By Jonathan LePera
Special to BassFan
For Keith Combs, deep cranking is just about a year-round pursuit. Aside from the period of time during which the majority of bass are spawning, he’ll have at least one rod on his deck rigged up with a deep-seeking plug.
His confidence in the technique dates back long before his days as an Elite Series competitor.
“I used to fish every single team tournament in the state of Texas; usually on Lake of the Pines and Lake Limestone,” Combs recalled. “My partner and I were accustomed to fishing deep structure – that’s just how you win.”
Early on, it wasn’t all about the deep crankbait. Most times, they’d fish a big worm or a Carolina rig. Then, Combs decided to try something different.
“I picked up a deep-diving crankbait and they were sitting on a brush pile on a ridge,” he said. “I caught a 7-pounder when we were catching 3s and 4s. I think we won that tournament.”
Soon after, they treated the deep crankbait as a one-two punch. His partner still threw the usual stuff, but Combs committed to throwing the deep crank all day. He might have only caught a few fish each day, but they were the kind of kickers that won tournaments.
Combs believes that the biggest fish in the school are older, more educated fish. Rarely does he stumble upon a school of 3- and 4-pound fish, but when he does, he knows there are some serious kicker fish in that bunch that have been caught before. His goal is to trick them into biting once again.
Combs believes that unlike a jig, a crankbait creates an instinctual bite. An educated fish needs to decide if it is going to react to what has invaded its space or let it go by. Most times, they’ll eat it, he believes.
While some anglers suggest that wind or cloud cover must be present in order for a crankbait bite to be ideal, it’s all nonsense to Combs. If bass are sitting on deep structure, he’s going to crank it.
He’ll crank drops, ridges, points, brush piles, standing timber, bridges, and just about anything that holds bass.
Early in the summer, he’ll target long points that jut toward a creek channel. Once summer becomes fall, he knows that bass can suspend in brush tops, hold to standing timber, and get into any kind of current that bottlenecks.
Aggressive fish are easy to catch, but it’s the big ones that need more coaxing, often from a variety of angles. Combs keeps his boat deep and aims his casts shallow.
“If I’m fishing a hump that has a really good break off one side of it, like a point or a ridge, many times I’ll start on the best break,” he said. “If it breaks off, you can see your contour lines. When it breaks hard on the right side, I’ll start there, firing shallow and work my boat around the hump.”
Electronics Offer Key Advantage
Combs learned to crank long before there were microSD cards loaded with contour maps of lakes from all over the country. He and his partner would pre-fish for days and end up with one or two spots. Today, he relies on Lakemaster mapping to not only find key areas, but also identify duplicates where he can expand on his pattern.
A big game-changer for Combs has been the addition of the Minn Kota Ultrex trolling motor with its Spot Lock feature. Regardless of the weather, he can hold on his spot and fire off casts, worrying less about blowing off of his waypoint and focusing more on hitting the sweet spot on every cast with his crankbait.
Once a fish is hooked and landed, speed is key. It’s not uncommon to catch fish on multiple casts thereafter so the sooner he can add a fish to the livewell or cull, the better the opportunity to continue to upgrade. He’ll normally line up with a landmark on shore to remind him the exact angle that he caught the previous fish at.
Paired with a Humminbird Helix 12 Gen 2, he runs 360-Imaging when cranking isolated pieces of cover. Whether he’s looking for brush or a stump, he is able to determine exactly where it is, how far he is from it, and fire off a cast with precision and accuracy.
Confidence Baits are Key
It’s no secret that Combs has made a lot of money fishing a Strike King 6XD crankbait. What he likes about it is its ability to quickly correct itself upon making contact with a piece of cover and running straight again.
“A lot of baits, when they hit something, the crankbait deflects off the side and they’ll lose their depth and never start digging again,” he said. “The 6XD immediately starts to descend again.”
He fishes the Strike King XD lineup 85 percent of the time, but there are a few other select models he will throw when the XD series is not able to trigger a bite. He outfits all of his crankbaits with Owner EWG hooks.
He cautions anglers to know how their crankbaits perform. A 6XD works well when targeting 20 feet of water or less, while the 10XD will dive to 25 feet and has a much more aggressive action. The 8XD won’t dive deeper than the 6XD, but it has a much wider wobble and is more buoyant, which is key when fishing brush piles.
Watch Your Line
When targeting brush piles in 15 feet of water or less, Combs might just break it off to avoid spooking fish, especially if there are single fish holding to structure. The majority of the time, he’ll retrieve his crankbait because it is producing bites and running true. Getting hung up when fishing a crankbait is part of the game, which is why he always has a lure retriever handy. Continually pulling on his line to free up a snag will stretch out the line and weaken it.
Only when fishing around abrasive cover like the trees on Falcon Lake or the rip rap along the Arkansas River will he fish braided line. Other than that, fluorocarbon gets the nod.
“With braid, I feel them bite way too fast, which means I’ll react too quickly,” he added. “Braid is absolutely unforgiving; fluorocarbon has that little bit of stretch that you need.”
Combs prefers a composite graphite/fiberglass rod because it loads when he casts, allowing him to launch his bait extremely far. Upon hooking a bass, though, once it jumps, the rod flexes and absorbs the power of the fish, slowly tiring it out. He uses a 7-foot, 2-inch Shimano Zodias casting rod for most of his cranking.
“I want a glass rod because it slows my reaction time down, but that 7'2" tells me everything that my crankbait is doing,” Combs said.
For the 10XD, he’ll opt for the longer and stiffer 7’6” model. He likes a faster reel, such as the Shimano Curado 200K, as its wide spool allows for more line capacity and longer casts. He’ll spool it with 10- to 15-pound Seaguar Invizx fluorocarbon, going lighter on smaller crankbaits and heavier for the larger ones that require more torque to get them to dive. His drag is always locked down but he will adjust it on the fly with big fish.
While there are anglers, both professional and recreational, who refuse to throw a deep-running crankbait, Combs admits it is a confidence deal, and the only way to get comfortable with the technique and learn its capabilities is to fish the bait and not put it down.
“There are top-tour level guys that are convinced that if they fish a deep-diving crankbait, they’re going to lose fish. I don’t lose any,” he said. “It’s all about getting your equipment dialed in. Don’t accept that fish are going to come off on a crankbait, I don’t lose any.”