Of all lures ever introduced, few seemed more mysterious on initial inspection than the lipless crankbait. They looked like little flat footballs, but the first Bill Lewis Rat-L-Traps worked wonders. Resistance was gone. Nothing slowed the turn of the reel handle. 'Traps rooted out bass faster than anything.
Active largemouths around vegetation were in big trouble. When we learned to work a 'Trap like a jig—allowing it to fall to the bottom then rip-pausing it back to the boat—we caught some walleyes and a lot of pike. Lipless cranks became high-speed reaction baits for largemouths but my favorite rattlebait targets were river smallmouths, which crushed those noisy things.
"I love rattlebait fishing, and I've worked on techniques for smallmouth bass for nearly 20 years," says tournament pro Joe Balog. "I'd wager Lake St. Clair is the smallmouth rattlebait capital of the world. More people fish that way here than anywhere else. St. Clair has massive shallow flats, with lots of fish in 3 to 8 feet of water in April and May. Lipless cranks make finding fish easy in that kind of environment."
The best bass fisherman on earth agrees. "The lipless bite is legendary on St. Clair," says Kevin VanDam. "The first day you can be out there after the ice leaves, it's already prime time. The water's never too cold. There are two times of year when rattlebaits excel for smallmouths—early spring and late fall. From the upper-30°F range into the upper-40°F range they're magic. In a lot of northern lakes, smallies move shallow immediately when the ice goes out."
VanDam, winner of four Bassmaster Classics, used Strike King's Red Eye Shad to win one in 2010 on Lay Lake in Alabama during February. "The Red Eye Shad is a deadly cold-water rattlebait," he says. "It shimmies straight down in its horizontal running posture, making it a dynamite lure at ice-out. I've caught a lot of bass on it with ice still covering half the lake."
Balog agrees, at least in part. "These lures are at their best during the Prespawn Period," he says. "I have some tricks that work in summer, but prespawn is a no-brainer. It's hard to explain the appeal of a rattlebait in early spring. Perhaps it's the sound frequency, perhaps the wiggle, maybe both. I don't know, but I know you need a good selection of baits. One style may not work some days."
Steady retrieves work, but other retrieves work better, like stop-and-drop, or pull-and-pause techniques. "Lipless cranks are considered 'fish finders,'" Balog says. "But in spring they can be the best fish catchers. Early on, big waves of smallmouths form large schools on shallow structural features. On St. Clair, that can be a small rise or just a hard spot. I've spiked my Minn Kota Talon into the bottom, sat in one place, and caught 40, 50, even more smallmouths on nearly the same cast—all to the same area, all with rattlebaits. Sometimes they won't hit a jerkbait, and merely bump tubes."
Balog uses a 12-foot Talon. "It opens up more mid-depth areas—places in 9 to 10 feet of water where I could never get dialed in before," he says. "But it's vital early in spring." Why? Because fishing from a fixed position is the only way to fully control the speed of the lure. And proper lure speed—both vertically and horizontally—can be the key ingredient of a successful day, especially in cold water, once the right lures and retrieves are identified.
"As the water warms, I begin using other lure types for smallies," VanDam says. "Up to that point, the Red Eye Shad is, in my opinion, the best all-around lipless bait. I like lots of colors, but especially gold and crawfish hues. If the water has some color, I try some with chartreuse. In clear water I go with chrome and blue-herring patterns."
In early spring, smallmouths hit rattlebaits much better than billed crankbaits, according to Balog. "When the water is still in the mid-40°F range, bottom contact with the lure can be important. I like the Rapala Clackin' Rap in the orange-gold craw pattern. I fish it more like a swim jig than a crankbait, but I try to regularly let it touch bottom. It has a solid, thunking rattle, which I think makes a difference."
Every rattlebait has a different shimmy, a different drop speed and attitude, and a different sound. Some clunk, others sound like automatic weapons. Some turn and flutter on the drop, others wander and slide. Some fall like a rock without much action, and a few vibrate as they drop. The Livetarget BaitBall Series bait turns on its side as it begins to drop, then falls like a rock. The Rapala Rippin' Rap swims and circles, sending out more flash. Weight affects the speed of both the drop and the most effective retrieve. Shape and weight distribution determine how a lure falls.
The XCalibur Xr25 is loud, like a 'Trap, but falls more like a Red Eye Shad. The new Red Eye Silent Shad isn't a rattlebait at all. It whispers "silence is golden" to pressured bass.
"I love the Red Eye, but I also use the 1/2-ounce Rat-L-Trap and a couple other baits at times," VanDam says. "It's about finding the right lure for the day, it seems. The Red Eye lifts a bit more than other baits, and the Rat-L-Trap lifts the most. The Red Eye has a shimmying fall that can be key, but more so in the summer months. Yet I've seen it outperform all others in spring as well."
Becoming familiar with a variety of baits is wise. "In summer, I use lipless cranks to cover water on mid-depth flats on occasion, though other baits often work better," Balog says. "Where rattlebaits excel for smallmouths in summer is on a lift-drop, yo-yo retrieve. The Rippin' Rap seems to perform that trick best.
