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Changing the Look
By Paul Crawford

Ever notice how that new lure always seems to work, at least at first? Or if those antique lures work so well, why did we go away from them? Ever seen the pros talk about a little color dye? Or do you own a suspending version of a lure, or one of those ďpro modelsĒ? All of these lures have one thing in common, regardless of if itís a soft plastic, crank bait, jig, or what ever, it something the bass havenít seen much. But how do you change the look of a lure or change itís action? And more importantly, when should you change? Giving them a different look is as old as fishing, but other than a knowledgeable segment, some what of a lost art. Lets take a look at the art of making or altering lures and see if there is something there that can help us in the next tournament. But before we grab the paint brush, letís see if we can understand what triggers the bite. Then maybe weíll know just where to paint.

Bass Behavior.

While it is true that bass are a predator at the top of the food chain, there is little pure or noble about them. As with most predators, they make their living preying on the weak, vulnerable, and injured. That All American Ideal of fair play has no place in underwater survival. Bass are bullies and brutes. They are territorial and not above a little minor cannibalism if given the opportunity. Amongst all of their other traits, they are naturally curious and always on the lookout for an easy meal.

Bass are equipped with an impressive array of natural senses which allow them to detect and capture their prey. We really donít know just how these senses work, but weíve spent a lot of research looking for the answers. We know they can smell things underwater about 10,000 times better than you can smell in the air. We know they can pick up vibrations of a wounded minnow from well over 30í without the use of their other senses, so the combination of hearing and their lateral line is outstanding. We know their sense of taste is so acute they can actually taste something well before it enters their mouth. All of these things, to varying degrees we take advantage of in lure design and selection. But the one sense we depend on most for lure selection is that of sight.

Of all of a bassís senses, we understand the least about their sight. Sight involves recognition of patterns and an abstract association of the different light signals received by the eye. We donít even know all that much about human sight, but we have figured out some relative comparisons. A bass is one of the few animals on the planet whose color perception actually increases with age, (weíre not talking a little, weíre talking literally 2,000,000 times better.) They can see something underwater over 10 times as far away as you can. At night, a bass still has vision a cat would envy. Somehow, their brain is able to filter out particulate matter suspended in the water. This has the same effect as allowing you to see a crystal clear day through fog or a heavy downpour. Combined, this says if you put a bass in water with 3í of visibility, on a pitch black moonless night, he can still tell the difference in color of two worms from about 30í that look exactly alike to you under the best lighting conditions. Not bad for something with a brain the size of a walnut.

Now in spite of, (or maybe because of), this unimaginable vision, a bass has a tremendous amount of problems distinguishing shapes and patterns that are obvious to you. Horizon and Vertical patterns he has down pat, but diagonals is not something he does well with. It appears a square and a circle is pretty much the same to a bass. A bass can see the tiniest amount of movement like the Hubbell Telescope, but if it doesnít move, then itís really not there as far as the bass is concerned, (a very common trait among predators.) Somehow, he can filter out the movement of all of the suspended matter in the water, the movement of weeds in the current, and home in on a slight twitch of an injured minnow. Itís a different way of perceiving the world that we just canít understand, but we can make use of.

If you start life much less than an inch long, itís rather doubtful youíll ever grow to 10 pounds by being either too bold or stupid. Research has confirmed that theory. Although weíve all caught the occasional fish that has just bit, or still has the hook in his mouth, donít worry too much about him polluting the gene pool. Big Bass may be ignorant, but they arenít stupid. One lure company funded a study on repeat bites. They found that if a bass was caught on a lure once, he wouldnít hit it again. Even several months later, the bass would still shy away from that lure. But change something about the lure, and the bass would at least take a second look. The more you changed, the better the chance the fish would react. This study should give us a pretty good clue on the value of altering baits on highly pressured water.

Types of Bites

One research team characterized bass bites into three broad categories: the Attack Bite, the Feeding Bite, and the Exploratory Bite. Very few actually bites are ďpureĒ, having the attributes of only one bite. Most bites have a combination of all three, but will normally tend to exhibit the strongest tendency to only one type. But these categories do give us a point of reference for discussion.

