By Josh Lantz
For most bass anglers, crankbaits are just flat-out fun to fish. Designed to fish on a constant (or near-constant) retrieve while maintaining contact with and deflecting off structure, crankbaits provide the angler with tons of feedback.
“The main reason I like it is because you’re actively cranking and you’re feeling what the bait is doing the whole time,” says Addison, Alabama tournament angler and MLF competitor, Jesse Wiggins. “You feel exactly what that bottom or piece of structure is, and there’s no mistaking when the fish actually eats the bait. Plus, crankbaits help you cover a lot of water.”
FLW pro and northern river specialist, Cody Hahner of Wausau, Wisconsin, agrees. “Crankbait fishing is one of the more exciting ways to fish. It’s an amazing way to cover water for sure, but what’s more important to me is how I’m able to feel the bottom and the contours of the structure,” he says. “I can feel the sweet spots and I can feel how a crankbait reacts over certain types of structure. I’m not partial to any hard bait brand, so I can say openly that every crankbait reacts differently to the type of structure you fish. You could line up four crankbaits that all run four feet deep, but one will work best in gravel, one in sand to rock, one in timber, and one in busted concrete. It’s almost like finding the right soft plastic for the current situation. At this time of year, I’ll have at least 5 different crankbaits on my deck.”
For Hahner, “this time of year” – late September through October – is his absolute favorite time to throw a crankbait for river smallmouth. “In the north country our summer is over and the fall transition is in full swing. The first major cold snap will cause river smallmouth to get fidgety and begin the move to their winter pools,” he says. “Much like us northerners gathering firewood, these smallmouth are preparing to deal with winter, too.”
These fall transition periods can be tough to decipher for some river smallmouth anglers, but Hahner says they don’t need to be. Truth is that a methodical search of key river sections can lead you to a glory hole of giant smallmouth.
“My typical program for this time of year is hopscotching my way down a certain river system towards where our fish will winter,” he advises. “Before I do that, though, I need a good understanding of where these fish summer – usually near faster rapids and shallower pools – and where they winter – typically deeper pools in slower current. Understanding this basic transition will give you an ‘in-between section’ of water in which to search for these fish.”
Still, this “in between” can remain quite daunting. But Hahner says anglers just need to look for the stop signs that will lead them to the bass. “It could be a string of wing dams in the Mississippi River, a line of old mooring piles in the Wisconsin River, or a line of mid-river wood that provides a current break,” he says. “These stopping points can be plentiful, so a quick search of each likely area is important. My favorite way to locate fish along their transition is with a crankbait. Its ability to be fished quickly and efficiently through these spots makes it a perfect run-and-gun bait to track down big, river smallmouth in the fall transition.”
Depending on water temps, Hahner says smallies could be sitting anywhere between one and 12 feet of water on these locations. “When the current’s flowing and the water is hot our fish usually are in the shallower columns of these hard spots, but when the water cools and the current is low I’m looking at the deeper bases of the hard spots or mid river wood to congregate fish,” he says. That means selecting the right crankbait is important.
“Our bass are both minnow and crayfish based,” Hahner says. “The crayfish are always plentiful on these rock areas, but our minnows and small suckers are making the same transition to wintering areas as the bass are. That means baitfish are a more reliable forage for bass at this time of year, so they should also become more important to the angler.”
Down south, Wiggins says he fishes the fall a lot like he does the pre-spawn, especially on his home waters of Smith Lake. “Most of the time the bass are following the baitfish into the creeks. For me, that means a lot of shallow crankin’ with square bills and flat-sided cranks – shad colors in clean water and darker crawfish patterns and colors in stained water,” he says. “You’re looking at channel swings, mostly; wherever you can see bait busting and a lot of times in five feet of water or shallower.”
Hahner’s two favorite rods for fall cranking are a 7’4” medium-heavy power model for larger or deeper-diving baits like a Rapala DT10 or DT14, and a 7’2” medium power rod for smaller cranks like Bandit 200’s, Spro MD’s, or Strike King 3XD’s. He opts for a forgiving, moderate action – a rod that bends deeper into the mid-section – to better absorb the slashing strikes bronzebacks impart on a moving bait while keeping the treble hooks secure in the fish’s mouth throughout the fight. “Beyond having a moderate action, lure weight is the most important aspect in deciding which rod to use,” he says. “I want a rod that’s comfortable to fish with all day and to make a thousand casts with. A rod that’s too wimpy (not enough power) for a certain crankbait will make it less fun and more of a chore.”
