Story and photos by Dan O'Sullivan
Being from Virginia, John Crews lives in the land of crankbaits. Sure, there are many areas of the country that crankbaits are effective, but the Virginia's and the Carolina's are the epicenter of the crankbait royalty. Crews is such a fan of the baits that he worked with SPRO to develop a series of crankbaits that has now covered the water column from the bank, to 20 feet.
His Little John series of baits are all excellent, but they started with his original Little John, and in the early spring, he loves tossing the flat sided shallow runners. He has had much success, but a Bassmaster Classic appearance the year his baits were released, are a textbook application of the baits.
It’s early spring on Lake Hartwell, and Mother Nature hasn’t yet made up her mind what kind of mood she is in. Three weeks before the biggest tournament of the year, the South Carolina weather had been unseasonably warm, Hartwell’s bass were responding. The talk from the best anglers in the world was for big bags of both largemouth and spotted bass; then, the weather changed.
Approximately a week before the Bassmaster Classic, the weather, as it often does, takes a seemingly tragic turn for the worse. The warm weather gave way to cold storms rolling out of the north from Canada and the unseasonably warm conditions turned to bitter cold. As freezing rain, hail, snow and biting winds became the predominant weather patterns, Gore Tex and heavy undergarments replaced shirt sleeves and jeans as the fashions of the week.
As the first day of the 2008 Bassmaster Classic blasted off, the stormy conditions remained, and along with the heavy winds, anglers who targeted main lake points for healthy bass chasing blue herring grabbed the headlines. Some anglers spoke of swimbaits, some bragged on deep crankbaits, while others told of spoons, plastics and deep jigs.
As they did before the tournament began, the conditions changed again, the clouds broke in the evening which brought even colder temperatures, and even some frost on the competitors rigs. What those changes also meant was that the sun would break through as the day progressed and with the sunlight would come warming temperatures on the shallows of Lake Hartwell. The water that had become stained from the precipitation that had pounded the area meant that the water would warm up more quickly, and shallow crankbaits would play out as a major pattern in the tournament.
History would tell that Alton Jones’ winning approach would be a deep pattern that started with Cotton Cordell spoons then turn to Booyah A-Jigs and Pigskin Jigs around submerged timber. What those same historians would fail to reveal was that many of the top finishers would be throwing flat sided crankbaits into the off colored water.
Of the top five finishers, three of them relied heavily on shallow cranking; Kevin VanDam, who finished 3rd, had abandoned the main lake crankbait pattern that put him in 2nd place on day one in favor of a Strike King Custom Shop Flat Shad wooden crankbait bait in muddy creeks. Bobby Lane, finished in 4th place by turning to a Berkley Flicker Shad and a #8 Shad Rap in deeper pockets while Greg Hackney ran flats adjacent to channel bends upriver with the same Strike King Flat Shad and a Strike King Series 3 to finish 5th.
When the final stories would begin to shake out, nearly half of the top 20 vying for victory in the sport’s most coveted title were throwing shallow crankbaits. Not an unusual occurrence in itself, but, it was February after all, with a major cold front dropping the water temperatures as much as 15 degrees in two weeks.
Common knowledge states that reaction fish are not supposed to be plentiful under those conditions, small plastic worms and jigs are supposed to be the ticket in deep water. Bites are supposed to come few and far between from bass that have all but turned into live versions of Gorton’s Fish Sticks; but, these are the best anglers in the world, and they know differently.
One of the anglers throwing shallow crankbaits last February in South Carolina was Salem, Va. pro John Crews. The “Crews Missile” as he is known was competing in his fourth Bassmaster Classic and his efforts produced a 16th place finish for him, his highest in four attempts, and he did it on his namesake Little John Crankbait, a bait he designed with Spro.
Why a Crankbait?
When most anglers would respond to cold, muddy water by looking for hard targets and a jig or big plastic, Crews revealed that the reasoning for choosing a crankbait is in the numbers. “Because it gives anglers two things, a great chance at catching a bunch of fish, but also tournament winning fish,” said Crews. “It allows them to cover water quickly, which you can’t do with a jig or worm as effectively.”
Examples of the technique’s effectiveness can be found in nearly 30% of the Virginia pro’s $772,677 to date career earnings. “The crankbait has always been a part of my repertoire,” he revealed. “I’m always ready to throw a crankbait, there’s always at least one rod rigged with it on the deck of my Bass Cat.”
One such episode came at a Bassmaster Elite Series stop at Clarks Hill Lake in Georgia. There, Crews found difficulty in joining the procession of point hopping anglers who were chasing bass relating to blue herring. “I chased the herring spawn until they shut off in the afternoon,” he remembered. “When they shut down, I ran upriver to the stained water, pulled out my Little John and started catching them. In two hours I caught 25 fish, and increased my weight several pounds; for me it was the difference between missing the cut and getting paid, for my Co-angler that day, it was something he’d never seen before.”
If Crews had that one ‘dream scenario for a section of water that screamed out for a crankbait it would be this. “It would be early March, and we would have been pounded by three to four days of rain leading into a tournament,” he said as his voice trailed off. “The water temp would be around 50 degrees with between four to six inches of visibility. The sun has been out for a couple of hours when I find a perfect 45-degree or steep channel bank that has rocks on it; that’s the perfect recipe for success.”
