Shallow Crankin’ For Bass

Learn to use the right shallow-running crankbait for the right bass fishing situation.

Walker Smith | July 31, 2019

I want you to think back to the last time you visited your favorite tackle shop. Now, in your mind, take a quick stroll down the crankbait aisle.

I’m willing to bet your mind is overloaded with colors, shapes, bill angles and bold marketing claims on the packages. If you’re just beginning to explore the realm of crankbait fishing, how in the world are you supposed to confidently make a decision?

I’ve been there, and trust me—I have wasted an exorbitant amount of money on ineffective crankbaits. Whether I let the packaging fool me or “dock talk” at the boat ramp get in my head, I could make a few house payments with the cash I’ve thrown at crankbaits over the years.

There’s good news, however. Shallow crankbait selection does not need to be difficult or overwhelming. I have caught hundreds of big, public-lake bass on these lures and won my share of money chucking ‘em around. But this success only came after I drastically simplified my selection process and went back to the basics.

There are two primary types of shallow-running crankbaits: Flat-sided and squarebill crankbaits. They have two very different applications, and they’re both at their peak effectiveness during contrasting times of the year.

It’s important to understand that depth ranges are relative. “Shallow” has a different meaning depending upon the fishery. But, as we discuss shallow-running crankbaits in this article, I’m referring to lures that run approximately between 0 and 6 feet deep.

Let’s go through them, and I’ll explain exactly what I’m talking about. This will help you fish with confidence and save some hard-earned money along the way.

Shallow-Running Squarebill Crankbaits

The wide lip on a squarebill crankbait allows an angler to ‘worm’ the plug through heavy cover, like a blowdown. Some bass will stay shallow in the summer, but they will be relating to cover, which makes the squarebill crankbait the right choice. Walker Smith loves a bluegill color pattern like the one on this Norman’s Fat Boy when fishing a squarebill around and through shallow cover.

These are probably the most popular crankbaits among anglers. They often dive a bit shallower than flat-sided plugs, and their bill design helps them deflect off of cover like fallen trees, stumps and the like. The bill design cuts down on irritating snags and hang-ups. Like any other bass fishing lure, however, squarebill crankbaits need to be used in the right situation to maximize their effectiveness.

Essentially, these are 4-wheel drive crankbaits that are specifically designed for crashing into cover. It might sound like this would startle nearby bass, but these erratic deflections take full advantage of the predatory instincts every bass has. Even if a bass isn’t hungry, it can’t help but attack what looks like a wounded baitfish or bluegill. It’s in their DNA, just like a cat chasing a laser pointer.

Because these squarebills rely on that irregular, more obtrusive action, they tend to be most effective in warmer times of the year. The bass are a bit more active, their metabolism is in high gear, and they’re much more apt to chase down a prospective meal. Whenever the water temperature is between 70 and 95 degrees, you can expect these lures to be big-time producers. If you don’t have a temperature gauge, start considering a squarebill when you notice the bass beginning to move off of their springtime spawning beds.

Now, just because I call ‘em a 4-wheel drive crankbait doesn’t mean you can mindlessly reel ‘em as fast as you want without any snags. These lures are most weedless when you methodically fish them through cover. I suggest “worming” them through hard cover, which is an easy technique that gets a bunch of bites. As the name implies, to “worm” a crankbait, you’ll cast your squarebill near hard cover and fish it just like you would a Texas-rigged worm. Slowly raise your rod tip, and you’ll feel that square-shaped lip bumping and deflecting off of cover. Next, lower your rod tip as you retrieve the slack in your line. Repeat this process in laydowns, next to docks and in stump fields, and you’ll be catching bass in no time.

Squarebill Details

Recommended Lures: Strike King KVD Squarebill, Rapala BX Brat, SPRO Fat Papa Squarebill, Norman Fat Boy, Lucky Craft LC Silent Squarebill.

Recommended Colors: I stick with two themes when it comes to squarebills—bright and natural. I’ll use brighter colors, such as chartreuse/black back or firetiger in dirty water. I don’t make it much more complicated than that. In clearer water, I actually prefer a bluegill-type pattern more than anything else. Bluegill are easy for a bass to catch, and they’re a main course on the warm-weather bass menu, so anything that looks like a small bluegill will get crushed.

Where To Fish Squarebills: Shallow cover adjacent to deep water is a prime target for a strategically placed squarebill. Whether it’s a stump row next to a break line or a laydown on the edge of a defined creek channel, you can expect to find bass nearby. You’ll also enjoy plenty of success skirting the edges of boat docks with a squarebill. Cast parallel to the front and both sides of the dock, and make sure the lure is making occasional contact with the dock posts. This will elicit vicious reaction strikes, even when the bass aren’t on a major feed.

