Seven ways to fall for balsa

Why Tommy Martin prefers wood baits for fall cranking

If spring is for spinnerbaits, then autumn is for crankbaits.

It's a time of year when many bass make their annual seasonal move into tributary creeks, making them more accessible to fishermen. The fish are feeding heavily on shad, forage that crankbaits imitate very well. At the same time, falling water levels in some lakes are also pulling bass away from shoreline cover and moving them to shallow breaks in more open water, where crankbaits actually become the most efficient lures to use.

There are ultrashallow cranking opportunities in current or around vegetation, and there is deeper cranking in the 12- to 15-foot range along ledges where bass are still staging as they move up from deeper summer habitat. When fish are shallow, many anglers prefer the more buoyant balsa lures, which can even be wobbled along the surface, almost like topwaters.

None of this has been lost on veteran tournament pro Tommy Martin, who's been fishing crankbaits for more than 35 years. Indeed, Martin's primary lure during his autumn win in the 1974 Bassmaster Classic on Alabama's Wheeler Reservoir was a crankbait. (And Takahiro Omori's success with a balsa bait in this year's Classic puts an exclamation point on the potential for success.)

"This is really my favorite time of year to fish crankbaits, too," says Martin, 63, who still guides regularly on Toledo Bend between tournaments. "There are more places and patterns to try with crankbaits in the fall, and they're all in shallow water. You can crank deep water if you want to, but you don't need to."

Here are some of the places Martin suggests trying this fall with a crankbait. Once you try them, you'll probably agree that autumn truly is one of the best crankbait seasons of the year. You'll also probably agree with Martin that this is one of the best times to fish balsa wood lures, because their buoyancy makes them more efficient in cover.

Riprap

"Riprap, especially around bridges, is a classic area for autumn cranking," says Martin. "There is usually some current present, and the rocks have algae on them that attract shad and other baitfish.

"To me, the primary strike zone is between 1 and 3 feet, so I'll make parallel casts along the riprap and bounce my crankbait through this depth zone. Normally, I'm throwing a balsa Bagley B-II in a shad pattern, and I'll pay particular attention to the ends of the riprap where the rocks stop, and also to any corners where current might be flowing across to create an ambush area."

Creek channels

"By creek channels I mean channels in the backs of creeks where the banks or flats are 2 to 4 feet deep and drop in a channel 8 to maybe 12 feet deep," explains the Texas pro. "Normally, the edges of the channel will have a variety of cover, like laydowns or scattered hydrilla, and the strike zone will usually be right on the edge, where the water drops abruptly into the channel.

"Again, this is where I prefer a shallow running, square-billed balsa crankbait, because it will come right through the cover. I keep my boat in the deeper channel and cast up on the shallower flats, and even though I know the lure is going to hit the cover, I don't slow down my retrieve. I'm reeling fairly fast with my rod tip down and let the crankbait ricochet off the first limb it hits, and that's often what generates a strike."

Steep, rocky banks

"This is the pattern I found that won the Classic for me in '74," remembers Martin, "and I have since used it in other lakes, too. I was cranking broken rock banks where the water dropped very sharply just a short distance out from the shore. I kept my boat in about 15 feet and cast right to the bank, then reeled quickly right down toward deeper water. Most of the strikes came on the breakline, where the depth changed from 3 to about 12 feet.

"One of the keys I remember from that Classic and which I have noticed in other places in the autumn, is that great blue herons were standing on many of the little rocky points I was fishing. I realized they were waiting for bass to push shad up to the surface, where they could grab an easy meal.

"Blue herons are present throughout the year, but they're particularly noticeable in the fall, and when they're hesitant to leave a spot, it means they know baitfish are present. Another key to this pattern, and to fall crankbaiting in general," continues Martin, "is that hitting the bottom with your lure is not necessary when you're fishing shallow water. It's much more important when you're deep cranking in 15 or 17 feet, but when you fish just 2 or 3 feet deep, grinding a lure on the bottom usually spooks the fish.

