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Depth Zones for Crankbaits

By Russ Bassdozer

Floor and ceiling. First, we must discuss two zones that absolutely never change with depth. They are the "ceiling" and "floor" of the watery underworld of the bass. Aquatic denizens cannot ascend any higher than the surface of their environment nor descend any lower than its bottom. Granted, some critters can superficially burrow into the bottom substrate but not too far, and there are flying fish in tropical oceans, but they don't get very far either. In some waters, usually lakes or impoundments, a thermocline may also substitute from time to time as a practical proxy for the "real" bottom. The thermocline creates a "floor" beyond which healthy bass barely ever penetrate very far in my opinion.

Within a few feet either way. I do believe that I catch eighty percent of my bass within a few feet of either the "top" or "bottom". So, obviously, the floor and ceiling are far more important to me than the actual depth in feet. Let me phrase that another way - most bass that I catch are caught within a few feet of either the surface, the real hard bottom or the thermocline, regardless of whether the water is 6, 12, 18 or 80 feet deep.

Therefore, regardless of the true depth (or vertical dimension) of the water column, the surface and bottom of the water impose a fixed horizontal dimension beyond the limits of which prey and predator cannot exist. Despite the fact that there's "nowhere to go" beyond the surface or the bottom, nevertheless all watery live gravitates towards them - especially the bottom. It is the prime zone for all life.

Are bass always looking up? If they're close enough to see the surface, it must be like a "glass ceiling" to them, and I am sure they will spot anything that comes crashing through or dancing along that surface. Further, due to gravity, anything that enters the water will fall down towards them, including any terrestrial type of food that falls out of a bush or a tree. I think that's why something like a jig tossed into shallow cover almost always gets hit on the initial drop. It's assumed to be "something" alive that drops out of the sky. That's all a bass needs to see coming through its ceiling, and they'll usually rise up to take it before it even reaches bottom.

Vertical dimensions. Now that we've talked about the two horizontal dimensions of a firm, fixed top and bottom, let's discuss vertical dimensions next. Vertically, I often..heck I always "zone" my fishing tools and tactics, even fish habits, into 6 foot sections or fathoms. I divide any and all water into these three zones:

  • Shallow water - the first fathom from 0 to 6 feet deep
  • Mid-depth - from 6 to 12 feet deep
  • Deep water - from 12 to 18 feet deep or three fathoms

These three vertical zones exist for me even over 100 feet of water. By addressing everything in fathoms, it is a procedural way you can categorize fish habits, fishing lures and tactics. A fish in less than 6 feet of water acts differently and my lures and tactics are different than if that same fish was in 12 feet of water.

Most good bass fisheries must have the first two zones. At least some water less than six feet deep for spawning and some water over six feet deep for enduring the worst winters. So, that is an example of fish habits specific to zones. An example of tactics and tools specific to zones is that there are some crankbaits that can only work in zone one, some only in zone two, and only a handful that can get into zone three. In my experience, few crankbaits will go past "zone three" without adding weights or wire line trolling.

But first, before we go any further, let's just take a moment to define what is a crankbait...then I will name some names of crankbaits that work well in each of the three zones, okay?

What is a crankbait? The term "crankbait" is defined by me as anything that is:

  1. hard (wood or plastic)
  2. has a "lip" designed to pull it under the surface
  3. is bulbous, broad-sided, and basically bottom-oriented

Most people also consider "lipless" Rat-L-Trap types to be crankbaits.

"Jerkbaits" also meet criteria 1 and 2 above, however, jerkbaits are thin-bodied subsurface minnows which makes them different from your typical short, fat, bottom-bumping crankbait. 

Now I'll identify some examples of crankbaits (and jerkbaits) that work best within each zone. This should make the whole zone concept become perfectly clear in the following paragraphs:

