It’s no secret that many of today’s professional bass anglers supplement their income handsomely with payments from sponsors and appearance fees. That’s all part of the game. In the long run, however, that money comes regardless of tourney standings. The true measure of a competitor will always be his winnings, and the number they all dream of breaking is a million bucks. Some pros that have earned $1 million got to their total as a result of six-figure home runs, but there are plenty who got theirs $10,000 and $20,000 at a time. Regardless of how they hit a million, it didn’t happen by accident.
To attain that level of success, everything has to be calculated, right down to the lure. If these guys are using a bait on tournament day, you can be certain it’s a proven winner. Most of them have one favorite that’s won more money than all the rest. We rounded up eight pros who have smashed the million-dollar mark to find out which lures are their top earners. Some of these baits have accounted for single big-money wins, while others have played major roles in keeping the checks coming throughout their entire career. You may not be bass fishing to fatten your wallet, but we’re betting you’re all about scoring fatter bass more often. These pro tips for working moneymaker lures will help you hit pay dirt this season.
Angler: Keith Combs
Hometown: Huntington, Texas
Notable Wins: Combs has won $979,135 from B.A.S.S. and $436,511 in his previous stint at FLW, but that doesn’t include his three Toyota Texas Bass Classic six-figure victories or his Professional Anglers Association win on Lake Tawakoni.
Go-To Moneymaker: Deep-Diving Crankbait
Combs is a big fan of offshore fishing and believes that targeting deep, open-water bass schools offers him the best chance of winning most of the time. To be successful in this approach, he leans on a deep-diving crankbait to get down and cover lots of water, and it’s often the 3-inch Strike King 6XD that gets tied on first.
“The 6XD gets down and stays down, with a tight wobble that’s not too aggressive,” Combs says. “Its size also mimics most of the primary forage on the waters I fish. You can throw a worm and sit there all day, but why do that when you can use a crankbait and catch five big fish real quick? You don’t want the 2-pounders. You want the 6-pounder from the heart of the school.”
Hooking and landing a big bass on a deep-diving crankbait can be challenging. Combs says the right tackle is critical, with quality fluorocarbon line and a rod with both backbone and bend being essential. The 6XD weighs a full ounce, and when a bass skyrockets, it can use that body to throw even super-sharp trebles. Combs also stresses that gaining confidence in offshore fishing requires doing it often.
“You have to commit to it, and not just in the middle of the spawn,” he says. “Go to a lake where you can get bit 25 times a day on a deep crank. The more fish you hook and even lose, the more it helps you adjust your rod, line, and technique.”
Angler: Skeet Reese
Hometown: Auburn, California
Notable Wins: Since joining the national tour, Reese has won $3,335,353 in B.A.S.S. cash. He has also won the 2009 Bassmaster Classic, on the Red River, and a total of eight B.A.S.S. events from coast to coast.
Go-To Moneymaker: Large-Profile Jig
Although he’s probably most closely associated with fast-moving lures such as swimbaits and crankbaits, Reese says he’s won the most money overall on a jig, including “a half a million in one shot” when he won the Classic. The best way to coerce big girls to chew consistently, according to Reese, is with a large-profile jig and soft-plastic trailer.
“There are a lot of different jighead designs, all for different purposes,” Reese explains. “A grass jig has a pointy head and doesn’t come through brush well. An Arkie head is good in thick brush but sucks in grass.” Although there isn’t one specific jighead style that outperformed the rest, if forced to choose one size, color, and trailer, Reese would go with a 1⁄2- or 5⁄8-ounce black-and-blue jig with a Berkley Crazy Legs Chigger Craw trailer. He’s picky about his hooks, claiming that three different manufacturers all may call different sizes a 5/0, and that 6/0 is too big for many tournament situations. If he had to peg a go-to, it would be 4/0.
“The key to a jig in a lot of situations is slowing down your presentation,” Reese says. “Bigger fish are a little more aware of a bait moving unnaturally, which is how a jig often looks when you’re moving it too quickly. They didn’t get big by being stupid. The average angler wants to hop it, pop it, and go to the next spot when he doesn’t get a bite during that first retrieve. Instead of being in a rush, if you just slow down and really take your time working that jig back in every spot, you’ll usually catch bigger fish.”
