Begun, the Square Bill Wars have. Okay so I’m not really the Yoda of bass fishing baits, but I’ve been testing and studying the various square bill crankbaits on the market. We listed the Square Bill as the “en vogue” product of the 2010 ICAST show, and finally most of the new square bills have joined the old stand bys on the market.
First we should define square bills a little more deeply and then talk about their application.
A square bill obviously gets its name from the shape of the diving lip that helps impart action on the bait. I say help because the shape of the lip really doesn’t do all the work. It’s also the broad head and narrow tail and generally rounded shape that gives the bait a wicked tail flip, roll and ability to bang off cover and keep coming.
Square bills are not to be confused with flat sided crankbaits which can be similar in appearance but generally have a coffin lip (narrow at the base, getting wider away from the bait and rounded) and flatter cut to the body. The result is a much tighter wiggling bait as opposed to a square bill which would be classified as a wobbling bait. The flat sides of the bait allow water to pass off the bait easier keeping the wiggle tight. While a square bill with a wide head displaces more water forces the tail to kick harder because more water is being diverted around its broad head.
So why a square bill?
Why throw a square bill as opposed to just a shallow crankbait. Well for one a good square bill displays great deflection capabilities. It’s not the shape of the bill as much as it is the broad head and wobble as well as a nose down posture that tucks the hooks back behind its head and bulls through shallow cover. It’s not to say other baits won’t work around shallow cover, but with a square bill you have a lot of advantages and when the fish stop reacting to the tight wiggling flat sides or finesse cranks like the staple Rapala Shad Rap, they sort of transition to a wider lumbering bait that hunts around.
One major advantage is most square bills cast like a bullet. Even the smaller versions cast pretty well. So you can put them on heavier tackle with beefier line and bulldog some big bass from shallow areas. Many of the best square bills are silent, having not rattles. Their wide-wobbling actions are more than enough to call bass in even in muddier water and the silent versions can often “sneak” into a shallow strike zone and startle a bass, a good way to trigger a strike.
Another key is the baits are usually extremely buoyant so when the do hit a major piece of cover you can put your rod tip high and worm them over and around cover.
So now we know why to throw them, so the question that begs is which one should you throw? Well we’re going to go through each bait and let you make your own decisions about specific components and attributes of each bait. Of all the baits we tested, they all seemed to fish well and cast well. We can tell you that on certain days we tested, color mattered and so did rattles. So that right there told us we need a little variety in our square bill box.
The Fred Young Big O – This bait arguably started it all, although in it’s early days it was as much a finesse bait up shallow as it was a lumbering crankbait. Fred Young would hand carve and hand paint the baits but how he fished them was more interesting. He would cast the bait right up on the bank and let it sit motionless until all the splash rings were gone. Then he’d twitch it a time or two up shallow before beginning a slow retrieve. This bait is now produced by Cotton Cordell. It comes in three sizes from 2-inches to 3-inches and dives 2-4, 3-5 and 4-6 feet deep depending on the size. It retails now for $4.92 and comes in 9 colors. It’s made of plastic now, but the old originals were balsa. The come with bronze hooks that should be replaced. The bait has a wide wobble, one of the widest at the large size and the old original balsa one we tested rolled well too off of cover.
Lucky Craft RC 1.5 – The square bill sort of wallowed in limbo for a while until Lucky Craft introduced Rick Clunn’s RC 1.5, 2.5 and 3.5 square bills. We have caught countless bass over the last several years on these baits so we can attest to their fish catching effectiveness. We tested a 1.5 for this test and really like how well the bait casts. Even the small one casts like a rock and comes through cover well. It’s got a bit tighter wobble than the Big O 2 1/4 inch version. It comes with quality split rings and hooks and runs true out of the package. The baits are pretty tough as we’ve hit them on rip rap, logs and docks in shallow water and they still run true.
The new RC2 baits are being made by Luck “E” Strike and we plan to add them to the test when we get our hands on them this week, but we’re not throwing out our old LC RCs just yet. The Lucky Craft RC baits retail for $15.99 and all run 0-4 feet. The new Luck "E" Strike versions are going to retail for around $6.49.
Rapala DT Fat – The Rapala DT Fat is the bulbous version of their DT Series of shallow crankbaits. It has a real wide wobble but it’s ultra quiet thanks to the balsa make-up. It runs a bit shallower than most of the other crankbaits in the line up at 0-3 feet. And it feels shallower than that if you beef up your line. It doesn’t cast as well as some of the baits with weight transfers but it’s the quiet killer around shallow grass in stained to muddy water as well as shallow wood. It’s extremely buoyant and it pops to the surface on a pause. You can fish this bait real well on skinny flats. The baits are pretty affordable at $7.49 for the standard series and a little more for the Sureset series.
Sebile Crankster – This bait has been around a few years and has some unique qualities that make it a player in the square bill niche. For one the first thing you’ll notice is the free-floating bearing that ticks back and forth when you retrieve the bait. The lip is unique in that it forces a good kick to the bait but it doesn’t feel like it’s pulling as hard as some of the other baits. It has pretty good paint jobs although we felt like it was missing some staple colors for muddy water. With that rattle it can be a great shallow muddy water bait when they are hiding up close to the bank in newly mudded waters. And it casts like a rocket. The bait comes in four sizes although one is a sinking model and we’re not sure what application we’d use that for yet. The baits retail for $14.99.
