Once the bass move out to their deep water summertime haunts, some anglers are lost. They flail around, fishing the same crankbaits as everyone else, and then wonder why their catches don’t add up at weigh-in time.
Three-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Chris Zaldain has watched some of them deep cranking, and he knows why they struggle.
“A lot of people just go to a point that looks good on a map and start fan casting,” he said. “I don’t cast unless I know one is there. With today’s down-imaging and two-dimensional sonar there’s no reason to ever go blind casting with a deep running crankbait.”
He’ll “start with my butt in the driver’s seat” and idle over a key depth zone – for example, on the TVA lakes it might be 15 to 20 feet – looking for life, whether that be bass or baitfish. As he crosses over his quarry, in one motion he’ll punch in a waypoint, turn off the outboard, hop to the front deck and get ready to cast. But the cast isn’t ahead of the boat, it’s back in the prop wash, which provides a visual reminder of exactly where he just idled.
On the most popular tournament lakes, those fish on obvious structure points are hammered day in and day out. Some anglers might turn to a football head jig or a Carolina Rig, but both Zaldain and fellow westerner Luke Clausen prefer a crankbait as long as they can get away with it.
“They feel that movement on their lateral line,” said Clausen. “And speed still gets them to bite. Eventually, though, they get numb to that. They’re aware of it and just get out of the way instead of reacting.” One way to keep the bite going is to switch from a hard-rattling crankbait to a silent one. Another is to add a bit of finesse to what is otherwise a true power fishing presentation. Clausen said that he often chooses the Megabass Deep-Six or Deep-X 300 when others use more “conventional” deep divers because it offers a different look and approach. “They have a lot more realistic finishes than the others, and they have more of a sliding action versus a digging action. They offer a side to side swing instead of up and down. When fish are pressured or there’s not a lot of water color, that makes a difference.”
Like Zaldain, Clausen – one of the few pros to have won both the Bassmaster Classic and the Forrest Wood Cup – has specific starting spots where he begins his offshore deep cranking search.
“Usually I look on the first drops out of the creeks after they’re done spawning,” he said. “I want to focus on those outside creek channel swings before the main river channel. They may be as shallow as 4 to 8 feet on top, but I’m looking for some sort of shell beds or rocks to attract the fish.” The key is to cover water, so unlike the cold months when he may “slow roll” his deep diver or offer a stop and go retrieve, during the warmer times he tends to reel it steadily. “This time of year I don’t stop it. I’d rather have more casts and take a ‘now or never’ approach. I want it to go by fast enough so that they have to eat it or it’s gone. Don’t slow it down. Grind it into the bottom because these lures will still run true when they go over the break.”
Zaldain said that the refined bill design contributes to those two baits being ideal for finesse cranking: “Unlike the others, it’s very thin, which helps when the fish are being picky. In 15 to 20 feet of water, it just disappears.”
Both pros throw their deep divers on a Megabass Orochi XX 7’11” Launcher, a rod made specifically for this type of fishing. It allows for long casts and maximum depth when covering a lot of real estate is important. The lures’ weight-transfer systems aid tremendously in this respect, too. Zaldain usually throws them on 12 lb. Seaguar InvisX fluorocarbon, while Clausen goes with 10 lb. Gamma Edge nearly all of the time.
Both pros use Blue Back Chartreuse and Biwako See Through Chartreuse patterns if the water has even a slight stain, but Zaldain likes GP Stain Reaction and Clausen likes Threadfin Shad when bass are very finicky and seeking a natural color scheme. Another sleeper that many anglers, particularly out west, rely upon is Biwako Clear Gill. “With the high detail, and the awesome translucent colors, these are the solution to a problem that a lot of anglers run into this time of year,” Zaldain explained. While they run deep straight out of the package, on occasion he’ll swap out the factory trebles for a 1/0 Trokar treble to eke out a little bit of extra depth. “They’re so balanced that even the slightest diameter or size change will give you an extra foot or foot and a half of depth.”
Just because each lure has two sticky sharp treble hooks attached to it doesn’t mean that deep cranking fish will get hooked or stay buckled. Zaldain said that “you never want to set the hook like you do with a jig. It’s always a sweeping torso action. Keep your wrist locked up. As long as you keep your XX Launcher loaded, you’ll land them almost 100 percent of the time.”
While this presentation combines finesse elements, Clausen added that there’s nothing lightweight about his fighting style. While some anglers reduce the pressure on a surging fish, he just ups the pressure. “I’ll reel faster,” he said. “When I see my line coming to the surface, I pull and wind faster. I want to get his face back in the water. Lots of people have that fear of jumping, and they’ll put the rod in the water. I think that has very limited effect, and may actually give the fish more opportunity to get off.”
Once you’ve located the key depths and areas, offshore cranking is a key way to load the boat in a hurry, but it can also be a recipe for frustration if you haven’t dialed in the entire approach. When the bass should be on a crankbait bite, but don’t fully commit to it, don’t abandon it completely – just add an element of finesse to your game.