August 13, 2020
By Pete Anderson
Major League Fishing and Bass Pro Tour angler Dave Lefebre asks himself a simple question when searching for a fishing advantage: "What’s the last thing I would do here?" Pose that question to bass anglers on a summer day and throwing crankbaits would be a popular answer.
Summertime cranking is a given for bass in the South where sprawling reservoirs are filled with structure, such as humps and creek channels, but not much cover. It’s flipped in the North, where cover, including aquatic vegetation and laydowns, is plentiful and structure is minimal. Crankbaits, with their dangling treble hooks poised to snag any bit of cover they pass, don’t play well here in summer. Or at least that’s the common thought.
Lefebre first made crankbaits work on natural lakes about 30 years ago, fishing popular tournament venues across northwestern Pennsylvania. "Edinboro, Leboeuf, Conneaut—these were all places that I won cranking," says the Erie, Pa.-based angler. And best of all, he says, the technique still produces bass.
Putting crankbaits front-and-center can produce better summer bass fishing on northern natural lakes and rivers from the bank to the abyss. "Cranking when and where you shouldn’t is definitely more challenging," Lefebre says. "It’s a little bit more work, but it has a big reward."
DIVE INTO HEAVY COVER
Bass follow seasonal patterns, but on every lake there are those that refuse to leave shallow water in summer, forgoing deep water for refuge in thick beds of aquatic vegetation. "These fish get in six inches of water, even when the water temperature skyrockets," Lefebre says. "It’s nasty up there, and these fish are ignored [by many anglers]."
These bass are stubborn about their food, too. Spinnerbaits, jigs and frogs are easiest to fish in heavy cover, Lefebre says, so bass see every make and model. What they don’t see is a crankbait. "It’s never going to be the No. 1 bait [for this scenario],” he says. “But its uniqueness creates strikes."
Lefebre’s targets are small: a sliver of open water along a laydown or deep within a field of lily pads, typically. "A two-foot opening is all you need," he says. With precious room to work, precision and perseverance are key—and practice leads to proficiency.
To crank here you need the right gear. Lefebre’s 13 Fishing baitcasting outfit would be labeled "all-purpose" by other anglers. The 7-foot, 3-inch graphite rod sports a medium power, supporting the underhand casts that put his crankbait on target and providing leverage to extract bass from heavy cover. He forgoes the typical powerful crankbait casting reel for a speedier one with a 7.3:1 or 8:1 gear ratio. It quickly finishes unproductive retrieves, creating time for more presentations. He cranks it slow to give his crankbaits their best wobble.
Lefebre chooses buoyant crankbaits with shallow-diving curves. Shad patterns are his favorite, including chartreuse versions when clear water turns stained. These mimic the sunfish and crappies that bass hunt in the slop in summer. His go-to is a Storm SubWart, which has a vertical bill that keeps it running near the surface. Rapala’s BX Brat is optimal for this technique, too. Its balsa core creates a bass-attracting wiggle at slow speeds, and it rises like a cork when at rest. The No. 3 size will run three feet deep, though Lefebre’s line choice keeps it higher than that. He uses a tough 17- or 20-pound-test monofilament, such as Sufix Advance.
"It has the qualities of a fluorocarbon, but it floats," he says. That and its large diameter keeps his crankbait up and out of the grass.
YO-YO THROUGH THE MID-DEPTHS
Captain Mick Maynard likes to get creative with his crankbait fishing. The operator of Lake Champlain Angler Fishing Charters and Guide Service fishes cranks often for summertime largemouths and smallmouths on his home lake. Sometimes that means dredging 20 feet down with deep divers, other times that’s poking around shallow cover with a medium diver like a Bill Lewis MR6 or a square bill. He’s been known to fish a lipless crankbait, such as a Rat-L-Trap, too.
Maynard works a lipless bait a couple different ways. First, he’ll let it settle into submerged aquatic vegetation and rip it free, which is effective with Champlain’s robust largemouth. Second, he’ll throw it over stretches of hard bottom, where he uses a pull-and-pause retrieve. It causes his lure to noisily race forward and then flutter, which is when most smallmouths bite. In both instances, aggressiveness in the retrieve is key. “[It’s like how]you don’t run away from a bear in the woods. It’s in his nature to chase you,” Maynard says.
