June 21, 2018
By Steve Quinn
If you grew up in a fishing family, your Grandpa called 'em plugs—wooden lures with a metal bill that vaguely looked like local preyfish. Along with topwater lures, crankbaits have been in our bassin' arsenal far longer than spinnerbaits, jigs, or soft-plastic baits.
Many of those old lures now are valuable, fetching hundreds of dollars from collectors on eBay. But in their place have come a vast array of plastic and wooden lures, among the most useful lures throughout the year. They're not only enduring and cool-looking, but they dredge into a range of depths where bass live, from a foot below the surface to scratch bottom in 25 feet.
Many have made their mark by catching huge fish, winning tournaments, and standing the test of time. In no particular order are my list of 8 all-time greats.
Hitting the market in the late 1980s, this lure has never left my box of starters when I fish almost anywhere from early summer until ice-up. It has a hard-charging diver that can rip through vegetation or pound a rocky bottom of a favorite river.
Long before development of today's advanced casting systems — inserting a metal ball that slides rearward during a cast to propel the lure, then forward to enhance diving angle — they were balanced to fly as well as swim. It's moderate-size at 3/8 ounce and 3 inches, with a bill that can push it down to 10 feet. The package is virtually indestructible and I've carried a few favorite colors inn my crankin' box for over 25 years.
Rapala's DT Project was a joint effort between the company's hardbait designers in this country and in Finland, with major input from legendary cranker David Fritts. The project was begun in 2002, and the DT6 was the third member of the family, following the DT10 and DT16. Model numbers accurately relate the diving depth of each one when fished on 10-pound mono or fluorocarbon and a long cast. Those deeper-diving models have created permanent spaces in the collections of serious crankers, too.
Immediately upon its release, the bite-size DT6 made converts among weekend anglers and national pros. It's one of a select few lures to be found in the regular boxes of pro anglers, no matter what circuit they fish and what brand adorns their jersey. That's due to its versatility — at home working deep hydrilla edges of Florida lakes in winter as well as pounding rocky structure on Canadian Shield lakes. I'd rate it among the elite group of lures the you'd pick if allowed to take along only one crankbait for a whole day of fishing. It comes in a stunning array of standard and new-wave colors, though I often spot custom-painted ones in guys' stashes.
Luhr Jensen Speed Trap
This lure has lurked more in the shadows, due in part to the reputation of Luhr Jensen as a "trout and salmon" tackle company. This is far from true as other storied divers are, or have been part of the company's stable, now owned by Rapala. It indeed gained initial credibility out West, banging along the riprap banks of California's massive Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta that flows to the Pacific Ocean. This tight-running lure works flawlessly at maximum speed, as its name implies.
This ability, combined with its extreme buoyancy (widely considered the closest to balsa of any hard-plastic lure), make it a key crank for working stumps, brush, or craggy cover. Pause the retrieve and it backs up, avoiding snags before they happen in the hands to experienced crankers. It comes in two sizes, but the 2.5-inch, 1/4-ounce model dominates the bass scene.
Strike King 6XD
Phil Marks is a widely feared tournament competitor on the big reservoirs of East Texas, and also the main hardball designer for Strike King Lure Company. The 6XD, released in 2007, is arguably his most successful creation, as its list of tourney victories covers many pages. The modest Marks credits input from Strike King pros including King KVD for input units design and action. This one weighs an ounce, with a 3 1/4-inch body that hits bottom in 17 or 18 feet on 12-pound-test.
The growing stable of big deep divers cast well and run deep. But there's more to it than that. As with successful shallow-running selections, this lure moves in such a way as to convince bass it's worth biting. On legendary ledge fisheries like Pickwick and Kentucky Lake, bass take up position on the review stand as the parade of weekend anglers runs the river channel edges from Paris to New Johnsonville. Suffice to say this one has passed the test of time with flying colors, and its big brothers, the 8XD and 10XD, also have found avid fans wherever largemouths feast on big gizzard shad.
