Choosing Crankbaits UPDATED

Do you find it confusing when looking through racks of lures in tackle shops? You want to quickly walk out with two or three lures for a local venue, but there’s hundreds to choose from. You spend longer in there than intended and still walk out with lures you are unsure of! You are not alone. In fact, most retailers I talk to are just as confused as you are and struggle to offer the advice you need. The subject is much too complex to expect them to be fully conversant with it. My job with the Rapala/Shimano group is to assist retailers and help our customers to make the right decisions which will not only save them time and money, but also catch more fish, which is why we go into a tackle shop in the first place!

In the spring months, when pike are hungry after spawning, and as the summer draws to an end and pike become much more active after their summer lethargy,
lure fishing really takes off in shallower lowland venues like rivers, drains and lakes. Pike will be feeding in the higher layers of the water at these times, which is not a bad thing from the angler’s point of view as bottom weed will still be a problem for many months to come yet on most venues. They may start to become reluctant to attack surface and sub surface lures, and you may need to find a lure which works at a specific depth to make contact with them. The perfect lure for putting the angler in control in this situation is the crankbait.


First of all, I will define what I mean by a crankbait. It has slightly different interpretations, but I see it as a hard bodied fish-shaped lure which floats initially but dives when reeled (cranked) in by the angler. It could also be made to dive by trolling it behind a boat. When the angler stops reeling, it returns to the surface, but more sophisticated models can be made to suspend for a short time before slowly rising to the surface again. There are other variations which I will also deal with in this article. ‘Crankbait’ is an American term and in the UK we would most likely call them plugs.

If you look along the lure racks in tackle shops, and through manufacturers catalogues, you will see that crankbaits have an enormous presence. This is why the confusion of choice occurs. How the devil do you pick a couple of lures from so many which, at first glance, don’t seem a lot different other than in size and colour?

In defence of manufacturers, they don’t set out to confuse us but are doing so by offering us so much choice, which is all well and good for experienced lure anglers but not, I suggest, for the majority of their customers. With this in mind, I will try to take a logical look at crankbaits to help you decide which ones to buy.

What Shape?

Different body profiles have been developed by manufacturers to match prey fish around the world, not only in freshwater but in the sea as well. This gives pike anglers an excellent chance to match the prey fish in their local venues. Pike are not always fussy and will often attack any profile, but there will be times when a particular shape works better. My recommendation would be to have a few of each shape in your lure collection and chop and change them through a session to see whether there is a preference. If you don’t, you will never know!

Most crankbaits fall into one of three shape categories.

(Click the links to see the lures and their specifications)

Shads – regular fish shaped lures. Their profile is similar to our most common prey fish such as roach and perch making them a very popular choice. They respond very well to a steady retrieve. A typical example would be the Rapala Shad Rap.

Minnows –profiles similar to long slim species like chub, dace and bleak. Often have a delicate original floater shimmering action typical of a wounded prey fish. Rod tip action often gets the best result from them and can really make them dart and keel very much like injured prey. A typical example would be the Rapala Original Floater. (pictured right)
 

Fat bodies – rounded and bulbous in shape. They usually have a wide rolling action and bumble along in such a way that they cannot go unnoticed. Due to their compact nature, they are often suited to very long casting. Fat bodied lures don’t seem to match any prey fish in UK waters and yet they can sometimes be fantastic pike catchers. A typical example would be the Scatter Rap Crank.

Casting or Trolling?

Before going any further, it is very worthwhile looking at the difference between crankbaits used for casting and those intended for trolling. Any crankbait that can be used for casting can be trolled. That’s quite logical as you just let the boat do the work and have the advantage of the lure being in the water for longer and covering more distance. Dedicated trolling crankbaits, however, cannot easily be cast or at least cast in an effective manner. This is where some confusion arises because some trolling lures look like crankbaits but are not practical for this purpose. It is not really correct to even call them crankbaits because of this, but as they look like crankbaits it’s important to understand the difference.

