Of all the lures anglers can use to catch spring bass, none are more misunderstood than the category of crankbaits known as “square bills,” so named because of their distinctive short, squared-off diving lips. It only took Yamaha Pro Dave Mansue one fish, however, to decide he liked the lures and to study them thoroughly.
“That was a long time ago,” laughs Mansue, a veteran Bassmaster® Open contender and winner of the Northern Open in 2009. “The basic lure design is not new, but manufacturers have really improved these lures so today bass fishermen are gradually re-discovering how effective they can be.
“The whole idea in using these lures is to bounce them off cover, like rocks or logs, which helps trigger impulse strikes. The bass are not necessarily interested in feeding, but they’ll strike when the lure deflects off something. The distinctive bill design makes them nearly weedless, so you can fish them through brush, too. Boat docks, stumps, and standing timber are all great places to use these crankbaits.
“Overall, it’s hard to find a lure better suited to spring fishing when bass are coming into shallow water.”
The majority of square bill crankbaits dive to a depth of between three and five feet, although this can be manipulated by line choice. Mansue usually fishes them with 15 to 20-pound fluorocarbon line, but in particularly heavy cover or in dingy water conditions he may change to even stronger braided line.
“Basically, you can fish a square bill crankbait in the same places you’d fish a spinnerbait,” he explains, “but a square bill has a completely different profile. Its shape and swimming action mirror the small sunfish that hover around shallow cover, so bass are accustomed to seeing them and chasing them down to eat.”
Numerous lure manufacturers produce square bill crankbaits, and while bill designs are similar, body styles may differ. Some are fat with rounded sides, and others have thinner, flatter sides. Mansue uses the fatter models in early spring when the water is normally colder and dingier because they wobble more; in clear water conditions later in spring, he often changes to the flat-sided crankbaits with a less pronounced vibration.
“I start using square bills when the water temperature is still in the high 40’s,” continues the Yamaha pro, “and in the colder water I use a slower retrieve so the lure wobbles more and bass can feel it coming. I reel it directly into rocks or stumps, then jerk it with my rod to make it move even more erratically. This may seem too cold to be fishing such shallow depths, but in early spring bass are already starting to move toward spawning areas.
“Much of the time, especially in colder water, the strikes aren’t hard at all. The lure just starts feeling ‘heavy’ and the wobbling stops. That’s when I know a bass has it. In warmer water, particularly in early autumn when bass are moving shallow again, the strikes on this lure are usually harder because the fish are more active.”
Because the bill deflects the lure off cover so well, Mansue doesn’t hesitate to cast a square bill right into fallen laydowns and brush. The crankbait can be guided through tree limbs by using a slow retrieve and keeping the rod tip high; balsa wood crankbaits are more buoyant than plastic lures so they’re generally easier to maneuver through such cover and Mansue keeps both styles in his boat.
“A lot of fishermen hesitate to throw these lures into thick cover because of the treble hooks,” laughs the Yamaha Pro, “but being able to work a square bill through limbs and branches truly separates it from other lures. I’ve learned this over and over through the years, especially living here on Toledo Bend, which is filled with stumps and submerged timber.
“In fact, I’ve experienced many times when I’ve followed other anglers down a shoreline filled with laydowns and caught bass with a square bill when they never had a strike with a spinnerbait.
“All you have to do is catch one bass like that with one of these crankbaits, and you’ll become a believer, just like I did.”