As a kid, my fishing techniques were pretty simple – trolling or chunkin’ and windin’ at visible shoreline cover.
This fall, I learned the importance of chunkin’ and not windin’ – not right away anyway. And that lesson help me welcome back a bait class I had once eagerly embraced, but had since turned my back on.
Keepin’ it simple, beatin’ the bank
My passion for fishing was forged in annual vacations to my granparents’ cabin on a Canadian Shield lake in northern Minnesota.
On most excursions, I’d soon get bored with trolling – my dad’s go-to tactic -- and would move up to the front of our old open-bow runabout, stand on a cushioned seat, and cast for smallmouth, targeting boulders, rock crevices and laydowns with my trusty Zebco 33 combo. My dad, sitting on the transom in front of the big motor, would pilot the boat with our 1977, 4-horse Johnson outboard, one hand on the tiller, the other extending a spinning combo out over the side of the boat, trolling for walleye, smallmouth bass and pike (which we’ve always called “Northerns.”)
We’d parallel the banks or outer weed edges of points and bays, always about a cast’s distance away, rarely venturing into open water, almost never cutting the motor. Reflecting back on that now, I’m surprised by how fast I fished from my perch in the bow. I was Power Fishing, KVD style, before that terminology came into vogue.
I’m not sure what the ‘ol Johnson 4-horse’s lowest speed was in mph, but I’m certain its slowest speed was significantly faster than the slowest setting on your average modern, electric trolling motor. Of late, I’ve preferred the slowest setting possible, allowing me more time and angles to fully pick apart visible cover.
No trouble with trebles
That’s not to say, however, that slower is better than faster – witness KVD’s dominance of the professional tournament scene with his unique style of Power Fishing. No, it has more to do with my current “confidence baits” – tubes, grubs, Texas-rigged soft plastics and soft stick-baits. But those weren’t always my favorites. In fact, I’d never fished tubes or soft-plastics prior to about four years ago, when I developed a pronounced case of bass fever. In fact, it was only five years ago that I was still fishing with a Zebco spincast combo.
As a kid, my bait collection was dominated by lures with treble hooks – Mepps Spinners, Rapala plugs of varying designs, spoons and Storm Thin Fins – and my family’s favorite go-to bait, the Johnson Beetle Spin. Growing up in Nebraska before the era of the Internet and five outdoor cable channels, I knew nothing of the tournament fishing explosion and the tackle innovations it spawned. Rare was the day I got to the lake, champing at the bit to try the “hot new lure.” I mostly stuck with the tried and true — that is, “what my dad caught ‘em on.”
The Rat-L-Trap cometh … and go-eth
News of one hot new lure, however, did make its way to Nebraska and excite us enough to load up on them before the annual fishing trip – the Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap. I don’t recall specifically how well we fared with them on that first summer, all I know is that my tackle box was not without a rattling lipless crankbait for a long, long time — be it a Bill Lewis model, a Rapala Rattlin’ Rap or another brand’s take on the concept. Combining consistent productivity with ease of use, the bait class had earned non-revokable rock-star parking in my tackle tray.
Or so I thought.
But soon after and catching the bass bug, I made a 180 in my fishing philosophy and practices. No longer a weekend-and-vacation angler content to catch “whatever’s bitin’,” After upgrading from the spincast combos I'd always used and committing to mastering a baitcast reel, I soon found myself straying away from lipless cranks in favor of soft plastics; found myself abandoning Power Fishing techniques and slowing down. In the last four years, I rarely threw a lipless crank.
That realization became apparent in November, when I enjoyed the opportunity to fish with Arkansas bass pro Kevin Short on Lake Ouachita. A rattling, lipless crankbait – he favors an Xcalibur XR75 One Knocker (pictured above, at right) — is among K-Short’s four go-to baits for fishing southern impoundments through fall, winter and up into the pre-spawn period. I blogged previously about K-Short’s “fab four” in this blog and featured those baits in this video.
Search bait, finesse tactic
This week, I released another video that focuses specifically on K-Short’s lipless crankbait techniques for bass. What I learned in my time on the water with the St. Croix Rods pro opened my eyes to a new way of fishing lipless cranks, and convinced me to re-introduce them to my arsenal. (Watch the new video at link above, or where it is embedded at the bottom of this blog, below my bio. Watch my previous Kevin Short video here.)
Turns out, I’d sold the lipless crank short in considering it solely a chunk-and-wind search bait. Sure, you catch bass – and walleyes, crappies and Northerns – by trolling a Rat-L-Trap or chunkin-and-windin’ a Rattlin’ Rap towards shore, but they can (and should!) be worked with more finesse than I had previously realized.
Bass pro Kevin Short throws crayfish-patterned lipless crankbaits on fiberglass rods like the St. Croix Rods Mojo Bass pictured here, “pumping” the bait on the retrieve -- reeling it up and letting it fall back down to the bottom, where the crayfish live.
My mistake was not fully recognizing the lipless crank’s versatility. To my untrained eye, it looked like a bait-fish and I fished it like one — casting and retrieving it horizontally, occasionally imparting a twitch or pause to draw attention. And despite employing for at least a decade several lipless cranks painted to resemble crayfish — or crawdads, as we called ‘em in Nebraska — it never dawned on me to fish those particular patterns in a manner that would mimic a crayfish.
In retrospect, it seems obvious (and I’m a little embarrassed to admit it now), but I had always fished crayfish-patterned lipless cranks horizontally through the water column, same as I would a shad- or perch-patterned bait. I’d never fished one on and near the bottom where, you know, crayfish actually reside.
K-Short set me straight, demonstrating how to whip a lipless crank up near shore and to let it fall vertically upon hitting the water – to not start windin’ immediately after chunkin’.
Watch the instructional video I shot with bass pro Kevin Short at this link. Note: I don't claim to be the expert in this video, just the host and editor!
“Throw it out there and wait — let it hit the bottom,” he advised. “That’s the whole key. … It has to contact the bottom quite frequently.”
Demonstrating with his Mojo Bass rod and loaning me one to try as well, Kevin explained the importance of “pumping” a lipless crank on the retrieve — reeling it up and letting it fall back down. To the bottom. Where the crayfish live.
An overwhelming sense of “Duh!” overcame me as the light bulb came on. I’ve seen underwater footage of frightened crayfish. Like any cornered creature, they have a fight-or-flight response. When combative, they raise their claws to fight — hence the design of all the soft-plastic creature baits I love to throw. But when they flee, they blast off backwards, often with a diagonal trajectory, up into the water column. They then fall vertically back down to the bottom, where they will seek a new hiding place amongst the rocks.
“As it’s falling back down, that’s when they smack it. …” Kevin explained. “It’s like the best jig bite you’ve ever had — they’ll just thump it real hard.”
I soon felt exactly what he had explained, and set the hook on what felt like a quality bass. I wish had a photo of that fish to show here, but unfortunately, I had failed to check the drag on the borrowed reel before making my first cast, and the star had apparently loosened in K-Short’s rod locker en route to Ouachita and line quickly began stripping off the spool as a reeled frantically to catch up with the fleeing fish. By the time I had tightened the drag and straightened the slack in my line, the bass was long gone.
Still, I’d gained more than I’d lost — a new appreciation for an old standby.
And that bit of wisdom I’ll keep — along with my lipless crankbaits — in my tackle box for a long time to come.
You can contact North American Fishing Club Social Media Editor “Web Guy Greg” Huff at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter at lazy_ike, or friend him on Facebook at Web Guy Greg. He’s also the editor behind most of the posts on the Fishing Club’s Facebook page and the tweets at @NAFishClub.