Photo illustrations by Bill Cahill
You walk into a tackle shop and are immediately drawn to that flashy end cap displaying a brand-new bass bait. You examine the lure through the clear plastic, read how the manufacturer says to fish it, and decide to buy it—or put it back on the rack—without knowing how it actually performs.
This year, you’ll have a little more to go on. We rounded up 10 of the best bass guides across the country, gave them 10 of the newest, most innovative bass lures on the market, and let them have the entire 2013 fall season to assess their worth. Then we gave them detailed score sheets.
The number of fish that each lure caught is, of course, one factor in the guides’ appraisals, but we also asked them to consider many others. Did the lure perform as advertised? Would it be effective over the long term? Did the lure’s performance match its price?
We turned the guides’ rankings into a five-star rating system. We also asked bass pro and Field & Stream blogger Dave Wolak for his opinions on the lures and on the guides’ findings. Put it all together and you’ll know whether to put that bait back on its peg—or buy two of them.
Last year, Lucky Craft’s Blade Cross—a jerkbait with an underslung wire arm and spinner blade—took top honors in the competition. This year, the addition of a small willow blade below the head of the company’s proven LV lipless crank also made an impression on our testers. Earning the No. 2 rank, the LV Spin is very versatile. I ripped it and jigged it, and in both presentations the blade spun true and added a noticeable amount of extra flash. Thanks to dual brass and glass internal rattles, this lure is also very loud. The guides noticed some other positive attributes of the action.
“I like the weight distribution,” said Brian Carper. “It allows the lure to run nose-down, dodging structure.” Though several guides commented on the high price, many also agreed that you get what you pay for. Almost across the board, the LV Spin was complimented for its quality hooks and tough construction.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Number of bass caught during testing: 128
Wolak’s Take: I saw a slight increase in strikes when the shad were really active and schooling high in the water column. Otherwise, the blade was a nonfactor.
Positive: "I like the way it incorporates two reactive elements to induce hot fish into striking. It’s got great sound and good flash.” —Frank Campbell
Negative: "Yes, this bait is effective, but I really don’t think the addition of the blade makes that much difference.” —Paul Keith
The Buzz Plug is essentially a pear-shaped floating buzzbait and looks like a lure that bucketmouths would crush. Based on our guides’ findings, though, it may not become an Arbogast classic, like the Jitterbug and the Hula Popper.
“Only having two relatively small hooks on the back creates problems,” Nathan Fields said. “It’s heavy, so when you get hooked up, it’s hard to keep the fish on.” But there are advantages. I liked how I could stop and go without needing to reel the lure back to the surface to keep the buzz going. Several guides also pointed out that the lure casts a mile. Overall, the panel seems to think that Arbogast is onto something but needs to make a few tweaks.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Number of bass caught during testing: 22
Wolak’s Take: Buzzbaits are great at night, but you can’t stop when retrieving. This one can rest afloat, so it could become a nighttime killer.
Positive: "The fact that you can stop this bait if a fish misses it is huge. If that happened, I’d give it a twitch and entice another strike.” —Brian Carper
Negative: "It’s a unique lure, but because of the odd shape and the small hooks, I don’t see it taking off.” —Brian Boyer
Bass pro Russ Lane designed the Real Deal Crawfish, which sports a realistic profile and plenty of wiggling limbs, claws, and antennae. Big Bite Baits recommends fishing it Texas-rigged or as a jig trailer; the claws can stay together for better gliding action, or be separated for more flailing on the fall. I thought it had better action with the claws separated. Most guides thought the bait was solid but didn’t stand out enough from similar lures on the market.
“I used it as a ChatterBait trailer, and the fish slammed it,” Steve Chaconas said. “It looked great Texas-rigged, but I was disappointed with the results.” Guides almost unanimously stated that the action was great, whether swimming or jigged.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
MSRP: $4 for 7
Number of bass caught during testing: 33
Wolak’s Take: These baits are so realistic, I would use them on a Texas rig around bedding bass. Realism often counts when fish are spawning.
Positive: The claws are nice and big. They portray a really aggressive posture, and that’s a plus.” —Randy Kuhens
Negative: "They had a strong plastic smell, but I put scent on them, and they worked fine.” —Pete Marino
At first glance, the Arashi Silent Square seems no different from any other square-billed crank on the market. The distinction, however, lies in the techie details. The line-tie eye is free-moving, which the manufacturer claims allows the bait to tune itself. I can attest to that, having watched it track true in a current, in still water, and even after deflecting off cover. The lip is made from the same material as a computer circuit board, making it strong and durable, but thin and light. The rotated hook hangers, which are positioned perpendicular to the body instead of parallel, keep the hooks closer to the body to hinder hangups, and were a favorite feature.
