Cold-Water Cranking For January Bass

When you think you are fishing slow... slow down. And don’t forget your crankbaits.

Shaye Baker | December 27, 2022

Cold-water cranking is one of the best ways to get bit in the dead of winter. As the water cools, bass become increasingly lethargic and reluctant to eat. Their metabolism slows and they don’t need as much food to survive as they do in the warmer months.

On account of their inactivity, catching bass when the water is ultra cold can be really tough. But a crankbait is often the key that unlocks their jaws.

That being said, there are lots of crankbaits out there and quite a few ways to fish them at all sorts of depths.

In this article, we’re going to try to narrow things down a bit and really home in on how to crank in ultra-cold conditions.

Depth And Temperature

For starters, let’s identify the ideal depth range and the water temps we’re referring to here. Temperature wise, you really get into cold-water cranking once the water temps dip below 52 degrees. It seems like below 52 degrees is the threshold where fishing really starts getting tough as winter sets in.

Above 52 degrees seems to be the tipping point when bass move into the prespawn phase and start to feed heavily again in the spring.

As far as depth goes, you’re primarily looking at less than 10 feet of water, with the vast majority of cranking done in depths between 1 and 7 feet. Undoubtedly, a few fish could be caught on a crankbait in more than 10 feet of water in the wintertime. But, by and large, you’ll get more bites focusing on water that is in the 1- to 7-foot range.

Crankbait Body Styles

There are several styles of crankbaits that can be fished effectively at this wintertime depth range. Crankbait styles include squarebills, medium divers, balsa wood lures, composite lures, flat-sided baits, round-bodied baits… and the list goes on. It’s typically a good idea to have multiple options on the deck to fish throughout this 1- to 7-foot section of the water column, as well.

With the exorbitant options to choose from, it can be a bit overwhelming. So let’s see if we can narrow things down a bit more.

Flat-Sided Baits

Flat-sided crankbaits are synonymous with cold-water cranking. From custom homemade balsa wood baits to mass produced composite lures like the SPRO Little Johns or Jackall Blings, there are tons of these baits to choose from. And, the majority of them are effective.

The Spro Little John is a flat-sided crankbait that works well in cold water.

Professional bass angler James Niggemeyer had an interesting observation as to why this is the case, and it had to do with the cold-blooded, lethargic nature of fish. We often think of bass as being cold blooded, and thus effected by cold water. Their body temperatures are regulated by their environment. So the colder the water, the colder their core temperature, and the less active they are.

But we seldom take into consideration that shad are also cold blooded, and thus they are also less active. This means the subtle and slow movement of a flat-sided crankbait does a great job of matching the hatch—lethargic wintertime baitfish—with it’s less exaggerated action.

Rounded Baits

Round-bodied baits, like the classic Storm Wiggle Wart, also work really well in the winter despite their action-packed wobble. So how do we reconcile this? Well, it requires a deeper understanding of what’s really going on, and less of a one-size-fits-all mindset when it comes to cranking in cold water. Pro bass angler Ott Defoe is one of the best cold-water crankers on the planet, and he offered up some great insight into this conundrum.

Part of his commentary centered around the different types of forage he was trying to mimic with certain crankbaits. The flat-sided baits he primarily used to mimic shad, though he admitted he’d occasionally use a Shad Rap in craw colors as well, a bait that possesses a mix of round and flat characteristics.

But where he’d use flat-sided crankbaits to mimic shad, he exclusively used the more round-bodied baits like the Wiggle Wart to imitate crawfish, stating that he didn’t even possess a shad pattern Wiggle Wart. So it’s important to take all of this into consideration when deciding between fishing a flat-sided or round-bodied bait in January, and also what color to choose in the different styles of crankbaits.

Mood Of The Fish

Defoe further expounded on the method to his madness of choosing one body style as opposed to the other when cranking in cold water. Part of the equation has to do with the mood of the fish. If bass are in a negative mood for instance, Defoe has learned that the flat-sided baits get more bites. What is a “negative mood” though? It’s a time when bass are less active, which can be a result of cold water in the winter, but also high-pressure situations in the warmer months with no wind or cloud cover.

Where many anglers relegate a flat-sided bait to only the colder months, Defoe has actually found that bass bite them really well year-round, especially when bites are hard to come by because the fish are in a negative state.

Pro angler Ott Defoe says wintertime bass, despite being more lethargic, will still hit crankbaits with a wider wobble, like a Wiggle Wart.

