Tips for fishing with crankbaits & plugs
Until my move to the east coast, the majority of my fishing was for Large Mouth Bass using crankbaits and soft plastics. I also did quite a bit of night fishing for big catfish in the SE Missouri swamps, ponds, and rivers, but that's a different story.
Here are some things that I've found work really well with hard crankbaits for LMB, and over this past year I've found most of these same techniques also work pretty well with Striped Bass,, just on a larger scale. I still have a lot of experimenting and learning to do, but maybe this little write up will be helpful to some other newbies.
When I first started fishing, I would simply cast a crankbait out and reel it straight in. I did catch some fish that way, but over time I learned that changing the way you present your lure of choice will many times make more of a difference than anything else you can do. It all depends on what mood the fish are in and how active they are. Here are a few things you can try when the fish are being picky.
Don't try to rip their lips off
When I first started using crankbaits, I had a tendency to set the hook too aggressively, many times pulling the bait right out of the fish's mouth and missing a good hookset. Give the fish a chance to really grab it and use a strong steady pull to set the hooks. It helps to use a rod that's not too heavy. You want just the right amount of flex and forgiveness to set the hook firmly without ripping the lure free. I like a fairly sensitive tip so that I can feel the action of the lure and anything that it bumps against or that bumps it. This was my first year using braided lines and I love the kind of feedback that you get with low stretch line and a sensitive rod.
Making the connection
Many people prefer to tie their leader directly to the eye of the lure, which may be OK for some larger heavier baits, but if your leader has any stiffness to it at all, it can severely hamper the action of smaller lighter crankbaits. Another option would be to use a snap swivel or other quick release that clips onto the eye, but if the fish are spooky that extra hardware can mean the difference between a bent rod or a straight one. I prefer to use a small, but strong, split ring on the eye of the lure, then tie my leader directly to the split ring. This lets the lure freely wiggle back and forth the way God intented it to, while maintaining a constant pull direction and a minimum of distracting hardware.
Tune it up
If a crankbait is not tuned properly, it will not deliver the proper action nor be able to reach the depth it's designed for. I always check my cranks & plugs for proper tune when they're first new out of the box (many times they're not tuned properly from the factory), and after any particularly glorious fight. To check your crankbait and make sure that it is running true, release about 10 or so feet of line and draw the bait next to your boat or along a straight path on the bank. If the lure tries to run left or right, it needs to be adjusted. To adjust a crankbait, face the front of the lure towards you and bend the eye slightly in the opposite direction from the way the lure is tracking. Continue to check and adjust the lure until it runs perfectly straight. Now you're ready to fish!!
Stop & go
If you notice a fish just following your lure, simply stopping the reel action for a couple seconds then starting it again can many times trigger a strike. Try to keep as much slack out of the line as possible while your bait is parked at the stop light, but you basically want to just let it rest. Too much slack in your line will make it difficult to detect and quickly react to a strike when your bait is in the dead zone. If you're using a shallow running bait, watch the water behind it for swirls. This can be an indication of a following fish that is just waiting for your bait to stop moving for a second before it pounces.
When the upper water column is warm, many times the fish will hold tight to the bottom in a cooler layer of water. Try using a (cheap) dark colored crankbait that runs slightly deeper than the depth you're fishing. Let it bounce against the bottom in a jerky fashion. Not only will this add to the sound a crankbait is making and attact attention that way, but it will also stir up silt from the bottom, which imitates the look of a small lobster, crab or other bottom-hugging meal trying to escape. Let me emphasize using a CHEAP lure for this, because you'll inevetably get it hung up. I wouldn't recommend doing this with a $15-$20 plug.
Another bottom bouncing trick is to run a floating plug on a short flourocarbon leader tied to a small 3-Way swivel. Hang just enough weight from the bottom of the 3 way (with light test line) to keep it on the bottom as you bump it in. This can imitate a small fish following it's own meal on the bottom, many times triggering a strike reaction from the bigger fish you're targeting. Your cheap weight is tied on with a light test line so that if it get's hung up, you can break it free and your lure floats up and clear of the obstruction. These techniques seem to work especially well over a muddy or sandy bottom.
To Float or suspend
The choice between floating/diving baits and suspending models has much more to do with the presentation you will be using than anything else. I like to use suspending baits when the fish are sluggish. This lets you stop the lure at any point during the retrieve and sit it right in front of a fish's nose to trigger strikes.
Most floating cranks rise rapidly, which pushes them back towards any following fish when you pause the reel, creating more reaction strikes. This is especially effective when the fish are in a fiesty mood. Another benefit of using floating divers is that many times if it hits a snag it will float free when you relax the line.
The zig-zag move
If you've ever taken the time to watch smaller baitfish swimming against a current, you probably noticed that they don't usually swim in a straight boring line. They tend to zig-zag slightly back and forth against the current. Keep this in mind next time you wade out into a current or anchor up to start throwing your goodies. When you're covering the downstream side of your location, try working your rod left and right during your retreive, sweeping gently back and forth, with a little burst of speed when you change direction. Just imagine that your lure is that little fish swimming against the current and try to make it look natural. Because, otherwise, well,, it doesn't look natural.
I hope these tips help a little the next time you are tossing the hard stuff. Now go out and Catch That Monster!