By Steve Heiting, Managing Editor
Whenever you’re faced with cold water, a cold day or a cold front, a crankbait is often the best lure choice you can make. In the hands of an angler who understands their applications, crankbaits can be tremendously effective for big fish.
Why? Crankbaits are designed to bump, bounce and grind their way against structure and over cover, producing fish-attracting flash at a greater depth than many musky baits commonly run. A big musky that is holding deeper because of the conditions probably won’t give more than a passing glance to a high-riding bucktail or topwater, but its reaction to a crankbait in its face may be much more favorable.
There are four considerations when choosing a musky crankbait — its diving lip; its buoyancy; whether the bait has a jointed, one-piece or hybrid body; and its size. Since the diving lip gives the bait its action and is what sets it apart from other “plugs,” let’s start there.
Diving lips are pieces of plastic or stainless steel that extend off the front of a crankbait. Generally, the more parallel to the body the deeper the crankbait will dive; conversely, the more perpendicular to the body the shallower the crankbait will run. The angle at which a crankbait runs is called its “attitude.”
A crankbait that wiggles with a nose-down attitude will use its lip to protect its hooks from fouling on weeds or hanging up on wood or rocks, while a crankbait that runs more horizontally does a poorer job of keeping its hooks clean. Therefore, crankbaits that run more nose-down are better to fish around weeds or debris on the bottom, whereas horizontal-runners are generally better in open water situations.
Of course, lip shape affects a crankbait’s action, too. Crankbaits with a long, pointy lip tend to dive deeply but bounce off potential snags, while rounded lips induce more of a subtle, “rolling” action and can be very effective when muskies are less aggressive. A squared-off lip tends to produce the most violent action and is best when muskies are more active. Square lips are extremely proficient at preventing snags, and baits so equipped are very effective when cast to shallow rocks.
Metal lips offered on some crankbaits can be bent to meet almost any situation.
A lure’s buoyancy is affected by its construction, with certain types of wood being more buoyant than others, and hollow plastic usually being the most buoyant. A wider-bodied hollow plastic bait has more air trapped inside, thus making the lure more buoyant. Thin-bodied, hollow plastic crankbaits are less buoyant, and those made with solid plastic tend to be the least buoyant — in fact, some will even suspend or sink slowly at rest.
A crankbait with a thin body, with wide, flat sides, (often referred to as a minnowbait) tends to produce a lot of flash. If the bait has a large profile behind the head, it can fool a musky looking for a big meal into thinking it’s a much larger lure than it really is.
A hollow plastic crankbait’s buoyancy can be adjusted by drilling a small hole into an air chamber and filling it as desired with cooking oil (water may freeze and split the bait). Seal the hole with a tiny wood screw. Or, you can add small ball bearings or lead shot to alter a lure’s buoyancy and add a rattle that may be very effective in dark or dirty water situations.
The lure’s body design is important to crankbait selection. Straight-bodied baits have a tighter wiggle and may be better in post-frontal or late fall scenarios, whereas a jointed-bodied bait produces more wobbling action and may be better for active fish. Straight-bodied baits tend to be most buoyant. Another consideration is the soft plastic tail added to some crankbaits. The tail will produce some buoyancy and affect the lure’s ability to dive; at the same time, however, the tail yields more wiggle during the retrieve and will produce fish-attracting movement when the lure is paused.
Finally, choose the bait’s size for the situation. In early season or post-frontal conditions you may wish to use a smaller bait; otherwise try to match the preferred forage in the area.
So, which crankbait is the right one for your situation? If you are fishing in deeper water where weeds or submerged wood could foul your bait, you want a lure with a pointed lip and nose-down attitude such as a straight-model DepthRaider, Cisco Kid or Ernie. A Believer or jointed DepthRaider might also be good choices thanks to their buoyancy, but tend to run more horizontally. A skilled crankbaiter can be deadly with these baits around weeds, while others may prefer to pound them against rocky bottoms.
When fishing in relatively shallow water where weed fouling isn’t a concern, but you may bump some rocks, choose a flat-sided crankbait with a rounded lip, such as a Slammer, Grandma or Jake in their various sizes. Other good choices but with a square lip would be a ShallowRaider (again, multiple sizes), Slammer Minnow or Shallow Invader.
Any of the above crankbaits can be very good when seeking suspended muskies in open water situations, though flat-sided minnowbaits can be exceptional because of their flash. A Triple D is a solid-plastic crankbait that has proven outstanding for suspended fish — when twitched, it will kick out to the sides like a glider jerkbait.
Simple straight cranking can be effective, but add twitches and occasional rips throughout the retrieve to make the action more erratic, which in turn triggers more muskies. In cold front or water situations, less often means more, so use a pause rather than a twitch or rip.
In this day of giant bucktails and soft plastics, crankbaits tend to be overlooked by the masses. While they may not be the lure du jour, crankbaits continue to produce giant muskies, only a little more quietly.