The Attack Bite... is old Billy Bad Bass coming out again. This came mostly as a defense of territory, which could be nesting sites, feeding grounds, or resting places. Bass defend their territory against other bass as well as a variety of other intruders. This bite is an all out attack, that most of the time ends up short. The purpose is to drive off the intruder, not necessarily to eat him. On the water, this is the bite where the fish roll right behind the bait, or the one where heís hooked on the side rather than the mouth. The fish may attack the same lure several times on repeated casts before either ignoring the bait as not a threat or taking the bait as safe to eat. But each time, there will be a big rush to drive it off, even if he misses the bait entirely. Your job with attacking bass is to alter the bait to say, ďItís easier to eat me than to drive me off.Ē

The Feeding Bite... is the one where bass, confident and relaxed, attacks and eats his prey. Films of this type of bite show the bass as rather casual until the actual bite, which is swift, sure, and merciless. This is the bite that just about rips the rod out of your hand. Yet for all the fury of the bite, when fishing a bait on slack line you notice the fish just ambles off in an easy swim. This is what the bass is prized for and shows the predator at his best. If youíre getting a feeding bite, then there is little you need to do to your lure. The whole point of modifying you lure is to get this type of reaction.

The Exploratory Bite... which is the vast majority of the time with slow moving lures like worms or jigs. Itís more curiosity than anything. The fish isnít exactly sure what heís getting into, and wouldnít bite at all if he had hands with an opposing thumb to pick it up. He knows it moves, and he knows heís bigger that it, and the rest heíll figure out after he gets it in his mouth. This is where lure modification and experimentation pays off. Youíre close enough to get him to look at it, now all you have to do is get him to keep it.

Working with Color.

As we documented above, color gets more important as a bass grows. This may be one factor in why getting a really big bass to bite is so hard. Time after time, you see and heard about cases where someone was on small fish, changed their bait, and immediately caught a kicker. Some say big fish watch the smaller fish to see if itís safe before biting. But I doubt a Big Fish got Big by being shy. More likely, the big fish sees something the little fish is missing, or just CANíT see. Get rid of the negative factor, and the big boys come out to play.

When working with color, youíre into fine-tuning a bait. There are very few times when a bait of one color catches everything that swims and the same bait in a different color canít catch anything. Unless the fish is under extreme pressure, and has already been biting that bait before, the right bait in the wrong color will get you a few bites. If youíre getting no action at all, try a different bait. But if you are getting a few bites along, then fine tuning what youíre throwing may be the difference between a so-so day and loading the boat.

The tools of the trade here are some type of quick drying water repellent dye and a fairly bland lure. You can add or change color of a bright lure, and sometimes toning things down works great, but more likely youíre going to need to add a dash of spice to the lure. Several manufacturers make dips, markers, brushes, or pencils which are designed for the purpose. I try to carry a small variety of colors, mostly bright but some base colors as well. In my tackle box youíll find the always popular Chartreuse, Fire Engine Red, Neon Blue, and a little Junebug and Black as well.

I use the bright colors sparingly, because itís easy to over do. I like to add a dash of color to the very tip of a worm, or just a thin line along the lateral line of a crankbait. Instead of dipping the entire claw of craws, I dip the very tip. It doesnít take much to brighten things up. If youíre working with a bright colored lure thatís faded, just a hint is all it takes. One trick I love with plastic worms is to take my Black/Blue worms and dip just the tip of the tail in neon blue. This two tone blue seems to excite the bigger fish and not bother the little ones at all. For contrast, a watermelon or junebug worm will often really start the fish up with 1/8Ē of Chartreuse on itís tail. Even straight tail weenie worms can benefit from a quick dip.

With crankbaits, Iím more likely to use a base color like junebug or dark blue. Here I take a bright lure like a Trap or Rouge, and tone down the back. Starting with a solid white or chrome lure, Iíll use a Q-Tip to color the back of the lure about down to the lateral line. I may color all the way down the bill on a crankbait, sloping up to leave the tail solid. A dash of Chartreuse or Red on the belly may be just the thing on a chrome bait. A lot of crankbaits come with nickel or chrome hooks. To tone down those hooks, just dip them in a little junebug and youíre ready to go.

Another time to get rid of a metal look is with spinner baits. Dipping the blades will still leave some flash, but not as much as untreated and you will get the hint of color. Itís kind of like spin top at high speeds that has a bright color on one side. You can still see the color, and you can still see the base, they just blur together. This works great in very clear water in the spring and fall months.

