January 31, 2016
By Matt Straw
The deck twists, sending a nut from the butt seat rolling in zig-zag patterns past your feet. Waves wash over your shoes. A "long cast" spears a wave 40 feet away as you lose balance on the follow through.
The gods of big water are always angry. The wind cries, "Crankbaits," but the weather report said it would max at 10 mph, so you plan for 15 and it gusts to 25. Welcome to Joe Balog's world. A top tournament pro on Lake Erie for many years, Balog often uses cranks to find the biggest smallmouths available on any given day, spring through fall, in the toughest conditions freshwater can deliver.
"I do two types of cranking on Lake Erie," Balog says. "The first is traditional—dig the bottom, bang around, shallow stuff. That's in spring, during prespawn when water temps range from 42°F degrees through the spawn (58°F to 64°F). Bass are killing two birds with one stone at this point, feeding on every crawfish, perch, and goby they can find, which also rids the shallow spawning areas of these nest raiders. Bass are aggressive until heavy fishing pressure backs them off. Then they get a little more finicky.
"The depths we're targeting are 2 to 8 feet. For that reason, standard 'bass' crankbaits are fine—Bandit 300s, Bombers 6A's, Strike King Series 3—smaller mid-depth baits that rattle and have a wide wobble. The only modification I make is to switch hooks to #4 Gamakatsu trebles. It's about covering water this time of year and finding the right depths. My go-to patterns are realistic perch or crawfish imitations, fire tiger, and those built around red or orange over gold."
Colors and patterns Balog mentions generally have something to do with the prey smallmouths find in Lake Erie. Matching size or shape can be important at times. Water clarity in the Great Lakes can range from super clear—where natural patterns shine—to cloudy—where brighter colors and flash dominate. Orange seems to be a universal trigger for smallmouths, probably because it suggests their easiest and most prolific source of protein, crawdads. Putting orange spots on cranks with a paint pen, regardless of the underlying pattern, is never a dissuasive element and sometimes garners extra strikes.
"In the Prespawn Period, smallmouths hold on little stairsteps—sharp 4- to 6-foot drops, or maybe 6- to 10-foot drops on Erie," Balog says. "The Great Lakes have a lot of places where the glaciers paused when they carved the lakes. They're usually defined by broken rock. There's a key depth each day, and it can differ from day to day. The trick is to find the crank that dives just to the right stairstep and not beyond."
The Great Lakes also have many huge, shallow flats composed of mixed gravel, rock, and sand that smallmouths use in spring. A quick drop into deeper water can always be found, and it tends to become a transition area for smallmouths ascending the flats during stable weather and warming water. Conversely, they retreat via the same route to vacate the area when the water begins cooling or cold fronts move in.
"As the season progresses, bass face more fishing pressure," Balog notes. "They also get a little negative around the spawn, but can be triggered by erratic action. At this time of year (water 55°F to 65°F), smallmouths get on the jerkbait real well," he adds, "but they can be caught on crankbaits at times. By far the best bait during this brief window is the Rapala X-Rap Shad, a suspending crankbait that can be fished like a jerkbait. I like the perch pattern and I snap it hard, making it move erratically. I fish it where bass are preparing to spawn. On Lake St. Clair, key areas are defined by grass edges or the fringe of little sand flats in 4 to 7 feet of water. At this time of year, bass also like a Rapala DT6, which is a great little mid-depth swimmer."
"Following the spawn," Balog says, "smallmouths move out into basin areas where they're susceptible to a different approach. As the water warms to summer mode, they begin to like 'swimming' cranks a lot more—cranks never touching bottom. After July 1, I rarely hit bottom with diving cranks. The summer program is all about long casts and having baits swim through the water column. The name of the game is covering water to find fish roaming grass flats or rock flats in 12 to 20 feet of water.
In summer, depth is relative to the lake. "On St. Clair, smallmouths transition to mid-depths in July—about 14 feet or so. As water temperatures approach summer maximums, smallies move way out in the middle of the lake, to the deepest portions in 20-foot depths. Baitfish are the only real locational factor you can count on out there. Find bait and you find smallies. This pattern may occur at other places in 10, or 15, or 20 feet. At Lake Champlain, where grass grows down to about 14 feet, smallies set up on deep weededges because bait is there. I call it the outside border of the main lake basin. I like to see individual stalks of cabbage, baitfish, and 10-feet plus depths adjacent to the open water expanse wherever I'm fishing big-water smallmouths in summer.
"Most of my fishing, summer into fall, is done with a Rapala DT16 for a couple reasons," he continues. "It swims with a smooth wobble and casts well. If I can't throw half the line off my reel when casting a deep diver on the Great Lakes, I won't use it. Conditions here often are rough and windy. And the DT16 attacks the zone where active smallmouths feed on Erie most of the time."
In this environment, equipment needs to provide maximum sensitivity and casting distance. "I fish these baits on 10- to 12-pound Sufix Fluorocarbon. I go to 15- when I want to keep the bait higher during a shallow bite, or to 10-pound when I want the bait to dive deeper. I use a Daiwa Steez Flex Lite rod (STZ721MHRBA-FL), a 7-foot 2-inch medium-power graphite stick that tapers like glass, yet retains the speed and hook-setting abilities of graphite. Fishing for 5-pound smallmouths is quite different than fishing for largemouths. I've been saying that for years because there's no doubt in my mind that graphite rods function better for cranking smallmouths than fiberglass ones.
