Modifying Crankbaits

By Joe Bucher

As my rodbent for the 15th time, I just had to give in. I couldn’t keep it a secret any longer. After all, this wasn’t some duel between two tournament combatants, this was father and son, enjoying an afternoon on the water.. My dad certainly was not a patient man to begin with, nor an overly polite fellow when he wasn’t catching fish. He hadn’t gotten a single strike along the entire weed bed, yet the fish were murdering my bait. To make matters even worse, dad was casting an identical bait.Well, at least he thought so. “What the heck is wrong with this bait”, He muttered in frustration? “We’re throwing the same crankbait at these fish, yet you’re tearin’ ‘em up, and I can’t get even get a bump. You’ve caught walleyes, smallmouths, and northern right along side me. I’m the first to say you’re good, but you ain’t that good. What the heck is going on here?” 

“It’s the hooks dad”, I finally admitted. “I’m running a larger set of trebles.” He looked at me in total disbelief, “the what? How can a different set of hooks on the same bait make that much of a difference?” As I dipped the landing net on yet another walleye, I exposed my secret. While our lures were technically both size 13 Rapalas, mine was much older, and it had one size larger trebles on it. The original hooks had rusted badly over the previous winter, and when I replaced them, these were the only sizes I had to work with. By accident, I had stumbled on to something special. The slightly larger sized trebles made the skinny balsa floater far less buoyant, and also enabled it to run deeper with slightly less side wobble (action). The fact that it was older and had caught tons of fish already probably added to the lure’s lack of buoyancy since it no doubt had absorbed a lot of water. In essence, I had created an early suspending version of the Rapala without purposely trying.

Dad’s newer model with smaller factory hooks was much more buoyant. It would skim only a few feet below the surface, far above the weed tops. My old timer, on the other hand, tracked below the line of sight and occasionally even ticked the weed tops. It also stayed down at this slightly deeper depth with a slower retrieve. The older version with the larger set of trebles simply ran closer to the actual level the fish were holding at, which was the very tops of the weeds. As insignificantly subtle as this variance may seem to some, it often makes a huge difference when fish aren’t in a chasing mood. The closer a lure comes to fish in this situation, the more success you’re going to have.

“I still can’t believe those bigger hooks would make that big of a difference”, Joe Sr. exclaimed. “These fish can’t be that picky”. I agreed only to make him feel better, but the simple fact was that they really were “that picky”. To prove the point beyond a doubt, I offered to switch lures. Dad refused at first, but once I set the hook on fish # 16 two casts later, he was ready to test my trick. Within minutes, I heard his unmistakable hookset grunt. “By golly, this bait really is better”, he said with a surprise. “I’d never have believed it, if I hadn’t seen it happen myself.” Dad ended up taking three more walleyes with that old modified Rapala before we called it a night. I never caught another fish, by the way.

This is but one example of how one simple modification on a crankbait can make a world of difference in its productivity. While factory lures, straight out of the box, work exceptionally well the majority of the time, there are those unique situations where applying some ingenuity can spell the difference. Most of the time, it’s the slight modifications such as the one just described make the biggest impact on a lure’s fish catching potential. Modifications such as these are almost unperceivable to the naked eye at first glance. I’ve found that these are usually the best modifications since they do not detract from the lure’s original outward design cosmetics, yet they alter its action in a slight, but positive way. With this in mind, let’s examine a few of the most simple ways to modify an existing crankbait in order to enhance certain performance characteristics to fit a specific fishing situation.

One of the easiest ways to change the running depth, buoyancy, action and even hooking performance of a crankbait without drilling, sawing, or any other cosmetic alterations is to simply change hook sizes. I have to admit that I am always doing just this with my favorite bass and walleye crankbaits in order to make them a bit more versatile. Generally speaking, you’ll find that you can easily alter the buoyancy and action of almost any crankbait by simply going up or down in hook size. The thickness or actual weight of one treble hook model over another also has a noticeable bearing. The smaller and more subtle the action is on a specific lure, the more noticeable a simple hook change modification will be on the plug’s action.

When a more buoyant lure is desired for fishing in and around high topping submergent cover such as weeds, switch to a smaller or thinner gauge treble hook. The slight reduction in overall hook weight is sure to improve buoyancy. An added benefit from the switch to lighter gauge hooks is often additional side wobble, flash, and vibration. This can be a big plus whenever big gamefish are tucked tight to thick shallow cover. The added buoyancy will enable the lure to rise out of snag ups easier, plus the superior flash and vibration is sure to trigger more strikes from cover-tight, less active fish.

