Chatterbaits, spinnerbaits, and swim jigs are all designed to find bass fast—and make them strike. Which is the best? Here’s our take
By Pete Robbins
December 10, 2019
a collection of assorted bass fishing lures.
The author’s favorite assortment of spinnerbaits, swim jigs, and Chatterbaits.Pete Robbins
Although bass may group up offshore, or chase pelagic baitfish, for the hard core largemouth hunter in search of hand-to-hand combat, the most enjoyable times are when they’re pinned around shallow cover ambush points, waiting to feed. This can be just about any time of the year, from the pre-spawn through the fall, and under all types of conditions, so a one-size-fits-all approach to choosing your lure makes no sense.
Of course a topwater bite can be thrilling, and is often the only way to go around thick vegetation, but it’s also the first option to go south when conditions get tough. Pitching and flipping soft plastics and jigs can be super-effective, especially when bass are buried in cover or otherwise reluctant to chew, but they’re slow, time-consuming methods that don’t allow you to cover maximum water.
Into this mix enters a trio of lures that can be presented quickly, relatively weedlessly, and horizontally, aimed at finding bass fast and making them strike – the spinnerbait, the Chatterbait, and the swim jig. While there are times when all three will produce reasonably well, there are enough subtle differences to help you make an educated guess about which of the three will produce best. Add all of them to your arsenal, follow these guidelines, and be prepared to break the rules because many largemouths haven’t read the same textbooks as the rest of us.
The traditional safety pin-style spinnerbait is the oldest and most widely-used of the triumvirate. It incorporates a bent wire frame, with a leadhead and hook at one end of the “V” and one or two blades at the other extremity. Usually there is a skirt over the hook, although sometimes a soft plastic lure is placed there instead.
Spinnerbaits used for bass start with 1/8 ounce crappie-sized versions and go all the way up to the 2 ounce monsters that northern muskie hunters throw. Depending on the weight of the lure, the speed of the retrieve and the size and shape of the blades, they can be fished down to 30 or more feet, although in most cases they are best in water less than 10 feet deep.
A spinnerbait doesn’t need to be bumping bottom, or any sort of cover, to draw fish. The thump of the blades—big-cupped Colorados provide the most, willows the least, and Indianas somewhere in between—allows fish to track them with sight as well as with their lateral lines. That means they can be deadly in muddy water and can draw bass that are on the bottom or suspended up into the water column.
A spinnerbait with willow-leaf blades.
They’re at their best when there’s some wind, to break up the surface and maximize the flash, because in calm, clear water they resemble nothing found in nature. That does not mean they’re only good in stained or muddy water—but a clear water approach generally requires a faster retrieve. Sometimes it mandates an ultra-natural skirt, but smallmouths in particular like something gaudy. Don’t hesitate to use chartreuse or bubblegum in both blades and skirts, when they’re feeding heavily.
While a spinnerbait comes through most cover reasonably well, it typically does not do so as well as the Chatterbait or the swim jig. That’s partially because it has so many moving parts —clevises, blades, swivels and wire bends—and a piece of grass or other debris fouling up one element can mess up the whole cast. On the other hand, they create action and noise at just about any retrieve speed, so you can match the attitude of the fish and still keep a lure in the strike zone, often without changing baits, but sometimes by simply moving to a bigger or smaller blade size.
Because they are primarily meant to imitate baitfish, most spinnerbait skirts are in white, chartreuse, shad colors or some combinations thereof. Patterns like watermelon and pumpkinseed exist, but they haven’t gained much traction. Darker colors like black or purple are primarily known as colors for night fishing, especially with an oversized Colorado blade. One advantage that a spinnerbait has over its competitors is that a trailer hook can be easily and seamlessly added to counter short strikers.
Bass home in on Chatterbaits due largely to the vibrations the lures emit.
I use the term “Chatterbait” loosely, only because that brand name has become the generic, like “Coke” or “Kleenex.” More properly they might be called “bladed jigs” or “vibrating jigs.” Born in the Carolinas, they entered the scene a little over a decade ago and were immediately touted as “the lure to end spinnerbaits.” While that prediction never came to pass, indeed they have stolen much of their predecessors’ thunder, catching big bass across the country and around the world.
