Billed Crankbaits for Bass
March 05, 2014
A crankbait's lip is what makes it go. While the angler provides the engine to propel it by reeling, the bill produces all the diving and rolling and wiggling action. As a result, lure designers have paid a lot of attention to lip size and shape. To be consistently successful, anglers should, too.
Problem is, if you peruse the options online, or walk into a tackle shop, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the legions of lips available today. To simplify the selection process, we offer the following straight talk on lips.
Lips By Design
"Most crankbait lip styles were born in the bass market," says bassin' ace Scott Bonnema, whose tournament travels and lure design experimentations extend from the California Delta east to the Atlantic. "Most were designed for specific applications, depths, or times of year, but some are versatile, all-around performers that excel in many situations."
Using the calendar as a cornerstone of crankbait lip selection is an easy way to narrow your options. "In spring, when lots of fish are moving shallow, small-lipped, shallow-running baits shine," he says. "This group can be divided into wakebaits and subsurface baits like Mann's 1-Minus." Wakebaits like the Jackall Mikey and Strike King Wake Shad feature flat, downward-facing lips that push the head from side to side, causing them to swim at or just beneath the surface with an accentuated wobble—creating a wake like an injured baitfish that can't dive to safety.
The Mann's 1-Minus class, which run a foot deep or slightly deeper, have short stubby, often cupped lips extending at about a 45-degree downward angle. They have wide bodies and produce an exaggerated side-to-side rolling action.
"They're great in early spring and again in fall, when bass move shallow just before heading for deeper water," Bonnema notes. "Short-lipped baits are ideal in three feet or less of water. Most have loud rattles, which, coupled with their action, excel in dirty water, when bass are searching for prey."
Wakebaits and shallow runners also attract bass when fished over deeper water later in the season. They can be fished over weedtops not quite touching the surface, and whenever bass bust baitfish on top.
Moving slightly deeper, square-bills typically run 3 to 5 feet, but divers capable of breaking the 15-foot barrier, such as Bomber's Fat Free Shad Deep Square Lip, are available. "Different manufacturers create differing actions, but these lips generally create a searching action, with up-and-down motion along the horizontal axis," Bonnema says. "They work well in hard cover like timber because the lip deflects off it and the lure stutters, which often draws strikes."
In-Fisherman Senior Editor Steve Quinn, another accomplished bassman, says the squarebill is one of his favorite lip styles for springtime cranking in rivers and reservoirs. "It basically dates back to Fred Young's hand-carved Big-O, but today we find variations in the dimensions, as well as the angle of these short bills, as well as several lure sizes," he explains. "That bill shape gives the bait an attack angle of about 40 degrees. And the key is to bang it into stumps, shallow rocks, tree limbs, and riprap banks, and any other cover you can find.
"During this period, with water temperatures typically in the low- to mid-50°F range, big largemouths have moved up to shallow pockets with darker water that warm quickly. Note that at the same time, other fish may remain deep, holding in clearer areas. But for shallow bass, the square-bill is deadly. "Work it at a moderately brisk pace," Quinn says, "with an occasional pause after it hits something, to allow it to jump backward and hover momentarily. That's when they crush it.
"Murky waters call for bigger baits, and there's no need for thin line. Fifteen or 17-pound mono works fine. But even though it's thick, check it frequently, especially if you're cranking around rocks. "I like a 6½- to 7-foot rod that allows you to execute roll casts to drop the lure within inches of the bank, dodging obstructions like boat docks and cables," he adds.
Circuit-board lips are gaining ground on the bass scene, as witnessed by the new Storm Arashi and Koppers LiveTarget Crappie Crankbait. Available in a variety of shapes and sizes from tackle craft sources like Jann's Netcraft, they're thinner than lexan and other plastics and produce different deflections.
"The Arashi (Japanese for "storm") offers a motion similar to other square-bills, but it deflects a little differently because the lip flexes," says Bonnema. "This is another great choice around rocks, timber, and other cover—as well as in current around rock jetties and wing dams." The Arashi starts working immediately, even at slow speeds, hits its maximum depth quickly, and stays there throughout the retrieve.
Another master of deflection is the coffin-bill crank. "Specifically designed for wood, the angular coffin bill careens off to one side or flips upward, then scoots out and resumes its original action," he says. "They typically run deeper than a square-bill, in the 7-foot range." Coffin-styles also have a tighter wiggle than square-bills.
New to the stage in 2013 was Rapala's curved, "scatter" lip design, available on the company's Scatter Rap series. "This is a whole new class of lips," Bonnema says. "They produce a hunting action, constantly swimming off to one side, then the other. They're something fish haven't seen before." Available in minnowbait, shad, crank, and countdown options, the Scatter series targets depths of 4 to 9 feet.
Bonnema casts Scatter Rap Cranks virtually everywhere, but cautions that the hardest part of fishing them is not imparting any extra action. "A steady retrieve is key to let the bait do its thing," he says. "You can pause it, but for the most part, a constant moderate speed is best."
Whenever the deep game is in play, long-billed crankbaits are an option. Some anglers dredge the shallows with divers, plowing up sediment and grinding rocks and wood, but lips locked on plying the depths shine from the Postspawn Period into late fall.
"Manufacturers have gotten adept at tailoring lip widths, lengths, angles, and curvatures. You can select lures based on where the bass are, and what action you want to present," Bonnema says. He favors lips that quickly reach their running depth and maintain it as long as possible. "A rectangular dive curve is ideal—a pendulum, not so much."
Suspending baits add another variable. "When you pause a suspending bait, pressure on the lip pushes it backward, to almost face the direction it was coming from," he says. "This allows you to add a lot of actions—twitching, pausing, and pulling. It's almost like worm fishing. People like to fish crankbaits for bass fast, but don't be afraid to take your time and create your own motion with a suspender."
As for maximum running depth, Bonnema recalls when 20 feet was the barrier. "Now, we have baits that hit 25 feet on a cast, without weighting," he says. He's convinced that such depth raiders open a new frontier for crankbait anglers, if only we pay attention to our lips.
Lipless rattlebaits belong in any discussion of crankbait lips, considering that their name is a bit of a misnomer— the head serves as the lip, both through weighting and design. Also called vibration baits and traps—in a nod to Bill Lewis' iconic Rat-L-Trap, which has been a staple of serious bass fans since the 1960s—these lipless wonders are versatile, easy to fish, and proven bass killers, even in brutal bites.
Lipless rattlers work throughout the water column as counting them down after splashdown, coupled with retrieve speed, allows them to achieve running depths from a couple feet below the surface into the 20-foot zone. They excel as search baits, thanks to their ability to cover water and call in bass with their often thunderous rattles and potent vibrations. But while chunking and winding catches bass, animating your retrieve ups the ante. Rip them through vegetation, bounce them off rocks, execute snap-fall cadences on bottom, pump 'em through weed clumps, and jig them in clear water. You get the idea—mix it up.
Tailor tackle to conditions. For making long casts and burning baits over shallow grass, a 7-foot medium-action casting rod armed with a high-speed reel is a good call. For deep retrieves, many anglers swear by fiberglass crankbait rods that load up without tearing hooks free. Both fluorocarbon and mono are fine choices for most lipless scenarios, though for ripping thick grass, braids shine, too.
*Dan Johnson, Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media.