What he would do in that situation is rig his Little John on a 7' medium action Pinnacle Perfecta Crankbait Rod paired with a 6.4:1 retrieve Pinnacle Optimus LTE reel spooled with 10 to 12-pound test Vicious Ultimate Copolymer, depending on the cover.
Armed with the right equipment, Crews would proceed down the bank, casting up current, retrieving the bait with current at a medium steady retrieve searching for cover to crash the bait into. “The fish will be around the rocks, especially in the colder water,” said Crews. “I move pretty quickly until I come into contact with cover, then I slow down and finesse the bait through it. It helps to raise the rod tip so that I can keep the bait moving through snags gently.”
When he does come into contact with cover, he often allows the bait to slow float, which his namesake plug is designed to do, then work it somewhat like a jerkbait. “I will often shake and pop the bait a little bit to try and trigger a reaction from the fish; and it often works, especially in cold water.”
Once he triggers a strike and locks the fish up on his rod, Crews said that it is incredibly important to slow down and allow the equipment to do its job. “The light tip action on that Pinnacle rod really absorbs a lot of the struggle,” he revealed. “With fairly light line, it is important to play the fish carefully, taking time to get it into the boat; that alone will reduce the amount of lost fish.”
The Characteristics of a Winning Bait
Being a seasoned pro, Crews had used a long list of plugs before working with SPRO on the Little John, which he said is the bait he has always wanted. “I wanted the action and sound of a balsa bait, with the durability and castability of a hard plastic plug.”
The desired action for this early season cranking is to have a nearly silent bait that has an extremely tight wiggle, as opposed to the wide wobble of deep diving plugs that can be off putting to sluggish bass. The bait must also have a lip design that deflects off of cover well, usually a ‘coffin shaped’ design that flares from the side but has a little bit of a rounded shape to the end. With all of that in mind, Crews went to work with Spro.
“I’ve used lots of different baits over the years, from homemade hand-carved versions, to mass produced baits like Speed Traps and Bandits, and the Little John has it all,” he said, doting on his creating. “It has the perfect flat; shad shaped profile, but at two and a half inches, still weighs 1/2-ounce, and has a weight transfer system in the bait so that it casts a mile.”
On the Little John, Crews opted for the thin and durable circuit board material that has become popular over the past several years. The coffin shaped diving lip allows the small bait to dive as deep as five feet, while being appropriately shaped for deflecting off of cover. “Circuit board has responsiveness and durability that you can’t get with a molded lip,” he revealed.
While circuit board was his first choice, the Little John MD, which runs seven to nine feet, has a molded lip, which he said was necessary to place the line tie in the correct place for proper depth and action. Other than that, the two models are identical
The other unique feature of his baits is that the ball in the weight transfer system is constructed of what Spro calls a “Soft Tungsten,” which is presumably some sort of a plasticized material that is loaded with tungsten powder. The end result is a moving ball that does not create the loud racket of tungsten rattles as the bait moves through the water. Instead it creates kind of a dull, clunking noise.
Will it Work on My Lake?
He is often questioned as to whether people can catch fish on the pattern at home; for Crews, the answer would be a resounding, yes. “Bass are built the same around the country,” he said. “They may come in different sizes throughout our different regions, but they still react predictably as the conditions change. Storms blow through and stir up mud and silt, which drives the baitfish up, as the water warms from post front sun, the bass follow too, and they will be looking for food.”
When those situations occur, to Crews, the crankbait is the ticket, “I’ve caught big numbers of bass all over the country on these types of patterns,” said Crews in closing. “I’ve caught them up to nearly eight pounds on it in tournaments, and have put a lot of money in my pocket doing it, it works everywhere; people just need to pick it up and try it; the results might startle them.”
So Many Colors, What Do I Do?
Crews chose each of the colors of his Little John to have a place in his arsenal, and while he uses them all, he has a few steadfast rules he sticks by. “This pattern will work from early spring through early summer, and then again as the water cools off again in the fall,” said Crews. “I have a set of colors that I start with based on the time of the year, and the water color.”
“For dirty water in the spring, I tend to throw, a lot of chartreuses and reds trying to mimic bluegill or crawdads, I use Chartreuse Black Back, Spring Craw, or Blood Craw a lot” Crews revealed. “If the water is clear in the spring, I will stick to shad colors like Clear Chartreuse, Spooky Shad or Cell Mate (his personal favorite shad imitator).
Before the weather gets hot, and the bass move to their deep water haunts, Crews still targets the same type of pattern looking for fish coming out of their spawning areas. “As boat traffic increases, water tends to get off colored, so I will stay with the Chartreuse Black Back and Citrus Shad,” he continued. “If it is clear, I stay with the shad colors I mentioned before.”
“The fall is all about the shad, and while I will still get bit on a crawdad color from time to time, my best bet is to stick with shad patterns,” said Crews. “In Dirty water, the Chartreuse Black Back will get bit, as will the Citrus Shad, but as the water clears, I turn to Cell Mate or the Spooky Shad and Clear Chartreuse again.”
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