"Cast and let it settle to the bottom—say at a depth between 10 and 16 feet. Rip it up hard, drop it back, and rip it again. The bait should jump 3 to 5 feet off bottom, depending on how bass are reacting to it. It's a bladebait retrieve, but faster. Like most presentations for smallmouths, it works on occasion, not every day."
Guide Tony Roach of Minnesota used a similar retrieve to win a local smallmouth tournament last year. "I fell in love with Rippin' Raps on the first day I tried them," Roach reports. "I initially tried them for walleyes with a rip-drop retrieve. It didn't take long to see it was an awesome tool for smallmouths, too.
"In early spring the rip-drop is extremely effective for both species. But in summer I began to rip it, let it fall, then rest it on bottom. The tournament was in July, and the fish were starting to relate to deeper boulder fields in 12 to 15 feet of water. I scanned them with my Lowrance Structure Scan and cast Rippin' Raps among the rocks as we passed, letting the lure rest on the bottom. Our best fish came on that bait, while my partner caught smaller ones on plastics. Bigger bass were on key spots in the boulder field, and they were ready to crush a Rippin' Rap."
Matching the hatch came into play as well. "Bass were spitting up craws all week," he continues. "I caught smallies on every size Rippin' Rap, but the #5 was best. It matched the size of crayfish we were seeing, and the dark-brown craw pattern was by far the best color. The Rippin' Rap has a nose-first drop, but it wanders and swims nose down. Bass hit it on the fall or on the bottom. Never caught one while ripping it, but the longer the pause on bottom, the more effective it was."
Roach was using his Wright & McGill Tony Roach Power Pitching Rod, a 7-foot 10-inch spinning model. He tied 10-pound Sufix 832 braid to the lure. "Braid helps when they pick it up on the fall," he says. "Even in wind and waves, it was easy to feel a bite. If the hook catches the braid too often, I tie in a 2-foot leader of 14-pound fluorocarbon. Its stiffness keeps the lure from hooking the line, and we lost fewer baits on zebra mussels that way."
Balog works lipless cranks with a medium-power baitcaster and 12- or 14-pound Sufix Fluorocarbon. "I use a Daiwa Tatula TAT771MRB rod and matching Tatula reel," he says. "Daiwa T-Wing systems cast farther than anything I've tried, 10 to 20 percent farther than my other Daiwas. That kind of range is useful on lakes like Erie and St. Clair."
Graphite is critical with rattlebaits, according to Balog. "Daiwa now makes Tatula rods of glass for cranking, but I prefer a graphite rod for all aspects of smallmouth fishing," he says. "When bass are slapping at baits, graphite hooks more fish. And I can feel every detail in the action of my lure. To catch smallmouths, you need to pay attention to those details and duplicate them. It's important to note and remember what the action felt like just before a strike."
VanDam seldom retrieves a lipless crank the same way twice, until a smallmouth tries to rip the rod out of his hands. "The retrieve varies as the water warms, but it's rarely straight back in," he says. "I've had many phenomenal days with rattlebaits on St. Clair after letting them sink to the bottom, then pulling. Not a snap or a rip. The pull is created with a moderate rod sweep to the side, moving the bait 4 to 6 feet. Then I allow it to settle again. Let the Red Eye Shad fall on a slack line and it shimmies on the way down. No other bait falls like that. It's like fishing an old weight-forward spinner for Lake Erie walleyes. The sweep should incorporate a gradual acceleration, pause, and drop."
VanDam uses a 7-foot Quantum Tour baitcaster. "I fish rattlebaits on fluoro, and the lighter the better," he says, "10-pound most days. Whether the water is murky or clear, my favorite is the 1/2-ounce size in a crawdad pattern. I make the longest cast possible, then fish it like a jig. A sideways sweep helps keep the lure down. Raising the rod tip brings it up too high. Just pull, let it sink to the bottom, and pull again. In cold water, a bass feels slightly heavier than the lure. It's not an aggressive strike. I look forward to it each spring. The water's so cold they can't jump, so they wallow. It's amazing how shallow you can catch them at ice-out."
In 36°F water, VanDam looks for ditches, troughs, man-made channels, or depressions leading toward shallow spawning flats. "Add a little current or wind and here they come," he says. "They hold deeper in some lakes, like 10 to 12 feet, but we fish them the same way, like a jig. The only other thing that works as well is a bladebait.
"Fall is another time when lipless cranks are key," he adds. "When bass are on 10-foot flats or shallower, I fish rattlebaits on 10-pound fluoro with a composite rod. Burn it, sweep the rod tip to rip it, then let it sink. Bass bite it on a straight retrieve, but I get a lot more on an erratic retrieve. In fall, I use primarily perch colors or imitate baitfish like alewives and gizzard shad. When the water drops below 60°F, rattlebaits get cooking."
Whatever the season, when smallmouths want rattlebaits, fishing can be easy. Add a few wrinkles to the retrieve and everyone catches fish. "I can't begin to tell you how many times I've watched a novice angler outfish a veteran because he had the right lure for the day," VanDam says. "It's fascinating, and sometimes humbling."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, fishes for smallmouth bass across the country and regularly writes about them in In-Fisherman and Bass Guide.