“I liked the fact that it didn’t get hung up in thick cover very much,” said Pete Marino. “A lot of squarebills advertise that they deflect off cover, but this one actually does.” Several guides pointed out that while the Arashi isn’t exactly inexpensive, its quality components, performance, and smart details rival what you would expect from crankbaits that come with much higher price tags.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Number of bass caught during testing: 50
Wolak’s Take: Squarebills and good bass anglers clash because they pound the baits off of cover until they break, get lost, or can’t be tuned anymore. This bait’s features prolong the life of the lure, making it a smart buy.
Positive: "The self-tuning feature really worked. It ultimately means more time in the water because you never have to worry about tuning.” —Brian Boyer
Negative: "I could only catch fish using a slow retrieve. I thought the bait rolled pretty easily.” —Frank Campbell
The Jockie is part of a growing trend in lure design that attempts to integrate the actions of multiple baits in one. It floats and has a cupped hole under the head, which is supposed to make it pop when it lands. Jackall calls it a “topwater with a jerkbait-type action,” as a diamond-shaped lip allows it to dive when jerked or reeled. Like many of the guides, I found that the dual action did neither very well; you end up with a so-so topwater and so-so diver.
“I wouldn’t use it as a topwater,” Pete Marino said. “I like jerkbaits to suspend, and this rose too fast.” Most guides did, however, praise the Jockie’s long-distance castability, thanks to a weight system that shifts to the rear when it’s thrown. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to beef up the scores.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Number of bass caught during testing: 50
Wolak’s Take: If you fish for unpredictable schooling bass, you’ll like the dual action to trick temperamental fish. The average weekend angler may not see an everyday use.
Positive: "This is a fairly easy lure to use, and the snapping action that worked for me can be taught to any angler.” —Steve Chaconas
Negative: "It does not have any consistency in action. It doesn’t look like an injured fish, just a bait that’s not working properly.” —Brian Carper
A flat belly for gliding and a long, thin tapered tail with a tiny kicking foot at the end make the 6-inch TattleTail unique among soft-plastic lures. When I tested it, I immediately knew the worm would earn a permanent spot in my arsenal.
That skinny tail stood high and danced beautifully with the lure on a drop-shot rig or jigged on a shaky head. I even wacky-rigged one and found that the worm had a nice fall rate; the kicking tail added an action not found on other lures meant to be rigged this way, such as the Senko.
It’s the overall test favorite, and considering the high-tech designs of other lures here, it’s proof that simplicity in fishing can be best.
Praise for the TattleTail was tall. “These are a great value, considering you get 10 per package,” Todd Kersey said. “If you’re into finesse fishing, these are a must-have.” Of all the accolades the worm received, its natural presentation, subtlety of movement, and versatility were mentioned the most across the panel.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
MSRP: $5 for 10
Number of bass caught during testing: 86
Wolak’s Take: The TattleTail has variable action, which is an advantage in a finesse worm. It can be subtle or lively, depending on how you work it.
Positive: "When the bite got slow and the bass got finicky, this bait flat-out put them in the boat. I caught 15 bass with them, reusing some, until I ran out.” —Pete Marino
Negative: "It had great action on a drop-shot rig, but I might suggest making the swim foot a little bigger. You’d get even more action.” —Paul Keith
Sébile’s new square-billed bait fell squarely in the middle of the rankings. Designer Patrick Sébile has given us some revolutionary baits in the last 10 years, but the Bull Crank didn’t stand out for our testers, despite an external weight that lowers the center of gravity to keep the bait centered, and the omission of rattles to help fool wary bass in clear water. I agree with the testers’ ratings; the Bull Crank has a nice wobble and deflects well but, to be blunt, it’s just another crankbait. “To me, this is nothing new,” said Frank Campbell. “I liked that it was well tuned out of the package, but it reminds me of several other lures.”
The Bull Crank is part of a new line of more economically priced lures from Sébile, and almost all guides agreed $7 was a steal, considering Sébile’s reputation for well-made baits.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Number of bass caught during testing: 27
Wolak’s Take: The silence in clear water was a plus for me, and I liked the strong hook attachment. That comes in handy for smallies that jump like crazy.
Positive: "This is a good choice for pressured bass that see a lot of lures with rattles in them.” —Rocky Thomas
Negative: "During long pauses, it has a tendency to spin right or left when coming to the surface, causing the line to tangle.” —Todd Kersey
It looks like a Senko with legs, but the power of the Back Slide lies in its weight distribution. The lure’s front half is lighter than the back half, so it slides backward on the fall when rigged weightless.
