Smallmouth Crankbaits, Rivers and Lakes
August 23, 2012
Smallmouth crankbaits that work best in rivers are not the same as the cranks that work best in lakes. At least, a fairly stark delineation often exists, though the two styles morph into one when rivers drop and clear, or at the other end of the spectrum when wind, waves, and rain draw the curtains in lakes.
The perfect "lake crank" is smaller and duller, more realistic, and more translucent than a river crank. The lake crank is less aggressive, too — meaning less thump, less flash, and less noise. The lake crank is more sinuous. It whispers, while the river crank screams to be heard through rushing water.
A photographic history of crankbaits looks like the evolutionary chart of man, from shambling ape to the upright, quasi-civilized, comparatively hairless versions of today. Bulbous, opaque, rattling ancestors have gradually given way to more slender, graceful, and realistic versions. The difference, in this analogy, is that the old-school Neanderthal crankbaits continue to hang around and catch bass.
To proclaim, "The Golly Whomper was good enough for Granddad, so it's good enough for me," is just caveman logic. We have too many cranks to choose from to accept such limitations. The crankbaits of today are sleek and stylish, and some may call it window dressing, but that's true only in some cases. The best of today's cranks are streamlined for dynamics and efficiency and not just for looks, because it's always better to be good than to look good.
River smallmouths push against current and develop muscles seldom used by their lake-dwelling cousins. They typically move farther to spawn and to find optimal seasonal habitats. All of which adds up to calories spent. Water clarity in a river can change drastically in a matter of hours during a heavy rain, and clarity ranges farther in both directions in a river, from ultraclear to muddy, over the course of a year. Water levels change more drastically, too. All of which makes it more difficult to identify the perfect river crank. What's perfect this week could be worthless next week, but that's seldom the case in lakes.
As a general rule, the best river cranks are more aggressive. Rattles tend to be more important. Smallmouth rivers tend to be cloudy and noisy compared to lakes in the same area. If smallmouths can hear the bait over the ambient din of water rolling over logs or rushing through shallow rocks, and if they can see it from at least three feet away, the odds of a strike rise dramatically. The endless conveyor of the river is about to carry that meal away forever, and the oppressive need for calories urges an aggressive response. Nature calculates too many calories are spent chasing then fighting current to regain a prime foraging position, at the point of an eddy or on the edge of a current void just out of the flow. When aggressive river bass have the opportunity to hit something invading their strike window, they generally take it.
Baits that perform best in rivers at normal to high flow tend to be rounder, more resistant, with thicker bills, opaque sides, and aggressive colorations. An aggressive crank is bright, noisy, and wobbles broadly, shouldering out some serious thump. The rounder the shape, the more water it pushes — and the wider the bill, the wider the wobble.
In my experience, the most aggressive river color for smallmouths is no color at all, or all white. (White reflects all colors of the spectrum and absorbs none.) Color can be a very subjective thing, but see if this doesn't apply for smallmouths in rivers near you: When the water is cloudiest, even the brightest flash might be invisible to a bass three feet away. Chrome reflects the color of the surrounding water. Bright fluorescent colors in firetiger and other patterns become visible closer to a bass than white in cloudy water, in my experience. And the beautiful thing about white as a lure color is that it's natural, appearing on the bellies of baitfish, frogs, and on many species of crayfish.
Some very subjective observances regarding color choices for smallmouth cranks in rivers: Aggressive colors work best in high water, and white crankbaits tend to outproduce fluorescent shades of chartreuse and orange from flood stage until the water drops several feet. Fluorescent colors are supplanted by firetiger patterns while the water is still high. At just-above-normal to normal water levels, half-white crankbaits shine. These include baby bass and natural shad patterns, but all white in a smaller version or less aggressive shape might still be working better than anything else (which hints at the blending process to be discussed later).
In rivers experiencing very high flows, the first two cranks out of my box are the Storm Wiggle Wart and the Cotton Cordell Wiggle O. Warts and Wiggle O's are round, wide-wobbling, aggressive, thumping baits that call long distance to fish way out there in the flow. I use them primarily from flood stage down to the point where the river is still considered high.
In moderate to high flows, I like a Rapala DT10 or DT6 or a Bomber 6A. The Rapala DT baits and the Bomber 6A are easily tuned racing machines that work better around wood, throw farther, and work faster than almost any other cranks on the market — the precise blend of characteristics required when the river is high, making bass scatter but also making them more aggressive. (High, cloudy water not only hides mistakes, it effectively hides bass, making them instinctively less skittish.)
So many cranks today — how to choose? An effective mindset for choosing crankbaits starts with knowing which characteristics are aggressive, which are subtle, and which are most important for the task at hand. Blending characteristics successfully results in the perfect bait for that task, wherever you are. To successfully blend the aggressive with the banal requires identifying all aggressive characteristics (bright, opaque colors, flash, noise, heavy thump, big vibration, round shape, and wide body), and all non-aggressive characteristics (dull or natural colors, translucency, subdued flash, reduced vibration, streamlined shape, tight wobble, quiet operation, and narrow bill). The number of possible combinations this suggests is mind-boggling.
Smaller versions of baits that work in high water, like the Baby Wiggle O, the Rapala XT4, and the Bomber 4A tend to produce dramatically better results when the river is dropping to normal levels or below. Those baits retain the aggressive actions of the larger versions, but size reduction dials down the amount of thump, noise, vibration, and flash. Baby bass versions of the Baby Wiggle O might begin to give place to translucent craw versions, toning down the aggressiveness of the color scheme. As those patterns lose effectiveness, reverse the process and try aggressive colorations and sizes in less-aggressive cranks like the Yo-Zuri Hardcore Shad Series.