Xcalibur Fat Free Shad
Long before Strike King became famous for crankbait design, PRADCO, owner of many top lure brands, added another — Xcalibur Lures. One of their first efforts, and surely the most successful, was the Fat Free Shad, named for its slimmer, more flat-sided shape that that dove easily and produced a tighter wiggle and more flash that the fatter "alphabet plugs" that proceeded it. Kevin VanDam, a PRADCO pro staffer back then, used it with great success. It cast far, and ran fine right out of the box, features not always found in crankbaits of the early 1990s.
With the promotion of VanDam, Tennessee River ace Timmy Horton, and the legendary Bill Dance, it found traction across the country and beyond. I recall at trip to Lake Huites in Mexico where the guides universally recommended throwing a "Bill D," as Dance's signature adorned the lure, and he was equally famous "South of the Border."
While plenty of new deep divers offer competition, this one still loads the boat, particularly in the #6 (3 inches, 1/2 ounce) and #7 (3.5 inches, 3/4 ounce) sizes. In PRADCO's recent rebranding, this lure is now in the Bomber line.
Cordell Big O
This lure deserves a spot in the Hall for Fame for its historic significance, but it is no longer a go-to lure today. In 1967, Fred Young carved this original square-bill crank from wood and hand-painted it. Its squarish bill and buoyant build allowed it to work through thick cover and it banged through brushpiles even when cranked at breakneck speed. Rick Clunn learned this lesson when he drew Young as a partner in the mid-1970s and Young gave him a tutorial on catching bass with his bait.
After years of avid anglers shelling out big bucks for one lure, Young sold the patent to Carl Richard "Cotton" Cordell, who had started his own company about two decades before. In its inaugural year in the new hard-plastic format (1973), the company sold 1.3 million lures. The fishing industry's version of the "Me Too" movement was in vogue back then, and "alphabet" plugs were born. Other successful square-bill models followed and continue today. While still present in PRADCO's catalog, the Big O is more noted for its place in history than as a money-maker. But Lucky Craft's BDS Series, PH Custom Lures SquareBills, Strike King's KVD 1.5, the Ima Shaker, and dozens of others owe their success to the Big O's original design.
As with the Big O, this one made history, but is it's still part of the story today. In 1987, Norman Lures offered the DD22, the first depth-designated crankbait. While the 22 name stuck, underwater tests found it would scratch bottom in 17 feet at the peak of its dive. But this was far beyond the normal bass fishing zone, in an era long before advanced sonars with 3-D and side-imaging.
Terry Oldham proved its veracity by setting records on Falcon Lake long before the Elite Series pros dipped their toes into this riverine monster-maker. He fished it over offshore structure and super-deep hydrilla beds, often accounting for 1-day bags over 40 pounds in partner tournaments.
I've scored huge prespawn bass on Lake Seminole, and several favorite colors have a reserved spot in my box for offshore work at Mexico's West Coast impoundments. With a tight wiggle, it dives nose-first into cover, deflecting off rock or wood. That, of course is the key, whether you're after prespawn fish just coming from winter refuges, or summertime ledge fish wound up for feeding. Moreover, it was one of the first cranks to come with big Gamakatsu trebles and retail for under $5.00. In today's frenzy over new stuff, don't overlook this big-time winner.
Storm Wiggle Wart
Back in the day, Storm Lures was a family business, with Gary and Bill Storm crafting several revolutionary lures, including the original Bass Hawg spinnerbait, and the Wiggle Wart. While that ground-breaking spinnerbait has been relegated to antique lure collections, the original Wart continues to have a cult-like following and eager buyers among Ozark experts and bass pros with plenty of cash.
At In-Fisherman, our staff members fished Warts religiously on the rocky terrain of the Mississippi River. Its ability to run with a broad hunting action and bounce off obstructions kept it out of trouble, while doing a number on smallmouth bass. Under the Storm brand, more than 100 colors were available, one of our favorites labelled the "Dennis Rodman" for its wild contrasts of purple and chartreuse.
Purchased by Rapala in the late 1990s, the company brought assurances of superior manufacturing processes that promised a better product. But some experts found something missing.
Since then, there's been a search for a lure that could duplicate its salty moves, rising suddenly dodging snags, while tempting spotted bass, largemouths, and smallies to take a whack at it. Although Rapala has tried other iterations in an attempt to duplicate the unique actions of the Storm family's original creation, and other companies have offered lures with similar attributes, the original Wart remains the standard bearer.