Finesse soft plastics may produce numbers of schooling fish in deep, clear lakes, and tubes may be the rage when bass are ambushing baitfish around shallow cover. But when you're searching for lazy summer bass on structure, nothing produces quality fish better than big-lipped crankbaits.
The deep divers haven't produced major successes on the pro trail in recent years, largely because of the timing of the tournaments and the types of waters on which they have been held. But they still remain a top tool for veteran pro fishermen.Pulling big baits over deep structure is hard work, and requires a strong resolve when the bite is slow. But, as devout deep crankers know, the tactic can produce fabulous results — especially when you learn the idiosyncracies of the lures and how to apply them to each situation you encounter.
"If I knew 15 years ago what I know now, it's scary to think what I could have caught," says Mississippi's Paul Elias, who cranked big baits to win the 1982 BASS Masters Classic. "There's a science to deep cranking, and it's one we continue to learn more about every day we're out there doing it.Alabama's Tim Horton agrees.
"When the fish are on, anybody can cast-and-crank to catch them," he explains. "But there's a lot more to it than that. The guys who take time to study multiple lure styles and presentations are going to catch more and bigger fish when using crankbaits."
Tim Horton opts for rattling deep running crankbaits unless the fish are getting a lot of pressure. That's when he turns to quieter running wooden plugs.
Here's insight as to how three of the top crankers choose and use crankbaits:TIM HORTON — From the post-spawn period until the fall migration, Horton lists crankbaits as his favorite bait for fishing structure."That's when I like to idle around and monitor my electronics, looking for any irregularities on the bottom to break the current," he describes. "When lake managers are generating electricity and creating current, bass will feed heavily around those types of places."Horton keys on points, humps and river bends — especially those with cover and changes in bottom composition. If he sees baitfish holding on the structure, he likes his chances even better"You'll find the largemouths on the downstream side of the structure, especially if there is cover there," he explains. "If the lake has smallmouths, they're probably going to be on the upstream side of the structure."
Depth is important, too. Horton monitors his graph for baitfish or gamefish activity, noting the depth at which it's most prominent, and targets structure that tops out at those depths.
"At that point, you need to know how deep your crankbaits run," he says. "If I'm fishing a roadbed that is 15 feet deep and has brushpiles that top out at 12 feet, then I want a crankbait that runs about 14 feet. I want it bumping the cover. That's how you get most of your strikes."Line size plays a role in cranking depth, he adds. He uses 8- to 12-pound McCoy copolymer line, with 10 pound being used most often. Smaller line gets the bait a little deeper, and he likes the copolymer because it comes in a smaller diameter.He uses a 7-foot fiberglass Pflueger rod with a Pflueger Medalist baitcast reel that has a 5.3:1 gear ratio.
"I have a 10-foot rule for choosing reel gearing when using crankbaits," the Alabama pro explains. "When the water is shallower than 10 feet, I use a faster gear because I don't need the torque that a low-speed reel will give you. When it's deeper, I'm fishing bigger baits with more torque, so the lower gearing puts less strain on the arm."
He keeps his lure selection simple. If the lake isn't getting a lot of fishing pressure, he prefers deep divers with rattles, such as the Fat Free Shad. When he suspects the bass are lure-shy, he prefers quieter baits, such as balsa-bodied lures or flat-sided crankbaits.
"You've got to experiment with actions, too," he adds. "On some lakes, bass seem to like a tighter wiggle, while fish in other waters may respond better to a wider wobble. Generally speaking, though, I prefer a tight wiggle when fishing is tough."
Paul Elias makes multiple casts to a single target when he suspects a bass should be there. It may take 20 casts to get a fish to bite, he says.
Regardless of the lure, it must be perfectly tuned. It not only catches more fish, he explains, but it will run a little deeper and deflect off cover better."Some baits run straight, but they aren't perfect," he offers. "When a perfectly tuned bait gets to the boat at the end of your retrieve, it will come straight up, and you literally see the chest of the lure. Those are the ones I prize and only throw during competition."PAUL ELIAS — Elias says the learning process for deep cranking is never-ending. And since he's moved to a 700-acre lake with deep water and timber, he's learning at a faster rate.
One thing I've discovered is that bass react to baits differently on a day-to-day basis," he offers. "The Mann's 20-Plus is my favorite deep crankbait. It always has been, and always will be. There are days when they don't bite it as well as others, but there are days when they bite it twice as much as others."
Elias' on-the-water experiments have proved that you must carry a variety of crankbaits to be consistently successful.
Not all baits wiggle the same or react identically when they strike deep cover," he explains. "The wide bill on the 20-Plus allows it to work through cover better than any other lure. But if the fish aren't in thick cover and are aggressive, they may prefer a bait like the Berkley Frenzy or a Norman DD22. You have to experiment to find out."
Elias, who is sponsored by Mann's, says some pros also use crankbait brands other than those of a sponsor. They just don't talk about it."Pros know they need different actions and color patterns that aren't offered by their sponsor company," he adds. "You have to go to other brands to fill those needs."
Elias says the 20-Plus is his go-to bait, but after working a promising creek ledge without a bite, he will retrace his steps with a deep running bait that has a slightly different wiggle."I've seen days when a simple change of baits produced a good stringer," he says.Lure changes aside, Elias has learned to be patient with an area. Whereas he used to fan cast a spot and leave, he now pummels it.
