Early Spring Crankbait Fishing Tutorial

Early Spring Crankbait Fishing Tutorial Part 1

It has been a lot of fun following the fishing career of David Maldonado of Water Warrior Fishing. From the first time I saw some of his work, his fishing talent, knowledge, skill and passion were so obvious. In this interview, I discuss his favorite technique for fishing his favorite Mid-Atlantic bass waters, crankbait fishing. He shares so much information that we had to divide this early spring crankbait fishing tutorial into 2 parts. Here is the first.

Why do you love crankbait fishing so much?

Man, this is a tough one. There are so many reasons why I love crankbait fishing! If you’re anything like me, you might find yourself out on the water feeling like the routine of throwing soft plastics and jigs is becoming monotonous. And as much as I would like to say that I enjoy the jig bite and all those other kinds of bites, there is really nothing that compares to the slam of a hit that usually accompanies cranking. Some might argue that soft swim baits, or swim baits in general achieve the same thing. But I would argue that.

First of all, the crank is different from any other presentation because it allows you to constantly maintain bottom contact. Why do I enjoy this? Have you ever found yourself out there on a day where there are no bites whatsoever…and suddenly you hook what seems to be a fish. It ends up being a stick or a hang-up?

Well, for those few seconds before you know it’s a stick or a hang-up, you’re excited as hell with anticipation for what is to come. Well, I kind of receive that same gratification from bumping the bottom over and over with the crank bait. It’s this anticipatory feeling that accompanies every cast with the crank. You’re bumping bottom repeatedly as you’re going over all sorts of cover. Through each crank of the handle, you anticipate that bump bump bump turning into a vicious hit. And quite often it happens!

This is one of the main reasons why I enjoy cranking so much. It’s fun. It covers water. And by maintaining bottom contact, you’re better able to understand what you’re fishing.

Water Warrior Fishing CrankbaitWhy should a finesse guy like me pick up the crank?

Simply put, I feel that the crank is more effective in catching bigger fish and more of them. It’s always great to pick up multiple fish on finesse tactics, but more often than not you’re going to be hooking up with smaller fish. The chances of catching a trophy sized fish dramatically increase with a crankbait. This is because it imitates their main forage source in many bodies of water, which happen to be shad, crawfish, and bluegill. Some of these baitfish can be small and others very large. There’s a crank out there to match it all.

Additionally, the crankbait is such an attractive option for trophy size fish because of its ability to trigger reaction strikes. This is very important because when many other baits fail to produce, the crankbait can get these fish pissed enough to hit! It may not be because the fish are hungry, but a lot of times they’ll swipe at it out of pure predatory instinct.

Think about it this way, if the fish has a lot of time to sit there and look at the bait, you can bet that fish is also determining whether or not it’s real! And believe me, oftentimes, they can distinguish. If it’s moving by quickly, they must make the decision pronto.

Cranks are an all-around versatile presentation that allows you to chase the fish instead of waiting for them to come by, which is often the case with finesse and soft plastic tactics through targeted casting. I’d rather be able to fan cast and cover a lot of water to locate fish in quicker fashion. This will inevitably increase your hookup ratio!

What makes the crankbait excel as a springtime bait?

In many ways, spring is the best season to observe and understand the renewal of the cycle of nature. Leaves and flowers bloom and fill again. A variety of animals come out of their dormant winter behaviors. Bass, craws, and bait fish are no exception. Being cold blooded animals, fish are usually as dormant as possible through the colder months. They will still eat when they can, but they generally try to exert as little energy as possible.

As winter progresses to spring, and the sun remains in the sky for a longer period, inevitably the water will begin to heat up. With the rising water temps come an increase in fish activity. As their internal temperatures rise, they become more active movers and feeders.

The same thing will be happening with the numerous crawfish that have nestled under rocks for the duration of winter. Crawfish are going to be the most important factor in most lakes during the spring time warm-up. Bass know that the crawfish are slower than ever, and take full advantage of their opportunities to eat. As the crawfish come out to sun themselves and eventually molt their shells to grow larger, they also become vulnerable to their main predator. This is primetime for crankbait fishing. This is the time of year where I expect to catch my biggest bass as well. Early spring is when the biggest bass are coming out of their winter haunts to feed up and prepare for the spawn.

