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7 Keys to Cold-Water Crankbait Bass Fishing Success

Late winter is an outstanding time to pick up a crankbait rod, but the approach differs from other seasons. These tips will help you crank out more bass when the water is cold.

winter smallmouth basswinter smallmouth bass
Alabama bass guide and tournament pro Jimmy Mason shows the benefits of winter cranking on the Tennssee River


“We ought to get at least one on this next little section,” Jimmy Mason said as we approached a slight point along a craggy rock bank. The words barely escaped the veteran bass guide’s mouth when I felt a jolt and leaned into a stout-feeling bass. I turned to see if Mason had noticed that I indeed had hooked up and realized that he too had a fish on his line!

Late winter and early spring offer some of the best crankbait fishing of the year, with largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass often holding in predictable locations and positioned well for a cranking approach. These tips can help you find and catch more fish with crankbaits and make the most of this great opportunity.

1 – Color That Craw

Crawfish are the primary forage in many crankbait spots during late winter and early spring, so crawfish colors tend to be more important than colors that imitate shad or bluegills. Because the crawfish themselves have bolder markings that feature more reds early in the year – and because stained water is common – bold crawfish color patterns that feature plenty of red, orange or chartreuse tend to excel.

Don’t miss the limited run Craw Series in the Norman Middle N for this application. Orange Belly Craw, Table Rock Craw and Red Swamp Craw each have applications for winter cranking, with Red Swamp Craw being an extra good choice if the water is stained or even muddy.

2 – Speaking of Color

Winter crankbait smallmouthWinter crankbait smallmouth

Color-related, don’t shy away from stained water for winter crankbait fishing. Extra stain causes the bass to move shallower and hold tighter to cover, along with prompting aggressive ambush feeding. Sound and vibration trigger interest, and the bass pounce on would-be meals that pass too close.

If one bank has extra stain because of the way waves are pounding against it or the wind is pushing the sediment, fish are far more likely to be shallow and set up in manner that’s conducive to crankbait fishing on that bank than one that is similar but has clearer water against it.

Heavy cloud cover or wind that create a chop and break the light penetration typically has a similarly positive impact for cold-water cranking. Either reduces visibility, limiting the bass’ capacity to examine potential meals and forcing them into reaction mode.

3 – Play Current Conditions

cranking shallow rockscranking shallow rocks

Current also aggressive feeding and causes bass to hold close to shallow cover. Current also positions the fish, making holding areas more predictable. Fortunately, winter fronts commonly deliver plenty of precipitation while increasing the demand for electricity. Both occurrences result in a greater need to run water through reservoirs, creating current in many areas.

Beyond tying on a crankbait when the water is running and focusing on current-swept banks, it’s important to consider how the bass are likely to be positioned and plan casts accordingly. Bass want to be close to current, where foodstuff get swept past, but not quite in the strongest flow. They tuck into small hard eddies between rocks and near outside edges of larger eddies, adjacent to current rips. If the bottom is rocky and uneven, don’t overlook the main current line as the fish will find eddies along the bottom that you can’t see.

Consider where the fish should be holding and where food should come from and make every effort to mimic that with your first couple of casts to a spot.

4 – Rock On

Rock, whether natural in a river or lake or placed in the form of riprap, is often a key element in a winter cranking pattern. Rocks provide habit for crawfish, thus attracting bass and causing bass to relate to craws. As importantly, rocky banks commonly offer outstanding hiding places for feeding bass.

Any riprap bank that extends even a few feet beneath the surface provides endless hideaways for bass. In natural rock lakes, craggy chunk rock, ledges along bluffs and transition banks where the rock type or shape changes tend to be extra good for crankbait fishing because they provide the best ambush positions.

Submerged vegetation, where it remains green through winter or is beginning to return in early spring, provides the same benefits as rock, holding crawfish and providing the bass with places to hide.

5 – Crash Cover

winter crankbait basswinter crankbait bass

Bumping some kind of cover is important to most crankbait strategies because the cover causes the bait to roll or otherwise move differently, which triggers strikes. Shallow winter cranking takes that to an extreme. Except in vegetation, where you might need to feather it through the top of the grass to keep it from hanging, you typically want to hit a lot of cover during winter, crashing it into rocks and digging it between them, to where bass are hiding.

Again, this is reactionary fishing, so the bait needs to get the bass’ kitchen and bang off stuff. A plump, wide kicking crankbait like the Norman Midde N is an excellent option for hitting cover because the wide action causes the body to deflect off rocks and lessens the likeliness of snagging.

Although it’s true that your crankbait will get hung up fairly often with this approach, you typically can get those baits free. Often, it’s simply a matter of changing angles. If that doesn’t do the job, most baits won’t be too deep to reel down to, and baits wedged in rocks (as opposed to being deeply hooked in solid wood cover), usually are easy to get back with a plug knocker.

6 – Work Close

Norman Lures Craw Series ColorsNorman Lures Craw Series Colors

Because you’re neither trying to get a crankbait extra deep nor be extra stealthy, extra long casts are seldom advantageous for winter crankbait fishing. Typically, a far better approach is to work close to the cover and make many short casts. This allows for better casting accuracy, which is critical when fish are tight to cover, and it allows for better control during presentations to guide the bait through tough spots.

For a boating approach, keeping the boat close to the cover also allows you to cast parallel or nearly parallel to the bank or weedline and to keep your lure in the prime zone throughout a presentation. Because long casts aren’t needed, a shallow crankbait is often an excellent option for bank fishing during the cooler months.

7 – Change Directions

fighting a winter bassfighting a winter bass

Don’t miss the importance of angling casts back and toward the structure. After you’ve passed a key isolated rock or indentation in a riprap bank, angling casts back instead of forward allows you to present your lure in very different ways. Often bass will attack a lure in the exact spot the same lure has been through two or three times when it comes from a different direction.

Begin with the angle that makes sense, based on wind and current and the visible configuration of the cover. Don’t stop there, though. Cross key spots from two or three angles and pay careful attention to the angle and the location every time a fish attacks.

If you aren’t dealing with significant current or wind, the most efficient way to work all the angles and pattern the fish might be to work and entre stretch of bank in one direction, angling most casts forward, and then turn around and work the same stretch with the boat moving the other way. However, when either wind or current is sweeping a bank significantly, it’s far easier to control the boat going into the wind or current than with it. In that situation a better way to work angles is simply to maintain one boat direction and angle plenty of casts both forward and backward.

Great Winter Crankbaits

winter crankbaitswinter crankbaits

The Norman Middle N and Speed N Jr, though quite different in character, both excel for cold-water cranking. Each fills a different niche this time of year.

The Middle N, which is 2 inches long, is listed to run 7-9 feet. That’s with fairy light line and long casts, though, and you’ll typically be staying shallower for the best winter application. It’s spectacular or casting close to rocks and cranking it down to where it kicks off stuff and pokes its nose in crevices. While available, the Limited Run Craw Series colors are ideal. Great catalog option for this time of year include Chili Bowl and Fire Tiger

The Speed N Jr has a tight pitch and roll action that appeals to winter chilled bass. It runs 4-6 feet and is ideal for ticking the top of developing vegetation and stumps on top of flats that bass move onto on sunny winter days and where they stage before the spawn. Corners on the bait’s lip also help this bait deflect cover. Dirty PB&J and Crawnificent, available in limited quantities in the Speed N and Speed N Jr line-ups, are ideal for late winter.