Weeds, whether in a bay, flat, bar, or mid lake hump, are one of the most productive forms of cover for nearly every big gamefish that swims in freshwater. Admittedly, much of my success with magnum muskies, big bass, and wallhangin’ walleyes have come from some form of weeds. This includes every conceivable species of weeds growing at a variety of depths. I’ve caught big muskies in two foot deep tobacco cabbage as well as 18 foot deep sand grass. Some of my biggest bass have come from emergent weedy slop in no more than two feet of water. A few of these bucketmouths have even topped the ten pound mark! Yet deep broadleaf cabbage along a clear lake weedlines at 12 to 14 feet have also produced plenty of big ones, too including some of my best overall stringers of fish exceeding five pounds. Hundreds of walleyes have bent my rod from shallow cabbage and milfoil flats through the years when I was a full-time walleye guide. Heck, I use to even make a living catching summer walleyes from deep grass beds. To say weeds have been good to me would be an understatement.
What’s most amazing about all of this history is that the majority of these weed whoppers have come on crankbaits. This would definitely seem surprising to many anglers, since weeds are rarely associated with crankbaits. When most anglers think of weeds, they think of lures that are "weedless". Crankbaits are generally a lure that the novice would AVOID when fishing any kind of weed cover. As you will learn throughout the pages of this book, weeds and crankbaits should be synonymous. Avoid fishing weeds with a crankbait and you’re likely to avoid catching fish. Whenever weeds are submergent, in other words beneath the surface with some clean water above them, crankbaits become a viable lure choice. However, the specific choice of crankbait here is usually critical. Pick the wrong crankbait and you’ll probably spend more time plucking weeds off the lure than unhooking fish.
What I’m getting at here is that, in order to be a truly good weed cranker, you need to be able to analyze the weed situation on any given spot, and then choose the right lure accordingly. This obviously takes some practice and some experience, but it’s really not that difficult. First and foremost is having a solid knowledge of the running depth on each and every crankbait in your tacklebox, and which ones run through weeds the best. Taking this a step further, you also need to know what kind of crankbait action the fish are likely to prefer in and around these weeds. In other words, do they want a fast moving, flashy lipless chrome RatLTrap, a slow twitchin’/suspendin’ minnow bait, or the bump & rise action of a floating diver. Many times, the only way to know what the fish prefer is to try a variety of crankin’ tactics over the same spot.
I’ve titled this "Crankin’ Weedflats & Weedlines" for a very specific reason because the lures and tactics for casting over weedflats varies a great deal from those needed to cast alongside weedlines. Essentially, casting crankbaits over weed flats is a perpendicular presentation, while working crankbaits alongside weedlines is a parallel presentation. They are two entirely different techniques that require specific kinds of crankbaits and a completely opposite casting approach. You must first understand this basic concept before going any further.
For example, weedflats, no matter what the lure choice, involve fan-casting. The goal here is to pepper the entire weed flat with as many casts as possible in order to search for big fish cruising over top the weed jungle or possibly hiding inside isolated thicker clumps. Maximum water coverage is always a main objective whenever probing weed flats. Unlike weedline fish, that are much more predictably pinpointed since they’re hugging an edge, you have no idea where weed flat fish are going to be for sure.
Weedflat gamefish often cruise over the weed tops when really active. These fish are swimming, searching, feeding fish. It matters little what the species is, by the way. Every conceivable freshwater predator gamefish that likes weedflats, from northern pike, to walleyes, to largemouth bass, to muskies, cruises weedflats in the same general manner, and reacts to lures thrown over them in the same manner. In fact, it’s not uncommon to catch all four mentioned gamefish over the same weedflat with the same crankbait when conditions are optimum. Summarily, the tactic is the steadfast no matter what the species.
A high speed, run & gun casting approach with a relatively trouble-free crankbait is nearly always the best bet here. This might involve a number of potential lures, and the selection along with the size of the crankbait might vary depending upon the species. My favorite choice for bass, walleyes and pike is usually a lipless crankbait like the RatLtrap whenever speed casting a weedflat, My favorite size is normally the ½ ounce version since it casts well, is easiest to fish overall, and attracts the widest size ranges of fish. I’ll fish this bait on baitcasting gear, a long rod of at least 7 feet, with lines of no less than 12 pound test and rarely more than 20 pound. I’d lean toward the lighter line for deeper weed flats and clearer water. I’d definitely go on the heavier side, 20 pound test, over top higher weeds and darker water.
