Early on, touring pro Keith Combs of Texas relied primarily on jigs and Carolina- and Texas-rigged softbaits. But when David Fritts and his crankbait blitz took the tournament world by storm in the 1990s, he knew he'd have to add deep cranking to his arsenal.
"I was amazed to watch a Bassmaster TV episode and see Fritts approach an offshore structure and catch in five or ten casts what would take me all day to catch—and he was doing it with a crankbait," recalls Combs.
In his youth, Jason Christie began bass fishing from the bank, casting jigs and soft plastics around boat docks near his home in northeastern Oklahoma. But in his late teens he began fishing with his dad. "When he finally allowed me to run the trolling motor, I quickly converted to deep cranking," he says. "That was back when Mark Davis was dominating tournaments by cranking a Bomber Fat Free Shad offshore or using a Rapala Shad Rap during early spring. Few anglers were fishing that way around here, but I could see how effective it could be."
When Ott DeFoe of Tennessee began his tournament career on his home waters of Douglas Lake, he'd "beat the bank" with topwaters and shallow-diving crankbaits and catch enough fish to earn a check, but could never win there. "For a long time I hated fishing deep, even though Douglas Lake is a good deep-fishing lake," he says. "I never won there for a long time and I didn't have a lot of confidence there. It baffled me how guys who understood what they were doing could catch fish out in the middle of the lake."
Then a friend who was a deep cranking expert showed DeFoe what he was doing wrong. He gradually gained confidence in deep cranking on Douglas and recorded a seventh-place finish in the 2011 Bassmaster Southern Open there. He finally got the monkey off his back with a win at the 2014 Bassmaster Northern Open using a Rapala DT16.
During his early years of tournament fishing, Kansas pro Casey Scanlon did well flipping and casting square-bill crankbaits and spinnerbaits at Truman and Stockton lakes in Missouri. "When I was growing up and starting to fish tournaments, I didn't have good electronics so I was a shallow-water fisherman," Scanlon admits.
But when he kept getting beat by guys fishing offshore, he invested in top-end sonar units and studied how to crank deep structure. "I caught a few here and there," Scanlon recalls. "I've always liked to fish crankbaits, but never had much confidence in deep divers until that Table Rock event (2012 Bassmaster Central Open) that I won."
The week before the Open, Scanlon had caught bass deep by cranking in the Bassmaster Elite Series event at Bull Shoals, but he didn't stick with the pattern and ended up finishing 70th. Knowing that Brandon Palaniuk won that event with a deep diver, Scanlon decided to stick with his cranking pattern at Table Rock and won the Open, catching most of his fish on a Strike King 6XD. "It took that one tournament to demonstrate the power of deep cranking," he says. "Since then, I always have them in my arsenal."
Combs' Crashing Crankbaits
Combs' conversion to deep cranking culminated in a victory at the 2013 Bassmaster Elite Series Falcon Slam on Falcon Lake in Texas where he bagged more than 111 pounds of largemouth bass in four competition days. Although he targeted community holes throughout the tournament, Combs fished a Strike King 6XD crankbait with a fast retrieve, which made the lure dig down into rocks along steep breaks. "I'd cast up on top of the rock and I would occasionally catch one up there, but I also wanted my bait to track down that rock to 12 or 13 feet deep, where the big ones were holding."
Combs likes to make his lure deflect off cover or crash into the bottom. He can get a Strike King 6XD as deep as 18 feet, but he frequently fishes it at depths of 12 to 15 feet so it stays in contact with the bottom throughout the retrieve. The Texas pro notes that most strikes occur after the crankbait deflects and then resumes its cadence.
If he's fishing open water, Combs triggers strikes by changing the speed of his retrieve. He varies his retrieve with quick turns of his reel handle rather than moving his rod, which Combs believes keeps his rod in a better hook-setting position. "If a bass is following my crankbait, that change might make the fish bite," he says. "If I can make the lure react from a pause or a quick turn of the handle and a fish bites, I'm ready to set the hook."
