The calendar said August, but the truck thermometer flashed 50 degrees as we launched the boat on the Upper Mississippi River that morning. The wispy mist soon turned into a steady, cold downpour pounded into our skin by stiff winds. Even in summer, central Minnesota makes no promises of warmth and sunshine—the massive cold front was proof.
Needless to say, I wasn’t brimming with optimism as my fishing partner for the day, Illinois smallmouth guru Curt Samo, lowered the bow mount and began casting to a timber-studded point. Wishing for hot chocolate but settling for cold caffeine, I reached down to take a swig of Mountain Dew. Before the bottle hit my lips, Samo leaned back into a 3 1/2 pounder. The block-headed brown bass fell for Samo’s favorite presentation: a crayfish imitation.
But the angler hadn’t chosen the bait simply because it looked roughly like a crayfish. Rather, he picked it by following a complex system he’s developed for choosing and using crayfish-style baits. And after spending a cold, dreary day in the boat with him—but catching one bruiser smallmouth after another despite the gloom—I saw just what it can do.
Matching The Hatch
Color is the first key. If this seems obvious, think again. Samo feels color selection is something most anglers oversimplify. A crayfish is a crayfish? No way.
“On the Winnebago chain of lakes in Wisconsin—lakes Winneconne, Butte des Morts and others—crayfish can be bright orange,” he says. “On the other hand, in the South, you’ll see a lot more bright red ones.”
Samo says bi- or tri-color crayfish often rule a given water. “Before a tournament on Table Rock, I saw a local lift up his crayfish trap. Even while the trap was underwater, I could already see the crawdads,” he says. “It was easy—they had bright red on the underside, but had a lime-green back.” In the coming days, Samo made a huge catch throwing red-and-green cranks and tubes with red flake. “Color made the difference,” he says.
Although matching these basic color schemes is important, Samo says you often have to don your reading glasses to see the colors you really need to pay attention to.
Like a trout fisherman examines a midge hatch, Curt Samo studies the local crayfish population before selecting lure colors.
“I get real anal about colors—more than I used to. Now, whenever I go to a new body of water, I throw out a crayfish trap the night before I fish. Then I can imitate exactly what the fish are keying on.”
This insight makes a huge difference when you open your tackle box. Al-though crayfish might sport the same overall color regionally, minute variations persist between waters, and Samo believes smallmouths take notice, especially in gin-clear waters or cold-front conditions. Anglers, however, generally don’t.
“Crayfish often have tiny spots of bright color on the base and tips of those little legs on their mid-sections, as well as along the tails,” he says. “Color most guys don’t see.”
To account for such details, he chooses baits that match them as close as possible. In the case of cranks, which don’t have actual legs or pincers to sport such detailed coloration, he settles for lures that at least incorporate those unique colors somewhere on their bodies. Crank, jig or plastic, however, if his lures don’t make the color cut, he takes matters into his own hands.
Such was the case as he and I fished our cold-front bass on the river. As the rain came down harder and the thermometer dipped, the Baby Boo jigs and Yum Chunk trailers we were casting stopped producing. Samo broke out his lure paint.
“The crayfish in this part of the river always seem to have orange pincer tips,” he said as he dipped a cotton swab in the dye and dabbed the Chunks. “If the weather is bad and fish are negative, or in clear water where fish can take a really good look at a bait before striking, this can really make it happen.”
I must admit the paint job didn’t look like much, but the smallies disagreed. After the touch-up, I immediately started hooking smallmouths, including some broad-shouldered brutes.
Despite his penchant for matching the hatch, Samo says straying from nature is sometimes the only way to go.
Water clarity plays the biggest role. “If the water’s muddy or highly stained, you can forget the crayfish traps and lure paint,” he says. “Test a lure at boatside—if you can’t see it clearly more than a foot away, drop the natural presentations and go for visibility.”
Black-and-chartreuse or other highly visible patterns far outproduce the natural greens, browns and rusty reds, despite the fact they might be a spittin’ image of the real things.
Crank Or Jig
Color is just part of the crayfish equation. When he nails it down, he looks at water temperature to really dial in lure selection. “That dictates bait style—whether I use cranks, jigs or soft plastics.”
Fifty-five is the number to know. “When the water’s 55 degrees or below, think jigs. If it’s that cold, a Baby Boo jig tipped with a small Yum Chunk trailer is the way to go.”
Presentation is crucial. Many anglers fish these jigs by holding their rodtip at 10 o’clock and moving it to 12—popping the jig off bottom. Big mistake, says Samo. “You’re overworking the jig. Instead, crawl that thing across the bottom like a real crawdad,” he says. “Keep in mind that all the motions you make with your rodtip are magnified underwater, and you need to keep things slow and subtle in water cooler than 55 degrees.”
When temps top 55, Samo switches gears to crankbaits, usually a Cotton Cordell Big-O or Bomber Model A. “If I fish a spot and get bit, I’ll slowly fish the same spot with a jig, and sometimes boat another fish or two that saw the crank, but didn’t respond,” he says.
Select crankbaits with a hard-thumping wobble and a lip design that will bang against the rocks without hanging up. “When real crayfish move, they move a lot of water and create tons of vibration,” he says. Square-billed cranks crawl right over smallmouth-holding rocks.
Tough Times When things get really tough, Samo prefers tubes. “Crawled along bottom, they can be deadly when bass refuse jigs,” he says. “They’re a finicky-situation lure.”
He also incorporates scent when the bite’s off—says he sees a lot of instances when smallmouths hit lures with a closed mouth in an attempt to kill it. Applying crawdad scent can make the difference in your catch rate.
“In cases like those, you not only have to be using a bait that looks exactly like a native crawdad—and be fishing it right—but you need it to smell like food, too,” he says. “If it does, they might come back after the initial hit and actually try to eat the bait.”
Judging from our success on cold-front smallies on the Upper Mississippi, if you’ve followed Samo’s lure selection system, they probably will!
Multi-Tasking Craw Color
When fishing craw-chomping smallmouths, matching lure color to that of natural crayfish is critical in triggering strikes, something Illinois bass expert Curt Samo takes to the bank.
To help anglers better do this, he helped Cotton Cordell design the Pepin Craw pattern for the company’s venerable crayfish mimic, the Big-O. According to Samo, the lure’s mix of colors is the key to its success.
“The pattern combines the primary colors I’ve seen in crayfish I’ve trapped across the smallmouth’s range,” he says.
With such a range of colors on the same bait, the pattern can trigger craw-hungry smallmouths in a variety of waters and conditions.
What Are You Looking At?
Curt Samo catches crayfish-loving bass by matching the coloration of native craws he catches in his traps. But he looks beyond the overall color you see at a glance. Consider this crawdad—olive brown, right? Yes, but that’s not the color Samo is most concerned about, especially when fishing clear water.
He’s looking at the tiny bits of orange on the tips of the pincers, the underside of the tail, and the tips and bases of the legs. Narrow your focus to see these bits of color—or others found on crawdads where you fish—and match them. The fish will notice.