I often talk to people who don’t fish square bill crank baits very often, who say they can’t get bit on them, or they just don’t know how or when to use them. The easy answer is just keep it in the water, and you’ll eventually get bit on it, but they don’t seem like that advice so let’s go a little deeper into this.
Let’s start of with defining a square bill crankbait. What sets them apart from any other shallow crankbait? The square bill? Yes, but why, well it’s this style of bait’s ability to come through cover that makes it magical at what it does best. It’s not that it never gets hung on wood or rock, but the fact that it’s rare and well worth going to get your bait a few times for the benefit of fishing the thick stuff with a moving hard bait. A square bill generally has a short bill that’s short and has mostly squared off corners, not always a hard angle they can be slightly rounded. These baits generally run from 3 to 5 feet deep, and come in sizes that range from 1 ½ to 5 inch bodies.
My favorite all around size is the M9 series from Skirmish Baits which has a body of 2 ½ inches long, and runs about 4 feet deep. When things get tough I use the Skirmish Baits MP5 which is smaller and more subtle with only a 2” long body. Unless the fish give me a reason to believe I need to go larger or smaller I have the utmost confidence in the M9 square bill and keep one tied on every trip out except during the dead of winter.
So when do you throw these things? When do you not? I love square bill crankbait fishing, and the only time I don’t have one tied on is when there just aren’t any fish shallow enough to eat one for me. The only time that really leaves out is the dead of winter, and depending on where you live you might not even have to worry about it then. There are times when I might hone in on something better given the conditions, but I always check for the square bill bite because if that’s what I can find them doing I really feel like I’ve got a great chance to really do well.
So if you’re not catching fish on squarebills, but I say you should be using them almost all of the time, then what are you doing wrong? Many times it’s not fishing them enough to get a few bites and figure out why. Let me try to get you a little more tuned into when some of the best times are so you can perhaps fish them on an exceptional day to help you do well and gain confidence in them so you can expand your use as you learn.
So fishing a squarebill comes down to a couple of major items. Number one is fishing them shallow. While that seems pretty much a given, I see a lot of people who fish with the boat in 20 feet of water and cast to the bank. While this is not horrible if you’re in a target rich environment, most banks have scattered cover and require a little more finesse. When you fish this way on any bank without a lot of wood cover you’re bait is in the strike zone for a very short part of the cast, then it’s no longer touching the bottom during the bulk of the cast. What can you do to get a bait that runs 4 feet deep to bump the bottom all the way back to the boat? That’s absolutely right, put the boat in 4 feet and fish parallel to the bank. If you only take one thing from this article let it be fishing parallel to the bank with square bills as often as possible for the best results. This works on Rip Rap banks, rocky banks, sea walls, points, barron banks, flats etc.
Number two also has to do with contact, but it has to deal with the other thing that people tell me about how they fish square bills, being the same ones who are not good with them. This one is to make contact with the cover, even if you think you’re going to get hung up. It’s where the fish are, and it’s where the bait needs to be. It only takes a few casts in the middle of the thick stuff where your bait comes through it clean to start gaining confidence that you’re not going to get hung up every cast. When you find a big fish among the branches of a big tree you might just start casting at thick cover just to see what’s in there and how gnarly something can be before you actually get hung up.
“How do I fish the square bill crankbait?” i’m often asked. I recently told someone I hardly ever did anything but a straight steady retrieve, then after a day of fishing with me they told me I was constantly changing speeds, pausing, and jerking the rod as I would retrieve. I do all of those things, but until then I had never noticed. It was just natrual for me to do those things from years of fishing. That being said there is not set retrieve that works all of the time, throw a few pauses in after you contact cover, speed up and slow down, jerk the rod a little, whatever you can think of to try, and let the fish tell you what they want the bait to do that day.
As a custom painter another big question I get is “Does the color of the bait matter?”. The short answer is yes, the medium answer is that when color does matter it can mean everything. On those days when they are not being picky you can throw any color they can see given the water clarity and they’re likely to eat it for you. When it starts to matter is on those days when they are not in the mood to chase. When this happens color can quickly be very important.