Deep divers also produce for Combs in late summer and early fall when bass suspend over brushpiles and in standing timber. The depth that they suspend typically is related to water clarity. On stained reservoirs, such as Lake Conroe in Texas, Combs cranks 6 to 8 feet deep for fish suspended over depths of 12 to 15 feet. But on Sam Rayburn or Toledo Bend, where the water is clearer, Combs runs crankbaits down to 20 feet in timber standing in 30 feet.
When deep cranking, Christie always searches for the most expansive flats because this structure often attracts large numbers of bass, with some big ones. He then runs crankbaits over whatever type of cover exists is on the flat. "It doesn't matter much what it is—a hard spot, a stump, ledge, or brushpile," he says. "When bass get on offshore hard spots (usually in early summer), you can find some of the biggest schools."
Today's sophisticated electronics with side-imaging have changed Christie's approach to deep cranking. In the past he'd crank down miles of ledges and flats until he found fish, but now he scans structure with his electronics to find schools of bass. "Now I don't make a cast offshore unless I see fish," he says.
A Bomber BD7 crankbait in citrus shad is Christie's favorite for deep cranking. The four—time B.A.S.S. tournament winner prefers a high-speed retrieve when cranking a deep diver.
How DeFoe Dredges Ledges
"I prefer ledge fishing over cranking wood," DeFoe says of his favorite deep targets. He searches ledges for any irregularity, such as a drop, high spot, adjoining ditch, or one or two large rocks on the structure.
The four—time Bassmaster Classic qualifier opts for Rapala DT Series cranks for deep duty. He claims he can run a DT20 down to 22 feet on a long cast and make it dive as deep as 30 feet by using the longline method in which he lets out nearly all the line on his reel while trolling away from the crankbait, then engages the reel and starts winding.
DeFoe favors Rapala's Caribbean Shad hue for most of his deep-cranking tactics. If the water has more than 3 to 4 feet of visibility, he opts for the Disco Shad color, and in water with more than 5 feet of visibility, he selects Helsinki Shad baits.
On the retrieve, he cranks as fast as he can with a 5.4:1 gear ratio baitcasting reel. "I want that bait to be humming along the bottom," he says. "I want it moving so fast bass have just a split second to look at it." He explains that the extra power of a reel with a low gear ratio actually makes it more comfortable to crank fast with than a high-speed model.
During the retrieve, DeFoe strives to drive his lure into the bottom. "At some point in the retrieve it should make contact with the bottom," he says. "It doesn't have to be digging a trench the whole way, though."
Crashing a chartreuse sexy shad Strike King 6XD crankbait into brushpiles was the key to Scanlon's victory at the 2012 Bassmaster Open at Table Rock Lake. He'd trigger a strike from postspawn bass when his lure deflected off brush, a tactic he also uses in the fall when guiding on the Lake of the Ozarks.
But deep divers also draw strikes without deflecting off objects. On Lake of the Ozarks he's caught bass suspending along dock cables by working crankbaits next to them. He also runs deep divers over depths of 40 feet along points to reach bass suspending under docks that extend over deep water.
Scanlon generally works deep cranks at high speed except during the Prespawn Period when the water is cold, winding a 6.4:1 baitcast reel as fast as he can to generate strikes.
The deck of Scanlon's boat often has four or five rods rigged with different brands of crankbaits when he's on a deep-cranking pattern. He favors a Norman Lures DD22 for crashing into brushpiles because he likes the way it floats back quickly from the cover after it deflects. And he appreciates the Strike King 6XD for its versatility in deflecting off of cover well and running true at high speed in open water. He also uses the Luck "E" Strike Freak, a deep diver with a square bill that allows him to reach brushpiles 16 to 18 feet deep on a long cast.
His favorite color schemes include chartreuse/blue, sexy shad, and a black back/white side shad pattern. He often fishes chartreuse in stained to murky water or in clear water on cloudy days. Natural shad colors work best for him in clear water.
As our electronics continue to become clearer and more precise in their interpretation of underwater features and fish, the ranks of crankbait converts are certain to grow at both the pro and amateur levels.
*John Neporadny Jr., Lake Ozark, Missouri, is a veteran freelance writer, guide, and fishing promoter. He contributes frequently to In-Fisherman publications.