The only factor limiting the number of crankbait colors available to crass-consumerist bass anglers is the amount and variety of paints on Earth. The pandemic may have caused supply chain shortages, limiting us to the basic color choices, but that doesn’t bother East Texas pro Keith Combs.
“I probably carry in my boat about 20 colors of key crankbaits,” he said, slightly sheepishly. “But I usually reach for my confidence colors first. Those are Tennessee Shad 2.0 [white body, tan upper, black back] and chartreuse with a powder blue back. I probably throw those two at least 70% of the time.”
We should be honor-bound to respect his opinion. After all, the dude has won the prestigious Toyota Texas Bass Classic three times. He also won major events on lakes Falcon and Tawakoni, and just to show that he does OK outside of the Lone Star State, he beat an all-star field in an end-of-season derby on Minnesota’s Mille Lacs. His winnings at B.A.S.S. alone are nearly $1.3 million, and that doesn’t take into account his time at FLW or various other six-figure checks. He hasn’t always exacted his damage with a crankbait, but it’s his favorite way to make the competition cry.
Still, when he limits his arsenal to two shades of bass lures that don’t directly resemble anything found in nature for nearly three-quarters of his cranking-and-winding efforts, you have to wonder if he’s gone a bit daft. Maybe too much time in the brutal Texas sun? What happened to all of that “match the hatch” shit we’ve been lectured about for decades? What about all those thousands of dollars some of us (“asking for a friend”) have spent 10 and 20 at a time for custom-painted baits? One lure maker told me that he regularly paints a certain well-known chartreuse and blue crank into different shades of chartreuse and blue—and charges a pretty penny for it—because people are so hung up on slight differences. The painter, like Combs, thinks those people are fricking nuts, but he ain’t turning down the cash.
“Color becomes more critical when you fish a bait slowly,” Combs told MeatEater. “I tend to fish the Strike King 6XD and crankbaits like it in the warmer months, and I usually crank it very fast. If you’re finesse fishing, it can be important to choose exactly the right color worm, but when you’re power fishing like that you want something that shows up well, gets attention, and gets the fish to look at it. If you look at the chartreuse and blue under the water, it gives off a big presence and a big glow.”
He’s not necessarily looking to convince the fish to feed as much as he wants them to kill the lure so it doesn’t reproduce. In “greener” water, like what he finds on many of the Tennessee River impoundments, Combs wants something with a whiter background, as he thinks it shows up better, so that’s when he turns to the Tennessee Shad 2.0.
But crankbaits in general, and the 6XD and 13 Troll Hunter in particular, come in so many great, forage-matching colors. There’s yellow perch, barfish, blue gizzard shad, green gizzard shad, natural bream, and neon bluegill, just to name a few. If you don’t like those, try phantom perch, oyster, or the particularly titillating nude. For Combs, the importance of forage is not critical in directly determining cover so much as in deciding which crankbait to throw in the first place. It’s about figuring out where in the water column he wants his lure to run.
“If the bass are feeding on gobies, I want my lure down low, and if they’re feeding on emerald shiners, I want it high up there.”
OK, that’s the warm water scenario where he excels and keeps things simple. But what about when it’s cold?
“I do use craw colors a lot in the colder months,” Combs explained. “When I slow my baits down to half speed or slower, then color becomes more critical. Tweaking your color choices becomes a lot more important in the winter when bass are feeding more on crawfish and the shad have moved away from the flats out into the channels.”
He also noted that there are regional differences, certain obscure colors that work on one lake or in one part of the country, but he doesn’t fixate on them. “Most places I go I only have two and a half days to learn the whole lake, so I don’t have time to figure out every little detail.”
So, how does he know when it’s time to make a change?
“Sometimes you’ll feel them pushing your bait,” he responded. “They’ll tap it, but they won’t get it. That’s when you know. My first change is usually from chartreuse and blue to Tennessee Shad, or from Tennessee Shad to chartreuse and blue, but sometimes that’s not enough either. If you’re not getting as many bites as you expect, or the hookups aren’t as good as you expected, and you know you’re in the right depth zone, that’s when you need to make a change. My first change is almost always to Citrus Shad, which is white with some green and a blue back, and some orange on the belly.”
His next change may be to “Sugar Daddy,” which has paler yellow flanks and bars on the side that resemble a yellow perch. Yes, it can be deadly up north where perch are one of the main forages, but again it’s not so much about making them think it’s real as about getting their attention. Like Goldilocks, you want something that stands out; not too much, but just right.
And what does Combs think of custom paint jobs? He’s not too proud to admit that he’s spent a small fortune on them, but he’s quick to note that it’s not for the warm-weather, speed demon baits that are his bread and butter.
“It’s not in the deep divers, it’s mostly in mid-range stuff like the 1.5 flat sides,” he said. “Those are lures that I fish in extremely clear, extremely cold water. I need every advantage that I can get.” He is, after all, from Texas, where anything under 60 degrees sends people running for their parkas.
Despite the fact that more than half of his crankbait collection rarely sees the water, Combs has proven himself as one of the best crankers of his generation. He continues to experiment when money’s not on the line so that he’ll be better prepared when it is. He knew that a solid black crankbait works well on dirty river systems, and he used that knowledge successfully on smallmouths as well.
Combs often reiterates that a crankbait’s power is “all about making its presence known.” He’s added forward-facing Humminbird MegaLive sonar to his boat, which now enables him to see how fish react to a lure. Do they chase it down, and inhale it, or do they follow it for a while before veering off? Does the same thing happen with a different color or do they react differently? It’s just more information in the data collection that haunts his head.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.