Angler: Larry Nixon
Hometown: Bee Branch, Arkansas
Notable Wins: A veteran pro with a career that started in the 1970s, Nixon was the first angler to pass $1 million in winnings, a feat he achieved in 1992. He earned $1,635,858 with B.A.S.S., and since moving exclusively to FLW, he’s added four FLW Tour wins and another $1,834,987 in tournament earnings.
Go-To Moneymaker: 6-Inch Curly-Tailed Worm
Nixon’s not afraid of change, but he’s as old-school as they come and still loves a plastic worm, although today he might be rigging it on a shaky head more often than classic Texas-style.
“I’ve caught a lot of fish on a lot of baits, but there’s no doubt that a worm is my money bait. For decades, it was definitely a 6-inch curly-tail, but now that shaky-head fishing with a spinning rod is so popular, I use straight-tail finesse worms too. People have moved away from fishing long worms, and that’s a mistake. It’s the lure that got my career started and is still my go-to when I have to have a bass in the boat.”
Nixon says anglers don’t always put enough thought into a worm’s tail. Choosing one needs to be based on conditions. While a plastic worm has no inherent noise-making ability, bulky models with tails that flutter or wiggle do a better job of attracting fish in current and in dirtier water. Even if you consider a curly-tailed worm a go-to like Nixon, you have to know when to switch. In clear water, he says, a worm with a skinnier straight tail will score more fish.
Angler: Jordan Lee
Hometown: Grant, Alabama
Notable Wins: Born in 1991, Lee will have earned $1,123,429 from B.A.S.S. before he turns 28. That figure was boosted substantially by back-to-back Bassmaster Classic wins in 2017 and 2018, which netted him a combined $600,000. Before turning pro, he also won the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series Bracket Championship.
Go-To Moneymaker: Soft-Plastic Stickbait
Anyone who targets bass is familiar with the effectiveness of soft-plastic stickbaits. While Lee names the Senko and the 5-inch Strike King KVD Perfect Plastic Ocho as his top money winners, he says it’s less about the bait and more about how it’s rigged. He drives a nail weight into one end, and then wacky-rigs the lure, which is a relatively new-school setup known as Neko rigging.
“I feel like fish are more pressured these days than they were just 10 years ago,” Lee says. “Whenever we go to different places where the water has a lot of visibility, the Neko rig is something I’ll have tied on, because the fish so often require an ultra-finesse presentation.” Indeed, the Neko was a critical player in his final-day charge at the 2017 Bassmaster Classic on South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell, where he came from behind to win.
While big fish are sexy, Lee notes that in many tournament situations, “You’re just trying to get bites. Even if you just resort to getting the most bites that you can, a lot of times that’ll produce bigger bites.” Lee says that many older anglers are convinced that Neko rigging is only a numbers tactic, but once you understand that it produces monsters too, it’s easier to stick with it all day.
“When you use a Neko rig, don’t overwork the bait,” Lee cautions. “You can shake it constantly, but usually it’s better to fish it slow.” One aspect of Senkos and Ochos that makes them shine on pressured water is that their undulating action on the fall and nonconfrontational posture once they’ve dropped have no negative cues to turn off wary bass. Lee says that once a Neko rig touches down, keep it on the bottom. Avoid the temptation to hop the bait.
Angler: Mark Menendez
Hometown: Paducah, Kentucky
Notable Wins: Menendez has earned $1,125,201 in the course of his career, a total that was helped along by wins like a Top 100 at Pickwick and Wilson lakes, a Southern Open at West Point Lake, and an Elite Series event at Lake Dardanelle.
Go-To Moneymaker: Spinnerbait
Menendez has banked a big percentage of his cash with an old-school spinnerbait—a lure that’s fallen out of favor among some pros in recent years as swim jigs and chatterbaits have gained shelf space.
“I still fish a spinnerbait as much as I ever have,” he says. “The bass haven’t quit biting it, and it catches big fish. I caught my two largest bass on it, including my 13-pound-9-ouncer at Richland Chambers, and three over 10 pounds, plus my largest Kentucky Lake limit.”
