In the early days of bass fishing most artificial baits were either made from metal or various hardwoods for durability, but these baits were not very lifelike in the water. Baits made from balsa wood then entered the scene and were hugely effective due to their buoyancy and very light weight. The traditional balsa wood baits all performed a little differently to each other and required complex weighting and tuning to get them to run in the desired manner, but nevertheless they revolutionised the crankbait industry. The next generation of balsa wood baits are formed through hi-tech processes that ensure that the baits run more consistently and predictably according to the design specifications and are a lot tougher than their earlier counterparts.
There is much more to choosing your lure than just finding one that runs at the right depth, and both balsa and plastic crankbaits offer unique characteristics. The decision on which to use is always determined by bass themselves at the end of the day. You can use a balsa bait anywhere that you would cast a spinnerbait or bladed jig (just remember not to set the hook when it becomes snagged).
Advantages of Balsa over Plastic
The main benefit of balsa baits is that they are usually extremely buoyant, deflect off cover easily and float back off snags better than plastic baits.
Balsa baits tend to hunt around in the water a lot more than plastic baits and when you retrieve them they follow a more erratic and unpredictable path. This will trigger more strikes from finicky bass.
A stop-start retrieve with a highly buoyant balsa bait provides a presentation that can’t be matched by many plastic baits.
Advantages of Plastic over Balsa
Consistency: It is easier to achieve in plastic baits and you can be fairly certain that when you lose your favourite bait that you will be able to take another one out of the box and get the same action. This being said, that was mainly true for older balsa models and more recent manufacturing techniques have certainly improved their consistency.
Sound: Rattling sounds are much louder in plastic baits and in really dirty water aggressive fish are better targeted with loud rattling crankbaits.
Durability: Plastic baits are much more durable around rock and other hard structure and can take more punishment than balsa wood baits. They don’t require the same maintenance as do balsa baits which need to be sealed with epoxy if they get chipped or around the lip joint area where there can be some wear. With a balsa bait you need to cast a little more accurately and carefully and I would advise against smacking a balsa wood bait against the water to remove bits of weed as you will soon have an expensive key ring with no bill!
Versatility: You get a much wider range of styles and actions with plastic baits due to the relative ease of their construction. If you are looking for suspending baits then you would most often be choosing plastic.
Because balsa floats quicker to the surface, using it around shallow cover often enables you to shake your lure free more easily, and they tend to get hung up less frequently. On the other hand, plastic crankbaits tend to crash through the cover more than their lighter balsa counterparts and can be more effective when bass are feeding more aggressively.
I would often choose to fish balsa baits in clean water because you are not relying on a rattle to attract the fish, and you can finesse the bait around when targeting finicky fish. The weather will also determine my bait choice – for example in windy conditions it is usually much easier to cast plastic baits that are a little heavier.
Don’t be limited to shallow water, deeper diving, flat-sided balsa baits can be a great finesse technique in cold water and are great for finicky bass when they are not feeding aggressively. You probably won’t find balsa baits that will get down much below 10ft of water so their application is limited for deeper bass.
Since I don’t consider myself to be a crankbait specialist, I asked Max Pieper, Namibian Bass Nation Angler, multiple Region 5 angler and World Championship Angler for his opinion. “When you hit a rock or stump, or if you are using a stop-start retrieve, Balsa baits are much more buoyant and float up quickly when you pause your retrieve,” he says. “Bass love this and often hit the bait at this point,” he adds. “Combine this with the more subdued rattle and you are showing bass something different that they may not have seen. Balsa baits, such as the expensive handmade models from Japan and the USA are often slightly asymmetrical and have an unpredictable action, often turning sideways for just a second which entices bass to bite. It is for this reason that the Rapala Scatter Rap is made from Balsa to achieve that erratic action. There is a craze on in Japan where guys buy blanks and shape and paint them themselves to get a unique action.”
Light crankbaits can be very difficult to cast with baitcasting gear as there is a tendency to get overwinds if you are casting into the wind or trying to make a long cast. Many anglers choose to throw light balsa baits on spinning gear and I would recommend using a Kistler KLX 7ft Medium action rod with 10-15lb Gamma Fluorocarbon line depending on the bait size. It is possible to use a shorter baitcasting rod for accuracy (when this is important) and in this instance I would choose the Kistler a 6’8” KLX Feel N Reel Series Casting Rod with 10-14lb Gamma Fluorocarbon Line. There are a wide variety of balsa baits out there to suit many applications but I have a lot of faith in the Bagley Balsa B squarebill as well as the Bagley Balsa Jerkbaits.