In pure form, using a crankbait is the easiest bass fishing method. Throw it. Retrieve it.
In reality, consistently catching bass with crankbaits requires more nuance. If a crankbait hits something under the water's surface, the chances are greater of catching a bass. That "something" is structure, and it is inextricably linked to effective crankbait fishing.
In fishing terms, structure is any natural or artificial feature that defines a submerged area.
There is hard structure and soft structure, as well as vertical and horizontal structure. Hard structure is rock and concrete. Soft structure is grass and wood.
Wood structure usually comes in the form of artificial brushpiles where bass seek shelter among its caverns and recesses.
Grass technically is cover, but then a grass mat is structure.
Hard horizontal structure exists in the form of bridges, roadways, culverts, pond banks and residential ruins that were inundated when manmade dams were closed to fill reservoirs. It also takes the form of natural ridges and ledges, wing dams, dikes and boat docks.
Hard vertical structure is humps and rockpiles.
Crankbaits are effective tools for catching bass in all those environments.
Finding and identifying fish-holding structure is the key to successfully fishing for bass with crankbaits. It's not hard, but it requires skillfully reading electronic graphs and topographic maps. It also requires understanding how current influences the relationship of baitfish and game fish to structure.
Then, you must mesh those various elements to specific fishing techniques.
Refining your presentation is the last piece in the puzzle.
A skilled crankbait artist makes it all look easy, and ultimately it is. A few pointers from these accomplished crankbait impresarios will help get you on your way.
WAYS AND MEANS
Stephen Browning is a veteran bass angler and a professional fisherman as well. He has qualified for a major national championship tournament 10 times by winning or finishing high in a long list of premier tournaments, and crankbaits were major parts of his arsenal each time.
Electronics are vital for finding structure like brushpiles and grassbeds, but Browning said they also are important in determining the distance between the top of the structure and the water's surface. That distance tells Browning what kind of crankbait to use.
"In May, a grassbed or brushpile might be 12 feet to the bottom, but the top is 3 feet below the surface," Browning said. "That's going to tell me what style crankbait I need and how deep it needs to dive."
Ideally, a crankbait should strike near the top of brush or grass. Browning wants a crankbait that dives about a foot deeper than the top of the structure.
"I don't want one that's going to dive 3 feet deeper than the top of the cover or structure because you're going to stay hung up," Browning said, "and your bait is not going to be near as effective because it's going into the meat of the cover."
If a crankbait hits about a foot low, it will deflect off the cover instead of plowing down into it, Browning added. The same rule applies for fishing rock structure and grass.
Fishing grass with crankbaits is effective, but it can also be frustrating. You must bring it through the top of the grass, which means there's a greater chance of fouling your hooks.
Proper technique mitigates that risk significantly, said Matt Hedrick, a versatile angler who uses crankbaits to fish all types of structure.
"You're going to get hung up, so you do a really swift, jerking motion, and that's when they hit it," Hedrick said. "They see something dart past them real quick."
Hedrick is of the Millennial Generation. Electronics are practically coded in their DNA, and they are more skillful at using them than any group of anglers in history. Tools such as sidescan and downscan imaging make them extremely formidable at finding and interpreting structure. These tools have made it much easier for anglers to find productive structure in unfamiliar waters.
"When I'm looking for stuff, I try to keep it real simple," Hedrick said. "I keep my graph in 10 to 12 feet of water and look at sides of pockets. If I stay in that range, I can usually find what I'm looking for."
Downscan allows Hedrick to identify the types of trees that compose a brush structure. Sidescan shows him things to the sides that a vertical sonar return won't show.
"I'll be at 10 to 12 feet, and the sidescan might show me something at 15 feet that I can cast at as I go past it," Hedrick said.
Browning said his units are so finely tuned that he can actually see fish inside a brushpile or next to rocks on his graph.
"More times than not, you can identify a fish in that type of structure," Browning said. "If it's out loose to it and not buried tight, you'll want to tick the top of the structure. If they're buried into it, that might be a situation where you want to make it (your lure) deflect."
Bass in May and June generally are going to be in a spawn/post-spawn phase in various parts of the country. Depending on the phase, you'll search for staging structure, transitional structure and post-spawn structure.
