By: Shaye Baker
Bass still eat moving baits in cold water. When the winter months roll in, the natural instinct for a lot of us as anglers is to put down the moving baits and pick up a shaky head, Ned rig, jig or something else slow moving. And while those are great baits for wintertime fishing, bass will definitely still react to moving baits like spinnerbaits, vibrating jigs and crankbaits as well. So today, we’re going to talk a little about what that looks like.
There are basically 4 types of winter cranking: squarebills, finesse crankbaits, flat side crankbaits and crankbaits with a wider wobble. We’ll look at a few examples of these baits today and discuss the particular parts of the cold water season when each works the best. Let’s get to it.
For me personally, the squarebill is my favorite wintertime crankbait. The reason being, I can still fish it in the same places I like to fish the rest of the year and the retrieve is the only thing that changes. When the water temps drop below 50- degrees, you really have to slow way down with a squarebill. But baits like the Strike King KVD 1.5 and MONSTERBASS Hammerhead 1.5 are still super effective, provided I slow my roll.
Slowing a squarebill down to a crawl takes a good bit of conscious effort at first. Naturally, you’re going to want to fall right into the cadence of a normal retrieve with the reel spinning fairly quickly. To slow myself down, I like to watch the end of my rod. I’ll reel the bait just fast enough for the head to rock back and forth which makes my rod tip wiggle left and right. That’s how slow I’m talking. It’s tough at times to do this, but once you get in a rhythm, it’s not so bad and it really works. I’ll use a squarebill all the way through the winter up shallow and simply vary my retrieve depending on how cold the water is.
Flat Side Crankbaits
This is another classic wintertime crankbait. You see a lot of these baits in particular made out of balsa wood. A flat side crankbait has a really tight action, which is something many cold water crankbait fishermen gravitate towards. It’s believed that bass prefer the tighter, less aggressive action of a flat side crankbait in cold water. This is because the bass are lethargic and less aggressive than when they’re in warmer water. I believe this is true at times, but I also know the wider wobbling squarebill works as well, not to mention another bait we’ll be discussing in a couple paragraphs that contradicts this theory to some degree as well. But flat sided crankbaits like the Strike King 1.5 Flat and SPRO Lil’ John definitely do work in cold water. They are particularly effective when the water is super cold, down in the mid 40s. And super effective is a relative statement. I’m not suggesting you’ll go out and catch 50 fish on a flat side crankbait in 45- degree water, just that your numbers will be better with a flat side crankbait in those conditions than any other, except for maybe our next crankbait up for discussion.
When I say finesse crankbait, I’m referring to something like a Rapala Shad Rap. That’s the term you’ll hear a lot when people refer to this style of cranking, regardless of the actual brand or model of the bait. A Shad Rap was the first bait to really make this technique popular, so many anglers will simply say something like, “I was throwing a Shad Rap.”
This bait works extremely well in the 2- to 8- foot range. And while it’s a bait that will catch fish year round, it shines the brightest in the dead of winter when it’s hard to get a bite on any other crankbait. Like the flat sided crankbait, these Shad Rap style baits have a tight action. Baits in this genre are notoriously hard to throw, so you’ll often see anglers use spinning gear to fish them. But there are a few baits like this out there now with magnetic weight transfer systems which make them a lot easier to cast, especially with a baitcaster. Checkout the Hardcore Shad SR 60 Crankbait if you’re interested in trying a bait like that out.
The genre of wider wobbling, wintertime crankbaits is synonymous with one particular lure, the Wiggle Wart. Similarly to how you can’t mention finesse crankbaits without acknowledging a Shad Rap, it’s hard to get around the term Wiggle Wart when talking about this style of bait. The original Wiggle Wart is a winter time staple for many anglers, and a collectors item for many more. However, a change in the process of how this bait was and is made, has convinced many anglers that the new ones just aren’t as good as the old ones.
Whether that’s as true as some anglers believe or partly a confidence thing is hard to say. But some anglers swear by the old baits. While others opt for a newer, more affordable substitute for the original. Baits like the SPRO Rk Crawler and MONSTERBASS Seeker 6 fall into this category as well and are great wider wobbling, wintertime crankbaits.
These baits are extremely effective in the pre-spawn, as water temps are still pretty cold but are inching their way towards an upward trajectory. It’s this time of year the bass start feeding up for the spawn and crawfish are one of their main forages. Using a wider wobbling crankbait like this around chunk rock, gravel and boulders is a great way to trick those more aggressive bass into thinking they’ve found themselves a bite to eat.
If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice I didn’t bring up deep cranking in the winter. I’m not ruling that out entirely however, you can still catch fish that way. But from my experience and from watching countless other angels fish over the years, the majority of the best wintertime crankbait fishing will come in less that 10- feet of water. Focusing on the water temp, depth, clarity and phase of winter you’re in, you can pick between one of the 4 types of crankbaits we’ve mentioned and give yourself a good chance to get bit.
If you’re going super shallow in muddy water, slow crawling a squarebill or flat side crankbait in a contrasting two-tone color like chartreuse with a black back will work well for example. If you’re targeting fish in 8- feet of fairly clear water around rock in the dead of winter, a Shad Rap style finesse crankbait will be hard to beat. Given the same exact conditions but moving the season to pre-spawn, a wider wobbling crankbait like a Wiggle Wart will be better.
It’s certainly possible to have all 4 of these baits on the deck at the same time and even catch a fish on all 4 in the same day. But it you play around with it a bit, you’ll find that one particular style of bait will work best on any given day. The main takeaway—don’t give up on crankbaits when the water gets cold. There are still lots of monster bass to catch!