September Welcomes Back Oconee’s Deep-Crankin’ Bite
Shawn Malcom and Lee Nunnally say September is when Oconee's deep crankin' bite will return.
Even Oconee’s best crankin’ fishermen were shaking their heads in August. It was just too darn hot for good concentrations of fish to hold in water shallow enough that they could be caught cranking.
“When I’m cranking, I like the fish about 15 to 18 feet deep,” said Shawn Malcom. “I feel like the fish have been in the 25-foot range, and they don’t make a crankbait that’ll go that deep. I’ve talked with Mark Davis and David Fritz, and they say 22 feet is as far as you’ll get a crankbait down. A standard (Norman) DD22 will only go about 18 feet and a modified DD22 will go about 20 feet.”
Tinkering with crankbaits is one of Shawn Malcom’s areas of expertise, but when fish dip below 22 feet, he waits for September, which will kick-off a three-month period when catching Oconee bass on deep crankbaits is a good way to put five really good fish in the boat.
Last month I spent a full day on the water with Shawn and his tournament partner, Lee Nunnally, while they practiced for an upcoming Berry’s tournament. Our plan was to check a few of their favorite cranking areas.
“The key water temperature for deep cranking is about 85 degrees,” said Shawn. “We’ll start catching deep-cranking fish in June, when the water warms up. After June the water is too hot, and most of the better fish go deeper and out of cranking range. That’s why they return in September; the water starts cooling.”
Shawn and Lee’s goal was to show me the types of places they’ll be fishing in September. We were hoping to catch a few fish cranking.
We launched at Sugar Creek Marina, idled under the bridge and headed east. We passed the island on the left and headed over to the first point on the left. The area looked inviting. All along the point was standing timber, and Shawn said it was filled with plenty of underwater structure that naturally held fish.
“The point starts out in about three feet of water, and there’s an osprey nest on the end of the point that’s in 18 feet of water,” said Shawn. “Places like this will really get good in the fall.”
Since the point was too timber infested to crank, we started our morning fishing soft plastics. I was chunking a 3/8-oz. jig ’n pig, while Shawn was probing the point with a green pumpkin Zoom U-tail worm threaded onto a 1/8-oz. Luck “E” Strike Round Heads jig head. Lee had the same jig head, but he was throwing a plum-colored Zoom Trick Worm.
“This jig head looks similar to a crappie jig,” said Shawn. “I like it because it’s got a 2/0 Gamakatsu, heavy-wire hook. I like the smaller jig head, because it takes so long for the bait to fall, and 90 percent of my bites come on the fall.”
Shawn said stand-up jig heads, like the Spot Remover, don’t fit his style of fishing.
“Those baits (Spot Removers) are designed to fall to the bottom, stand up and you just shake it,” said Shawn. “I like to hop my bait along through the structure.”
Shawn and Lee will continue to throw these baits into woody areas throughout the fall.
Our next stop was on Mimosa Point, the third point above Hwy 44 on the west side. The point is easy to find — there’s a green-and-white roof on top of a boat house covering an older bass boat. The house is white, and there’s a flag pole in the yard.
“This is one of the most fished places on the lake, but there are some good fish caught on it,” said Shawn. “The top of the point is three feet deep, and the point hooks to north. I like to keep the boat in 17 and 18 feet of water and fish around the whole point.”
Shawn handed me a fiberglass rod with a “doctored-up” DD22 attached. He believes a combination of shaving a crankbait’s bill, adding weight and even brushing on a flat coat of paint will help his lures dig deeper than they’re advertised to do.
“I like tinkering with lures,” said Shawn. “I always do something different to change the bait. Filing the bottom of the bill makes the bait more aerodynamic. Sometimes I’ll drill a hole in the bottom of the bait and fill it with JB Weld, which adds weight and will make it dive deeper. Adding a flat paint will also add weight.
“Also, I never use the stock color. I paint my own design. I have confidence when I’m throwing anything chartreuse. Even in the spring I throw chartreuse. I paint all my Shad Raps.”
Shawn doesn’t believe color makes too big a difference when deep cranking, however, a different color scheme could be the one factor that triggers a bite.
After cranking Mimosa Point, we found ourselves fishing the corners of the Hwy 44 rip-rap. When these guys fish the corners of any rip-rap, they stick with cheaper, easier-to-replace crankbaits — like a D22.
“There is so much junk on these corners — mainly fishing line and cast nets,” said Lee. “One time we pulled in a seine net.”
Two minutes later Lee was pulling in 50 feet of fishing line that tangled on his plug’s treble hooks.
While fishing the rip-rap, Lee pointed back up the lake to the first point north of the Hwy 44 bridge on the west side. It has 18 feet of water on the end — about 50 yards from the bank — and then it drops suddenly into 35 feet. It’s a good point to crank in September.
Also, the first western point just south of the Hwy 44 bridge is a good one to fish. This point gets fished a lot, however, the point ends in 25 feet of water right at the channel, making it an ideal September cranking hole.
We motored south and fished a section of the long point on the south end of Old Salem Park, right off the pavilion. Lee boated one fish right away, but it wasn’t quite a keeper. On this point you’ll find rocks and stumps. A half hour later, after no strikes, it was time to move again.
“These fish just aren’t here yet,” said Shawn. “
At most stops we alternated between crankbaits. Along with DD22s, we threw fire-tiger-colored Rapala DT (Dives To) 16s.