Speaking of a chrome bait, how they look underwater is not intuitive at all. Ask Joe Average Angler how a round body chrome crankbait looks under water, and the likely reply is light and flashes in every direction. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A chrome bait with a round body works just like a mirror, particularly when viewed from the bottom, (as with your typical bass.) It will reflect weeds and bottom, and since there are no flat surfaces to break up the image, itís about as well camouflaged as it can get. To break up the image, a couple of dots of color or streaks down the sides works wonders. In clear water, a few black freckles on the side is all thatís needed. This will make the lure much more visible while still retaining itís subtle colors. If you want flash and glitz, go to a flat sided crankbait and it will behave as expected.

One other time to use a base color is with your line. Those that have followed me over the years know Iím a big fan of braided line for most applications. But there are times, like flipping ultra clear water below mats, that even I worry about the color of the line. The lure dips work great on braided line. I just take my base color, (again generally junebug, or gray works great if you carry it), and dip the last 2í of the line in the bottle. This also works for those who bought unpainted worm weights and want to color them on the water.

Working with Weight.

Any lure we use weighs something. Generally, the lure manufacturer has gone to a great deal of trouble to design EXACTLY how much a lure weighs. But if weíre out to show them something they havenít seen before, weight is one of the easiest things to change. Now when I say weight, what I REALLY mean is buoyancy. Buoyancy is the relative weight of an object contained in a defined volume compared to the same volume filled with water. In other words, how fast does something float or sink.

Some lures, like Texas Rigged plastics, we decide the weight of directly. Those that fish a lot with worms know a very light weight results in a very slow fall, which in turn can mean a very big bite. A lot of folks advocate extremely light weights or no weights at all. These guys do get a lot of curiosity bites. The part they donít tell you is a lot of fish just grab the tail and then spit it out. But it is something the fish doesnít see much so can work on a slow bite. But also consider the other extreme, a VERY heavy weight. Weíre talking 1/2 - 1 oz worked on a Texas Rig. The worm will have all the action in the world on the drop, and will appear to be making a concerted effort to escape to the bottom. If you take a bass by surprise with one of these rigs, youíll likely to get elements of an attack bite as well as a exploratory bite. When working around rocks or light timber, an extra heavy weight can excite a fish into a savage bite.

Carolina Rigs are normally neutral and slightly negative, (suspend or fall very slowly.) One trick is to insert a little foam or inject some air in the bait and actually have it float. Another option to attain the same thing is to Carolina Rig a crankbait or hard jerkbait. With this rig, you have to work pretty fast or the bait will float up on end, nose down, right above the sinker. But the action of a diving lure with a slow, or even fast rise worked right on the bottom is say 20í will be new and different for both you and the bass. This is a great way to cover a lot of deep water in a hurry.

Crankbaits and hard jerk baits have had their weight changed ever since they were first made. An easy way to set you lure apart from the crowd and get some extra help as well is to just increase the hook size. These little toy hooks a lot of manufacturers use just donít get it done in my book. I even change out the hooks on a Zara Spook from a #1 to a 1/0. It will balance the lure a little different, and slightly change the action. Iíve seen more than once that Iíve set in the middle of a bunch of boats, all throwing the same bait, and the one with the bigger hooks is out catching all of the others combined. Your lure action sets you apart from the crowd, and draws the strikes from fish already wise to the rest.

The Suspend Dots and Strips make changing the action and weight of a lure easy. Just peel them off and stick them on. Pay a little attention to where you put them on, since the location of the dots will determine just how youíve altered the action. Putting them near the bill will drive down the nose and make it dive a little quicker, but give it a wider wobble. Putting them near the rear tightens up the wobble, but may actually make the lure run shallower by driving up the bill on well balanced lures.

There are tons of tricks to working with weights, and we could look at them all day. Putting a nail in a Slug-O to make it sink faster. Putting a big grub body on a spinner bait to let you work it slower at the same depth. Adding a worm weight directly to the line before tying on the crankbait for extra deep water. Slipping a cork in the body of a tube jig to use with a Carolina. Drilling and adding weight to the end of a Spook to make come through the waves better. The list is as endless as your imagination. All of them work under the right conditions. The art comes in knowing which weight is right for which condition.

Altered Actions.

