SHALLOW CRANKBAIT SEASON ACTUALLY LASTS ALL YEAR
By Steve Price
Of all the lures a bass fisherman has in his tackle box, shallow running crankbaits rank among the all-time favorites. It’s easy to see why, too: covering the water down to a depth of about seven feet, these fast-moving baits trigger reaction strikes in a variety of conditions throughout the year.
That’s exactly what veteran tournament angler and SPRO pro John Crews had in mind when he designed SPRO’s Little John shallow diver. In fact, once he started using his own lure, Crews discovered even more ways to fish it.
“I originally designed the Little John for fishing ‘hard’ cover like rocks and wood,” laughs Crews, who competes on the Bassmaster Elite and PAA tours, “but during a tournament in Florida I realized the lure also comes through hydrilla and eelgrass very well. Early in the spring when vegetation is still submerged two to five feet below the surface, this crankbait can be an important tool in anyone’s tackle arsenal.”
A native of Virginia where he still lives, Crews grew up fishing crankbaits on the region’s rocky and brush-filled reservoirs, many of which include large, shallow flats where crankbaits are the most effective lures for covering so much water. He designed SPRO’s plastic Little John to imitate some of the balsa and cedar crankbaits he used, but with certain improvements.
The Little John’s flat sides give a stronger, more realistic side to side vibration without rolling when retrieved fast, and because he wanted more casting distance – many wood crankbaits are too light for long-range casts – he instructed the engineers insert a rolling tungsten weight that helps add casting distance as well as increase the rate of dive. The Little John also features a thin “computer chip” bill that is more durable than the traditional Lexan lips found on many diving lures.
Crews believes crankbaits are totally reaction-strike lures, and that they generate strikes primarily from speed and contact. The lure does not necessarily dive deeper the faster you retrieve it, but it does vibrate faster. Thus, when the Little John hits a piece of cover and glances off, it does so more erratically, and this is what triggers bass to hit it.
‘When I’m fishing the Little John, I’ll hesitate just a second after the lure lands so the tungsten weight inside will roll forward and the nose of the bait will tilt slightly downward,” he explains. “Then I’ll start a moderate retrieve to get the crankbait down, but when it begins hitting cover, I’ll speed up my retrieve to make bass react.
“I’ll try different speeds, some stop-and-start action, and I’ll move my rod from side to side to make the lure change direction, but overall, speed is what keys a strike. You can zip a crankbait through a school of inactive bass like this, and after a few casts, you can actually change their attitude completely and turn them on so they start hitting.”
Paying attention to each cast and retrieve can be critical, too, because when you’re crankbaiting shallow cover, you can actually feel the cover before your lure hits it. In shallow water, your line will touch the limbs, stumps, or rocks first; when you feel this, just slow your retrieve slightly and the bait will change its angle enough to come through that cover without getting snagged.
“When I retrieve, I’ll also change my rod from one side to the other to guide the crankbait into specific cover,” continues Crews, “but the rest of the time my rod is pointing almost directly at the lure. A lot of times, a bass will hit the lure from behind and come straight to you.
“I use a fairly fast 6.2:1 reel to take up line quickly, and because I keep my rod tip pointed down, I have extra leverage when I do set the hook. I use either a 6’6” or a 7’0” rod, and the lightest line I think I can use under the conditions, which is normally 10 or 12 pound fluorocarbon.”
Crews believes shallow crankbaiting is all about making the proper casting angles, and, in fact, the most common mistake he sees crankbait fishermen making is using the wrong casting angle
“Getting the proper angle means casting so your lure has the most contact possible with either the bottom or with cover during your retrieve,” he explains, “and in shallow water, getting this proper angle can be difficult because a lot of it depends on boat positioning.
“For example, shallow points are some of the best places to fish crankbaits like the Little John, but I always see fishermen staying deep and casting straight toward the point. On each retrieve like this, however, the lure loses contact with the bottom halfway back.
“I think it’s much more effective to move your boat shallow enough so you can cast across the point or even parallel to it so your lure never leaves water deeper than five or six feet. When you’re crankbaiting, if your lure is not hitting cover, you’re either not using the proper lure or your boat is in the wrong position. It’s that basic.”
The SPRO angler admits he occasionally has to resort to “flailing,” his term for paralleling a shoreline and casting his crankbait at everything in sight. Another popular term for this is “junk fishing,” and it’s often a last resort for tournament anglers trying to catch any size bass just to put something in the livewell.
“It happens to every tournament angler, including the pros,” laughs Crews again, “but with a crankbait there are ways to do it better. First, again make sure you keep your lure in productive water, which in shallow cranking is nothing deeper than five to six feet. Secondly, when you do hit a piece of cover, stop and fish the spot more thoroughly.
“When I’m going down a shoreline this way, I try to choose a shoreline that’s different from those around it. It might be flatter or steeper than the others, or it may be a transition bank where the composition changes from rock to sand or sand to vegetation.
“Bass always like something different, and transition banks are some of the best places to find fish.”
Crews is convinced bass do not hit particular crankbaits because they’re red, yellow, or white, but rather, because they’re accustomed to seeing that particular color in the forage they eat. One of his first tasks at any lake he fishes is determining the dominant forage, and matching their color in his crankbait choice.
“Certain colors give anglers a lot of confidence,” he acknowledges, “and I have seen times when a certain color on a lure, such as an orange belly, did seem to make a definite difference in getting strikes. When I’m practicing for a tournament, I may fish one color for an hour and change to something else, just to see if it does make a difference.
“If the bass are feeding on crawfish, a touch of red often helps, and if shad are the dominant forage, then I’ll use crankbaits with a lot of white, silver, or chrome.”
Regardless of the forage or the water conditions, Crews concludes, shallow crankbaiting can be one of the most productive techniques to use, especially when you remember to reel fast and make sure you’re hitting something on each retrieve.