Tuning Crankbaits

By Joe Bucher

I’ll never forget my first experience with tuning a crankbait.Again, it was back when I was still a teenager, with no money and few lures. This meant, every lure I had – had to work. And, if I had a good one, I had make sure I didn’t loose it, plus keep it running perfectly. However, both losing baits and keeping them working is always part of fishing.In addition, the north country where I live has northern pike and muskie, that make it a regular habit of engulfing an entire lure and then snipping your line.Sometimes, I think that the fishing tackle industry has employed these fish to generate sales. 

Anyway, I remember having this great little balsa crankbait that was really hot on largemouths.Working the weed flats with a bump and rise retrieve, I was taking both numbers and size from late spring throughout the entire summer period. But one late August afternoon, one of the biggest pike I had ever taken up to that point hammered my precious little cranker and literally tore it to shreds.To make matters even worse, the big fish went absolutely ballistic in the landing net.The violent thrashing, twisting, and rolling was all being levered on my fragile little balsa crankbait.

Once I finally got the big pike unraveled, unhooked, and released, I was shocked to see what was left of the plug.The wire frame was completely pulled out of the lure on one side, and partially pulled out on the lower hook hanger. On top of that, the front hook hanger was bent way off to one side. Once I finally got the lure out of the net mesh tangle, it looked doubtful that I’d ever be able to use it again. It was a mess.

Shortly, I made a short cast with it to see how it would run. It didn’t!As soon as I began a retrieve, the lure rolled upside down and popped out of the water. I was done, or so I thought. My prize lure was history. Yet, just for kicks, I took a pliers to the bait making every effort to reassemble it. This included straightening the hook hangers and forcing the wire frame back into place.I also made an effort to repair the facial cosmetics of the lure in every way possible although this appeared to be a lost cause.

Admittedly, I was amazed when the badly battered lure began its tantalizing wobble once again.I was also surprised to see it running perfectly true, in a straight line, once more.My immediate thought was, even though the finish was seriously damaged, would this bait still catch fish? It didn’t take long to find that out. A few casts later, I had another largemouth, and then another and another. Needless to say, I learned from that point on, that I could re-tune and repair just about any lure in my box. By the way, that same, badly battered Bagley crankbait still adorns my bassin’ box today.I keep it as both a fish catcher and memorabilia.


Simply put, if you do not know how to tune your crankbaits, it’s a sure bet that many of your lures will not work correctly and have virtually no chance of catching a fish.I can assure you that every successful tournament bass fisherman is a master lure tuner.In fact, I’ll bet that the majority of these technicians have actually taken the time to individually hand-tune every lure in their tackle box. I’m talking about standing off the end of a dock or even at the corner of a swimming pool and checking the track and wobble of each crankbait.Working with either a pair of pliers, or one of the new specialized tuning tools, every effort is made to make sure each lure tracks perfectly.When money is on the line, these top professionals are convinced that a correctly tuned lure does indeed make a difference. You should to.

What has always amazed me about the subject of lure tuning is how few anglers actually realize when a lure is out-of-tune. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to make the claim that over 90% of today’s fishermen have no idea how a lure is suppose to work. They don’t know when a lure is out-of-tune, and also have no idea how to correct it. I was always reminded of this reality on nearly a daily basis when I was still guiding full-time. Typically, a customer would snap on a favorite lure and starting bombing away without regard to its performance. I’d often watch in utter amazement as the customer fished with the off-track bait for hour after hour without noticing anything odd. The few who did notice that something wasn’t right would simply change lures instead of fixing the problem.

What I’m going to attempt to do in this article is help the angler identify when a lure is out-of-tune, and then, what simple steps need to be taken in order to correct the problem. Both of these issues first need some awareness by the angler. Those who blindly cast a lure out and reel it in, with no attention paid to how the lure is tracking, can not hope to ever learn the fine art of tuning a crankbait. One needs to be concentrating on the lure at all times. This means visually watching the lure work whenever possible, as well as, the more difficult task, studying the lure’s vibration patterns.

Once you’ve identified that a lure is not working properly, the next step is to identify precisely what the lure is doing that you don’t like. Is it running to the left? Is its wobble too tight? Try to identify what exactly the problem is. This is the first step in tuning a lure – recognizing that there is a problem, and precisely what that problem is. Then, and only then, can a lure be correctly tuned. It’s also important to identify the exact malfunction with the lure so that you’ll know what corrective measured to take.

The next step is in knowing what to do to correct the malfunction. Once you know what to do, this part of the problem-solving is actually quite easy. For example, if the lure is running left, simply bending the line tie to the right, to some degree, usually corrects the problem. If the wobble is too tight, bending the line tie upward usually widens the stroke. In other words, you not only need to be able to diagnose a problem crankbait, but then know how what measures will fix it. Like I’ve said already, this whole process is actually very easy.