  • Zone One (0-6'): Rapala Floating Minnows (right on top). Mann's Baby One-Minus (-1'). Strike King Series 1XS (0-2'). Redfins (1-2'). Bomber Long A's (2-3'). Strike King Series 1 (2-5'). Excalibur Fat Free Guppy (3-5'). Bandit Lures Series 100 & 200. Poe's Series 200 & RC1. A whole host of jerkbaits (Smithwick Rogues, Rapala Husky Jerks) fit into the 3-6 foot range. All lipless crankbaits (Rat-L-Traps, Rattlin' Raps, Spots) fit into this zone for me too, and I tell you more about using lipless cranks at the end of this article.
  • Zone Two (6-12'): This is where you have to start looking at manufacturers suggested diving ranges for lipped crankbaits. From that starting point, YOU must figure out what crank works at what depth for you, your rod/reel/lure, and your style of crankin' (speed, rod angle, etc.). For instance, each of the following Excalibur Fat Frees can get progressively deeper into "zone two": the Fingerling, the Suspending Fingerling, the Shad Junior. Also in this zone are Strike King Series 4, Bomber Model "A", 6A, 7A, the Fat "A" 6FA, the Deep Flat "A" DFA. Bandit Lures Series 300. Poe's Series 300 & RC3.
  • Zone Three (12-18'): Same as above. Start looking at manufacturer's ratings and get a feel for what works at what depth for your style of cranking. For instance, each of the following Excalibur Fat Frees can get progressively deeper into "zone three": the Suspending Shad Junior, the Original Shad, and the Suspending Shad. Also in this zone are the Strike King Series 6, Bomber Long "A" 25A. Bandit Lures Series 400 & 600. Poe's Series 400.

Many, many crankbaits. Actually, there are many, many good crankbaits. I only mentioned a very few makes & models just to give you a few quick examples. There are many more out there on the market. Generally lots of choices in zone one, fewer choices in zone two, and less choices in zone three. Key point to remember is to develop the "zone" concept -- and to assemble a group of crankbaits that work well for you in each zone.

Zones for lead heads. Not only can you pigeonhole crankbaits into zones, but you can do the same thing with leadhead jigs.

If I want to be right on the bottom of any zone with a jig, I am going to start in eighths: 1/8 to crawl bottom at 6 feet, 1/4 to drag bottom at 12 feet and 3/8 to bang bottom at 18 feet. I am going to use 12 lb. test or more on bottom. I am going to use stuff like spider grubs and jig 'n pigs to be right on bottom.

If I want to float above bottom with a jig, I am going to think sixteenths for starters: 1/16 above 6 feet, 1/8 above 12 feet, 3/16 above 18 feet. I am going to use 12 lb. test or less above bottom. I am going to use stuff like single tail grubs and Gitzit tube baits to hover above bottom.

Anything over eighteen feet deep? That is an all-inclusive fourth and different realm entirely to me. For instance, I cannot effectively use crankbaits, and really have no desire to use spinnerbaits over 18 feet deep, nor do I have much confidence that I can call fish up from bottom with a Zara Spook beyond 18 feet deep. So, there are things I can rely on in the first three zones that are made of hard plastic or wood, but in zone four I am left with things that are primarily metal (usually lead) with soft tail dressings (rubber, silicone, fur, feathers, plastic, pork). It does not matter if it is 25, 35, or 45 feet down, I am going to use the same tools and tactics beyond 18 feet deep, just lighter line or heavier weight is the only variance. Single tail grubs or Gitzit tubes on darter jig heads. Bucktail and rind. Carolina rig worms. Spider grubs on football jigs. California tactics - shaking, doodling, brass n' glass, dropshots. Plus special deep water baits like tailspinners, bladebaits and jigging spoons.

Submerged Weedbeds. One last point is that where there are submerged weedbeds, the "zone" has different meanings for different baits, depending on whether or not they can penetrate the weedbed. Crankbaits and spinnerbaits cannot penetrate weed beds without fouling. For them, the zone is always defined by the "top" of the weeds which, much like a thermocline, the tops of the weeds become an artificial "bottom" for baits that cannot penetrate it.

The real hard bottom may be eighteen feet deep, okay? In winter and early spring, I will use crankbaits and spinnerbaits that work best in zone three (12-18 feet). By late spring or early summer, the top of the weedbed may grow so that is about 12 feet under the surface, putting my bait selections into zone two (6-12 feet) now. By late summer or early fall, the weeds may grow so they are six feet under the surface, putting my bait selections into zone one (zero to six feet). This example shows that the "zone" is defined not by how deep the bottom is, but by how deep you can effectively work a crankbait or spinnerbait over and in the tops of the grass.

Perhaps all this may be a new concept to you, but it's so natural and logical that it won't take you too long get the hang of it. Then, fishing in the zone will become an instinctive part of your fishing strategy.

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