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.
From Clear Lake in the north to Perris Lake hundreds of miles to the south, California is blessed with the finest trophy largemouth fishing in the world. A 22-pound behemoth was reported from Spring Lake in 2008 — one of many in the 20-pound range taken since California began importing Florida bass a few decades ago. 'œCalifornia is the number one trophy state for bass exceeding 15 pounds,' says David Swendseid — bass pro and tackle rep from the Golden State. 'œA lot of the best lakes right now are being kept quiet. People aren't talking, but Southern California lakes in general and the San Diego lakes specifically are producing massive fish. Even private waters are turning out behemoth bass and great numbers. The California Delta is phenomenal for numbers. We're catching fifty bass from 3- to 12-pounds per day there. And we're getting back to big swimbaits — specifically the new, 5- to 12-inch '˜S-stroke' and glide baits which are new out of Japan.' Other venues of note include Diamond Valley Lake, Castaic Lake, Bullard's Bar Reservoir, Casitas Lake, and Shasta Lake. 'œThe Delta and Clear Lake have established recent B.A.S.S. records for biggest bass (14.6 pounds) and biggest bag (in the neighborhood of 122 pounds),' Swendseid said.
Sorry, Woody. The best part of New York is outside the city. (Way outside.) 'œPeople don't realize how great the bass fishing is in the Finger Lakes and smaller lakes that have excellent populations of largemouths and smallmouths both,' says multi-species guide, Frank Campbell. 'œThe diversity of lakes, from the mountains to the flats, is awesome. New York's stream smallmouth fishing is spectacular in the Mohawk River, the Niagara, and dozens of smaller streams that are completely under the radar from a tourism standpoint. That diversity extends to tactics. Anything you like to do to catch bass, we do it here at some point.' Lake Erie's eastern basin offers some of the finest smallmouth fishing on earth. The opportunites on Lake Ontario are only slightly less spectacular. Lake Oneida and Lake Champlain belong on anybody's top-100 list of North American bass lakes, and over 200 other lakes grace the Empire State, and most have fair to spectacular bass fishing. The porcine smallmouths of the St. Lawrence Seaway seal the deal. New York belongs on this list.
Chris Beeksma guides for smallmouths and other species around Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior. Quality regs (only one smallmouth over 22 inches can be kept) transformed that fishery into one of America's finest. Beeksma sends us photos of 6 pounders way too often. 'œWe may not have the number of largemouth lakes that Minnesota has, but Wisconsin does have a lot,' Beeksma said. 'œFinding a 7-pound largemouth isn't that difficult, and numbers are great.' Wisconsin also has Green Bay on Lake Michigan, where an 8.4-pound smallmouth was weighed in at the 2013 Sturgeon Bay Open this year. Smallmouth fishing is nothing shy of stupendous all around Door County on Lake Michigan. Rivers like the Flambeau, the Fox, the Menominee, and the Wisconsin are everywhere in the Dairy State, and most harbor scads of pig smallmouths. The St. Croix River, which forms part of the border with Minnesota, is not only a blue-ribbon smallie hotspot, it's one of the most beautiful streams in America. Below its confluence with the Mississippi, Pools 3 and 4 comprise yet another bassy paradise that the Cheeseheads share with Vikings fans.
'œTo me, Florida is the big-bass hatchery of the world, whether they go to Texas or California,' says legendary pro Larry Nixon. 'œLakes here have some deep water, lots of grass, great spawning habitat, and the best fishing is in the heart of summer when nobody knows about it and nobody's there.' Okeechobee is back. Not news, but along with Lake Seminole, the Harris Chain, Lake Tarpon, the Everglades, the Kissimmee Chain, and several others — Florida can't be bypassed when naming the top 10 states for bass. 'œOn Okeechobee, that early-morning Zara Spook bite is nothing shy of awesome,' Nixon said. 'œAnglers overlook the St. John's River, too. If you know how to fish tidewater, the St John's is awesome. The Harris Chain has always been solid, and the Toho-Kissimmee Chain is way up there on my list of favorites for numbers of big fish.'
'œTexas would be my target if the goal was to catch a 10-pound bass,' says Nixon. 'œOdds are much better in Texas than Florida for a 10 right now because of Falcon, Sam Rayburn Reservoir, and Toledo Bend. And, even though you may have a better shot at a 15 in California, the odds of catching a 10 are probably lower than in Texas.' The waters Nixon mentions and Lake Fork are legendary, having been consistent producers of giant bass for decades. Nobody of right mind would dispute the awesome capacity of these lakes to generate massive populations of largemouth bass, and it's been going on since the impoundments were created. Lake Amistad, O.H. Ivie Reservoir, Choke Canyon Lake, and several others are 'œmust include' candidates for any list of America's blue-ribbon largemouth lakes.
