Spot Removers And Crankbaits: New Tricks For Clarks Hill Bass
Put down that Carolina rig, and try something different on Clarks Hill this summer. Craig Johnson said very few anglers throw Spot Removers and crankbaits on deep structure.
Craig Johnson is one of the most confident anglers I’ve ever had the pleasure of being in the boat with.
“I can put the camera down there and show you 50 fish. You can sit there for three hours and not have a bite and then all of a sudden they turn on and you load the boat,” Craig said.
Unfortunately, he had to tell me that across the front seat of his truck as lightning popped all around the parking lot at Lake Spring Park on Clarks Hill Lake.
I was getting to do a story with one of the hottest tournament anglers in the Southeast, and we were forced to wait out a thunderstorm that wouldn’t put us in the boat until after 8 p.m.
“It doesn’t matter, they’ll bite when it’s over,” said Craig.
I was tickled to hear him say so.
When I met Craig on June 12 around 6 o’clock I could see from his eyes that he was worn out. The day before he arrived back at his Appling home from FLW’s The Bass Federation (TBF) Southern Divisional Championship.
Craig’s eyes may have looked tired, but his smile was fresh. He was the best-finishing Georgian at that event, so he’ll go on to TBF National Championship in April 2007.
Craig qualified for the Southern Divisional after a second-place finish at this year’s Top-Six event, held on Clarks Hill in April.
The reason for Craig’s smile is even greater.
The day after the Southern Divisional event, he won a qualifier tournament that will send him to the Skeeter BassFan Army Weekend Warriors Championship in September. There, he’ll be chasing a $20,000 first-place check.
Need more qualifications on Craig Johnson?
He won his first BFL in 2002 fishing the Savannah River trail. In 2003 he won a qualifier at West Point and went on to finish 28th in the All-American. In 2004 he won a BFL on Clarks Hill and won the entire points championship. In 2005 he won the points championship again.
“I wanted to do it twice in a row, so people didn’t think it was a fluke,” said Craig.
Also in 2005 he qualified to fish the Everstart Championship and finished 25th out of 200 boats.
“FLW is the goal,” said Craig. “My wife told me to go for it. The only thing keeping me off the big tournament trail right now is money.”
Craig was able to get his feet wet when he fished the FLW Series event earlier this year at Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland as a non-boater.
“That’s a whole different ball game — fishing from the back of the boat,” said Craig. “I liked it. I finished fifth.”
After a two-hour wait in the truck watching lightning flashes, I was finally getting to fish out of the back of Craig’s brand-new Ranger. During the summer, Craig keys on bass that are relating to humps that have rocks, wood or hydrilla present.
“Golden time is 30 minutes before dark; that’s when you can really catch them,” said Craig. “If you catch one, multiple fish are there.”
Our first stop was within sight of the dam, at the last, left-hand point coming out of the Lake Springs boat-ramp cove. There is a volleyball course set up on the point.
“This point has a J-bend in it where it forms a deep hole on the land side of it,” said Craig. “There’s just a big flat on the lake side of it, and the fish prefer to sit in that hole. The top of the point is in about three feet of water, and then it’s a pretty steep drop into that 24-foot hole. It’s mainly just hard clay and small rocks, but it’s got hydrilla growing right on the edge of the hole in about 17 feet of water.”
Craig was throwing a 5/16-oz. Spot Remover Magnum jig made by Buckeye Lures. The jig head has a 4/0 Mustad hook. It was a half-hour before dark, so he dressed the Spot Remover with a black/blue Senko. During the day, he likes a watermelon red Senko.
“I like the Spot Remover when fishing rocks and wood,” said Craig.
The way the bait falls is why Craig likes it so much.
“It falls vertical,” said Craig. “If you throw a Texas-rig, it doesn’t fall straight up and down. It’s got an angle on it when it falls.
“The Spot Remover falls straight up and down, and it keeps that bait straight up and down the whole time it’s on the bottom. When it hits something, it stands right back up. That’s the whole deal. Fish have not seen anything stand up. It looks like a completely different bait.”
Craig will sometimes dress a Spot Remover with a junebug-red colored Ol Monster worm.
“The bigger the bait, the bigger the fish,“ said Craig. “I’ll throw that Spot Remover with a Senko on it and get as big a limit as I can get on it. You can pop 2 1/2s and threes, but when it comes to those 5-, 6- and 7-lb. fish, the Ol Monster will produce those.”
After 20 minutes and only one 12-inch striper in the boat, we were up the Savannah River fishing a brushed-up hump just above Ridge Road. Fishing the channel side of the hump, the much deeper side, Craig quickly had three largemouths on the Spot Remover. The biggest was 14 inches.
“You want to cast up on the shallowest part of that hump,” said Craig. “In July, when it’s hot, if the bass are feeding, they’ll be up there in three or four feet of water.”
For bass that aren’t feeding, Craig will often pull the bait slowly down the steepest side of the hump into either a hydrilla edge or some type of wood cover, which you find on many of these contour drops.
“You can crank those bigger stumps and rocks, too,” said Craig. “A lot of guys don’t crank deep stuff on this lake. They don’t know how to do it. It’s not like running down the bank with a Shad Rap. You’re trying to hit a stump in 18 feet of water.”
Craig, who often studies fish with his underwater camera, said a bass will be one or two feet above that stump or rock.
“Bass don’t sit on the bottom like a catfish,” said Craig. “If the crankbait is under them, they’ll never see it. Boat positioning is everything when deep cranking. As soon as you hit that stump you want the bait to start coming back up toward the boat. You want that plug to dig, dig, dig, hit the stump and then be started back to the surface.”
