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How the Pros Really Fish Crankbaits
Story and Photos by Steve Price

September/October 2004

  • Several of the rods David Fritts uses measure 7'11" in length, and they're not flipping sticks.
  • Oklahoma pro O.T. Fears carries bottles of fingernail polish in his tackle boxes.
  • All of Rick Clunn's reels have speedy 6.3:1 gearing.
  • One of Kelly Jordon's most important tackle box tools is a pocketknife.

If you're wondering what the common thread is here, the answer is crankbaits. These well-known BASS and FLW tournament pros are experts at getting more out of their diving plugs than most fishermen - here's how they really fish crankbaits.

David Fritts: Use a Longer Rod

"I use a longer rod because it lets me cast at least five yards farther than someone using a shorter rod. That means my crankbait gets to the bottom faster, and stays in the strike zone longer," explains Fritts, who fished a crankbait almost exclusively in winning the 1993 Bassmaster Classic.

"At the end of a day, I've fished several miles of water most fishermen have never touched, and if you're trying to find bass on a wide flat or long channel break, that's a huge advantage."

Thus, on every cast, Fritts throws his crankbait as far as possible, even if he's fishing shallow water. His favorite rod is one he has designed for American Rodsmiths, a 7'11" fiberglass rod with a near-parabolic action. The rod loads quickly for distance casting, then flexes easily to keep his crankbait running at maximum depth.

Takahiro Omori: Rip the Brush

"The square-billed crankbaits now gaining so much popularity have presented new fishing opportunities in that they're great for fishing shallow brush and vegetation," says Yamamoto Pro Staff angler Takahiro Omori. "I can substitute them for spinnerbaits in spring and fall, or plastic worms in the summer to give bass something totally different to look at."

What makes these small, square-lipped lures so effective, says the Texas-based pro, is that they're essentially weedless, and they'll produce reaction strikes when you purposefully crawl them through limbs and branches. When his crankbait does hit something, Omori stops his retrieve, and then often tries to rip the bait loose. This is when most strikes occur.

"These shallow running crankbaits are also good to fish over vegetation like milfoil, hydrilla, or moss that has not come completely to the surface," adds Omori. "You can hold your rod tip up and almost fish them like topwaters, and if you do get snagged, all you have to do is rip them free." Omori and other pros usually fish these crankbaits on 15 to 20-pound test fluorocarbon or monofilament lines, since they're looking for strength and abrasion resistance.

"It's surprising how many big fish can be caught by working a crankbait through laydowns and treetops like this," adds Omori, "even after you've just fished the same cover with a spinnerbait or plastic worm. I think the lure must appear like a minnow or some other small baitfish, so it triggers that type of reaction response."

Rick Clunn: Speed Cranking

"When you reel a crankbait really fast, you completely change the way a bass perceives it," says four-time world champion Rick Clunn. "With a slow retrieve, a fish can study the lure, but when you reel it fast you start getting purely reflex strikes which are much easier to get."

This is the lesson Clunn learned more than a quarter-century ago when he was paired for a day in a tournament with Fred Young, the legendary creator of the Big O crankbait. The Missouri pro's tournament record since that day shows he learned and has applied the lesson well. "Not only does speed cranking get your lure to the bottom quicker," continues Clunn, "it also makes bouncing the crankbait off rocks and stumps more effective because the lure ricochets more erratically, and causes more commotion."

Clunn advises studying different crankbaits and the depth at which they run. Speed cranking does not affect the depth a crankbait will dive, and in some situations it will allow the use of heavier lines when using deeper diving lures in shallower water. "The only time speed cranking is not more effective than a slow retrieve is in extremely hot or cold water," notes Clunn. "In either case, the fish's metabolism has slowed and they simply aren't chasing any lures with very much energy."

O.T. Fears: Use the Right Colors

To win the 1987 Red Man All American tournament on the Arkansas River and the $100,000 first prize that went with it, O.T. Fears had to paint the eyes and throats of his Norman Deep Little N crankbaits red-orange. Ever since, he's kept several bottles of nail polish, dye, and markers in his tackle boxes.

"I don't know exactly why certain colors bring more strikes than others," acknowledges the veteran Oklahoma pro, "but at times they certainly do. Sometimes red will trigger a reaction when no other color will." Fears believes red may be a feeding-response color and that bass can perceive it far better than humans can, so he paints the eyes of all his crankbaits red. The red throat seems more critical in dingy conditions. Besides red, he also likes fluorescent chartreuse, and even pink.

"In clear water I prefer a dull finish or a baitfish-type pattern instead of red on my crankbaits, and I usually paint a thin black stripe down the middle of the back of my crankbaits. I've also seen times when a crankbait had to have a black dot on each side, like a sunfish, before bass would hit it. Sometimes just small differences like that truly do make a difference."

Kelly Jordan: Tune Your Lures

"A correctly tuned crankbait will run straighter and may dive only six inches deeper than one that isn't tuned, but that can be a huge difference in crankbait fishing." So says three-time BASS winner and Lake Fork guide Kelly Jordon, who has turned crankbait tuning into a science.

"First, use a pocket knife to scrape all the paint off the hook holders to ensure both trebles have complete freedom of motion to swing from side to side," he instructs. "Just a small bit of paint will stop the hook's free range of motion and make the lure veer to one side.

"Next, make certain of the position of your knot on the split ring where you tie your line, and the position of the split ring in the line-tie eye. You don't want the break in the split ring to ride in the lure attachment screw eye, nor do you want your line in that break - either will change the crankbait's wobbling action, or keep it from reaching maximum depth. It will also periodically skip a wobble."

This can be corrected by using an oblong split ring, or by correctly rotating the split ring before tightening your knot.

"The line-tie eye may need tuning, too," continues Jordon. "Make a short cast, point your rod tip at the crankbait, and burn it back with a fast retrieve. If the lure runs right, twist the screw eye just slightly to the left, and keep adjusting until the crankbait runs straight back to you."

Mark Davis: Study the Water

"The type of water I'm fishing helps me choose the size of my crankbait and the type of action I want," explains three-time BASS Angler of the Year Mark Davis, "and to me these are critical aspects of crankbaiting." In warmer water, in dingy water, or if larger bass are present, Davis chooses a larger sized crankbait, while in colder water, or in extremely clear water, he prefers a smaller lure.

"Likewise, in clear water I want my crankbait to have a tighter, more natural wobbling action because bass will be able to see it," he notes, "but in dingy, off-colored conditions I believe a lure with a more pronounced wobbling action will make the crankbait easier to locate because of its stronger vibrations."

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