Wintertime cranking is one of those things most people don’t really want to do, but you still need to know how to do. That being said, a few people love it. But even taking myself, for instance, it’s not my favorite. First off, it works best in the coldest, most miserable conditions and the bite is usually slow so it’s a grind. Secondly, at least some of the more popular cold water crankbaits are finesse crankbaits that work best with spinning gear which I typically steer clear of when possible.
But, I still need to know how to do it and more importantly I just flat out need to do it at times and not be so stubborn. Case in point, when I was on the Auburn University fishing team we had a club qualifier on my home lake of Lake Martin in December. I went out and power fished all my favorite mud holes and ended the day second to freshmen phenom Jordan Lee. Yep, the then 19-year-old now two-time Bassmaster Classic Champ beat my 23-year-old butt on my home lake. With none other than (drum roll please) a finesse crankbait.
Cold Water Crankbaits: What is a Finesse Crankbait?
So what is a finesse crankbait? Well, a true finesse crankbait is probably most associated with a Rapala Shad Rap. It’s a crankbait with very tight action, not a wide wobble. However, when I think of cold water and wintertime cranking, it’s hard to leave out baits of the Storm Wiggle Wart variety. The two baits can both be used to target fish in water with the same depth, color, and temperature, but the Wiggle Wart has a much wider wobble than the Shad Rap.
Cold Water Crankbaits: When to Throw a Finesse Crankbait
Now that we’ve established the what, let’s set the scene for when to throw a finesse crankbait. As far as the water temp goes, you’re looking at the high end being around 55 degrees and bottoming out when the surface freezes over. Not a normal occurrence for us southern anglers, but we know y’all up north understand what I’m talking about.
You can get bit on a crankbait as cold as you can stand it.
The bites will likely be fewer and farther in-between the colder it gets, but you can still get bit even in the low 40’s and high 30’s. I will say personally that I have had better success in these extremely cold scenarios with a Shad Rap style bait more than the wider wobbling baits. Though I know people who would say the exact opposite.
Cold Water Crankbaits: Why You Should Throw a Finesse Crankbait
So why do these two styles of baits work so well in cold water? Though their actions are different, they can both be fished really slow and still maintain a good action and contact with the bottom.
Being able to fish them slowly is key because the bass are lethargic and not typically willing to chase anything very far or fast. Bottom contact is key because quite often these style crankbaits are being used to imitate crawfish scurrying along the bottom and not baitfish at all. We’ll talk a little more about that when we get into the color selection.
Cold Water Crankbaits: Where to Throw a Finesse Crankbait
So, where do you fish these baits? This style of cold water cranking is most associated with water from 2-to-10 feet. There are some very small finesse style crankbaits that could be thrown shallower than this but I usually lean towards a square bill in those situations. Then there are some very big ones that could be used a little deeper. But by and large, we’re targeting the 2-to-10 feet range because that’s where the bass are, either trying to warm up in the sun or chasing crawfish and baitfish.
The good old 45-degree banks are great for cold-water cranking. Because the bass are lethargic, they don’t like to traverse long distances. A 45-degree bank has both shallow and deep water readily available so a fish can move shallow on sunny days to warm up or stay a little deeper on cloudy cold days when the surface temps plummet. And they have various depth ranges to hunt for crawfish or passing baitfish.
Transition banks leading into pockets are great for the same reason. If the water is not quite as cold and a fish is a little more willing to move around it has the opportunity to work up the bank into a shallow pocket or it can move down the bank toward deeper water.
The same principle applies to channel swings in creeks.
At the point where the channel begins to move away from the bank, you’re left with shallow and deep water in close proximity to one another. And you have a place where fish can sit just outside of the current and wait for the current to bring food to them.
Bottom composition is important when looking for the right cover. These style baits work really well around chunk rock, clay, and wood. The key though is not so much the cover but rather what it indicates, good habitat for baitfish and crawfish. Again, fish don’t want to have to move far so look for places where bait is plentiful. You’ll either see baitfish on your graph or on lakes with a winter pool, you may even be able to see little crawfish mounds and holes on the land above the water.
When you get bit in an area where fish are relating to crawfish, you’ll find that you can get bit there time and time again in the winter. Crawfish don’t migrate or move around as much as baitfish so day-to-day and even year-to-year you’ll find concentrations of crawfish in the same areas.
Cold Water Crankbaits: How to Fish a Finesse Crankbait
We already touched a little on the importance of fishing the bait slowly and maintaining bottom contact. Those are two of the most important things. To add to that, you don’t really want to jerk or twitch the bait much in the cold water.
Just a nice, slow, steady retrieve.
Fishing around wood and rock, you are going to get hung some. Be patient and when you feel your bait start to make contact with the cover, don’t snatch. If you keep easing the bait along it will usually come over the cover. Or if you’re fishing with a bait that will float, pause it for just a beat and it will float up enough to be reeled over the cover.
