By Jonathan LePera
Special to BassFan
(Editor's note: In observance of the President's Day holiday on Monday, Feb. 18, a new First Cast story will not publish until Tuesday, Feb. 19.)
Bassmaster Elite Series angler Adrian Avena prefers to power fish when given the opportunity. His affinity for it started years ago while attending a Bass University program where Pete Gluszek did a seminar built around the idea that smallmouth bass are sight feeders.
The notion stuck with Avena, who now tries to power-fish for smallies with crankbaits when the skies are clear.
Avena recalled trips to Lake Champlain during which he'd catch 2 1/2- to 3-pound smallmouth. After attending Gluszek's seminar, he encountered a day with bluebird skies and calm water. He opted to crank some outside grass lines and caught two fish that were both over 4 1/2 pounds.
"Today, I can tell you that a crankbait will catch better quality fish than a dropshot or other tactics," Avena said.
At the Lake Erie Bassmaster Northern Open in 2015, an event critical to his qualifying for the Elite Series, he sacked nearly 21 pounds on the second day and did most of his damage with a crankbait.
"I was cranking 12 feet, targeting every little isolated high spot. It's the irregularities that hold fish," he said.
Whereas largemouth are attracted to a plug grinding along the bottom, Avena believes smallmouth feed upward and are more likely to hit a bait zipping by above them. He believes fast-moving crankbaits trigger bigger than average fish to bite.
Anytime there is a light breeze and the sun is high, Avena is looking to crank. Post-spawn, smallmouth usually group up and are ready to feed. Once the water temps start dropping in the fall can be another key time to crank.
Avena considers himself a high-percentage fisherman.
"I like taking a few casts and know if I'm going to get bit," he said.
He'll fish the same places another angler might probe with a drop shot. Rocky veins or boulder fields with larger boulders are prime real estate. Most importantly, lining up the cast just right is key.
"A lot of times, smallmouth will sit in the shade spot of the sun," he said. "With the sun at your back, typically you want to cast into the sun which usually means they'll be on the backside of the structure. The better they can see your presentation, the better the chance you can get them to bite."
He has fished six tournament days at Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota as part of the last two Elite Series Angler of the Year Championship and has caught 20-plus pounds each day with the majority caught on a crankbait casted towards the sun.
Triggering the Bite
Avena never casts a bait out and reels it straight in when power fishing.
"I make it a habit that through the course of any cast, I'm going to stop it, jerk it, twitch it two or three times throughout my retrieve," he said.
As smallmouth feed up, during the retrieve he'll rip his crankbait two or three times during his retrieve like he's fishing grass. He says 70 percent of the smallmouth he puts in the boat are caught when the crankbait starts to plane up towards the trolling motor and he gives it a hard rip, triggering a reaction bite.
"It's a change of direction," he said. "I feel a lot of times smallmouth will track it and won't bite because it hasn't done anything really erratic. But, that simple change in direction that comes from ripping it, I feel that's what triggers those fish."
For suspended bass, Avena opts for 8- to 10-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon since there is no structure to nick his line. Conversely, if he's cranking at a place like Mille Lacs, which is laden with zebra mussels along the bottom, he'll opt for the more abrasion resistant 15-pound version. Normally, he'll start with 10-pound line and work his way up when structure is involved.
Until the Berkley Dredger series came along, Avena fished the compact Damiki 300 crankbait as it was easier for a smallmouth to consume yet dove quickly on the retrieve.
"Crankbait fishing is scary enough and then you throw a smallmouth into that equation and it just got scarier," he said. "The better that smallmouth can get that crankbait the better the percentage you can get that fish into the boat."
The Berkley Dredger continues to impress Avena as it's a great casting bait and dives quickly. He'll fish it right out the package never worrying that the split rings will open up. Outfitted with Fusion 19 trebles, he feels the odds are in his favor. Most often, he likes loud color patterns like chartreuse/blue (his favorite), but sexy back and crawfish also work well.
When asked why more anglers don't crank for smallmouth, Avena pointed to the physical toll that the technique can take if the angler is not outfitted with the right equipment. While some anglers feel they have a better landing ratio with single- hooked baits like a drop shot rig, Avena says his landing ratio when cranking plugs is just fine.
Avena suggests using a longer than average rod when cranking. He likes the 7-foot, 11-inch Abu Garcia Veracity Winch casting rod. The Abu Garcia Revo STX casting reel with a 6.4:1 gearing generates more bites as speed can trigger smallmouth to strike.