Although weather is very important on any particular day, the water temps take priority in the spring and should dictate how you approach your day. If the water is above 43 degrees, that is when I regain full confidence in my crankbaits. I will still use them throughout the winter, but prime time is definitely spring when the water rises above 45. When I’m fishing points, which is the usual, I prefer a slight west to east wind. It has worked for me! In early spring when the water is still cold, I prefer some sun and a slight breeze. Any wind that can distort the surface just enough to obscure the bait a bit is good.

I mention the above information because it is important to understand how nature operates before you can begin to understand lure selections and why you should choose one technique over another come springtime. The crawfish are very active this time of year and are moving around in search of food. Sunny days will often draw them out of the rocks to warm up. During a warm streak in very early spring like early March in the mid-Atlantic, you can definitely expect to find a good number of fish picking off easy crawfish as they sun themselves on shallow rock or rock bluff walls.

Add a little bit of wind to the equation and you can pick up a good bag combing these areas with a crankbait! Wind is helpful because it slightly disrupts the water column and allows less of an opportunity for the fish to discern whether or not the bait is real. A reaction bite is key to getting more fish on the end of your line.

David Maldonado Crankbait FishingHow early in the season are you throwing a crankbait?

Typically, I’m not much of a winter angler. As the years go on I make more of an effort to be out there no matter what season it is. You would be very surprised at the speed at which these fish can move even in the coldest of conditions. I have repeatedly released fish in water temps of 38-40, and they jet right back down to the abyss. They are not lacking for speed. It is a matter of getting them to commit their energy and attention to chase the bait…that is the true challenge.

It’s almost like not wanting to get out of bed for work on a cold winter day when your nestled under the covers! If your boss said “I’ll give you a raise if you come in today” you would be there right away. If the juice is worth the squeeze, the bass will chase even in cold water. Patience and persistence are more important than anything when fishing cold water.

As for the crank, I will throw it all year. As stated before, as long as the water temperature is 40+ I’ll have one tied on and will be throwing it at least for a portion of the day. Sometimes slowing down with finesse gear and jigs etc. is a necessary move.

As far as crankbait selection, I make my choices based on the waterway and what the forage is in that particular body of water. If there are no shad, I will opt for a crawfish patterned crank because this is likely their main source of food. Bluegill or crappie patterns are also a sure bet if shad are not present, and I will often choose the crappie patterns. Maybe it’s just my experience, but I have found that bass react better to crappie patterns than they do to the bluegill. Types of bluegill species range dramatically across waterways, so when opting for bluegill patterns it is important to select the correct species of gill. My philosophy: if you’re not matching the hatch, you’re missing a catch.

With that being said, you must keep water temps, fish behavior, and conditions in mind throughout winter. The baitfish have minimal movements and are usually packed tight into schools. This means the baitfish present a tighter swimming motion through the winter months and into spring. When the water is still cold, 45 or below, I prefer to throw smaller sized cranks in crawfish or shad patterns.

Rivers will fish much differently than lakes and reservoirs in the winter time due to the difference in habitat, tide (if present), and fish population. I have found that most rivers I fish have an abundance of shad and other small baitfish for the bass to feed on. They also tend to be much shallower on average than most lakes. For river winter cranking, I will utilize a Bomber 4A up in shallower water and around cover.

My preferred structure to fish in the winter are docks. Fish seem to like to winter in marinas and areas with lots of wood cover because they are usually out of the current, which reduces the amount of energy they need to use to survive through the season. I like the Bomber 4A, 5A, and 6A in cold conditions because of its petite profile, tight action, and realistic appearance. Choose those models based on what depth you are fishing.

The Bomber cranks are the only ones I will throw in the winter that do not suspend. I find it very important to give the bait quick pauses during the retrieve, and switch up my cadence periodically if I am not getting a consistent response. If the fish are really responding well to a pause, I will opt for the world-renowned Shad Rap. I prefer the Rapala Shad Rap RS Suspending for its suspending properties which allow the bait to remain in place on the pause, thus giving the fish a second to inhale it if they haven’t fully committed on a steady retrieve.

