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OUTDOORS FEATURE: Spin doctors

The spinnerbait, shown in the photograph below, is more than just a bass offering. The chain pickerel is one of several other species this versatile lure entices, particularly in waters off the beaten path.

The spinnerbait, shown in the photograph below, is more than just a bass offering. The chain pickerel is one of several other species this versatile lure entices, particularly in waters off the beaten path.

If one enjoys catching fish, he’ll be hard pressed to find more productive baits than earthworms, crickets or minnows. All these natural offerings have been around since time immemorial. They are also relatively inexpensive, effective and easy to employ.

However, should an angler find himself among the ever-increasing number of fishermen who prefer tempting various fish species with artificial lures, it might be equally difficult to find a better weapon than the spinnerbait; that well-known, weird-looking contraption that, in form, resembles no real creature Mother Nature ever conceived.

Outdoor writer Bob Brister once told of an old fellow who referred to the deadly lure as a “sinner bait.” While this elderly angler was in reality simply committing a grammatical gaffe, Brister pointed out that he was actually not too far off base.

“Sometimes the spinnerbait can be so effective it almost seems a sin to use it,” he said.

“I haven’t taken the time to look up the origin of the modern spinnerbait or find out the identity of the lure designer who first thought of it,” said Barton Willingham, an angling historian and antique lure collector. “I would, however, like to thank this person who long ago decided to fly in the face of traditional lure design. He had to be a decidedly abstract thinker. He went against all convention when he stuck a rubber skirt, a hook and a couple of spinning blades on a weighted ‘safety pin’ and bravely told the fishermen of the world a fish might want to eat it.”

Since that time, bass anglers in particular have made the spinnerbait an integral part of their all-season fishing arsenal, using it on a regular basis to infuriate hungry and/or aggressive largemouths and enticing strikes from bass lurking in all types of cover and water conditions. Few bass fishermen can be found today who don’t keep at least a minimal selection of spinnerbaits at the ready inside their tackle boxes.

“Fishermen don’t live by bass alone, though, and neither does the spinnerbait,” Willingham added. “Defining a spinnerbait as a ‘bass lure’ is like calling Thomas Edison nothing but a light-bulb manufacturer. This bait is a deadly weapon on countless other fish species as well.”

Nowhere does the spinnerbait better prove this point than in those small waters off the beaten path where the fishes go through their day-to-day activities without the benefit of scientific or government-funded fisheries management. These waterways include shallow creeks, irrigation canals, beaver ponds, “back-to-nature” farm ponds, and shallow backwater arms off major rivers and reservoirs. There, Nature pretty much does as she pleases and predatory fish species like chain pickerel (jackfish), bowfins, gars and some of the larger bullhead catfishes abound.

The bass, of course, are there as well, but they must compete with these less “glamorous” species for food and living space. On any given day, any or all these fishes are actively feeding and constantly on the lookout for any vibration, flash, or movement that alerts them to the possibility of a quick meal.

And the spinnerbait does just that. As a “reaction” lure, the bait often motivates an aggressive fish to strike indiscriminately, without pausing to identify the “prey.” Some experts believe this might be the reason why the spinnerbait does not necessarily need to look like something real.

“Its value as a fish-catching tool is in action and reaction, not exact true-to-life imitation,” Willingham said.

If variety is, as they say, the spice of life, then the spinnerbait can be used to spice up virtually any fishing trip to a body of water where various species of predatory fishes dwell.

“I often liken remote-water spinnerbait fishing to bottom-fishing in saltwater,” Willingham explained. “To paraphrase Forrest Gump, fishing a spinnerbait is like that famous box of chocolates. You just never know what you’re gonna get. Retrieve the lure through grass or submerged vegetation, and a bass may hit it in traditional fashion. Fish it among exposed roots or bankside structure and it may be annihilated by a vicious chain pickerel or a hungry gar.”

Likewise, let the helicoptering contraption fall into deep holes beneath overhanging limbs and brush, and a prehistoric bowfin might greedily engulf it. Slow-roll it along the bottom and a fat bullhead may surprise you. Truly, virtually any fish larger than a three-finger bluegill looks upon the spinnerbait as perhaps the ultimate equal-opportunity lure.

The spinnerbait offers another advantage in these waters that are often weed-choked and filled with lure-snagging wood structure. It is not a bait that hangs up easily and can be cast into places where crankbaits and other reaction-type lures cannot. With a minimum of practice, virtually anyone can learn to adroitly fish a spinnerbait in even the thickest cover.

The one drawback to fishing spinnerbaits for certain species other than bass has to do with lure destruction rather than lure loss. It doesn’t take many battles with chain pickerel and bowfins (both toothy, strong-jawed critters) to make a mauled spinnerbait literally disintegrate in one’s hand. The solution to this is simple: Buy the cheapest spinnerbaits available. The larger discount chains offer the lures for as little as one or two dollars each. These are not baits one would purchase for use in a big-money bass tournament, but for bowfins, pickerel, and the like they serve quite well.

So, if you’re interested in some fishing variety and need a truly versatile lure, look to some off-the-beaten-path waterway and arm yourself with a bargain-basement spinnerbait. You might just discover that “sinner bait” isn’t such a strange nickname after all.

“That sort of fishing probably won’t get you many guest shots on an outdoor television show,” concluded Willingham, “but I guarantee it’ll put a big smile on your face.”