Looking at it from water level, the dam at Cedar Creek Reservoir southeast of Dallas seems to stretch for miles, but during the winter that's the best way to see it, especially if you have a deep diving crankbait tied on. Just ask BASS pro Darren Wolf.
Wolf and a friend cranked the dam's huge rocks for just three hours during a slightly overcast but windy morning this past January. Even though the water temperature registered 48 degrees, the two anglers weighed in five fish totaling 24 pounds. Included in the sack was one fish over 8 pounds.
"Crankbaiting in cold water is not really a popular technique because it doesn't work all the time," admits Wolf, "but there are definitely times and places where crankbaits will outperform any other lure this time of year.
"Crankbaits look like baitfish, but more importantly, they also generate reaction strikes. Even in really cold conditions when the bass are lethargic, a crankbait will get their attention." The basic rules for winter cranking are simple, continues Wolf. Retrieves are usually slow, and they're most effective when you can bump bottom cover and then stop the crankbait beside that cover. Thus, suspending lures usually bring more action than nonsuspending ones.
"Strikes tend to come when you stop the crankbait or when you start retrieving again," he adds. "In clear water, a tight wobbling lure, like a Rapala Shad Rap, usually does well, while in stained water, a wide wobbling lure, like a Norman DD-22 is better.
"A lot of the bites will be subtle, too, and they'll feel like you've picked up a leaf. Whenever I feel anything at all, I stop reeling instantly."
Here are Wolf's top six spots for trying crankbaits this winter:
"Always work riprap parallel rather than casting straight into the rocks," Wolf advises, "so you can experiment with different depth zones. If it has been really cold, start deeper and gradually work your way into shallow water.
"Look for any type of irregularity in the rocks, such as a high point, some type of washed-in cover, even different sizes of rocks. Transition zones are always good places to concentrate on, too. That day at Cedar Creek, we fished 15 feet deep where the rocks met the bottom."
Wind can also make winter bass more active, believes Wolf. The resulting upwellings caused by waves help circulate plankton, and baitfish quickly start feeding. Behind the baitfish come the bass.
"Bluffs can be cranked parallel just like riprap," says Wolf. "One condition to always be aware of around bluffs, however, is suspended bass, so make sure you aim some of your casts close along the wall itself.
"This is a popular fishing technique on Lake of the Ozarks and Table Rock, and the best places are where the bluffs make a bend as the river channel itself turns.
"Another key is looking for cuts in the bluffs, such as where a small ditch or feeder creek may enter, and also any spot that has additional cover."
"Both baitfish and bass suspend in flooded timber during the winter," says Wolf. "I ease through the trees and study my depthfinder looking for bait. They'll usually be in big schools and easy to identify.
"The best approach is getting a crankbait under or through the baitfish while at the same time, you're bouncing the lure off the trees and limbs."
Standing timber often becomes even more attractive when it is located around some other form of structure, such as along a channel or bluff bank, or near the mouth of a feeder creek, so Wolf looks for these features, as well.
"Points, especially rocky points, are always good places to locate winter bass, because fish can use the depth for comfort, then easily move shallow to feed," Wolf explains. "I look for points that come out to meet creek and river channels so the bass do have that immediate deep water access.
"I'll follow a point with my electronics until I find the first real breakline," he says. "Bass are usually right on the edge of this break, so I'll cast toward the shallow water and bring my lure down across it," notes the Texas pro and part-time Lake Fork guide.
"Channel banks are probably the most difficult type of winter structure to fish because they usually require some careful map and depthfinder study," admits Wolf, "and even then, it still takes a lot of searching and casting on the water."
Nonetheless, locating certain features can possibly shortcut this process. Thus, Wolf looks at channels or creeks leading into the mouths of bays, in which the deeper channel is bordered on one or both sides by wide, shallower flats. He also tries to pinpoint channel bends.
"Think in terms of edges," advises Wolf, "because this is where you'll find active bass. Bass suspended in the open channel itself are seldom very active, but wind, cloud cover or the onset of current may move them to the edge or even up on the flat and turn them active, even in cold weather.
"I fish for these bass by casting shallow and working my lure along the bottom and then over the edge of the channel. Once you do locate them, you may have a school of quality fish, too."
"Certainly one of the best places to fish winter crankbaits is over submerged vegetation, like hydrilla and milfoil," acknowledges Wolf. "We all know how effective lipless crankbaits can be when fished over grass later in the spring, but during the winter, the vegetation may be too deep for those lures. This is where a regular diving crankbait really works."
Wolf proved this in winning a January tournament on Toledo Bend last year in 46 degree water. He fished a Norman Little N over the top of the grass near the Pendleton Bridge pipeline area, weighing in 10 fish totaling 36 pounds.
"The key there, and something we've seen in other cold weather tournaments, was finding fresh, green vegetation growing near creek channel bends," he points out. "At Toledo, the vegetation was 6 feet below the surface, which is too deep for most lipless crankbaits, but I was fishing the Little N the same way I would use a lipless bait.
"I was just touching the top of the vegetation, and if it had been deeper, I could have used another crankbait that dived deeper. I think this is something a lot of winter fishermen overlook," Wolf continues. "A lipless crankbait is not the only type of reaction lure you can use over submerged vegetation. Diving crankbaits not only let you cover deeper water, they'll also suspend, so you can fish them slower."
For his winter crankbaiting, Wolf prefers to use 12-pound-test Seguar fluorocarbon line, which is not only castable but also extremely sensitive and abrasion resistant. A number of BASS pros have started cranking with fluorocarbon line because they also believe it lets crankbaits run deeper.
Wolf uses a 7-foot Wizard graphite/glass composite cranking rod for additional sensitivity on light strikes.
"Overall," he concludes, "winter crankbaiting produces better results in the mid to lower portion of a lake, because that's where the water will be clearest.
"Remember, too, your best retrieve will be a slow one that not only allows you to bump the bottom or the cover you're targeting, but also to stop whenever you do hit something."