May 18, 2020
Many anglers immediately think “soft” and “slow” when they think about spring bass fishing patterns. While pitching tubes and weightless stickbaits certainly has its place in our vernal arsenal, they may be missing the bigger picture. During all phases of spring, bass may occupy depths from one to more than 12 feet, but most often 4 to 10 feet. And their moods and feeding activity range from reticent to ravenous.
Crankbaits excel for covering water, bumping cover, and daring spring bass to bite. Select models canvass the potential depths bass may occupy during this period, which can be highly variable due to weather patterns and latitude. There’s no shortage of brands and designs, as well as colors. Some models are designated to run at specific depth ranges, indicated either by the lure name or on the packaging, which helps in selecting lures for the job at hand.
They fall into three general categories related to their general shape. Flat-sided crankbaits, also called flat-sides or flat cranks, have a large vertical profile and thin bodies, giving them flash during the retrieve, and a rather subtle wobble. They’re often top choices when the water remains chilly or bass seem tentative, when slow retrieves typically work best. Fat baits go to the other extreme, with rounded bellies and lower vertical profile, typically with a smaller round lip that keeps them within several feet of the surface. They swim with a wide wobble that can be deadly when bass are shallow and aggressive during the late Prespawn Period. Square-bill crankbaits differ from fat baits in that their straight bill helps the lure deflect off and around cover, especially wood or rock. They’re the workhorses of your spring crankbait collection, built tough for steady contact with rock and wood, and their intense action allows them to be fished effectively on lines as heavy as 17-pound test, unlike flats and fats.
Thirty years ago, there were comparatively few crankbaits on the market, compared to today. Fat-bodied “alphabet” baits dominated the market. This lack led inventive anglers, mostly located near the bass havens of the Carolinas, to craft their own crankbaits. Many early models were flat-sided lures with a coffin-shape lip. These baits proved deadly on reservoir bass of the region, while no major manufacturer offered suitable replacements. Many pros came to rely on Rapala’s Shad Rap, the famed balsa bait designed for walleyes, for their cold-water fishing in spring, as it produced that delicate shimmer bass respond to.
David Fritts of North Carolina recalls using a flat-sided lure made by Steve Blazer in his win at the 1993 Bassmaster Classic. Blazer had modeled his lure after the ones made by Ronnie Tapp of South Carolina. The name “Tapp” stuck with this style through subsequent designs, up to the Tapp Lures made by the late Ed Chambers, President of Zoom Bait Company, under his W.E.C. brand. These originals generally sell for $25 to $75 on eBay, depending on maker, model, and color.
Fritts had joined Berkley’s pro staff in 2015, and has designed a series of crankbait styles for them that are unique and have proven effective across the land. The latest bears his name, the Frittside, a flat-sided bait like the wooden ones he found success with years ago. “We’ve had plans to make a flat bait for at least four years,” he says. “It took about a year and a half and production of 14 different bodies until we got it right. Keith Ostrum did the initial designs on the computer, then we tested prototypes in the big tanks at Berkley’s lab in Iowa. When one looked good, we started fishing it.” The first production baits became available just prior to the 2019 Bassmaster Classic and they made an instant impression as several high finishers relied on them.
“One thing I’ve learned,” Fritts says, “is that a flat-sided lure can look great, appear to run right, but not catch bass they way it’s supposed to. The ideal action is subtle and precise, and it depends on how water flows over the lure as it’s retrieved. The way it moves from head to tail and from back to belly is related to water flow, and thus minute aspects of the body shape and bill design. When you get a good one, it’s like magic.
“I knew we were on the right track when I took the final prototype to prefish for a BASS tournament at Lake Hartwell in South Carolina and caught seven bass over 8 pounds on it. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before, certainly not with a brand-new bait. Unfortunately the bass went to the bank and started spawning, so I didn’t finish high, but during the prespawn it was amazing.”
In his quest to replicate wooden baits of yore, Fritts and the Berkley engineers found that weight and balance were critical to lure action. “Instead of a lead slug or ball in the body, we used a set of disc weights set in the lure’s belly,” Fritts says. “It also helps for casting. You’ll have no problem throwing the smallest one (#5; 2 inches, 1/3 ounce) on a baitcasting outfit. That’s something I insisted on, since so many good flat-sides are hard to cast.” To get the best action, Fritts favors 10-pound-test Berkley Sensation, a low-stretch mono, or else braided line equivalent to 10-pound diameter (generally Berkley 40-pound X5).