The post-spawn phase is arguably the most difficult to fish because bass are recovering from their reproductive rigors, and they are taciturn. To get their attention, your presentation must be subtle.
"Fish are not feeding aggressively, but they will feed," Browning said. "I want to use a crankbait with a tighter wobble."
In that situation, Browning recommends the Baitball crankbaits from LiveTarget.
"They have some baits that run 12, 15 and 20 feet deep," Browning said. "That's the style of bait that I want.
"Thinner profile bills on a deep diver will produce a tighter wobble more so than a wider bill," he added. "The wider bill might get your bait deeper, but you have to decide if you want that bait to tick the top of a structure or deflect off it."
Deflecting is the best way to provoke reaction strikes from lethargic fish, but it might take several casts to get a bite. James Watson, a major tour pro, said he prefers square-billed crankbaits because of their resistance to snagging, and because he believes their exaggerated wobble helps provokes strikes.
"Generally, I throw bigger squarebills in gnarly stuff," Watson said, "but in cooler water, I like throwing flat-sided crankbaits, like the Luck-E-Strike RC-2 flat-sided series. It has a tighter wiggle."
Ticking structure tops generally provokes strikes from aggressive fish, but weather influences fish behavior, too. In addition to knowing the spawn phase, you should also know what phase of a weather pattern you're in before you plot your cranking strategy.
"That's got a lot to do with the weather pattern," Browning said. "Before you take off, you have to analyze how aggressive you think those fish are going to be."
You need to know the weather when you are fishing, of course, but you also need to know what the weather was doing two and three days before as well.
"Fish are not going to feed the same every day," Browning said. "If a low-pressure system is rolling in, I'm going to use more aggressive baits. If the best day was two days ago, I'm going to a subtle style crankbait."
Assessing wind and current are also vital to cranking structure. That can be tricky on manmade reservoirs because current depends on whether water is flowing through a dam, and at what volume. Current can push fish onto some structure, but it can also pull them off other structure. It also determines where/how fish relate to structure because bass typically face into the current to ambush their prey.
At a renowned tournament lake several years ago, I fished with an angler who found a submerged boulder near a marina entrance. This lake is part of a major navigation chain, and so water entered or exited the lake whenever a barge locked in or out of the lake. If water entered the lake, current flowed one direction, and my partner caught bass on one side of the boulder.
If current exited the lake, current flowed the opposite direction, and he caught fish on the other side of the boulder.
On natural lakes that don't have dams, wind generates current. It's much more subtle, but it has the same influence on how bass relate to structure.
"For this style of fishing, current is more important for deeper fishing," Browning said. "Wind won't produce as much current down deep as it will up high. If I don't have much current flowing through the system, utilizing the wind will play a big key."
Because wind creates current, you always want to face the wind and cast into the wind. That's also important for boat positioning, which is essential to cranking structure.
"I want to keep my boat at a specific spot or area away from the brushpile," Browning said. "I don't want the wind blowing me on top of it. If I do catch one, I might be able catch three or four."
You also have to know at what point in a retrieval arc a crankbait reaches its maximum depth. That determines your casting distance and your boat position.
"You have to be at a distance so your bait, when it reaches its diving depth, it's about one-third of the way through your cast" Browning said. "I want to make sure I'm close enough to get that bait to its deepest point and give it longer range to come in contact with that piece of structure that I'm fishing."
WHEN YOU GET STUCK
If you fish submerged structure long enough, you are going to get snagged, but a few simple tips will bring your lure home.
Square-billed crankbaits are best for fishing brush and standing timber because they rip through cover better than lures with traditional style bills.
If your bait stops against structure, don't assume it is snagged, says Stephen Browning. Crankbaits rise backward, so stop reeling immediately and allow the bait to free itself.
If it is snagged, you can sometimes free it by letting slack line off your reel, raising your rod vertically, reeling in the slack and snapping the taut line like a bowstring.
If all else fails, resort to an old-fashioned plug knocker. Kevin Short, an accomplished bass pro, has two plug knockers attached to retractable dog leashes. One is short and one is long. They solve any snag he encounters, and the devices keep the plugs and their lines tidy.