Wednesday, November 24, 2010
To paraphrase 1980s crooner Huey Lewis, once again it's "hip to be square."
IMA pro Bill Lowen has a longstanding love affair with square-billed crankbaits but even though there are "hundreds of them on the market" no production model to date had fully encompassed the legendary hunting action of the small-manufacturer balsa baits. And the balsa baits -- when you can get them -- aren't consistent. One might hunt and dive to a certain depth, while another runs straight at a different depth or needs constant tuning. Lowen has waited his entire professional angling career for one bait that consistently gets the job done, and now he has it -- Introducing the IMA Square Bill.
This lure is truly Lowen's baby, a tool he's dreamed about for decades finally come to life. After countless back and forth conversations with IMA's engineers in Japan and multiple refinements and prototypes, he's convinced that no other square bill can match his Square Bill. It has a stubby, rounded body that produces an earth-shaking wobble, bold eyes, a lexan lip and two sticky-sharp #4 Owner hooks that'll nab even the short strikers, although most bass absolutely choke this bait down.
"It acts like the best handmade balsa baits," Lowen said. "It's kind of hard to explain. Every crankbait has a wobble, but the good balsa crankbaits hunt. They'll jump off to the left, run a bit, jump off to the right, and always work their way back to the center. That action triggers bites."
The top balsa producers also are very buoyant. This allows an angler to do what Lowen described as "twitching" a crankbait. You bang it into cover at breakneck speed, let it float back up and then impart a little bit of action with quick pulls of the rod tip. "It's like walking the dog under the water," he explained. "Deflect, pause, twitch. You can snug them up to the cover, let up a little bit and they'll head toward the surface like a bobber."
The problem with the balsa baits, other than their inconsistency, is their durability -- or rather their lack of durability. Just when you think you have one running right, you hang it on a stump and it never performs correctly again. That's not a problem with this Square Bill. It also features a circuit board lip which fellow IMA pro Bill Smith says is a lot more durable than its lexan counterpart. "With lexan if you beat it on the rocks it'll chip," he explained. Lowen likes the lip made this way for another reason: "It helps it to deflect off cover a little bit harder. You can feel the difference in your rod."
Lowen begged the IMA design team to engineer this bait to fit his "river rat," ultra-shallow fishing style. It runs a bit shallower than some other crankbaits of this genre, diving perhaps three feet on 12 lb. line and two feet on 15 lb. test. If you want to burn it over grass or in the shallowest water possible, up-size to 20 and it'll still maintain its hunting action.
"It's the best possible bait for going back in the creeks, into the real skinny places that take forever to get to," Smith said.
"Lowen said there's a reason he wanted it to go shallower than its counterparts. "That way it doesn't dig up the bottom," he said. "Generally the bottom in those areas is mucky and muddy with leaves everywhere. If it picks up all that trash you can't fish it right. But it still dives enough to crash off cover."
In addition to being a professional tournament angler, Smith owns a leading tackle retailer, Backwaters Online (www.tackleexperts.com), so he comes at this lure from two angles. He knows what he's doing with a crankbait stick, but he knows that not all of his customers have the same experience level. "They can still go after the handmade niche," he said. "This lure does the work for those who don't know how to fish it." He says it'll excel anywhere fish are shallow and is dying to fish it on lakes like Dale Hollow and Cherokee, near his home ("Bill (Lowen) can have the Ohio River," he joked.) "The best thing about this bait is the ability to go shallow and crash cover as hard as you can." Whether you fish the Ohio River, the California Delta, the Potomac's grassbeds, Lake Champlain or anyplace in between, this is a tool with universal application any time the bass are resting in the shallows, waiting for an easy meal.
"You can burn it and it won't roll over or blow out," Lowen added.
That's the beauty of the Square Bill. It's really three or four baits in one. While some other square bills are good burned, others are at their best when they're waked or twitched. Some do well deflecting off cover while others are best in open water. The Square Bill can match each of the competitors' attributes and talents, with no weakness. In fact, Lowen frequently mixes it up on a single retrieve, going "from twitching to waking, to reeling it down to three feet to burning it." It's not just a jack of all trades -- it's a master of each one, too.
Lowen said that while crashing cover is his primary purpose when chucking the Square Bill, he also uses it in wide open water for schooling fish. "People say that suspended fish are the hardest to catch," he said. "A lot of times you'll find them suspended in three feet of water over 10 or 12 feet. Fish it just like you do in cover -- a straight retrieve, pause, twitch -- almost like fishing a jerkbait."
One place he'll be sure to have it tied on is at the upcoming Bassmaster Classic on the Louisiana Delta. While New Orleans is thought of as spinnerbait and flipping stick country due to the miles of hyacinths and reeds, he noted that it is also "full of cypress trees with lots of knuckles to drag a crankbait into."
The Square Bill will be available in 9 colors. Both anglers say that consumers coast-to-coast can build a starter pack out of a craw pattern, a shad pattern and something in chartreuse to imitate a bluegill or fish in dirtier water. You can add other regional favorites to the top shelf of your tackle box as you see fit, but those three basics comprise a good starting point.
Lowen, being an inveterate tackle tinkerer, has experimented for years with "foiling" his cranks. "Foil finishes are the most realistic as far as flash goes, even better than just about any baitfish-colored paint job," he said. Silver sides with gray, black or green backs are all on his bait menu, although he noted that "it's hard to do and expensive." He does the foiling himself after years of practice but then gets a friend to finish off the paint job. It's a skill that can be learned if you have the patience.
Both pros fish the Square Bill on a typical cranking stick -- 6'9" in Smith's case, a 7' All Pro for Lowen -- and with a 6.3:1 or 6.4:1 gear ratio reel. That allows them to slow it down and maintain power when dealing with a big fish, but they can still burn the bait when a faster retrieve is required. This is one of the few techniques where mono can be employed. In fact Lowen prefers it when he's trying to keep the lure shallow, although he'll sometimes switch up to fluorocarbon if he wants to grab a few extra inches of diving depth.
The IMA Square Bill won't be available to the public until late February of 2011, just in time for the spring cranking bite. It's not quite a 12 month out of the year presentation, but it's pretty darn close. "It's not really season-specific," Lowen said.
Both Lowen and Smith employ it from the prespawn, when fish start to move up onto cover by the flats in anticipation of spawning, through the heat of the summer and into the fall, when the fish start to school up and chase bait.
In the meantime, why not ask your loved ones to put a few IMA baits in your stocking? Better yet, show them that you really love them by giving the people you treasure the best hard baits on the market.