Just don’t snatch when you feel something right away. If you’re unsure if what you feel is a fish or just cover, you don’t need much of a hook set in the winter anyways with a crankbait. The fish will hook themselves when they hit the bait and a strong hookset often just rips the hook out of the fish.
If you do get hung, try popping your bait to get it un-snagged. If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say that, watch this video. It will do a far better job illustrating this than I can with the written word.
If you are able to master the art of popping your bait undone, you’ll find it often triggers strikes that you wouldn’t have gotten if you went up to the bait to get it un-snagged. This same thing happens a lot of times with jigs and worms. When the bait hangs up, a fish will be sitting there looking at it and when it suddenly dislodges and makes a move the fish will instinctively strike the bait.
Whenever you’re fishing elongated cover like laydowns or docks, you want to parallel the cover to ensure that your bait is in the strike zone as long as possible.
The same principle applies when you’re fishing fairly steep, rocky or clay banks. To maintain bottom contact and keep your bait in the strike zone as long as possible, you should parallel the banks with your cast.
When selecting colors, matching the hatch works well. Most cold water crankbaits I throw in this depth range are actually mimicking crawfish. Even exaggerating it a bit at times. Bright reds, yellows, and oranges work well to key on those colors present in a crawfish. But I do have a few shad patterns that I like as well. Shad patterns I like in the winter aren’t super detailed but more flat, pale and plain like the shad tend to be in cold, stained water.
You’ll also want to fight the fish very carefully once you get bit. With the lethargic nature of the bass, they seldom inhale the bait entirely but instead, they’ll either get one or two hooks in the edge of their lips or on the outside their mouths entirely. So your gear is important for several reasons.
Cold Water Crankbaits: Gear for Throwing a Finesse Crankbait
To help prevent poorly hooking fish, lots of anglers prefer to change out the stock treble hooks that come on their baits for something a little sharper and with a wider gap. I don’t typically worry with this unless the hooks are drastically undersized, dull or have a really narrow gap.
Whether you’re using a spinning rod or a baitcasting combo, you want a rod with a decent amount of give to it. A nice 7’ 0” medium action cranking rod is pretty good for a baitcaster combo and something in the 6’9” medium action range is good for a spinning rod. You also want a reel with a good smooth drag system for both combos so the fish can pull drag if it needs to during the fight instead of pulling the hook out on a tight drag.
Most anglers agree that baitcasters are best for the bigger Shad Raps and the heavier baits like a Wiggle Wart. But when it comes to a spinning rod or baitcaster for the lighter, small Shad Rap style baits, I personally prefer a baitcaster still and that’s where a lot of anglers differ. But that’s not to say I’m right and my way is the best. I’m just more comfortable with a baitcaster. A spinning combo is certainly better for most anglers as it allows a light bait to be thrown farther without the risk of a backlash. And a spinning combo is better suited to finesse a fish to the boat by letting them pull drag much more evenly instead of in spurts like they would on a baitcaster.
To be honest, if I was as comfortable with a spinning combo as I am with a baitcaster, I would use a spinning combo too. But accuracy is key and I can cast better with a baitcaster. All of this to say that there’s no shame in using a spinning rod for this technique with the lighter baits.
On the contrary, if you’re trying this for the first time I would recommend starting with a spinning combo not just because it’s easier but because its truthfully better.
No matter which combo you go with, you’ll find that Shad Rap style finesse crankbaits are hard to throw very far, especially in wind. My dad always equates it to trying to cast a potato chip. They don’t weigh much and because of their profile they catch wind like a sail and drift off course very easily. One thing that I found to help make casting easier is actually a particular bait, the Soul Shad by Jackall.
Cold Water Crankbaits: Notable baits
Jackall Soul Shad
These baits are a little hard to find and expensive, so by and large I stick with the Shad Rap from Rapala. But in windy conditions, in particular, it’s nice to have a few of the Soul Shads on hand. Here’s why. The Soul Shad has a chamber inside of it with a little metal ball. This ball is held in place by a magnet in the belly to balance the bait.
But, when you go to cast the bait, the force of your back cast causes the ball to dislodge from the magnet and roll to the tail end of the bait. So when you cast the bait, the weight is in the tail and makes the bait much more aerodynamic. Not only does the bait weigh more making it easier to cast, but the placement of the weight makes it much less susceptible to wind resistance. And when the bait hits the water, a simple twitch rolls the ball back to the magnet, balancing the bait for the retrieve. Pretty smart.
The drawbacks are again availability. And the color options and sizes aren’t as plentiful as a Shad Rap. But it’s a good bait to have for certain situations.
