David Fritts gets the lead out in the summer for better bass fishing mileage. Here's how he approaches North Carolina largemouths this summer. (August 2009)
David Fritts hoists a solid bass at a tournament weigh-in. His tactics for taking such bass on crankbaits can work in North Carolina in the summer.
Photo courtesy of Craig Holt.
Conventional wisdom in the Bass Nation holds that summer success depends upon finding largemouths at depths that'd make a submarine's hull creak.
Not so, said David Fritts, the sport's No. 1 deep-diving crankbait guru. Like Merrill Lynch, when Fritts speaks, everybody listens -- especially summer crankbait anglers.
His favorite Tar Heel lakes to fish deep are High Rock, Kerr Lake (aka Buggs Island) and Jordan. All contain plenty of bass, baitfish and deep structure.
"Where you find fish in summer (at any lake) depends on two things -- oxygen levels and available baitfish," said the 52-year-old pro, the only person whose name is inscribed on Bassmaster and FLW championship plaques.
But Micropterus salmoides, he said, won't be extremely deep during summer because usually there's not enough oxygen at extreme depths to support them or baitfish.
However, water flows obviously differ at each of these lakes -- and that affects the thermocline. Each summer, a thermocline develops at large impoundments. It's the bottom layer of water beyond which oxygen is scarce and just above which is a comfort zone (cool water, plenty of oxygen).
Some lakes have a summer thermocline, while others don't. We'll explore those questions as the Tar Heel crankin' king offers analyses and tips about deep summer fishing at three of North Carolina's top bass venues.
"How deep the bass are at High Rock depends on how much rain you get (in July and August)," Fritts said. "It's got nothing to do with the thermocline."
If the lake level is high, usually depending upon wet weather patterns (rare in North Carolina, but they occur occasionally), the deep bite usually disappears because High Rock is part of the Yadkin River system. Sustained rains put two or three distinct levels of stained water (the locals just call it "mud") in the lake and force clearer water -- and baitfish and bass -- to the banks.
"The fish will go shallow," Fritts said, "but that doesn't happen too often. Just my bad luck it happened at the first High Rock (Bassmasters) Classic (July 1994)."
The late Bryan Kerchal won that event by flipping a red Culprit worm at shallow docks near the mouth of Second Creek.
"Just before the Classic started, one of the biggest schools (of bass) in the lake was right out in front of (Kerchal)," Fritts said. "When the lake came up (following a week of daily torrential downpours), the bass moved up to where he was fishing."
With no significant rain, Fritts likely would have waltzed off with the title by catching Kerchal's fish because he knows every deep bass-holding stump and rock in the lake.
With just a "touch of rain, so you know where the water's moving every day and if you know where bass are hanging out, High Rock can be a really good crankbait lake," he said.
One of his top crankin' spots is near a deep fish attractor at the mouth of Buck's Branch off Abbotts Creek. During the second (1995) High Rock Classic, he set up there the first competition day. Kevin Van Dam fished the same depths at a small island just to the north.
"I threw at a single stump," Fritts said. "I think having one stump at the right place is better than having a whole stumpfield. You get a single stump, you're likely to have more than one fish off it. If you've got a lot of stumps or rocks, for instance, fish will scatter around instead of being at one spot."
Fritts caught four bass at that stump.
Another target for the cranking genius during the '95 Classic was a fish attractor about 80 yards off Black's Bottom (a peninsula that features a steep Yadkin River channel dropoff a few yards from the shore).
Fritts' favorite lures to throw at such spots (10 to 14 feet of water) are Rapala DT-10 and DT-15 crankbaits.
"Those are about the perfect crankbaits for High Rock in the summer and fall," he said. "The smaller baits, like the DT-10, are better for pre-spawn (in spring) and post-spawn (in summer)."
His crankin' rods are 7-foot-long American Rodsmith all-fiberglass models he mates to Fritts' signature Bass Pro crankbait reels. The rods have noticeable "give" so when a bass surges, it won't rip hooks from its mouth. The lengthy rods also aid in long casts (crucial to getting deep-diving lures to their maximum depth), and the Bass Pro reels have another special deep-crankin' feature.
"(Most crankbait) reels don't have infinite anti-reverse," Fritts said. "Most new reels, if you stop (cranking), the handle won't go back at all, which takes away a lot of 'feel' when you're fishing. But this one does."
The reel's 4.7-1 ratio also allows Fritts to overcome his tendency to "burn" lures back to the boat.
"I like to stay busy -- throwing and winding (a lure) -- so I reel fast, and I actually have a hard time winding crankbaits (properly)," Fritts said. "But this reel's ratio slows my retrieves, which means a bait comes back just fast enough to vibrate properly."
A too-quick retrieve, Fritts said, causes crankbaits to track erratically.
The veteran pro likes the feel of braided line, but its non-stretch characteristic can create hook tears in a struggling bass's mouth, resulting in lost fish.
"(Braid) feels good, but it's got no stretch," he said. "And you can't cast it as far as monofilament."
So, he spools his reels with Sufix Pro Mix line.
