By Rick Lawrence
Winter crank baiting can be very productive for a variety of Species From bass to Pike and even Crappies.
The most import part of fishing a bait in the winter, no matter want kind of bait is it is, is for it to suspend or nearly suspend, even if it was not designed from the factory to do so. I will add weight by either larger hooks or suspend lead dots to make the bait work properly. I do this to regular crankbaits and jerkbaits. There are 3 different types of crank baits I like to use in the winter. Each has a time and place they can be fished effectively.
First is suspending jerkbaits, Any time the water temperatures are in the high 30s to the low 50s, I’m always thinking about a jerkbait as being a the bait of choice. I think a good jerkbait is my #1 choice for catching winter Bass or Pike. The most important part of a good jerkbait is one that will suspend horizontal in the water. Not nose down or tail down but dead flat and stay at the depth you stopped it at. Surprisingly not all baits even of the same make and model will do this. You will find the same bait in the same size and color one might float up ever so slowly while another works perfectly. Some will suspend flat and some will be nose down. Finding those baits that are the golden ones, so to speak is the ticket to success. I will test every bait I fish in cold water to make sure it suspends properly. The ones that are not perfect I will tweak them as close as I can get by adding weight if it floats up slowly to which ever end needs it. If the bait sinks to fast I will not fish it.
Some of my favorite lower costs suspending baits are Husky Jerks, with the HJ12’s size for Bass and the HJ 14’s for Pike. This Glass perch HJ 14 is my favorite winter pike bait.
Some other Rapala baits that work good for both Bass and Pike are the X-Rap in the XR10 and XR12 size and Shadow Rap. The Ima Flit 100 and 120 are also some good lesser known jerkbaits out there that are good fish producers that won’t break the bank. Two of the more spendy baits that I think are worth it are the Magabass Ito 110, and the Luckycraft pointer 100 and 128. Both of these are proven fish catchers.
Magabass Ito 110 is another one of my favorite baits.
A few of these baits are a must for winter bassin. I like colors that are somewhat natural like Perch and Shad patterns. Pike seem to like bolder colors like Firetiger and Neon Perch. How you fish a suspending jerkbait in the winter is the key to whether you will find success or not. The most important thing in winter fishing is SLOW down. Fish the bait with small pops with alternating rhythms and long pauses till you find the sweet spot so to speak. Pausing a bait 15 to 20 seconds between pops is not unheard of in winter fishing. During the pause you want to keep a semi slack line so you can feel the bite, but not let the fish feel you. 99.99% of all Bass and Pike will hit the bait on the pause in the winter. So be ready when it happens as is can be quick even in the cold water.
Second is lipped crankbaits that are mid to deep divers. The best action for a cold water crankbait is one with very tight wobble. Not a lot of side to side. This just swims along subtly. It’s definitely not a hard-thumping action. It’s not really very buoyant, either. It floats, but goes up very slowly, which is great when they’re eating it on the pause. My favorite winter crank is the Rapala Shad Rap in either the regular or jointed model. This bait has been around for several decades and yet its ability to catch big fish has stood the test of time. It's a simple shape and size that mimics a wide variety of forage. Over the last couple of decades, it's really carved its niche with bass fishermen hunting bass in cold waters. Many fisheries clear up in the winter, and the very natural styling and subtle side to side rolling action of the crankbait make it tremendously appealing visually to the fish.
Some of the other baits that work well for winter cranking are the Wiggle Warts, Strike King 6XD and the Rapala DT series. Rapala’s DT-series crankbaits are sort of a combo of a Shad Rap and a traditional wider-wobble crankbait. Swimming with a side-to-side action that only balsa wood baits can create, the DT’s can trigger reaction strikes from sluggish, cold-water fish when most other baits can’t.
When fishing cranks in cold water the key here is cover water till you catch fish. Then slow down an really work that area, as winter bass will school up, so if there’s one there will be more. Even when you are covering water you want to work the bait on the slow side with quite a few pauses in the retrieve. Anytime you hit any kind of cover be it wood, rocks, or vegetation you want to stop the bait for a brief period, and then twitch it a few times waiting a few seconds in between before continuing your retrieve. In the fall as the water cools bass have a tendency to stock up for winter and move to and from shallow feeding areas more frequently. Bass in 65 to 55 degree water will be in the 6 to 12 foot range and normally will have the feed bag on. In clear water you want to fish Crawfish and Shad colors as well as gold and copper baits. In stained water chartreuse colors really shine, as well as chrome, blues, and greens. As the water temps drop into the low 50’s the bass will be holding deeper from 12 to 25 feet. Movement of bass is dependent on food sources, but bass go after slow moving easy to catch meals due to the cold water causing their metabolism to slow down. In the colder temps in clear water use Crawfish, Perch and Shad patterns. If the water is cold and dirty you might as well just stay home because the odds of getting bit are slim to none.
Third are lipless crankbaits. Some of my favorites here are the old stand bys like the original Rattle Trap, Rapala Rippin Rap, Rapala Clackin Rap, and the Berkley Frenzy, but probably my favorite is the Xcalibur XR and XRK one knocker series. They come in some great colors have great action, but are still affordable. The same color patterns apply for these as do the lipped cranks but any bait with an orange belly seems to work best. The craw color in XR is an awesome winter bait. Because this is a fairly fast sinking bait you can’t really pause them for any length of time, so how I like to fish them is a Yoyo retrieve. Make a long cast to your target, engage the reel, and then let the lure fall to the bottom on a tight line. Once the lure hits bottom, sweep the rod to the side, quickly reel up slack line and repeat, moving the bait toward you in this yo-yo fashion.
Most strikes will occur as the lure sinks back to the bottom. If the lure hangs up in grass or wood cover, you can usually rip it free with a sharp stroke on the rod; this often triggers a reaction strike. In extremely cold water (upper 30s to low 40s), spool your reel with large-diameter 17- to 20-pound fluorocarbon line so the bait sinks more slowly, and fish it closer to the bottom with less violent hops and a slower cranking speed.
So be sure to have a lipless crankbait with some red or orange in it, a good casting reel, a long rod that has some flex, and the right line so you can work the bait as slow as you need to.