You donít have to change the weight to change a lures action and attraction power. You can go to any length youíd like, from slightly bending the bill of a crank bait to stripping, grinding, feathering, and repainting ala Zell Rolandís famous Pop-R modifications. Again, we could talk all day about what you could do in a wood shop, but thatís a little more than we have time to bite off right now. Letís limit ourselves to what we could do on the water with no more than a pocket knife, pair of pliers, and a cigarette lighter.

One of the easiest lures to change the action of is the Slug-O, or other soft jerk baits. This lure is designed to be unstable and dart in random directions. It would seem there is little incentive to alter an already random bait. But there may be a need to make the bait predictable in some manner, just because weíve patterned the fish want it a particular way. One of the easiest things to control is the depth at which it runs. You can use the insertion point of the hook in the nose of the bait to control which way the bait will dart when jerked. If you insert the hook directly in the nose, then it will dart randomly, just like designed. But insert the hook very close to the bottom of the lure and the nose will lift when jerked. This will make the bait actually jump out of the water. With this rigging, combined with putting an arch in the back of the bait by hooking it a bit further back than designed, the bait will leap out of the water, then dart back under. Working fast, it looks almost exactly like a shad skipping across the surface trying to escape. And aggressive feeder just canít stand it, and may actually start clearing the water behind it trying to catch up. Insert the hook towards the top of the bait, and the top surface will act like the bill of a crankbait and tend to drive the lure lower with gentle twitches. Bring along a couple of finishing nails and you can alter the bait further by placing weight in the front, rear, or side to control how the bait falls through the water. Want a little extra action? Heat up the tail with a lighter, set it on a piece of scrap paper, then step on it, (not good to try on bare carpet.) You have instant paddle tail. Want some more tail action? Just pinch off a little chunk about half way through the bait just behind the hook. Speaking of hooks, you can change the action a bunch just by switching size or style of hook. And this doesnít even start to think about a rear weighted hook or adding some split shot to you normal hook.

Most of the same tricks for jerk baits will work with worms, either Carolina Rigged or Texas Rigged. Add a very good swivel in the line, then hook you worm about 1Ē too deep. This will cause the worm to spin on the retrieve, doing a pretty good imitation of a propeller. Just use a steady slow retrieve on a split shot rig, and youíll trigger both feeding and attack bites. This is a great little rig to introduce someone to fishing with, since itís easy to fish and draws hard enough strikes where even setting the hook is usually unnecessary. Got some finicky fish in dark water? Take a big paddle tail worm, use a hole punch right in the center of the paddle, then split the tail on one side to make a curl tail out of it. You can control the amount of vibration by where you put the hole and where you put the cut. For maximum vibration, put the hole a little to the front of the middle and cut forward to the point where the tail meets the body of the worm. Drop this one on a Carolina and youíve got a hawg caller. Speaking of Carolinas, if you have a bait working well on a Carolina and the fish stop hitting, switch the same bait to a Texas Rig for a few more bites. Works the other way around as well. Fish only hitting your Carolina on a juke? Maybe they want if off the bottom. Try a 3 way swivel putting your line and bait on as normal but a 1í - 2í line off the other eye going to a big bell sinker. Now you have a Carolina trailer that stay up in the water over the whole retrieve!

Crankbaits and jerk baits are just as easy to alter as soft plastics. One the easier things to do is change the hooks. I personally donít like the hooks that come on most crankbaits anyway. If you change the hook size, youíve changed the weight and balance of the lure. A smaller hook will generally cause a wider wobble. Iíll usually go to a larger hook and a more subtle action. The rear hook will make more of difference than the front hook, so if more action is your need, just change the front hooks. There is no rule that says the hooks have to be the same size. To free up the action a little more, and make throwing the bait more difficult for the bass, add a split ring to the hook when dealing with solid mounted hooks. A cigarette lighter, (which I think non-smokers should carry as well), can make tuning, or detuning a crankbait a breeze. Heat up the bill and use a pair of pliers to twist the bill to alter the run of a bait. The bait will tend to run on itís side toward the direction of the deep side of the bill. This is a great quick trick for working around docks and piling. You can easily make a bait that you can throw to one side of a dock and get it to run underneath it between supports. If you want to make it permanent or just fine tune a bias into the bait, shave the side of the bill on the side opposite the direction you want it to run. Got a favorite floater that youíd like to convert to a count down model? Just use a knife point and drill a small hole in the belly of your bait. Hold the bait underwater until it fills up, and instant count down. Partially fill the bait, then use your lighter and melt a piece of plastic worm in the hole for instant suspending baits. Need a fast moving top water for aggressive bites? Take an old jerk bait, and cut off the bill and the rear hook. Then tie on the bait backwards! As odd as this seems, it works like a champ in the spring and fall. Want more of a spit than a pop with your chuggers? Take a knife and shave down the lower lip a little. Need more action on you Spook? Add a split ring to the tie eye then tie to the ring. Between weight, color, and action, you can invent an entirely different bait on the water out of old crankbaits.