"It's tough around rocks and stuff, too," he said. (Continued)
Fritts doesn't worry about hitting stumps with every cast, although he said there's nothing wrong with that approach.
"Sometimes a round-lipped crankbait bounced off a stump or rock will trigger (reaction) strikes," he said. "But I've won tournaments where (lures) just ticked the to
ps of brush, and they'd come out and get it."
Fritts said he doesn't worry about the thermocline at High Rock Lake.
"I don't know that I ever saw one at High Rock," he said. "If there is one, I don't pay any attention to it. The important thing is to know that fish will feed where they're used to feeding."
During summer at High Rock that's 10 to 15 feet deep (creek and the river channels) at areas containing structure (stumps, rocks) and baitfish.
When the 14,000 acres of Jordan Lake -- stretching into Chatham, Durham, Orange and Wake counties -- first opened to fishing during the early 1980s, bass anglers thought they'd died and gone to heaven.
No matter the season, but particularly during late spring and through early fall, a boat, motor and handful of 1/16-ounce Hopkins lures jigged at submerged roadbeds guaranteed fabulous results. Anglers hauled thousands of pounds of bass out of the lake before the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission finally established a daily creel and size limits.
Today Jordan has (a) fewer bass and (b) characteristics of High Rock and Buggs Island. It also has current -- some of the time -- created by its two feeder streams, Haw River and New Hope Creek.
"But we never go into the Haw River in summer," Fritts said. "It's too shallow."
Jordan, High Rock and Kerr are basically "open-water" summer lakes without substantial amounts of underwater vegetation. Similar to High Rock and Buggs Island, Jordan also is loaded with offshore structure and cover that hold bass when the sizzlin' temps of summer force fish away from the shoreline. It also has stump-covered flats that drop into creek channels, humps and submerged roads.
Incoming water at Jordan can be inconsistent, so during the dead of summer, low water flows may cause the lake to stratify, creating a thermocline. However, the thermocline isn't critical at Jordan, Fritts said.
"The thermocline isn't so important because the lake tends to have a lot of oxygen in it all the time," he said.
Jordan is where Fritts and his then-partner, Jerry Lohr, who became famous as a Lexington lure-maker, started weighting crankbaits and presenting lures to bass other anglers couldn't reach.
"We were catching 'em deeper than anyone else," Fritts said, "18 to 19 feet, with DB3 crankbaits."
The Magnum DB3s were 3 1/2 inches long, including a round 1 3/4-inch-long lip. Fritts and Lohr also used DB3M B111 Diving Silver Shads.
They also created their own paint schemes, coloring most of their lures in what they called "homer" (dark-green back, chartreuse sides). Sometimes they varied the coloration, extending dark-green stripes down the sides (the firetiger model).
"The idea was to make 'em look like bream," Fritts said.
To make the DB3s reach desired depths, Fritts and Lohr drilled holes in the big-lipped crankbaits and filled them with lead that made the lures, designed to dive 12 to 15 feet deep, track 20 feet deep -- or deeper.
Fritts doesn't remember how he and Lohr stumbled upon the idea of weighting crankbaits.
"We just did it and started catching deep fish," he said.
They regularly fished a couple of places during summer -- the standing timber in New Hope Creek near the main channel off Farrington Point and near the lake's three main bridges -- the Farrington Road, Ebeneezer Church Road and U.S. 64 bridges.
Today's summer bass also are taken off structure (flooded timber or stumps), although many anglers prefer using Carolina rigs.
"Today, I'd use a bait like the DT-16 if I was fishing Jordan in July or August," Fritts said. "Baits like that already have lead in them."
Fritts won uncounted tournaments at Buggs Island during summer and fall before he became a major player at the two major pro tours.
But fishing deep during July and August at this 50,000-acre North Carolina-Virginia border lake is somewhat dissimilar to High Rock or Jordan lakes.
"It's a little different because Buggs is such a huge impoundment," Fritts said. "It's always got water flowing because there's four rivers (Dan, Staunton, Hyco, Bannister) feeding into it."
Depths of Buggs Island can reach 95 feet, which means summer bass will stage deeper than at High Rock or Jordan because the lake has a distinct summer thermocline. Below that layer, little oxygen exists.
"Most of the time by the end of July, fish will be in the 20-foot range," Fritts said. "I catch a lot of fish at Buggs 18 to 20 feet deep."
Fritts likes to crank cove mouths with deep creek channels and structure. His experiences at the lake have taught him where to look for baitfish and bass just above the thermocline layer, so he doesn't have to go cruising, looking at his depthfinder.
Another trick he employs is knowing many tournaments hold their weigh-ins -- and release bass -- near major recreation area ramps.
"I've won tournaments all over the lake," he said, "from Nutbush (Creek) to the middle part at Ivy Hill to Clarksville. It's not hard to figure out, but I've always known one of the keys to finding good concentrations of bass has been near the launch ramps because that's where (BASS, Federation, FLW) tournaments and weekend wildcat tournaments release their fish.
"Once a bass's been caught, put in a livewell and hauled around the lake all day, I think his bearings may be messed up a little, so he isn't going to go very far once he's put back in the water. He's gonna stop at the first spot where he finds plenty of oxygen, cover and some baitfish."
