When the water starts cooling during late fall and early winter, crankbait bass fishing gets hot. Learn the strategies of two expert anglers.
Thanksgiving leftovers are a memory, and you’re looking ahead to the Christmas holidays. Bass fishing is on the back burner, partly because there’s a serious nip in the air and the water temperature on your home lakes is dropping. The bass are too sluggish to bite anyway. Right?
The reality is that early winter bass fishing can be exceptional, provided you cast the right baits into the right places. This is the time to wind fresh line onto your favorite cranking rod and break out a variety of crankbaits.
For the past seven years Ohioan Frank Scalish, a former Bassmaster Elite Series pro and Bassmaster Classic qualifier, has been fishing earnestly during the cold months to find how specific crankbaits perform in chilly bass waters. He designs baits and colors for several brands offered by Lurenet and is currently focused on Norman and Bomber lures.
“I’ve been absolutely crushing bass in the fall, right up until the water temperature dips into the 30s,” Scalish said. “It’s become my favorite time of year to cast for bass.”
Alabama’s Jimmy Mason, another former Bassmaster Elite Series angler, also fishes crankbaits extensively this time of year. When he isn’t competing in tournaments, Mason guides for Bass on Pickwick Lake and other Tennessee River reservoirs.
“Early winter cranking begins right after Thanksgiving,” Mason said. “It’s just a fun time to fish.”
In the Midwest, Scalish asserted that the early winter cranking bonanza begins when the water temperature drops to the mid 50s. In the South, Mason pointed out that it gets underway when the water temperature cools to about 60 degrees.
Mad For Shad
As the water temperature cools in early winter, the bass focus more on schooling baitfish than other forage. On most waters, that means shad.
“What’s happening now is that the bass are semi suspended and feeding up,” Scalish said. “This is when the Norman Speed N comes into play. It has a super tight vibration, which makes it awesome for cold water conditions.”
Although Scalish sticks mainly with baitfish imitating colors to match the forage, he may throw the bass a changeup with some type of red craw pattern. Mason does the opposite with the Bandit 100, 200 and 300 crankbaits that slay the bass for him in early winter.
“This time of year I go a little bit with shad colors but whole lot with red crawfish patterns,” Mason said. “Spring Craw Yellow is good from now all the way through the spawn. In dirtier water the Mistake color is dynamite. The Red Spring Craw color is good later into the winter.”
During the early stages of winter fishing, the bass still relate to the bank, Scalish noted. He targets 45-degree sloping banks that have rock and wood cover for the bass to relate to. Small pockets packed with shad are also high on his hit list.
Mason also concentrates on channel swing banks and points that have gravel or chunk rock. He added that this is prime time to crank riprap.
Which model of Bandit crankbait Mason slings at any given moment depends on the depth he is fishing. The Bandit 100, 200 and 300 are the same size and shape and have a similar wobble at different depths.
The Bandit 100 runs 2 to 5 feet deep and does the job when Mason targets things like visible stumps.
The Bandit 200 dives 4 to 8 feet deep and is Mason’s go-to bait when he wants to grind it over rocks, logs and laydowns in that depth range.
The Bandit 300 gets down 8 to 12 feet. It comes through for Mason when he fishes bluffs and other fast dropping banks, and in clear water where the bass tend to hold deeper.
If Mason believes the bass are keying on crayfish, he switches to the Norman Middle N in the same craw patterns that produce for him with Bandit crankbaits. He also adds the Mountain Doo and Chili Bowl colors to his cold-water arsenal. The Middle N swims with a wider wobble than the Bandit baits, which is a more realistic crawfish action and is better for banging through the rocks and deflecting cover with its lip.
Scalish does especially well fishing grass lakes in early winter. Milfoil is common in the Midwest, and he gets pumped whenever he has an opportunity to crank this submerged vegetation. The shallow, visible milfoil turns brown as it dies in early winter, but the deeper milfoil beneath the surface stays green and viable. The shad move to the deeper grass edges, and the bass follow them.
“A crankbait gunks up in the dead stuff, but you can snap it through the deeper grass,” Scalish said.
When Scalish cranks grass edges 3 to 6 feet deep, he picks off the bass with the Norman Speed N. He switches to the Bomber Fat Free Shad and Fat Free Shad Jr. to reach deeper grass, choosing whichever model puts him in contact with the vegetation.
Submerged grass only grows as deep as sunlight penetrates. The clearer the water, the deeper the grass can grow. Because the light grows weaker the farther in penetrates into the water, the deepest grass does not grow as tall or as dense as the shallower grass, Scalish explained.
“Bass in cold water go as deep as the deepest grass grows, and they stay there as long as the grass stays green,” Scalish said.
He positions his boat just outside the vegetation and casts his crankbaits across the edge of the grass at a 45-degree angle.
“I’ve caught bass along grass edges by cranking nice and slow in water as cold as 39 degrees,” Scalish said. “The key is just touching the tip of the grass with your crankbait and snapping it through to trigger a reflex strike.”
Bass in Bunches
Scalish has found that bass begin to congregate in early winter. If you fail to concentrate on high percentage locations, your crankbaits will just haul water. However, when you do find a cold-water bass hangout, you catch them in bunches.
The most consistent sweet spot for Scalish in reservoirs that feature grass is where a ditch cuts into the vegetation. This is typically a runoff in the bottom that was inundated when the reservoir filled with water. More often than not, the bank provides no clues that the ditch exists beneath the surface.
The ditch forms a deep pocket between two grass lines that come together at the head of the ditch. Scalish calls these sweet spots “dead-end guts” and locates them by studying contour lines on lake charts. The bass cluster in the gut between the grass lines. Scalish picks them off by casting crankbaits into and across the gut.
“They usually winter there,” Scalish said. “I can’t tell you how many bass I’ve caught cranking dead-end guts right up until the lake freezes.”
Tackle for Cold Water Cranking
Scalish: For deep cranking with the Bomber Fat Free Shad series, he opts for a 7 1/2-foot medium action Powell rod (model 764). For shallower cranking, Scalish prefers Powell’s model 725. It measures 7-2 and has a medium-heavy action.
Mason: A 7-foot Lew’s KVD Composite Cranking Rod does the job for Mason.
Scalish: He slows down with a reel that sports a 5.4:1 or 5.1:1 gear ratio.
Mason: Lew’s BB1 Pro, which has a 5.4:1 gear ratio, prevents Mason’s crankbaits from running too fast for cold-water bass.
Scalish: On lakes that don’t have grass Scalish goes with 12-pound fluorocarbon. On grass lakes he employs 12- and 14-pound fluorocarbon.
Mason: 10-pound Vicious Elite Fluorocarbon does the trick for Mason.