Strike King pro Mark Menendez loves crankbait fishing. And he fishes crankbaits year-round – not just early spring and summer, like many anglers do. So who better to talk about which crankbaits are great for winter fishing, and why.
"I like fishing in the winter time by covering water instead of fishing painfully, miserable slow," he says. "I mean, you are fishing slow with a crankbait this time of year, but not like you're fishing with fly-and-rind or jig."
Where to look
Believe it or not, he also tends to fish shallow. "I think lots of bass live in 3 to 5 feet year-round," he says. "They never go deep, and those are the fish I tend to target this time of year.
"I'm looking for them on flat, shallow, small spots along the main lake. It can be the end of a point, a ledge on a bluff, a riprap wall – it will have verticality associated with that flat spot, which will be a feeding station. ("In cold water," Mark notes, "fish tend to move up [to feed] and down instead of making long horizontal treks.")
More specifically, the drop can be vertical or it can be a tapering drop that's "not really that vertical but with a significant fall, a good gradient," he says.
"If those little small flat spots have a significant piece of cover – like a piece of wood, rock or a rock change – they tend to be even better."
From his experience, the 3- to 5-foot zone is where resident shallow bass often hang out, plus the up-down in the water column fish will be there when they are feeding. "So I'm trying to double-dip," he notes.
Water clarity needed
Besides fishing the right areas, you also need to fish the right water, and Mark says that means clear.
"The most significant thing anglers need to know about cold-water fish is you have to have water clarity. That means a minimum of 18-24 inches in water temps below 45 degrees. If you don't have that, stay home and do honey-dos – bank a trip for when it's better.
"In my opinion, bass see 3-5 times better in the water than you and I can. So if you have 1 foot of clarity, bass can see about 3-5 feet away. That's a radius [of 3-5 feet] – almost like a bubble," he says.
This means "you need something that excites the fish visually in that cold water below 45 degrees. They can't chase it down physically because they're cold-blooded. So that water clarity is an absolute must to excite those cold-water fish."
Favorite coldest-water bait
In reservoirs in winter, bass for the most part are feeding on threadfin and gizzard shad. For that reason, in water 36 to 43 degrees, Mark likes to fish the Strike King Lucky Shad.
"It's a flat-sided minnow bait that runs in the 6- to 8-foot range, and has a very lazy but tight wiggle to it. In that clear water, you want a more natural look – you're not trying to excite the fish with rattles or a wide wobble. The Lucky Shad is the perfect size and shape, and when the fish are lazy they can chase it down."
If you're wondering why he fishes a bait that runs 6-8 feet in 3-5 feet, he explains that "one thing you have to remember when you're crankbait fishing is you have to get the bait to your desired depth – to the bottom. Deflections [the bait deflecting off the bottom or structure] are absolutely critical even this time of year."
He likes natural shad colors like blue gizzard shad and natural shad.
Mark casts the baits at a slight angle to the bank – like 15 degrees – or parallel. "When you're making those casts, pay very close attention to where you get a bite," he says. For example, "if you get a bite at the end of the cast, your bait has not gotten down [to, say, 5 feet, so fish shallower]. If you get a bite at the end of your cast, the fish might be suspended out a little further so back up."
Lucky Shad Gear
For reasons he can't figure out – other than the fact that he catches more fish – he prefers to fish the Lucky Shad with spinning gear. "I can't tell you why I think it's more productive to crank that style of bait with spinning gear, but I catch 10 to 1 with that bait on a spinning rod vs baitcasting gear."
He likes a medium-tipped 7' Team Lew's spinning rod, Lew's 2000 spinning reel, and 8-lb Seaguar Senshi mono. Yes, mono. "You want the monofilament for two reasons: One is it behaves better in cold weather than any other fishing line; and two, you want it to be less sensitive so the fish has the opportunity to take the bait.
Less-cold water means Series 3 and 4
When the water temperature is a tiny bit warmer or has a bit more color, he likes to fish the Strike King Series 3.
"It has a rattle [the Series 3 Silent does not have a rattle], but the thing I like about the Series 3 is the shape of the bill," Mark says. "It comes straight out of the tip of the bait, and that allows me to have a tight-wiggling bait. The bill is also shaped like a thumb, which is the perfect shape bill for cranking a crankbait in rock. It allows the best deflections, and allows the bait to come through better.
"It's a little smaller than the Lucky Shad, but it roots, it beats, and it bangs," he says. "I typically use when I have some water color, when I'm bumping that 18 inches of water clarity. That little bit of rattle seems to help a bunch."
His favorite color Series 3 is chartreuse shad, with sexy shad his second favorite. If the water is dirtier, he likes any of the reds – "chili craw is awfully good in the winter time," he notes.
When water clarity is "marginal" and the water is a little warmer, like in 45-49 degree range – especially in lakes that still have some vegetation – he'll choose the bigger-bodied Series 4. The bait has a "wide side-to-side action to it," he notes.
In general he'll use the same colors as the Series 3, but says he's had "tremendous success" with the green tomato color.
He uses casting gear for both of these baits – a 7-foot Team Lew's rod with a 5.1:1 Lew's BB1 cranking reel – with 8- 10-lb Seaguar Senshi mono.
More winter cranking tips
> Reservoirs in winter might be at the tail end of the fall-winter drawdown, and that means current. "That always positions the fish where anglers can find them much easier," Mark says. "Groups of fish can congregate in eddies, which makes winter-time fishing as productive as any other time of year as far as numbers go."
> "One thing I do this time of year to make myself slow down is I don't fill the reel spool all the way to the top. I leave a quarter inch so the gear ratio is even slower."