While square billed crankbaits are deadly in the pre-spawn, and again in the fall when voracious bass are herding shad to the backs of creeks, that doesn’t mean that there’s no role for them in between those two time periods. Most savvy pros keep one or more tied on 12 months out of the year, and find them to be not just viable but valuable contributors to their tournament results more often than not.
When bass around the country have completed the spawning ritual and are in transition to their summertime haunts, bluegills become both a prime aggravator and a primary food source, and nothing represents a deep-bodied panfish better than a fat-bodied shallow diving crankbait.
“There are always plenty of bluegills present when the largemouths are making their beds,” said California pro Chris Zaldain. “And then they’ll be making beds of their own, or staging and eating bass fry. I target those areas.” Bass fry hold tight to cover, he explained, whether that be a dock post, a bush or a laydown log, and the beauty of the square bill is that despite having two razor sharp treble hooks, it’s pretty much a four-wheel drive presentation, with relatively little chance of getting snagged.
Zaldain usually uses a medium fast retrieve under these circumstances. Something slower might have worked when the water was cold, but now that it’s in the 60s or even the 70s, he turns on the afterburners.
“Those shallow bass are pissed off at the bluegill because they share the same space,” he explained. “I don’t want to give them a chance to think about it. I want them to commit to it.”
Edwin Evers, winner of the 2016 Bassmaster Classic, agreed, although he noted that he does adjust his retrieve speed slightly to account for water clarity: “If it’s clearer, I go faster and if it’s muddy I go slower,” he said, adding that while many anglers would use a spinnerbait, swim jig or vibrating jig around these same fish, he finds that the ultra-natural look of a hard bait with a precision paint job will often out-fish them substantially in clearer water. While imitating a bluegill is his primary goal, he noted that a square bill can be deadly around a shad spawn as well, another situation that it typically occurring at this same time.
Both pros were raised using the highly buoyant balsa baits for their deflecting presentations, but increasingly they’ve turned to plastic models in recent years. “With balsa, you may need to go through 15 to get one decent one,” Evers said. “Also, they’re far less durable. One bad cast and it’s done. That’s important, because the biggest mistake I see people make with these lures is that they don’t throw it in the heavy cover. Remember, these baits will go through almost anything.”
Zaldain and Evers both rely heavily on the Megabass S-Crank 1.2 and 1.5 for much of their every day cranking, since they match the size of early-season bluegills perfectly. Any time they’re around bluegill, Black Back Chartreuse and Biwako Seethrough Chart are go-to colors, although in clearer water more natural shades like Secret Gill and Sexy French Pearl may get the call.
Like its balsa predecessors, the S-Cranks hunt erratically, so Zaldain was quick to note that if he’s throwing down a narrow lane in the grass or in some other environment where hunting will be more of a hindrance than a benefit, he’ll switch to the narrower-bodied Knuckle LD, which he calls “very true-tracking.”
Evers added that he’s increasingly using the S-Crank 2.0, a 3-inch, 1 ounce beast. That’s not just on big bass factories like Sam Rayburn, Falcon and Guntersville, but also on northern waters, and anyplace where bass feed on panfish and he needs a larger bite or two to push him to the top of the leaderboard.
Both Evers and Zaldain use 12 to 20 pound fluorocarbon with their square bills, as opposed to mono which has more stretch, greater diameter and is much less sensitive. Line size can be adjusted upward to reduce diving depth or downward to increase it. Zaldain stays firmly attuned to the ideal depths because he frequently sees less experienced anglers fishing them too high in the water column.
“If you’re not bumping and grinding, you’re simply not getting bit,” he said. “Try to get the bait snagged. These baits are excellent at deflecting off cover. That’s when your strikes will come.” He prefers a 6.2:1 gear ratio baitcasting reel, while Evers dotes on a 7:1 or even an 8:1 model as the water warms. Either way, it’s critical to use a rod with a moderate action to avoid pulling the lure away from the fish and then to keep it buttoned once it’s hooked.
“I mostly use a 7-foot Orochi XX Flat Side Special,” Zaldain said. “I’m looking for a slow, moderate action, not a fast action. I want the whole rod to load. I just love how that rod loads up.” Because many of his casts are short and target-oriented, he wants a stick that can “absorb the shock in close quarters. Many of your bites will come within the 20 foot range.” He cautioned against “setting your hook like you would with a jig,” instead encouraging anglers to make “a nice torso sweep.”
The biggest mistake you can make, though, is to leave them in the truck.
“They’re in my boat pretty much all the time,” Evers concluded.