Selecting the best bass fishing lures for largemouth and smallmouth can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be. Though there may be hundreds of thousands of bass baits on the market, you can get on your way to catching fish with just a few tried-and-true classics.
The best bass lures fall into the classes of crankbaits, soft plastics/jigs, topwater, spinnerbaits/hardware, and swimbaits. These rules and lures apply to both primary species of black bass, largemouth and smallmouth, as well as the other predatory “warmwater” species including walleye, pike, and muskie.
It’s also very fun and effective to fly fish for bass. We’ll discuss fishing for bass with live bait as well.
What do bass eat?
Short answer: anything and everything. Worms, leeches, dragonflies, damselflies, stoneflies, and other aquatic insects, in nymph and adult stages. Crayfish. Minnows, shad, suckers, trout, panfish, perch, baby bass, and any other fish small enough to fit in their mouth. Frogs, salamanders, tadpoles, lizards, snakes, even small turtles. Large bass will even eat ducklings, given the chance.
What’s a bait and what’s a lure?
A quick note on nomenclature: Broadly speaking, a “lure” is a piece of terminal fishing tackle made entirely of synthetic materials, such as wood, metal, or plastic. “Bait” generally refers to live or dead organisms, whole or mixed, or chemical compounds intended to give off an attractant scent. A third category would be “flies,” which are typically constructed by using thread to wrap natural or synthetic hair, fur, or feathers on to a hook shank.
However, unlike many other angling persuasions, bass anglers like to call lures “baits.” It’s a colloquialism that has permeated all classes of bass lures, from crankbaits, to spinnerbaits, to the recent rage in swimbaits. To be clear, these items don’t usually have any literal “bait” involved (although some soft plastics are now infused with ground-up fish, like Berkeley’s GULP line of products). Fishing lingo is full of these fun inconsistencies!
Best Bass Fishing Crankbaits and Hard Plastics
A crankbait is a lure constructed of hard, molded plastic or wood, most often balsa wood, usually in the shape of a small fish. Most models have a “lip”—a piece of clear plastic that extends forward and downward from the front of the lure body—which forces the lure to dive downward in the water and wiggle side to side as you retrieve it.
That’s where the name comes from: the lure is activated by the angler simply “cranking” it back in with reel.
The length and shape of the lip dictates how deep the lure will dive. A long lip provides more drag and will force the lure further below the surface, some as far as 20 or 25 feet. Any crankbait that runs deeper than 8 feet is generally classified as a “deep-diving” crankbait. A short lip will take the lure only a few feet under the surface but still allow it to wiggle on the retrieve. These a are classified as “shallow-running” crankbaits. Myriad other types exist within those two ends of the spectrum, such as jerkbaits—long crankbaits with short lips meant to be retrieved with short, abrupt jerks of the rod. The lion’s share of crankbaits float, but there are models that sink and models that are neutrally buoyant—especially in the jerkbait category. Neutrally buoyant lures are often referred to as “suspending” lures.
Another sub-category would be the “lipless” crankbaits, with which the slanted front end of the lure itself functions as the lip. So-called “glidebaits” also do not have a lip, the action being created with the rod tip.
Crankbaits can be effective at all times of year, but they generally perform best when the water is warmer and bass are more active and prone to chasing down their prey.
Best Bass Fishing Soft Plastics
In the late 1940s, a machinist named Nick Creme started pouring rubber into handmade, worm-shaped molds in his Akron, Ohio, basement. Arguably the most popular bass lure of all time was born. The original models had two hooks linked together via a wire running through the center of the worm, but some anglers in Texas quickly realized that the lures could be fished more effectively if a single hook was poked down through the head, rotated, and the hook point was softly poked back into the worm—rendering the presentation snag-free for fishing tight to vegetation, branches, and other underwater structure. This method came to be known as the Texas rig and it is still extremely popular today.
