Crank it up.
That is the advice of some of America's brightest fishing minds when it comes to locating and catching bass throughout the entire spring fishing season.
When the throes of winter begin to loosen their grip, and both bass and bass fishermen begin thinking shallow, many abandon crankbaits — particularly when the spawn approaches. And that is a major mistake, because these diving plugs can be productive during each phase of spring.
"Cranking through the various phases of the spawn is a good approach," says Kelly Jordon, a two time BASS winner and guide on Texas' famed Lake Fork. "The reason we do it is because we know when we get on a good crankbait bite, typically we're going to be targeting some pretty large fish. Nobody really talks about it, but crankbaits are one of the better techniques for catching large bass. You're able to cover a lot of water and it's a different look from a spinnerbait or another bait. And a lot of times it's much more effective."
"You can definitely crank through the prespawn and postspawn," crankbait authority Rick Clunn agrees. "It's certainly possible to keep catching them on a crankbait."
"If you cover a lot of ground with it, you'll catch some real big fish," BASS record-holder Dean Rojas interjects. "You should always have a crankbait tied on in the spring."
Here is your road map to scoring with crankers throughout the spring.
When the water temperature on the piedmont lakes of North Carolina begins to bump up a few degrees in late February, Joel Richardson's thoughts turn to cranking. Richardson is a CITGO Bassmaster Open competitor and crankbait expert with no paid allegiance to any lure company.
During the earliest part of the prespawn phase, he begins targeting isolated rocks and red clay bottoms (which tend to radiate heat) in 12 to 15 feet of water on main lake points. Richardson prefers thin-shaped baits with a tight wobble, like a Shad Rap or the old Bomber Speed Shad, for bass arriving early.
Veteran Missouri pro Stacey King adds that the first migrating bass on Table Rock Lake can usually be found on windblown, 45 degree banks, where they will suspend in about 10 feet of water.
"In prespawn, my first choice is finding some kind of rock," crankbait king David Fritts advises. "A lot of times, the rocks about the size of your head are the most productive. There are times when boulders are good, but usually not as good as those basketball-size rocks. This is a time when the fish really relate to one specific kind of rock, and finding out what that rock is and where it's located is probably the biggest key to being successful."
Most of the time, these rocks will be adjacent to spawning areas, where prespawn bass can use them as stopping points (often referred to as staging areas) at a depth of 12 feet or more. Fritts slow cranks these spots with a Rapala DT10 diver early in the spring, but switches to a Shad Rap when the water warms and the bass become more focused on eating minnows.
One of Jordon's prespawn favorites (particularly when vegetation is present) is a 3/4- or 1-ounce Lucky Craft LV lipless vibrating crankbait. "This is total power fishing," he says. "You can cover a lot of water, and when they bite it, generally, you get a big strike."
His other productive prespawn trick involves using a Lucky Craft D12 lipped bait to dig up the bottom and create a commotion in 5 to 8 feet of water.
King relies on a crawfish-colored Storm WiggleWart and handmade crankbaits (Love Plug and Sonny B) to scour flats as the water warms up enough to start sending egg-laden female bass to their beds.
"On flats, typically, the fish are becoming more active," he notes. "They're moving closer to the spawning zone, and they're up in the flatter water around vegetation or wood or whatever kind of cover is available on those flats and flat pockets."
Although the phase when the bass are tending to spawning duties is the toughest time to catch bass on fast moving lures, the right crankbait and approach can still pay off.
"Into the spawn, it's not a feeding strike - it's more of a protective strike," Jordon states. "So, I throw a lot of real shallow running crankbaits, like Lucky Craft's CB100. The Godfather of these kinds of crankbaits is probably the Mann's 1-Minus. These baits dive zero to 3 feet and go through shallow cover, which is where a lot of the fish are. And you get a protection response.
"Once again, you can catch some really big bass doing that, and you can cover a lot of water," Jordon emphasizes.
Clunn agrees, and cites his BASS victory on Truman Reservoir as a prime example.
"The exception to the spawn and cranking is off-colored water," he says. "If you've got off-colored water and they're spawning, they'll hit a shallow running crankbait. They'll massacre it.
"When I won on Truman, I was fishing for a combination of spawning fish and postspawners. I was using a big, short-billed shallow running crankbait (Bagley Balsa B). It was one of those deals where something different made a difference. I knew where the fish would be and the kind of water I needed to fish. But when I got there, there were three or four bass club guys throwing at it. I just kind of backed up, fished strange stuff and watched them. They were all throwing spinnerbaits and jigs. After half a day of watching, I didn't see them catch a single fish. So, I tied on that coffin-billed bait and started catching fish right behind them."
Richardson routinely uses the shallowest diving crankbaits to catch some of the biggest spawners each year by cranking grass in protected coves and pockets. Former Bassmaster Classic champion Ken Cook's strategy involves making long, repetitive casts throughout the spawning area with a Storm SubWart or Rattlin' Rapala lipless crank. Rojas prefers a small, "finesse-type" crankbait, like a Luhr Jensen Radar or Speed Trap.
"Postspawn is probably my favorite time of year, because fish are in so many stages and they can be in so many depths that a lot of anglers get lost trying to find them," Fritts explains. "So, after the spawn, we always have a few weeks where nobody's catching anything. It's really tough. But the bass always seem to show up, stacked on real vertical breaks.
"I concentrate about 10 feet deep for early postspawners. As the weeks go by, the fish tend to keep getting deeper and deeper, and they keep moving," Fritts explains. You may find a concentration of fish on a creek channel dropoff for four or five days. And when you return to your spot on Day 6, there's nothing there. Chalk it up to the migratory nature of postspawn fish.
King follows the postspawn bass as they leave the flats and head for middepth points, ledges and humps using a Rapala DT10 or DT16 and Norman Deep Little N or DD22. He emphasizes that the bass are often "bait dependent," meaning it is important to first locate shad pods along various dropoffs.
Late in the postspawn phase, before the bass move out to their summer spots, Richardson searches for small clusters of stumps or rocks along contour breaks, where he fishes a flat-sided crankbait or Poe's 300.
"On Lake Fork, I catch a lot of the biggest females of the year in late April and May when the bass are in postspawn," Jordon adds. And that is just one of many reasons to keep a diving bait tied on throughout the spring season.
The colors of spring
Cranking aficionado David Fritts details his most productive colors for each phase of spring:
Prespawn: "My No. 1 color is going to be a crawfish pattern. That's what I'm going to start the day with. Sometimes I'll vary to a gold finish, but browns and reds are going to be the key colors."
Spawn: "A lot of it depends on where you live, but overall the little brown No. 7 Shad Rap is a tremendous bait while fish are up in that zone. It's sort of a goldish-colored brown that blends into the bottom, too. The top color on that is sort of a black back. In most of the country, that's probably the shad color you want to start with. Sometimes, I take a marker and make the bottom red, especially in the southern and southwestern part of the country."
Postspawn: "Usually I like some type of shad color. My favorite one is actually a solid-pearl bait with a light green back. It's the ultimate color to me. Sometimes a blue back is a little better, but I usually opt for the green."