The crank hit the water with a splash, dove a few inches, head-butted a submerged tree and careened to one side like an intoxicated bluegill. A quick turn of the reel handle brought it back on track, rooting down the length of the tree trunk, its plastic lip scraping along the bark as its tail wobbled frantically.
Suddenly the lure bounced off a branch and rolled sideways, its silvery side flashing in the sunlight. At that moment the big bass rushed from under the trunk and engulfed the lure.
Bass anglers know that largemouths relate strongly to woody cover like sunken trees, stumps and brush piles throughout much of the year, and they typically fish the stuff with spinnerbaits, jigs and Texas-rigged and pegged plastics—single-hook lures that are fairly easy to drag through the tangle.
Just the thought of chucking an expensive crank sporting a gang of treble hooks into a wad of submerged shrubbery makes ’em cringe, even though they’ve seen it done on TV and in the pages of North American Fisherman a thousand times.
If you’re one of those anglers, this article is about to change your point of view—ramming crankbaits into shallow wood is the hottest trend on the pro bass circuit!
“Crankbaits are the new spinnerbaits!” says North Carolina pro Marty Stone. “Nationwide, most lakes have been ‘spinnerbaited’ to death, but bass that make their home in shallow wood cover haven’t been overexposed to crankbaits.
“Jigs and tubes? Sure, they’ll catch plenty of bass from wood, but you’ve got to slow way down to fish ’em. Square-bill crankbaits have them beat because
the design allows you to probe wood with a fast presentation. A squat, buoyant body and square lip let you fish ’em through some mighty gnarly-looking cover without hanging up. Plus, they’re awesome for triggering reaction strikes from sluggish fish.”
Square Bill Retrospective
Let’s take a closer look at the special breed of crankbaits pros are using for probing shallow wood. As with most bassin’ trends, this one isn’t totally new. It began around 1970, when an East Tennessee bassman named Fred Young, laid up in a body cast after an accident at work, began carving bulbous plugs with short, squared-off diving lips for local fishermen. Dubbed the “Big O” after Fred’s burley brother Otis, the lures quickly gained a cult following for their uncanny ability to catch big bass.
High-stakes bass tournaments were in their infancy then, and when several touring pros with Tennessee connections began winning big bucks on Big Os, these hand-carved wonders became a phenomenon, selling for upwards of $25 apiece.
Later, Cordell reproduced Young’s original design in plastic, and other manufacturers cashed in on the “alphabet plug” craze with similar lures.
Fast-forward 20 years. Shallow-diving crankbaits with chunky bodies and square lips gave way to more streamlined lures with long, pointed diving bills. They were capable of reaching depths of 15 to 20 feet or more.
Suddenly shallow bassin’ was out of fashion as pros like Mississippi’s Paul Elias and North Carolina’s David Fritts found gold offshore, cranking deep points and ledges with this new breed of bottom-dredgers. Naturally, weekend anglers everywhere followed suit, and most shallow-running square-bills were reassigned to the bottom tray of the tackle box.
On A Rebound
The super-competitive atmosphere of today’s pro bass tour has led to a resurgence of shallow-diving, square-lipped baits. I first became aware of this in November 2003, when I shared a boat with Gerald Swindle, the hot young Alabama pro who would be crowned BASS Angler of the Year six months later. Faced with murky 60-degree water, Swindle tied on an obscure Japanese crankbait called a Lucky Craft Big Daddy Strike 3 and proceeded to catch one bass after another from shallow logs, stumps and bushes.
He didn’t just fish the cover; he attacked it with repeated short, accurate casts and a rapid stop-and-go retrieve that made the bait grind down into the wood, float up slowly, dig down into the cover again, then careen off limbs, trunks and stumps at crazy angles. Most strikes came as the lure deflected off the cover, or floated up and away from it on the pause.
Swindle gave me that scarred-up plug at the end of the day. Two weeks later, I pitched it under a boat dock and caught my biggest Tennessee bass ever, an impossibly fat largemouth that weighed nearly 10 pounds. Watching Swindle’s success with a square-bill was one thing, but catching that brute sealed my love affair with these retro plugs!