Craig learned about cranking techniques from professional tournament angler David Fritz.
“That man will flat out tell you that his crankbait bites come when that thing just starts to come up,” said Craig. “That little direction change is what’s going to make him decide if he’s going to hit or not.”
One of Craig’s favorite deep-diving plugs on Clarks Hill is a No. 9 Risto Rap.
“They quit making them about four years ago, but you can still find a few around,” said Craig.
The No. 9 Risto Rap was designed to dive about 13 to 15 feet deep, but Craig bevels the bottom edge of the concave lip, which sharpens the lip and turns it from a round bill to a flat bill, making it dig into the 18 and 20 foot range. Using an Abu Garcia 4007LP 5:1:1 reel and a 7 1/2-foot Finwick HMG medium-action rod on 10-lb. Berkely Vanish line, which has an 8-lb. diameter, Craig knows exactly where to throw the plug so that it smacks a stump and then starts its incline to the boat.
“I’ve fished that setup enough to know that the plug will dive about one foot down for every four feet of water,” said Craig. “If a stump is 15 feet down, I have to throw about 60 feet beyond my target.”
For the No. 9 Risto Rap, Craig prefers plum and parrot colors.
If you have trouble finding Risto Raps, try two similar plugs for a deep-cranking: a Rapalas DT16 in parrot and a Norman’s sun-chartreuse/blue-colored DD14.
A crankbait climbs back up much quicker than it descends, so Craig only needs his boat 30 feet away from a stump if he’s having to throw 60 feet beyond it. A 90-foot cast is a pretty good throw, but with good equipment and some practice you could get good hitting deep targets on a lake that receives very little summertime deep-cranking pressure.
“It’s a daytime thing. I very rarely crank after dark,” said Craig.
When I was in the boat with Craig, 90 percent of our fishing was after dark, so we stuck with soft plastics on humps.
By 9:30 we had moved to a hump 100 yards south of Ridge Road. The hump was loaded with chunk rock.
“Rocks are important,” said Craig. “They’re covered with crawdads —that’s why the bass are there.”
In the dark, we threw our baits on top of the hump and then crawled them until we felt rock. Then, we’d slowly hop it through the rubble. When we pulled free of the rocks, we’d let our baits slowly fall down the edge of the hump into another strike zone.
“This hump has hydrilla on it,” said Craig. “A lot of these humps have hydrilla growing on the edges. When Clarks Hill is at full pool, hydrilla generally grows between 14 and 22 feet of water. Right now the lake is about three feet down, so look for it to grow between 11 and 19 feet deep.
“The majority of the hydrilla is from Schriver Creek down and from Rosseau Creek (Little River) down to the dam,” said Craig.
There are hundreds of humps in this stretch of the lake.
“The better humps don’t have buoy markers on them,” said Craig. “A lot of the humps top out at three and four feet, but the better humps are going to be about 15 feet on top. Not everyone knows about those.”
Craig said that most of the underwater humps are marked on Clarks Hill Lake maps.
“Another way to find them is when you’re riding down the lake,” said Craig. “Go slow enough that your depthfinder reads. If that thing comes up to 15 feet, go back and mark it. If there’s a hump with 15 feet of water on top, and there’s deep water somewhere around it, bass are going to be sitting right on that break line.”
Craig believes strongly in electronics. When he’s in the driver’s seat, he’s looking at a Lowrance 334C depthfinder. When he’s up front, he’s staring down at a Lowrance X135.
“I can see a jigging spoon at 70 feet and see a fish eat it,” said Craig. “I’ve got to have good electronics. I want to know if I’m fishing rocks, grass, clay or brush.”
What separates a regular summertime Clarks Hill bass angler from Craig Johnson?
“They’re not throwing what I’m throwing,” he said. “The majority of the guys are Carolina rigging. I never fish it. I don’t see taking 10 minutes to tie something on. A Caroling rig is not good in brush, not good in grass, not good in rocks, it’s not good for what I fish. You can catch fish on a Carolina-rig, but it won’t catch near the amount.”
While Craig was putting a serious hurting on me with the Spot Remover, I was throwing another one of Craig’s bait recommendations, a Mop Jig made by Buckeye Lures.
“All the Mop Jigs come with double rattles and a Mustad Flippin Hook,” said Craig. “I like the 1/2-oz. jig with a Zoom Super Chunk green-pumpkin trailer. It’s a good bait for day or night.”
Craig said this is a great bait once the summer gets really hot, and the bass move deeper into the hydrilla patches. And of course, any time you’re throwing a big jig you could hook into a hawg.
The Spot Remover serves its purpose around rocks and brush, and he even fishes it parallel to the hydrilla edges, but it doesn’t perform well inside the grass, like the much heavier Mop Jig.
In about three hours of fishing Craig was able to show me about a dozen bass from only two humps. That’s another thing that separates him from a lot of guys — if he knows the fish are there he doesn’t mind sitting on a hump for several hours at a time. Our biggest largemouth was about 2 3/4 pounds, but he was confident a 6- or 7-pounder would jump on one of our lines any minute. However, lightning storm No. 2 rolled in, and we were forced to put it on the trailer.
You may soon get to see Craig on TV. He has a fishing show called Outdoor Destinations on UPN out of Augusta. Currently, he’s trying to work a deal with Fox Sports South to run in all across the Southeast.
Craig’s full-time job is a fishing guide on Clarks Hill and Lake Murray in South Carolina while he focuses on a career geared toward FLW.
“The fishing is better at night right now,” said Craig. “It’s been taking 13 pounds to win in the day and about 18 at night.”
Buckeye Lures are sold in several locations in Georgia. For more information on those baits, go to www.buckeyelures.com.
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