Cast length should vary with the height of the weeds, the water clarity, and the wind speed. If the weeds are real high, you might have to shorten up casts in order to maintain lure control and basically keep the lure weed-free. If the water is real clear, longer casts might be necessary to get at fish that would otherwise spook by your boat presence. Calm water surfaces would also promote a longer cast to avoid fish spooking. Strong winds would encourage fish to hit at closer ranges, and force you to shorten casts to maintain more lure control. As I mentioned earlier and will reiterate throughout, you need to develop a talent to analyze the situation at any given moment and choose your lure and tactics accordingly.
For muskies, I might try a larger version of the same lure in the 3/4 to 1 ounce range, but I’ve had great success in this situation with a large jointed minnow bait such as a 7 inch ShallowRaider. A straight model floating minnow bait in the 7 to 9 inch range, might be equally good. It has a good flash and vibration, and runs very shallow. It would also be a great choice. If I chose the minnow bait, jointed or straight, I wouldn’t necessarily be doing any jerkin’ or twitchin’ with it. I’d simply cast it out and reel it in at a fairly fast clip. The only time I’d jerk on it would be to clear any weed encounters.
I’ve taken many big muskies with this method throughout the years, and so have my friends. When Tom Gelb and I were testing the original prototypes of the ShallowRaider, we caught a bunch of nice muskies on these baits by simply fancasting them over weedflats and straight retrieving them. No jerkin’, no twitchin’, and no rippin’. Just straight crankin’. Some of these first ShallowRaider muskies were featured on my original music action musky video, MTV – Musky Thrashin’ Video. The following year I took back to back 30 pounders on a prototype color of the ShallowRaider while we were out on another field testing mission. All of these fish were taken with a simple fancasting, straight retrieve method over weedflats.
Working weedlines with crankbaits is an entirely different ball game. The focus shifts entirely from a wide open, speed fishing, fan casting approach in a perpendicular fashion to a much more disciplined parallel casting tactic. Discipline is a good word here. The goal with weedline crankin’ is to constantly seek out that deep weed edge, the "weedline", with a "test cast" in a guesstimate parallel angle. Instead of running a shallow diver over higher weed tops, you’re essentially trying to dig a deep runner along side weed walls, and deeper fringe weeds. This takes discipline as well as concentration.
Once again the four species (pike, walleyes, bass, muskies) will often hug a weedline much the same, and react to this parallel presentation much the same way. I first honed this tactic as a teenage bass fisherman back in the late 1960's, and little if anything has changed in the way I now fish this same technique for muskies, pike or walleyes. About the only flare I’ve added to this classic crankin’ system since my early bassin’ days is to finish the retrieve with a figure eight when in musky waters. That’s it. Since muskies follow a lure so much, this addition is paramount and a vital part of the crankin’ system when muskies are the target.
Crankin’ weedlines basically involves casting a floating deep diver parallel to the weedline. Basically, that’s it, but of course, like everything else, there’s a lot more to being really successful with this tactic. For one, you must outfit yourself with the right tackle, most notably the right line diameter versus the lure being used. Use a line that’s too heavy and your lure will not attain the depth necessary to tick those lower fringe weeds. Fish a line that’s too thin and you’ll spend the majority of your time picking weeds off the bait, since the lure will dive too deep plowing into the deep weeds.
The perfect line diameter will vary with the depth of the weedline, and the lure you choose. The only way to know for sure what’s the perfect matchup, is to experiment. Initially, I first like to feel out what lure the fish prefer. This includes experimenting with various colors, too. Once I start to get action on a lure (catch fish), I then hone the tackle matchup more closely tweaking the rod, reel, and most importantly – the line test. With some fine tuning, you’ll develop the system into an art form for your favorite lake.
For example, back in the early 1980's my friend Ron Weber from the Normark Company arranged for Yarmo Rapala from Finland, maker of the famous Rapala, to fish with me and test some of the first Shad Raps to be marketed in this country. He not only wanted to know if I could find them a few walleyes to catch, but also if they would be shallow enough to tag on a Shad Rap. Worse yet, it was the middle of August! Luckily, I really had a great pattern going on some stained water weed walleyes that were holding in elodea grass at 7 to 9 feet. This grass bed was huge, and there were plenty of fish in it, but the question was – could we catch them on Shad Raps during the day? Up to this point, I had only fished them with jigs.