"My normal autumn crankbait retrieve is medium to medium/fast, but it's always steady. I keep my rod down and I don't twitch the lure or try to do anything fancy. The water clarity tells me my retrieve speed: In clear water I fish faster, while in dingy or murky conditions I fish slower."

Vegetation

"It probably surprises a lot of fishermen, but when you find scattered clumps of vegetation in shallow water it's a great time to use a crankbait," Martin emphasizes. "You can fish over, around, or even through the vegetation with a small, shallow running crankbait.

"This is how I fished much of the time during the 2002 Bassmaster Classic on Lay Lake. Obviously, the pattern did not pay off as well as the upriver current pattern Jay Yelas was fishing, but I did manage to finish 13th.

"For that tournament, I was fishing a little 2 1/2-inch balsa Bagley B-II that would come right through the vegetation in the back of one of the creeks. I was keeping my boat in the open channel and casting across the points of the vegetation and along the edges. The B-II is one of those little square-billed baits, so if I kept my rod high the lure wouldn't dive, and I could come over the vegetation just like with a spinnerbait. Then as soon as I cleared the vegetation, I'd lower my rod and the lure would dive. I was catching fish in water less than 2 feet deep."

Boat docks

"I really like to fish boat docks with a crankbait in the fall because you can draw fish out from under the dock and the shade just by wobbling a crankbait around the pilings," says Martin. "You don't even have to hit the pilings, just make an accurate cast and get close to them.

"Most of the time the boat docks in the backs of the creeks produce the best results, since bass are migrating in that direction. I like individual boat docks that are sitting by themselves, rather than a long shoreline full of docks, and if I can find a dock on a point leading into a small cove, I'll fish it extra hard.

"When you fish a dock, work the outside corners first, then gradually fish your way to the back, where the water is shallower. After you fish the corners, make parallel casts along the pilings, and then try some presentations underneath the dock if there is room."

Stumpfields

"Often, the choice of lures for fishing stumpfields is a tossup between a shallow running crankbait or a buzzbait," says Martin, "but I'll take a shallow running crankbait, because it just looks more like a baitfish.

"The better stumpfields in the autumn are usually somewhere in the tributaries, often in the back of a large cove that gradually becomes very shallow. I concentrate in 3 to 5 feet of water and just start casting to see how the bass are acting."

Windy banks and points

"To me, wind is almost a necessity for successful crankbait fishing, as long as there isn't too much of it," says Martin. "With balsa lures, you can't cast into the wind, so you cast with it, or across it. If the bass are active, they'll hit the lure, regardless of which way it's moving.

"What happens, especially after a day or two of steady wind, is that plankton gets washed up against a bank. The baitfish follow, and then the bass come after the baitfish.

"Boat control is the main problem in a strong wind. I remember fishing the St. Lawrence River in New York when the wind was howling. I put out two drift socks to slow my boat and let the wind blow me down a half-mile of shoreline. I had to cast with the wind, but I would usually catch 30 to 40 smallmouth during each drift, which took nearly an hour.

"When you're fishing under these conditions, just hold your rod down and start reeling. Wind always makes bass more active."

Why balsa?

From these patterns and the depth of water Martin likes to fish in autumn, it's easy to see why he prefers balsa crankbaits instead of plastic ones. Balsa crankbaits are effective down to about 5 feet, which is really as deep as he needs to go in autumn. They also displace more water (wider wobble) than plastic crankbaits, which is preferred in the warmer water of late summer and early fall.

Martin fishes his crankbaits on a 6-6 medium action G. Loomis Cranking rod, with 14-pound-test Bass Pro Shops XPS monofilament line. The rod is very flexible and allows for accurate casts, and this type of action also lets a fish completely take a lure when it strikes. Martin can use the heavier line because he's fishing so shallow.

Manufacturer's directory

Awesome Bait Co.

www.thundershad.com; 866-805-5290.

Bagley Bait Co.

www.bagleybait.com; 239-693-7070.

H & T Balsa Baits

www.hughescustombaits.com; 417-739-5881.

Lee Sisson Lures

www.leesissonlures.com; 863-967-4036.

Rapala

www.rapala.com; 952-933-7060.

Stanford Lures

www.stanfordlures.com; 706-689-1060.

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