There’s a bitter wind blowing out of the North, it’s spitting snow, and the lake’s temperature is a frigid 42 degrees. What lure should you be casting?
Most bass fishermen would opt for a slow-motion presentation, either crawling a jig across the bottom, slow-rolling a spinnerbait, or vertical-jigging a spoon. All of the above are logical choices, but many anglers who chase bass for a living are taking a faster route to Lunkerville. They shift their winter bassin’ into a higher gear by extending their crankbait season into the coldest months.
“Winter bass will surprise you,” New Jersey pro Mike Iaconelli knows. “Sometimes they’ll hit a crankbait when you can’t buy a strike on a slow-motion lure like a jig or shaky head worm. I’ve had great days crankin’ when the lake was just a couple degrees shy of frozen!”
Basics of Late Season Crankin’
“Crankbaits are a surprisingly good choice in late fall and winter – I routinely catch bass on ‘em when the lake temp has dipped into the low 40s,” says Missouri pro Brian Snowden. “But you need to adjust the way you fish ‘em to compensate for the cold water.”
While Snowden fishes beefy 1/2- and 3/4-ounce crankbaits in summer and early fall, he downsizes in late fall and winter. “Bass are cold-blooded creatures, and their metabolism slows down as the water they inhabit gets colder,” he explained. “A fisheries biologist told me that it takes a bass 10 times longer to digest a meal in 45-degree water than in 80-degree water! No wonder bass feed infrequently in winter, and target smaller prey when they do feed. Small crayfish and immature shad are their favorite winter meals, and a compact 1/4- to 3/8-ounce crankbait convincingly mimics this size forage.”
The biggest misconception about winter crankin’ is that you must always use a slow retrieve, Snowden continued. “A crankbait is a reaction-strike lure — it catches fish by provoking a predatory response, even when bass aren’t hungry. I use a fairly rapid stop-and-go retrieve all through the winter month to trigger strikes.”
Crankin’ Clear Lakes
Most experienced bass anglers are skeptical about the productivity of crankbaits in cold, gin-clear water. Not Tennessee bass expert Steve Dodson. The veteran highland reservoir angler has found crankin’ can provoke savage reaction strikes in late fall and winter from the clearest lakes – as long as there’s a good chop on the water. “Once the water temp drops into the 50-degree range in late fall, you can have a ball crankin’ windy points,” he said. “Waves crashing against the bank roil up the water and get crayfish and bass moving around. Cast a quarter-ounce crankbait right against the point and they’ll jump all over it!”
Murky water entering a normally clear reservoir system in cold weather presents another window of opportunity for crankbait fans, Dodson promised. “A late fall or winter rainstorm can send a gush of warmer, muddier water into the main lake via the tributaries. Right after the storm, head for the extreme back-end of inflowing creeks and crank your way out to where the water starts to clear up. Bass will stack up in that warmer, murkier water to gorge on shad and crayfish.”
Murky Water Crankin’
There was a time when the vast majority of bass pros shunned crankbaits during late-season tournaments on off-colored lakes, and opted for a slow, painstaking flipping or pitching presentation with a jig instead. But today, many pros don’t stop crankin’ murky water until the lake darn near freezes over! “Bass in murky lakes will remain shallow even when the water drops down into the mid 40-degree range, as long as they have some isolated wood or rock cover to relate to,” Alabama pro Gerald Swindle promised. “And, they won’t hesitate to smack a crankbait, provided you use the right presentation.” Swindle’s favorite coldwater crankbait is the Lucky Craft Big Daddy Strike 3, a chunky medium-running squarebill known for its remarkable ability to deflect off hard objects. He fishes this plug in both shad and bluegills patterns, focusing on rocky points, stump flats and shallow coves with scattered cover. “I present a squarebill by casting past a submerged stump, limb or rock, and then reeling it a fairly fast clip, using my rod to steer the lure into the cover,” Swindle said. “I want to actually hit the cover with the lure, not just come close, because the bass are sluggish now and their visibility is limited, so they won’t move more than a few inches to grab it. Almost every strike you get crankin’ cold, murky water will come the instant the lure deflects off the cover. This is heavy-contact crankin’, so use heavy line and check it frequently for abrasion!”
Lee Bailey, Jr., a Connecticut pro, cranks the same general areas in murky flatland reservoirs as Swindle, but works them over with a totally different fishing style. “Gerald uses a wide-ranging crankin’ style in winter; but I’m more comfortable making a lot of real short casts and trying to hit as many submerged objects as I can,” he said. Like most pros, Bailey uses a high-speed reel for cranking, but once he’s got the lure down to its maximum depth, he pulls it with his rod rather than cranks it with the reel handle: “This slows my presentation down and gives me a great feel for how the lure is banging along the bottom or rooting through cover.” Lee’s top choice for cold, murky water is a chartreuse shad Norman Little N, a 3/8-ounce medium-runner which he doctors with lead tape so it suspends. “This crankbait works especially well on big laydown trees – bass will suspend under the ends of the limbs in winter. Rooting the lure down the length of the tree, then pausing when it reaches the tips of the branches, often triggers a strike.”
Hot Tips for Coldwater Crankin’
► Avoid a constant retrieve once the water temp drops into the 50-degree range. You’ll get more strikes using a stop-and-go retrieve.
► Downsize your crankbaits to meet the slower metabolic requirements of coldwater bass. You’ll catch more and bigger bass on compact quarter-ounce cranks in winter than on those big, fat deep-divers.
► When fishing a squarebill crankbait in frigid water, stop reeling the instant the plug bumps into cover and allow it to rise up slowly toward the surface. Often a bass hiding in the cover will emerge to suck in the lure.