By Steve Price
May 20, 2011
Of all the lures in a fisherman’s tackle box, perhaps the ones most misunderstood – by both anglers and manufacturers alike -- are the square bill crankbaits. They’ve been around for decades and their popularity has ebbed and flowed, largely because a lot of fishermen don’t really know how to use them correctly.
“If you’re afraid of getting snagged, you’ll never be a square bill fisherman,” emphasizes four-time Bassmaster Classic winner Rick Clunn, who won his first Classic in 1976 on a Bagley Honey B square bill. “It’s all about deflection, deflection, deflection, and that means you’re going to get hung up.
“Many fishermen think square bills are weedless crankbaits, but they’re not. The squared-off bill design helps bring the lure through cover, but not every time.”
“I’ve jumped out of my boat to retrieve a square bill more than once,” laughs fellow tournament pro Tommy Martin, who won the 1974 Classic with one of the lures. “Some of the square bills are really expensive, and that’s another reason their popularity comes and goes, but I remember back in 1972 when we were paying $20 to $50 for a square bill crankbait, and renting them for $25 a day, because it was catching so many bass.”
That particular lure was the now legendary Big O, which heralded the beginning of modern crankbait design, with its short but fat body, distinct wobble, and yes, square bill. In all the words written about the Big O, however, few ever mentioned the significance of the short, squared-off lip. Most thought the short lip simply kept the lure from running very deep. It was not the first real square bill ever designed, but the Big O coincided with the rapid rise in bass fishing popularity at that time and thus became the first such lure many anglers remember.
Martin remembers seeing his first Big O during a tournament in 1972, during which he roomed with Billy Westmorland, who finished second using one of the lures. Westmorland, a close friend of Young’s, had a few of the lures, but was trying to keep them a secret. Eventually, however, he got some for Martin, who still has one of the originals.
“These types of crankbaits are not designed to run deep,” continues Clunn, who drew the Big O’s designer, Fred Young, once as a tournament partner at Buggs Island Lake in Virginia. “Seldom do you get one, or want one, deeper than about four feet.” Even Young’s lesson to Clunn that day was not about the brush-bumping virtues of the square-cornered lip, but rather, about fishing the lure as fast as he could reel it.
“I’d never seen anyone reel a crankbait that fast,” recalls the legendary pro, “but it was a lesson I’ve never forgotten, and from then on I began studying those lures. Later, another tournament pro, Elroy Kruger in Texas taught me how and where to fish a square bill – basically, you fish it just like a spinnerbait in shallow cover like stumps, laydowns, and vegetation.
“It’s a nine-month lure you can use in spring summer, and fall, and in clear, dingy, or muddy water. You just change your retrieve speed, from fast in clear and dingy conditions, to slower in muddy and cooler water. Most crankbaits are only good about three months of the year.”
Combining speed with deflection in shallow cover means impulse strikes, and the larger the lure, the more critical speed becomes. Clunn does slow down slightly with smaller square bills, and when he won the 1976 Classic with the tiny Honey B, he literally stopped his retrieve after hitting a rock and let bass come to it. That Classic was punctuated with a massive cold front the second day, which is why he used that particular retrieve.
Big O, the Honey B, and many of the other early square bills were made of balsa or other wood, so not all lures were equal, due to inconsistencies in the wood itself. The first plastic square bills, however, that followed a few years later, were even worse. This is another reason the lures lost popularity. Manufacturers did not understand the true importance of the lip design, its unique vibration, or even the fact it was silent. For example, the thickness of the lip, not just its square corners, play a major role in how the lure performs.
There was also another problem. Because the best square bills in those days were wood, anglers had to buy a lot of them to get a few good ones with the right action. Then, they had to hope the good ones lasted more than a single day of hard fishing, which is about all Clunn and Martin ever got out of their baits after crashing them into rocks and stumps for eight or nine hours.
All of which led Clunn to design his own square bills, the RC-3 and later the shallower-RC-1. They were constructed of cedar by Poe’s Lures, and instead of a straight, squared-off lip, Clunn designed them with the so-called “coffin bills,” which featured two additional edges. His thinking was that four corners would be better than two, and maybe they were, as he won the 1990 Bassmaster Classic on the James River with the RC-1.
After a few years, Poe’s was sold to another company and the quality of Clunn’s lures declined. He began designing square bills for Lucky Craft (sold exclusively by Bass Pro Shops), and they’re still widely available and in use today. The problem with them, is that they cost about $16 a lure. Thus, this past year, Clunn began designing a square bill for the Luck “E” Strike Lure Company, which retails them for about $7 each.
This past February, Kevin VanDam won the Bassmaster Classic with a square bill he created for Strike King Lure Co., the KVD 1.5. Phil Marks, who did the actual design work, remembers the challenges VanDam set before him: not only did he want a crankbait with a certain type of wobble, he also wanted the lure to “hunt” periodically, meaning that at various times the bait had to deliberately veer to one side or the other.
“Kevin didn’t know how to make the lure do that, and neither did I,” admits Marks, “so we started experimenting. We gradually raised the lure’s center of gravity just half a millimeter at a time – if you raise it too much, the lure behaves so erratically you can’t even use it – but even so, it still took us a full year to get it the way Kevin wanted it.”
Obviously, they did. In winning this year’s Classic, the Michigan pro made repeated casts to shallow underwater stumps, bouncing the lure off the cover on each cast, and eventually a bass would hit. The final day of the event, with others fishing nearby, he still brought in 28 pounds, which shows how effective these types of lures can be.
“Another way to fish them,” adds Martin, is by ripping them out of vegetation, just like a lipless crankbait. If you can find hydrilla or milfoil around stumps, you’re absolutely around some of the best bass habitat anywhere, but a lipless crankbait will get snagged. You can reel a square bill down and richochet it off a stump and into the greenery, then rip it out, and more often than not, you’ll have a bass attached when you do.
“The beauty of these lures is you can control their depth by using 17 or 20-pound fluorocarbon, and not change the lure’s action. Because they’re shallow running baits, trying to gain an extra foot or two by changing to lighter line isn’t necessary. I think they’re actually better in dingy water.”
Clunn’s square bills are designated 1.5 and 2.5, but he admits the numbers do not indicate the lure length, as many have thought. They don’t really have anything to do with anything, he says, except to separate his baits from others, such as the old Bagley
B 1, B 2, and B 3 lures. VanDam named his lure the 1.5, as well.
It doesn’t matter what they’re called, he emphasizes, because they’re going to catch bass as long as you reel them fast and bounce them off the cover.