Spring patterns — Roberts believes cool water in lakes during the early spring is the cranker's best friend. His reasoning is simple: Smallmouths are on the move from deeper wintering areas to the shallower flats. This requires anglers to search considerable stretches of water, making crankbait use ideal for this situation. And because few anglers in his region attempt cranking at this time, it remains an almost untapped gold mine for those who do.
"Most of my early spring and pre-spawn cranking is along those migration routes, such as rocky points, creek channels leading into bays, or shallow flats. Transition areas where soft muck bottom switches to rock rubble or a firmer bottom also are key sites. Key fishing depths are 7 to 14 feet."
But according to Roberts, the real secret to cold water cranking is "hanging" the bait. Each time he bumps a bottom object, he pauses the retrieve to allow the bait to hang in the water. Roberts achieves neutral buoyancy by using Storm's SuspenDots. For his favorite Poe's 300, he says six dots positioned directly on top of one another immediately in front of the first treble usually does the trick. However, because these wood baits are not identical in weight, some adjustment in the number of adhesive 'Dots may be needed.
Flying their colors
Everyone has his or her own opinions when it comes to crankbait colors for smallmouths.
Bill Albright keeps his crankbait colors uncomplicated. He uses either a shad pattern or a crawfish color. But he doesn't necessarily base color selection on what he suspects bass are eating at the time. Instead, he prefers to go with a light-colored baitfish pattern on bright days and a dark crawfish color on overcast days.
"Visibility is my concern," he says. "We know smallies eat both crawfish and various preyfish. And we also know they are opportunistic feeders, taking any forage that is in front of them. Baitfish or crawfish pattern — what difference does it make?"
Jeff Snyder has a different view, arguing that it is vital to match the color of the primary forage, especially in clear water.
"Smallmouths can see shades of colors better in low light than we can," he says. "They can identify subtleties that we cannot. The clearer the water, the more important it can be to use natural looking colors that represent the prey. I've seen biting smallmouths turn off when anglers throw some of those exotic colors used for walleyes. The exception would be the use of chartreuse baits in heavy current situations and in dingy water."
Bill Roberts favors a fire tiger pattern most of the year and in almost any water condition. "I do not believe in different spring and fall colors, or clear and dingy water colors," he notes. "For example, I recently won a tournament on Lake Shasta by cranking a fire tiger bait, and Shasta is crystal clear all the time. If I'm not throwing a fire tiger, then I'm probably cranking a crawfish pattern with a blue back. On some waters I fish in the spring, there is something special about a blue highlight on a crankbait."
How important is a suspending crankbait in cold water? Roberts tells about a Banks Lakes tournament one spring when he had a limit in eight minutes with one of his doctored baits and a stalling retrieve. Meanwhile, his boat partner - using an unweighted crankbait — didn't catch a single bass during the flurry.
Once smallmouths arrive on the shallow flats, the Timber Tiger DC-8 becomes Roberts' mainstay. With water temperature well into the 50s and the bass holding in water less than 8 feet deep, he says there is no need to use suspending baits. "Now I'm using a steady retrieve, moving the bait a bit faster," notes Roberts. "With its Timber Roller Lip, the DC-8 has very good deflecting capability for both rock and wood, along with that perfect tight wiggling action."
Summer patterns — With the spawn over and the shallows heating up, smallmouths in lakes drop deeper. Roberts makes the adjustment by going to a Poe's 400 Competition to reach the 14- to 16-foot depths, or Poe's Long Reach to hit the 18- to 20-foot range. He targets extended points, rockpiles on deep flats, midlake humps and ledges along river channels.
"I'll start the morning off by cranking fast in order to cover a lot of water during the low light period," explains Roberts. "Then as the day wears on, I slow down and work the crankbait more methodically. By this, I mean picking apart those larger structural elements and isolating individual pieces of submerged cover, such as stumps or large rocks. I want to hit something, then pause to let the crankbait back off and begin floating upward before engaging it again."
This bump-and-back-off technique replaces his bump-and-hover tactic of spring.
Fall patterns — When the lake begins to cool off in the fall and smallmouths return to shallower water, these experts agree that nothing can put bass in the boat as quickly as a crankbait.
