Hot weather got you down?
When temperatures rise, it’s time to get crankin’
When plastic worms first hit the market in the 1950s, they so thoroughly revolutionized bass fishing that even now many bass anglers are reluctant to use anything else. But the worm may be turning (pardon the pun but not the sentiment). It’s not that soft plastics have suddenly lost their fish-catching magic, it’s simply that they’re no longer every bass fisherman’s knee-jerk preference in every situation. The lure that most lately has bulled its way to the top for hot summertime fishing is made of wood or hard plastic, has treble hooks, and has a lip to make it dive and wobble. It’s the crankbait.
True, bass fishermen were using crankbaits even before they discovered plastic worms, but the ones that have put them back at No. 1 are a new generation of magnum-lipped lures designed to reach extreme depths. Not only can they probe bottom structure far more quickly than a weighted soft plastic lure can, with their big lips acting as deflector shields they can be fished through heavy cover – even standing timber – without hanging up.
To be sure, soft plastic lures still play an important role in hot-weather fishing, and even the most dedicated cranker is likely to keep at least one worm rod handy for those spots that are simply too deep or too thick to fish with a crankbait. But instead of sliding weights and large Texas-rigged worms, these outfits are now more likely to sport Carolina rigs and an assortment of small, strange-looking squirmies.
If you’re not convinced that scaled-down Carolina rigs and big-lipped crankbaits are the call for big-lake summer bass, try the techniques that follow. You may wind up wondering why you didn’t give up the worm habit sooner.
Throw ‘n’ Go
Phil Cable is a longtime friend and a big-lake bass specialist who relishes being the first on the block when it comes to new fishing techniques. Nowadays, when the talk is tough-to-goad summer bass, Cable has plenty to say. “Contrary to popular belief, it’s actually easier to find and catch bass in really hot weather – the fish are forced to adopt such rigid patterns that you can eliminate 90 percent of the lake,” says Cable. “Once the heat hits, the fish head to very specific types of cover at predictable depths, and they’ll stay there until the fall.”
Rather than concentrating for hours on a handful of hard-fished, classic deep spots, look for less obvious structure such as humps, secondary points, drop-offs, and channel bends and edges in 9 to 12 feet of water. All the better if you find a bit of cover on the structure – a stump or two or a smattering of brush – but it’s not vital to success. The key is to fish as many of these spots as possible. “Stay on the go,” says Cable. “You’ll not only show your lure to more fish, you’ll make it easier to zero in on precise feeding patterns.”
From mid-June through late summer, deep-diving crankbaits are Cable’s first lure choice, especially wooden lures like those in the Poe 400 series. Fished on 10-pound line, 400s run about 12 feet deep, which, like most crankbaits, is somewhat shallower than the manufacturer’s claimed running depth. But that’s not a problem, Cable says, since fish seldom swim much deeper, even on the hottest summer days. Most frequently he finds bass holding on structure at depths of between 9 and 12 feet. He all but ignores the extreme depths once thought so important to hot-weather success.
As for lure color, Cable limits his choices to two – chartreuse and pearl. His favorites are chartreuse crankbaits with hot-orange bellies because they perform well in both clear and dingy water. If these don’t produce, it’s his opinion that the bass simply aren’t around, and it’s time to move on.
Cable recommends 10-pound-test line rigged on a soft-tipped seven-foot rod for fishing these deep-diving lures. “The light line lets the lure run deeper, and it gives me greater casting distance,” he says.
A steady, moderate retrieve allows cranks to bounce off most stumps, rocks, and other solid objects. But if you do get hung, and you will sometimes, slacken your line and the buoyant lure should back off and come free.
When bass move into extremely thick, brushy cover or drift into depths beyond the reach of even the deepest-running crankbaits, Cable makes one of his rare switches to soft plastics. But instead of going to a traditional Texas-rigged worm, almost without exception he uses Carolina rigging and small plastics.
“The Carolina rig [see illustration] is exceptionally effective because it separates the weight from the lure,” he says. “The weight doesn’t hamper lure action or obscure the silhouette of the smaller soft plastics that are now becoming popular.”
Cable recommends rigging up with a 3/4- to 1-oz. conical brass weight and one or two glass beads threaded on the line ahead of the swivel – the clicking of the glass against the brass acts as a bass attractor. He attaches 36 inches of monofilament to the swivel, ties his hook to the free end, and hooks his lure Texas-style.
Large worms work fine on a Carolina rig, but fishermen like Cable are coming around to using smaller wigglies like salamanders, crawfish, and four- to six-inch do-nothing worms. Cable’s current favorite is a green pumpkin centipede that looks like a day-old crinkle-cut french fry.
