By Jeff Samsel

Turing a reel handle slowly and holding a crankbait rod steady is almost more than Mississippi bass pro Pete Ponds can stand. Everything in him wants to pause, pull the bait, twitch the rod tip or do something different as he cranks, because that’s usually what prompts the most strikes.

Mid-winter is a different animal, though, and Ponds has learned over time that slow and steady retrieves truly do draw the most strikes in his primary dead-of-winter cranking pattern.

Ponds fishes two different crankbait patterns through the deepest part of winter, and each is executed with a specific lure. In either case, given his druthers, Ponds will do most of his winter crankbait fishing during the afternoon after the sun has had the opportunity to warm the water at least a little bit.
“Water temperature plays a very important part through the dead of the winter, and I’ve definitely found that the fish bite better during the afternoon,” he said.

Bandit 200
Ponds’ go-to crankbait most winter days is a Bandit 200. Fished slowly and steadily, Ponds says it has all of the attributes bass are wanting in winter. It has the right wobble, profile and size is right for the typical attitude of the fish at that time. “It runs in that 5- to 7-foot range, which is about where the fish move up to when they want to eat,” Ponds said.

Ponds looks for several areas for winter cranking, including riprap banks natural rock banks with modest slopes. In either case, the rock heats up from the sunshine, warming water close to it and drawing fish that generally are more willing to bite than fish in other areas. Ponds watches his temperature gauge carefully as he moves from one bank to another, having found that a temperature difference of even a degree or two can totally change the attitude of the bass. For the same reason, he favors banks that have a southern exposure and areas that are protected from prevailing winds.

The spot-within-a-spot for Ponds’ riprap and rocky banks often are points, slope changes and other “something different” kinds of cover and structure. He pays careful attention to boat positioning, normally keeping the boat fairly close to the rocks and casting roughly parallel to keep the bait in the strike zone for the longest portion of each cast.

“When a fish bites, I pay close attention to how far my bait is from the rock. Whether it’s 2 inches out, 2 feet out or farther from the bank is important patterning information,” Ponds said.

Other potentially productive areas for the same basic approach include submerged roadbeds and boat ramps.

“I catch a lot of bass cranking boat ramps this time of year,” Ponds said.
For ramps and roadbeds, he positions the boat in the same manner as when fishing shoreline rocks, keeping the crankbait over the structure for as much of the retrieve as possible.

Ponds mostly uses color patterns that suggest shad or bluegill when fishing the Bandit 200 during the winter. He prefers a realistic, subdued version for clear water and patterns that include brighter colors like chartreuse and orange when fishing murkier water.

Flatmaxx Shallow
Toward the end of any string of unseasonably warm winter days, Ponds begins testing a different crankbait pattern. A few warm days -- even during the coldest part of winter – will prompt bass to stray onto prespawn flats to feed, which creates great fish-catching opportunities.

“It seems like the bigger fish start moving up first, and they’ll run those flats in wolfpacks,” Ponds said. “It’s a good time to catch a bunch of big bass.”

When bass move to these flats, Ponds turns to a Bandit Flatmaxx Shallow. This flat-sided crankbait has a tight wiggle that cold-water bass see as easy to catch. In addition, the lip helps it to deflect off the bottom or any cover it bumps, which commonly converts followers into eaters.

Primary areas are big spawning flats at the upper ends of the lake, especially if they’re close to deep water. Bass move from the deep water to the flats and prefer the shortest route, so the closer the main channel swings into the flat, the better.

Once he identifies a good spawning flat, he targets any isolated gravel or rocks. Any vegetation gets his attention as well, but it’s pretty scarce once winter really takes hold. About the only vegetation left are dead lily pads, but bass will still hold in the stems. Any wood gets a cast for five, too, but Ponds says that wood is less of an attraction during winter than it is during spring.
“I fish the Flatmaxx in a lot of the same types of areas where you might fish a lipless crankbait that time of year,” Ponds said. “It’s a similar action, but the Flatmaxx is more snag-resistant so I fish it with less frustration.”

Another difference between the Flatmaxx and a lipless crank is that the former floats, giving Ponds the ability to use a slower, yoyo retrieve that includes plenty of pauses. He reels the bait down and then works it with pulls and short pauses to make it wobble down, float up a bit, wobble down, float up a bit, wobble down…

Good colors for prespawn fishing with a Flatmaxx Shallow include Red Crawdad and the red-back Spring Craw Yellow. Ponds believes that keeping some red in the color scheme makes a major difference this time of year.

Winter Cranking Gear
For both the Bandit 200 and Flatmaxx Shallow, Ponds likes to crank with a 7-1 medium action Duckett White Ice baitcasting rod matched with an Ardent Apex reel. Unlike many pros, he does not switch to a slower reel for cranking. When Ponds hooks a fish, he wants everything to operate the same as what he is most used to because he believes that substantially reduces the chances of allowing slack and letting a fish get off.

Ponds generally likes 14-lb test for winter cranking, and that might be fluorocarbon or monofilament. Fluoro, which allows the bait to run a little deeper, is his normal choice for tournament fishing. At times, though, he doesn’t want his lure to get quite as deep or he wants a hint of stretch, in which case monofilament becomes a better choice.