"On a long cast, glass rods simply never hook the fish. Hooking and fighting big smallmouths aggressively is the key. When big ones jump and come off, the reasons are usually cheap or dull hooks and whippy rods that never hooked the fish. Rarely do I lose a big fish cranking with the right graphite stick."
Graphite locks down, at some point. Fiberglass always seems to provide another quarter inch of give and smallmouths have harder mouths. At the end of ultra-long casts, it makes a difference.
"My reel is a Daiwa Zillion with a 6.3:1 gear ratio," Balog adds. "I don't find low-speed 'power' reels any more powerful than high-speed ones. Reel grips are great. They really help during long, sweaty or frigid days on rolling decks."
"If the technique calls for hitting bottom," Balog says, "like when you're fishing rockpiles in spring and fall, the sweet spot in the retrieve is where the bait glances off that cover or structure. You want a bait that dives barely to the top of it. You want it deflecting, not digging. The key to deflection is to have it occur quickly and randomly.
"Through summer and into fall, smallies key on open-water baitfish. They're school fish—mostly assorted by size. The best days for cranking on the Great Lakes generally are breezy and sunny. Those conditions activate the fish, but also help move the boat along. I never use a drift sock; I don't mind blowing along at 1.5 mph or more and making huge casts downwind. We're talking about eliminating water on lakes that dwarf all reservoirs, trying to literally cover square miles in a day. You have to be convinced you'll find them eventually.
"I pick areas with some baitfish activity on the screen," he says. "Marking fish is even better, especially around bait and off bottom. Colors for summer cranking are definitely duller than spring. Natural baitfish patterns excel, ones with pale pearl bellies, blue or green backs, or perch patterns. I throw bright chartreuse patterns now and again just to be sure, because I've seen them produce so many times for smallies. Chartreuse is the exception that proves the rule."
The primary retrieve is steady, rod-tip down, covering water. Sometimes Balog plays with speed. "As boring as it sounds, I mainly do a steady retrieve with an occasional pause. Lots of times you can keep that steady retrieve up and 'feel' fish around your bait. I'm not sure whether they hit it or you hit them or they're just disturbing water around the bait, but when I feel any variation, I burn the bait for a few cranks, and that triggers a lot of strikes. Smallmouths must hit a lot of baits by thrashing at them without the intension of swallowing them on the first pass, because I feel a lot of fish with crankbaits that I hook 10 to 30 feet later in the retrieve."
Balog prefers #2 trebles on bigger baits. "XCalibur Fat Free Shads and Strike King cranks work, but my bread and butter is a Rapala DT14 or 16. I occasionally mix in handmade wooden baits without rattles. Some of these have wide wobbles, like a Bagley B, but they swim well and mimic forage. Noise can be one of those factors you need to experiment with."
Balog doesn't concern himself too much with casting angles on open water. "I've never experienced a time where retrieving in one direction, either with or against the wind, made any difference to smallmouth bass," he claims. "But it makes a big difference in current, such as around the mouth of the Detroit River, where the prime retrieve is always up current to down. And there it's important to crack rocks and dig bottom." Balog's directive applies on rivers everywhere—smallmouths position themselves to feed on things moving downstream and, especially with cranks, downstream retrieves produce more strikes about 90 percent of the time.
"When open-water cranking, be aware of three sweet spots," Balog says. "The first one occurs as the crank hits maximum depth and levels out. A second sweet spot occurs when it begins rising back to the boat. When that bait is digging, digging, nose down, then turns nose up and comes back toward the boat, a ton of fish hit it right then. They think it's a baitfish heading for the surface to get away. Also, when a crank contacts a high point on structure, bass tend to bite. Pay attention for variation in the wobble of the crank at those points in the cast—max depth and coming back up, and contacting the top of a structure."
Conditions play a role in determining when to crank. "Wind is not a major factor," Balog says. "I've caught giant stringers in zero wind and 30-mph gales. The one variable I like, with respect to conditions, is stability. When fronts move through, other tactics tend to work better. And I like sunny days. The crankbait bite on the Great Lakes usually dies on dark, overcast days, when we generally do better with drop-shot rigs.
"Smallmouths can be triggered by repeatedly casting to the same area and speeding the retrieve," he adds. "I've often found fish by actually bumping into them with my baits, which tells me they won't commit. By burning the bait for an instant when it reaches the sweet spot (deepest point of the dive), I can get them to commit.
"They're often barely hooked, though. After catching one fish, you can generally catch several more on the same cast and retrieve. Getting the first one to bite is the key. Crankbaits generally produce fewer strikes, in general, than drop-shot rigs and tubes during summer, but the average bass is much larger."
Crankin' is almost a necessity for finding bass on the Great Lakes from summer through fall. Covering miles of water can't be accomplished faster without trolling—especially when the sea gods are scrappy. On Erie, that can be 3 days out of 4. Search for bait, follow Balog's program, and you can convert those square miles into acres.