We began the day with four guys crankin’ various patterns and sizes of the Shad Rap, yet before long one fellow, one of Yarmo’s head engineers Matty, was clearly outfishing all of us. He was also getting fouled in the grass a lot less. Matty was clearly outfishing the other three of us by as much as 5 to 1, and after netting a 25 incher for him I began to figure out why. We were all fishing # 7 Shad Raps on 6 pound test with spinning gear. Matty, on the other hand, was casting an all new # 5 on 8 pound test. We were so convinced that we had to use the larger lure with a lighter line to get it down as deep as possible, yet Matty was "cleaning up", with a thicker line and shallower running model.
Matty’s bait was running as much as two feet shallower, making it skim barely across the tops of the deeper grass beds. His bait was rarely fouled with grass, and it was obviously running at the perfect depth range for the active fish. While the # 7 was catching fish, it actually ran a bit too deep for this situation, and fouled in the grass a far higher percentage of the time. I quickly wondered if the smaller # 5 was more preferred by the fish, or was it simply running the right depth? After unhooking Matty’s big walleye, I rigged my # 7 Shad Rap on a light baitcast outfit with 10 pound line, and bingo! I started catching a lot more fish, and less grass. Bait size wasn’t so much the issue as was running depth and perfecting the tackle matchups. By the way, we finished the day catching 67 walleyes up to 25 inches along with a bunch of pike. This all happened during daylight hours in the middle of August – on crankbaits might I add, not on jigs.
Matching the tackle is always important in any kind of deep water crankin’ application, but particularly so whenever parallel crankin’ weedlines. Remember that the right line diameter coupled with the right crankbait can be deadly, and a joy to fish. However, the wrong matchup here will not only be nonproductive, but also frustrating since your lure is likely to be constantly foul in weeds. And once your crankbait is fouled, it’ll no longer catch a fish on that cast.
The length of your cast is a factor to consider when crankin’ weedlines. As we learned from earlier chapters, not only does line diameter effect running depth, but so does cast length. Longer casts make a lure run deeper. Conversely, short casts make a deep diver run much shallower. When I’m fishing a portion of a weedline with taller weeds, I’ll usually shorten up on my casts to reduce running depth and improve lure control. As soon as I get a clean bait on one of those short casts (a bait that does not contact weeds), I immediately increase cast length on subsequent casts, and change the angle in the cast. I’m hoping to drive the lure a bit deeper to hit some of those "fringe weeds", and recontact the weedline itself.
A slight change in the casting angle is part of the overall technique here. Always keeping a somewhat parallel angle in mind, probe the weedline with various casts slightly left or right of the one you just made. The job is to maintain contact with the configuration of the weedline. Short, precise, probing casts will provide you with this information. What’s neat about this style of fishing is you get really learn the lake you’re fishing so much better. As you fish, the deep diving crankbait acts like a 2nd sonar unit, providing you with constant info on each cast as to where the weedline is and how it configures. It helps you anticipate any abrupt changes in the weedline before your boat reaches that spot so you can adjust accordingly.
This is really a neat "double whammy" to fishing deep diving crankbaits. Not only are they great fish catchers, but also great teachers and boat control tools.You’re always fishing a high percentage big fish lure (the crankbait), along a high percentage spot (the weedline), but in the process, you’re also learning that spot better each and every time you fish it. Eventually, you’ll get to know the contour of that weedline so well that anticipating any points and turns in it becomes easy. This makes for better boat control which further increases your chances of catching more fish.
Like I said before, a great deal of my lifelong success with big fish has come from casting crankbaits over weeds. I’ve caught wallhangin’ trophies of nearly every freshwater fish species from some species of weeds on some form of a crankbait. This combination has been absolutely deadly. Anyone who thinks that crankbaits aren’t lures for weeds is obviously missing the boat big time. From fancasting weedy flats to probing the edges of deep weedlines, crankbaits can do it all. Master the art of crankin’ weeds and you’re simply going to have a lot more success no matter where you fish, no matter what the species.
Joe Bucher is the Editor Emeritus for Musky Hunter Magazine and one the most highly recognized multi-species fishing and hunting authorities in the outdoor business trade. Joe is the host of Fishing with Joe Bucher TV show which has been on the air for over 20 years. For more information on Joe please visit his website at www.joebucher.com