August 22, 2016
Bullet casts. Quick response as the line tightens. The sensuous flutter rippling through the graphite. Precise depth control. Rapid-fire coverage. Rod-bending strikes.
Ah, the joys of fishing crankbaits. Crankbaits can be sensory equipment that can allow you to feel a piece of vegetation on the treble or transmit the surge of water produced by a big fish changing its mind at the last second or detect the difference between pebbles and rocks.
Former Bassmaster Classic champion, Mike Iaconelli, loves cranks. "Crankin' is my favorite way to fish," he says. "Crankbaits treated me well this year and all through my career. Compared to finesse fishing, a crankbait appeals to sight and sound, covers so much water, and resembles natural prey.
"But a crankbait is an even better tool when fish aren't feeding. Most of the time in tournaments we face conditions where fish aren't actively feeding due to fishing pressure, cold fronts, or other changes. Triggering a response from fish in non-feeding mode, making them strike — that's what makes crankbaits such great tools."
Crankbaits are tools that appeal to predators of all kinds. But what's the rationale for choosing one model over another among so many shapes, styles, and patterns? It can be problematic even for anglers as experienced and successful as Iaconelli, so we exchanged notes with walleye, bass, and multispecies guides and pros to make those choices easier for everybody.
Rattle versus Non-Rattle
In 1960, Jim Bagley began selling balsa cranks with diving bills. In 2010, Jarmo Rapala — as part of the group First Cast — bought Bagley Baits and revitalized the brand. Bagley now offers rattling and non-rattling versions of the deadly Diving Kill'r B, in response to the great rattling controversy of our times.
"Lately the trend has been toward silent crankbaits," says tournament pro Joe Balog, who has many top finishes, some with diving hardbaits. "In the case of heavily pressured waters like Kentucky Lake and others, the silent versus rattle difference is probably a bigger factor than most people realize. But the hooks and split rings of non-rattling baits produce sound, so the decision is between 'loud and unnatural' and 'less loud.' I always carry both, but lean toward baits without rattles unless I'm fishing smallmouths in lightly fished waters. I've had little luck with 'silent' plastic cranks for smallmouths. But I've had luck with silent wood baits. Weird."
Balog's general rule for bass and noise: "Where fish can easily detect a boat, like shallow woodcover, or over expansive grassflats in clear water — or wherever a bass can see the bait from several yards away: skip the rattles. When bass have to hunt the bait — like bumping along a river ledge in murky water or down in a bit of grass: use rattles."
Iaconelli thinks noise is great to start the day. "The warmer the water, the more aggressive the fish, the more I want a noisy bait," he says. "With less aggressive fish in cold water, I want a quiet bait. The more stained the water, the more noise helps. In clear water, I lean toward quiet lures. In clear, cold water, nothing beats a quiet plug like a Rapala Shad Rap."
Rattles and incidental clicking sounds are not the only things making noise on cranks these days. Livingston Lures introduced crankbaits containing sound-producing smart chips. The Dive Master Jr. contains both a rattle and a smart chip that makes baitfish noises. The Livingston Primetyme CB 2.0 has no rattles, but you can adjust the frequency on the chip to imitate craws, shad, generic baitfish — or turn it off to create a silent runner.
Along those lines, Iaconelli thinks the Storm Arashi is the best litmus test for making choices about rattles. "It's great to be able to choose between rattling and non-rattling versions in the same model as conditions change," he says. "With paired lures, you can evaluate whether rattles help or hurt in a particular situation."
Wiggle versus Wobble
"When the water's cold and clear, I want tighter vibration," Iaconelli says. "Shad Raps have a tight natural vibration. But when the water's warm and stained, I like wide-wobbling, rattling Storm Arashi baits. There are degrees of nuance between the extremes in crankbait action — between the Shad Rap and the Rapala Scatter Rap. What fish want can change drastically over the course of a day or two."
Moderation is the rule, most days. "Rapala DT cranks lie between those extremes," he says. "Their rattle is subtle, the vibration isn't wild, but it's not tight, either. Under most conditions, moderate action and sound outproduce the extremes."
Mike McClelland, seven-time tournament winner on the B.A.S.S. tour, designed the SPRO RK Crawler with an erratic action. "It's a hunter," McClelland says. "In clear water, I like a wandering action to trigger strikes. When baits track tight and true in clear water, bass tend to follow more and strike less. I looked at other successful crankbaits from the angling history of clear lakes and felt like I incorporated the colors and actions of successful baits from the past. The RK Crawler is small but it runs 10 to 13 feet deep on 10- or 12-pound fluorocarbon. If you use 8-pound line, it can reach 14 feet. It gets deeper than any other wide-wobbling baits I've fished. It gets 2 or 3 feet deeper, which can be particularly important in early spring."
