise some to learn that crankbait expert Joe Hughes believes he actually improves his hooking ratio by closing the barbs on the hooks. And he has had the success to prove it.
Veteran Virginia pro Woo Daves routinely clips off the barbs when fishing heavy timber and brush to reduce the number of times it gets hung. In especially heavy cover, Daves will remove the treble hooks and replace them with a single 3/0 worm hook.
Although he is not a tournament pro, noted big-bass authority Doug Hannon has developed a novel way of making lipless, vibrating shad-shaped lures (like a Rat-L-Trap and Cordell Spot) considerably more weedless. Hannon removes the rear treble hook and strategically inserts a tiny piece of a magnet into the belly of the bait. This keeps the remaining hook tight against the body of the lure, allowing it to come through junglelike vegetation. And it doesn't seem to significantly affect its hooking ability.
Anglers have weighted diving baits for years to gain a little added depth. Wooden baits, in particular, have been weighted down, usually by drilling a hole and inserting lead. Some fishermen gain extra depth by using a large bullet weight in front of the line-tie on the bait.
Perhaps the most common way that crankbaits are modified is referred to by the pros as "maltuning the bait" for the times when they don't want the lure to track true. Using pliers, you can alter the course of the bait by slightly turning the eye (line-tie) of the lure. "I often maltune a crankbait to run off to one side or the other," says Guy Eaker, a top touring pro from Cherryville, N.C. "If you're fishing a boat dock with a crankbait, you can make it run well up under the dock where the fish hide. I've seen that make a difference between catching fish and not catching anything with the same bait on a dock or around a tree."
Veteran tournament pro and Tennessee guide Bill Bartlett reveals an unusual treatment to plastic, slab-sided vibrating baits that makes the lure move slower through the water. It involves actually boiling the bait in hot water to make it expand, creating a bait that will slowly rise to the surface and can be fished in a foot or so of water. But be advised that you can also ruin some perfectly good crankbaits this way by overcooking them.
Fears removes the split ring on the eye of his crankbaits, claiming it is impossible to tie a decent knot to those connectors. "And a split ring has two sharp edges on the opening of it," he adds. "If you tie a knot there, it will soon cut your line. A split ring can also pinch your line and you will eventually have a weak knot." Instead, Fears uses a No. 3 Berkley Cross-Lok snap, which he claims does not hamper the action of the bait.
Every angler, from the novice to the money-maker, fools around with spinnerbaits, changing the size and color of its skirt and blades. The difference is that the tournament pros have a definite purpose when they make a change.
For example, top pro Charlie Ingram of Columbia, Tenn., has a sure-fire solution to short-striking fish. He simply reverses the color of the blades on his tandem spinnerbait.
For some unknown reason, that seems to enable the bass to better home in on the bait. "It's amazing how well that works," Ingram said. "but I can't really explain why."
Georgia tournament pro and B.A.S.S. winner Tom Mann, Jr., has a different answer for short-striking bass that also tends to attract fish in muddy-water conditions. He puts about a 1/8-inch bend in the end of a No. 3 or 5 willow-leaf blade (at a 90-degree angle). That alteration gives the blade more vibration and a slightly different wobble, yet retains its reflective quality.
Renowned spinnerbait specialist Guy Eaker doctors the blades to get different actions out of them. For example, he sometimes cups an Indiana-style blade to get more vibration in off-colored water. For clear-water situations where he prefers more flash and less vibration, Eaker flattens the blade slightly. Another trick that has produced in situations where his tournament spot was enduring heavy pressure involves drilling a 1/8-inch hole through the middle of a Colorado blade. This gives the bait a different look and sound as it comes through the water.
Many spinnerbait alterations are designed to enable the lure to better penetrate heavy brush and vegetation.
Former Classic champion Jack Hains of Zwolle, La., makes a spinnerbait more weedless by bending the blade arm closer to the hook. "Not only will this help the spinnerbait come through thick cover, it will also fall a little quicker," Hains explains. "I'll use that to make the bait run a little deeper at times, too."
Missouri pro Johnnie Borden's answer to heavy cover is to extend a small rubber band from the line-tie to the barb of the hook. The fine rubberband protects the hook, yet breaks away on the hookset, he says.
The biggest trend on the national tournament trail over the past couple of years involving plastic worms has been to spice up their attractiveness by inserting a plastic rattle chamber. The small chambers contain several tiny BBs that vibrate and create a sizeable sound that seems to produce especially well in vegetation.
"Rattles are great because they add the dimension of sound to a plastic worm," says Shaw Grigsby, a Florida-based pro and eight-time B.A.S.S. winner. "I'm a big believer in them. I even sometimes glue one to the back of a spinnerbait blade to get more sound and a different sound."
Although many anglers insert the rattle in the body of the worm or near the tail, Grigsby positions it near the hook.
Most pros prefer to position a bullet weight against the top of a worm when flipping or pitching, a practice commonly referred to as "pegging the sinker." This enables the bait to better penetrate heavy grass or thick brush. And it also reduces the risk of the sinker interfering with the hooking process.
The traditional way of pegging a sinker is to insert a toothpick through the weight (beside the monofilament) and then clipping off the ends. But Tom Mann, Jr., believes he has a superior method. He replaces the toothpick with a small rubberband. The result is a securely-fashioned sinker without the risk of abrading the line (a common problem with the toothpick method).
After rigging a worm, Mann does, however, put a toothpick through the eye of the hook and then clips the ends away. That keeps the worm from sliding down the hook as often.