Spinner baits are too easy to even talk much about. Change blade styles, colors, or sizes. Change skirt color, length, or bulk. You can either cut a few strands out of the skirt or put two skirts on the same bait for added bulk. Change trailer colors, styles, lengths, and actions for even different looks. Most folks who throw spinner baits a lot donít even start to make them up until they are on the water. A pair of pliers and the piece parts are all it take to make a spinner bait in just a couple of minutes.

Old and New.

An alternative to altering existing baits is to throw different ones. Most everyone has a few old lures laying around they donít use for one reason or another. If you have a lure that is more than a couple of years old, pull it out in the same conditions it use to work under. There are a whole new generation of bass that have never seen one!

New lures appear all the time, and generally work great until the bass get used to them. All together now, a show of hands by everyone who thought a French Fry would work before they heard about them in a magazine or from a friend. Not too many, huh? It just doesnít look like something a fish would be interested in. But still this has started a whole craze in Carolina fishing over the last couple of years. If you see something on the wall at a tackle shop that looks different than anything youíve ever seen, you owe it to yourself to at least try one. A good way to find these gems is to visit local tackle stores when you travel. Local lures have a way of working on different waters given half a chance. They may not all work, but a secret weapon is well worth going through 4 or 5 lures that didnít work out so well. A guy by the name of Johnny Morris use to do this when traveling the early days of the B.A.S.S. trail and it worked so well his little tackle shop back home got famous for it. And Bass Pro Shops, (still privately owed by Johnny by the way), is still a good place to find the unusual from a different part of the country. And donít forget to look in Cabelaís walleye or muskie lures for something that just might trigger a bite from that trophy large mouth.

Lure collectors have made a dent in the available old lure market. But you can still find less than perfect lures at garage sales or an uncleís attic which will still work wonders on the bass. Some of the old standbys are making a come back in different packages now. You just have to think a lure that worked well for 40 years for your dad will still catch a fish or two. You may have to adjust a bit for older lures. The modern 6:1 reel ratios werenít available when many of these lures were designed. They will also be rather big and heavy compared to modern lures, since the free spool reel didnít come of age until the late 60s. But they can still do things that the newer lures just donít do.

There are a few standby lures that you can regularly get, that a well rounded tackle box should contain. Iíve never found a lure that could dig up a mud or rock bottom quite like a Hellbender. It was one the first lures used to explore deep off shore structure and can still produce a giant bass in the right place. Weíve spent so much time trying to tighten up wobble on our crank baits, weíve forgotten about those baits made to swing wide and free. If you want to feel what a REAL bass strike is like, try a slow crank with an old Flat Fish or Lazy Ike. Fish hit them as subtle as Dick Butkas use to hit quarterbacks. And all the specialty that goes into top waters now kind of left behind the general purpose top water. Lures like the old Lucky 13, or my personal favorite the Bass-Oreno, work at least as well today as ever. The Bass- Orenaois what I learned to fish with in the 50s, and would still be my first choice to teach someone how to bass fish. Itís heavy and casts well in the wind. It can be twitched on top like a Rapala, chugged like Pop-R or Hula Popper, (another favorite), dipped like a Long-A to the point it will actually back up. It works well when used as a jerk bait under the surface. A slow crank back will produce an easy wobble which wakes just under the surface like a spinner bait. And a fast retrieve will make a wide, wild, erratic wobble that would do a Slug-go proud. Not too bad for a lure that obviously started out as a hollowed out hoe handle with hooks!

Lure manufacturers do a wonderful job of providing us with excellent tools for catching bass. But in these highly pressured times, the wise angler knows the how, when, and why to modify the look of the stock lures to give a bass something different. And the pros will line up to tell you, it can make the difference between a nice little limit and a real winning stringer.

Paul Crawford

 
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