I am often reminded of a story my father told me years ago: Old is new, and new is old. While he was referring to the reinvention of overalls and bell bottoms, it closely resembles the trends in everything from cars to crankbaits. Vintage with a twist describes it best.
The trend with curved stickbaits is a retooled twist of classics such as the Brooks Reefer, FlatFish, Lazy Ike and Kwikfish, to name a few. Today we see names such as Reef Runner, Rapala, Yo-Zuri and others, who have seen the productivity of -- and resulting demand for -- these lures. But what makes these "hump baits" so good?
While open to argument, Reef Runner was perhaps the first deep-diving stickbait to incorporate this different shape. According to Scott Stecher, designer and owner of Reef Runner, the success of his baits is due to many factors. For one, their curvature causes them to nearly suspend, right out of the package, without modification. In cooler water this is often a trigger; it is, however, overlooked as a trigger in warmer water, too.
As planer boards surge, Reef Runners exhibit an erratic "hunting" action which seems to make following fish commit to a strike, as it mimics wounded baitfish. After hundreds of hours of pulling these baits, this seems to me to be what makes the difference. The predictable unpredictability of their darting and diving makes them deadly.
Due to their shape, curved cranks generally have increased water flow over their backs during forward motion imparted by current, surge, or simply trolling speed. This provides extra depth as well as enhanced action. Current more easily catches a curved bait, whether trolled in the Great Lakes or in rivers, again imparting more action.
Current is a far greater factor in offshore trolling on big waters than most folks realize, yet remains largely a mystery. Subsurface currents are unpredictable at best, and can range from nonexistent to mild to substantial. Underwater cameras allow us to see that just because the boat is moving at 2 mph in one direction, it doesn't necessarily mean the lure is moving at the same speed relative to the surrounding water, when 20 or 30 feet below the surface. This is why it's so important to have your cranks super-tuned, and to experiment with trolling speeds when you change the direction of your trolling path.
Fishing partner Gregg Gallagher and I spend several days each year testing cranks in a local swimming pool. Through trial and error we have found that in testing six of the same model crankbaits, it's fairly common for no two lures to run exactly the same. Often, a crank is nothing but a limp noodle being dragged through the water. The hunting action of curved baits at least allows them to be more productive, as they fight in and out of currents.
One can argue that this action imitates frantic baitfish. Anyone who has observed gamefish attack a pod of baitfish in an aquarium has likely witnessed how minnows bend and twist to escape predators, as well as the jerking and darting of wounded forage.
While we could call it a wrap after talking about the recent popularity of curved cranks, it really goes much deeper. Technology has led to baits that look almost too good to use: Bell bottoms with flashing lights, if you will. Literally hundreds of different prisms and holographic finishes are now available. When you add this element to curved baits, you have a much different finished product than traditional stickbaits.
Prism and holographic finishes catch the eye of many fishermen, but do they help us catch more fish? A little physics lesson may help to explain why I believe they do, under many circumstances.
The main element that prism and holographic baits add is more refracted light. Refraction is the passage of light through a surface that separates two media. The prism tape separates white light (or sunlight, take your pick) into individual colors through a process called chromatic dispersion. The humped shape of these crankbaits allows the full spectrum of light to be seen over a greater area, due to their increased curvature.
Oddly enough, experience (while admittedly not scientific) has led me to use prism-inserted crankbaits in the lower half of the water column. Often, when trolling shallower, too much light or flash is refracted. I believe this spooks the fish, as it likely looks unnatural. I prefer instead to apply small strips of holographic tape, when fishing either shallow or in the often extremely clear waters of the Great Lakes. When the erratic hunting action of the "hump baits" is combined with a small piece of tape, just enough flash is produced. This is also a perfect time to select subtle colors, such as purple or white. White is especially effective under these circumstances, as it reflects all light.
This rule of thumb depends on water clarity. If the top ten feet of the water column is severely stained or it's overcast, conditions suggest that it's a good time to use a darker-colored bait with a prism insert. Rules are meant to be broken, however, and experimentation should never stop.
One rule will likely remain constant for me, told to me by the best walleye angler I know: That walleyes do not travel far from the grocery store. This simple truth has led me to use lures that mimic the forage base. While thousands of walleyes are caught on firetiger patterns, I have yet to see any living thing in the water that even comes close to resembling it. This just goes to show that fish still have to see a lure, no matter how pretty or ugly it may look to our eyes. When it comes down to it, action or flash, or a combination thereof, instinctively triggers fish to strike. So don't be afraid to give "hump baits" a try. Time spent experimenting with both prism baits and holographic tape will be worth your time, as well.
*Ross Robertson and the late Jim Fofrich, Jr., two Toledo fishing buddies with a passion for Lake Erie fishing, collaborated on this feature, with Ross completing it in tribute to Jim's untimely passing, investigative spirit, and unbridled enthusiasm for helping others to catch fish. Robertson handles boat sales for Cabela's in Dundee, Michigan.