Throughout most of the 1990s, Kevin VanDam, the greatest tournament angler who’s ever lived, glued a spinnerbait rod to his hand and commenced taking other anglers’ lunch money. It didn’t matter if it was smallmouths in New York or Michigan, or largemouths on the tidal Potomac or in the buck brush of Buggs Island; he was flinging blades and whipping ass.
He never stopped winning, but in the last 10 years a strange thing happened—the spinnerbait stopped being his tool of demolition. I’m sure he still has an army of them at the ready, but since taking the 2011 Bassmaster Classic with a one-two punch of a spinnerbait and a crankbait, he’s won five B.A.S.S. events. A spinnerbait played a major role in exactly none of them. The world’s greatest power fisherman has won more times with a damn dropshot in the last five years than he has with the girl that brung him to the dance.
The downstream ripple effect of that reality is significant. Major tournament wins impact both angler perception and tackle sales, directly and indirectly. The spinnerbait is still on store shelves, but now it sits behind a team of other contenders like square-billed crankbaits, swim jigs, vibrating jigs, and swimbaits that weren’t in play as much when KVD arrived on the scene.
It gives the appearance that the spinnerbait had a good run, but it’s over.
I’m here to tell you: Reports of the spinnerbait’s death are greatly exaggerated.
Just ask Brandon Palaniuk, the 2017 Bassmaster Angler of the Year whose first Classic appearance was in 2011 when KVD won with those spinnerbaits.
“The fishing world has constant innovation, and people are always trying to get a leg up,” he said. “There are so many more techniques available now, and when you look at something like a bladed jig or a swim jig, they’re just easier to understand than a spinnerbait. You don’t have to be in tune with all the different spinnerbait styles and combinations for specific situations and conditions.”
Therein lies the rub. A spinnerbait’s situational specificity is what makes it tougher to pick up and throw, but it’s also what makes it so deadly when conditions are ripe.
“You shouldn’t forget it because it is so versatile,” Palaniuk said. “I love it in the spring when the water is cold and muddy because I can get a whole lot more vibration fishing it slowly through the water column than I can with any other bait. And I love it later, during the shad spawn, because the multiple blades imitate multiple shad. There are so many things you can do with a spinnerbait—you can slow roll it, bump stumps, fish it around grass.”
Palaniuk believes that the best all-around combination is a small Colorado blade paired with a larger willow blade, but the spinnerbait’s value lies in its ability to be customized. Around spawning shad, or in super clear water, you might want willows to match the profile of the forage and enable you to burn the lure. In dirty water or at night, a single giant Colorado resembling a hubcap or a manhole cover should get the call because it puts out maximum thump.
Spinnerbaits are available in sizes from 1/8-ounce all the way up to 2-plus ounces. While in most circumstances you’ll stay between ¼ and ¾ ounce, those extremes give you the ability to fish areas that range from ankle deep to well over 30 feet—a depth that’s darn near impossible to fish effectively with a swim jig or square bill, or any crankbait for that matter. If you stop a crankbait, it just sits there, but a spinnerbait helicopters seductively, often triggering a strike. You typically shouldn’t throw a swimbait in Yoo-Hoo-colored water and you can’t throw a squarebill in matted grass. The spinnerbait covers all of those bases and more. It’s not a second choice or an also-ran – it’s often an equally-good or better choice.
They’re infinitely customizable in terms of color, too. You can use painted blades or reflective blades, vary your skirt color strand by strand, and add a soft plastic trailer in a complementary or contrasting shade. With a single blade, you can slow it down, and three- and four-blade versions can be reeled at Mach 2.
My own spinnerbait collection is ridiculously diverse and while some outliers have proven to be duds, I’ve put extra fish in the boat because I took a flier on an oddball creation or color pattern. As Palaniuk said, a good hook, a good skirt, quality wire and, of course, a free-rotating swivel, are critical on all of them, but beyond that you can emulate just about any forage from plankton to baby seals.
I have plenty of standard size, standard blade configuration models in white or white and chartreuse, but there are also all sorts of other specialty blades that come into play year after year. I have small profile, ¼-ounce, single Colorados made for the Ohio River that light ’em up when the bite is tough. I have 1 ½-ounce behemoths that resemble big tilapia or gizzard shad that I’ve rolled through 30 foot deep standing timber on El Salto in search of fence pandas. And I have chartreuse-on-chartreuse abominations that look like nothing in nature that I’ve burned for northern smallies and about had my arm ripped out of its socket. The only limitation on their use is your imagination. There may be no more versatile category of lures.
Perhaps most importantly, to the extent that spinnerbaits have lost some street cred, that’s all the more reason to start slinging them again.
“In the last seven to 10 years spinnerbaits probably haven’t been as popular,” Palaniuk concluded. “The age of most bass people catch is younger than that. That means there are whole generations of bass that have never seen one.”
Tournament wins may move products, but big bites will elevate your heart rate.
Feature image by Pete Robbins