He ties his Rat-L-Traps—either the 1/2- or 3/4-ounce size—to braided line. He says its lack of stretch means his crankbait reacts immediately to his pulls, which would be absorbed by stretchy monofilament line. He saves the mono for techniques with small hooks, such as drop-shotting, when the shock absorption keeps bass hooked.
While braided line (anywhere from 10- to 30-pound-test) makes ripping a lipless crankbait easier, it gives bass a better shot at throwing hooks. The pressure you apply when bringing the bass to the boat is spread across all the hook points in the fish’s lip. Allow for a bit of slack and the bass is as good as gone. A slow-action rod, which flexes from handle to tip, acts like a spring and keeps your line tight no matter what direction you or the bass moves.
Unless you’re up in Missisquoi Bay on the Vermont side or below Ticonderoga, New York, Champlain’s water is clear. That’s due to zebra mussels, the powerful invasive filter-feeders. Therefore, Maynard fishes Traps in natural colors. He adds brighter options at the lake’s far ends, where the water is often stained.
RIP INTO DEEP EDGES
Josh Bertrand’s address might be in Arizona, but the Bass Pro Tour angler spends many days each year chasing bass in the country’s opposite corner. And crankbaits always play a role. "They are just such a big-fish bait," he says. "Summer is the best time for cranking because you have the most grass and bass are pushing out deep. When you find a good grass edge you can catch fish all day, regardless of conditions."
Many natural lakes and northern rivers have clear water, so aquatic vegetation grows to 20 feet or more, but bass aren’t everywhere. "You’re looking for edges or an irregularity in the grass [line]," Bertrand says. The pro locates them with his electronics. Bertrand uses Garmin’s Livescope, which provides a real-time view of whatever direction in which he points his trolling motor.
These sweet spots determine where to cast, but the depth and vegetation type direct how Bertrand fishes. If it’s hydrilla or milfoil, he wants a crankbait that he can wind into it and rip free to incite a strike, so he chooses one that dives a little deeper than the top of the grass. If it’s more of a stringy cabbage that easily fouls lures, he wants one that tickles its top.
Bertrand turns to Berkley’s Dredger crankbaits, six models that bass fishing legend David Fritts tweaked to perfection, featuring small profiles that cast far and dive deep. His favorite for deep grass edges is the 17.5, which dives from 16 to almost 20 feet. "That seems to be the depth that you are targeting in summer," he says. His colors match the hatch, usually the sunfish- and perch-imitating Rubbertail and Rootbeer Splatter Back.
Bertrand is particular about his rod-reel-and-line combo, too. "Deep cranking is one of the most important times to have the right [combo]," he says. He chooses a 7-foot-10-inch Abu Garcia Ike Signature Series rod, which helps him cast farther to give his crankbaits more distance to dive deeper. Prior to the cast, he leaves about a foot of line between the rod’s tip and the lure. Less or more causes casting problems, including rolling crankbaits that foul in the line or tangle hooks.
The rod’s composite blank has a medium-heavy power that pops crankbaits from grass with a wrist flick, and its slow action keeps bass hooked. There’s more casting distance in his Abu Garcia Revo EXD’s high-tech spool-shaft bearings and cranking power in its 5.4:1 gearing. Its oversize handles lessen the toll that winding big crankbaits can take on your hands, he says.
Bertrand uses 10-pound-test Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line most often. It’s nearly invisible in clear water, and its minimal stretch makes freeing crankbaits from grass easy. “One thing that I will adjust, especially when cranking grass, is my line size,” he says. If he needs his crankbait to run shallower, for example, he’ll opt for a higher pound test with a larger diameter.
SEARCH OUT SCATTERED CLUMPS
Conneaut, the largest natural lake in Pennsylvania, is filled with aquatic vegetation that grows to 15 feet or more. Lefebre says its outside edge concentrates bass anglers who flip jigs and soft-plastic lures. As such, he fishes away from them—literally.