The primary desire of any angler is to have a crankbait track true. This means the lure should run in straight line during retrieve. Sometimes lures are so out-of-tune that it’s blatantly obvious, but other times it’s very slight and only reveals itself when under high rates of speed. Speed is the true test of a crankbait’s track. A tracking problem rarely shows up when a lure is trolled or retrieved slowly. If it does, of course, the lure is seriously out-of-tune. Tracking problems jump out when the speed is put on. 

In fact, my favorite way to “speed tune” a bunch of crankbaits is to actually do it under the power of an outboard. I’ll simply adjust my outboard to a fairly quick trolling speed of 3 to 5 miles an hour and then begin tuning my baits. Tuning alongside the boat enables you to closely visualize the lure’s track all the time unlike trying to adjust it with a series of casts where you don’t actually see the lure for more than about 20% of the time. Whenever possible, I recommend tuning your crankbaits against the power of an outboard for this reason. Once you’ve tuned a crankbait against trolling speeds near five miles an hour, they’ll surely stay in tune for any casting presentation.

The first thing I check when a crankbait is running off-track is the position of all the hook hangers, as well as the line tie. All of these components must be anchored to the lure in-line. If anyone of these hardware items are bent to any degree, it’s probable that the lure will run off-line. Some lures are more sensitive to such things than others, but it’s still a basic fundamental of lure tuning – check the hardware first. If any hardware is bent, this is probably the culprit right off the bat. Straighten out the hardware (hook hangers and line tie), and you’ll likely correct the problem with no further attention needed.

The next thing to check is the front line-tie. If the line-tie is visibly off-center, this is undoubtedly the problem. The main connection to your line, the line-tie, must be perfectly centered, in-line with axis of your plug. If it is bent left or right of center, it is unlikely that the lure will track true. A bent line-tie is easily straightened with a pair of needle nose pliers on most lures, although many heavy duty musky bait contain much stouter hardware which requires a beefier set of pliers.

A few years ago, my good friend Tom Gelb designed a special tool for tuning crankbaits that he simply nicknamed “The Lure Tuner”. This is an outstanding device that is shaped somewhat like a pencil with an open slot on one end. The slot fits over the line-tie. One can then bend the tuner left or right to straighten out the line tie. Tom Gelb’s Lure Tuner enables the angler to finely tune a lure’s line-tie in order to get precision tracking with no fear of damage to the line tie itself. Gripping the line tie with a pair of pliers may actually damage the line tie on some lures as well as pinch gouges in the line tie wire. The Lure Tuner is also a lot easier to apply to a smaller line-tie than a pair of pliers. Finally, the Lure Tuner is far less apt to damage your fishing line than the ridged jaws of a pliers.

If a lure doesn’t track true after the line tie and hook hangers have been visibly straightened, the next approach is to actually overbend the front line tie to one side or the other in order to straighten it out. The general rule of thumb here is basically to bend that front line-tie in the opposite direction from its tracking problem. For example, if the lure continues to run to the right, bend the front line tie to the left. Continue this “left” over-compensation until the lure tracks straight. This is the basic fundamental system used to tune a crankbait. Always remember the basic rule of thumb – bend the front line tie in the opposite direction.


Beyond tuning the track of a crankbait, there are other things than one can do with some crankbaits are that rarely noted. For one, the tightness or looseness of wobble can be adjusted on many crankbaits young and old, as well as the overall running depth. This is done by either bending the diving lip, which can only be done on some of the older metal lip models, or bending the line tie up or down. The later is the choice with most of today’s plastic lipped versions. In either case, it’s important to know that you can alter the action on many of your lures by fooling with the line-tie or diving lip.

I like to play with the diving lip angle on many of my older metal lipped lures in order to tighten or loosen the action. Many of those older metal lipped crankbaits such as the Cisco Kid, Pike Minnow, Mudbug, Bomber, and Hellbender can be tuned tighter or looser in order to produce a slightly different action than normal. As we discussed in detail in an earlier chapter, the diving lip angle is critical to both the diving depth attainable as well as the specific action of the plug. Generally speaking, the more parallel the lip is to the lure’s body, the tighter the action, and the deeper the lure will run. Conversely, the more perpendicular a lip is to the lure body, the wider the wobble and the shallower it will travel. Playing with the angle on the diving lip is one way to adjust both the running depth and action.

