September 5, 2013 by Matt Williams; Illustrations by Mike Mathison
(Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the 2013 August/September issue of Bass Fishing magazine. To read more compelling articles from Bass Fishing magazine each month, become an FLW subscriber member. If you'd like to sign up for a digital subscription to access articles online, click here).
Anyone who follows big-league bass fishing knows pro David Fritts is legendary for his ability to sniff out and catch bass on a crankbait. True, Fritts is handy with other styles of lures. But he is the iceman with a crankbait, particularly when the bass relate to cover or structure in deep water.
Fritts proved this best at the FLW Series event at Clarks Hill Lake in Georgia in October 2008. After catching 23 pounds, 9 ounces and taking a commanding lead of more than 8 pounds in the opening round, Fritts extended his lead to 11 pounds on day two and a whopping 15 pounds, 9 ounces headed into the finals. He eventually won the four-day event with a total of 59-10 and a cushion of slightly less than 10 pounds.
Fritts found his cache of bass suspended at varied depths in standing timber, and he utilized the entire family of Rapala's DT Series of crankbaits to exploit them. In places where the fish were positioned beyond reach of the DT20, he tempted them by bouncing a Rapala Clackin' Rap lipless crankbait off of tree bases and root systems, some as deep as 30 feet.
While lure choice played a vital role in Fritts' success, just as important were the length, accuracy and angle of his casts, line size, boat position, and a host of other factors many anglers don't take into account.
"Deep cranking isn't rocket science, but you do have to know your equipment and your baits, and pay close attention to what is going on down there at all times," Fritts says. "Ninety-five percent of anglers just throw a bait out and don't pay any attention to what it's doing. You can get away with that with some types of fishing, but not with deep cranking."
Bottom line: Little things mean a lot when plying deep water - let's say 16 feet and deeper - with crankbaits.
Understanding the curve
The first step toward full awareness of a crankbait is to understand how it dives and the path it follows, often called its "dive curve." A deep-diving crankbait dives at a downward angle until reaching its maximum depth, then levels out for a spell before beginning its ascent toward the surface.
Different crankbaits follow different paths, largely dependent on the length and size of the bill and the body. Some crankbaits dive very vertically, while others take awhile to get down. Some stay near maximum depth a significant portion of the time, while others maintain bottom contact for only a few feet. This is something you'll have to learn about each crankbait you use.
Next, you need to develop an understanding of how the lure feels in the water as it moves, and where and how it changes direction. This is critical in deep water, especially, because hitting a target is more difficult in the depths than bumping a stump in shallow water. And each cast takes longer to complete; if you miss a few times, you can burn up valuable fishing time.
In some instances, the target you're trying to contact is primarily lateral, such as a shell bed stretched across the lip of a ledge. In other instances, the window is vertical too, such as when bass suspend near the top of flooded pole timber. In that case, you not only have to be accurate laterally - left and right - but you also have to be accurate vertically so that the lure passes through the bass' strike zone. This is primarily done with boat positioning, cast distance, and lure and line selection (more on this later). Fritts has spent years mastering this skill, and often still takes 20, 30 or more casts to get a crankbait exactly where it needs to be.
Proper boat position
Boat position is a big key with deep cranking, especially when targeting isolated stumps, brush piles, rock piles and other stuff that is notorious for giving up big kicker fish.
"You want the bait to hit the target, but you can't accomplish that if you're too far back or too close to it," Fritts says. "The key is to keep the boat positioned so the bait will penetrate the depth at which the fish are holding at the right moment."
Three-time Walmart FLW Tour Angler of the Year David Dudley, another deep-cranking master, says underwater shell beds, points on ledges or areas with multiple brush piles are a little more forgiving in the sense that the strike zone might be spread out more.
"These types of places are prone to hold big schools of fish, not just one or two," he says. "When those fish are feeding, your casts don't have to be quite as precise. You're generally dealing with more fish, so there will be more competition."
GPS technology can be helpful when it comes to lining up the boat with an invisible target, but Fritts and Dudley say it usually isn't enough when you need to thread the needle with your casts.
"A waypoint doesn't mean anything when you're talking about isolated cover - it could be off 10 yards either way," Fritts claims. "It's best to use some type of landmark along the shore to help you line up. Once I get dialed in on the sweet spot, I'll pitch a marker buoy out beside the boat and keep it lined up with one of the boat cleats. That way I can keep the boat positioned at just the right distance and make the same cast every time."
Altering dive characteristics
With the boat properly aligned, the next step in making accurate presentations is tweaking the dive characteristics of a crankbait to get it to travel just where you want it. Fritts and Dudley offer some suggestions:
Make long, consistent casts: Most lure manufacturers base advertised diving depths on an average casting distance. However, the more leash you are able to put between the dog and the master, the deeper the dog will hunt. And if you cast maximum distance every time, your casts will be more consistent.
Both anglers prefer a long rod for launching big cranks. Fritts' preference is a 7-foot, 8-inch medium-heavy Lew's David Fritts Signature Series E-Glass Crankin' rod. His reel of choice is the new Lew's BB1.
Dudley is a Lamiglas guy who takes a somewhat beefier approach. He prefers a 7-foot, 11-inch David Dudley Signature Series Flippin' Stick and Abu Garcia Revo reel for deep cranking.