Storm Wiggle Wart
The Wiggle Wart has an interesting past. The bait was created by Storm which was inevitably bought out by Rapala. The manufacturing process of the Wiggle Wart changed in the buyout and now the pre-Rapala Wiggle Wart has what amounts to a cult following. Diehard anglers are willing to pay big bucks for the original, touting that it has some fish catching trait that the new ones just don’t have.
Some defend this theory as factually based and proven. Others look at it as conjecture and superstition. I’ve honestly never thrown the original because they are so expensive so I can’t truthfully give an opinion. Regardless, if you’re lucky to have inherited a tackle box full of the original Wiggle Warts you could put yourself through college selling them on eBay.
The RkCrawler was designed a few years ago by highland reservoir specialist and super-fan of the original Wiggle Wart, Mike McClelland. McClelland wanted to bring to market a bait that he believes better mimics the original Wiggle Wart’s action than the newer models while also making a bait that was much more affordable and available than the pre-Rapala Wiggle Warts.
I have used and had success with the RkCrawler and they are quality baits, but again since I haven’t used the original Wiggle Wart I can’t comment on how well they have replicated the bait. But I will say that it seems some of the diehard fans of the original have been impressed with the RkCrawler and it does catch fish so it’s worth a try.
Rapala Shad Rap
Again, this is the gold standard in finesse, cold water crankbaits. Tight, consistent action. A plethora of color choices. A size option for every depth. Great profile to mimic either a baitfish or crawfish. This is what most companies take to the drawing board when they want to create their own version of a finesse crankbait.
SPRO Little John MD
The Little John MD is another good cold water crankbait with a slightly different profile and action. It’s kind of an in-between when you’re looking at the actions of the Wiggle Wart and Shad Rap. It’s got a little tighter and less erratic action than the Wiggle Wart, but a little wider wobble than the Shad Rap. I really like this bait when the water is between 48 and 55 degrees. Colder than that and I’ll lean towards the Shad Rap.
Strike King KVD HC Flat Side 1.5
The KVD Flat 1.5 is another good cold water crankbait that, like the SPRO Little John MD, isn’t a straight knock of the Shad Rap or the Wiggle Wart. It’s its own bait and like most Strike King baits, its affordable and high quality. Offering an in-between action and a little different profile, it’s another good cold water crankbait to have in the arsenal. The same way the SPRO Little John MD leans more towards the Wiggle Wart style while still being its own bait, the KVD Flat 1.5 leans more towards the Shad Rap end of the spectrum while still standing out in the crowded crankbait market.
Cold Water Crankbaits: Rod, Reel, and Line preferences
When I do use a spinning rod combo for really small finesse crankbaits, I use a Shimano 2500 Stradic Ci4+ Spinning Reel paired with a Fitzgerald Fishing Vursa Series 6’9″ Medium spooled with 10-pound test Sufix 832 Braid and an 8-pound test Seaguar InvisX Fluorocarbon leader. In the rare occasion I’m targeting big fish around particularly abrasive cover with this combo, I’ll step up the line sizes and maybe even the rod a bit. But the smallest line possible is needed when trying to throw these particularly small baits.
For this combo, I pair a Lew’s Speed Spool LFS Casting Reel with a Fitzgerald Fishing Vursa Series 7’0″ Medium casting rod spooled up with 10-to-15-pound test Seaguar InvisX Fluorocarbon depending again on the size fish I’m targeting and cover present. Again, the lighter line makes the longer casts easier and allows the bait to dig a little deeper so you want to go as light as possible. And the lighter line causes less of an impact on the action of the bait.
If you have a hard time fishing slow, you can choose a slower gear ratio reel here to help you slow your retrieve. I typically stick with something in the 7:1:1 range and just slow down. But there is an option to pick a slower gear ratio and there’s not a lot of drawbacks since the fish won’t likely be making fast runs and you can just ease them to the boat with the slower reel.
Cold Water Crankbaits: Takeaways
Cold-water cranking should never be overlooked. Even on the coldest days when you can’t buy a bite on a jig, something about the action of a cold water crankbait will trigger a strike. Bites often come few and far between though, so be sure your gear and mental fortitude are up for the task of keeping them buttoned up all the way to the boat. Don’t let the bite or cover surprise you and cause you to snatch. And play the fish carefully once you hookup.
As you build your confidence in the technique and in certain baits and colors, in particular, put together a cold-water cranking box and make mental notes of which style bait works the best for each scenario. Frontrunners like the Wiggle Wart and Shad Rap gained notoriety for a reason, but there are other baits out there that will shine in certain situations too.
Target areas with both shallow and deep water present and fish slow and methodical. Look for rock, wood, and clay, but the cover isn’t as important as the bait around it. Two banks in the winter may look identical, but the presence of bait on one or the other makes all the difference. And when you find a stretch where you can get bit, you’ll usually get bit there again and again over the years.
This article was contributed by an ANGLR Expert
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