Artisanal bait: The art of crafting and selecting a bass lure

Some things haven’t changed much since Chuck Tawney first picked up a fishing rod as a child in Harford County, Md.

Tawney, the president of local bass fishing club Team Outcast, says that bass still prefer grass beds on the flats—muddy wetlands along the shoreline—in springtime. And bass fishers from around the country are still trying to pin down how the Upper Bay’s ever-shifting tidal waters affect bass feeding times and spawning grounds.

But one particular aspect of the sport has undergone a transformation, especially during the past several years: lures. From paints and graphics that make soft-plastic crawfish look real, to high-tech, smart chip-equipped lures, Tawney has experienced the evolution of “a handful of general lures back in the day” to the incredible variety of options that exist now.

<em>The Livingston Shredder is a medium diver crankbait that subtly vibrates and emits lifelike baitfish sounds through the brand’s EBS Technology. It’s great for cooler waters up to six feet deep, and is available in crawfish colors. (Photo credit: B.A.S.S.)</em>
The Livingston Shredder is a medium diver crankbait that subtly vibrates and emits lifelike baitfish sounds through the brand’s EBS Technology. It’s great for cooler waters up to six feet deep, and is available in crawfish colors. (Photo credit: B.A.S.S.)

“There’s absolutely something new every year,” he said.

Manufacturers are responding to increasingly tech-savvy anglers, according to Jeremy Albright, brand development manager for fishing gear and supply company Berkley, part of Pure Fishing. “The desire for high-tech lures has also increased in recent years,” Albright said. Berkley uses computer-aided design (CAD) systems to quickly and precisely create bait designs in 3D, resulting in lures that “cast further, dive deeper and have more action than ever before.” Together with innovations in color, scent and flavor, the action or movement of a lure can attract bass and make them hold onto the bait longer, giving anglers “more time to set the hook and ultimately catch more fish.”

These changes to the sport certainly challenge fishers to adapt and keep up with all the new advancements. But bass fishing is about more than just bait; the most successful competitors take a variety of natural factors into account when developing a strategy, including weather conditions like sun, wind, and cloud cover; the color and temperature of the water; and the number of fishers on the water at a given time.

Nobody knows that better than Mike “Ike” Iaconelli, a top professional angler who grew up outside of Philadelphia fishing in the Tidal Delaware River, and still lives there today. Now, about 20 years into his career and with multiple championship titles under his belt, Iaconelli has the kind of awareness of the sport that only true champions can have—which makes him the perfect man to help brands design more effective lures. He created a special jig for fishing in especially clear, cold water, for instance, and he has recommended subtle color or textural changes such as “a little bit of metal flake” to make a plastic worm look more realistic, he explained.

“Every color that I designed is set up to match the hatch,” Iaconelli said.

<em>Bassmaster Elite Tournament (Photo credit: B.A.S.S.)</em>
Bassmaster Elite Tournament (Photo credit: B.A.S.S.)

On top of innovating with color and texture, some manufacturers are adding smells and sounds to their products. Lure designer and manufacturer Livingston Lures, for example, offers lures with water-activated Electronic Baitfish Sounds technology that emits vibrations similar to those made when crawfish move their pincers. Iaconelli, who collaborates with Berkley, uses a lure by the brand that not only looks real but also “sort of oozes this scent that smells like a real fish or crawfish,” he said.

These innovations in fishing technology are groundbreaking and impressive, and they certainly give modern-day anglers an edge. But newfangled lures won’t guarantee success—that all hinges upon talent, and, above all, experience.

“I think fishing now is just as challenging as it was in the ’80s, when I was a kid,” said Iaconelli, who added that one’s “ability to pick the right lure at the right time” remains crucial. Those choices depend largely on things like weather conditions, tide, and the fish’s environmental preferences.

For instance, Iaconelli said, bass prefer “stained” water over clear water, and are are drawn to dock pilings, weeds and rocks that they can hide around. Such intimate knowledge of the fish themselves informs what kinds of lures Iaconelli uses; he’s found success around the Upper Chesapeake’s numerous docks by throwing heavier lures that fall quickly through the water, causing bass to react instinctively.

Different seasons also call for certain adjustments to lures and equipment. Tom Todd, a founder of Harford County’s River Ratz Bassmasters club who’s been fishing for two decades, has developed a keen sense of where to find bass in local waters. In early spring, he uses lures that closely resemble bait fish to catch hungry prespawn bass in the Potomac River and the gravel banks of the Chesapeake area. Catching bass in submerged grasses in the summertime is trickier, so he uses lures with movement, like spinnerbaits with rotating blades, to attract a bite.

<em>The Tandem Buzzbait by Terminator has a metal propeller blade that creates noise as it’s dragged across the surface of the water, mimicking shad and drawing bass out from underneath vegetation. (Photo credit: B.A.S.S.)</em>
The Tandem Buzzbait by Terminator has a metal propeller blade that creates noise as it’s dragged across the surface of the water, mimicking shad and drawing bass out from underneath vegetation. (Photo credit: B.A.S.S.)

This insider knowledge is especially key amid the varied terrain and tidal conditions of the Upper Chesapeake Bay, in Harford County, where the Huk Bassmaster Elite at Upper Chesapeake Bay Tournament—the highest level of professional bass fishing competition in the country—will be held this year from July 26 to 29. Harford County is the perfect place for a massive fishing event like this to take place; Bass fishing is embedded in the culture of the local community, with local fishing clubs like Team Outcast and River Ratz giving amateur anglers the chance to compete from spring through fall. Harford County has made itself into a grassroots training ground for professional bass fishing, and the most impressive competitors around are taking notice.

“Th[e] event will bring in the top bass anglers from around the world,” said Greg Pizzuto, executive director of Visit Harford.

But even Bassmaster competitors like Iaconelli face the challenge of determining and executing a winning game plan under pressure. For one thing, bass are quick learners, and they stop biting once they become accustomed to a particular bait. Moreover, because tournaments don’t typically coincide with prime feeding times for bass, anglers have to use other methods to make the fish react, such as surprising them with lures that swim realistically through the water.

And while tech will continue to shape the future of fishing, Iaconelli says the difference between winning and losing will still hinge on a competitor’s ability to adjust to changing conditions on the fly, to “fish fluidly and make decisions. The guys that do that very well are the guys that are successful in this sport.”

Learn more about Harford County, MD.

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