Square versus Round Lip
Many say Kevin VanDam is the best bass fisherman ever, and statistics support that assertion. He's designed many crankbaits for Strike King — some with round bills, some with square. "The most important thing about a square-bill is that it helps a lure deflect," he says. "When a bait darts to the side in exaggerated fashion, it triggers strikes in almost any conditions. A Strike King 6XD or other round-bill bait excels in open water, sand, and other non-deflective situations. When ripping baits fast — triggering with speed — round-bills are a better deal. When bouncing off stumps or rocks, start with a square-bill."
Balog tinkers with square-bills like Rapala's Crankin' Rap. "It dives about 4 feet," he says. "I sometimes file the bill to make it run even shallower. It has a long, tapered profile and less action, which I like. Bandits are good, as are the Strike King baits. As the water warms, I switch to baits that move more water. I tell people to buy a half dozen square-bills, each from a different manufacturer. None swim the same. Then fish with them to develop seasonal strategies based on success."
Fat versus Flat
"In a lot of situations, choices are not cut and dried," VanDam says. "Take fat, round baits and flat-sided baits. Each can be effective. I designed the Strike King 1.5 Flat as a cold-water finesse bait, like a Shad Rap for fishing rocky banks and lay-downs during the Prespawn Period. I think bass use their lateral lines more to feed at that time, and flat-sided baits drive them crazy. For pressured fish in tough conditions, a flat bait excels. But anytime I find fish down to 10 feet, I compare the 1.5 with the Series 5 and other round-body baits. Some days, you never know which style of crankbait bass favor until you experiment."
Russ Lane, six-time qualifier for the Bassmaster Classic, designed two Fat Papa baits for SPRO, a 55 and larger 70. "Flat-sided baits have subtle action," Lane says. "It's called an X-ing action — one dimensional, back-and-forth. Fatter baits have a rolling, pitch-and-yaw action. I prefer the smaller Fat Papa 55, which has a subtle rattle, in water below 70°F. Fat Papa 70 has a wide, rolling action that displaces a lot of water and no rattle. I think quiet baits catch more big fish, even in murky water. I think a rattle is more important in cool, murky water."
Size and Shape
Big baits, big fish? If so, nothing could be bigger than the new Lucky Craft LC 6.5XD — a gorgeous giant for bass that draws double-takes from pike and lake-trout anglers. Not a round bait, but not flat, either, the LC 6.5XD is a "tweener."
But does "big bait, big fish" always work? "Loaded question," says Iaconelli. "When you think you have size and shape figured out, you visit a different lake and get a nasty curve ball. Size and body type are two of the most important factors in crankbait selection, but the right pick hinges on environment. In cooler water I start with a wide-wobbling jerkbait, like a Rapala Deep X-Rap. When the water warms, I switch to a fast-wobbling bait. If those choices fail, I start to experiment with actions and sizes."
Minnesota Guide Tony Roach considers forage types and season first, then current speed and clarity when selecting lure size and shape. "Forage size can make more difference than color," Roach says. "Check what they're spitting up and match that size. Walleyes eat more crawfish than most people think. I might be consistently successful for weeks with a #4 Rapala Glass Shad Rap in crawfish colors on Leech Lake, but need to use a #7 during the same period on Lake of the Woods because the rusty craws there are so much larger.
"I run diving minnowbaits at slow speeds in spring when the water's cold," he says. "But the same baits are just as effective in summer when pulled faster than normal. They excel at both ends of the speed spectrum. In lakes with a lot of smelt or other elongated baitfish, minnowbaits often work well. But I try to experiment each day. Rapala Tail Dancers are always on my list of baits to try in a trolling scenario, when fish are scattered."
Many anglers match certain crankbait shapes to species of fish. "Bass anglers love Rapala DT baits, but they're also some of the best baits to use for walleyes during the summer," Roach says. "Don't pigeon-hole baits based on species."
Three classic shapes people associate with walleyes are minnow, shad, and the deep-diving, elongated, baits, like the classic Reef Runner, which also is a fine bass and trout lure. Strike King just introduced baits to cover those classic shapes, too. "Long, skinny baits are cold-water tools for me," says Tommy Kemos, 2014 Cabela's NWT Angler of the Year. "Early, before baitfish spawn, and late in the season, walleyes are tuned in to bigger forage. Long, deep divers like the Strike King Banana Shad maintain good action at slow speeds. Their rounded lip produces a slow roll walleyes love. The Strike King Lucky Shad has a spot-on shad profile, and I like the square-type bill when walleyes are surrounded with bait and you need to grind them out. Make bottom contact with the Lucky Shad and it triggers more strikes than other shad-body baits."
Kemos describes the action as "high-end wiggle." The Strike King Bonzai Shad, on the other hand, has a "seeking action," he says. "It wanders. In clear water, where walleyes follow baits before committing, it triggers more strikes. It's also a great postspawn to fall turnover bait, like the Lucky Shad."
At the end of the retrieve, swing a crank out of the water in a semi-circle and snap it back out there in a new direction. Rapid-fire coverage is the game. For the most successful game plan, make lure selection from a logical starting point.