Alabama's Jack Chancellor, 1985 Classic champion and maker of the Do-Nothing Worm, has a couple of neat little tricks that have paid big dividends for him on occasion. The Do-Nothing is a 4-inch straight worm with exposed hooks that is rigged Carolina-style and attached to a 1-ounce bullet weight. The sinker drags the bottom, while the worm floats above it on a leader of about 3 feet.
When searching for big bass, Chancellor sometimes replaces the Do-Nothing with a huge, 10-inch ribbon-tail worm. The worm, which is rigged Texas style, drags the bottom as it follows the sinker — a combination that, apparently, is irresistible to big bass.
During the times when bass are schooled tightly on open-water structure like a drop-off, Chancellor adds a three-way swivel to the Carolina rig and uses a pair of Do-Nothing worms on separate leaders of 2 1/2 and 5 feet. This often results in double hook-ups and Chancellor dreams of rigging up seven Do-Nothing leaders to see if he can catch his limit on a single cast.
The rubber-skirted jig has emerged as perhaps the top big-bass bait of all on the national tournament circuit. It is also among the most heavily modified.
Knowledgeable pros begin by shortening the wire weedguard that protects the hookpoint. Most trim the fiberguard to about a 1/8-inch above the hookpoint. This allows the bait to retain its weedless quality, yet doesn't interfere with the hooking process.
To make the jig even more weedless, some pros fan the wireguard out to cover a wider path. And others trim the skirt significantly to make it bellow out more and expose the trailer as it descends through the water. These might sound like minor considerations, but they can mean the difference between encountering fish and enduring frustration.
Jigs are most often fished with pork trailers, which add to the bulky appearance of the bait, creating a lifelike creature that resembles a crawfish, a universal bass delicacy. These guys have even developed little tricks for making the pork a more effective and alluring trailer.
Johnnie Borden trims some of the fat off of a No. 10 pork chunk to make it drop faster as it moves through the water. Another alteration that pays off regularly involves inserting a rattle chamber into the body of the pork. Borden uses the hook point of the jig to creates a tiny hole where the rattle is then inserted, giving the bait an entirely different sound as it moves through the water.
Most fishermen would never consider modifying a top-water plug. If there was ever a bait that would seem perfect right out of the package, it would be a surface bait.
Would you believe:
On a Zara Spook, Woo Daves files a tiny nick inside of the line-tie, which enables him to keep his knot on the bottom of the eye.
Former Classic champion George Cochran of N. Little Rock, Ark., tunes the propellers on his top-water baits so that they make plenty of noise and leave a trail of bubbles — similar to a buzzbait. "It's easy to tune them," he says. "Take a propeller in each of your thumbs and twist it in opposite directions enough that they move freely. I like them so loose that they move in the water with the slightest motion."
Massachusetts pro Danny Correia makes a significant modification to both a Zara Spook and Rapala. With the Spook, he places a split ring between the hooks and the hook holder. The result is a more free-swinging hook that eliminates any leverage that a bass might use to tear the hooks loose. Correia also files the underside of the lip of the Rapala (reducing the thickness of the diving plane), which enables it to dive deeper when pulled through the water. "I always feel like I have to do certain things to get a bait to work properly once I take it out of the package," he said. "A good fisherman will always find a way to modify a lure."
Veteran pro and Oklahoma guide Tommy Biffle gets extra depth out of minnow-shaped diving baits like the Smithwick Rattlin' Rouge by drilling a hole and inserting a small lead weight between the front hook and the lip. He then uses glue to seal any water out. The result is a bait that will run a little deeper, cast farther and has a slow-suspending quality that approaches neutral buoyancy.
Guy Eaker tunes a top-water lure to make it run off to one side or the other. By turning the line-tie of a bait like a Zara Spook, he can make it run well up under a boat dock or walk behind a tree.
With the ever-increasing popularity of light-line fishing and the so-called "sissy baits" on the tournament trail, it was inevitable that the pros would develop a few tricks for getting the most out of tubejigs like the Fat Gitzit.
Californian John Bedwell, one of the top western tournament anglers, scores well by Texas-rigging a tubejig. He pinches the bait together and cuts a tiny slot for the hook of the jighead to penetrate. That allows the bait to remain weedless, but significantly reduces the resistance the hook point faces when it has to be pulled through the lure body on the hookset.
In addition, Bedwell makes a point to dull the jig heads (and all other lead) when fishing the clear-water reservoirs that dominate the West. The shiny, metallic flash of the lead can spook fish, he believes. So Bedwell drops the lead into hydrogen peroxide until the flash fizzles away.
Bill Bartlett has enjoyed good success by fishing a Gitzit on a Carolina rig and inserting a small piece of Styrofoam inside of the jig body to make it float higher in the water. "I believe the fish can see the bait a lot better because it no longer drags the bottom," he said.
Perhaps the most bizarre tubejig trick belongs to 1988 Classic champion Guido Hibdon. Through his years as a guide on the clear waters of Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks, Hibdon found that he could entice particularly stubborn bass (as well as spawning fish) into striking by irritating them. He accomplishes this by inserting pieces of an Alka-Seltzer tablet into the body of his Lucky Strike G-2 tubejig. The bubbles and fizzle coming from within that piece of plastic usually prove to be more than a nearby bass can stand.
Whether they border on the bizarre or the mundane, the pros have shared secrets for modifying lures that should enhance the success of anglers on all levels. They have demonstrated that successful fishing begins well before the first cast.