The Back Slide was my personal favorite of the test, and I caught some nice early-fall smallmouths on it. I could cast next to logs and overhanging limbs and let the bait glide back under the cover. The majority of the testers also saw a lot of merit in the Back Slide, even though the lure ended up with a middle-of-the-road ranking.
“I think this lure outperformed as advertised,” Brian Boyer said. “This is one of those baits that catches fish, not fishermen.” Several guides made it a point to mention that the Back Slide was a dream to fish around docks.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
MSRP: $3.49 for 5
Number of bass caught during testing: 52
Wolak’s Take: It reminds me of a hellgrammite. I can see this producing well in rocky river systems.
Positive: "Even though the bait has little appendage action, the way it falls and the way it sits drives fish crazy.” —Nathan Fields
Negative: "I found it hard to rig to slide backward. I did catch fish with it on a drop shot, though.” —Frank Campbell
River2Sea claims its new Spittin’ Wa is one of the most versatile frogs around, with the ability to walk seductively or pop with more commotion than its competitors, thanks to a hard-plastic cupped mouth with bubble jets. I didn’t catch any bass but thought it performed as advertised. Those who drew strikes had different opinions.
“Hookups were difficult,” Steve Chaconas said. “The hooks are too close to the body. I bent them open with pliers and still missed eight fish.” Other guides noted the need to trim the legs to thwart short strikes. The Wa was praised for its soft body and ability to run through heavy cover cleanly.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Number of bass caught during testing: 15
Wolak’s Take: I had to open the hooks some, but I do that on most hollow-body frogs.
Positive: "The combo of the popping mouth and bubble jets really worked. The bait has great sound that really attracted the fish.” —Brian Boyer
Negative: "The only thing I didn’t like was the legs. They didn’t pulsate. They’re too stiff.” —Rocky Thomas
With flared gills and a gaping mouth full of pointed teeth, the Pirana certainly catches your eye. According to the manufacturer, these features have purpose: The hollow body can be packed with natural bait or scented gels, which the teeth help keep in place, and the flared gills create a bubble trail. None of the guides was 100 percent sure what to make of the Pirana. The company labels it a topwater but also states that the lure dives, depending on retrieval speed and jerking aggression. Based on my trial, I’d call it a decent topwater and a poor diver. Though it caught some bass for our guides, reviews on action were highly mixed. I wonder if that’s not a result of the guides having differing expectations.
Though Kentucky guide Randy Kuhens marked this lure No. 1, it ranked low on the lists of the others. Brian Carper’s comment matched my thoughts exactly: “This lure doesn’t have practical application. No matter how I retrieved, there was no consistent action.”
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Number of bass caught during testing: 18
Wolak’s Take: This type of niche bait might make a reluctant bass hit on crowded lakes where everyone is throwing the same things.
Positive: "I think this bait’s uniqueness raised the curiosity of the bass. I had several fish follow it up and then hit it.” —Randy Kuhens
Negative: "I couldn’t get it to look right. It wanted to roll over. After a while I just put it down.” —Pete Marino
2014 Bass Lure Test Panel
Home Water: Canyon Lake, Arizona
Catering to both conventional-tackle and flyfishing clients, Boyer has a knack for consistently finding Phoenix-area bass.
Home Water: Lake Erie, New York
Clients look to Campbell to put them onto Erie’s 7-plus-pound smallmouths.
Home Water: Percy Priest Lake, Tennessee
Carper’s skill at finding big fish is quickly making him one of the most sought-after guides on Percy Priest.
Home Water: Potomac River, Virginia
Chaconas is a veteran guide on the Potomac, leading clients to monster largemouths (and snakeheads) near the nation’s capital.
Home Water: Lake Fork, Texas
Fields is young for a guide but already has a reputation for leading clients to 10-plus-pound bass with regularity.
Home Water: Caddo Lake, Louisiana and Texas
Keith has fished more than 200 days a year for the last 38 years on cypress-filled Caddo and knows just about every stump that holds a trophy.
Home Water: Lake Okeechobee, Florida
Kersey owns a popular outfitter and guide service in South Florida and has guided full-time for nearly 20 years.
Home Water: Kentucky Lake, Kentucky
Kuhens has been guiding clients to big bass since the early 1980s.
Home Water: Diamond Valley Lake, California
The tournament angler and guide has fished SoCal’s trophy bass lakes all of his life.
Home Water: Lake Tenkiller, Oklahoma
Thomas has intimate knowledge of big-bass hideouts on nine Oklahoma waters.