As water deepens and light penetration lessens, aquatic vegetation fizzles out, growing in clumps and single plants, often switching from milfoil to coontail. Lefebre moves his boat along the hard edge, which is visible in clear water, and casts parallel and away from it, aiming to intersect with the sparse grass that goes unseen. "I’ve used that [approach] my whole career," he says. "Conneaut is where it started."
The points and edges of the distinct grass line can guide you to deeper grass. When Lefebre first uncovered this technique, he’d fish until he found some fish and dropped marker buoys in places where he’d made productive casts. Today, he uses his electronics to find bass quickly and marks waypoints in places that merit a return visit. "It’s rarely just one [bass]," he says. "You might go hours without a bite and then bam, bam, bam. It’s crucial to stay on them." And they’re not all largemouths. You’re in position to catch a giant smallmouth, too, he says.
Lefebre favors the same rod that he uses to crank shallow water. He wants accurate medium to long casts, which help him feel his lure and cover. He also sticks with the same colors but on a different lure. "Crankbaits aren’t designed to come through grass like that," Lefebre says. "The key is a DT crankbait."
Rapala’s popular series of divers are slender and have a bill that rocks and rolls through cover, he says.
Lefebre changes his line to fluorocarbon, opting for slightly lower pound tests than he cranks on the bank. It’s less stretchy than monofilament, giving him more feel. And because he’s trying to reach greater depths, its sinking property helps.
After all, when you’re fishing aquatic vegetation with crankbaits, you don’t need hinderances. Your gear needs to help you deliver crankbaits precisely and in a way that makes bass bite. "It’s not the easiest thing to do," Lefebre says. "But it’s worth it."
Top Cranking Lakes
Every angler has a favorite lake or river where one or more of these cranking techniques will work this month. But there are two, within easy driving distance of each other, where you can employ all four techniques.
Cayuga Lake: The longest of the Finger Lakes has plenty of fishable water. But at its north end, from about Union Springs to the lake’s outlet at Mud Lock Canal Park, expansive beds of submerged aquatic vegetation hold massive schools of largemouths, including some weighing more than 7 pounds. Fish toward the southern fringes of these beds to catch Cayuga’s hard-fighting smallmouths. Keep your eyes on the wind; a south blow makes fishing rough, with waves starting almost 40 miles away in Ithaca. Launch in Union Springs or across the lake at Cayuga Lake State Park. Accommodations, food and fuel are available in Seneca Falls and Auburn. More information is available at fingerlakes.org.
Oneida and Seneca Rivers: You won’t have to worry about the wind on the Oneida and Seneca rivers, which form part of the New York State Barge Canal. They connect Oneida and Onondaga lakes near Syracuse with Lake Ontario via the Oswego River. They are sheltered and lined with millions of laydowns and miles of aquatic vegetation, both matted and submerged. Summertime bass hold in woody shoreline cover and along the outside grass edges. Concentrate your efforts on backwaters, like around Horseshoe and Klein islands, where you’ll be away from most of the pleasure-boat traffic. Choose from several launches, including a state ramp near Three Rivers and the county park in Liverpool. Accommodations, food and fuel are plentiful near both. More information is available at visitsyracuse.com.
THE CUTTING EDGE
Looking for a new tackle storage system? Plano’s EDGE Series tackle boxes are some of the most impressive and efficient I’ve seen. To prevent water and rust, each box has Dri-Loc-sealed rubber gaskets, Plano’s Rustrictor anti-rust compound fused into the base and a water-absorbing desiccant divider. The desiccant is a functional divider. To recharge it, you simply slide it out and heat it in the oven. Interior dividers are vented to improve airflow and are recessed into the base to keep hooks from sliding under them, a common issue on some tackle boxes.
Outside, a Duraview crystal-clear lid allows easy viewing of baits without having to pop the lid, and a single large latch offers simple one-handed operation. The EDGE series has 10 different models: four general storage options and six custom, category-specific boxes. Custom models are tailored to specific bait categories—for example, crankbaits and spinnerbaits—and terminal tackle, and they are perhaps even more impressive than the general boxes. ($29.99-$49.99; planomolding.com) —Drew Warden