Strike King also has a new flat-sided crank that Kevin Van Dam urged the company to produce and helped design, the KVD HC Flat Side 1.5. “The colder the water, the better flat-sided baits work,” VanDam says, “so that means all winter long down South, and during the Prespawn Period in northern lakes. “For some reason, bass in those conditions respond best to the tight wiggle and minimal sound of thin lures. We designed this one to run a little deeper than traditional wood baits, down to 8 to 10 feet on 10-pound-test line. It’s denser, too, weighing 3/8 ounce at just 2.25 inches long, so it casts easily on any type of rod. When they’re on the flat bait, it’s like magic, and you may hardly get a bite on other lures.”
This classic lure design is shaping up as one of the hottest for cool water, as Rapala also has a flat bait in the works, designed with lots of input from 2019 Bassmaster Classic winner Ott Defoe. Company representatives expect it to be ready for release at the 2020 ICAST Show in July. It should be noted that while flat-sided cranks are noted for colder water, they can prove extremely effective in calm conditions and clear water, not considered prime for cranking. For example, the 1993 Classic that Fritts used Blazer’s Tapp to win was held in August in Alabama.
Many old favorite crankbaits fall into this category—intermediate-sized lures with rounded bills and fatter bodies that run from about 4 to 8 feet deep. While they can work well in all but the coldest conditions, they particularly shine in late spring, during the late Prespawn Period, and through the first month or so after the spawn. “When the water temperature hits about 55°F, the transition begins from flat baits to fatter styles,” says crankbait master DeFoe. “Their rounder bodies and lips produce far more vibration, which calls bass out of cover. Once a lake is over 60°F, fatter styles rule. I can’t tell you how many nice bass I’ve caught on Rapala’s DT6 all over the country. There’s not a more versatile and universally effective lure on the market for working grass or riprap banks. The smaller DT 4 has its place, too, as its shallower bill angle helps it work through thick woodcover more easily that the DT 6. During the late Prespawn Period, largemouths hold near to cover until they’re ready to spawn, and shallow-running crankbaits are effective then.”
Many old favorites, including the Bagley Small Fry, Bandit 200, Rebel Crawfish, Bomber 6A, Norman Middle N, and Salmo Hornet fit this category and excel during late spring in a variety of water colors, cover types, and weather conditions. I consider them “can’t miss” baits, maybe not the perfect choice in all situations, but you’re always fishing effectively with one of them on the line. Some outstanding newer additions to the genre are the Rebel Bluegill, Berkley Digger, SPRO Fat Papa, and Livetarget Tennessee Craw.
VanDam feels that square-bill crankbaits take over once water temperature rises into the upper-50°F range. “I’ve always been a fan of spinnerbaits, but during this period of spring, I often switch to square-bills. Traditionally, these lures had rattles, but in spring I like silent ones. For example, Strike King offers silent and rattling versions of the KVD 1.5, as well as other cranks. That is one deadly lure during this period, as we designed it to be slightly erratic, which is based on making it almost off-balance. This creates an action that bass on the hunt cannot resist.”
He also worked with Strike King crankbait designer Phil Marks on the company’s KVD 4.0 and 8.0 Magnum Squarebill, the jumbo members of this category at 4 inches and 7/8 ounce and 4.5 inches and 11⁄8 ounce, respectively. “These big baits come into their own during the Postspawn Period,” VanDam says. “They displace a lot of water, imitating large baitfish such as sunfish an big shad that big bass often turn to after the spawn is done. You can keep them shallow with 14-pound-test line, but they get as deep as 10 feet on a long cast with 10-pound line. But the bite is usually shallow at this time of year.”
DeFoe also favors square-bills during this phase, and he’s been a fan of Storm’s Arashi Square 3 and 5, with the model number indicating running depth on 10- or 12-pound line. “They’re built tough to bang riprap banks and wing dams, as well as bumping through stumpfields,” he says. “They have a computer-board lip that helps them deflect cleanly, then resume action. But since Rapala’s BX Brat came out two years ago, I’ve done extremely well with it. It’s balsa, so it has the fast rise you often need to weave through fallen trees and standing timber, but it’s encased in a plastic shell that protects if from damage. The #6 runs about 6 feet deep, which is a key feeding zone for bass until warmer waters push some fish deeper.
Due to their snag-resistance and versatility, square-bills have become the hottest crankbait category in recent years. No wonder—they require less design precision to build than a flat-sided model, and I’ve never fished one that didn’t catch bass. They look good, cast like a bullet, and hook fish well.
While I don’t take off in spring without a good supply of tubes, stickworms, and fluke-style baits, boxes of shallow-running crankbaits of several shapes, sizes, and colors are right there with them. While softbaits can be more effective some days and during some phases of spring, when cranks are on, the bite is lights-out since you can cover water and tempt far more bass.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Quinn has been writing about largemouth bass tactics and tackle for In-Fisherman publications for over three decades.