Hahner prefers the characteristics of glass rods for crankbait fishing; specifically the super-premium, 100% linear S-glass blanks unique to St. Croix’s Legend Glass and Mojo Bass Glass rod models. “These are not your ordinary glass rods,” Hahner says. “The combination of linear S-glass and IPC technology – that means you’ve got one continuous taper from tip to butt with no inherently weak transition points – produces a surprisingly lightweight, smooth, and strong rod that loads up consistently and helps anglers perform all day long without fatigue. In addition to being strong and lightweight with that sweet, moderate action, they’re also incredibly crisp and sensitive. If you’ve never tried a glass crankbait rod or have had unsatisfying experiences with them in the past, you owe it to yourself to give a Legend Glass or Mojo Bass Glass rod a go.” Hahner runs both rods with a 6.4-1 gear ratio reel and anywhere from 10-to-15-pound fluorocarbon line.
“At 3/8 of an ounce, DT6’s are about the smallest crankbaits I usually throw,” says Wiggins, who does most of his crankbait fishing with 12-pound fluorocarbon line on 6.6:1 reels. “The new 7’1” medium-heavy power, moderate action Mojo Bass Mid-Carbon Cranker handles and casts these and larger square bills really well and extremely accurately, especially at close and moderate distances like you have in most conditions while fishing these baits. It’s very light – which is what you want when you’re making hundreds of casts a day – with a very comfortable handle that also helps in not getting worn out,” he continues. “And most importantly, its moderate action offers the ideal amount of deflection and cushion on the strike that anglers expect from a quality crankbait rod. St. Croix makes that same length and action in a medium power Mojo Bass Carbon Cranker, too, which is a great option for folks who need to throw even smaller crankbaits.”
Wiggins’ also shares Hahner’s affinity for St. Croix’s Legend Glass and Mojo Bass Glass series rods for fishing crankbaits. “That 6’10” medium-heavy power Legend Glass is an incredible target cranker. It’s my favorite rod for fishing Jackall Bling 55’s. I fish a chatterbait on it, too, unless I’m ripping it in the grass, then I’ll opt for the 7’2” heavy power Legend Glass.”
Hahner and Wiggins both ride the fall crankbait bite until cold water provides diminishing returns. “It’ll usually last until things cool down to about 50 degrees,” Wiggins says. Hahner milks it a bit longer.
“Up here it’ll last as long as I can bear to make them bite it,” Hahner says. “Sooner or later you need to slow your presentations down; making your crankbait a kind of controlled-depth jerkbait. As water temperatures continue to drop, I’ll move from a steady retrieve, to a more moderate stop-and-go retrieve, and eventually a pull-pause suspending retrieve made possible by using Suspend Dots, which are small, lead stickers I’ll place on my crankbaits to get them to suspend while remaining balanced when I pause my retrieve. My standard rule is that when the water temps hit the low 50’s I’ll move away from wide-wobbling baits in favor of more-subtle tighter-wobbling balsas. Below 50 degrees I really start slowing these baits down and suspending them.”
Hahner summarizes by reminding would-be fall crankbait anglers of three things: “First is that a crankbait is not a bait that should only be thrown when fish are active,” he says. “It’s also the ultimate cold-front / reaction bait. Fish either eat it or get out of the way. Secondly, don’t be afraid to get these baits in the junk. Crankbaits are designed to deflect off of structure and cover. That’s what draws strikes, so they need to be used that way.” Finally, Hahner says there is such a thing as a crankbait making too much bottom contact. “Either increase your line size or switch to a shallower running model to achieve that perfect balance of bottom contact and bait action.”
“You just have to throw them and get confidence,” wraps Wiggins, whose many tournament successes have been heavily crankbait-centric. “My dad taught me a lot about the effectiveness of crankbaits from my earliest days of fishing and I’m grateful for that. It’s a great bait to learn, a fun bait to use, and these next several weeks are among the best times of the year to break them out.”