Bass-ic Instinct: Ultra-Realistic Baits are Overrated

Bass-ic Instinct: Ultra-Realistic Baits are Overrated

In 1988, Guido Hibdon won the Bassmaster Classic on Virginia’s James River flipping a jig tipped with a “Guido Bug.” That trailer—Hibdon’s secret weapon—was a soft plastic crawfish designed by his son, Dion, as part of a school science project a decade earlier. The kid had taken a freshly procured crayfish, dunked it in some plaster of Paris, and built a mold.

While the report card with young Dion’s final grades on the craw project have likely been lost to time, that Bassmaster Classic trophy is probably still stuck on the fridge, so to speak, at the Hibdon residence. It’s a monument to a win that sparked a bass fishing mantra that’s still chanted today: Make it look real and they will bite.

Or will they?

While many of us were sold on the hyper-realism of what ended up being mass-marketed as the Guido Craw (I can’t plausibly deny that I still have dozens of bags of them), it seems more likely that the primary reasons for Hibdon’s win were location, presentation, and persistence—not anatomical correctness. Like humans drawn to a rack of ribs on the smoker, bass feed using multiple senses, especially in stained and dirty water, but when we’re evaluating lures, we look at them in the package instead of in their office. That almost certainly gives appearance a disproportionate weight in our analysis.

“Molding a crawfish gives it a lifelike look, but not necessarily a lifelike action,” four-time Bassmaster Classic winner Kevin VanDam told me. And that, right there, is one of the big reasons so many super lifelike lures have flamed out. Remember the Mad Man Mooneyham Craw from the ’90s? It looked good enough to make a Cajun salivate, but the product had no lasting success. Legions of other craws that look like they’ll hop up and pinch you have befallen the same fate. So have lizards, snakes, and myriad baitfish. It’s not just a matter of getting the antennae right down to the millimeter, or perfect caudal fins, it’s the complete package in the water.

Here are the five lures that have produced most of my biggest bass over the past decade:

Strike King 10XD deep diving crankbait in chartreuse and blue
Lipless crankbait in chrome or bright red
Chartreuse and white spinnerbait
Green pumpkin Senko
Whopper Plopper 130

What do they all have in common? You’re not going to stop dead in your tracks at the tackle shop because you’re so blown away by just how real they look. You probably have a similar list. Maybe yours includes a Chatterbait, or a buzzbait, or Brush Hog. Those are some all-time bestsellers and none of them required consultation from a fisheries biologist to create. Even the Hibdons weren’t wedded to the idea of ultra-realism in all situations (nor did they ever claim to be): When Dion won a Bassmaster Classic title of his own in 1997, his primary tool was a “Dion’s Secret”—a skirted hula grub with twin curly tails, which looks more like something that would pop out of Sigourney Weaver’s belly than anything found in nature, let alone that a bass would normally eat.

So, despite the mountain of evidence that super-real does not automatically equal super-fishy, why do people (including myself) spend big bucks for lures with photo finishes of natural forage and ultra-realistic details?

For many, it’s the simple “holy shit” factor that leads to an impulse buy. But for the serious bass angler, it’s an understanding that realism can be a useful tool in the right scenario. The caveat is that while a lifelike look doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t necessarily appeal to the other triggers that make bass bite, it might be killer arm candy but you’re probably not marrying it. Super-realistic baits are not the be-all-and-end-all of fishing, but sight is one of the senses bass use to feed, and in a situation where, say, you have spooky fish in really clear water, it can be the factor that makes the difference.

According to VanDam, it’s all about light penetration. In other words, the pursuit of visual perfection may mean different things depending on water clarity, depth, wind conditions, and other factors. On a glass-slick day in shallow, clear water, with bass that have seen the ass ends of hundreds of similar lures, that extra bit of realism may make the play. Or it may not. As VanDam pointed out, northern smallmouths in clear water often hit a spinnerbait with a chartreuse skirt and chartreuse blades harder than anything else, but that doesn’t mean KVD doesn’t have some ultra-real deals kicking around in case they don’t.

As VanDam said, “The confidence that you have in a lure is more important than anything else. If a particular color is a confidence-builder, then you’re going to fish it much better.” He told me there have been times when he’s been dialed in on a bite with a picture-perfect bluegill-colored square bill, whacking fish left and right, convinced that’s the only thing they’ll eat that day. Later, back at the dock, he found out that someone else did just as well on the same lure in a totally contrary color scheme.

At the same time, I know plenty of really accomplished fishermen who do care about little details, and sometimes those details are visual in nature. That doesn’t mean they obsess over “the right shade of chartreuse,” but rather that they are aware that in certain situations particular colors show up better, or that a touch of a particular accent shade makes a presentation more convincing.

What you don’t want to be is that guy who claims that a watermelon Senko with 10 flecks of gold flake will outperform one with 9 or 11 flakes. Fish just ain’t that smart. In my experience, the people who waste a lot of gray matter making those sorts of arguments are the same ones who buy the baits advertised as “Banned in 10 states!” from the backs of magazines. Keep it real, and by that I mean let the conditions, bodies of water, past successes, and habits of your local fish dictate just how real you need to keep it on the lure front.

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