For more than 30 years I’ve known something about walleye and crankbaits. Crankbaits catch bigger fish on average than jigs, spinners or live bait rigging. Most of the serious walleye anglers I’ve broken bread with over the years would agree with me that for some reason crankbaits seem to routinely produce a higher grade of walleye.
The problem is that not all crankbaits are adept at catching walleye. In fact, of the hundreds of crankbaits marketed as walleye slayers, only a handful of these baits routinely catch fish. Every crankbait has it’s day, but the crankbaits I’m interested in owning and using are the select few that catch fish day in and day out.
Learning how to get the most from crankbaits starts with understanding the different categories of crankbaits and when best to use them. I break down crankbaits into four categories I’ll call stickbaits, minnow divers, shad baits and high action wobblers.
Stickbaits, or what bass anglers routinely refer to as jerkbaits, feature a shallow diving lip and slender minnow profile. This category of crankbait can be deadly casted and fished as a jerkbait over the top of emerging weed beds in the spring of the year, but mostly these baits find themselves pigeon holed as night time trolling baits.
It’s true that stickbaits are especially useful when trolling after dark, when fishing near the surface and also when fishing in close proximity to rip rap, breakwalls and other types of shore protection. In the early spring and again throughout the fall, stickbaits are the “go to” choice of serious walleye fishermen.
My short list for “must have” walleye friendly stickbaits includes the Rapala No. 18 Floating Minnow, the Rapala Husky Jerk 14 and the Smithwick Perfect 10 Rogue.
The next category of crankbaits anglers must embrace are the minnow divers. These baits feature the same slender minnow profile of stickbaits, but they have larger diving lips that allow them to reach significant depths. Minnow divers are largely considered the most important category of crankbaits as these lures produce well during the spring, summer and fall.
While many minnow divers share a similar look or profile, the action these lures deliver is vastly different from one to another. The shape, length and width of the diving lip, plus the precise location of the pull point all have a profound impact on the action these lures deliver.
This point is important to grasp because a lot of minnow divers work well on some days and not so well on others. The Reef Runner 800 series is a classic example of a minnow diver that can run red hot or icy cold depending on conditions.
Recently the Fishing 411 TV crew hooked up with Steve Lynch of Pro Cure Bait Scents to target some walleye, trolling crankbaits on Lake Erie. Prior to shooting a TV episode we normally spend a couple days pre-fishing to figure out a pattern.
On this particular trip we were using the two ounce Off Shore Tackle Snap Weight to get our baits to bottom in water from 40 to 45 feet deep. In practice we caught fish on four different cranks, but the Reef Runner was clearly not the best producing lure.
The very next day we assembled a filming crew and loaded up our spread with the baits that had produced best the two days prior. You guessed it, while we caught fish the action was slow and the size of the fish were smaller than we expected. It wasn’t until we put the Reef Runner back into our spread that things changed for the better.
This is precisely why I carry a fairly large selection of minnow diver style crankbaits and switch them out often until the most productive bait for any given day is determined. My top choices in this category include the Reef Runner 800 series, Rapala Deep Husky Jerk No. 12, Storm Original Deep Jr. ThunderStick, Bandit Deep Walleye 5/8 ounce, Berkley No. 9 Flicker Minnow, Rapala TDD Deep Tail Dancer No. 11 and Brad’s Lip-Stix.
Shad baits are another huge category of crankbaits and fundamentally critical to walleye fishing success. Shad baits tend to have the greatest following among anglers who fish walleye in natural lakes and also impoundments. The shad profile does an excellent job of imitating natural forage minnows commonly found in natural lakes and impoundments including golden shiners, spot-tail shiners, young-of-the-year bluegills, gizzard shad and thread-fin shad.
Most manufacturers have baits in this category, but a surprisingly small number of shad baits have proven themselves over the test of time. The two families of shad baits every walleye angler should own include the Rapala Shad Rap series and the Berkley Flicker Shad series. In regards to the Shad Rap, I’m referring to the original balsa wood series. Balsa produces an action that is very tough to duplicate with plastic lures.
Of the hundreds of plastic shad baits on the market, the Berkley Flicker Shad series does the best job of consistently producing walleye day in and day out.
The last category of crankbaits important to the walleye angler are known as wide wobblers or high action cranks. Because this category of baits has the most pronounced action, it is most useful when fishing in late spring and into summer when water temperatures are warmer and walleye are most active.