Menendez caught the Richland Chambers monster on a cantaloupe-colored spinnerbait from Oldham Jigs, but today he relies most heavily on a variety of Strike King models. The simple reason why these baits are such producers is their versatility. “I can manage the blade combination and profile size to fish one from the surface down to 30 feet of water,” Menendez says. “For whatever reason, big ones like spinnerbaits. A big fish is an opportunist, so don’t be afraid to use a big-bladed spinnerbait to give the appearance of big forage like gizzard shad.”
While burning a spinnerbait is an effective and proven tactic—most notably for clear-water smallmouths—Menendez thinks the average angler leans on burning too much. Depth control can be a critical factor of spinnerbait success. “Get it close to the bottom, whether that’s 2 feet deep or 20 feet deep,” he says. “Then work it back slow so it stays down.”
Angler: John Crews
Hometown: Salem, Virginia
Notable Wins: Just over 40 years old, Crews is a force on the water, amassing nearly $1.4 million in combined winnings from B.A.S.S. and FLW. He’s also the owner of Missile Baits, and his extensive lure knowledge helped him win the 2010 Elite Series event on the California Delta, a continent away from his Virginia home.
Go-To Moneymaker: Flat-Sided Crankbait
“Considering I’m a guy who designs soft plastics, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that I’ve won more on a crankbait than anything else,” Crews says. He worked with Spro to develop the Little John series of cranks, with its key characteristic being flat sides.
“They don’t roll as much as fat-bodied crankbaits,” he says. “They tend to pivot side-to-side more. It throws off a different vibration and doesn’t rattle.” Crews says that uneducated schools of bass may bite louder, more aggressive cranks, but once they’ve become attuned to your presence, a subtler flat-sided crank is usually a better tool.
Crews says that you should never fish a crankbait mindlessly.
Always pay very close attention to anything it contacts during a retrieve. Oftentimes, anglers fishing down “do-nothing” banks with seemingly no structure hit a piece of cover and assume that it’s isolated. Crews will double back and see if that twig or branch is actually part of a larger tree or root system, and ply it more carefully if it is.
“You also have to keep adjusting your speed,” he says. “Lots of guys will crank at the same speed from the beginning of the day to the end of the day. Some days it works, but others you need to make adjustments.”
Angler: Steve Kennedy
Hometown: Auburn, Alabama
Notable Wins: Kennedy has won $1,664,263 with B.A.S.S. and an additional $786,277 with FLW. Most significantly, he’s done it all on his own, largely without sponsor support (by choice), and until recent years, he didn’t have a sponsor-provided boat. He fished out of either used boats—including aluminum johnboats—or boats that he’d won.
Go-To Moneymaker: Ribbed Paddle-Tail Swimbait
While Kennedy prides himself on his versatility, he says that a swimbait has increasingly become his best money winner, starting at Clear Lake in 2007, when he dropped $3,000 at California tackle shops and then stomped the competition at an unfamiliar venue.
He later became a devotee of a discontinued Bass Pro Shops XPS swimbait that fellow pro Fred Roumbanis told him about, and he proceeded to enlist the entire Kennedy clan to buy out every one they could find from coast to coast in as many Bass Pro Shops as they could hit. In recent years, he has relied most heavily on ribbed paddle-tail swimbaits such as the Keitech Fat Swing Impact, because the California ”tennis-shoe-size” swimbaits aren’t as versatile as the 3- to 6-inch versions that can be fished all throughout the water column.
“It’s an addictive bite because it’s visual,” Kennedy says. “And in certain places with ultra-clear water, where fish are feeding visually instead of with sound or vibration, it’s the only way to catch them.”
The best swimbaits have a natural action, even when you’re crawling them. It’s tempting to retrieve them quickly, but worked slow, they’ll call in bass from long distances in clear to lightly stained water. Even if they follow and don’t hit, you can often catch them with a come-back bait. At Clear Lake in California, Kennedy’s best success came from dead-sticking a floating Huddleston swimbait. “I lobbed it out there and just let it drift around,” he says. “My casts would last 15 minutes, but there’d be a school of big ones beneath it the whole time, and I’d just wait for one to bite.”
