By Don Wirth
I'd always thought muddy water and smallmouth bass don't mix, but within an hour, I'd taken on a different perspective.
After last night's storm, I believed that old adage about March coming in like a lion. The wind had howled so violently around midnight, I thought the roof would surely blow off my cabin. As for rain -- three inches in an hour, or as the locals inhabiting the hills and hollows around Tennessee's Dale Hollow Lake would say, a real toad strangler. I finally fell asleep around 2 a.m. and awoke at daybreak to the sound of rushing water. I poked my head outside the front door to discover the creek behind the cabin had risen all the way to the edge of the road, and muddy runoff was gushing into the normally-clear reservoir. Great, I thought. My first smallmouth bass trip of the year, an outing I'd looked forward to all winter, trashed by a passing thunderstorm.
About then, I heard the familiar gear-grinding of bass guide Fred McClintock's diesel-powered pickup heading down the steep road to the resort. He pulled alongside my cabin with his boat in tow, rolled down his window and inquired sarcastically, "You gonna sit around all day in your nightshirt, or are we goin' fishin'?"
Now I'd always thought that muddy water and smallmouth bass don't mix, but within an hour of launching, I'd taken on a different perspective. Without even cranking the outboard, we caught and released nine bronzebacks ranging from 3 to 7 pounds, and busted off two brutes whose size I hesitate to guesstimate . . . all on crawfish-colored crankbaits cast into the chocolate-colored inflow just 50 yards from the launch ramp.
If you want to add an exciting new dimension to your smallmouth bassin' this spring, read what follows, then stock up on a variety of craw-colored crankbaits. Trust me, these patterns work!
Before we examine some killer spring crankbait patterns for smallmouths, a bit of background on live crayfish will answer many questions, and refute some notions, even highly-skilled bass anglers have concerning these common crustaceans.
"Over 250 species of crayfish live in North America," says Birmingham, Ala. fisheries biologist and avid smallmouth angler Chris Stephenson. "They are a major food source for all species of bass. Smallmouths are especially well-adapted to preying on crayfish; their heads are bullet-shaped, allowing them to root out craws from between rocks on lake and stream bottoms. Smallmouths also have a rough patch inside their mouths which may serve as a 'gripper' to help prevent a struggling crayfish from escaping. Both creatures share a preference for clean, highly-oxygenated water."
Stephenson indicated that crayfish are generalized predators that feed on whatever live food they can catch with their formidable claws, as well as on dead fish and decaying organic matter. "They're secretive creatures that normally inhabit shallow water. They tend to avoid direct sunlight, but aren't entirely nocturnal as many fishermen believe -- walk up to the bank of any steam and you'll probably see crayfish crawling the bottom in broad daylight."
Although they occur in a variety of habitats, crayfish are especially abundant in rocky lakes, reservoirs and rivers. "They thrive around chunk rock and the large rip-rap commonly placed near dams and levees to help prevent erosion," Stephenson indicated. "The cracks between these large rocks provide good shelter, and also trap dead fish that drift to the bottom. Most anglers believe that gravel is prime crayfish habitat, but in reality, large chunk rock provides better hiding, ambush and forage opportunities."
"I recommend a deep-diving crankbait, even when fishing shallow water."
Before outfitting your tacklebox with an arsenal of crankbaits, Stephenson suggests doing a little field research on your local lakes to determine the kinds of crayfish residing there. "Look under shoreline rocks or wood, and you'll be amazed how many different sizes and colors of crayfish you'll find. Many bass anglers believe crayfish change colors seasonally, but in reality, different color varieties usually represent different species, rather than seasonal variations of the same species. Their colors range from mild to wild; in fact, displaying brightly-colored crayfish is a hot trend among aquarium hobbyists. Some are drab brown or olive, others red or ink blue -- a common variety in my area is green with hot-orange tips on their claws."
While matching a live crawdad's color pattern is important, the real key to catching bass on a crayfish-imitating crankbait is capturing the herky-jerky movements of this little crustacean, Stephenson pointed out. "The crayfish uses its legs to crawl along the bottom when foraging, then when alarmed, flips its tail to shoot backward in short bursts. A long-billed crankbait rooted along the bottom captures the look of these erratic movements. But since live crayfish seldom moves more than a couple inches off the bottom, even the most realistic craw-patterned lure moving through open water is likely to be ignored by smallmouths. That's why I recommend a deep-diving crankbait, even when fishing shallow water."
A live craw scurrying over rocks makes audible clicking sounds, Stephenson added. "Smallmouths home in on these sounds, especially in low-visibility situations. On overcast days and in muddy water, it pays to use a crankbait with rattles inside."
In early spring, usually around the first week of March in Fred McClintock's region, a warm front forms which creates violent thunderstorm activity -- sometimes even tornadoes. The deluge that inevitably accompanies this severe frontal activity triggers one of the most spectacular smallmouth bites of the year. "The first warm, flooding rain in early spring is a wake-up call for crayfish," the recent inductee into the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame explained. "These creatures normally hibernate during the winter months by burrowing into mud or clay banks, and are virtually impossible for bass to find."
But when one of those "toad stranglers" washes warm, sediment-laden water into the system, the reaction from both prey and predator is immediate and predictable. "There's a sudden influx of muddy water that may be as much as10 degrees warmer than the lake water," McClintock said. "Crayfish hibernating in the back-ends of creek arms sense the rising water temperature and emerge from their hidey-holes by the thousands. Likewise, smallmouths quickly become aware of a feeding opportunity, and converge around the murky run-in for a crawdad feast. I've caught many trophy-sized smallmouths on this pattern that were so gorged with crayfish, their bellies were distended like a towsack full of door knobs, and claws were sticking out of their mouths."