Not surprisingly these baits tend to work best at faster trolling speeds that bring out the best in their actions. A few of the wide wobbling baits that have proven themselves to be invaluable to the walleye angler include the Storm Original Wiggle Wart, Storm Original 3/8 Rattle Tot, Brad’s Wiggler, Salmo Hornet and Yakima Mag Lip 3.0 and 3.5 sizes.
Besides a wide and aggressive wobble, these lures are very noisy which makes them useful when summer plankton blooms stain the water a nice shade of green.
Ideally every crankbait will come out of the package and run perfectly straight in the water. Unfortunately, a lot of crankbaits need to be hand tuned by making small adjustments to the pull point of the lure to get the baits to swim properly and dive straight into the water.
Off Shore Tackle recently introduced a new product known as the EZ Crankbait Tuner that is designed to make tuning cranks easier and faster. This tool features an offset jaw that makes it easy to grasp the pull point with the short jaw and the edge of the diving lip with the longer jaw. Also, this new tool features a spring adjustable slip jaw that helps to eliminate putting too much pressure on the pull point and damaging the lure.
The idea is to set the jaw tension to be just strong enough to slightly bend the wire pull point. Because different crankbaits feature different diameter pull point wires, having an adjustable slip jaw design helps tremendously in achieving just the perfect amount of pressure to tune any crankbait large or small.
A lot of anglers debate the best way to attach crankbaits to their line. Many anglers and manufacturers recommend using a “loop knot” to allow lures the maximum swimming action. A loop knot is a good option, but clearly not the most practical option for fishing crankbaits and switching out lures often.
A round cross lok style wire snap is the most practical way to attach any crankbait to the fishing line. A No. 2 size snap is popular with walleye anglers, but this size snap will slide into and damage the tip of many trolling rods. The No. 3 snap is a little larger, easier to open and it won’t stick in the tip top of trolling rods.
Another common debate is how to attach the fishing line to lures that come factory supplied with a cross lok snap. Some argue that tying the line directly to the cross lok snap is the best option. Again, this is an option, but clearly not the most practical one.
Attaching a cross lok snap to the end of the fishing line and then attaching this snap to the cross lok snap on the bait is the best choice. Connecting crankbaits using a snap to a snap may seem redundant, but this option gives these baits the maximum freedom to wiggle and wobble in the water.
The more pronounced action a crankbait has, the more important it is to use a snap to a snap set up. Wide wobbling and high action lures simply come to life when they are fished using a pair of snaps.
Even the best designed crankbaits can benefit from some after market modifications. Rigging crankbaits with not one, but two split rings allows the treble hook more freedom to turn without allowing the fish leverage to pull the hook. This simple trick all but eliminates hooked fish escaping.
The other modification every crankbait fisherman should embrace is replacing factory treble hooks as they get damaged and dull. A growing number of crankbait manufacturers are using premium hooks on their lures. Premium hooks are a good thing, but eventually these hooks will become bent and damaged from the process of unhooking fish.
Once a hook is bent, bending it back into shape becomes a band-aid. The problem is the wire used in making hooks is fairly thin and loses it’s temper once bent. A good way to insure you will lose a big fish is to bend factory hooks back into shape, rather than taking the time to replace these hooks.
Thankfully the industry produces some exceptionally sharp and durable aftermarket treble hooks. The Eagle Claw TroKar TK300 and TK310 are round bend and wide bend style treble hooks designed to hook every fish that bites. Made from surgically sharp wire, the wire used on the TroKar hooks is also a little more stout and better able to stand up to the rigors of landing and unhooking lots of fish.
Using fishing scent is a final crankbait modification to consider. Fish scents are designed to set up a natural scent stream in the water that helps give fish that extra confidence to strike at mechanical lures like crankbaits.
The key word here is natural or scents made from natural forage species. Pro Cure Bait Scents are an industry leader in producing fishing scents made from the forage species most commonly eaten by game fish.
For walleye fishing, my favorite Pro Cure Super Gel scents are alewife, gizzard shad, smelt and the minnow formula.
Summing It Up
Most serious walleye fishermen will agree that crankbaits catch a larger grade of fish than jigs, rigs or spinners. Getting the most from crankbaits requires understanding the different categories of baits available and using these baits to their full potential.