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by Jim Porter

The first lure most new bass anglers learn to use is the diving, lipped crank plug. While the plastic worm and the jig take some getting used to, the crank plug is pretty simple-- cast, retrieve; cast, retrieve. And, it is a very effective year-round lure for taking bass. Each separate one has a fairly set running depth, slightly variable by the use of different line weights and retrieve speeds. Therefore, the angler really has only to fish it in the proper location to be successful.

If one reads the various outdoor publications, he will find that crank plugs receive a good share of the publicity. With the recent advent of the super-deep lures (touted to dive to 20 feet, and better), crank plugs have really become the center of attention. However, for all their notoriety, shallow lipped crank plugs are not fully portrayed to the fishing public. One group is rarely seen in word or picture and you might be led to believe that they just don't catch bass well. Actually, that is far from the truth. Let's examine what we call 'the forgotten lure'.

As we get started, it is necessary that everyone be on the same sheet of music. And, since I get to do the singing today, we'll use my music. Therefore, the following is a categorization of the various lipped crank plugs.

SURFACE/SUB-SURFACE. This category of crank plugs floats and is used primarily in a top water role. However, when retrieved, they dive slightly below the surface (not over two feet deep) and are sometimes highly effective as actual shallow crank plugs . The legendary Rapala and the Bagley Bang-O-Lure are examples.

SHALLOW ZONE. Lipped crank plugs which run between three and six feet comprise the shallow zone grouping. Their only application, even though most will float at rest, is when retrieved through this depth range. Good examples of shallow zone lures are the Bagley Killer B II, Rebel's Wee R, and the Norman Little N.

MEDIUM ZONE. Lipped plugs which fit into this category can be expected to operate at depths of seven to 12 feet. These are the most commonly used crank plugs and, therefore, account for the majority of the crank plug catches. The Rebel Deep Wee R, Bagley's Divin' B II and the 2 ˝ inch Fat Free Shad (the Junior) fall into this grouping.

DEEP ZONE. Any lipped crank plug which runs between 12 and 18 feet can be considered a deep zone lure. These are generally special purpose lures and are usually a bit difficult to control. Examples are the big Fat Free Shad and Bagley's Divin' B III.

ULTRA-DEEP ZONE. For our purposes, any crank plug which operates deeper than 18 feet is an ultra-deep lure. The jury is still out on this group, as they have only been on the market for a short period of time.

Now, if you study the list and recall what you've read in the magazines and seen on the television fishing programs, chances are good that you will immediately recognize the supposedly 'forgotten' category we mentioned earlier. Right, THE SHALLOW ZONE CRANK PLUG IS THE ONE. Why it is overlooked is a mystery to this writer, for I know for a fact that they catch more than their share of bass. Let me cite a couple of examples.

It was mid-June on Alabama's Wheeler Lake, a part of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) chain on the Tennessee River. The bass had been pretty steady on deeper, post-spawn structure and catches were good. However, a few days of extremely heavy rains, coupled with some TVA manipulations of the dams, had brought the water levels up approximately two feet. Suddenly, the fish were nowhere to be found. They had vacated the deeper structures and the edge of the old river channel. Likewise, they were not to be found in the milfoil grass beds, nor along the stumpy, red clay banks. A group of very good tournament pro's searched for three practice days with little result.

One of the anglers, however, remembered the old tongue-in-cheek rule about locating bass-- "They are either deep, shallow or somewhere in-between." Like most of the other contestants, this fisherman had searched extensively, but fruitlessly, in the newly inundated shoreline cover. He solved the problem by simply backing off the shoreline and fishing the shallow slopes leading up to it. The bass, as he recalled for us, were stacked like the proverbial cord-wood in four and five feet of water a short distance out from the banks and grass lines. The successful lures employed were a Bagley Divin' Killer B I and a Rebel Wee R, each of which ran four to five feet deep on a medium retrieve. The key to triggering a strike was to crank the lure down with a few rapid turns of the reel handle, slow it down, and use a stop- and-go retrieve back to the boat.

In another instance, this one being on Georgia's famous Lake Lanier, the bass were found to be holding in submerged brush tops in the shallow flats of the upper River area. Worms, jigs and spinner baits were marginally productive. It was found, however, that a shallow zone crank plug, a Norman Little N to be specific, was the ticket. One had only to retrieve the lure across the underwater brush tops, bumping the limbs gently, to provoke immediate and savage strikes. Although the water itself was fairly deep, the fish were obviously lying in the upper portions of the tops and the shallow lure was perfectly in their strike zone.

A 'truism' about fishing says that 'shallow bass are active, feeding bass.' Consequently, a good many anglers adhere to the rule of starting out their fishing as shallow as is reasonable, given the season and other conditions.

First, it is much easier to fish shallow; and, secondly, the bass will readily take a lure offering. Obviously, a cold day in the dead of Winter would not be very conducive to finding bass shallow. But, there is good potential all other times of the year, with early Summer (late May and all of June) being possibly the best. During this period, the heat has not yet exerted its dominance and the shallow waters are still acceptably comfortable for the fish. With all the spawning rituals complete, the bass are once again schooled and mobile, in search of food. Also, the Spring bait fish hatch will now be large enough to be preyed upon, but still be in the protective cover areas of the shallows. Evidence of these situations is usually noticeable by lots of surface activity.

