When building crankbaits, three major designs come into play: imitation, presentation, and vibration. Each factor must appeal to one or more of a walleye's senses.
Although walleyes feed on many different types of forage from insects to crawfish, their main forage is usually some type of minnow: fatheads, silver or emerald shiners, shad, smelt, and of course, perch. The most consistently effective crankbaits are likely those that match the hatch.
An explosion of new holographic finishes makes crankbaits look more like the real thing than livebait itself. Perhaps the most important addition to this real-life imitation is the inclusion of crystalline eyes on both jigs and crankbaits.
Many studies on both freshwater and saltwater fish show that predators key in on the eye of the prey and attack from either side. In saltwater, redfish have a spot on either side of the tail that resembles an eye; when a predator attacks, focusing on this false eye, the redfish may be able to escape.
In freshwater, walleyes, pike, and muskies often attack larger prey from the side, kill or stun the bait, turn it 90 degrees in their mouths, and swallow it headfirst. Think of the difficulty of swallowing a 5-inch perch tail first. If attacked from behind, how could a walleye rotate the bait within its mouth?
An eye on a crankbait serves two purposes: it provides a target to key upon, and tells a walleye which end to stick in its mouth. Think about your experiences catching walleyes on crankbaits. How many times were walleyes hooked with the crank sideways in their mouths? How often were they caught on only the rear hook? If the fish was hooked on the back end, does that mean the bait was taken from behind? Perhaps sometimes, but consider: did the bait have a realistic eye? Was it hooked deeply within the throat? If the answer is no to either of these, I'd contend that the bait was struck from the side, with the fish missing the front hook and being caught on the rear hook.
The inclusion of realistic eyes has, however, often been neglected on one of the most productive of walleye baits: the crawler harness. If the eye factor is so important, why hasn't it been applied to this lure category?
Several manufacturers of crawler harnesses have attempted to address this issue by placing an eye on the spinner blade. Problem is, the eye only appears momentarily as the blade turns. Do the eyes of a crankbait appear and disappear as it swims through the water? No. The eye of a crankbait provides a continuous target, unlike the eye on a spinner blade. And the use of uniformly colored beads for attraction provides no eye at all, much less a realistic one.
The answer? A livebait crankbait, which is actually a spinner rig. In the accompanying photo, note the crawler harness positioned directly below the Matzuo Zander Shad crankbait. The harness has a rattle bead directly below the nose of the rattling Zander Shad. Importantly, note the coloration and position of the next bead, directly below the crystalline eye of the crankbait. This oversized, clear-glass, faceted bead represents the eye of the crawler harness. It must be glass in order to reflect light, just like the eye of a real baitfish. The eye is then followed by another rattle bead and then a Quick Change clevis and spinner blade.
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Note the position of the blade and clevis, directly below the pectoral fin of the crankbait--the little fin behind the gills--that aids a minnow in maintaining stability. Watch baitfish in a tank, and you'll notice these fins moving. The turning blade imitates this fin. Also, note the same holographic finish on the Zander Shad and the #4 deep-cup blade of the crawler harness.
Each crankbait by shape and design emits a unique vibration as it travels through water. Different blade sizes and shapes likewise emit different vibrations. I prefer deep-cup Colorados that provide maximum vibration while activating the rattle beads.
Now note the similar placement of the hooks on both the crankbait and crawler harness. (The hooks on a crankbait tend to be larger and sometimes more numerous than on a spinner harness, but the spacing should be about the same). It's extremely important that the number of beads between the clevis and the forward hook is sufficient so that when the blade lies flat against the harness, the forward hook isn't covered.
Remember, walleyes hit a crawler harness just as they do a crank--from the side; this season, note how many spinner fish you catch on the forward hook, with the trailing hook stuck on the outside of the fish's mouth, not inside it. I'll bet it exceeds 85 percent.
Some folks criticize the use of a Quick Change clevis, saying that the blade sometimes comes off or that they miss fish. The major reason for this, I believe, is that the blade is positioned too close to the forward hook. The walleye hits the blade, deflects off, and misses the hook, sometimes knocking the blade off in the process.
A correctly formed livebait crankbait (OK, so it's really a spinner) has enough beads to sufficiently space and expose the forward hook, even when the spinner is turning slowly. Adding more beads adds color, creates a larger lure profile, and most importantly, allows you to experiment with blade size and style, changing profile and vibration without sacrificing hooking ability. Such ease of change comes only with a snap on-off clevis.
Hook selection is also critical. Most crawler harnesses are built with #4 octopus-style hooks, but don't be afraid to upgrade to a larger #2 or even a #1. If you choose to mix hook sizes, put the larger of the two up front; that's the one that'll catch most of your walleyes. I, naturally, prefer Matzuo's Sickle Octopus hook, because they hook and hold fish when anglers using other hooks are missing strikes.
Whether you build your own version of a livebait crankbait crawler rig, a walleye spinner rig, or select one of Matzuo America's Rattle Eye Crawler or Rattle Eye Leech/Minnow rigs, make sure you employ the design principles discussed here. All spinner rigs are not equal. With the correct combination of size, shape, beads, spacing, color, rattles, vibration, hooks, and of course, that all-important eye, you'll be fishing the ultimate in crawler harness design--even if you call it a livebait crankbait.