Bass go on a feeding binge every autumn in reservoirs across the country. It typically starts in September in cooler climes and October in the Deep South, which continues until the bass go into their winter funk. Shad trigger this phenomenon by moving into the backs of creek arms where they find fresh, incoming water. And the bass follow this concentrated food source.
There’s nothing better than being able to target numbers of fish in tight places and you can’t beat a crankbait for picking off bass when they flood into the creeks, especially when you tweak your presentation like the pros. Here’s how some of the nation’s top bass anglers take advantage of this annual feeding frenzy.
Bassmaster qualifying tournaments were once held in the spring and summer, followed by the championship finale in the fall. Legendary bass angler Rick Clunn was so dominant during those late-season tournaments that he earned the title, “Mr. October.”
More often than not, Clunn caught his fish by concentrating on creeks and running shallow crankbaits into cover—an approach that’s equally productive today. Shallow crankbaits have been go-to lures for Clunn throughout his long and storied career. These lures invariably had square- or coffin-shaped bills that deflect off cover and reduce snagging. He initially favored baits made from balsa or some other wood because they were more buoyant and had a livelier action than plastic lures. Some of these were one-of-a kind custom jobs, handmade by craftsman working in a shed or basement.
Over the years, Clunn has designed wood and plastic crankbaits for several different manufacturers. With all of them, he incorporated features he liked in the deadliest custom lures he had fi shed. Clunn’s most recent creations include four hard-plastic RC2 Square Bill crankbaits, from 1½ to 2¾ inches in length, made by Luck “E” Strike.
“Thanks to new molding techniques, I’ve been able to design plastic cranks that have an action similar to balsa lures,” he says.
And, he adds, they can take a beating. Fragility is not an asset when success with shallow cranks requires banging them into cover. One errant cast with a wooden lure against a boulder, dock or stump can spell its doom—something Clunn does repeatedly in the fall. When he comes across an isolated stump, windfall or some other likely bass haunt in a creek arm, he works it over with a square bill from several different angles.
“The key is to go back and fish each piece of cover, even if you don’t catch anything there the first time,” Clunn says. “A bass will eventually set up on it.”
Two factors determine which size RC2 square bill Clunn ties on. One is the size of the shad in the water system, which can vary from year to year and from one reservoir to the next. Generally, small shad dictate a small crankbait and vice versa.
However, the water’s color can be an overriding factor. Clear water can make a small crankbait more effective, even when the shad are large. Conversely, a big crankbait might be just the thing in dingy or muddy water, even when the shad are small.
Crankbaiting’s New King
Kevin VanDam, the most dominating bass tournament angler in history, also may be the best crankbait fisherman who ever lived. When he fishes creeks in autumn, his primary lures are the 7/16-ounce KVD 1.5 and 5/8-ounce KVD 2.5 square bill cranks, which dive three to six feet deep.
In stained water, which is common in creek arms, these baits are his workhorses, but which one he chooses depends not only on the size of the shad, but also on the size of the bass in the water he’s fishing.
“If big bass are present, I’ll definitely catch more of them with the 2.5,” he says. Then again, if the shad are small and the water is clear, he’ll downsize even further—to the 3/8-ounce KVD 1.0. He selects lure color based on water clarity. In stained water, he relies on Sexy Shad, while Black Back Chartreuse gets the call in dirty water, and the more natural Tennessee Shad comes through in clear water.
Maps tell him which creek arms have fresh water running into them. He concentrates on these creeks and ignores the rest. Shad begin their migration to the backs of the creeks when the reservoir’s water temperature drops 10 degrees from its summer high, VanDam points out.
“A big storm can trigger the migration, especially in the smaller creeks,” he says. “And, the more stained the water, the shallower the bass will get.”
Reservoir water levels are typically low in autumn, due to dry weather or the lake being drawn down to winter pool. This crowds the bass even more into creek arms and makes them easier to target.
In addition, bass use whatever cover is available in these locations— stumps, rocks and docks are typical, and VanDam stresses that any irregularity is worth fishing. Keep moving and cast to as many objects as possible to pick off scattered bass one at a time. At the same time, if the creek has only a few isolated pieces of cover, you might be able to pick off several bass from one spot.
Whichever is the case, a square-bill crankbait is the ideal tool for covering water fast and finding sweet spots, especially those that are hidden by murky water.
“A square bill lets you feel stumps and other cover you can’t see,” VanDam says. During a tournament on the Alabama River, he used a KVD 1.5 to find isolated stumps that were well off the bank along a channel in one of the major creeks. After locating the fish, he worked them over with the lure, pausing the retrieve when it came in contact with wood. “That’s when they’d bite,” he explains.
To cover different depths with the same crankbait, VanDam ties one on 12-pound and an identical lure on 17- or 20-pound line. Th e first setup allows the bait to dig down to five or six feet, but because the heavier line is also thicker, there’s more resistance as it moves through the water. This causes the lure to run shallower—no more than about three feet below the surface. “It’s hard to beat a medium retrieve day-in and day-out,” VanDam adds.
Round Bill Exception
Unlike Clunn and VanDam, Mississippi bass pro Pete Ponds relies mainly on round-billed crankbaits when he ventures up creek arms during the autumn season. In shallow water, he fishes the Bandit Series 200. This 2-inch, ¼-ounce crank dives four to eight feet deep, depending on line size.
When Ponds fishes deeper water, he makes hay with Bandit’s Ledge Series 250, a 2¾ incher that weights 7/10 ounce and dives 12 to 14 feet deep.
Ponds fares better with deeper diving crankbaits because he looks for creeks that have the clearest water (bass typically hold deeper in clear water than they do in water that’s stained or murky) and likes to fish portions of creeks where the channel is 10 to 15 feet deep.
“The easiest way to get on fish is to go to the very back of the creek arm until you’re between the banks of the tributary,” he says. “Then work your way out.”
Typically bass will hold either on a steep outside bend, or a shallow inside bend, says Ponds, and he usually starts probing the outside bend with the deep-diver.
“I hold the boat in the creek gut and cast parallel to the bank, almost like I’m fishing riprap,” he says.
He’ll then cross the creek and cast a shallower-running Series 200 crank over the flat on the inside bend—an area he says most anglers overlook. The most aggressive fish usually hold on the upriver side, he explains.
A saddle that forms where the creek channel makes a hairpin turn is another overlooked hotspot, according to Ponds, and grinding a crankbait over this type of structure can pay big dividends. Whether the structure is a bend or a saddle, cover isn’t a required element. Though, Ponds considers it a bonus where it’s present.
A fast, aggressive retrieve with regular stops-and-starts keeps him in touch with fi sh. He matches crankbait patterns to the baitfish whenever he can, but his go-to colors are natural shad and fried squash.
At times bass seek neither cover nor structure, but rather herd suspended baitfish to the surface to make an easy meal of them. That’s when Ponds ties on a coffin-bill Shallow Flat Maxx. “It looks just like a shad,” he says. “And it’s killer when bass feed in the open.”
In this situation, Ponds chucks the shallow-diving lure close to the scrum and cranks it hard four or five times, then gives it a single, solid jerk. That usually gets a definite response.
“When bass school like that, it’s important to immediately throw the crank within a foot of where they came up,” Ponds stresses. “Do that, and you’re going to get bit.”
The fall creek-arm bite is about as dependable as bass fishing can get. So, grab your crankbait box and head for the nearest reservoir—soon!