When he’s fishing Carolina rigs, Cable uses a stout rod and 20-pound-test line because he knows he will be fishing very thick cover. As with the crankbaits, he concentrates on depths of 9 to 12 feet. Seldom will you find consistent catches at depths below 20 feet, but if the fish should head that deep, Carolina rigs can reach them when crankbaits can’t.
If your favorite lake has standing timber, you may be surprised to learn that a crankbait can outfish soft plastics in these watery woodlands.
“We need to go to the woods,” said Cable one steamy mid-August day when our usually reliable tactics were yielding indifferent results.
“You mean quit and go home?” I asked.
“I mean those woods,” he said, pointing to several acres of flooded timber that stood like a ghostly forest along one side of the lake.
Almost everyone tries to fish flooded timber because it looks so good, but few really know how to go about it in hot weather. From midsummer until early fall, bass, especially larger bass, move into timber that’s in at least 10 feet of water, especially when the water is slightly murky. Not every drowned woodlot holds fish, but once you find them the fishing can be terrific.
I fully expected Cable to pull out his worm rod and heavy line, but he started casting into openings around the trees with his favorite chartreuse crankbait and a 10-pound outfit. “You want to reel slowly, keeping the lure only about six or eight feet deep,” he said. “This type of fishing can be frustrating, but these big-lipped crankbaits have a knack for bouncing off most snags. If you get hung, give your line slack and the lure can usually back itself off. Just guide it slowly through the cover, and be sure to bring it alongside any horizontal logs you see.”
I was just asking Cable why he sticks with light line in such treacherous cover when he suddenly set the hook, causing nine pounds of belligerent bass to toil the surface. Cable played the fish carefully, weighed it, and released it before he got around to answering my question. “I seldom get broken off. And the crankbait seems to catch far more fish than a worm. I’m of the opinion that it’s because the fish are not on the bottom but are suspended in this stuff.” During the next hour we landed three other bass, all better than four pounds, and lost only one.
Of course you can use heavier line – and I do on occasion – but since Cable catches more big bass than I do in timber, I’m coming to the conclusion than the lighter line must offer some advantage that isn’t obvious. I can assure you that one way or another, cranking in the trees is a summer tactic you need to try if there’s standing timber in a lake near you.
What should you look for when choosing a crankbait for largemouth bass on deep summer patterns? The key feature is a massive lip capable of quickly forcing a 5/8- or 3/4-oz. crankbait to depths of 12 feet or more – a depth that must be achieved by casting, not trolling. Deep-diving crankbaits are often advertised as capable of reaching pretty outlandish depths. In practice you’re likely to find that many fail to achieve those claims except briefly on very long casts or while trolling. Your choice of line is also a factor, since lighter, thinner lines permit lures to dig deeper.
It pays to pretest various brands with the aid of a depth sounder to determine a crankbait’s maximum depth for the line you’re using. Mark an area with a uniform bottom’ depth – 12 feet is ideal – then make normal casts with various crankbaits. If your lure ticks bottom, repeat the process in slightly deeper water until you’re barely tapping bottom. If you don’t hit bottom, repeat the process in slightly shallower water. When you determine a lure’s maximum running depth, mark it on the lure with an indelible marker.
Cable’s experience with some of the more popular crankbaits may save you some time, especially if you follow his suggestion to use 10-pound-test monofilament. He’s found that his favorite Poe 400 series cedar crankbaits comfortably run at a depth of about 12 feet. The Bagley DB3 balsa crankbait is another good choice, and Cable uses it for depths down to about 10 or 12 feet. Buoyant cedar or balsa crankbaits that fish the 10- to 12-foot depths are also ideal for cranking timber. For deeper structure, Cable usually switches to a Mann’s plastic 20+ crankbait or a Norman Deep-Diving 22 plastic crankbait. These are practical to about 15 feet – possibly a bit deeper – when casting with 10-pound-test line. Bomber, Rapala, and other lure makers also make crankbaits well suited to fishing deep summer patterns. If you need extra depth and don’t want to switch to plastic worms, you can Carolina-rig a pegged weight on the line ahead of the lure. Keep in mind, however, that adding weight will probably dampen the lure’s action.
Cable isn’t convinced color is always critical, and although he’s had his best success with chartreuse, you may prefer other colors. Likewise, if you have confidence in scents or built-in rattles, there’s no reason you shouldn’t add these wrinkles. The real key to summer pattern cranking, however, is putting the lure at the right depth. Do that, and you’ll catch bass.
South Carolina native Jim Dean is author of more than 900 magazine features on fishing. His latest book, Dogs That Point, Fish That Bite (UNC Press, 1995), is due out in August.