Locating potentially productive areas for using shallow crank plugs is not too difficult. The first things to remember are that Fall and Winter bass take up residence in the vicinity of steeply sloping areas, while in the warmer months they like flats and gradual slopes. Next, we would look for areas that have significant amounts of cover in less than eight feet of water. Stump fields and under water grass beds would be excellent. Finally, we would hope to see bait fish activity in and about that cover. The last step would be to select an appropriate lure and sample the area.

As with any lure selection decision, depth and speed, in that order, are the main considerations in choosing a shallow zone crank plug. It should run approximately one foot off the bottom or, if there are stumps, grass or other cover present, just over the top of that cover. One specific thing to avoid in the shallow zone is a plug which makes contact with the bottom. Whereas, in the deeper areas, we would like the lure to make intermittent contact with the bottom features, there will probably be some plug-fouling slime, muck or grass in the shallow zones.

The speed of the lure is often a major determinant in stimulating the urge to strike in a bass. In deep waters areas, fast retrieves are usually the key to provoking a response. However, in the shallows, the bass are already defined as active and feeding, and fast retrieves are not usually necessary. In fact, the contrary is often the case. In shallow water, the most productive retrieve with a lipped crank plug is usually slow and erratic, simulating an injured bait fish. My own experience has shown that the stop-and-go technique usually proves to be the best, with the strikes coming just when the lure stops. The angler must be alert, for stop-and-go strikes are normally very light and difficult to detect. An immediate hook-set is required, since a bass can inhale a lure, determine it to be a fake, and exhale it in the twinkling of an eye. Underwater research has shown that a bass can take a crank plug and eject it so fast that the angler often doesn't even realize that he has had a strike. There are always exceptions to every case, so the best retrieve speed is an item which each angler must determine for a given day and the existing set of conditions.

If the selected fishing area has submerged brush tops, the proper depth will usually involve the lure just brushing the limbs. Obviously, the slow retrieve will preclude hang-ups. Lipped crank plugs run slightly nose-down and will actually crawl over most of the potential snags. If the lure does hang momentarily, give it a bit of slack and most will float free. Be prepared for a hard strike at this time.

Standard tackle is quite satisfactory for presenting shallow crank plugs. It is recommended, however, that the angler steer away from fast tip, 'whippy' rods and those shorter than five and one-half feet. The stiffer, longer rods will give a bit more 'feel' of a soft strike and assist in the rapid hook-set so often required. For weight, comfort and responsiveness, graphite is the better rod choice.

Line weights are a matter of preference of the angler, given that he considers all the factors present. Lipped crank plugs have a good bit of bass-attracting action and vibration inherent in their design. The heavier the line, the more those attributes will be dampened. (Consider how the lure might run if a venetian blind cord were used and you will get the picture.) Another factor is the presence of cover into which the bass might dive and become entangled. And, finally, the line will have a certain amount of resistance to the water and the chosen size will influence just how deep the lure will actually run. With shallow zone lures, the operating depth may vary as much as a foot between eight and 17 pound test. It's simply a factor to consider in fine tuning the presentation.

When fishing for active, shallow bass, we can expect that many strikes will come near the boat. This is primarily because the lure is in a potential strike zone for the majority of the retrieve. Accordingly, it is a good idea to stay with standard monofilament lines, rather than one of the new 'low stretch' types on the market. The stretch characteristic allows the line to act as a shock absorber, compensating for those close strikes and the instinctive jerk of the fisherman. However, if there is a lot of heavy cover in the area and the chances of the bass tangling us are high, the low stretch is probably a better call. Our reaction and resultant hook-set will be more rapid and positive and we will be able to control the fish better during his initial surge towards the cover.

Super-sharp hooks are important on any lure, but are doubly so on shallow zone crank plugs. With the slow retrieve normally employed, we get little hook-set from the strike, itself. And, having virtually no other place to go, a shallow water bass usually goes airborne immediately after taking the lure. Sharp hooks, then, help stack the odds of holding onto the bass a bit more in our favor. The new Excalibur Trebles from PRADCO are VERY good.

Lure color is always a debatable subject, and I suspect that it effects fishermen more than it does the fish. Since a bass is a predator, he will normally strike at nearly any moving object even remotely resembling food. One of the keys to catching fish is to keep the lure wet and, if the angler has confidence in his color choice, he will do just that. Pure logic dictates that a lure whose color most closely resembles the available food supply will be the most successful. Therefore, gray, white and chrome fit the need to imitate shad or other bait fish. If the waters have a concentration of cray-fish, darker colors might work well, but the lure will have to be kept right against the bottom. Cray-fish do not swim; they 'scoot' along.

Shallow crank plugs are extremely effective lures. Remember them and they will provide quality bassin' experiences you will NOT forget.


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