Crankbaits for Success

After two recent fishless days, I was determined to unlock the secrets of Lake Perris. Anxious to catch some of the huge spotted bass that this southern California reservoir had quickly gained a reputation for, I had exhausted all of the tips that the locals had shared. Today I would revert to my instincts, and even if I still didn’t catch any spots, I would have fun fishing my style.

Cruising around a boulder strewn mid-lake island, I searched through the fog of the spring morning in search of clues to the whereabouts of huge pre-spawn bass. Not even sure of my location, I was able to make out several pale forms in the crystal clear water that I suddenly realized were huge underwater boulders. These bass magnets sat in 15 feet of water, and rose to within a couple feet of the surface. Just the perfect ambush point for a Spotted Bass to lie in wait of unsuspecting shad!

With a long cast of the trusty crankbait rod, I sent a Bagley’s Foil Shad downrange on a search and destroy mission. As the bogus shad splat on the surface, shad erupted airborne into the otherwise still morning fog. With rod tip down, I quickly cranked the foil shad into the side of the boulder, and upon contact I ripped it to make it carom around the obstruction. As fast as I had pulled my rod tip to the side, something yanked it right back down to the water, HARD!

Immediately 8 pound Stren peeled off of my Ambassador 4600CA as my rod bent from butt to tip with a deep, parabolic bend. Five heart throbbing minutes later I slipped the net under my first Lake Perris lunker, a 7 pound 8 ounce Spotted Bass! In just five more casts I was fast into my second bass of the morning, a slightly smaller version of the first. Three hours and two trips to the marina weigh-in scales later, I had put a five fish spotted bass limit in the boat weighing an incredible 28 pounds, 14 ounces! And every fish was caught on a crankbait!

Crankbait success is not limited to occasional periods. This tool was instrumental in my winning the "Angler of the Year" trophy from the San Fernando Valley Bassmasters. During the course of the year (comprised of eleven tournaments), I weighed-in at least one crankbait-caught bass in every tournament, fishing such famous lakes as Castaic, and Casitas, covering all four seasons!

One day on Lake Santa Margarita in central California, a Rapala Fat Rap I was crankin’ across a secondary point enticed a 7.5 pound northern strain largemouth even though it was COMPLETELY BLIND in one eye! Why should you fish crankbaits? Because they catch fish!

Every angler dreams of discovering that magical lure that will load the boat with lunkers, cast after cast, while others are merely getting casting practice. Probably the single category of lure that is most often purchased in pursuit of this nirvana is the plug, alias "crankbait". Ask any accomplished bass angler for a look into their tacklebox and you are certain to see a large selection of these lures in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Until that one lure that can’t miss comes along, what can you do to improve your success using crankbaits that are available?

Begin by determining WHY crankbaits catch bass. I like to think that the primary reason a bass strikes a crankbait is it’s ability to imitate prey, more specifically forage fish and crawfish. While reaction strikes may be obtained under conditions that would make it doubtful that the bass even knew what it was striking at, more often than not, particularly in clear water, I believe that the bass I catch are convinced that my crankbait is something that they want to eat. Therefor I approach my presentation with the goal of convincing the predator that what I am serving is prey. This requires some knowledge of the forage I am trying to simulate. I focus on how it looks, where it should be located, and how it should act in it’s environment.

Match the hatch! To borrow a term from the fly fishing crowd, I like to serve up a meal that I know the local fish want to eat. This could mean choosing a shad imitating crankbait, crawfish crank, yellow perch, etc. Nothing illustrates this point better than the recent craze of using rainbow trout and sunfish lures to entice lunker largemouths in reservoirs where they dominate as the prey. This simple point is often overlooked when anglers visit waters that they are not familiar with. The first question they should ask is, "What are these bass eating?" Don’t make the rookie mistake of just reaching into the tacklebox and grabbing the trusty old crankbait that works at home.

Once you know the primary forage, now learn where in the environment the largest populations of this food can be found. When I get hungry, I go to where I can expect to find the food I am looking for, such as an Italian restaurant for ravioli. Bass are no different. Find the food, and I contend you will find the bass! Factors such as the season, weather, light intensity, water conditions, habitat, food source for the prey, etc. all determine where the food will be. If you want to be better than your competition, focus your learning about the prey, not just the predator which is your ultimate objective. Then concentrate on environmental factors that will concentrate the prey into specific locations. Edges between differing habitats tend to bunch up prey in easy to find locations. This includes weedlines, structure edges, thermoclines, current breaks, mudlines, and changes in bottom composition and vegetation types. Doesn’t it make sense to locate these hot spots, and work your counterfeit prey where bass expect to find them in large numbers?