There are several potential drawbacks to any modification, and “going down” in hook size is not immune to fallout. For one, whenever you go down or smaller in a hook size, you risk creating two new problems: 1) trackability, and 2) hookability. Remember that most manufacturers decide on a certain hook size for their lures after some extensive testing. This testing is not only gauged on a lure’s fish catching potential, but more so it’s ability to track straight and true; even at excessive speeds. The weight of hooks beneath any given lure create a keel effect. Without hooks beneath a lure’s body, most crankbaits will simply roll out and not wiggle, wobble or track at all. In other words, the hooks on almost every crankbait perform a critical function – balance. Change the hooks on any crankbait and you risk altering its balance.

Luckily, the astute crankbait angler has a bit of an engineering mind, and is able to make the corrections necessary to fine tune almost any crankbait. Checking the crankbait’s “track” is first and foremost on the list once the hooks are changed; particularly when “going down” in hook size. This is easily done by bending the front line tie left or right in order to straighten a lure that runs off center. We deal with this issue in much detail in the chapter “Tuning Crankbaits”. But it should be worth noting that many lures become more track sensitive when a lighter weight hook replaces the factory ones.

Instead of “going down” in hook size in order to improve a lure’s buoyancy, flash and vibration for shallow cover applications, I often opt to stick with the same factory size, but go to a lighter gauge (weight) treble. In other words, if the particular lure being modified currently carries a pair of size two trebles, I’ll stick with that same size #2, but simply change the style. The philosophy here is to find a hook that is lighter in weight without reducing hook size. The main reason for this is to maintain the lure’s ability to hook fish well. Dropping down in hook size can really reduce hooking effectiveness particularly if the lure has a lot of body mass. Fatter crankbaits require wider gap hooks in order to place hook points outside the restrictive body mass. Otherwise, a fish’s mouth is apt to bite down on the large body mass of the lure with no hook points ever actually touching, let alone penetrating the fish’s mouth flesh in any way.

With that in mind, you can easily improve the hooking quality of any fat bodied crankbait by replacing factory hooks with premium sharp wide gap versions. Always keep tabs on any lure’s hooking capabilities. Tournament anglers have to be astutely aware of this factor. A lure that attracts a lot of strikes is certainly one worth using, but if it loses a high percentage of fish, it must be modified in order to improve this scorecard. Discarding factory hooks and replacing them with a thin wire, wide gap, premium wire hook will usually solve the problem.

Premium grade hooks, by the way, are almost always the way to go; especially if you’re going to go with light wire trebles. Hook manufacturing has come a long way in the last few years, and no doubt will continue to improve. You can now purchase hooks from manufacturers such as VMC and Gamagatsu that are extremely sharp that are made of a superior grade metal tempers. While these hooks are often too expensive to add to any lure direct from the factory, serious fishermen wouldn’t hesitate to add them to their lures in order to upgrade their hooking characteristics even a small amount. Usually, they (premium hooks) do even more than that. They’re really that much better.

Anyone who’s overly concerned with the aspect of hook strength must consider purchasing the newer premium grade hooks. By utilizing superior technology and materials manufacturers are able to provide an equally strong hook with far less metal surface. The benefits here are a sharper, faster penetrating hook, as well as a lighter weight one. Faster penetrating hooks with needle sharpness enable the angler to get a much higher percentage of hook ups on big gamefish when working lures at slower speeds and with lighter tackle. The bigger the fish, the more important fast deep hook penetration becomes.

Adding a heavier weight hook to a crankbait is also an often used modification. While reducing hook size has a tendency to improve buoyancy, vibration and side flash, increasing hook size usually does just the opposite. First off, larger heavier weight hooks decrease buoyancy. This may be desirable in some fishing situations in order to make a lure run slightly deeper, and keep it at that depth. This is precisely what the larger set of trebles did to my old Rapala in the opening story here. It made that old “warhorse” run deeper and stay down there with far less speed.

Larger, heavier weight hooks also improve the keel on almost any crankbait. Any crankbait that gives you tuning trouble can often be cured by simply adding larger hooks. More weight beneath the lure gives it additional ballast. This can be a very desirable feature for the trolling enthusiast. Motor trolling speeds may far exceed those created by any casting presentation. Higher speeds are the ultimate field tests of any crankbaits trackability. Anytime you run into an aggravating tuning problem with a crankbait while trolling, consider modifying it with a larger, heavier weight set of hooks. This usually solves the problem.

