August 03, 2022
"Fire in the hole!" said Brad Richardson with a knowing chuckle, his rod bent into a convincing arc.
It was the heat of summer and Richardson—an accomplished outdoor photographer and avid angler—and I were fishing a bass lake near the Wisconsin-Illinois border. I had just launched a lengthy cast courtesy of a 7-mph wind at my back and was in the middle of a long retrieve when my lure, too, hit kinetic resistance.
"Guess you'll have to land that one yourself," I laughed as a largemouth at the end of my line thrashed in the distance.
Moments later, I belly-scooped a 4-pound fish. Brad held up its near twin. "Brace yourself," he said. "We're just getting warmed up."
He wasn't wrong. In rapid succession, we landed a half-dozen bass that weighed between 3 and 4 1/2 pounds. In fact, each stop on our predetermined "milk run" that evening ended up producing similar results. Neither of us was surprised. We were on a red-hot deep crankbait bite, a pattern that holds up from the summer peak until early fall. If you know where and how bass spend their time offshore, you can apply this same tactic to your home water.
On both reservoirs and natural lakes, prime deep cranking spots generally have four key components. The first is good structure, a term that refers to a feature of the lake bottom that stands out from the surrounding bottom. Many anglers conflate "structure" and "cover," the latter being objects like docks, trees and brush piles that fish use for protection, shade or ambush. When cranking deep structure, cover is an enhancement to existing fish-holding structure.
Some of the most critical structural elements are break lines. These are defined lines or edges along the lake bottom—drop-offs (ledges), inside and outside edges of vegetation ("grass edge" or "weed line") and the channel edges of main rivers or feeder creeks. Other key structural elements are bars, points, pockets and bends; depressions, humps and sunken islands; and changes in bottom content from muck and soft silt to sand, clay, gravel, chunk rock and more.
"Breaks," distinct changes along a piece of structure, including cover like boulders, sunken objects and brush piles, often concentrate fish drawn to attractive structure. A break on a break line can be that desirable "spot on the spot," holding not one or two bass but a large school.
After structure, the next key is abundant forage. In many places, this is bluegills, but crayfish are widely available. Gizzard shad are found in many reservoirs and river systems. Whatever the most common forage, bass want it nearby.
Hard bottom is another big item. This can be rock, clay, remnants of a roadbed, limestone ledges, gravel or shell beds. The presence of crayfish is a plus, but the subtle structural variety offered is equally at play. Bass like edges and transitions, and hard bottom, like a depth change beyond sunlight’s penetration, often defines the edge of aquatic plant growth.
The last key is vegetation. Healthy aquatic plant growth offers preferred habitat. "Grass" provides cover, ambush positions and abundant insects and microscopic food sources for fry, baitfish and, in turn, larger species that bass crave. Bass hunt efficiently on inside and outside edges of grass lines and penetrate grassy flats to feed or take cover.
Crankbait master and pro angler David Fritts focuses on grass a lot in his fishing. He looks for key differences—grass patches, rocks in the grass, underwater points of grass, hard spots, stumps and, particularly, grass edges. Outside edges—usually defined by a depth change or a transition to hard bottom—are key deep-cranking targets.
Today's anglers have numerous effective mapping options at their disposal. Many high-end GPS/sonar units come with forward- and side-view capabilities as well as mapping features. A number also come with maps pre-loaded. But your best deep-cranking success comes when you refine maps with your own notes and details or, better yet, when you make your own maps. Humminbird Autochart Live, Lowrance Genesis Live and Garmin Quickdraw are three mapping software systems that have revolutionized fishing in recent years, and most are compatible with existing lake map software.
Richardson credits Steve Everetts of Finseekers Guide Service (finseekers.com) with mentoring him in electronic mapping. He says the difference between how he'd imagine a fishing spot versus how it appeared with mapping technology was staggering. He understood why some approaches worked or didn't, and he was able to fish productive areas more effectively than he had before. Mapping is a topic that merits its own article, but manufacturers provide good educational materials, and avid users offer helpful videos that show systems in action.
One final word on mapping: Don’t overlook the value of crankbaits themselves in helping to pinpoint objects or "breaks" on structure in real time. Bottom-bumping baits fished with the appropriate tackle transmit signals from the lake's basement. These "signals" can help you discern transitions in the lake bottom and the presence of bass-holding objects like boulders, stumps and grass edges. Note boat position and casting angle and distance. Use a GPS anchor like Spot-Lock, or marker buoys and an old-fashioned anchor, to best fish the bite. One big fish is nice, but 10 or more from a spot can be magical.
Crankbaits have lots of built-in action. While that alone draws strikes, adding small wrinkles and variety to your retrieve yields even more. Focus on the following.
Depth: Keeping your bait in the target area gets harder as bass go deeper. Whether targeting lake-bottom or suspended fish, pick baits that reach the desired depth and remain effective. When bass hold near bottom, try baits that run deeper than target structure. You’ll reach the strike zone quicker and extend its track within that zone.
Long Casts: Crankbaits take time to reach target depths, so long casts are critical. They allow baits to reach maximum depth and spend more time in the strike zone before climbing back to the surface. Long rods and finely tuned reels pay big dividends.
Angle and Boat Position: A prime target merits casts from several different angles. "I preach religiously about making multiple casts to one rock or one stump or an edge of grass," Fritts says. This has paid off for him often. In one tournament, he changed his casting angle to a promising rock repeatedly. "I must have made 50 casts before I hooked into a largemouth that went 9 pounds 4 ounces," he says.
