Asking me to reduce my overstuffed tackle boxes to a bare bones selection of artificial baits is like asking me to give up medium-rare venison, Mama’s chocolate chip cookies or my favorite adult beverage. But I was asked. The real killer is picking lures that can catch all our favorite freshwater fish—from panfish to walleyes, to bass, trout, pike, muskies and catfish.
Cleverly, I chose baits that I can modify or select in different weights, sizes or tail dressings to target a variety of fish in specialized situations. Sure, there are better dedicated-baits for exacting conditions, but the following seven will get you through for anything, most any time.
Rapala (Original floating balsa minnow)—Tell me what these baits won’t catch. From just subsurface to deep water (using slip sinkers, or Bait Walker, or trolled with a keel sinker), they’re sized for everything from big pike, muskies (the teeth of those critters will do them bad, though) to stream trout or panfish. Heck, I’ve even caught channel catfish on ‘em.
Mepps Spinner—In small sizes they’re the quintessential stream trout lure (squirrel-tail dressed or plain), but you can change out the treble hook for a single then Texpose or Texas hook on a plastic trailer for timber brush or weeds for bass or pike. Work the little ones from floats (bobbers) on structure or cover edges for whatever lurks . You probably have more ways for these in-line spinners that come in all sizes and configurations imaginable.
Plastic Tube Bait—In a medium size down to three-inch size, I’ll hedge my bet and pick a Berkley Powerbait Tube for the extra scent attractant. But various brand soft tubes can be had in smaller sizes for crappie and trout to medium-large for bass, to giants that you can crash through weed mats. Fish them with internal weights, exposed jig heads or without weights, drop-shot style.
Original Slug-Go—Yes, it’s meant as a near-surface jerkbait but it’s a dandy weighted using the maker’s nail inserts, or a weight of your own choosing, or a slip-sinker so you can crawl-twitch the lure along the bottom. Plenty more ways to choose: rig it weedless, rig it wacky style with nail weights at either end. This can be your plastic worm, or in bitty sizes, a nifty little minnow or wax worm imitation for panfish.
Jig—I’m thinking about a jig head in assorted sizes with various tail dressings (or none) for anything with fins that swims. Tiny marabou-skirted jigs are classic for panfish and trout (don’t overlook them for spawning bass, either). Plain heads dressed with a minnow or crawler are standard for walleyes. Jigs pre-dressed with little plastic tentacles like a tube bait take panfish, trout, bass and more, depending on size. Slip a plain-Jane head onto a paddle-tail plastic and you have a swimbait. And, of course, the jig head with brush guard and skirt sweetened with pork or plastic “critter” trailer is standard fair for largemouths in heavy cover.
Rat-L-Trap—The most inexperienced angler will catch fish on these just by casting them out, cranking them in. They’re great in cold conditions and hot weather. Everybody thinks of them as bass baits, but they’re fine for walleyes and the little ones for panfish and trout. Yes, biggies catch our toothsome friends. And you can weight them, too, for trolling, or tow them with no weights at all.
Spinnerbait—Because they come in so many sizes and finishes there’s not one of the sweetwater fishes I want to catch that these things won’t—and they’re just so much fun to use, banging into brush, rocks and weeds due to their near snaglessness. You know how they clobber bass. Trim a heavy one with some natural bait for cats in current. Use one of the original Johnson Beetle Spins in ultralight 1/16 or even 1 / 32 oz. for panfish, trout, or twitched beneath a slip float for walleyes.
And while on that subject, you can make a serviceable walleye crawler spinner rig from one of these lures by adding a tiny float to the upper wire arm, or choosing the lightest spinnerbaits (so you can slow troll them at a walleye creep). To complete the rig, snell on a short length of monofilament to the main spinnerbait hook and add a trailer hook or two. Now you have a rig on which to drape a natural crawler or bait minnow.
OK, what have I missed? I’ll bet you have a favorite lure that would make this list even better—and maybe a neat way to rig it. I’d like to hear about it.