Tackle manufacturers and hobbyists have since made “rubber worms” in every conceivable color, shape, and size. However, there is a bit of a misnomer here, because many have realized that it is actually leeches that they are emulating and the bass think they are eating. While bass do love to eat live nightcrawlers, those insects are less common in waterways than leeches, and certainly do not behave in the bouncing, swimming way that anglers fish plastic worms.
Soft plastic lure construction has been applied to many other forms as well, notably lizards and salamanders, crayfish and creature baits, frogs, tubes, and curly-tail grubs.
The names “lizard” and “salamander” are used interchangeably in bass fishing, but it’s worth noting that one is a reptile and generally avoids swimming, and the other is an amphibian that mostly lives in water. Salamanders are also known for robbing bass nests in the spring, so bass are prone to attack them.
Crayfish are an incredibly important part of bass diets and there are many ways to evoke their profile and movements. Many soft plastics are shaped just like crawdads, but there is another sub-category known as “creature baits,” which are unified only by their strangeness and profusion of appendages. Though bass are inherently curious, it’s likely that most creature baits are assumed to be the clawed crustaceans.
Curly-tail grubs came hot onto the scene in the early ’70s with the famous Mr. Twister and quickly became one of the most popular and versatile fishing lures of all time. The curled tails extend under tension and recoil when paused, providing a tantalizing action. These are typically fished on a jig head (see below). Another comparable design is the tube bait. These look almost like a short, thick plastic condom, with a fringe of many legs wiggling off the back.
Most soft plastics come in packages of with half-a-dozen or so individual lures, usually without hooks. It is up to the angler to decide what kind of hook, how and where to hook the plastic, and where to position the weight, if any.
The most common method for attaching the plastic to the hook is still the Texas rig, where a wide-gap hook point goes in the head of the plastic, back out, rotates, then the hook point is poked softly into the plastic, with the eye of the hook flush with the front of the plastic. Anglers sometimes fish this weightless or finesse style, but often use a bullet-shaped, sliding sinker to get it to the bottom quickly. Sometimes folks will peg the weight a foot or two forward of the plastic, which is known as a Carolina rig. Certain thick, blunt worms like the famous Yamamoto Senko are frequently hooked right in the middle, by poking through or with an O-ring, known lovingly as the wacky rig.
Another popular means for fishing soft plastics is threaded on a jighead, where lead or tungsten is molded around the eye of an upward-facing, jig-style hook eye. This method is especially popular with tube baits, curly-tail grubs, creature baits, and short, thick worms, which is known as a Ned rig. It is also worth noting that many bass anglers add soft plastics to the hooks of other categories of lures, particularly spinnerbaits and spoons, to give them even more action.
Best Bass Fishing Swimbaits
Generally speaking, swimbaits are plastic molded in the shape of a fish, often with a paddle-shaped tail that kicks back and forth when retrieved. Some swimbaits are molded around hooks while others require the angler to add hooks. Though swimbaits are made of soft plastic, in recent years they have advanced so far and become so complex as to create a category of their own. The major difference is that they usually have hooks, eyes, and flash integrated into the lure, not added separately like many plastics. But the lines between the two are blurry at best.
Swimbaits have existed in various forms for decades, but they have exploded in popularity over the last 20 years, being especially favored by anglers targeting trophy bass in places like Southern California. They are built to almost the exact shape, size, weight, and even photo-realistic colors and patterns of every type of fish bass like to eat, from trout to crappie to baby pike. While those large, technical models might be valuable in certain trophy lakes, many anglers find a great deal of success with small, simple swim shad versions on a jighead hook.
Though these ultra-realistic lures appear so lifelike in the water you might assume they’d make catching bass too easy, there is actually a high degree of skill and finesse involved in fishing them well. But that’s a conversation for another article entirely.
