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Smallmouth Crankbait Tactics for Fall

Smallmouth Crankbait Tactics for Fall

The Smallmouth Chronicles

People who know me are asking what's with all the char? In angling circles I'm known for my addictions to smallmouth and steelhead. And I hate rehab. So from now on, I embrace addiction and Chronicle my thoughts on these favorites of the freshwater world.

It's autumn. Immerse yourself in a crisp, clear, windy day on the water. Get the wind behind you. Tough to throw a crank into the wind, if you want to get it way out there. I want it to go as far as I can throw it so it will get a little deeper. Which is why I use 10-pound Berkley FireLine. Distance. Being thinner than mono, braid also lets the bait dig deeper. And because it doesn't stretch, it's far more sensitive than mono.

Last year I had a bass pro on my boat. He was casting cranks with 10-pound mono, ala Fritz. I'd just made a cast and felt something different. "Tell you what, my friend," I said. "I've got a 1-inch piece of grass clinging to the bill of this bait." He stopped fishing and watched me bring it in. There, draped on the bill, was a 2 inch blade of grass. "Ok, I was off by an inch."

Not even Spider Man can feel a 2-inch blade of grass draped on the bill of a smallmouth crankbait at 70 feet when using mono. Why is it important? Bites on cranks in pressured waters these days can be so light and tentative—why limit yourself to feeling only the suicide attacks? Even with braid it's hard to feel a strike sometimes. It's innuendo. Ghostlike. When I use mono, I feel more like Daredevil. (Blind.)

Using back-to-back uni knots, I tie in a 9-foot, 10-pound mono or fluorocarbon leader. I know fluorocarbon is expensive, so don't use it when you don't need it. In rivers, the visibility is generally poor enough that you don't need the added stealth of fluorocarbon.

I use a 7- to 7 1/2-foot medium-light, fast graphite stick. My favorite is a St. Croix Avid. This lighter stick feels a little too light at first, and that's perfect. The resistance of the bill on the crank bends the rod just right, creating a trap. If bass touch the crank, they tend to get stuck and can't shake free. My reel for this is generally a Shimano Sahara 2000, but most spinning reels with a similar spool capacity work just fine.

Those are the basic tools. Pitching cranks for river smallies is one of my favorite games to play on these bright, clear, autumn afternoons. Afternoon is key because the water is generally warming during the day. Mornings can be slow, in terms of crankbait bites, but not always.

The Windup, The Pitch

Wind at my back, long cast, rod tip down. Most of the hot bites are in 4 to 8 feet of water on all the rivers I fish until the water temperature dips below 50°F. Then the bite moves down to 12 feet or so.

Right now—this year—the hottest crank going for me is the Salmo Hornet (pictured above). Like most cranks that have been on fire for me the past 5 years, this one has a tight wobble and a seductive roll. The bill on the Hornet has a narrow neck, allowing water to flow past it. It stops throwing itself sideways sooner, so it devotes more energy to getting down. And getting down is key. You want the bait to dig, crawl, and walk on bottom as much as possible for smallmouths. When I want to target that 8-foot zone, I can get down there with the larger Hornet 6F. If the fish are working shoreline flats in the 4- to 6-foot range, I can maintain bottom contact with the smaller 5F.

In areas completely out of the current, though, river smallmouths often suspend. I might opt for the 5A in areas 12- to 15- feet deep. And sometimes they want the larger bait, so I'll dig hard on those 5-foot shelves and flats with the larger 6F.


Retrieve is key with any bait. The right retrieve simply matches the mood of the fish and the onus is on you to pay attention to what you were doing with the bait when that last bass bit. Sometimes in fall they want it crawling along bottom with brief pauses every time the lure makes hard contact with anything. Sometimes smallmouths want it ripped as fast as you can reel with frequent rod pumps and changes of direction. Smallmouths often respond to erratic retrieves, but not always. Slow, steady retrieves can be hot, too.

Just because the Salmo Hornet is catching most of my smallmouths overall this autumn, it doesn't mean it's catching all of them. The Rebel Deep Wee R is holding its own, and the 200 series Reef Runner Rip Shad is always worth a bite or two. Over the years, my list of "hottest baits" has included the Bomber 6A, the Storm Wiggle Wart, the Norman's Middle N, and my next topic for discussion: The deadly Rapala DT6.

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