Hot Weather Crankin'
By Ronald F. Dodson Ph.D.
Yea, the spawn is over. The "sight" fishing folks have had their fling and the warm water means more aggressive bass. The more aggressive bass are those with greater strike zones, the more readily willing to chase forage. This plays into the strengths of crankbaits. These baits, as a category, are by their nature plugs which are designed to cover more water in a shorter period of time than the more slowly worked soft plastic and jig-n-pig combinations.
The two types of baits actually compliment each other in that you can work located schools for longer periods once they have been found by using a worm or soft plastic, but the catch is, you have to first find the schools.
There are some facets of crankbait fishing that you have to accept if you are going to buy into this type of fishing. To begin with you are going to exert a lot of energy. If you do not want to do this, then worm fishing is your, thing. Actually the fact that you are constantly casting and winding can be an asset when trying to get a youngster or a new beginner into bass fishing, because there is something going on with each cast of a crankbait.
Your choice of tackle is important to properly get the best out of your cranks. You first have to choose the pound test line you wish to use. This is a major decision because there are trade-offs in using heavier and lighter lines for cranks. The advantage of heavier lines is that you have a better chance of getting your crank back if you hang up in brush. The downside with heavier line is that you do not get the maximum depth of a diving crankbait on a given rate of retrieve. The fact is that when you look at many of the deeper crankbait boxes you will see the dive rating was achieved for a given pound test. The thinner the line (lighter pound test), the deeper you can "drive" a crankbait on retrieve since you have much less resistance of the line cutting the water than you will with a heavier pound test (thicker) line.
Yet as a friend pointed out, some of the folks in a nationally televised tournament said they were using lighter line and fishing deep cranks. In a minute the reality dawned on him that they were getting their baits and line from the event holders. I would offer a parting shot about line by noting that given good drag systems on most of the better reels, you can get by with light line and still get in good fish if you are in water that offers limited hang-ups. But if you are fishing in thicker brush that etches the line or you are going to hang up a lot, you are going to lose both fish and cranks with light line.
To properly fish crankbaits you need a good reel. The reel offered by one company a few years ago was dubbed a "crank-bait" reel and offered a slow retrieve. I was at company events where this and other models were being introduced to some of us who were loosely dubbed as field staff. It offered just the opposite of what I felt was an ideal reel for crankbait fishing. I would not use anything other than a 5-1 or greater retrieve ratio. The logic is simple. Think of the reel in terms of a high power outboard. If you want to really open it up then you have the power. If you want peak fuel efficiency then you can run it at three quarter throttle. There are times you want the reel to allow you to more rapidly reel in the line such as working a sinking crankbait over cover or grass. Likewise there are times you want to "burn" the lure back and drive a diving crankbait down to the maximum depth as soon as possible on your retrieve. A low ratio reel will not let you do either. Interestingly, the slow "crankbait" reel is now a collector item since there were not a lot of folks who wanted its attributes.
One other thing that I neglected to mention as to an advantage of faster retrieve reels as applies to cranks is that you can more easily take up the slack and thus control the hooked fish. Most bass get off when there is slack, or a loss of pressure applied, during the retrieve.
Another issue to consider when purchasing a reel is the type of handle. It should be long enough to permit you to easily apply pressure over a long period of time without discomfort. Only you can determine if you prefer a round or a flat surface on the handle but you truly do have to decide what is most comfortable for you because unlike with working any other type of bait, you are going to be holding on tight during the entire retrieve.
The next important tool in crankbait fishing is the rod. There has become somewhat of a party line as to the most desirable rod for crankbait fishing. A number of folks over the last few years have advocated a "softer" backbone rod to better permit the absorption of the strike and give with the fish more readily thus preventing the loss of fish due to too much pressure. In fact there are a number of companies who have offered a fiberglass model billed as a crankbait rod. I have a different concept as to the ideal rod for crankbait fishing. A few years ago I gratefully gave up my last fiberglass rod and replaced it with the more sensitive, and much lighter, graphite rod. I agree with the need to be able to give with the fish at certain times on retrieve but believe I achieve the same objective with a looser drag on the reel.