Let’s say you fish a 100 yard stretch of bank, it’s a perfect day for the square bill, 10 mph wind blowing on the bank, an overcast day. You are doing everything right as you fish down this bank, your net result is 5 bites on the first pass. Now lets say it’s a day where the pressure is rising a cold front came through the day before and it’s a high bluebird skies day. This might not be the best conditions to fish a squarebill, but as long as some fish are shallow you can still make them bite. Everything must be exactly right for it to work when it shouldn’t work. Let’s say under these conditions you run that same 100 yard bank, this time you get one fish that swiped at the bait, and you catch one small fish that only has the back hook in his mouth. This is enough information to tell me that I don’t necessarily need to throw out the idea of cranking the square bill crankbait today, but I’m going to have to really dial in what’s going on to make this work.
First thing is that I’m pretty sure I’ve got the wrong color on, and possibly the wrong size too. My confidence is in the M9 so first i’ll change the color before I change to the MP5 size square bill. Since I didn’t set the water color I’ll give examples for two different scenarios. First lets go stained to muddy water. This is where i’m looking for colors with the ultimate contrast between each other most of the time. A good starting point is always Chartreuse Black Back, but for the example let’s say that’s what I had a fish swipe at and caught one on the back hook with. Now what color do I try? My logic is they are not hating the Chartreuse so a variation of that might be good. I’m going to try a Dwain’s Mud Bug M9, or something else Chartreuse Based like Chartreuse Copper Green. You’d think these being similar in color wouldn’t matter especially in stained/muddy water, but I’ve seen it many times. If changing colors fails to get them going i’ll often switch to the smaller bait, the Skirmish Baits square bill, which is my fail safe for really tough conditions. If I can’t figure out a color, and bait size to get them going i’ll start looking at soft plastics or jigs to get a vertical and/or slow moving presentation. As good as square bills are there are times when they just aren’t the deal.
Back to the second example with Clear to stained water color, and again we fished 100 yards and got a swing and a miss by one fish, and caught a small one on the back hook only. I usually start with either a natural craw color like Skirmish Baits Brown Splatter Craw, or Natural Craw if it’s rocky where i’m fishing, or i’ll do a Batey Shad or Cricket Shad if I believe they are keying on Shad. Lets say It’s rocky and I was using the Brown Splatter Craw, where do you go from there color wise if they didn’t inhale that one? Well my first thought would be to try an M9 in a pattern like Specter Green Craw, which is a very transparent and translucent color. Sometimes an opaque color can just be too much in clear water, especially when conditions are less than ideal. If I feel it’s really bad one of my favorite colors is Crystal, which is basically a clear bait with red eyes. I am still amazed at the wide variety of water colors and conditions where I’ve done well on that color. I’d have never expected it to work in muddy water, but I’ve caught them very well several times on a clear bait in muddy water. I have no explanation of why, I can only say it works sometimes when nothing else will. But back to the clear water scenario, another color I might try is a bluegill type color especially if the bluegill are spawning, or you can see them haning around the cover up shallow.
In either water color another way to get around bad conditions is to cover water, in a tournament scenario you only need 5 good bites, every fish in the lake doesn’t have to eat what you want them to. Instead of fishing 100 yards and getting those 5 bites you might have to fish 5 miles of shoreline, but if you get 5 bites and they are above average you’re still doing well. Granted you might be able to find something better when it’s really tough to get bit on a square bill crank bait, but I fish them so much that I can usually do better sticking to my confidence bait instead of trying to grind out something doing something I don’t like to do (slow down), just by covering a lot of water looking for a few fish that are still willing to eat a square bill for me.
So let’s break it down one last time, fish parallel, match the color to the conditions, and adapt if necessary. If it’s really tough fish a clear bait or go to the smaller squarebill crank baits. Wind and clouds are your friend. Don’t be scared of throwing square bills in heavy cover, that’s where the fish live. If you throw a square bill for 10 minutes and give up you’re not going to figure it out. Keep that bait in the water for a few hours, get some bites, then you can hone your square bill skills, and add them to your arsenal of baits.
by Dwain Batey
Skirmish Baits Partner, Painter, and Marketing Manager
Owner of Bait Werks Custom Lure Painting
Avid Kayak Tournament Angler