Cranking the shallows

Cranking the shallows gives bass a new look at baits

When it comes to bass fishing, a little "old school" thinking is not a bad idea. Faced with an ever widening array of lures and tactics, sometimes just getting back to the basics can help sort through the haze. Then again, there are times when "old school" is just plain "old."

For instance, the traditional logic in crankbait fishing has always been to select a lure that will dive just deep enough to tick the top of the cover or structure being fished. However, this cornerstone of cranking was developed back when lure depth ranges were fairly limited, and crankbait strategies filled a thin volume of bass fishing knowledge.

As fishermen began to experiment and the lures they used improved, the strict guidelines of crankbait warfare expanded. For professionals like Skeet Reese, Todd Faircloth and Mark Menendez, mismatching crankbaits to water depth — especially in the shallows — has become less an exception and more the rule.

Efficiency

"As a general rule of thumb, you want a bait that will be in contact with the bottom at all times. If you want to slow the retrieve and let the bait float up a bit, you want that option," notes Reese, a three time Bassmaster Classic qualifier.

"Even with a deep diving crankbait, often the problem is that it typically reaches its maximum depth halfway back to the boat. So, you have a lot of wasted ground where the bait isn't hitting the stumps or brushpiles or gravel; places where you want it to be."

While anglers have recognized this inherent inefficiency of crankbaits, the common response was simply to make long casts to expand coverage or reduce line size to dive deeper. Even so, the gains generated were minimal, at best. Moreover, the lure was operating at its maximum depth range, which didn't allow for much creative lure control in prime target areas. 

In facing up to this dilemma, professionals like Reese have increasingly relied on crankbaits that dive demonstrably deeper than their intended targets. As Reese puts it, "Why throw a shallow diver that may only hit three stumps when I can use a deeper diver, adjust my retrieve and hit 10 of them?"

Lure control

For Todd Faircloth, a Texas pro who cut his angling teeth on the likes of Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend, a prime objective of overgunning with crankbaits comes by way of lure control.

Instead of matching a crankbait to the water depth and working the lure briefly through a small window of opportunity, Faircloth often relies on a high rod position to keep a deeper diving plug at the optimum depth. Held at the 10 or 12 o'clock position, he uses his rod to keep a 6-foot crankbait running along at 4 feet and still have some options regarding retrieve speed.

To better understand what is going on down there, Faircloth generally chooses a crankbait that will run 2 feet deeper than the water he is fishing.

But far from relying solely on this mechanical means of controlling depth, the young Texan also experiments with line diameter, using heavier sizes to limit depth, and smaller tests to increase it. Although he does admit that fluorocarbon line will get deeper than monofilament, he prefers mono because it offers better depth control.

Of special significance to Faircloth is the ability of these deeper diving crankbaits to trigger strikes from isolated brushpiles and stumps. Rather than bump along at a steady depth until he runs his bait into the target, he brings the lure down from above.

"The fish are watching the bait approach them, then all of a sudden it's banging around in their home. It's an aggressive, power fishing technique," offers Faircloth.

"But with a crankbait, it's not actually when you hit the cover, but when the bait comes out of the cover. That's when about 75 percent of your bites come on a crankbait."

Raising a ruckus

In addition to the increased time spent in the strike zone, a deeper diving crankbait also creates a commotion on the bottom that is often the difference in triggering strikes. This can be particularly effective when fishing pressure has turned bass off to standard presentations.

"A bass is naturally curious, and after seeing 50 crankbaits go through an area just ticking the cover, a lure that churns up the bottom will pick off one or two of the most aggressive fish," counsels Menendez.

By choosing a deeper diving crankbait, an angler can also increase the size of the lure, and in doing so, upgrade the size of the fish being caught. A larger profile crankbait will also attract the attention of larger fish in an area, says Menendez, by magnifying the effect of an unusual presentation.

Times to dig deeper

While overgunning your crankbaits can pay dividends throughout the year, perhaps the most obvious application is during the prespawn, when big fish are up and moving through the shallows.