Two words: Lake Guntersville. Catches are phenomenal right now and it's on the bucket list (pun intended) of every angler who really understands bass fishing in America. 'œAlabama's a great bassin' state and certainly belongs on any top 10 list,' says bass pro and TV host Shaw Grigsby. 'œAlabama probably has the best spotted bass fishing in the country on the Coosa and Alabama Rivers. In Guntersville you've got massive largemouths, and trophy smallmouths on Pickwick, Wilson, and Wheeler.' Pro angler and bass guide Brent Crow claims you can catch a 10-largemouth, a 6-pound smallmouth, and a 5-pound spot all within an hour drive. 'œYou could do it in the same day, if you get lucky,' Crow laughed. 'œIt might be the only place in the country where you could do that. Smith Lake in central-western is another great spotted-bass resource. Logan Martin and Lay Lake on the Coosa River are about 50-50 for largemouths and spots with awesome trophy potential. For my money, bass-fishing heaven is right here in Alabama.'
Georgia, home of George Perry's famous world-record largemouth (22 pounds, 4 ounces), is the spiritual Mecca of the bassin' world. It has to share some world-class waters, like Lake Eufala with Alabama, and Clark's Hill with South Carolina. But it has Lake Lanier all to itself. Lanier, like Jackson Lake, was a spectacular largemouth fishery for many years but is now dominated by spotted bass. 'œSpots are really taking off in Georgia,' says former resident and In-Fisherman Editor Steve Quinn. 'œAnd they're getting bigger. Lanier is producing unbelievable numbers of 5-pound spots.' Huge spots are more common than ever on Lanier and Jackson right now, while historic West Point Lake continues to produce great fishing for largemouths. Bartlett's Ferry (aka Lake Harding) is a small but prolific lake that produces great topwater bites almost year '˜round. Bassin' rivers are everywhere in Georgia and are completely overlooked. Pressure is minimal and you can find five different species of black bass in rivers like the Chathootchee, Tennessee, Yellow, South, and Coosa. Lake Oconee, Lake Sinclair, and Lake Hartwell round out a list of prime bass attractions that cement Georgia squarely on this top-10 map.
Surrounded by Great Lakes, Michigan is an obvious angling paradise, but few folks from other states realize how magnificent the bass fishing really is. The Wolverine state borders Lake Erie, arguably the finest smallmouth water on earth. Michigan shares Lake St. Clair with Ontario — a world-class stage for equal numbers of 4- to 6-pound smallmouths and largemouths. Grand Traverse Bay, Saginaw Bay, Big Bay de Noc, Little Bay de Noc, the Portage Chain, the Sylvania Tract, Elk Lake, Torch Lake, the Beaver Island archipelago, Lake Charlevoix and 11,000 other inland lakes with bass populations might be enough to lift Michigan to the top of this list. But wait: Michigan has spectacular river fishing for smallmouths in the Grand, Muskegon, AuSable, Menominee, Tequamenon, St. Clair, and many other streams. The bayous on the lower Grand bristle with porcine bucketmouths. (No wonder VanDam's so good. He couldn't fling a dead cat back home without hitting a bass.)
Minnesota has world-class smallmouth fishing in the Mississippi River, Mille Lacs, the St. Croix River, and several other waters. A 4 pounder lifts no eyebrows here, and catching multiple 5-pound bronzebacks in a day is common for good anglers. Smallies over 7 pounds are caught every year — sometimes an 8. And Minnesota lays claim to over 13,000 natural lakes — more than any other state. Most harbor impressive populations of native largemouths, smallmouths, or both. Since Minnesota is primarily a walleye state, bass remain relatively under pressured — even though popularity of bass fishing continues to rise. Minnesota isn't the place to find trophy largies over 10 pounds, but it's a place where catching over 100 per day, with several over 5 pounds, just might be easier than anywhere else. Lake Minnetonka, nestled into the urban outskirts of Minneapolis, is a national treasure. But it's the smallmouth fishing that sets Minnesota apart. For size and numbers right now, only Great Lakes fisheries surpass the Gopher state.
In Them Ol' Brown Fish, Billy Westmoreland details how he caught more 10-pound smallmouths in Dale Hollow than, well, the remainder of the human race across the rest of the planet. If Georgia is the spiritual Mecca of largemouth fishing, certainly the Volunteer State maintains that distinction for smallmouth anglers. Center Hill, Pickwick, Wilson, and Old Hickory certainly stir up the echoes of a halcyon past, yet all probably retain the potential to produce a world-record fish. Like Georgia and New York, streams and creeks get overlooked for smallmouths in Tennessee. 'œI weighed a 10-pound, 3-ounce largemouth on Chickamauga this year,' says FLW pro Wesley Strader. 'œThe Tennessee River has been on fire from one end of the state to the other. Chickamauga has been just nuts. The great thing about Tennessee is the diversity. We have lowland reservoirs full of grass, highland reservoirs like Center Hill dominated by rock — you can pick the kind of water you want to fish here. Largemouth fishing has never been as good as it is right now on Chickamauga, Kentucky Lake, or Douglas Lake. In fact, bass fishing is better now than at any point I can remember.'