Strike King KVD Square Bill – Well this baby is no secret now. It’s the hot bait that was helping whip the bass into shape at the 2011 Bassmaster Classic. Both KVD and Rook threw this bait as well as others later in the competition. The bait casts well in both the 1.5 and 2.5 sizes. But what is unique is the bait seems to go off on a tangent at times. It will deflect and do something that is akin to scooting. Some folks call that hunting. The bait will run off to the side for a second sort of hopping on its bill then come back to center and start wobbling then jump off of something and do it again. For some reason, that can trigger fish into biting. They are tracking a bait, and then all the sudden it does something off that track. KVD obviously proved what a trigger it can be. The bait is fun to fish. And the fact that it’s one of the most affordable baits in this category means you should have some. The baits retail for $5.29 and dive 3-6 feet, a bit deeper than most of their counterparts. So it’s definitely covering the deeper end of shallow water, but KVD proved its effectiveness in water that was 2 feet deep.
XCalibur Square Lip – Another plastic silent square bill, the XCalibur Square Lip features good hooks, good colors, and affordable price tags. These baits run 0-3 feet in all three sizes from 2-inch to 3-inch versions. The baits have a good wobble and we like the little roll we saw with these baits. They are silent and run shallow with good buoyancy so they are very effective for fish laying in ultra shallow muddy water. We caught a bunch of fish right on the banks with the firetiger pattern during our tests. The wobble is not as wide as the Big O or Rapala DT Fat but it seemed a bit wider than the KVD cranks. So if you’re looking for good displacement in an affordable and very castable bait, check these out. The baits retail for $6.99 and we liked several of the unique colors like Smallmouth green and Bruiser.
IMA Square Bill – This bait was designed by Bill Lowen, a shallow river specialist. The bait is one of the shallowest running in the bunch because of its buoyancy. They bait has a real wide wobble for such a small bait and features a cast weight that rattles, something that played well in our testing in muddy water. We tested the Sour Candy bait and caught several bass laying right on the bank in water that had muddied from recent rains. You’d cast it right on the bank and real it one time and a fish would roll on it. It’s a lot of fun when you can call your shots with a bait like that. The bait casts like a rock, wobble can be felt well on even a medium heavy action with heavy line. Its noise is not as loud as the Sebile Crankster. Its got a wide kick and not as much roll as some of the others because its sides are a bit flatter than some of the others. The bait retails for $15.99 and comes in some very pretty colors.
Norman Little N– Norman makes some ultra shallow square bill crankbaits, but we actually preferred the Norman Little N that dives 4-6 feet. It dives very quick but it tracks well in shallow water too. Something about it's light wobble. It kicks a wide clip, but it doesn't kick hard if that makes sense. So you don't feel a ton of resistance fishing this lure. It has a real dull knocker in it which we like for a dirty water option that is a little more subtle than some of the other rattling options. The baits retail for $4.29 making them extremely affordable. The baits are plastic and feature a smaller than normal square bill lip. The baits are 2 1/2 inches and weigh 3/8 ounce.
SPRO Fat John – We debated about putting this one in the line-up for a couple reasons. One it’s lip is more coffin shaped and two it’s more flat-sided than the true square bills. But the Little John is the flat sided brethren and this bait acts more like a rounded square bill. It has a wide wobble, more of an "S" swimming action if you will. But at 5/8-ounce, you can cast it like it’s shot out of a bow, and it's another quiet bait. The bait does seem to hunt a little on deflection. But not as much as the KVD bait. The bait is a little bit longer than the IMA but shorter than the other 2-inch square bills we tested. It retails for $10.99 and comes in several staple colors for shallow cranking.
WEC E2 & Big EZ – We tested a 3-inch Big EZ prototype bait that we got from Ed Chambers and it’s modeled after the original big O. It’s a silent balsa bait, weighted well and casts extremely well. The bait comes with low end hooks that need to be swapped but it’s got a great wobble and roll that is unique from the other baits we tested. It also has some unique colors in its lineup since each bait is hand painted by Ed Chambers himself. The baits are a bit hard to find right now and will probably retail for around $21.00.
We know that another great square bill that has won Elite Series pro Kevin Short a lot of money is the WEC E2. It’s a 2 3/8-inch bait with a squatty profile and good side to side kick with a straight tracking roll. It’s an extremely buoyant bait and backs off and away from cover very well. It too retails for $21.00. For that reason you’ll have to be very serious about your shallow cranking to be in the WEC camp.
Well I'm sure several folks will be wanting us to say which is the best bait. If only fishing were that simple. I can tell you in our tests we caught fish on some of the baits but it could have been the conditions, the colors, etc. Several of these baits will work for a wide range of depths. Others are specifically geared to specific depth ranges. At the end of the day, we suggest picking a couple baits with different actions for shallow 0 to 3-foot ranges and some for 3-6 foot ranges.
A good mix might be the SPRO Little John, the KVD Square Bill and the IMA Square Bill and the Norman Little N. That would give you a shallow quiet bait, a deep silent bait, a shallow rattle bait and a deep rattle bait, with all four having subtly different swimming actions.
Or maybe you want a bigger cranker so you can get the Big EZ W.E.C. crankbait, the 300 Xcalibur Square Lip and the big RC baits. The point being that mixing up your options is a good idea. Match the colors to the places you fish. We suggest something with yellow, chartreuse or red for dirty water and something shad colored for clearer water. Mix and match, and let us know how the baits do for you.