So, obviously, during July and August, Fritts concentrates his fishing efforts near tournament release sites with relatively deep structure nearby that's also near the thermocline.
"Eastland, Nutbush and Dodson's creeks have been real good places," he said.
Near Ivy Hill are the Rock Hole plus several flooded house foundations close to the 50-foot-deep Staunton River channel, at ledges near the mouth of Bluebird Creek and at Hundred Islands and Terrys Island.
Just to the east of Ivy Hill is Bluebird Creek with a steep channel that can hold deep bass on its slopes.
Southeast from Henderson Point are more flooded foundations about 30 feet deep off Nutbush Creek's main channel.
Just to the north of Hender
son Point are several islands called "The Cut Through" that afford deep water, steep ridges and structure where Nutbush Creek joins the main flow of the Staunton River.
Henderson Point is one of the lake's four main spots for holding tournaments and where released bass will concentrate during summer. Other bass-release recreation areas include Satterwhite Point (at Nutbush Creek), North Bend Park (near the dam) and Clarksville, Virginia.
So, for Fritts at Buggs Island, the main summer bass key always has been finding where bass are concentrated and where they're biting -- which is the opposite of spring when largemouths seem to spawn at every shallow piece of shoreline with a gum tree, willow bush or pea gravel.
"Unlike other times of year, in summer, Buggs is so big, (bass) may be biting at Nutbush and not biting at other parts of the lake," he said. "They might be biting off main-lake points but not in Nutbush. Or they could be biting only in Grassy or Eastland creeks. The whole lake might be dead, but they might be biting in just one creek. It's your job to figure out where active fish are in the lake."
Surprisingly, as much as Fritts relies upon electronics to find the thermocline, baitfish and largemouths, he said sometimes electronics aren't that valuable. Anglers then must rely upon observing what's happening around them and react accordingly. That's an old Rick Clunn technique some observers describe as a Zen approach to bass fishing.
"I do look for shad on the depth-finder, but there's no replacement for putting down the trolling motor and finding fish you might never see (on a depthfinder)," Fritts said. "Sometimes they'll be next to a stump or in a brushpile and you'll never see them. I've caught the biggest fish of my life that way at Buggs and never saw them (on a LCD).
"If you catch one fish, then you might start seeing them. You'll sometimes pull bass away from cover if you catch one. But sometimes they just blend in with the bottom; they might be lying there, and you'd never get a reading with the Lowrance (depthfinder)."
Fritts often relies upon his "feel" for a given deep-summer bite, knowledge honed by years of experience, even if his electronics aren't telling the truth.
The wild card at Buggs the last few years has been the introduction of blueback herring, which has changed bass patterns, he said.
"Herring mess up a lake because the (bass) don't get on the bottom; they're out in the middle, chasing those baits," Fritts said. "Buggs bass have become like stripers, moving around all over the lake, chasing herring. You can't count on 'em (to be oriented at deep structure) because herring swim 24 hours a day."
But there's one sure bet -- if anyone can find a way to catch bass that chase herring, David Fritts is the man.
And he'll do it with a crankbait.
Crankbaits, Color & Bass
Besides finding deep structure that holds bass during July and August, having a pliable fiberglass rod and choosing a deep diver that'll get down where the action is, David Fritts likes lures that have the right color.
And most of them resemble indigenous baitfishes.
When Fritts and Lexington lure guru Jerry Lohr, a neighbor and also a High Rock star, began tinkering with crankbaits to make them dive deeper in the 1980s, one of their tricks was to paint them colors that'd imitate a bass' favorite summer food -- bluegill bream, shad and crawfish.
So, it was off to Wal-Mart to buy brushes and dark green, chartreuse, brown, black, red and yellow paints.
Fritts even extended their theories of bass-lure color selection by tinkering with original shades. Knowing varying degrees of water clarity affect bass perceptions in the deep holes of High Rock, Buggs Island and Jordan lakes, he often put his newly-colored "baits" on the dashboard of his truck and left them there for a week or so.
"Sunlight faded the colors, and sometimes that lighter color fooled 'em better than the original paint jobs," he said. "You gotta remember the longer bream or other fish stay deep or in stained water, which you get a lot at High Rock, the lighter colors they are."
Today, Fritts has a lucrative working contract with Rapala, which makes a line of Fritts' signature DT (Down-To) crankbaits. DT-colored lures include shad, perch, firetiger, bluegill, blue shad, dark brown/craw, parrot, red crawdad, baby bass, hot mustard, greentiger and silver.
"In the middle of summer, I like to throw baits that are brown and pearl, brown and chartreuse, shad, and homer colors," he said. "Those baits work good."
Fritts said Rapala has a new color to be released soon he calls "Clark Gable," that's the greentiger with chartreuse stripes on its belly.
To increase his tournament success, Fritts also increased his strike-to-landing ratio by adding SureSet hooks to his crankbaits.
"Now if a bass short strikes or brushes up against the bait, he's gonna get stuck," he said.