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Angler: Kevin VanDam
Hometown: Kalamazoo, Michigan
Notable Wins: The “GOAT” has earned a ridiculous $6,434,476 from B.A.S.S. over the course of three decades, nearly twice the amount earned by the next closest angler. That figure is bolstered by 25 wins, including four Bassmaster Classics and seven Angler of the Year awards.
Go-To Moneymaker: Square-Bill Crankbait
“A square-bill is such a versatile bait for me,” VanDam explains. “I used one this year to win on Grand Lake and one of my two Bassmaster Classic wins on the Louisiana Delta. Even when it wasn’t the primary lure in a win, it’s been a part of a lot of other top finishes.”
The high-energy, fast-moving VanDam uses the square-bill to cover a ton of water, and he notes that it’s effective in a wide range of cover all across the country. His favorite is the Strike King KVD 1.5, a lure he helped design that purposely features a slight imbalance, which he believes makes a huge difference in the bait’s potency. “Rather than running perfectly true, it hunts and wanders,” he says. “That generates bites.”
Square Deal: Kevin VanDam thanks a square-bill crank for many top finishes. Travis Rathbone
Crankbaits have two grabby treble hooks hanging from them, which is why many anglers feel most comfortable fishing them in open water or around minimal structure. The reality is that a square bill’s primary bite-triggering mechanism is deflection. And if you’re going to make it deflect, it needs something to deflect off.
“Don’t be afraid to throw a square-bill right into the cover,” VanDam says. “That could be treetops or laydowns, or grinding it into rocks and riprap. That’s where it’s at its best.” Sure, you might lose some baits, but probably not as many as you think, because banging off hard cover is exactly what a square-bill was designed to do.
Casting Off Cash
The pros may get a lot of free lures, but many are suckers for the rare, the custom, and the discontinued. And they’ll pay big for them. Here are a few notable spends.
“I spent $75 on eBay for an old Bagley’s BB4 [crankbait]. It was the only way I could get my hands on one, and now it travels with me everywhere.” —Steve Kennedy
“I spent $350 on a Roman Made Mother [Japanese swimbait]. It’s still sitting in the [expletive deleted] package.” —Skeet Reese
“When I was guiding on Lake Amistad, the Reaction Innovations Vixen was crushing it. Then the company stopped making it. My wife bought me one on eBay for $70.” —Keith Combs
“Everybody is infatuated with these custom Japanese swimbaits. I dropped a hundred bucks on one when I was in California one time. I never caught a bass on it.” —Kevin VanDam
Tournament winnings often feel like found money, which provides an excuse to buy something expensive, if not semi-frivolous. Here’s how some of our pros splurged.
“After I won my first Megabucks tournament, I went out and bought a $1,200 set of Swarovski binoculars. They were tax deductible because I was using them to ‘look for schooling fish.'” —Larry Nixon
“My kids know that if I do well, I get a check. After I won at Lake Dardanelle in 2017, we took a trip to Disney. When I won at Clear Lake, we went all the way up the Oregon coast.” —Steve Kennedy
“After I won at Toledo Bend [in 2016], I bought a Bobcat. I use it to snow-blow my driveway and at our hunting property for clearing trails and moving trees, all kinds of things.” —Kevin VanDam
“After I won my first Classic, we bought a new washer and dryer. It was probably around $1,200. I had ruined the old ones by leaving too many lead-plug knockers in my pockets.” —Jordan Lee
The Cost of a Million
Want to earn a million as a bass pro? You’d better be ready to spend a lot of money. The path to seven figures requires a constant infusion of cash just to stay in the game, none of which even remotely guarantees you’ll come close to winning back a dollar. We asked our pros to open their ledgers to get an idea of what they spend in a year. Though costs will vary, here’s a rough tally based on an eight-event tour with $5,000 entry fees, plus the assumption the pro is using a free boat and putting 25,000 miles on his truck during 60 days on the road.
- Truck Payment: $8,400
- Truck Fuel: $3,600
- Truck Insurance: $1,500
- Boat Insurance: $1,000
- Boat Fuel: $4,500
- Lodging: $4,500
- Food: $1,500
- Tackle: $2,000
- Entry Fees: $40,000
- Fishing Licenses & Ramp Fees: $600
- Grand Total: $67,600