When Scott Dobson got up the morning after Thanksgiving to go smallmouth bass fishing on Lake Erie, he wasn’t the least bit concerned about the 6 inches of snow on the ground.
“They’ll bite until the lake ices over," said Dobson, a Detroit-area bass fisherman. “When the water gets down below 40, you can still catch them on a blade."
As it turned out, he was right. He and his partner that day, Dearborn-based fishing guide Gerry Gostenik, did double digits on Erie’s smallmouth, all on blades.
“I’m all about the blade baits in fall anytime the water temperature gets under 50, and again in spring, until the water temperature gets up to above 50 degrees. Whether you’re fishing sand or gravel or rocks, that blade bait is the deal."
Blade baits — thin metal bodies with lead along the bottom or nose — are the hottest baits in the coldest weather for smallmouth bass. Fished on the bottom, either vertically, like a jigging spoon, or hopped across the bottom like a jig, blades shine when everything else seems to slow down.
Four-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam is a big fan.
“The colder the water, the better," says VanDam. “Right up until there’s ice on the top and you can’t cast anymore. There’s something about the vibration of that bait that the fish just can’t handle. I won’t say I understand it, but it’s definitely a fact."
VanDam prefers to cast, starting in shallow water and working his way deeper until he starts catching fish.
“Fluorocarbon has made that a lot easier for me," he said. “I try to use my line size to control the fall rate, and I can still use the bigger size blades. I rig rods with 10-, 14- and 17-pound line and fish the heaviest line in shallower water and the lighter line in deeper water. The bigger diameter line slows the fall. You don’t want it to fall too fast, and you don’t want it to fall too slow, either."
Gostenik, who guides bass anglers on Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie and a handful of inland lakes, agrees with him.
“Using that fluorocarbon is important because of the feel," he says. “You can feel both the vibration of the lure and when those fish just tick it. A lot of them hit it on the fall, and if you’re using monofilament, it feels like you’re jigging with a rubber band."
Gostenik says baitcasting tackle is better than spinning gear for blade fishing. “It just seems like you have better control over it. And you’re fishing for big fish that time of year, so I prefer a baitcaster. I like a 7-foot rod, too. It just seems like you have better leverage. That’s important on that hook set."
VanDam says anglers should use a rod that works well with spinnerbaits. He likes a 6-foot, 10-inch fast-tapering rod “with a little bit of tip to it and good backbone."
Like VanDam, Gostenik doesn’t pretend he knows why the bait is so effective.
“The combination of the vertical presentation and the vibration really seems to trigger them to bite. No other sort of lure, not even a jigging spoon, seems to give you that vibration. That combination of presentation and vibration makes the blade bait unique."
Gostenik says he starts using blades at the end of October.
“It’s water temperature dependent," he says. “When that water temperature starts getting into the low 50s and the fish start grouping up for the winter, that’s when it shines. I think the peak blade bite is when it gets down around 40 degrees — that’s the peak on the Great Lakes. You can catch them a little bit colder, but I think that 40-degree threshold is when they’re on that final feeding binge of the year.
“It works anywhere on all our inland lakes. Largemouth bite it, too. It’s a great coldwater bait. It’s deadly."
Blade bait season varies by region, says VanDam.
“It works in a different window in the South than it does up here, but the water never really gets as cold in the South. When that water gets into the mid-40s, nothing else compares."
Although anglers have different preferences in blades, all agree they must be fished with a snap connector. Most blades have a simple hole punched in the back for a line tie. “They’ll cut your line in a heartbeat," Gostenik said.
Anglers also differ on where to use them, though most agree blades are structure baits.
“On Erie or the big lakes, the fish seem to be adjacent to the reefs," Gostenik says. “There’s always some sort of edge — spots within spots. You’ve got to hunt those places out. The fish aren’t everywhere in the winter months.
“On the inland lakes I like breaklines with tight bends — inside turns. The deep water near those bends is where those fish position themselves. But there’s always some sort of key structure element. The fish are really tight to structure when the water is cold, and finding the structure is critical."
VanDam agrees to an extent; he likes to fish along weedlines. But he’ll also fish on long sloping flats, starting shallow and working deep until he finds the magic depth.
Just about everyone agrees, however, that good electronics make the job a lot easier. Says Dobson: “If you can mark them, you can catch them on a blade." Adds Gostenik: “You can see the baitfish on your sonar. If you can find them, you know the bass are going to be there."
Jim Horn, a noted local tournament angler in southern Michigan and northern Indiana events, likes a subtle presentation.
“One key I’ve noticed on fishing blades is on your lift, you want to bring it up just enough so you can feel the vibrations of the bait," Horn says. “You don’t want to lift it very high, just 4 to 6 inches or so.
“With smallmouth, especially big smallmouth, I like to leave that thing on the bottom for three or four seconds between lifts. It seems like the longer I pause it, the bigger the fish I catch. I think the big fish come over, look at it, watch it, then they see it move and they grab it when you pick it up. Instead of snapping it, like you might a jigging spoon, fish it more like a worm."
Line size isn’t critical, Horn says, though he prefers 17- or 20-pound test.
“A lot of guys fish it on 12-pound, but I think that heavier line is fine. And besides, if you hang it up, you get a lot more of them back with 20-pound test."
But unlike most anglers who consider blades late-fall baits, Horn says they really shine right at ice-out.
“Thirty-three degree water," he said. “I love to use them right at ice-out, in deep water. It depends on the lake of course, but fairly deep — say, 35 to 50 feet. In a river system, you look for the deepest water around. That’s relative; in some places it’s only 8 to 10 feet and in other places it’s 28 to 32 feet. The areas right below the dams are usually the deepest, right on the channels and, as long as they’re not pulling too much water, that’s where you need to be. If they’re pulling a lot of water, you can get a big bow in your line and it can be awfully hard to work that bait properly."
When the water is cold isn’t the only time blade baits will produce, of course. Scott Markham, who guides for smallmouth on the Kalamazoo River in southwest Michigan, often fishes blade baits in the heat of the summer with a lot of success.
“You can really see the panicked action that they have, followed by a dying action," Markham said.
Markham says blade baits are “a subtle substitute for lipless crankbaits. You can fish them fast across flats and trigger strikes with an erratic stop-and-go retrieve or by ripping them free from weeds."
And even though he says blade baits are smaller and less noisy than the rattle baits, he prefers a large (1/2-ounce) blade.
“I know guys who, early in the year, fish them basically like a Rat-L-Trap," he says. “It doesn’t have to be cold."