The muddy runoff pulls smallmouths into some mighty skinny water, Fred said. "Normally these fish don't go shallow during the day, because there's very little shallow cover in a typical smallmouth lake for them to hide around - in clear water, I normally catch 'em 10 to 15 feet deep in early spring. But that murky inflow offers such good concealment for foraging smallies, they'll practically chase crawdads up onto shore. Cast a craw-colored crank close to the bank and it'll often get hammered as soon as you turn the reel handle."
The mudline that quickly spreads down the tributary arm is a classic predatorial edge, Fred noted. "You can occasionally catch a good smallie in the clear water in front of the advancing mud, but the majority of the quality fish will be hiding inside the mud band, within 6 to 10 feet of the edge. At first the murky band forms just on the surface, while the water beneath it remains clear -- this is when I've experienced the best smallmouth bite. After a couple of days, the dissolved sediment begins to sink, the entire water column turns murky and the bite tapers off. This is why it's so important to hit the lake as soon as possible after the rainstorm has passed -- you've only got a narrow window when water conditions are ideal for crankin'."
Sometimes other gamefish will be attracted to the muddy inflow, a fact that has resulted in some heart-stopping moments for McClintock and his clients. "Last spring, I was cranking a mudline the morning after a hard rain with a little red-craw Rebel Deep Wee R when a huge fish struck and ran out into the creek arm so far, I had to crank my outboard and chase it to prevent it from stripping my spool," Fred recalled. "After a 45 minute battle, I netted a 38 pound, 52 inch musky. I've also cranked up 12 pound walleye, 5 pound spotted bass and 8 pound largemouths on this pattern, although smallmouths are the norm."
Jack Christian will tell you a leadhead grub fished on a light spinning outfit is his most reliable smallmouth approach.
Priest Lake, Tenn. guide Jack Christian will tell you that day-in and day-out, a leadhead grub fished on a light spinning outfit is his most reliable smallmouth approach. But when spring gales throw a huge bag in his line and a kink in his grubbin', he'll switch to crawdad crankbaits. "Most light-line smallmouth fishermen loathe the wind, but once you see what it can do to the crankbait bite, you'll learn to love it," Christian promised. He indicated several reasons why a stiff breeze and a deep-diving crankbait can be your tickets to bronzeback heaven:
Both smallmouths and crayfish favor highly-oxygenated water, and rough water is rich in dissolved oxygen.
Wave action creates a mudline against the banks in a normally-clear lake -- as we've seen, this is a great shallow hiding spot for smallmouths.
Pounding waves can dislodge crayfish from their hiding places beneath shoreline rocks and bottom litter.
Plankton blooms drift onto windward banks, attracting schools of shad and further enhancing smallmouth feeding opportunities.
The need for clear-water finesse tactics including light line and small lures diminishes as the water along windward banks grows progressively cloudier from wave action, and smallmouths become less tentative about biting. Christian uses baitcasting gear and 14 pound line when crankin' smallies.
"For these reasons and more, a hard wind energizes smallmouths and brings them much shallower," Christian stated. "On a calm March day, I'll routinely catch smallies 8 to 15 feet deep on grubs, but when the wind kicks up, 1 to 4 feet becomes the norm when crankin'. And there's nothing touchy-feely about the way they'll hit a crankbait, either. You'd better hang onto your rod, 'cause if you don't, they'll rip it out of your hands!"
In spring, flat, featureless points are among the guide's favorite crankbait targets. "I call these 'nothin'-lookin' points because they're the ones most anglers bypass in favor of bigger points with lots of cover on them," he explained. "A short clay point with a little pile of rocks or a lone stump on the end is the perfect place for a huge smallmouth to hang out. When the wind blows straight onto or across the point, smallies that were suspending over deep water where the point drops off into the river channel will slide up shallow to feed on crawdads. These fish are extra-spooky, so you've got to approach them cautiously."
Christian uses his outboard to move within two or three cast-lengths of the point, then shuts it off and cranks the structure furiously as the wind pushes his boat shallower (the noise of the trolling motor will run shallow smallies off, he swears). He fan-casts a quarter-ounce deep-diver in a green, brown, or red craw pattern, probing the bottom for that elusive sweet spot containing an isolated rock or stump that harbors a big smallie.
This stealthy approach guarantees more strikes, but can occasionally get you in trouble, Jack admits. "Once I was by myself, crankin' a clay point in a 30 mph gale, and the biggest smallmouth I've ever hung loaded on. I put the trolling motor on high while I fought the fish, but the wind was so strong, it couldn't stop the boat from drifting toward some shallow rocks. So I had to stow the trolling motor, run to the console, crank the outboard, shift into reverse and steer the boat backwards into deeper water, all while hanging onto the rod with one hand. Finally the fish gained some slack, jumped and spit the lure. It was an easy 9 pounder."
Mid-lake humps also offer good spring crankin' opportunities. "Because the top of a hump may be the only shallow water in a wide area, it can be loaded with crayfish," Christian emphasized. "Smallies will suspend around the deep ends and sides of these structures on calm days, then move to the top to feed when the wind creates some chop on the water."
When the lake temperature rises into the low 60s, Christian's focus shifts to main-lake gravel flats for spawning bronzebacks. On calm days, he'll score quality bass by swimming a grub, but when it's windy, he does better crankin'. "Unlike largemouths, smallies are super-aggressive when spawning," he said. "If a bedding fish sees what looks like a crayfish heading for its nest, it'll jump all over it. Smallies will spawn around isolated stumps and rocks; fan-cast a crawfish crankbait around the flat and eventually you'll get ahold of a monster."