Highly active smallmouths chow on all-white and firetiger patterns, even in low, clear water. But over the course of many days, the odds favor natural patterns in low, clear rivers. Opaque patterns dwindle in effectiveness as the river drops, but only in terms of percentages. When things get low and clear, translucent patterns become more effective as a starting point, even though an opaque white or firetiger pattern could be the hottest thing going. Never rule out bright patterns with smallmouths.
As a river drops, its current slows and it becomes more like a lake. Smallmouths are free to roam and suspend, less restricted by current. Prime spots widen from a few feet across at flood stage until, at the river's lowest ebb, they run bank-to-bank — meaning a smallmouth can track things, if it wants to. It can follow and watch. The water is clearer, too, so a lure has to make fewer mistakes, present fewer flaws, and at this point river cranks become lake cranks.
Lake cranks are sleek and slender by comparison. The profile extends and the dorsal height recedes. Bright colors may yet be warranted, but see-through patterns can be deadly in natural lakes. As mentioned, the lake crank whispers. Best to hide it, in fact, with a narrow lip and narrow body to create a less blatant wobble, with a see-through body or a paint job that allows it to blend into the background down there. And hold the rattles, please.
A crank that whispers through still water on a fluorocarbon leader challenges bass to find it. Smallmouths are sight-feeders by preference, and the prospect of feeling, hearing, or sensing prey that can't be seen must, deductively, warrant investigation. Hiding a lure awakens the sleeping dragon of predatory instinct.
The lake crank is sleek and modern, with a slender bill and non-resistant shape that cuts through water with less wobble. The lake crank is evolutionary, having gradually been trimmed, styled, and engineered for bass pressured by crankbaits for many decades now. Light can pass through many of the best lake cranks, presenting a more realistic profile. As light passes through a translucent plastic, it illuminates the side away from an approaching predator, but also allows part of the profile to blend into whatever background exists. Since most baitfish reflect their surroundings and blend into the background, a broken image along the profile of a baitfish might be all a predator can see, much of the time.
Baits that work best in clear lakes for me tend to be smaller, clearer, and Japanese or European in origin, such as the Daiwa TD Cranks, the Yo-Zuri Hardcore Series, Salmo Hornets, and Lucky Craft Moonsault CBs. Lay a Moonsault down next to a classic Cotton Cordell Big O for an eye-opening visual demonstration of the evolutionary trends crankbaits have followed for the past 40 years. The Big O has everything a big, aggressive, uneducated bass wants — a round shape, a wide wobble, and aggressive vibration. But the Moonsault has everything a big, pressured, skittish bass wants — translucency, a narrow lip, a narrower body, and subtle vibration.
Matching the hatch can be critical with smallmouths in lakes, and it's a much easier proposition today. Lucky Craft, for instance, offers more than 25 natural baitfish patterns in the Bevy Shad alone. Many are translucent. When smallmouths in northern lakes key on young perch, few crankbaits can equal a Bevy Shad in the natural Ghost Sunfish pattern. With a dash of orange on the throat and barely distinct vertical bars running down its sides, the Ghost Sunfish Bevy Shad looks more like a perch than a perch.
Other perfect perch imitators include the Rapala Glass Shad Rap and the Translucent Perch pattern Daiwa TD Crank. When smallmouths key on shad, few baits imitate them better than the new Daiwa TD Thin Lips in Translucent Minnow or Threadfin Shad patterns. Yo-Zuri offers a number of realistic shad imitations in their Hardcore Shad series of baits. The Salmo Hornet and the Rapala DT Series Cranks include very realistic panfish patterns. Small bluegills are critical sources of food in many rivers and natural lakes that contain smallmouths. As pressure on bass increases, this kind of realism seems increasingly logical to employ.
Some cranks can't handle the pressure — water pressure, that is. A classic example is the Reef Runner Ripshad, a dynamic fish-catching bait with a thin bill and subtle wobble that would classify in this context as a lake crank, except that a pearl Ripshad has been a go-to bait for me in rivers for several years, now. It has a very delicate balance. It has to be tuned differently for almost every angle of retrieve, relative to current direction. Despite the touchy nature of a Ripshad, when tuned correctly it dives amazingly deep for its size, casts like a bullet, operates in a tight area, and produces a subtle, effective vibration few baits can equal in moderate to low rivers and smaller natural lakes. But it's not the first bait to grab when hunting in either situation.
As a rule, subtle baits (lake cranks) don't perform as well in current. But the Salmo Hornet — which also has a narrow neck on its unique, shovelnose bill, a narrow wobble, and a fairly subtle action — is amazingly well balanced in current. Tom Zenanko of Salmo USA insists that the Hornet continues to run true at 10 mph. The Rapala Shad Rap is another exception to rules regarding current, and also runs true at high speed.
Those old Neanderthal cranks perform very well in current, up to a point. Wide-wobbling classics like the Storm Wiggle Warts are designed to run erratically, which is good, but can't achieve maximum depth in heavy currents. Specimens from the next step up on the evolutionary chain, like the Bomber 6A and Rapala Glass Fat Rap, dig into almost any current coming from any direction, run true, and achieve good depth.
A lot to be said for Neanderthals. Developed fire. Learned to abide cold climates. Invaded Europe long before it became popular. The Neanderthals of the crankbait world, those old hangers-on, have a solid reservation in the box of any In-Fisherman kinda' Homo sapiens sapiens that fishes all environments, big and small. But the point is: Most crankbait styles and patterns on the market today have a definable window of conditions and environments that suit each perfectly. Place half those pieces in the puzzle and the crankbait world is your oyster.