"With the water temperature between 50 and 60 degrees and with smallmouths moving back on to the shallow flats, no lure works as well as a crankbait," Albright says. "There is no need to bump cover or touch bottom to trigger a strike in the fall. On my favorite lakes, including Wallenpaupack in Pennsylvania and Cayuga in New York, the bass are positioned on the deep edge of shallower flats to ambush baitfish moving in and out. I keep the boat in about 15 feet of water, throw a Bandit 200 into 4 or 5 feet, and retrieve quickly with an occasional stop or hesitation. Most of my strikes come when I hesitate the bait."
Roberts says his retrieves in the fall are markedly different than those in spring or summer. "Using one of the Timber Tiger models, I simply wind the reel handle as fast as I can - I literally burn the bait," he explains. "Timber Tigers, particularly the DC-5, hold a straight line while maintaining that crankbait action no matter how quickly they are retrieved. That's how I get my largest smallmouths of the fall."
River patterns — When it comes to jockeying for feeding positions, smallmouths use current to their advantage. Because smallmouths are creatures of current, Snyder seldom considers using a crankbait in a lake situation unless the wind is blowing. But in flowing water, it's a different case.
"Crankbaits are my primary tools for rivers or any waterway connections with current," states Snyder. "With a single bait, such as a Bandit 200, I can cover 80 percent of a typical river's smallmouth habitat. By holding the rod tip at various positions, I can strain the depths to 8 feet. And by reeling fast or slow, I can vary the speed of retrieve until I figure out what the bass want on that particular day."
When fishing for largemouths with a crankbait, Snyder wants to bump bottom objects. But when cranking for smallmouths, he says a free-swimming retrieve is every bit as effective. This is particularly important when fishing rocky bottom cover in a strong current. There is no need to use deep diving baits to overdive, thereby sacrificing lures to rocks. A crankbait that dives close to the bottom — only brushing the bottom occasionally — is sufficient.
Snyder explains that while smallmouths in impoundments move deeper in the summer, river smallmouths actually move shallower — into faster moving water.
On small to moderate size rivers during the warm water period, Snyder heads first to the "pushes," where the water rises at the heads of riffles. In the shallowest water, he goes to a Bandit Foot-Loose, which runs less than 1 foot under the surface. He also favors current seams and reverse flow eddies along wing dams, riprap, bridge piers and inflowing tributaries. Snyder recommends fishing a crankbait past any object that breaks the current flow.
With the arrival of cold water in the late fall, smallmouths move out of the stronger current flow sites to slower eddies or holes. While Snyder still relies on a crankbait as his initial search lure, he slows the retrieve considerably.
He recalls incidents in which smallmouths have smashed crankbaits when the water temperature was in the high 30s.
These anglers say the choice of a smallmouth crankbait rod is very important to fishing success. A moderately flexible rod blank is critical in keeping hard-charging smallmouths from coming unbuttoned. However, for increased sensitivity, each angler prefers a graphite model rather than a fiberglass or composite rod.
Albright uses a Shimano VCT-66M and a high speed Curado reel spooled with 10-pound-test Stren. Snyder goes with a Lamiglas XDC703 rod and a Lew's BBING casting reel with 8- to 12-pound Berkley XT line, depending on the cover.
Roberts opts for a 6 1/2-foot medium power Browning Vectra rod, and he usually mates it to a 6.2:1 high speed Quantum Accurist reel spooled with 10-pound green McCoy Line. "I normally use a high speed retrieve reel because it pays to move crankbaits very fast at times for smallmouths," notes Roberts. "However, in the early spring, I switch to an old Lew's reel with a 4.3:1 gear ratio to slow down the bait. You can try to crank slower, but the human tendency is to wind too fast. I correct the human problem by changing reels."
Roberts also removes any split rings from crankbaits, using a No. 2 DuoLock Snap for the line-to-bait connection.
Snyder advises great care if landing a crankbait-hooked smallmouth with a finger/thumb lip grip.
"The mouth is so small that the risk of getting a treble embedded in your hand is high if the fish surges, shakes or jumps at the last second," he says. "Generally, on smaller bass I use a belly lift, which has a similar paralyzing effect on the fish as the lip grip. A rubber net is a good idea for bigger smallmouths, since trebles do not tangle in the mesh. Long-nose pliers or a Baker Hookout tool can help prevent personal injury, too. Smallmouths are fighters to the end, and just when you think they are going down for the count, they'll surprise you with another move."