By Don Wirth
Long casts close to cover are essential when working crankbaits in clear, shallow water.
Examine the lure selection of most clearwater bass fishermen, and you'll find a good assortment of leadhead grubs, small jigs, finesse worms, suspending jerkbaits, spoons, blade baits and a topwater or two. But chances are the crankbait selection will be minimal, especially when compared to that of anglers who fish murkier water.
There's a reason for that. Most bassers feel crankbaits are at their best in water with some color to it. Where visibility is limited, bass respond eagerly to the exaggerated action, pulsing vibrations, bulky profile and noisemaking rattles of these popular lures. But the very attributes that make crankbaits so deadly in stained water seem to work against them in clear water. Here, bass tend to feed by sight rather than sound. They have the luxury of carefully scrutinizing a prospective meal before striking, and unless it looks real, they'll often ignore it. The exaggerated wobble, chunky profile and excessive noise of most crankbaits can appear unnatural to bass under clear conditions.
But when the right approach is used, crankbaits can be absolutely deadly in clear water. Knowing which crankbait to use and where to chunk it can spell the difference between hauling water and toting a limit to the scales.
In clear water, deeper isn't necessarily better. True, many clear lakes are rocky, and have little shallow wood or weed cover. Bass therefore have little reason to be shallow, and tend to move out deeper. But if cover is present in the shallow margins of the clear lakes you fish, don't automatically head for the depths before trying a shallow-running crankbait.
Bass in clear water feed mainly by sight. If your crankbait looks like real food, it'll be harder for the fish to turn down.
Shallow runners like Mann's 1-Minus and Worden's TimberTiger series remain popular among pro bassers. Unlike long-billed crankbaits, these squat plugs have the barest nubbins of diving lips. They're designed to run extremely shallow -- some less than a foot deep. It's amazing to watch 'em bump and grind their way across logs, through brushpiles and over the top of subsurface weedbeds. They're truly 4-wheel-drive crankbaits!
Regardless of how clear or how skinny the water may be, bass will hang tight to cover if it's available, and few lures are more effective for fishing shallow wood and grass than these toadlike cranks. In this scenario, think of your crankbait as a substitute for a spinnerbait -- if you fish it in the same places you'd slow-roll a spinnerbait, and at about the same speed, you'll catch bass. Actually, a shallow crankbait is often preferable to a spinnerbait in clear water, because it has plenty of visual appeal, while the spinnerbait does better in low-visibility water where bass feed via vibrations rather than sight. If you pick the right color pattern and present the lure properly, it will mimic a live crawfish rooting along the bottom, or an errant baitfish that accidentally strayed into the wrong neck of the woods.
Long casts close to cover are essential when working crankbaits in clear, shallow water. Shallow bays and tributary arms are the perfect places to start. Wearing Polarized sunglasses and standing at the bow of your boat, it should be easy to spot submerged weed patches, laydown logs, brushpiles and the like. Using a 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-action baitcasting rod (a soft-action cranking rod may be too light for this application) and a reel spooled with 14- to 20-pound mono, chunk the lure past the cover and retrieve it so it a) bumps into the wood/grass and glances off it; b)bulldozes through the cover; or c) barely ticks the top of the object. Here, a miss is as good as a mile -- in clear, shallow water, bass sense their vulnerability to predators, and may not venture far from a stump or grass patch to attack their prey. Obviously this high-contact approach is rough on monofilament lines. The perfect line choice for this application is Bass Pro Shops' Excel monofilament; it has the right combination of abrasion resistance and low visibility to get the job done.
In clear lakes, shallow crankbaits are especially deadly when fished over and around patches of milfoil, hydrilla and other junk weeds. A favorite tactic of pro anglers is to swim the lure s-l-o-w-l-y over the top of the grass so it creates a telltale wake, like that of a fleeing shad. Don't be surprised if a lunker largemouth blows a hole in the grass as big as a tabletop in an effort to grab the bait!
Shallow runners come in a variety of sizes. I'd recommend starting off with a fairly large plug, one that can be cast a country mile; if that doesn't evoke a stroke, scale down to the smaller sizes (they make 'em as tiny as 1/8 ounce -- fish these on spinning gear). Even the teeniest of these cranks will catch big bass from heavy cover.
When bass are deep in clear reservoirs, they're often stationed on what pro anglers call "gravy spots." These are primary structural elements such as points, ledges, humps and drop-offs that have been sweetened by the addition of a choice piece of cover, such as a solitary stump, standing tree, weed patch or boulder. This added element of attraction provides the "gravy" that enhances the spot, making it a major draw to big bass.
There's no telling how many national tournaments have been won on gravy spots in clear reservoirs, especially during the summer months. Big bass will stack up on these places like cordwood, and the angler skilled (or lucky) enough to find 'em can load the boat in short order.
Short-billed crankbaits like the Mann's 1-Minus are designed to run extremely shallow. It's amazing to watch 'em bump and grind their way across logs, through brushpiles and over the top of subsurface weedbeds.