"I used to make four or five casts to a stump on a ridge; I will now hit it at least 20 times," he describes. "It's all about believing the fish is there and keying on its aggressive nature. No matter how inactive a bass might be, at some point it is going to get fed up with that bait and won't allow it to pass by again. That's why you've got to be persistent."
Elias is a firm believer in 7-foot (Quantum) fiberglass rods and Energy baitcast reels. He cranks with 10- to 14-pound Trilene XT. His reel has 4.7:1 gearing for more power.
David Fritts says identical lures from the same manufacturer can have different personalities, so it's wise to get to know the characteristics of each crankbait you own.
"Fiberglass may be heavier than graphite, but it eliminates the strain of trying to get the distance you need in a cast to get the bait down," he describes. "Deep cranking will wear you out, but slower-geared reels will reduce the strain."
DAVID FRITTS — Like Elias, Fritts believes an intricate understanding of lure selection is critical."I've realized over the years that baits have personalities, and two identical baits from the same manufacturer can perform quite differently," he explains. "I've seen one lure run as much as 2 feet deeper than another just like it. You'd think all those baits would run the same, but they don't."Those differences occur in both plastic and wooden lures, he says, with plastic providing the most consistent results."If you buy 10 plastic baits, five or six may be the same," he describes. "In wooden lures, all 10 may be different in some way."For that reason, he recommends crankers study each lure they take out of the package and pay attention to its inherent characteristics, such as how deep and straight it runs, as well as how it feels.
The key to fishing crankbaits is learning to 'feel' the lure. I can generally make two casts with a lure and tell you whether it will catch fish. The pull on a good bait isn't hard or soft, but you can definitely feel the bait vibrating through the water. The ones you can't feel very well usually aren't very effective."Fritts says anglers need both wood and plastic lures, opting for plastic when fishing cool water or when fishing around smallmouths and spotted bass (because of the noise). Because wood baits are more buoyant, they are best-suited for fishing warm water and around brush. Wooden baits, he says, particularly those made of balsa, pop up and over limbs better.He prefers tight wiggling lures like the Rapala Down Deep, Risto Rap and Shad Rap most of the time because they offer the most "natural" action. The only exception is when the fish are aggressive.And like Elias, the North Carolina pro believes multiple casts from various angles are vital."Find the proper angle, and you can catch the biggest fish," he says. "I've had days when I caught 50 small bass throwing into an area from the same angle, but when I moved the boat and cast to it from a different angle, I'd catch an 8-pounder. That is so important to remember."So is depth control, adds Fritts. You can manipulate running depth by changing line size and the angle at which you hold the rod. He uses a 7-foot American Rodsmith fiberglass rod and a Lew's BB1 baitcast reel spooled with Stren Sensor line. He opts for 10-pound line most of the time, but says he can get another 8 inches of depth by switching to 8 pound, or reduce the running depth by 8 inches with 12-pound line."The farther you cast, the deeper the bait runs," he explains. "You can influence the running depth even more by how you hold the rod. The difference between holding the rod up at the 11 o'clock position or down where the tip is close to the water is between 2 and 2 1/2 feet of running depth."Cranking natural lakesDeep cranking can be as productive on natural lakes as it is on reservoirs, and many of the same principles apply. However, there are exceptions.Coldwater, Mich., cranker Pat Tappenden believes deep cranking offshore weed edges is one of the most underutilized techniques on Northern waters."I used to think it was strictly a summer pattern, but we've had success fishing crankbaits deep when other anglers were fishing shallow," says Tappenden, who, with his brother, Jay, have proved to be a formidable team on Midwest tournament trails. "We always have a crankbait on the deck."The Tappendens follow offshore drop-offs and target less obvious weed edges and clumps away from the most visible cover."A lot of the weeds we fish are secondary clumps that you can't see," Pat describes. "They may be small fingers that slither away from the main weedbed, but they are big bass magnets."To find them, the anglers cast at 45 degree angles toward the weed edge with the boat positioned a good distance away. They work in and out, trying to stay away from the primary edge. Or, if they get tight to the major weedbed, one angler strips the edge while the other casts away from the weeds and combs the deeper water.
"It's not unusual to catch fish before you actually feel the weeds," he explains. "The fish use isolated clumps that everyone else overlooks, and they sometimes suspend out away from the major weedbed."The Tappendens use steady-to-fast retrieves, allowing the deep divers to tick the tops of the grass. And because the cover is different, they prefer stiff graphite rods over the mushy fiberglass rods used by reservoir crankers.
Their favorite lures are Storm's Magnum Wiggle Warts, 600 Series Bombers, Model A's and deep running Yo-Zuri crankbaits. They fish them on 10- and 12-pound line.
"You don't want to get hung up on one particular bait," Tappenden adds. "The bass get on different types of baits at different times of the year, so if you stick to a favorite, you may miss out. You've got to experiment."
Louie Stout and pro Kevin VanDam have co-authored a new book, Secrets of a Champion. To obtain a copy, send $16.95 plus $5 shipping to KVD Publications, P.O. Box 174, Jones, MI 49061, or call (800) 544-9343.