Crankbait 101

by Joe Bucher
It wasn’t that long ago when crankbaits were not a widely accepted part of the musky arsenal. This was especially true in the Midwestern region where casting was and still is the predominant presentation. Even the most revered guides neglected using the crankbait, opting instead for the traditional bucktail spinner, jerkbait or topwater plug. About the only true crankbait that made its way into a musky hunter’s tacklebox in those days was the classic Creek Chub Pikey Minnow. However, rarely was this lure a 1st or 2nd choice selection. It was nearly always a “last resort” bait. Any other crankbait was automatically way down the consideration list. Because of this, crankbaits were never big on the catch charts.

This anti-crankbait attitude gradually changed with the success initially of eastern trollers on the St. Lawrence River and Lake St. Clair in the early 1960’s. As rumors of big fish catches on various styles of diving baits and wobbling plugs (the common term given those styles of lures before the term “crankbait” became popular) began to make their way westward. Yet, the traditional casters of the midwest mistakenly labeled these plugs as “trolling baits” that still weren’t that effective on the local inland muskies. It took a least 15 slow years for the Midwestern angler to widely accept the crankbait as a viable all-season musky weapon. Yet, it wasn’t until the mid to late 1980’s that the deep diving crankbait craze really hit stride in “casting land”. Now it has, and the new breed of musky hunter is ready to select the crankbait as a 1st choice whenever the conditions demand it.

The term “crankbait” was probably developed by the bass tournament fishermen. It is now a widely accepted generic lure category which includes almost any hard-bait lure, wood, foam or plastic, that has a built-in action; and can catch fish by simply cranking it through the water. Crankbaits come in many forms, colors, shapes, and sizes, yet they all have one thing in common — they have that built-in, factory created wiggle. Some of these lures float, some dive. Some run shallow, some travel deep. Some are better suited for weeds, others work well in wood, but most perform best in clean, debris-free environments.

The most underestimated, and least talked about aspect of crankbaits is — how to match-up the right line and overall tackle to these critical lures. Using lines that are too heavy, severely restrict the potential diving depth of any individual crankbait; a key aspect when “max depth” is desirable. On the other hand, using too light of a line, can actually decrease the performance of some crankbaits, as well. Overly thin lines can make a deep diver run too deep. Obviously, proper line matchups to these lures is critical.

Specific lure selection to match individual condition demands is another vitally important factor in crankbait fishing. There are literally hundreds of manufacturers making an almost endless variety of plugs. Knowing what to tie-on at any one moment is surely important, and this aspect of crankbait fishing takes the most thought. Admittedly, most of this knowledge is obtained through experience, but this is where reading articles such as this one, can indeed make the selection part a bit more understandable. In other words, there are some keys to recognize in lure design that make one better than another for certain situations. Let’s take a look at a few.


To the uniformed musky angler, the entire concept of fishing weeds with crankbaits sounds ridiculous, yet many pros are not only adept at fishing crankbaits in weeds, but actually MAKE A LIVING AT IT. In a nutshell, crankin’ weeds effectively is now an art form in the musky fishing business. Those who know how to do it, are able to capitalize big time. Those who don’t give up in short order.

It’s important to note that any angler willing to learn can master crankbait fishing in weeds with very little trouble. It merely takes the correct selection tackle and lures, combined with some knowledge on how to fish them. After that, practice makes perfect. The more you fish weeds with crankbaits, the better you get at it. And, the fringe benefit of it all is of course, the more fish you’re likely to catch. Let’s examine a few specific factors that are the essential to making this entire system work.

First off, floating/diving model crankbaits are a critical MUST for many weed situations. The buoyancy is necessary to enable the lure to rise back out of weeds after contact is made. The buoyancy also promotes a nose down/tail up action in the lure as it travels thru the water. This, in turn, encourages weedy debris to collect mostly on the diving lip; the trailing hooks remain weed-free.

By contrast, a sinking crankbait, or even one of the recent popular suspending models travels thru the water more horizontal promoting more weed fouling around hooks. The sinking nature of this crankbait style also doesn’t allow it to back out of weed cover and other snaggy debris. The end result is far more weeds on the end of your crankbait more often. This is why a floating diving crankbait, with its superior buoyancy, is so superior in thick weeds.

Admittedly, some degree of technique is also required to effectively fish these lures around weedy cover without getting fouled in weeds the majority of the time. Proper manipulation of the lure along with correct tackle selection in terms of rod, reel, and line are all critical. Over-cranking, in other words using too much speed, drives a lure deeper into weedy cover before the angler can properly react; releasing line tension and allowing the lure to float up. Over-cranking drives the lure too far into the weeds plowing the trailing hooks right into the weed clump. The proper speed, therefore, is critical. That proper speed is nothing more than whatever it takes to make the lure just barely “tick” the weed tops, and occasionally get hung.

Line diameter is yet another critical element of weed crankin’. Use a line that’s too thin, and it encourages the lure to run too deep. Use a line that’s too thick and the lure is not likely to run deep enough to contact any weeds at all. Thicker lines generally work better, and aid in the durability from the rigors of constant casting and debris contact. What’s vital here is — use a line that matches the conditions. In every case, this means — choose a line weight/diameter that allows the crankbait to just barely run deep enough.