Last but definitely not least, is the Bandit 100, 200, and 300 series. These are some of my absolute favorites to throw all year, even in winter/spring. The bill on this bait is a hybrid between a narrow and rounded bill, giving it a perfect wobble , not too wide, not too tight. The bill size offerings also allow you to cover water from 2 to 12 feet which is an adequate range especially for winter fishing rivers. Bandit also had a Ledge 250 Crank that dove to 14 ft that I absolutely love, but it has since been discontinued. Overall, I value the Bandit 100, 200, and 300 for its snack-sized profile, making it a seemingly easy meal for lethargic cold bass.

The key to working any of the above or any crankbait you choose to throw in colder water is your gear and your attitude! I prefer Monofilament for all cranking due to its stretch properties. This gives fish an extra second to inhale the bait before you set the hook which becomes increasingly important in cold water. Giving the fish that extra second ensures a better hookup and higher likelihood that the bait lands in the hard palate. You must remember that their mouths are hardened with the cooler water temps. Monofilament has increased my hookup ratio immensely.

With that being said, many anglers prefer Fluorocarbon, and for cold water fishing I couldn’t disagree with them. This is because fluorocarbon has sinking properties, little to no stretch, and will inevitably get your bait as deep as it can go. Do keep in mind that the lighter the pound test, the deeper the bait will be able to dive.

To sum up line choice, if you are throwing any of the lures I have mentioned, I would recommend staying 12 pound test and below either mono or fluoro. I am commonly throwing 10lb.

Overall, cold water cranking comes down to the following:

#1 – Attention to electronics to locate schools of fish
#2 – Fan casting areas you believe to hold fish repeatedly with varying retrieval cadences
#3 – Optimal lure selection that imitates the correct forage and fish movement
#4 – Attention to your gear, pound test, type of line, sharp hooks
#5 – Patience and confidence

spring crankbait giant largemouth bassAs the water warms, what changes to your crankbait fishing are you making throughout the springtime?

As the water begins to rise into the mid 40’s, especially over a significant warming trend, I will begin to utilize baits with more erratic action. These include square bill cranks and lipless cranks. I will also begin to speed up my retrieves when necessary.

I will start to shy away from the tight action cranks in favor of baits that have a more erratic retrieval and deflection action. This is in accordance with the change in baitfish activity that will begin to take place over the winter-spring transition. They begin to move more, and so do the bass that chase them. This affords anglers the opportunity to utilize a wider variety of cranks.

It is important to note that fish are creatures of change. They are constantly moving, changing patterns, and reacting to different presentations in different ways day in and day out. What may have worked a week ago may not be their preferred choice come next trip. Be ready for whatever the fish may throw at you and pack your confidence cranks.

Once the water hits 50, I have full confidence in a wider wobbling crank like a square bill. The way in which they deflect off cover and appear to become disoriented and confused is second to none. This presentation can deliver some wild strikes.

When utilizing a lipless crankbait I will usually target rocky areas where I can allow the bait to sit on the bottom and give it a “yo-yo’ action with the twitch of my wrist. This particular action imitates a dying baitfish or craw that is struggling to make its final movements. Bass react well to this especially around chunk rock areas and rocky flats. In lakes and rivers with smallmouth present, these rocky areas are a sure bet all year. In colder moving water, calmer eddies behind large boulders are best for big smallies. Run the crank directly next to cover and remain steady and slow on the retrieve.

As the water warms, largemouth and smallmouth typically display the same behaviors, moving from wintering areas to areas with more current. Largemouth will begin to move to main lake points and creek mouths in order to feed and prepare to spawn. During this time, water temps 48-55 optimally, I will pack more cranks than usual in order to be able to cover the whole water column from 2 feet all the way down to 15 feet. This is because fish in most bodies of water move up to feed and spawn in waves.

Even in warmer waters, there will still be some waves of fish on pre-spawn patterns while others are on the move to spawn. There can be some tough days in the spring as the water warms. What’s important is that you understand these fish behaviors and chase them throughout the day utilizing different cranks until you find the right depth zone and retrieve. There is no exact formula. The best way to crank as the water warms is to find a crankbait that you have supreme confidence in. Fish it in areas that you know hold fish.

Fish these areas with confidence! Fish them from different angles, with different cranks, and with varying retrieves until you find what works!

Told you this guy loves his crankbait fishing. Part 2 will be out tomorrow. Make sure to check out WaterWarriorFishing.com to learn more about David, his fishing and his custom crankbaits.

Make Sure to Read the Second Part of Our Early Spring Crankbait Fishing Tutorial.