A deep-diving crankbait is the best lure choice for doing some serious damage to the bass population on a gravy spot, especially if you're fishing against the clock (or simply lack the patience to crawl a worm or jig through the area). Many of these places are 12 to 20 feet deep, well within range of a long-billed diver like a Fat Free Shad, Wiggle Wart or similar plug. This is mainly open-water fishing, so go with a 7-foot cranking rod, a high-speed reel and low-diameter 10 to 14 pound line.
Locate the gravy spot with your depthfinder, then delineate it with a marker buoy. Pull off the structure and make repeated long casts around the buoy with a deep-diving crankbait. Most strikes will occur the instant the lure bumps the rock or stump. Typically bass hold tight to or suspend around this cover.
In summer, deep weed patches can hold the biggest concentrations of bass in the area, but small grassbeds are sometimes difficult to detect with electronics. Use the deepest diver in your tacklebox as a weed detector. Make a super-long cast and root the lure across the bottom of the point, ledge or hump. If it picks up grass, immediately switch to a crankbait that doesn't dive quite so deep and recrank the area.
A plug knocker is essential for this brand of deep crankin'. Many serious crankers carry a "pocket rock," a 3/4- to 1-ounce catfish sinker with an eye at one end. After attaching one end of a wire snap to the eye and the other end around their line, they slide the sinker down to the lure, jiggle the rod tip and the bait usually pops free, thereby saving a ton of money on crankbaits.
Crank the Middle
In hot weather, bass in clear lakes often suspend, and can be a bear to catch. Currently one of the hottest summer strategies on the pro tournament trail involves cranking these fish with a realistic suspending crankbait like a Suspending Fat Free Shad Junior.
The kicker with this "pattern" is that it's not really a pattern at all. Suspending bass are often relating solely to each other, not structure. This can make searching for them like looking for a needle in a haystack. A good place to start is between two main-lake points. Bass often gang up on the ends of points early and late in the day to ambush passing schools of baitfish, but when the sun is high, they may go into a neutral mode and gravitate into open water. Locate two opposing points, then idle around until you spot hooks indicating bass on your graph. Note their depth, then crank 'em with a suspending bait. The beauty of this crankbait style is that once it's reached its maximum depth, it'll stay there. Once you've cranked down to the level of the bass, stop reeling for a beat or two, then resume the retrieve. This erratic approach will often trigger a strike from a suspending fish.
The same 7-foot cranking outfit you used for probing gravy spots will work great here, but I'd drop back a notch in line size and loosen up your reel drag a bit -- this is strictly open-water bassin'.
Veteran smallmouth hunters accept gin-clear water as the norm. They know that big smallies tend to favor deep water, but they also know that it's possible to entice even the deepest fish up to the level of a small crankbait.
While smallies will slam the biggest crankbaits in murky waters, you'll get far more strikes in a clear venue by sticking to 1/8 to 3/8-ounce lures. Some favorites among the smallmouth fraternity include the Bomber Model A 600-series, Rebel Crawdad and Rapala Shad Rap. Many of these baits have a maximum depth range of 8 to 10 feet, but don't let that deter you from fishing them in deeper areas. In clear water, smallmouths are attuned to swimming long distances to grab a meal. It's entirely possible to pull big smallmouths out of 25 feet of water with a compact crankbait that runs no deeper than 10 feet. And notice I said "smallmouths" -- don't be surprised if you see a whole school of bass chasing after your lure!
Rocky points, gravel banks and shale ledges can hold large numbers of smallmouths. Secondary objects such as isolated stumps and boulders will concentrate them, so by all means seek these out with your electronics, then crank away.
Parallel cranking is a great way to stir up some smallmouth action on a rocky lake. Position your boat close to a limestone bluff or 45-degree chunk-rock bank, than cast parallel to the structure, working progressively deeper until you contact fish. Don't be dismayed if your boat is sitting in 100 feet of water next to a bluff bank -- smallies will suspend here at their comfort zone and won't be hesitant to snatch a fast-moving crankbait.
Which rod/reel/line to use with small crankbaits depends on your personal preference. Many bassers prefer a 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-light spinning rod, especially for the lightest baits in this genre. Spool up with 6- to 8-pound line and fan-cast the area, using a stop-and-go retrieve. And make sure your hooks are super-sharp -- a big smallmouth will take to the air as soon as you stick it, and you'll lose it if the barb isn't buried
Colors for Clearwater Crankin'
Choose colors carefully when cranking clear water, but don't be afraid to get creative if need be.
Natural color patterns including popular shad and crawfish patterns are reliable choices. Remember, bass in clear water feed mainly by sight. If your crankbait looks like real food, it'll be harder for the fish to turn down.
On sunny days, crankbaits with a reflective finish are a real advantage. They catch the sun's rays as they wobble, creating a flash that bass can see from great distances. Most open-water baitfish are silvery in color, so the crankbait's flash signals a potential meal to bass.
But reflective crankbaits lose their potency on cloudy or rainy days. With the sun hidden behind clouds, the lure reflects only the grayness around it, thereby rendering it virtually invisible to bass. Now is a good time to use a flat-finish lure (bone white, pearl, perch), or a hot color such as fire tiger, red or orange. And some built-in rattles can't hurt, either. -- Don Wirth