In the early spring, bass crankbaits should be among the first lures you cast into that chilly water if you’re targeting the hard-fighting fish. Bear in mind that what constitutes cold water is relative to where you cast for bass in the U.S.
In regions where lakes freeze over, diehard bass fishermen begin launching their boats when the water temperature is in the upper 30s. Farther south, some lakes rarely get below 45 degrees.
Many of the bass pros that compete in Major League Fishing events begin cranking early in the season, including veteran pro angler Kevin VanDam. VanDam, who goes by the initials KVD, is regarded as the best tournament bass angler in the history of the sport. VanDam’s winnings of more than $6 million substantiate his abilities on the water.
VanDam’s many accomplishments include twice winning the MLF Cup Championship. He also set an MLF record for most weight caught in a single day in his 2014 Summit Cup win with 82 pounds, 7 ounces from 39 fish. In the same event, he caught the MLF record weight for an elimination round, 66-15. VanDam is currently listed as the No. 1 angler on MLF’s Angler Point Rankings.
Power fishing is VanDam’s strong suite, and crankbaits are his ace in the hole. Many anglers start fishing with jigs and other lures that can be retrieved slowly in the cold waters of early spring. They hold off casting crankbaits until the water warms and the bass become more active. That’s a mistake that VanDam has learned to avoid.
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“The bass are a lot less affected by cold water than I ever dreamed in the past,” VanDam says. “They are far more active than a lot of people think.”
If you doubt that statement, be reminded that VanDam has won some of the biggest tournaments in bass fishing by slinging crankbaits into water as cold as 39 degrees. Besides the water temperature, the water clarity, the forage, and the cover and structure available to the bass dictate which crankbait or crankbaits VanDam opts to tie on during his early season bass forays.
Narrow, flat-sided crankbaits, such as the Rapala Shad Rap and Bomber Flat A, have long been known to coax strikes from bass in cold water. These lures have a tight wiggle, which is a more subtle action than wide wobbling fat crankbaits have.
“The flat sides, along with the tight action, really trigger bass when the water is cold,” VanDam said.
VanDam believes bass in cold water react to the pressure waves that a flat crankbait generates. This prompted him to design Strike King’s KVD 1.5 Flat Side crankbait specifically for cold-water applications. This lure has a body size that is similar to the KVD 1.5 Square Bill, which is a dominating crankbait for VanDam when he targets shallow bass later in the season.
“I designed the 1.5 Flat to have a fast, tight action,” VanDam said. “It also has a steep dive angle so it fishes that 6- to 10-foot zone really well.”
The 1.5 Flat Side’s steep diving angle gets down to the bass when VanDam casts this crankbait to banks that drop sharply. Examples include bluff banks, where an underwater channel swings close to a bank, and many riprap banks. VanDam claims that the Flat Side also bounces over rocks, laydowns and other hard cover well, which is a shortcoming for many flat crankbaits.
“One thing I find when the water is cold, especially if the water has any stain, is that bass really like to relate to the bottom and they like hard cover,” VanDam said.
On Rocky banks, VanDam focuses on bottom transitions, such as where a bluff transitions to chunk rock or where chunk rock transitions to a gravel bottom. Any laydown on a steep, rocky bank screams bass to VanDam.
Also, he doesn’t limit his fishing to banks near deep water on the main lake. In reservoirs, VanDam sometimes finds early season bass on the last creek bends in the backs of creeks. On natural lakes, a dropoff on the edge of a flat would be a prime target for VanDam’s crankbait.
“For the most part, I fish the 1.5 Flat with a slow to medium retrieve,” VanDam said. “I let the bait digging bottom do most of the work. If I hit something real rough, I might pause for a second. That bait almost suspends.”
A 7-foot Quantum Kevin VanDam crankbait rod with a 5.3:1 Quantum baitcasting reel spooled with 10- or 12-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line handles VanDam’s flat-sided crankbait chores. The rod is long enough for distance casting but not too long for making accurate casts to laydowns. The low gear ratio reel helps him slow the pace of his crankbait.
