By Jason Haberstroh
Nestled in my kayak, lightly loaded with a couple of spinning rods and a simple assortment of smallmouth favorites, my paddle dips rhythmically to a shallow flat where a drop-off forms along a bedrock seam.
With craft anchored securely, a stubby, 2-inch crankbait sails upriver to a 10 o’clock position. Before my crankbait finds 2 o’clock, it is struck by a bronze bass seemingly waiting for my lure. The stout smallmouth battles and never does give up. Even after its release, it swims away with a triumphant verve.
I keep catching spunky bass until my wrists and forearms are sore and my thumb’s skin is ragged, near bleeding. But, it hurts so good.
During the past decade, from late summer through early fall, when fishing calls, I find myself increasingly answering via kayak on a midsize river. And in recent seasons, wherever I fished, I’ve tended toward one style of lure for all the fun: stocky crankbaits.
Crankbaits fit the typical mood of smallmouth bass in the summer-fall transitional period. Bass maintain that speedy summer metabolism, because water temperatures remain relatively warm.
Yet their voracity and willingness to chase horizontal baits noticeably increases from the dog-day doldrums, perhaps because of slightly cooling water or shorter days, or forage availability – probably a combination of many such factors.
No matter the season, when river smallmouths aggressively feed, there are not many offerings as effective as a crankbait. The realistic profile and designed action of modern crankbaits fool vision-oriented bass despite clear water.
They cover water quite efficiently, thus performing as excellent searchers. Standard shallow-running and medium-diving models effortlessly scour usual feeding depths on midsize rivers, so bottom-hugging fish foraging on sculpins and darters or crayfish are not excluded targets.
Plus, crankbaits deflect and bounce in a strike-prompting way off rocks and rubble that line those river bottoms, which provides maximum provocation through each retrieve even at multiple depths.
My workhorse crankbaits are downsized models of their hefty, spoonbill-type brothers often used for largemouth bass in reservoirs and heaved with a baitcasting setup. Smallmouth river versions regularly measure around 2 inches or less and weigh from 1⁄4- to 3⁄8-ounce.
I still like the bulbous variety of a crankbait that has a fairly vigorous diving lip and noticeable wobble – just the sawed-off versions. But, too small or skinny makes a sub-par river lure.
Tiny, lightweight, or slender styles, especially those with slight lips or lips attached too low on the crankbait’s face neither cast nor work back as well as compact crankbaits with a centrally located, ambitious lip.
The crankbait’s lip must bite enough water to eat through river current while symphonizing with its short, rounded body to maintain balance and heed an angler’s manipulations when retrieved at cross-flow angles, which is the bulk of casts.
That said, crankbaits with an overly aggressive or long lip may flip in current or make every retrieve a chore as it gratuitously rakes river bottom. Medium-diving models that run between 4 and 10 feet typically accomplish the compromise, cutting water well and bumping bottom nimbly.
Of course, ultimately, river depth and feeding depth will dictate what crankbait to use.
At times, a shallow-diving model better suits a river section. The lip and body must still be capable of slashing current and staying true through the retrieve. For me, fishing shallow usually means squaring up.
Due to their deflection ability and relative snag resistance, square-billed crankbaits have their place in hunting for river smallmouths. In fact, it was a square bill that first made a serious impression on me one September afternoon.
After plucking a bass here and there with trusty soft-plastic sticks, I floated into a shallow, woody section and tossed a pudgy square-bill. Pleasantly surprised, the action sped up at a fair clip, continuing beyond the wood. Even as I drifted into deeper water, smallmouths were rising to nail the squat crank.
That led to lots more crankbait exploration. And the discovering has been fun.
I found that particularly during the late summer-early fall period, crankbaits can outproduce soft plastics. Typically now, regardless of the season, but especially along that summer-to-fall bridge, I start each outing with a crankbait and some days fish it all day long.
Just a parting side note about kayaks and rivers and crankbaits: Because crankbaits cover water well, the temptation is to float free and cast at will. However, smallmouths can pack up this time of year, especially in relation to features apparently favorable to feeding, such as ledges, holes, and flats with weed and wood cover.
Those likely spots are worth utilizing an anchor to allow you to thoroughly comb them with crankbaits. Or, where possible, step out, stretch, and fish. One bass might turn into 10.