Fine balance is required to prevent things light as a feather from succumbing to water pressure. The weight of an ultralight crankbait is measured in grams, and rarely exceeds 1/8 ounce. Easy to keep larger cranks from spinning out, but the tolerances are very tight with objects ultra light. Balance is critical.
The slightest imperfection—a diving bill misplaced by one ten-thousandth of an inch—sends tiny cranks into a tailspin. As a result, some ultralight lures we buy were never meant to go to market, and that hurts sales overall. Engineering must be precise. Even the greatest crankbaits of all time can’t be simply miniaturized. Stresses those baits can tolerate at 3 inches in length might send the same design spiraling out of control in a smaller size.
Even the operable minis can’t tolerate speeds over 1 mph for the most part. Which is fine, because panfish often chase fast-moving objects but they bite slower ones more readily. A slight pause or full stop inspires more of an all-out assault, as opposed to nipping, which results in fewer solid hookups.
The eyes of panfish are genetically tuned to find smaller objects and bring them into focus. Most of the items on the menu are fairly slow. Even when feeding on minnows, crappies and bluegills prefer to focus on the ones at rest or moving slowly. All of which works in the favor of ultralight cranks, since most of them have to be moved with a light touch, in a meticulous manner. However, certain ultralight cranks can be ripped and worked aggressively in the midst of a feeding frenzy—and you need to know which ones before blindly ripping ultralights through the fray.
An ultralight crank, by our definition, is just over 2 inches in length or smaller. Some tiny cranks can tolerate a little speed, and most of those are found on the larger side of the scale—in the 2½-inch range. Make those your search baits. Panfish may or may not attack them with relish, but they certainly follow and bump. The lure acts as a compass, pointing the way to larger concentrations of panfish, whenever visibility is good enough to actually see follows. That’s when the remainder of your mini arsenal comes into play.
When fishing big lakes and reservoirs, with a lot of water to cover, nothing divines location like a mini bass crank. Search mode requires long casts, so pick a 7-foot moderate- to fast-action graphite ultralight rod. Choose a moderate (light) spinning reel (ultralight reels are not casting tools), spool with 4- to 6-pound braid, and tie on a 3-foot long 2- to 4-pound fluorocarbon leader.
Norman, Rebel, Rapala, Cotton Cordell, and several other companies make miniature versions of bigger bass cranks that refuse to spin out when tuned precisely. But small rattle baits, probably the least squirrely of all ultralights, take the point on search patrol.
In the angling world, flash, vibration, and noise are welcome members of the search party. Rattlebaits deliver all three. With acres of weedlines, pockets, and gravel flats to cover, best to start with the fastest baits possible. The RNR04 Rattlin’ Rapala, Bill Lewis Mini-Trap, Sebile Flatt Shad 42, and the Cordell Spot Minnow are only about 1.5 inches long, but they cast like bullets. Being smaller and lighter, they sink slower than their larger counterparts, which is perfect. The idea is to launch long casts and use your eyes—not just to spot follows, but to find key spots. Slow that rattlebait down next to emerging flower tops on cabbage plants, logs, dark clusters of coontail, and visible boulders or rockpiles. Pause the bait for a nano second whenever it’s passing visible cover, then slowly turn the handle
Floating cranks that dive can be paused longer, of course—and they float up off weeds when fed some slack line. One of my favorites is the L&S Bait Company Jointed MM MirrOlure, perhaps the first ultralight crank ever mass produced. It was born in the 1950s and retains its signature metal lip (flash). It has a jointed body (noise). And it wiggles like no other tiny crank. Reel it steadily along and it covers a lot of water, emitting constant vibration. When it bumps something, pause it.
A diving “bass-style” nano crank, like the Strike King Bitsy Minnow, the Norman Crappie Bait, the Bomber 3F Fat A, or the Rapala Mini Fat Rap, works through and around cover efficiently. Round baits pop up quickly on the pause, and have all the attraction features, in varying quantities, of the MirrOlure. At about 1 mph, on a steady retrieve, round baits are deadly. The wider body and wider wobble protects hooks as these miniature beauties bounce off wood, pads, and weedstalks. Mini cranks like these are at their best over the tops of weedbeds and fallen trees when panfish are up and active.
The Rebel lineup of Creek Creature Baits falls into the search category, too. The Teeny-Wee Frog, Crickhopper, Crawfish, and Cat’r Crawler stimulate a visual response to profiles familiar and exciting to panfish.