The Chatterbait marries a thin blade – often hexagonal or round – to a skirted jighead, often via two interlocking eyelets, but sometimes incorporating a split ring. This connecting creates drag on the blade when pulled forward, which results in heavy vibration. It’s tighter than that of a spinnerbait with big cupped blades, but the best among them often hunt. In other words, on a straight steady retrieve the lure will suddenly veer out to one side or the other before tracking true again. The strikes often come at the moment of deflection. Models in 3/8 and ½ ounce sizes are most popular, but they’re available in sizes as small as 1/8 ounce and up to over 1 ounce, which means they can be dragged across offshore ledges and humps, appealing to fish who’ve previously only seen jigs, worms and crankbaits.
A Chatterbait (top) and a swim jig (bottom)
Without less flash than spinnerbaits, these lures rely on a bass’ other senses to elicit bites, but part of their advantage is that they don’t need quite as much wind to be effective—they can typically get through heavy cover, particularly vegetation, with slightly more ease.
While whites and shad colors can be effective any time bass are feeding on silvery baitfish, the Chatterbait typically provides for a greater range of color options. Most pros rely most heavily on three—white/shad, green pumpkin/watermelon and black/blue. The skirt color can be offset or complemented by the soft plastic trailer on the back. The green shades, particularly with a touch of chartreuse, are especially deadly anytime bass are feeding on bream, and in addition to gold or silver blades, flat black can be best when the bite is tough or the water is dirty. A black and blue lure excels for the same reason a flipping jig in those same colors does—it represents the crawfish that bass gorge on to pack on the pounds.
Most trailers are either small boot-tailed swimbaits or craw imitators, although the original Chatterbait came with a small split-tail. Unlike a spinnerbait, a Chatterbait has little to no action of its own when paused or allowed to helicopter down in the water column, so if you plan a stop-and-go technique you’ll want something on the back that undulates on its own. You’ll also want to find a hook that has a keeper barb or some sort, or else use a drop of Super Glue, unless you want to be adjusting and replacing soft plastic trailers all day
One advantage of the Chatterbait over a spinnerbait is that it can be easily skipped, even by relative novices. If you want to place a vibrating lure into the furthest reaches of a boathouse or under some overhanging branches, that’s eminently achievable.
3. Swim Jig
A jig has long been many anglers’ “desert island” lure, the one they’d carry with them when forced to catch something to survive under terrible conditions. Most of the time, however, that meant either pitching it into heavy cover, bouncing it along the bottom, or a straight vertical drop to fish under the boat. The swim jig turns all of that on its ear, and makes the jig into a handy companion for a spinnerbait, vibrating jig, or lipless crankbait.
In many respects, it looks like a Chatterbait without the blade, a simple jig with a swimbait, grub or craw on the back, meant to swim through cover and pull bass out. For decades this technique was largely the province of two geographically distinct groups of anglers—one from Wisconsin, one from Alabama.
The former group used a pointy-headed “bullet” style jighead and a relatively light-wire hook. The latter contingent employed a more blunted head and a heavier wire hook, assumedly for dealing with bigger fish in heavier cover, although both do well in thick vegetation.
When the conditions slick off and get tough, and a once-superior spinnerbait or Chatterbait bite dies, a swim jig might be the next step down on the obnoxiousness scale. Unless equipped with a rattle, they make no noise of their own, and they depend on their trailers for action of the fall even more than a Chatterbait, but they come through all but the heaviest cover with greater aplomb. In fact, you can skitter one over thick pads or matted grass to replicate a frog or small terrestrial animal in a manner that a spinnerbait could never dream of. Unlike a spinnerbait or most Chatterbaits, the typical swim jig has a weedguard, which makes it even more snagproof.
Like the Chatterbait, white, green and black/blue are the primary colors, but a few strands of accent colors can be added to match any forage. Many of the mass manufacturers make their skirts out of silicone, which offers the greatest variety of color options, but old-school rubber is making a comeback among anglers who believe that it has more action. The choices are endless. The most popular sizes are ¼ to ¾ ounce, and a bigger jig can be made to ride higher in the water column by a bulky trailer.
With each of these three lures you can use fluorocarbon or braid (or even monofilament), although the purists resist using braid with a spinnerbait and they’re split with regard to the other two lures. A “broomstick” style rod won’t telegraph strikes or allow for precise casts – you’ll need something with enough backbone to hoist big fish out of cover, but enough tip to make pinpoint presentations. The rod you use with braid might need a little bit more give, while fluorocarbon users can get away with one that’s a little stiffer. What you can’t get away with, though, is leaving any of these three options at home.