The adverse is true in the winter, however, as fish are sometimes more active and aggressive because of an incoming front or particularly warm and sunny days. So where many anglers steer clear of round-bodied baits all together once the water temps drop, in Defoe’s experience, bass still bite baits with a wider wobble when the conditions line up, even in the winter. Baits that meet this criteria include a Wiggle Wart that runs a little deeper, but also a squarebill.

Water Clarity

I have personally seen bass hit crankbaits with a wider wobble time and time again over the years. And because of this, a squarebill is one of my favorite wintertime baits, especially in stained to muddier water. I love fishing in shallow, cold and muddy conditions, since that’s the type of water I grew up on and have confidence when fishing. If you’re going to crank in muddy water, a rounder-bodied crankbait is typically your best bet.

As water clarity shifts from clear to stained, and then from stained to muddy, the more subtle flat-sided baits, that are also often silent, become less effective. They offer less vibration and sound, making them hard for the fish to detect in the dingier water. In contrast, squarebills rock back and forth with a wider wobble and often have rattles incorporated to help the fish feel them better.

However, as has been the running theme throughout this piece, and as is the case in all of bass fishing, this principle is not absolute. There are some situations where flat-sided baits with rattles and bright colors can still catch fish in muddy water. The SPRO Little John in particular comes to mind. But typically, flat-sided baits are more subtle and harder for bass to detect in muddy water, thus less effective.

Squarebills Aren’t All The Same

Not all squarebills are created equal. Some have wider wobbles, where some are tighter. Some are more buoyant, where others can be fished slower and deeper. And some come in better color patters, with drastically contrasting colors from top to bottom that create a flash in the water, like chartreuse with a black back.

Some are slightly larger, where others are smaller. And some are silent, while some have rattles. Some are more prone to hang-up in wood, where others are more likely to get stuck in rocks. And so on and so forth.

All of these things are important when selecting a squarebill for wintertime fishing. The most ideal shallow-running squarebill for cold-water cranking has good color options, doesn’t have a super aggressive wobble, isn’t extremely buoyant so that it can be fished slowly, and it is a little on the smaller side and able to come through cover well. All of this comes together in one particular package in the Bandit 100 crankbait.

Personal Experience

About 15 to 20 years ago now, I was fishing a club tournament on my home lake in the middle of winter. The water temps were likely in the upper 40s to low 50s, and the fishing was brutally tough. My dad and I were sharing water in a muddy creek, along with another buddy. I grew up fishing alongside my dad and by then had learned quite a bit from him and had adopted a very similar style to his fishing.

At the end of the day, I had two fish for around 4 pounds, our other buddy zeroed, and dad weighed in an impressive sack in the 15-lb. range for the win. Granted I don’t remember all the exact details, but a lasting lesson was learned that day. And it had to do with cold-water cranking.

My dad and I had traded water all day, throwing the same crankbait, a Bandit 100. But somehow, he had put together an impressive stringer, and I had fallen short. I had to know why. He told me that he was cranking super slow, just fast enough so that he could barely feel the bait wobbling back and forth. He added that a few of the fish he caught actually had mud on their bellies when he got them to the boat, because they were so lethargic that they had apparently just been sitting still on the bottom for an extended period of time and then simply rolled over once they bit and didn’t even fight enough to knock the mud off on the way to the boat.

I understandably had my doubts, and had this story come from anyone else I wouldn’t have believed it. But it was coming from my dad, and he had just waxed my rear end. So I decided to go out the next day and give it a try. I reeled the bait just as slow as I possibly could, with my rod tip down, just fast enough so that I could feel the bait wobbling and keep it on bottom in 2 to 3 feet of water.

And sure enough, I did catch a few fish, including a 3-pounder that made it to the boat with mud on its belly. When that bite came, it felt like I had just gotten a little bit of trash on my bait, like I had hooked a leaf. But then the fish rolled up to the surface and gave up, without putting up any of a fight as I reeled it to the boat.

Here’s a vintage picture of the author Shaye Baker (left) with his dad at a tournament weigh-in. Shaye learned a valuable lesson about cranking in super cold water from his dad.

I learned an invaluable lesson that day when it comes to cranking in super cold water. You’ve got to fish slow. And once you think you’re fishing slow, slow down even more.

Take that basic principle, and then select your bait based on the forage you’re fishing around, the water depth, the water clarity and the mood of the fish. If you process your bait selection through this metric, you’ll likely have more success with a crankbait this winter.

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