Cold-water cranking with Kevin VanDam
It’s a cold, overcast morning, and while everyone seems more concerned about choosing jig colors for the 43-degree water, Kevin VanDam is already tying on crankbaits. Three days later, the crankbaits have caught 43 ½ pounds of bass, more than all but two of the tournament competitors.
That particular event was the 2008 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell, and although the event was won on a jig, VanDam’s performance underscored not only his own expertise as a crankbaiter but also the versatility of diving lures in cold water, a fact many bass anglers don’t realize.
“I love to fish a crankbait in cold water, mainly because there’s something about how the lure moves water that causes bass to react to it,” VanDam explained. “Bass will bite a crankbait when they won’t hit a spinnerbait, and even when it’s hard to catch them on a jig you can still get them on a crankbait.
“I don‘t know why. I just know crankbaits are probably my best search tools to find cold water bass.”
The Michigan pro’s success with diving lures hinges on several factors, including stained water, steeper winter-type structure, lure choice and slow, bottom-bumping retrieves. There are exceptions, such as at Hartwell where he caught some suspended bass, but overall, his formula is not hard to duplicate.
“I look for stained water because crankbaits are limited by the depth they can dive. In the winter, bass will relate to the bottom in dirty water. They generally do not suspend unless the water is very clear, as at Hartwell where visibility was 12 feet.
“I want my crankbait to grind along the bottom my entire retrieve, which means it stays in the strike zone. As the lure ricochets off rocks and gravel and other cover, it has a strike-triggering effect. Bass are in that stained shallow water to feed, and I’m giving them something to feed on.”
In the colder water, VanDam looks for bluffs and channel swings, steeper banks, and other vertical structure, either in major tributaries or in the main lake. These are features he finds from map study, GPS, and while he’s on the water. He also pays attention to the bottom composition, especially areas where that composition changes, such as from chunk rock to gravel or gravel to slab rock. He won’t use the crankbait unless he has a hard bottom.
“This is a good thing to look for anywhere and anytime, but it can be especially important on those lakes where the forage is crawfish. If you’re on a lake like that -- Table Rock and Bull Shoals come to mind -- your crankbait better be on the bottom and be a crawfish color.”
Again, emphasizes VanDam, bass have to be in the proper depth zone for a crankbait to be effective. This is dictated by water clarity as well as other conditions. At Hartwell, he fished the crankbait over the top of flooded timber, casting into 10-foot depths and retrieving out over 30 feet. Even though his lure only reached 10 and 12 feet, he pulled fish up out of 20 feet.
Crankbaits worked well there because of the lower light conditions. VanDam had some cloud cover, and when he didn’t, he fished only windy banks. These are important elements that will nearly always move bass shallow, regardless of the time of year, and they’re absolutely critical to making a crankbait work in winter.
“The other thing I do slightly different in the winter is that I always fish my crankbaits parallel to the structure, and I fish them slowly. I do not make a lot of jerking and erratic movements like I do in warm water. The main thing is making a lot of stops and starts, again, trying to make the fish react.
“I work the bait along the edge of a bluff, a channel bank or the side of a point. Again, it’s all about keeping the lure in the strike zone as long as I can.
“When you slow down your retrieve, the crankbait has to work for you this time of year, so I want either a really wide wobbling lure or the exact opposite, a really tight wobble, usually a flat-sided bait. That’s what made the old Storm Wiggle Wart such an effective cold water crankbait; it dived to 10 or 12 feet and had a wide wobble. The Normark Shad Rap is another famous cold water crankbait, and so are Strike King’s Flat Shad, Stealth Shad, and the Series 4 and 5 crankbaits.”
In really stained water, VanDam has his best success with the flat-sided crankbaits that have a tight wobble. Sometimes, however, he advises, you may find the bass want something with a wider wobble, so don’t hesitate to change to a completely different lure. Just remember to fish with a slow to medium retrieve and keep the crankbait on the bottom.
VanDam also notes that using fluorocarbon line is part of his cold-water strategy, not because it’s invisible underwater, but because it sinks and can add a foot or more to the depth his crankbait runs. He even fishes Strike King’s wood lure, the Stealth Shad, with a spinning rod to gain an extra 20 yards of casting distance, which means his lure stays in the strike zone that much longer.
“You can actually control your lure’s depth by your line size. Sometimes I’ll go as light as eight-pound fluorocarbon, depending on how deep I want my crankbait to go.”
Lipless crankbaits can also be effective cold-water lures.
“Not only because they have a tight vibration, but also because you can count them down to a specific depth, and they’re also very effective around vegetation. If I’m fishing a lake with vegetation or a lake that has a lot of flat, shallow water, I’ll probably be using a lipless crankbait.
“The way I like to retrieve these lures is with a sideways sweeping motion with my rod so I get plenty of vibration as well as a lot of stop-go-falling action. Even when you do this slowly, the lure still works for you.
“I’ve caught bass on these and on other diving crankbaits when the water temperature has been in the 30s, so you can see why I like winter cranking.”