How To Fish Squarebills: The “worming” technique we discussed seems to be most effective when fishing fallen trees, but don’t be afraid to pick up the pace when you’re targeting isolated stumps, dock posts or grasslines. Keep your rod tip down, and when you get a bite, don’t let any slack enter your line. Sweep your rod to the side to set the hook, and you’ll likely have a great hook-up ratio.

Flat-sided Shallow Crankbaits

Find a red-clay bank on a February afternoon, and throw a No. 5 or No. 7 Rapala Shad Rap. Flat-sided crankbaits are ideal during the winter and spring months.

Flat-sided shallow crankbaits are most productive in the winter and very early stages of spring, when the water temperatures hover in the 40- to 58-degree range. If you don’t have a way of reading the exact water temperature, don’t worry. From December until the dogwood trees start blooming, you’ll catch bass on these crankbaits. Be extra diligent about sharp hooks and good line while fishing these lures, too. They can catch some absolute monsters throughout the region.

Bass become very lethargic in cold water, and they’re easily deterred by a loud, obtrusive, wide-wobbling crankbait. The thin profile of the flat-sided crankbait creates a very tight, natural shimmy that doesn’t overpower a fish’s senses when the bass are inactive. If you’ve ever seen a school of shad in the winter months, they don’t move fast, and they certainly don’t move erratically. They’re very stiff and calculated when they move, which is exactly why a flat-sided crankbait works so well during this time period. These lures perfectly mimic the natural behavior of the forage.

Recommended Lures: Rapala Shad Rap SR05, Rapala DT-4, Rapala DT-6, SPRO Little John 50, Bomber Flat A, Bandit Flat Maxx.

Recommended Colors: Stick with chartreuse and red patterns in muddy water. Natural shad patterns are your go-to in cleaner water. When visibility is higher, high-gloss finishes tend to work well in sunny conditions, and matte colors are outstanding under cloudy skies.

Where To Fish Flat-side Crankbaits: Clay banks hold a lot of heat during the winter and early spring months, making them a great starting point for consistent action. Secondary points, primary points and small current breaks will produce some giant bass, as well.

How To Fish Them: Slow and steady wins the race with these crankbaits. If you think you’re reeling slow enough, slow down even more. You want the bill of your crankbait to make constant contact with the bottom to draw attention to it. Use a medium-action rod, 10- to 12-lb. test line, and hold on.

Which Crankbait Right Now?

The Rapala DT series flat-sided crankbaits were designed to dive fast and stay in the strike zone. The “DT” stands for dives-to. The DT-4 pictured above dives to 4 feet.

Although both could technically work at any time of the year—bass don’t read these articles, unfortunately—I think you’ll enjoy the most success with a shallow-running squarebill crankbait in late July and throughout the month of August. Even though the heat and humidity are in full swing out there, Alabama lakes are full of prime squarebill hotspots.

There are two excellent options right now on the reservoirs. You can gamble a bit and head to the backs of major creeks in skinny water, or you can hedge your bet and target main-lake hard cover. Each strategy has its pros and cons.

The backs of creeks probably won’t produce numbers of bass this August, but don’t be surprised if you run across a giant or two while probing the skinny stuff. While most bass will head to their offshore haunts in the summer months to take advantage of more favorable oxygen levels and temperature, there are always a few big females that live their entire lives in shallow water. We call them “resident fish,” and they’re normally pretty darn big. Isolated cover seems to be the best place to fool ‘em with a squarebill. You are looking for that beat-up boat dock sitting by itself, that one stump that’s situated on a super-shallow flat, or a fallen tree that may be sitting on an otherwise featureless bank. This isolation tends to concentrate resident fish on key pieces of cover, making them a bit easier to pinpoint during the dog days of summer.

The safer bet for numbers, however, lies in main-lake cover. I prefer fishing the steeper sides of the main lake if possible, so I’ll look for tight contour lines on my mapping. When I comb through these areas, I’m looking for shallow cover near the bank, but with deeper water nearby. Ideally, my boat would be sitting in 10 or more feet of water while I’m casting at shoreline cover. This adjacent deep water allows bass to quickly move higher in the water column during feeding periods and slide out just as easily when they’re inactive.

It’s the best of both worlds for August bass in the South, but this may not be the best weekend strategy. Pleasure boaters and kamikaze jet skis can make fishing the big water pretty darn tough at times, but expect the traffic to die down once the school year begins.

The next time you’re shopping for shallow crankbaits or digging through your tackle trying to figure out what to tie on, think back on this article and follow these guidelines.

With a little know-how and some trial and error, you’ll be able to quickly and confidently do some serious damage with a shallow-running crankbait.

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