Best Bass Fishing Spinners, Spinnerbaits, and Spoons
Spinning, flashing chunks of metal often attract fish faster than seems rationally possible. The same basic Mepps or Panther Martin inline spinners you might use for trout or panfish work just as well for bass. The same could be said for small spoons like Kastmasters or Lil Cleos, or big pike and musky spoons like Krocodiles and Daredevils. These simple lures should not be discounted among the more expensive, modern, and eye-catching lures available.
There is a particular variant on the traditional spinner that is particularly designed for and suited to bass fishing: the spinnerbait. These are built around a right-angle of heavy wire with the line attachment point at the corner of the angler. These lures ride vertically through the water, with a jig head and hook on the bottom and one or more spinning blades one the top. The hook and jig head are usually dressed with a plastic skirt with numerous wiggling tentacles or a curly-tail grub or worm off the back. There are several style of spinner blades, notably the long, thin willow blade and short, wide Colorado blade. The former does a better job of matching the shape and profile of a baitfish, though it produces less “thump” and vibration than the shorter, stubbier Colorado, which anglers favor in dirty or off-color water. Another offering in this category is the chatterbait, which employs a wide, wobbling blade directly in front of the spinnerbait style jig head and hook.
To the casual observer, a spinnerbait doesn’t look like anything in nature, above or below water. But damn do they catch bass. We’ll discuss a popular variant of this design—buzzbaits—in the next section.
Best Bass Fishing Topwater Lures
Most bass anglers would say nothing beats catching a largemouth or smallmouth on a surface lure. It isn’t effective all the time, but when conditions are right, there’s nothing better than the visual excitement of a bass erupting through the surface while eating your topwater lure.
The topwater category in some ways transcends the above listed categories because they are made of so many different materials. But the basics types could be characterized as: hard- bodied plugs and poppers, soft plastics, and buzzbaits.
Hard-bodied topwater baits are usually constructed of either hard plastic or wood. They can be further divided into either cigar-shaped plugs or poppers. The distinction is the poppers have a scoop out of the front that allows the bait to chug and throw water as it moves forward to create noise. Cigar-shaped plugs are typically designed to zig-zag back and forth—known as walking the dog—like the prototypical Zara Spook. There are endless variations and combinations of both of these styles, some with propellers on the front or the back, some with legs or fins to evoke specific fish, amphibians, or birds.
Perhaps one of the most lethal topwaters, particularly for largemouth bass, is the hollow-body frog. These lures are molded with pliable plastic that while more rigid that the material used in plastic worms still has plenty of give. This is important, because they are designed to glide over heavy vegetation, but compress when a bass clamps down. This compression helps to expose the lure’s two hooks that ride flush against itss back—a key designed element that allows hollow-body frogs to work through weeds and lily pads without getting snagged.
The last major category of topwater is the spinnerbait variant called the buzzbait. Instead of a blade spinning behind a swivel off the right-angled wire, this wider blade spins around the wire—designed to be retrieved quickly across the surface so that blade creates a prop wash-like disturbance.
Best Bass Fishing Live Bait
Fishing for bass with live bait has gone out of style in recent decades but it is no less effective than it once was. Where legal, you could feasibly fish for bass with the living, breathing versions of any of the lures mentioned above. Nightcrawlers, leeches, shad, bluegill, and crayfish are all effective bass baits—although this method of fishing doesn’t allow for an active retrieve you can achieve with lures. Live bait fishing is usually a stationary affair, hooking the bait under a bobber, with a sinker on the bottom, or unweighed under a boat or dock. It’s great for relaxed, passive fishing or with kids, but doesn’t achieve the excitement or engagement that most people seek with lures.
The information above is by no means meant to say that you need every single one of these items to become a successful bass fisherman. Many an angler has had themselves a wonderful day on the water with nothing more than a pocket full of rubber worms and a couple hooks. As with most things fishing though, there is nothing more valuable than local knowledge. So make sure to patronize your local tackle shop, be polite, and ask good questions about what’s been catching fish lately.