Square-Bill Fever II didn’t officially reach epidemic proportions until 2004, when the talented Japanese pro Takahiro Omori won the Bassmaster Classic on a Bagley Original Balsa B (OBB-2), a lure similar to one the manufacturer has had in its stable for three decades.
These days there’s hardly a hardbait manufacturer that doesn’t have a stump-bumpin’ shallow- or medium-diver in its arsenal. They don’t all look like a typical square-bill either. Some diving lips are slightly rounded; others are coffin shape or have brush-deflecting lobes. All are brush busters, however.
Besides the Bagley Balsa B and Lucky Craft Big Daddy series, there’s the Bass Pro XPS Extreme Shallow Crank and Rick Clunn series lures (the latter manufactured for Bass Pro by Lucky Craft); Lew’s Shallow Crank; Lee Sisson Premium Balsa; Bomber Model B Balsa; Bandit Flat Maxx; Strike King Series 1; Norman Fat Boy; Luhr Jensen Speed Trap; Rapala DTF07; Rebel Wee-R; Worden’s TimberTiger DC-2; and of course, the Cordell Big O.
The Big O is the lure that started it all more than 35 years ago, and since then it’s been tweaked and upgraded. For old-schoolers, however, Cotton Cordell is offering, exclusively through Cabela’s, its limited edition Original Fred Young Big O, an exact replica of the hand-carved bait.
Square-bills fit right into the power-fishing approach favored by today’s aggressive anglers.
“I use Lucky Craft’s Big Daddy Strike 2, 3 and 4 with a crash-and-burn approach,” says Marty Stone. “Call it Kamikaze crankin’—I’m not shy about chunking the lure directly into a sunken tree or brush pile and banging it against that cover on the way back to the boat.”
Like fellow Lucky Craft team member Gerald Swindle, Stone targets isolated pieces of wood cover rather than large concentrations of it.
“In early spring through late fall, bass in many lakes will hang around scattered stumps, laydowns and brush in one to six feet of water. The biggest bass will be on that lone stump or bush,” he says. “Fish a square-bill anywhere you’d normally fish a spinnerbait: in shallow coves, on main-lake flats, in tributary arms, etc. It’s a lure that shallow bass haven’t been overexposed to.”
Using a 61/2- to 7-foot cranking rod and a 6:1 baitcasting reel spooled with 14- to 20-pound abrasion-resistant line, Stone casts the square-bill to the shallow part of the cover, reels quickly to get the bait down, then retrieves it over or through the cover, using the rodtip to guide it into likely bass-holding spots—the juncture of a tree trunk with a major limb, the root system at the base of a stump, or the ends of tree branches.
“Try not to worry about hanging up. This type of crank can go through some pretty thick stuff,” he says. “When you feel the lure hit wood, reel faster so the bill grinds down into the cover and deflects off it, or immediately stop, so the bait begins to float upward. After a second or two, start reeling again. Either way, it can trigger a hellacious reaction strike.”
Multiple casts to a likely-looking piece of cover are essential to Stone’s tournament approach. I was with him one blustery March day when he caught an 8-pound largemouth on a Big Daddy Strike 3 on his sixth cast to a submerged stump.
“During spring cold fronts, especially, bass will hunker down against a stump or log, and you’ve got to goad them into striking,” he says. “Make sure you crank all sides of the cover thoroughly.”
When targeting submerged logs or laydowns, the pro cranks the length of the cover. “This gives bass holding in key areas like limb junctures and the ends of branches maximum exposure to the bait.
Stone emphasizes that overcoming your fear of hanging up is essential to success with square-bill crankbaits. “When we were kids, our dads warned us not to throw their prized crankbaits into the trees,” he says. “Well, it’s time to get over it! On today’s highly-pressured bass lakes, close doesn’t count! You’ve got to actually contact that cover to get bit. That’s where square-bills can pay off.