Should you be fishing handmade balsa baits?

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David Hunter Jones

Yes. It’s a rare day when I’m out bass fishing and I don’t have a balsa crankbait of some kind tied on and ready at hand. Here’s why.

Balsa is much more buoyant than plastic. This gives it a unique action that most bass haven’t seen. Besides that it’ll float up off of cover without hanging up and hunt in a more natural way. This is especially true of square bill models. You can burn them through cover without the problems you’ll have with other baits. The high-speed burning is critical if you’re looking for a reaction bite.

Under some circumstances, however, I will go with plastic. It tends to run just a little deeper than balsa — usually around 4 to 6 feet — which makes it useful for certain situations.

I’ll fish my balsa square bill baits anytime the water temperature is above 60 degrees or so. Below that I’ll usually go with a flat side model.

The flat sides have an advantage in colder water because they typically have a tighter wiggle. They are not as snag proof as the square bills, however. If you’re going to fish them successfully, you’ll need to learn how to worm them through tree tops and other types of dense cover. If there was an easy way to learn how to do that, I’d tell you. There isn’t. Practice is the thing.

There are baits made from other types of wood. The most common are pine, red cedar, agathist (Japan) and a few others. I don’t know all the particulars but in my experience balsa is the most buoyant. Unless you’re a serious angler who just wants to collect lots and lots of handmade baits I’d stick with balsa.

I’m often asked if these lures are really worth the money. The short answer is yes, but you don’t have to break the bank to own a handful of them. If you’re on a tight budget you can easily get away with a half dozen lures.

I’d start with a couple of standard size square bills. I’d add a couple of smaller models. Finally, I’d buy two flat sided baits for colder waters.

Don’t worry too much about color. You don’t need every color they make. Think about what kind of water you fish. If it’s murky and stained buy yellow, chartreuse or orange — something they can see. If you fish clear water go with a shad or bluegill pattern — something natural.

Price always matters, but when it comes to handmade balsa lures it’s misunderstood. They aren’t as expensive as you might think. Most handmade baits are available through local craftsmen. A little negotiation will go a long way.

But even the larger makers are more affordable than you might think. Phil Hunt Custom Lures has a line of baits called Old School that sell for $10 to $12 except for two designs that go for $14. They’re super good lures. I fish the Elite Series tournaments with them. The only difference between them and the more expensive ones is that Old School baits are not tuned when they’re shipped.

Tuning a bait is no big deal. It only takes a minute. Watch it run. If it runs off in one direction, bend the eye slightly in the other direction. Pay attention to the word slightly. A little pressure on the eye goes a long way.

Every serious bass angler should have a few handmade balsa baits in his or her boat. They’ll generate strikes when nothing else will.