The casting outfit VanDam relies on for the 1.5 Flat does double duty when he fishes Strike King’s Red Eye Shad, a lipless rattling crankbait. A lipless rattler’s flat sides and frenzied chattering sounds trigger bass to react even in the coldest water, VanDam claims.
“The Red Eye Shad is especially good for covering flats,” he said.
The best flats are typically less than 5 feet deep and adjacent to a dropoff that provides quick access to deeper water. If short stems of submerged aquatic grass are beginning to grow up from the bottom, so much the better. However, grass isn’t necessary for bass to be present on a flat, VanDam pointed out.
“I like to retrieve that bait so it ticks bottom occasionally,” VanDam said. “If that isn’t happening, I let it fall and get to the bottom. The great thing about the Red Eye Shad is the way it shimmies as it falls.”
When VanDam fishes a clear lake early in the year that has 7 to 10 feet of visibility, he knows the bass will be holding in deeper water. He gets down to them with Strike King’s 5XD crankbait.
“The 5XD has a tight action and it easily gets down to the 15-foot zone,” VanDam said. “It’s a good warmwater bait, too.”
As when fishing the Flat Side crankbait in shallower water, VanDam targets steep banks and transition banks with the 5XD. He makes parallel casts to these banks, which keeps his crankbait tapping the bottom. A longer 7-foot, 4-inch cranking rod allows for longer casts, which help the 5XD reach its maximum depth.
Bass pro Gerald Swindle is another MLF competitor who has established himself as one of the best bass pros in the country. He has pocketed nearly $2 million in winnings.
“Northern bass guys have more experience fishing clear, cold water than bass guys from the South,” Swindle observed. “I don’t crank in clear water.”
When Swindle is cranking in early spring, he prefers water that has no more than 1 foot of visibility. If the water is much clearer than that, he fishes a jerkbait. As with VanDam, Swindle dotes on flat-sided crankbaits that have a tight wiggle. One of his go-to flat crankers is the balsa EC Hicky from WEC Custom Lures, a division of Zoom Baits.
“The Hicky’s tight action mimics the lethargic movement of a shad in cold water,” Swindle said. “The bass aren’t aggressive then. They don’t want anything that has a crazy wobble.”
Swindle stressed that a steep bank in reservoirs where a creek or river channel swings close to the shoreline is the “surest bet for cranking in cold water.” Productive channel banks, he added, usually can be found on the main lake and in the larger creek arms off the main lake. Natural rocks and riprap comprise the primary cover that Swindle runs his crankbait over.
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“I will crank wood if it’s available, but 90 percent of the time I’m looking for rocks,” Swindle said.
A 7-foot medium- or medium-light-action Quantum cranking rod matched with a 5.3:1 reel and 10-pound Sunline Shooter Fluorocarbon ensure that Swindle slows his retrieve and gets solid hook-ups.
“You’re cold and the bass are cold,” Swindle said. “A rod with a really soft tip lets the bass get the bait all the way in its mouth.”
Channel banks often drop into deep water. Swindle keeps his crankbait ticking over rocks that are 2 to 5 feet deep by making parallel casts. The best fishing normally happens during the afternoon on sunny days.
“Bass on channel banks don’t have far to go when they move up to feed on a sunny day,” Swindle said. “Noon to dark is generally better because the water is warmer then. Even 1 degree warmer can make a big difference.”
Although Gerald Swindle claims that the best cold-water crankbait bite happens on sunny afternoons, calm water isn’t ideal. Those conditions may make for a pleasant day on the water, but bass are often tight-lipped when the water lies flat. A breeze that chops the surface and pushes warming water into the bank will make the bass more receptive to your crankbaits.
Kevin VanDam believes wind is more important than sunshine even early in the year.
“It’s the same as at other times of the year,” VanDam said “Bass are more active on nasty, windy days. The perfect situation is low pressure, wind, rain or even snow.”
Take the advice of both these WFL pros and see if it doesn’t improve your catch of bass on your favorite lake. After all, these men have been able to make a living catching fish year after year. They certainly should know what they are talking about.