By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor

Cranking is a highly effective technique for catching pre-spawn bass in many areas of the country. The fish are feeding up for the impending reproduction ritual and they can be quite aggressive when the water's still brutally cold to the human touch.

If you time it right (your best opportunities will come during a warming trend that goes on for several days), the fish can be relatively easy to catch on a plug. According to David Fritts, arguably the finest crankbait practitioner in the history of competitive fishing, there are two important keys to remember: You must avoid fishing too fast or too deep.

Hungry bass spend most of their time looking upward during the pre-spawn period that's one of the reasons that jerkbaits are so deadly at that time. A crankbait must get down into their "strike zone," which isn't as large as it will be once the water warms up, without passing underneath the depth at which they're holding.

For that reason, Fritts chooses a medium-diving bait for most of his pre-spawn cranking. Larger-billed baits simply run too far down into the water column to be efficient.

"Swimming baits that aren't actually hitting the bottom are usually the most productive, and 10 feet (deep) or less is a good rule for pre-spawn fish no more than 12 feet," Fritts said. "I like a crawdad color, and that could be anything from browns to reds. Those and shad will be the two main patterns, and the reds and dark browns show up real good in off-colored water.

"I'll have some baits with tight actions and some with real hard actions, and I'll also take some swimming-types and some lipless crankbaits. The times when the fish are very aggressive, the baits with a lot of vibration or a big rattle can be your better choices."

Temp-Based Retrieve

Fritts, who's won both the Bassmaster Classic and the Forrest Wood Cup and was the 1994 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year, said that when the water temperature is at or very close to 50 degrees, he feels comfortable winding a crankbait at a fairly steady pace. If it's 51 or 52, he might buzz a rattlebait for fish that should be ready and willing to chase.

"Fifty seems to be the magic number," he said. "Once you get to that, the bite could be wide open."

Temps that are several degrees below 50, however, call for a different approach. One of his favorites is a "pull and reel" method that uses the rod to impart action to the bait and allows for pauses that last a second or more.

"It's one heck of a deadly retrieve in cold water," he said. "You make a long cast and wind up the slack, then pull the bait. Then you wind up the slack again, and pull again.

"A lot of times the fish won't jerk the rod out of your hand, even if it's an 8- or 9-pounder. The bite usually happens when you're winding the slack. Then you'll go to pull again and you'll feel a little tick."

Copolymer the Way to Go

Fritts does the majority of his early-season crankbait fishing with 10-pound line and his favorite is the copolymer made by Vicious.

"They're not a sponsor of mine, but I love that line," he said. "It's low-stretch and it doesn't get too many abrasions when you're around rocks.

"I've tried fluorocarbon many times and I think it actually kept me from winning a tournament one time. To be honest, by about 1 o'clock in the day, I'll start breaking the line just by casting it. It just gets too brittle."

The remainder of his setup consists of a fiberglass rod (he said a composite construction is okay as long as it has enough forgiveness) and a low-speed reel. He had input in the design of the new Lew's BB1, and he said the 5.1:1 gear ratio version spools the optimal 21 inches of line per revolution of the handle.

"Just be aware of how the fish are biting and what depth they're at, and then you can adjust accordingly. With a minnow-type bait, you'll probably want to stay 3 or 4 feet off the bottom so those fish can see it when they're looking up."