"In the prespawn, daddy is moving up to the bushes looking for a place to make a bed, and momma is still hanging out at the women's club, waiting for conditions to get right. This is when you will have those bigger fish in that shallower zone," notes Menendez.

"A creek channel or grassline leading into a spawning area would be the perfect scenario."

For Reese, a key reason for this prespawn response is the focus on crawfish as a primary forage for bass.

"By tearing up the bottom, stirring up mud and turning over rocks, you're producing the effect of crawdads coming out of hibernation. In the prespawn — especially with bigger females — that's the key forage. A deeper diving crankbait gives the same effect as a jig or Carolina rig — plus, you can cover water faster and really pinpoint the fish."

In warmer water situations, such as postspawn and summer, the bottom-churning action of a crankbait can produce even better results, observes Faircloth, particularly when fished quickly around brushpiles and stumps.

"In the summer, bass have to feed to survive. The fish are a lot more aggressive, and there is more baitfish activity. Everything is more active. In most situations where I've found that burning a crankbait makes a difference, my best success has been with a big crankbait — one that runs 10 to 14 feet deep in areas as shallow as 7 to 8 feet. Sometimes they just want a bait that is kicking a lot of stuff off the bottom."

As he does in the spring, Menendez also looks for this aggressive presentation to produce bigger bass in the postspawn and summer periods. While practicing for a Lake Eufaula tournament, Menendez once played his big fish card to perfection after locating fish on the corners of main lake points.

"Anywhere I could find a corner out in front of a bay — whether it was the corner of a main lake point with a piece of wood on it, some standing timber, or it was a corner of a creek channel — it didn't matter. Anywhere I could find a corner, I found bass. It got so easy," recalls Menendez.

"Most of this was in 7 to 8 feet of water, and I could just hit the top of it with a Fat Free Jr. But I picked up the wrong rod and made about three casts with a Fat Free Sr., whacked a piece of wood, and a 4-pounder ate it. I started throwing that Fat Free Sr. at every 7- to 8-foot corner I could find. In about an hour and a half, I had about 30 pounds."

Later in the year, overgunning with crankbaits can yield similar results, especially when high pressure or weather fronts make the fish less active, and a fisherman needs something extra to stimulate reaction strikes. Even in prime fall conditions, when bass are actively pursuing baitfish, the sheer audacity of this power presentation separates a crankbait from the clouds of baitfish.

"At times, you'll get so many shad confined to a small area, why would a bass ever bite something that wasn't real? This approach is so radically different, it gets their attention," counsels Menendez.

What's the hangup?

Perhaps the greatest source of resistance in overgunning with crankbaits comes from anglers who either fear losing baits or don't want to waste time having to constantly unfoul bottom glop from their lures. On the first point, Faircloth responds that crankbaits with larger bills actually can negotiate cover better than shallow runners. Since he prefers using Stanford cedar crankbaits, he hedges his bets with lures that can float away from tangles much easier. While Reese opts for the plastic-molded Lucky Craft CB Series, he shrugs off these concerns because the presence of most obstructions is telegraphed up through the line. "Anyway," he laughs, "that's what they make lure retrievers for."

On the subject of fouling baits, there is no getting around the fact that a firm bottom is a prerequisite in making overgunning work. However, the flip side of the coin is that by using deeper diving crankbaits to first locate hard bottom areas, the technique provides two important services — first in locating key areas, and then catching the fish that live there.

"This method allows me to fish a flat or hump and find what is down there. I can fish a lot more water to find the right type of cover," notes Reese.

"If I find a little rockpile, gravel bar or stump, I can fish the crankbait and catch some fish. But it also gives me the option to pick up a Carolina rig or a jig. It's not strictly a fish catching technique, but also a structure finding technique in shallow water — realistically anything in 15 feet of water or less."

Obviously, overgunning with crankbaits is where traditional, "old school" values run headlong into "new age" bass fishing. While older methods cannot be discounted, they should at least be scrutinized with a more discerning eye. What we held as true a year or a decade ago may not quite fit in the bass fishing world of today. The trick, of course, is to figure out what to use, when to use it and what to leave behind.

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