October 22, 2017
By Matt Straw
Many ingredients need to be stirred into the pot to determine which smallmouth crankbaits top all others for smallmouth bass. Some factors actually make it impossible to pick one clear favorite as the all-time best for all situations. Some work better in clear water, some in cloudy water. Some work best after fronts, some excel in stable weather. Some only dive 6 feet, so what if they're down 10? And so on. And, to some extent, it's personal.
So, since it's actually impossible to say which of the following is truly best of all time, we list the top 10 producers for me, personally. And, since the best crankbait bites tend to take place in stable weather when smallies are really aggressive, the most aggressive baits tend to gravitate toward the top of the list. But, one thing's for certain: Any list of the top 10 should include a bait or two that matches any conditions, and any situation.
1. Storm Original Wiggle Wart
This bait has the most erratic side-to-side action of any crank I've ever fished with. Amazing in the sense that this design predates so many of the "modern" cranks that make up the remainder of the list. The Original Wiggle Wart is a must-have for river smallmouths migrating toward wintering habitat in fall, when they reach peak aggressiveness for the year.
2. Rapala DT 4-10
Few baits are so universally effective as the Rapala DT 6. It triggers equally well in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs – in clear or cloudy water – and in post-frontal conditions as well as stable weather. The DT 6 can always be counted on to catch a few, even on days when it's not the most effective lure in the box. And those days are rare. Stop this bait, push a little slack toward it, and it sidles to the side in a half turn. Awesome trigger. The DT4 is one of my favorite shallow runners, and few baits cash in better than the DT 10 when smallies are camped out on ledges 10 to 14 feet deep. Use thin, braided line like Suffix 832 and the DT 10 can reach 15 feet. That's actually three different cranks. So sue me.
3. Bomber 6A
This might be the most effective crank ever devised for rip-rap and broken rock. If it can wiggle its way in, it can generally wiggle its way out. The pivot point on the 6A is about the mid-point of the crank. The bill sweeps ahead of it, bouncing the bait out of cracks and crevices in the rock. Best to keep it moving. Highly effective action, always comes out of the box tuned and ready to go, and it's bullet proof. Very rarely will a 6A break. I can get a 6A down to about 9 feet with 10-pound braid and a long rod, but if I'm working rip-rap I fish it on 10-pound mono and it performs equally well.
4. Salmo Hornet
I honestly don't know how to describe the action of the Hornet. It's subtle, but it's not. It's quiet, but has a "soft" rattle. I guess "chameleon" describes it best. If you want an aggressive, erratic bait—rip a Hornet. If you want a subtle bait, get the Hornet down to it's running depth and walk it slowly, steadily along. The bill shape is unique in the industry, and creates an equally unique and deadly action. I put the Hornet right up there with a DT 6 as one of those baits that can always catch a few no matter what the conditions are.
5. Koppers LiveTarget Smallmouth
I know this will come as a shock, but smallmouths are cannibals. And on some systems, smallmouths spawn so prolifically they create their own forage base, especially early in the year. When I see smallies spitting up smallies, I reach for the Live Target—the most realistic smallmouth sculpture ever morphed into a lure. This bait has such great triggering action I would use it all the time, but it's so pretty I'd hate to lose one. Which is a dumb excuse, but I actually have little experience with it outside lakes from spring until about mid summer. (Try it in other situations and let me know how it works out.)
6. Reef Runner Rip Shad
For several years now, this has been my top producer in rivers during summer. When flows slow down and become low and clear, the subtle action and slim profile of the 200 Series Rip Shad creates the optimum trigger. The 400 series often takes its place in reservoirs and lakes, where fish are a little deeper during summer. The 200 Series is so subtle I sometimes forget I'm using a crank and start fishing it like a plastic worm half way through the retrieve. Often needs tuning, but get a Rip Shad running on a line and few cranks can beat it during the hottest weather of the year. And it catches more incidental walleyes than any other crank on this list, with the possible exception of the LiveTarget Smallmouth. Great bait with "new wave" gear (4-pound braid on long, light-action rods).
7. Norman Middle N
This bait has a message for the world: Anything you can do, I can do better. A Middle N consistently comes out of the packaging tuned and ready to rip as fast as your best high-speed reel can crank. It can trigger at speed, but it has a very subtle, enticing action when you slow it down, too. It works through rock and weeds efficiently, making it one of my favorite search baits. When I don't know exactly where they are, the Middle N can find them as quick as any lure in my box under most conditions.
8. Bandit Series 300
Bandits are favorites with a lot of people. When I write about smallmouth cranks without mentioning Bandits I get mail. But that's not why it's on— this list. The Series 300 Bandit fights through obstacles like few other cranks, so I like it around wood and boulders. But the most amazing thing about it is the depth it can achieve for its size, getting down about 8 feet with a long cast on 10-pound monobut it can achieve about 12 feet when using 10-pound braid, if you submerge the rod tip and find the optimum speed, making it one of the most versatile baits on this list.
9. XCalibur Xcs100 (Smallmouth Green)
There's no doubt that a shallow-running square lip crankbait is a great smallmouth bait. The action and profile are perfect strike triggers, but the icing on the cake (and often the difference between catching a bunch or none at all) is the color pattern. Designers at XCalibur asked B.A.S.S. Elite Pro Alton Jones to design or replicate the world's most effective smallmouth color pattern for its Xcs100 Square Lip crankbait and he immediately knew what it would be, Smallmouth Green, a color pattern that had been his favorite years before on a Bomber bait. When applied to the Xcs100, it immediately proved itself to be a go-to in all types of smallmouth water. The Xcs100 runs to about 3 feet and comes through cover and over rock ridges and other obstacles like a champ. Sex appeal. Point her in the right direction, turn her loose on gravel, rock, or sand, and keep a fire grip on your knickers.
10. Lucky Craft LC 2.5 DDRT
This bait is like the Ferrari of cranks. It's a performance vehicle. Pulling it through current, the action transmitted to the rod and eventually into your palm whispers "quality." Like a sports car, it offers great tracking and stability right out of the box. I just started familiarizing myself with the LC-—2.5-DDRT last fall, and it didn't take long to impress. The first time out it put a pair of four pounders in the boat on an off day. Honestly, though, I've had less experience with this one than with any other lure on the list. One thing is certainit pops up higher and faster than any other hard-plastic-bodied crank on the market, making it a perfect match for laydowns, brush piles, stumps, weeds, and logs. Seems to take a hit, too.