Of course, the biggest drawback to heavier gauge hooks is a reduction in action, flash and vibration. While this may not turn out to be a big deal with some lures, it can be critical with others. I saw this first hand recently on a fall Canadian trip for big pike and muskies. My partner, Mike Novak, and I found most of the catchable fish to be up inside remaining clumps of milfoil weeds, but they were reluctant to come out. None of these fish would chase a high riding lure such as a spinnerbait. The only bait they’d even take a swipe at were jerkbaits. However, because of dark turbid water color combined with cooling air and water temperatures, the fish seemed extra sluggish and cover-tight. Only a perfectly placed cast over top a milfoil patch with a minnow bait would produce strikes. And, the only minnow bait that they would take produced a noticably strong rod tip vibration when pulled forward.

Mike and I had purposely rigged heavier gauge treble hooks on most of our big minnow baits to reduce their buoyancy so they could be worked with slower retrieve speeds. We also went with beefier forged hooks so we could muscle the bigger fish out of thick weed cover without fear of hook bend-out. However, this heavy duty outfitting didn’t impress the fish one bit. While our modified minnow baits suspended nicely over top the weeds, they produced minimal flash and vibration, and they got caught up in the weeds a lot. But most of all, they simply weren’t triggering fish.

While experimenting with various color patterns on the 2nd afternoon, I happened to snap on an old beat up firetiger pattern in an effort to improve flash potential. My first pass with this lure produced a 45 incher that violently roared out of the middle of a milfoil patch to strike the jerking/flashing lure. While unhooking the fish in the net, I noticed the that this model still had thin wire trebles. Not wanting to switch at this point, more out of laziness than anything else, I continued using the same lure. Within a short time, I caught another muskie of 42 inches and a huge pike that was every bit as big as the muskie; both on that same lure.

Thinking that it was a color issue, Mike switched to a firetiger pattern, but four hours later he still had no action. We both began to wonder if it wasn’t the variance in hook weight, and the additional vibration the lure had with lighter hooks. In an effort to check it out, Mike switched to a minnow bait with lighter wire hooks. I also tried a different colored minnow bait with the same light wire hooks. Guess what happened? Mike started catching fish, and I continued to trigger strikes with the different color. The answer here was definitely the lighter gauge hooks. They reduced the weight underneath the lure, thus improving the bait’s flash and vibration. Again, a subtle modification that made a huge difference, and all it really came down to was changing the hooks. Although it may be simple, changing the hooks on your crankbaits can greatly impact your productivity in many instances.


More has been written lately about adding stick-on lead tape to various crankbaits than perhaps any other fishing subject. This is especially true in bass fishing publications. Bass tournament pros and full-time professional bass guides have elevated this particular lure modification almost to an art form. In an effort to present something slightly different to highly pressured fish, or at least make it run slightly deeper and hold in place a bit longer, bass anglers are adding weight to various commercial crankbaits.

Those are the three basic reasons for adding weight to crankbaits: 1) to make it run deeper, and 2) to make it hold in place or suspend longer, and 3) to improve trackability. Any weight added to a crankbait is sure to decrease its buoyancy somewhat and therefore accomplish both of these goals to some extent. The amount of weight added, of course, determines just how much the lure’s buoyancy will be altered. Small circles or strips of lead tape enable the angler to make the most subtle buoyancy alterations.

Adding any amount of weight to any lure will also altered the lure’s action, too; much the same as adding heavier hooks does. The more weight that’s added, the less side-to-side wobbling action it will have. The trick here is to add just enough to accomplish the task. Determining what the task is – is important before adding any weight. You need to ask yourself – what am I adding this weight for? What am I trying to accomplish?

Determining precisely where weight should be attached to the lure is also worth noting. In almost every case, weight is best added to the belly side of crankbaits. Adding weight to the underside improves overall ballast with minimal effect on action. This, of course, immediately improves the lure’s trackability. Attaching weight to the top of a crankbait is not only more cosmetically detracting, but it can upset the critical balance on some lures, as well. Keeling the crankbait is nearly always a primary concern. You never want to create a tracking problem. Attach weight to the lure’s sides and you again mess with cosmetics, and possibly still chance altering the lure’s track. Keep weight underneath the lure and you almost can’t go wrong.