Often, trolling is the best way to search. Mini cranks don’t troll well, as a general rule, but shad-shaped cranks represent notable exceptions. During the early season, when shad or perch fry proliferate, Yo-Zuri Snap Shads, Cordell Wee Shads, Rapala XRS06 X-Rap Shads, Rapala GSR04 Glass Shad Raps, and other shad-shaped minis shine. Having a tight, subtle wobble, and being easy to tune, shad bodies tolerate those surges of speed caused by wave action and turns. Stable banana-style baits, like the Luhr Jensen K-3 Kwikfish or Worden’s F-3 Flatfish, stand up to trolling even better. On a long, light line, moving just fast enough to make these baits wobble, nothing finds errant schools of crappies or white bass any faster. Use 10-foot ultralight rods in forward positions and 6-foot rods off the back corners to create a spread, move slow and cover water with a “school of somethings” in tow.
Once found, you can clean up on big numbers of panfish by casting floats with bait, spider-rigging, or pitching tubes. But if you want to immerse yourself in nano technology and learn a thing or two about ultralight fishing, stick with the little hard bodies.
Clean-up activities center around pitching—best accomplished with a 6- to 6.5-foot ultralight rod with a medium-fast action and a light (not ultralight) spinning reel. If your rig tolerates and protects 2-pound mono, it can pitch a Yo-Zuri Snap Bean or Matzuo Nano Crank into a feeding frenzy (which is easier to approach than a business-as-usual panfish scenario). These tiny baits are super sensitive (meaning fish them very slow) but they catch everything. Up where I live, it’s hard to throw one for more than 10 minutes without being mugged by a rogue pike or bass. The smallest Snap Bean is about 1.5 inches long, and something about its tadpole shape and rolling wobble drives crappies and bluegills into a feeding dementia.
Nano floating minnows like the Rebel F-49, the Yo-Zuri Pin’s Minnow, and the Rapala Original Floater F03, are mop-up machines whenever panfish are feeding near the surface (they’re also quite stable and efficient for drifting or slow-trolling with 3-way rigs near bottom). Little floaters select for larger specimens, too.
Whenever the water gives up a spectrum of bluegills or crappies ranging from very small to obese, these baits tend to both attract and hook the bigger ones. Just twitch and wake them along slowly on top wherever panfish are busting the surface.
Few ultralight baits cast better than sinking minnowbaits. Other than the Yo-Zuri Snap Bean, no hardbait is smaller than the 1-inch Rapala CountDown CD01, yet it casts for distance on light line. CountDowns and other sinking minnows allow you to target depths tiny divers can’t reach. The action is minimal—which is good. Wild side-to-side behavior isn’t always a plus when targeting panfish. Work them with a slow twitch-pause cadence.
When sunfish and ‘gills gather under overhanging trees to take advantage of dangling inch worms, my match-the-hatch mindset takes command and I tie on a Rebel Cat’r Crawler. Work it just like a tiny floating minnow—keep it near the surface and twitch it a lot. Whether it’s a match-the-hatch dynamic or not, this bait typically outperforms other nano cranks during the inch-worm bloom.
Taking all hot bites on ultralights into account, suspending baits account for more than a fair share. Once I find ‘em, I grind ‘em with little Rapala XR04 X-Raps and Matzuo Nano Minnows. A 2-inch suspending minnow can mesmerize active crappies. They troop along behind a suspending bait like calico zombies until you give it a little extra quiver or twitch. Most strikes occur when the bait is paused and sitting still. The modus operandi of a suspending bait is perfect for crappies and white bass, but with the nano versions you must slow it down.
No walk-the-dog tricks. Snapping the rod tip any more than a few inches acts like a transporter. You might as well beam the lure into an alternate universe, because crappies and bluegills will lose track and lose interest. But twitching it then letting it sit still, suspended, in the right spot is more effective (I’m convinced of this) than dangling a live minnow at least 50 percent of the time. The hotter the bite, the more effective little “slash baits” become.
Be judicious in the handling and manipulation of them and ultralight lures can produce more bites than bait whenever the water is truly warm (over 70°F). Unless you fish them often, it’s easy to forget how sensitive nano cranks are. Even the most subtle movements of the rod tip define “overkill” with many of these baits. If the bait can handle erratic action, slow it down. Most days, panfish don’t want fast and erratic.
Working nano lures like larger ones is the biggest obstacle to success for recent converts to ultralight fishing. Slow and steady, mate. Slow and steady. That’s the key that unlocks the gateway to nano world and panfish nirvana.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw has been working on In-Fisherman products for the past 20 years. He lives in Brainerd, Minnesota.