Change line size: To maximize cranking depth, use the lightest line you can get away with. Lighter lines create less resistance as they slice the water. More importantly, they cast farther.
Try rigging up identical crankbaits with different line diameters too. You can alter the maximum diving depth by a couple of feet or more by changing lines, which allows you to probe slightly different depths until you get the cast just right.
Tune it right: It's critical for a crankbait to be tuned properly so it runs true and not off to the side. Otherwise, it will cost you depth and accuracy.
Modify the lure: Fritts says you can get an extra foot or 2 out of a lure by using a file to shave the lip's leading edge sharp. This helps the bill cut the water better. Only file the lip from the bottom side, and make sure the mod is uniform all the way across.
"With the right cast and right line you can gain 5 feet with a shaved bait," he says. "The downside is the bait will wear out faster."
Kneel and reel: Pro Paul Elias of Laurel, Miss., popularized this technique when he used it to help him win the 1982 Bassmaster Classic on the Alabama River. To perform it, make a long cast, kneel at the edge of the deck and poke the rod vertically in the water. The farther you bury it, the deeper the lure will go.
Deep cranks to consider
Strike King 10XD
Few hard lures joined the market this year with more hype than what this one received. Strike King lure designer Phil Marks of Dallas, Texas, saw to that when he took a prototype to Sam Rayburn Reservoir last fall and used it to blow away the field with 82 pounds over four days, including 32-12 in the final round. Huge in profile, the 10XD features the same bill design as other XD series lures, but in a jumbo package to help it dig deep.
Length: 3 3/4 inches (minus bill)
Weight: 1 7/8 ounces
Diving Depth: 25 feet plus
Hooks: 1/0 VMC
SPRO Little John DD
Patterned after its flat-sided predecessor, the Little John, the deeper-diving Little John DD features an innovative rubber/tungsten weight-transfer system to optimize casting and balance while also maintaining a very unique subdued, nearly silent rattle. The lure sneaks through cover well.
Length: 2 3/4 inches (minus bill)
Weight: 1 ounce
Diving Depth: 16 to 20 feet
Hooks: No. 2 Gamakatsu
Mann's Depth Plus 20+
This is the plug that helped pro Paul Elias shatter the B.A.S.S. four-day weight record at Lake Falcon in April 2008 with 132 pounds, 8 ounces. Get it around bass, and it will take care of the rest.
Length: 3 inches (minus bill)
Weight: 5/8 ounce
Diving Depth: 20 feet plus
Hooks: No. 1
An old staple for probing ledges, rock piles and other deep structure, the DD22 has gained a reputation as a big-time "money bait" on lakes across the nation. It also comes at an exceptional value in just about every color under the sun. Norman recently introduced a "heavy diver" version of the DD22 that is heavier for longer casts, and subsequently deeper diving.
Length: 3 inches (minus bill)
Weight: 5/8 ounce
Diving Depth: 15 to 18 feet
Hooks: No. 2 VMC Vanadium Cone Cut
Colors: 31 standard; 126 gelcoat
Price: $4.50 to $6
Rapala DT Metal 20
Made from select balsa wood, the lure is equipped with a specially designed thin, curved polycarbonate lip with a built-on nose weight that helps align it nose-down to dive quickly. It also features an internal rattle chamber and holographic eyes.
Length: 2 3/4 inches (minus bill)
Weight: 7/8 ounce
Diving Depth: 20 feet
Hooks: VMC No. 3 SureSet (tail) and standard
Colors: 6 (plus four custom Mike Iaconelli colors)
Getting a grip on long-lining
If you find the need to take a crankbait to say 35 to 40 feet, you might want to give long-lining (sometimes called "strolling") a try. Just be sure to check the rules if you plan to do it in a tournament; some organizations prohibit this method.
Here's how it works:
Make a long cast behind the boat. As the bait bobs on the surface, put the reel on free-spool and use the trolling motor to move the opposite direction and let out more line. Once you've stretched it out, engage the reel and start cranking. The more line you let out, the deeper the crankbait will hunt when it goes in motion.
Easy does it
David Fritts is always careful when he's cranking, but his sensitivity dial goes up a notch or two when he feels his bait make contact with cover. Trees with lots of limbs or brush piles call for special care.
"When I contact the cover is when my rod tip goes up and I start slowing up on my retrieve - just crawling it through there," he says. "If you keep digging, you'll get hung up."
Three tricks to trigger strikes
â€¢ Let 'em rest: If Castrol pro David Dudley knows a spot is holding bass, but the fish are reluctant to bite, he will back off for 5 to 10 minutes. Giving the school a break often outproduces pounding it to no avail. "Sometimes they'll fire back up if you'll just give them a rest," he says.
â€¢ Grind bottom: : Grinding bottom alters a crankbait's action significantly and adds attraction to the presentation. You can swap between crankbaits with different diving depths or change line size to accomplish this. "It'll actually make the bait do a break dance right across the bottom," Dudley says. "Plus, it creates a lot of sound."
â€¢ Change your angle: : "A lot of times just changing the angle of your cast can make a big difference," David Fritts says. "Inactive fish probably won't bite a bait if they see it coming, but if the bait comes from behind and shoots over their head by surprise they might jump up there and grab it."