Just about everyone would agree with the fact that the ideal rod for cranking should be at least 6-1/2 or 7 feet. The other point is that it is very important in preserving your shoulder and your wrist to learn how to two-hand cast with a trigger-stick type of straight handle rod. Not only do these rods keep you from being so fatigued and developing sore joints, but also by distributing the workload the longer handle allows you to have greater leverage to counterbalance the pressure of a hard pulling crankbait on retrieve.
Another piece of advice for a crankbait fisherman is to use a snap as a connector to the lure. This gives most crankbaits an extra pivot point and lets them "swim" with more action. The only time that another option may be important is with some of the balsa jerkbaits, which are very light. In those cases I would suggest using a loop knot which achieves the same objective by allowing the bait to have minimum restriction placed on its swimming action. In the selection of a snap you can get a pretty good idea as to the strength if the package provides a pound test. If not, then at least select snaps that interlock when closed. You do not want to get a snap that is overkill and is too large for what is necessary to do the job. The other real advantage of a snap is that you can change baits quickly and get the lure back in the water for more casts. The best crankbait fishermen are those who use a machinegun approach in that they keep the lures out of the boat as much as possible. A personal preference in choosing a snap is to use one with a black color. If you look at the bait in the water it is obvious that the black snap quickly disappears as part of the silhouette of the plug and is not a visible distraction. There is no need for a swivel in combination with a snap when using crankbaits since even the quality spinnerbaits on the market today track true and there is no line twist on the retrieve.
There are basically two types of crankbaits to consider for bass fishing. These are the plugs that sink when hitting the water and the other category are the baits that float and dive to some depth during retrieve. The sinking cranks are really very versatile since they can be worked at either shallow depths on more rapid retrieve, or fished at greater depth by simply allowing the plug to fall to a given depth by using a count down technique. The chief models, which fall into this category, are the lipless swimming baits, spinnerbaits, and the tail-spin plugs. The lipless plugs started out with the early versions such as the Heddon Sonic but were refined by Cordell in his Hot Spot bait. A whole new twist was added by the folks at Rat-L-Trap who added a rattle system so the vibration of a wiggling bait was complimented by a noise release each time the pellets hit the side of the plug.
There are few major companies and most smaller companies that have similar plugs in their line of products. Their popularity is not surprising since these baits will catch fish if you simply throw and wind. Add a little variation by using a count down style of fishing as well as variations in rate of retrieve and you get all sorts of presentations with the same plug. Actually any crankbait is best as a fish attractor if you realize you can use it to make different presentations. Certainly bass on some days will seemingly strike an old shoe, but on others respond to very selective presentations.
The spinnerbait is a plug that anyone can work and the additional beauty is that when they are controlled at the point of entry into the water and as you begin to retrieve the bait, they become essentially weedless. The weedless part is no small matter when a using a crankbait, because bass relate to cover and if you are going to get them to strike you need to cast where they are holding.
The third type of sinking crankbait is one that is probably overlooked the most by bass fisherman. This is the tailspin type of plug. There are some really down sides to using these lead head plugs including they hand up easily so you are almost required to use them in more open water. The next downer is that they are more easily thrown by a thrashing bass than most other cranks. The counter to all of this is that bass actively feeding on shad love these baits.
The group of crankbaits that float at rest and dive on retrieve have their own special niche as fish producers. They all have various types of lips, which trap the water, but how they react on retrieve may vary greatly. Two similar appearing baits may have totally different dive angles and running depths on retrieve. Each may also have a much different action on retrieve. Some may have a tight wiggle and others with a wider lip have a less rapid dive rate and a greater displacement of water with each wide wiggle. In other words the latter may simply not come forward as rapidly when you apply the same rate of retrieve with the reel because the physics involved in water displacement.
When can this be a useful thing? To begin with, a slower moving and wider wobbling action is useful when fish may be less aggressive feeders. You are simply keeping the bait in front of the bass longer. The other natural advantage to a slower wobble and slower moving bait is in stained or murky water. The displacement of the water sends out even more vibrations on which the bass can hone in for finding a potential food source.
Crankbaits and summer go together in that the bass are more prone to be on the move. This is where cranks are at their best, by being used to eliminate areas or establish productive areas. When this is combined with the ability to establish patterns more rapidly you have a real leg up on the game of working out the challenge of catching summertime bass.