Crankbaits In Cold Water, Spinners Too

Let's face it: there's a bias against using spinners in cold water. On the wide-open Great Lakes, what veteran walleye angler doesn't go strictly with crankbaits without a second thought?


Try longtime In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) pro Mark Martin of Twin Lake, Michigan. One of the greatest Great Lakes advocates of using spinners in spring, Martin placed sixth in the 2000 Lake Erie PWT event with a counterculture combination: using spinners and cranks simultaneously in his trolling spread.

"They work perfectly together, if you do it right," Martin says. "In cold water you have to run your crankbaits slow, around 1 mph, and you can definitely put out spinners at the same time. Everything, including the baitfish, is moving slowly. And spinners have a big profile like crankbaits. They're no different than a #14 Husky Jerk."


A crawler lover of the highest order, Martin and his own bias toward bait have prompted him to troll spinners alongside cranks at one of the few times the two offerings are speed compatible. Together they allow him to put similar though contrasting profiles and presentations high in the water column for suspended open-water roamers. "Either spinners or cranks would count for a limit by themselves," Martin says. "Using the two, your odds are higher. It allows me to put different menus in front of the same fish."


Admittedly, even Martin's undying affection for spinners and crawlers in no way diminishes the utility of cranks, cold-water killers par excellence. Consider the record-smashing success of Reef Runners, Rapala Husky Jerks and Smithwick Rogues in delivering 346 walleyes over 10 pounds and 150 daily baskets over 40 pounds during last year's PWT tourney on Erie, which is to say, cranks clearly rule. But should they rule out spinners?

The Deadly Mixture

"I like crankbaits until the water gets to at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit," says PWT pro Eric Naig, Cylinder, Iowa. "It seems more fish are caught on cranks until that water warms up a bit."

Without a doubt, cranks have it going in spring, when they supply the deadly mixture of size, shape, wobble, even suspension. Add to the triggering capabilities the speeds at which they run and their penchant for catching fish when speeding and stalling on turns.

When choosing cranks, the spring starting point is long and narrow for subtle action that matches the fish's mood in cold water. That's why minnowbaits such as Husky Jerks and Rogues and banana-shaped permutations such as Reef Runners, known as well for their "roll" around a horizontal axis as their side-to-side movement, are ideal choices. Suspenders like Jerks and Rogues, to say nothing of the Reef Runner's close approach to neutral buoyancy, spike the punch with momentary levitation when stalled on a turn or when the boat slows slightly when climbing a wave. (And although you're fishing high in the water column, experience bears out that shallow divers trolled farther back behind the boards don't match the large-billed baits a short distance back in terms of action and production.)

"I like suspending baits early in the year," Naig says. "If you're making turns and slowing down, a lot of times the fish eat the bait when it's stopped."

But for all the talk of minnowbaits and their undeniable effectiveness, another bait worth trying on Erie--or wherever shad are prevalent forage--is the #9 Rapala Shad Rap. Like spinners, the flat-sided Rap lacks the widespread popularity of minnowbaits for spring trolling. Berkley's Frenzy Diver or Frenzy Diving Minnow, with their slightly more triangular body shapes than traditional lures, would be likely choices as well due to their resemblance to shad forage.

"I don't understand why people get so hung up on minnowbaits," Martin says. "I'm amazed at how many fish come on large Shad Raps. The shad are out there--on Erie--and they're that size. People don't think about shad as a popular baitfish, but I do." And so do walleyes.

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Whichever you run, troll at slow speeds with frequent turns. Martin tends to the slow side at 0.8 to 1.2 mph; Naig goes slightly faster at 1.4 to 1.6 mph. Turns accomplish a couple things. At Martin's speeds, outside boards might accelerate the baits to 1.5 mph, while inside baits loiter at 0.5 mph. Martin says he turns so the inside boards almost, but not quite, reach a dead stop. Of course, when one side of the trolling spread starts producing, that could be a cue to speed up or slow down. Try different speeds to determine what the fish want, but the stuttering effect of turns usually deserves more of the credit.

Bouncers Above Bottom

When open-water trolling on the Great Lakes, the high fish, suspended from 6 to 15 feet down, are the ones you want. They're the most active, and even if the fish are a little lower, they'll scream up to nail a bait above their heads. The way Martin runs spinners alongside his cranks, he suspects the spinners are a touch deeper than hard baits when run 25 to 40 feet behind the boards. To run spinners with #5 Northland holographic blades, Martin puts 1-1/2-ounce colored bottom bouncers, for attractors, six feet ahead of them. Then he attaches the setup 45 to 60 feet behind his inside boards (while running the cranks on the outside boards).

If turns impart start-and-stop action to crankbaits, then spinners behind bottom bouncers produce more of a pendulum effect. When spinners rise and fall, they not only enjoy a change of pace that triggers walleyes, but also the presentation covers higher and lower tiers of the water column.

One wild card in the entire equation are the bottom fish--the ones you would reach at the same speeds using a 3-ounce bouncer. Back when Dan Plautz won the PWT Erie event in 2000, he dredged bottom on the last day using spinners and crawlers after a storm and boat traffic had pushed the fish down. The problem is that bottom fish are less predictable.

"For the hours and miles I put in during practice, I find it's often not practical to keep a bait down there," Martin says. "I figure if I can't get them going on the bottom within an hour and a half, they probably aren't going to go."

Time to break out the cranks and bring the baits up in the water column. Oh, and one more thing: Don't forget the spinners.

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