Decreasing the running depth, a touch, with a favorite crankbait is accomplishable by adjusting the diving lip angle downward on most metal lipped lures. A slight downward bend should make it track a bit shallower. Of course, it will also wobble wider, too. This small modification can have huge results in some fishing situations where fish are holding at a specific depth, and are reluctant to move up or down to take the bait. This can also help a bunch when fishing around a trashy bottom that levels off at a specific depth that is a bit too shallow for the normal tracking depth of the plug. Bending the lip down might decrease the running depth enough to eliminate bottom plowing, and enable the lure to run inches above the trash.

The running depth can be increased slightly be a reversal of this procedure. Bend that diving lip upwards, toward the point of perfect parallel, and the lure should run a bit deeper, and wobble tighter. If you suspect that your lure is tracking a bit above the fish zone, this slight tune-up, might make a difference. This adjustment has made the day for me on several noted occasions. Whenever I’m trying to bounce hard bottom and not quite reaching it, bending a metal diving lip upwards has sometimes accomplished the task..

Of course, you can’t bend fixed plastic lips. If you try, they’ll either break off or simply flex back into their original molded positions. Some gutsy lure modifiers have actually taken a match or lighter to a plastic lip, heating it slightly in order to make it bend. This has worked well with some lures, but is never an exact science. It is also a virtual guarantee that you’re going to ruin a few lures when attempting this. In most cases, you’re better off switching lures, going to a lighter gauge line, or adding weight in order to gain more running depth. However, there are some situations where, if you get good at this advanced modification, you could create some super unique fish catchers. This can be done to either make a lure run deeper or shallower. But be prepared to ruin a few baits until you master this process.

You can alter the action slightly on plastic lipped lures by bending the line tie forward/backward, upward or downward. This is best done with a Lure Tuner, but can also be adjusted with a pair of pliers. In fact, if I didn’t own a Lure Tuner, I’d suggest attempting this modification with a needlenose vice-grip pliers. Both the Lure Tuner and the vice-grip pliers will fit firmly around the line tie in order to move it without damaging the hardware or the diving lip. Of course, this entire process is much easier done with smaller lures and lighter wire hardware. It’s tough to bend the hardware on many of the larger muskie style lures to any extent.

However, the action on many smaller bass and walleye crankbaits can be modified slightly by this little known tuning secret. To widen the wobble, bend the line-tie up. To tighten the wobble, bend it down. On some lures, the improvement is nothing more than subtle. However, it can greatly enhance the wobble on certain baits, and that’s why it is worth a try at times. This rarely used tuning trick is especially effective on minnow baits. I’ve successfully altered the action on many of my Rogues, Rapalas, and Rebels by bending the line-tie up or down.

There is one more point that may be worth noting, on the subject of line-tie alterations. It involves a specific group of lures, older ones for the most part, that have a screw-in line-tie. Whenever you see a screw-in line-tie, the action can be altered by unscrewing the line-tie (screw eye), and re-anchoring it either closer to the lure body or farther way in order to alter its action. Just as we learned in one of our earlier chapters, position of the line-tie on any lure body or fixed diving lip greatly effects both action and running depth. Experiment with various placements of the screw-in line-tie to tighten or widen the wobble.

Summarily, the most important tuning trick you can learn is to simply correct lures that run left or right of center. Keep close tabs on all of your lures to make certain they are first off tracking in a straight line. Remember that speed is the true test of a lure’s tracking ability. Put some speed on your retrieve in order to really check its tune. If the lure tracks straight at high rates of speed, you can confidently use it under any situation. If it doesn’t, you now know how to correct it. I own a number of Lure Tuners, both large and small, and keep them in an easily accessible location. In fact, when I’m really fishing crankbaits hard, I’ll keep a Lure Tuner in my belt pack that contains a fish unhooking pliers. I really do consider it a “must” tool.

Once you’ve really know what a crankbait runs like when it’s in-tune, and know how to easily tune one, you’ll find it hard to tolerate any lure that isn’t tuned properly. Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to pre-tune as many of your crankbaits as possible. This can be done off a dock or even at the local motel’s swimming pool. One of my favorite times to fine-tune a bunch of crankbaits is whenever I’m trolling open water with planer boards. I’ll simply let my partner take over the helm, and begin tuning a bunch of my newer lures alongside the boat using the power of the outboard to initiate the action.

No matter how you do it or when, never underestimate the importance of tuning your crankbaits. Properly tuned crankbaits dive deeper, track truer and simply catch more fish. A finely tuned crankbait is simply a thing of beauty. A perfect creation of sorts. A joy to fish. You get the absolute most out of your crankbaits when they’re correctly tuned. Personally, I refused to fish with an un-tuned lure. Once you know better, I’m certain you’ll feel exactly the same way.

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 www.joebucher.com 

Leave a reply