A “can’t miss” formula for adding stick-on weight to crankbaits is to attach the tape near the center balancing point underneath the lure. On most lures this is right in back of the front hook hanger. This is the best way to decrease buoyancy without disturbing the lure’s original action. If your task is to simply develop a “suspender” crankbait, one which neither floats nor sinks, attaching stick-on weight to the underside of a crankbait near the center balancing point can’t be beat. The ideal “suspender” hangs perfectly horizontal when paused. Adding weight more towards the tail or head, in this case, prevents this neutral/horizontal suspension. Some proficient anglers are emphatic that this kind of weighting position is critical since it replicates a natural baitfish more realistically. It is thought that more fish are likely to strike a suspender that hangs in this manner. Perfect “hang time” is thus obtained.

Improved depth diving performance is also possible through subtle weighting of commercial crankbaits. However, precise weight positioning varies a bit from a “suspender”. Again, that’s why you must determine why you’re weighting the lure. If you could care less about the crankbait’s suspending nature, and are just interested in increasing its depth diving capability, I recommend weighting the lure entirely different.

One of the best ways to increase a lure’s diving potential is to nose-weight the lure. The objective here is to force the lure’s nose downward at a stronger angle, thus increasing the dig on the diving lip. For example, most floating/diving crankbaits rest horizontally on the water’s surface before any retrieve is initiated. As soon as the lure is pulled forward, water pushes against the diving lip surface forcing the tail up and nose down. A diving nature presumes as the lure is continually driven forward. However, if that lure can be made to rest vertically, nose-down on the water’s surface, it stands to reason that it will dig deeper quicker. In a practical sense, this actually does happen. The lure is already pointed in the direction you want it to go. Any forward movement initiated on this lure will simply move in the direction it’s pointed.

Several commercially produced crankbaits are now actually weighted in the manner. Some are even off-shoots of a previously popular unweighted model. They dive significantly deeper than their counterparts and are great performers when additional diving depth is required. Of course, crankbaits weighted in this manner do loose some ability to back out of snags. This is especially true when too much weight is added making the lure either barely float or even sink. Therefore, these lures are most useful over clean hard bottom spots and are poor choices for weeds or even silty bottoms.

Adding stick-on weight towards the tail portion of a crankbait has its applications, as well. I especially like to add weight towards the tail portions of my minnow baits for several reasons. A tail weighted minnow bait automatically casts better. Minnow baits in general tend to cast poorly, although not all minnow baits fall into this stereotype. Tail-light minnow baits catch the wind unpredictably and blow off course. Gusty winds compound the problem. This can be extremely frustrating when trying to cast to pinpoint targets. If that target happens to be around exposed trees and brush, you’ll also likely get a lot of tangled, fouled casts. Not a pretty sight. Add weight conservatively to the tail portion of almost any minnow bait and it’s surely going to improve your casting accuracy. The key is to add just enough weight without severely upsetting the lure’s action.

Another advantage I’ve noticed with tail weighting minnow baits leans more towards its ability to attract and trigger fish. Minnow baits that rise “nose up” tend to trigger a lot more fish. Tail-heavy/nose-light minnow baits also react to any jerking action with much more lateral movement. It’s always been my contention that creating lateral movement on your lures triggers more strikes. Any following, stalking predator fish simply can’t stand lateral movement. The abrupt directional change here is key. Fish muskies for any length of time and you’ll discover this secret. ‘Wanna trigger a following muskie? Get some abrupt directional change. A tail weighted minnow bait changes direction from left to right with every jerk and pause.

As long as you can get a tail weighted minnow bait to wiggle, wobble, vibrate and flash to your liking, you’ll probably catch more fish on it than any comparable model. Here’s where spending a few hours experimenting with adding stick-on weights to your minnow baits at a local swimming pool can pay big dividends down the road. Once again, modifications make all the difference. Fine tune your minnow baits so they rise slightly nose up and you’ll have some deadly secret weapons. The difference will be negligible as they rest in your tacklebox trays, but tie one of them on and they become a stick of dynamite.


Hall of Fame angler Joe Bucher is the Editor Emeritus for Musky Hunter Magazine and one the most highly recognized multi-species fishing and hunting authorities in the outdoor business trade. Joe is the host of Fishing with Joe Bucher TV show which has been on the air for over 20 years. For more information on Joe please visit his website at JoeBucher.Com 

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