How you work a crankbait can be just as important as when and where. Yet few anglers ever give this a second thought. After all, crankbaits have their action built in, don’t they? Anyone who has studied ecology is aware of what is called the "Odd Man Theory". This theory is the single most important factor that I consider to be the key to my success in crankbait fishing. A school of healthy minnows can swim all around the very predator that can devour them, with seemingly little concern. Prey can abound with little risk until something causes them to become the "odd man". The moment a minnow acts different than the rest, due to injury or illness, it becomes dinner for the predator. For any predator to flourish, it must be capable of ingesting more calories than it expends to consume the calories. Lunker bass do not become that way by chasing healthy prey all over the lake. Just look at the physique of a sowbelly bass. This is a shape that indicates the bass is more efficient in an ambush than it is out-swimming it’s prey. Make your crankbait look like the "odd man". Cause it to swim erratically, or at a different speed. Cause it to swim too high, or too low. Make it struggle! This is why the stop and go retrieve triggers strikes, and why bouncing a crankbait off of a boulder or stump triggers an ambush. Visualize that a bass sees your crankbait, looking for some indication of weakness that will insure a successful capture. Utilize your rod and your retrieve to simulate an "odd man" when fishing a crankbait!

When that ambush hits, return the favor and set the hooks. Failure to do so will result in sudden outbursts of expletives when the first jump returns your crankbait via air mail. I fish crankbaits with relatively light line (for action and depth) and soft rods. I primarily want gear that will absorb the stress of a rambunctious bass without breaking my line. Line and rod stretch works in my favor after a bass is hooked (unless I am fishing where there are obstructions). To compensate for these qualities, it is paramount that you get a good hook set, and that you are using extremely sharp hooks.

Crankbaits cost big bucks just to make the bodies. Manufacturers usually skimp on the hooks. If you want to be deadly with a crankbait, then you had better either ante up for premium replacement trebles, or do as I do, and spend your television time hand sharpening each and every barb. Otherwise don’t waste your money or storage space on crankbaits! And while you are at it, let me suggest another trick to improving your success. Remove the line tie split ring, and use quality interlocking snaps in their place. The round bend that these snaps feature give your lure a thinner bearing point resulting in better and deeper action. They also allow quick changes of crankbaits. Often many changes may be necessary to find what the bass may want under any set of conditions. How often have you kept the same tired crankbait on just because you didn’t want to go to the trouble of tying a new knot?

Which brings up another point. Check your line often, even when you haven’t been scraping cover. The constant action of whipping those long casts continually stresses your knot, which is already the weak link between you and the bass of your dreams. I constantly check my line by pulling (by hand) my lure and line apart, to see if I can break it. If my light line snaps, I merely tie a new Palomar knot, and congratulate myself for discovering a problem before a bass teaches it to me!

Although I place great importance on rattles in limited visibility situations (which includes clear water with heavy cover or dim light), I am not particularly enamored with their use in clear and open water situations. Any object that displaces water creates noise, and when coupled with free swinging treble hooks, even a "silent" balsa crank makes plenty of noise. I have never yet seen a shad or crawfish wearing a rattle. I am convinced that bass hear more than we give them credit for, just like the blind bass that hit my "silent" Fat Rap. It didn’t grow to 7.5 pounds on it’s eyesight.

Much has already been written about the virtues of glass versus graphite rods. For me, most of my crankin is done with a graphite rod. The difference is that I am using parabolic actions (bend evenly from butt to tip) which help to keep a bass hooked up once impaled on the barb. I still use an ancient Skyline graphite rod that bends like a glass rod, but has the lightness and comfort of a graphite. Similar rods are made by many manufacturers, you just need to check out their bend under a load. I am not interested in the "slowness" of glass, since I insist on using needle sharp hooks.

Reels are a matter of choice and confidence. I utilize many different brands. My first concern is with ease of casting, and ease of retrieve. I only utilize baitcasting reels that have quality features like power handles with flat paddles, which make it much easier to impart erratic retrieves. Thumb bars really help, as casting should be quick and automatic. Retrieve speeds that I favor tend to be in the vicinity of 5:1. This is one reel in which my drag is often in use! Don’t skimp on the quality of the drag unless you plan to fish heavy cover with heavy line. Make sure your reel is one you can quickly take-down and maintain, and that the spool to frame tolerances are close enough to prevent 8 pound test line from slipping behind the spool.

With a little homework to learn about your favorite water’s prey, and some preparation and presentation tips such as those discussed, you will be ahead of the game in making some of your crankbait days be your most memorable "catching" days!