“A lot of crankbaits don’t dive as deep as they say, but the DT16 will go 16 feet deep,” said Shawn. “The changes I make to it will get it down about 18 feet. The DT16 comes with a VMC treble hook, which is a fairly decent hook, so I won’t always change it out.”
When changing hooks, Shawn likes a Gamakatsu No. 3. A lot of crankbaits come with bigger hooks — the DD22 comes with a Gamakatsu No. 2. — but downsizing means less hang-ups with stumps and rocks.
One of Shawn’s favorite crankbaits is a Rapala “Down Deep Rattlin Fat Rap.” Out of the box it’ll run 18 feet deep, however, you’ll have to hit eBay or a mom-and-pops store to find one.
“They don’t make them anymore,” said Shawn. “I’ve got about 100 left. This bait is a true deep-diving crankbait that’ll go as deep as it says.
“I like it so much because the bait has a shoe-spoon bill, which means less resistance and it’s easier to crank. After my modifications I can get it to go 22 feet.”
Shawn also cranks a Daiwa TD Hyper Crank Dragger in chartreuse fire tiger, a Poes LR 4500 and a Suddeth S1.
We took a short ride down to the next creek mouth on the east side. On the north side of that mouth is a nine-foot flat full of stumps, and it runs right to the river channel. We quickly fished this area, but it was obvious the fish weren’t this shallow yet, however, both anglers said this area is excellent when the water starts to cool.
An hour later our crankbaits were digging into a Lick Creek roadbed 50 yards north of the Old Pheonix Road bridge. The roadbed parallels the rip-rap along the bridge and tops out at 12 feet and drops into 30 feet of water.
Lee was working a parrot-colored DT16 across the roadbed.
“You’ll occasionally catch a suspended fish, but if you aren’t hitting bottom, you’re not doing much good,” said Lee. “When you hit something, pause the bait and then give it a sudden snatch.”
Lee couldn’t have staged his comment any better.
“There he is,” he said. “I was hung up, snatched it free and he hit.”
After a brief battle, Lee put a 2 1/2-pounder in the boat.
Shawn wanted to show GON readers one more good place to fish for a deep-cranking bite. When you come out of Lick Creek go straight over the Oconee River channel, and head toward a dock with a blue top on the eastern shore. The dock sits above the island. Start fishing the river channel in front of that dock, and fish south until you come to the island on your left.
“This is a big, wide-sweeping channel with good drop and lots of stumps,” said Shawn. “Trash collects in the bends. I’ll stay on the flat side in 10 and 12 feet of water and throw, but I’ll also get in the river channel and throw shallow.”
Shawn’s rod finally loaded up with his first cranking fish of the day, a 2-pounder that hammered a crankbait near the edge of the river channel. The largemouth made a few attempts to throw the plug, but it was quickly in the boat.
“I’ve lost too many fish on a regular rod,” said Shawn. “For cranking I like a seven-foot St. Croix fiberglass rod with a medium-heavy action. Also, fiberglass is more forgiving. When the fish comes up shaking, because the fiberglass is so flexible, the fish can’t get leverage and doesn’t throw the bait. I learned that the hard way. I also get a better cast out of it —you can whip the bait.
For easier cranking, Shawn likes an Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 4600C4 Winch, which has a 3.8:1 ratio.
“They don’t make the ‘Winch’ model anymore, but you can buy a regular 4600C4 from Abu Garcia, which has a 6.3:1 gear ratio, and convert it over to 3.8:1 for $14,” said Shawn. “Shimano and Pflueger make a 3.8:1, but the gears don’t hold up. I’ve been fishing with the Garcia’s for three or four years, and they’re still in good shape.”
The low-ratio reel makes it easier to crank, and when he couples that with low-profile, 12-lb. fluorocarbon P-Line, it hardly feels like deep cranking at all.
On a sidenote, September is the month when some shad and bass begin to head toward the pockets and creeks. There will be a shallow bite by the end of the month, and at least some of Shawn and Lee’s time will be spent fishing slightly shallower.
“By the end of the month you can start looking for fish on any flat or any point heading into a creek wherever shad may go,” said Shawn. “We’ll look for shad and any kind of structure. That Luck “E” Strike jig head is going to get better and better. These jig heads are great around any wood cover you can find. October and November is the best time to fish those jig heads. Spinnerbaits around wood cover is a good choice, too.
“Also, the fish will really concentrate around the docks with aluminum boat lifts as the water temperature cools down. Those aluminum lifts will heat up quicker than the wood ones.”
Despite a shallow bite, deep cranking will encompass the largest majority of this team’s time on the water.
“Deep cranking is a confidence thing for us,” said Shawn. “The biggest difference in the way we fish in the fall is that most everyone goes shallow. There are plenty of fish shallow, just not the quality fish we’re looking for. I’d rather fish all day for five good ones instead of catching a bunch of decent ones. If you get five deep bites, you’ll have more weight than people who fish up shallow.”
We ended up catching a few more bass, but they weren’t the size of fish they’ll expect to be catching starting in September. Actually the fishing has improved a little bit since our trip. I talked to Shawn on August 23.
“As of this weekend (August 19) the water temperature had cooled off to 86 degrees,” said Shawn. “The highest we found was 88. We caught four fish deep cranking that went 11 pounds in a tournament. It only took 14 pounds to win it.”
Try something new this fall — fish deep for quality bass on Oconee. While everyone is banging the bank with spinnerbaits and plastics, pick up a deep-diving crankbait, make a few adjustments, and dig for wood cover on flats and points.
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