Suspending crankbaits are the most recent rage. Bass anglers are loading their boxes with a variety of these new minnow baits that have factory built-in reduced buoyancy. However, musky anglers are close behind. The concept here is to be able to fish a lure slowly over cover, with a jerking, twitching action, in an effort to trigger cover-tight fish into striking. Ironically, this technique has been labeled “jerkbait” fishing, and was supposedly developed by bass tournament pros. However, it was actually developed by musky anglers well over a decade prior to its popularity with the bassers. The original pioneers of this tactic called it “twitchin'”, but now it’s called jerkbait fishing. The basic concept is the same no matter what it’s called nor the target fish species. Twitchin’ or jerkin’ works extremely well on nearly all freshwater gamefish species, but it’s particularly productive on muskies.

What’s important to remember about suspender baits is that the degree of buoyancy will vary with the water temperature. This is something that very few anglers are aware of, and few manufacturers are letting consumer know about this water temp factor. Basically speaking, a lure that is neutrally buoyant at 65 degrees, for example, will sink at any temp lower than this, and probably float at any temp higher than this. The only way to make a suspender work perfectly at all water temps is to attach or detach the amount of lead weight according to the water temp. Therefore, the new stick-on weights made by Storm are a needed addition to this entire system of twitchin’ suspender baits.

In addition, a floating, buoyant crankbait can be modified quickly into a suspender by adding these stick-on weights. This modification can make virtually any lure in your tacklebox a suspender. The neat thing here is, you can adapt your favorite, most productive crankbaits can be modified to fit any condition you’re faced with by simply adding or decreasing the amount of stick-on Storm weights.

Color and/or flash is a significant factor with any twitchin’ suspender. One of the key elements of strike trigger with this lure is the flash that’s created on each and every jerk. This flash is accented by certain color choices. I’ve found that chartreuse sides are tough to beat for muskies. Any perch style pattern, which includes the all time favorite firetiger, is sure to attract a response. Chrome might be the most underrated. However, don’t be afraid to use a lower flash lure if the fish appear to follow too much. Sometimes a low flash pattern such as the black/gold/orange effect of the popular night shiner or black perch patterns works wonders here.


Rat-L-Traps, Cordell Hotspots, Sugar Shads, etc. Great lures for all kinds of gamefish, but highly underrated for muskies. These baits can be especially effective on spring or early fall muskies cruising overtop weed flats. Like all lures, specific situations exist where these lures really produce. Personally, I really like these kind of baits whenever muskies are average in size, but high in numbers, and are cruising overtop shallow weed cover.

These baits produce, and they enable one to cover tons of water in a very short time. Their best fished on heavy baitcast gear utilizing long bomb casts and a fast retrieve speed. No finesse is necessary here. Just heave the bomb, crank and wind. Cover ground, lots of it. The larger bass sizes, 3/4 ounce or more, are the best musky producers and perform most efficiently with larger baitcasting gear. As far as colors go, the blue/chrome has nearly always been #1, but chartreuse firetiger patterns have done well for me in stained water at times.

Some key tackle points to consider with this lure are: 1) always use baitcasting gear with at least 14 pound test. The heavier line helps keep the lure shallow — an advantage most of the time. The durability of heavier line is also necessary because of the intense way in which this lure is fished. 2) Stick with high-speed reels. It takes speed to initiate action on these baits. A 6 to 1 gear ratio reel combined with a large spool diameter makes these lipless crankbaits really vibrate. 3) Long bomb “Brett Favre” casts are nearly always best with this lure category. These lures are easy to cast, easy to crank, and run fairly shallow. As long as cover isn’t too heavy, fire it out there. However, make certain to crank fast right off the bat in order to keep that lure screamin’ through the water.


Another group of crankbaits worth its own category are sinking model, countdown crankbaits. Countdown crankbaits give the casting musky hunter the ability to effectively fish depths greater than 12 feet. This is something few other lures can do. It’s imperative to realize that the countdown sinking style crankbait is a deep water lure. It works best over open water and clean hard bottom areas. It also works great during cold water periods since it will maintain depth and slow speeds.

On the other hand, the countdown sinking style crankbait is not a good choice for weeds, or any other cover situation. Since it has no buoyancy, it will not free itself from hook hangups as readily as a floating/diving model. The actual body angle of travel also promotes hook fouling with this style of lure. Countdowns tend to travel through the water almost perfectly parallel with the bottom. This makes their treble hooks more accessible to debris collection. Floating divers have a tendency to run through the water with a nose-down, tail-up fashion. This protects the hooks from debris, and the debris collection usually isolates around the diving lip area.

My favorite tactic with a countdown sinker crankbait is to bottom fishing deep water areas that are unreachable with conventional lures. For example, if my target is a deep water mid lake hump that tops out at 18 feet and is surrounded by 35 feet of water, I’ll simply make a long bomb cast with the countdown and let it sink until the line goes slack; indicating that it has hit bottom. Then I’ll slow crank this plug all the way back to the boat with an occasional pause to let it sink back a bit so I’m certain I’m near the bottom. This technique enables me to fish any depth with a crankbait and bounce bottom on those unreachable hotspots, too deep for most lures. Some of my biggest trophies have been taken this way.

