February 29, 2012
A crank slaps the water and floats along for a few feet. The line tightens and the bill of the bait begins to dig into the current. Vibration transmits unimpeded up the low-stretch braided line, telling Kevin Morlock when his Storm Hot 'N Tot is running clean, cracking off rocks, digging into sand, or fouled by a leaf. He won't worry about feeling the strike.
Twelve hours prior, we were 30 miles north on the Big Manistee with Mark Chmura. When the big, orange sun came climbing into the trees the following morning, we were on the lower end of the famous Pere Marquette. And Morlock showed me again how cranks are not just for dropping back behind a drift boat in a V pattern with rods in holders for steelhead.
A couple years ago, we filmed a TV show together pitching Rapala Shad Raps, Tail Dancers, and Original Floating Minnows about 10 miles upstream of this spot, and Kevin revealed how we could fire cranks upstream behind current breaks like fallen trees, points, and rock piles — into spots you just can't reach by dropping plugs back and working them with the movement of the boat. I remember catching our "closer" by pitching a Hot 'N Tot upstream of a tree and letting it drift down under the branches, which hung way to0 close to the water to allow a direct cast. The strike felt like the lure intercepted a runaway freight train.
Steelhead can get tunnel vision when they run down a crank, becoming so fascinated with the wobbling, struggling "thing" that they don't care about that dark, opaque, highly-visible braided line connected to a Berkley Cross-Lok Snap. They come from farther away than they do to hit a fly or a spawn bag, sometimes bulging the river's surface for 20 feet or more.
The great thing about crankin' is covering water fast. It takes 5 or 6 drifts with a float or chuck-and-duck rig to cover the same area you clear in one cast with a crank. The technique is somewhat similar to fishing spoons. Cast cross-stream or slightly down against the far bank, tighten the line, and let the lure dig and swing. The big difference is, a crank floats, making it much more efficient. When you tap into wood or hang slightly, you can back off on the pressure and let it float up. The bill helps protect the hooks, too, by leading the way and bouncing off wood and rock, attracting more attention with the added noise. Once the lure is straight below the boat, you can let it hang there for 10 to 20 seconds, wobbling in place.
Kevin uses a 7-foot, medium-power spinning rod with 20-pound Berkley FireLine to get more vibration from the bait and to get it deeper. A low-stretch braid like FireLine gains positive traction on a silver bullet that rams his lure near a log jam. No need to set the hook. Just hope you can hold onto the rod.
Mary, of course, wasn't about to quit float fishing because we were reminiscing about good times with cranks. And she caught the biggest fish of the day — a 31 1/2-incher pushing 12 pounds — using a Mustad 9260D on a 5.6-pound Raven Fluorocarbon leader. She saw the fish roll and sent her Thill River Master float drifting on course to intercept.
Something magic about watching a float disappear right where you expect it to, at a speed that says, "this is no snag." Of course, feeling a wild, Pere Marquette steelie slam a crank is something not soon forgotten, either. No stocked fish in this river, Bubba. And the guy to learn all the tricks of the trade from is Kevin Morlock. He's an equal-opportunity guide, so bring a fly rod, a centerpin rig, a spinner box — whatever suits your fancy. Kevin's a Jack of all trades, into whatever's working at the time, providing a perfect opportunity to learn something new.
The weather was unseasonably mild, the winds light, and the sky clear as we slipped under the sheets that night. No worries. We never gave weather a second thought all week, maintaining radio and TV silence. But as we slept, the frost giants came stealing south.