Retrieve: Vary your retrieve speed until you find what fish want. Richardson stresses getting baits down to desired depths quickly before tampering with speed. When bottom-bumping, he slows his retrieve to let baits dig and deflect. "Bass don't react that well to a bait tracking a straight path," he says. He compares a crankbait deflecting off lake bottom to a crayfish fleeing.
"That's why bass react to a bait that deflects off a rock or hard bottom so well," he adds. "If you don't have an object to deflect off, you can simulate a deflection with a stop-and-start or a sweep of the rod." Bass suspended in the water column can also be taken on deep crankbaits if fished just off bottom. "That's where color and action come in," Fritts says. "If you have something bass want, something that resembles what they are feeding on, they will move to bite it [even if it's not deflecting off bottom or rocks]."
Awareness and Feel: Focus on your bait’s vibration. Identify when a lure is hobbled with vegetation or digging into mud, rock or shell bottom—and, of course, the feel of a fish.
Too often, bass shake free of a bulky crankbait, so opt for tackle with some “forgiveness”—shock absorption from the rod, stretch in the line, a well-set drag. Many take this too far, settling for tackle with some forgiveness but limited feel. You may land more of the fish you hook, but it limits your ability to read bottom type, lure action or even a glancing strike. Keep the following in mind.
Rod: Use rods 7 feet to 7 feet, 11 inches long. Fiberglass, graphite and glass/graphite composite rods all work. According to Bob Brown, who heads Lew's Fishing's product development, a graphite rod recoils, while fiberglass rods flex and stay bent. Glass rods keep more fish pinned, but graphite weighs less, and "feels" nice.
Most crankers like a moderate rod action. It slows hookset response, cushions against runs and head shakes and loads the rod for long casts. With the strain crankbaits place on tackle, you want rods with backbone—those with medium-heavy or maybe even heavy power.
Gear Picks: St. Croix's Legend Glass ($260–$280; stcroixrods.com) series has seven moderate-action models in medium, medium-heavy and heavy power. Lew's Fishing’s David Fritts Perfect Crankbait Rod ($89.99–$109.99; lews.com) comes in five models with moderate action and medium-heavy power options. Abu Garcia's Veritas Winch Crankbait Rod ($99.99-$119.99; abugarcia.com), which has three moderate-action models in medium, medium-heavy and heavy power, is another great choice.
Line: Each line type has trade-offs. Mono has good stretch but reduced feel and limited ability to shake vegetation. Braid transmits bottom signals well and can rip baits free of vegetation but requires more controlled hooksets. Fluoro plays the middle, with less stretch than mono and more than braid. Braid's small diameter and fluorocarbon’s density make both better for achieving depth than monofilament. Tip: Add a fluorocarbon leader to braid to limit bait tangles.
Gear Picks: Seaguar TactX ($16.99-$31.99/150 or 300 yards; seaguar.com) is a four-strand camo braid that reduces wind knots, cuts through vegetation and packs to the spool without cutting into itself. Sufix’s 131 G-Core X13 braided line ($39.49/150 yards; rapala.com) has 12 HMPE fibers and one GORE Performance Fiber for reliable uniformity and knot strength. The 100-percent fluorocarbon Sunline Crank FC ($26.99/200 yards; sunlineamerica.com), with added stretch and abrasion resistance, is great for cranking. For a leader, try Sunline’s FC Leader ($12.49/50 yards, $30.99/150 yards), which has superb knot strength, low water absorption and enough stretch for crankbaiting.
Reel: Get reliable, high-capacity reels for casting distance. Many like slow 5:1 gear ratios that wind comfortably yet not too fast. Fritts just wants a reel that brings in 21 to 24 inches of line with each turn.
Gear Picks: Fritts likes Lew's BB1 Baitcast 5.1:1 and 6.4:1 gear-ratio reels ($159.99; lews.com). Abu Garcia's Revo Winch Reel ($119.99; abugarcia.com) has a 5.4:1 gear ratio and works well.
Lures: Manufacturers list the depths their crankbaits reach, but vary your line test and rod position to get deeper. Pick lures built to hit your target structure. Choose colors and finishes that mimic forage species and others that stand out in dark water.
Gear Picks: The Norman DD22 ($6.99; lurenet.com) dives 14 to 18 feet and has caught bass for years. The Bomber Fat Free Shad ($7.49; lurenet.com) is another classic, with the BD5 diving 8 to 10 feet and the BD6 and BD7 diving 8 to 14 feet and 14 to 18 feet, respectively. The Rapala DT10, DT14 and DT16 ($9.49–$9.59; rapala.com) dive to 10, 14 and 16 feet, respectively, and are awesome balsa wood options. The David Fritts-designed Berkley Dredger ($9.99; berkley-fishing.com) has 6 sizes designed to reach 8 1/2- to 25 1/2-foot depths and is a long-casting bait perfect for exploring the depths.
RAID THE DEPTHS
Summer's deep crankbait bite can provide some of the hottest bass action you'll ever experience. Double-digit catches from a single location aren't uncommon. Richardson’s best day came this past summer. He caught more than 40 big fish within a shortened day, with 10 topping the 5-pound mark, numerous 4-pounders and a bloody thumb to show for his success.
With practice and good conditions (try to avoid the bluebird skies following a cold front), deep cranking can be one of the most reliable summer techniques for bass. Gear up and get ready. You may become a deep-cranking addict once you give it a try.