As water temperatures rise into the 60s, primal urges draw bass toward hard-bottomed shallows where nest building, followed by spawning, will occur. This is a time of transition for bass, as they leave deep water wintering areas and make their way toward the shorelines. Bass on the move frequently respond positively to active, mobile presentations, and as such, the window before spawning takes place is a great time to fish a crankbait. Once bass have settled onto their beds, however, a more methodical approach with a Carolina Rig is often best.
Crankin’ Pre-spawn Bass
The crankbait styles and actions that spring bass prefer are largely coupled to water temperature. When the water is in the very cold 40s, subtle actions – like those from balsa baits – rule the roost. As the shallows warm, however, the most effective cranks tend toward more aggressive actions. By the time the spawning window is about to open, wide-wobbling crankbaits are proven to elicit aggressive reaction strikes from nearby largemouth; indeed erratic, hunting actions from crankbaits like the SPRO RkCrawler make them a pre-spawn bass magnet. Likewise, squarebill crankbaits, like the SPRO Fat Papa, match pre-spawn bass activity levels and aggressiveness and can be highly effective in fisheries with extensive bream or shad forage bases. Whichever style you choose, always select a bait that dives deeper than the area you’re fishing to ensure regular contact with structure and the bottom; unpredictable deflections off rocks, stumps, and other structural elements are the triggers needed to generate strikes.
Spring crankbait fishing isn’t just about picking the best lure. Rather, consider everything from the lure in the water, to the rod as it sits in your hand, as a fully integrated system for triggering, fighting, and landing bass. For example, when the water is cold and balsa crankbaits are called into duty, select a line, rod and reel that are balanced and tuned for fishing these lightweight bass-catchers. The 7’2” Legend Glass spinning rod from St. Croix Rod is purpose-designed for casting small, light cranks. Its moderate, parabolic action loads on the backcast, much like a fly rod would flex in advance of propelling a fly across a stream. As the lure is delivered forward, the rod blank transfers energy smoothly to the bait, achieving long casts and ensuring that the lure does not tumble and spin in the air. Pair this rod with a 2500-series PENN Battle II spinning reel, and spool up with a thin diameter braid, like Seaguar Smackdown in 20 lb test, to maximize your casting distance. Use a three-foot section of Seaguar AbrazX in 12 lb test to link the braided main line to the crankbait. This short length of 100% fluorocarbon leader will enhance the abrasion resistance of your line where it needs it the most – close to the lure – and at the same time, will make your line less visible to nearby bass.
After spawning takes place, female bass generally vacate the shallows to rest and recover, while males become sentries, guarding their nests and the fry that will soon hatch there. These fish are far less likely to chase down a crankbait than they were during the pre-spawn period. Now, if we want to catch those fish, we need to get right in their face and irritate them until they bite. Now is a good time to transition to a Carolina Rig.
Every bass angler should know how to tie and fish the Carolina Rig. Select a 4 to 6” soft plastic for the business end of the rig – something gaudy, like a lizard, frequently works best. Dress this bait on an extra wide gap hook, with the hook’s size matched to the soft bait’s length and profile. Tie the hook to a three-foot length of fluorocarbon leader, like Seaguar Tatsu in 15 lb test. Tatsu is a unique, double-structure line manufactured from two different 100% fluorocarbon resins: its robust inner core is encased within a softer shell to help you tie stronger, tougher knots – perfect for the demands of Carolina Rigs. Now, let’s turn our attention to the braided main line. Seaguar Smackdown in 30 lb lest is a good choice. Consider using Smackdown Flash Green when fishing stained water, or if you rely on line watching for bite detection; otherwise, spool up with the more subtle Smackdown Stealth Grey. Thread a ½ – ¾ oz egg sinker followed by a large plastic bead onto the main line. The sinker will keep your lure where it needs to be – on or near the bottom – while the bead provides an attractive clacking noise as you work the rig across the bottom. Now, join the main line to the leader using a quality swivel, and your Carolina Rig is ready to fish.
Next, assemble a rod-and-reel system that is well suited for fishing Carolina Rigs. In this case, sensitive graphite casting rods with fast or extra-fast actions are preferred. These rods flex close to the tip and transition quickly to a stiff backbone for driving hooks into bony mouths. The 7’1” G. Loomis IMX-PRO 854C JWR is a terrific choice for fishing Carolina Rigs with weights up to ¾ oz. The sensitivity of this high-quality graphite rod will inform you when the lure has collected a piece of fish-repelling vegetation and telegraph the first subtle indications that a bass has taken the bait. Pair this heavy power, fast action rod with a Shimano Curado 150 DC casting reel for a system that is widely applicable to many jig or soft plastic applications throughout the season.
Much like fishing crankbaits, maintaining consistent bottom contact when fishing the Carolina Rig is crucial. In this case, remember that you’re not fishing the bait when presenting a Carolina Rig; rather, you’re fishing the sinker. Slowly drag the sinker in two-foot increments across the bottom with a pull-pause sequence. Longer pauses are warranted when the bait is in or near an active bed; simply shaking the rod tip, which makes the lure twitch and bounce without moving away from a bedded bass, is a sure-fire technique for triggering a wary bass guarding eggs or fry.
A final note: remember that bass are concentrated and vulnerable at this time of year. Get hooked bass to the boat quickly to guard against exhaustion. Release bass immediately, and in the area where they were caught, so that they can resume guarding their nests without delay. Keep your phone handy for a quick release photo or two, and then get back to fishing – the bedding bass bonanza will be over before you know it.