Another key advantage of the countdown cranker is to peg suspended fish. Anytime you see big marks of suspended fish over deep water the potential to encounter active suspended muskies is possible, but the trick is to get a lure down to the right depth. This is where knowing how fast the “sink rate” of the lure, and knowing approximately how deep the fish are suspending is vital. Match the two, and make a number of casts over a high potential area you’re likely to hit a home run once in awhile. I’ve had lots of success with this tactic during the mid to late summer period on deep clear lakes, but the same production is possible on shallower ones that have a lack of cover. Anytime your sonar shows signs of suspended fish, and your success with shallow presentations has been nil, a few pitches over the open water are worth your time, and a countdown cranker is your best weapon.


Rod and reel choices may vary a bit depending upon the size of the crankbait you’re using, and the line needed for the conditions. Smaller bass version baitcasting outfits are a better match for medium sized crankbaits in the 3/8 to 3/4 ounce range, and lines less than 25 pound test. Heavy duty baitcasters are the only way to go for big cranks, and heavy weight lines of 25 pound test or more.

Rod lengths are more of a personal choice, but longer is usually better. Personally, I wouldn’t use anything less than 6 1/2 feet for most crankbait applications — small, medium, or large. The only thing I’d vary is the actual rod action. Softer, parabolic actions are best suited for lighter lines and smaller lures. They not only cast the lures farther, but also absorb impact from hard striking fish and bolting runs on lighter tackle and thin wire hooks. Stouter rods are a better choice with baitcasting gear and larger lures. The longer rod also aids with boatside techniques such as the famous figure 8 tactic on muskies.

A lot has been made about gear ratio on all fishing reels. Gear ratio, of course, greatly effects retrieve speed and cranking power. The lower the gear ratio, the slower the retrieve (per complete handle revolution), and the stronger the cranking power. With that in mind, the proper reel speed choice has an awful lot to do with the type of crankbait you’re fishing, the size of its diving lip, and the speed you need to attain to create the best possible performance.

Higher speed reels with a gear ratio of over 5 to 1, are best suited for lipless crankbaits and high speed retrieves. These baits offer a minimal resistance and require speed to activate their action. Lower speed reels in the 3 to 1 or, my personal favorite 4 to 1, are the top choice for large lipped lures that create a lot of drag. The drag is reduced due to retrieve speed and gear power. Plus, the speed required to activate these plugs, and make them run an effective depth is far reduced. So the answer is to have several reels rigged and ready for various situations.

Never underestimate the importance of the actual reel spool diameter. Reels with identical gear ratios can actually have a wide variance in retrieve speed due to differences in spool diameter. Larger diameter spools simply retrieve a lot more line per revolution. This is why an underfilled baitcaster performs totally different than a full spooled reel. If you really want to slow down your speed, underfill a low geared baitcaster and see what happens. By the same token, overfill a high speed reel with a large line capacity (so reel diameter doesn’t diminish at all during the cast), and watch that bait zing thru the water like greased lightning.


Casting length is yet one final factor worth a paragraph on any crankbait discussion. Simply put, the length of line out on a cast or troll greatly influences the overall maximum running depth of the lure. Short casts create a “V” or “U” type travel path by the crankbait; and the lure will most likely never reach its potential depth. This is not always necessarily bad. The short cast, along with its reduced running depth is preferred for crankbaiting around high weed cover; especially weedy areas that vary a great deal in height. The improved control with a short cast enables you to control the lure thru weeds better, and reduces wasted casts. Long casts maximize a crankbait’s running depth potential. This creates a travel path that level out horizontally.

Long casts are the rule for low weed cover and cleaner bottoms. Long casts can also be an advantage in clear waters with spooky fish. The big sacrifice comes in overall control along with hooksetting power. On a short line you have more control and instant power and response on a hookset. A long cast that fouls the plug in weeds is almost surely a waste of time. You’ll probably have to crank in the lure, and take the weeds off. Ripping the weeds off is difficult from the long distance. The answer is to gauge your casting distance according to the cover present. General rule of thumb: the thicker the cover, the shorter the cast.

Yes, there is a science to crankbait fishing, and history has indeed proven that the crankbait just might be the most effective big musky lure of them all. Contrary to it’s generic title, crankbaits are not for the “brain dead”. Crankin’ is certainly not a mindless style of angling. Matching tackle, line test, reel speed, casting distance, and the right lure choice are all part of the formula for success. Only time on the water, combined with a good basic knowledge of lure choices and productive tactics makes it all come together.

Never forget that practice makes perfect. Study the subtle differences between the various crankbait categories discussed here, and commit yourself to fishing with them more. In the process you’re sure to make a few wrong moves, but it’s a sure bet that it won’t take very long for you to make a number of the right ones. You’ll know when the “right move” has occurred because there’ll be a tug on the other end of your line!

Leave a reply