To explain why they are different, we have to look at the diving vane (sometimes called the lip) which protrudes from the front of the lure adjacent to the trace clip. Its shape and angle determine how rapidly it dives and to how deep it dives. They become dedicated trolling lures when a normal cast would not have enough retrieve time to get them to their working depth or keep them there long enough to be effective. Deep diving lures are easy to identify by the shallow angle of the diving vane. As a rule of thumb, lipped baits which dive deeper than about ten feet are better trolled to get them deep enough and fishing effectively.

We can now start to refine our search as the manufacturers packaging should tell you how deep each lure is intended to dive to. Some even have the working depth printed on the product. For all intents and purposes, we are looking for cranks which dive down to about ten feet, and these should be easy to use for their intended purpose in most UK lowland waters at this time of year. You can see now that it is easy to eliminate many lures on the shop racks from your search simply by looking at their diving depth and remembering that pike will be feeding high in the water at this time.

What size?

You should by now be able to choose from three basic shapes and pick a working depth to suit where you are fishing. It may sound basic, but if the venue you are fishing is typically eight feet deep, then you do not want to choose cranks which work any deeper than that. The next thing you will notice is that they come in different sizes. Expect to see crankbaits from as little as 3 cm long up to about 15 cm. I would eliminate the smaller sizes for pike, but if perch are also likely to feature in your catch, then by all means consider them. To get the best from these relatively small lures, it is best to choose a rod, reel and line combination which balances them. I’m currently using a Shimano Vengeance SVAX 21M, 2.1 metre spinning rod which casts lures of 10 to 30 gms. Used in conjunction with a Shimano Catana 2500FC fixed spool reel and Suffix 832 (or Power Pro) 20lb breaking strain braid line, it’s a great combination which won’t break the bank to get you started. If you are fishing bigger or snaggy waters, you might want to get a more powerful version of this rod and a stronger line. Pike will take very small lures, but I find that cranks in the 9 to 15 cm range to be ideal. Once again, it’s worth having a few different sizes in your collection to see if the pike show a preference. They often do!

What colour?

We are so lucky today to have a wonderful range of crankbait colours to choose from. They are no longer limited to simple solid colours but frequently have amazing attractive finishes to help make them more convincing and noticeable. There are holographic finishes, reflective finishes and metallic finishes to name but a few, and they each add a little something extra to the way the lure appears to the pike. The skill is in combining these features with rod tip action and making use of the lures inbuilt action to try and find the winning combination that catches fish. Many do not believe this to be true and put it all down to luck. American and Continental competition anglers prove this wrong time and time again with their finely tuned lures. They put most of us who think we are good lure anglers into the shade in comparison to their fish catching skills.

Within these different finishes are a multitude of colour combinations ranging from very natural looking patterns to bright attractor patterns. Even after lure fishing for forty years, I know it’s not easy to ‘second guess’ which colour will catch unless I’m really up to date with the form of the venue. Here we have to look at choices again by having a variety of colours to offer the pike. You have to start somewhere and can’t go far wrong with picking natural colours, but there will be times when brighter attractor colours will be needed to stir up lethargic fish. It can take time to build up a wide range of different colours and finishes in your collection, but you will give yourself more chances to catch by experimenting with them in a logical way.

Specialised crankbaits

Along the racks of lures, there will be some which do not quite fit the simple selection procedure I have outlined. To help clarify this, I will mention a few variations to the crankbait theme which are quite common and which you will start to appreciate when you become a little more experienced.

Jointed Crankbaits. Being articulated, jointed baits offer a more exaggerated and seductive movement even at slow retrieve speeds. Their rhythmic rear-end action can be a key trigger at times. A typical example would be the Rapala X-Rap Jointed Shad or Storm Jointed Minnowstick.

Sinking Crankbaits. Not a crankbait as such because they sink immediately after casting, but they are useful for getting down deeper than a floating diver without excessive effort being put into retrieving them. They still have a lip, and this makes them dive even deeper when retrieved. A ‘countdown’ technique is used to get them to different depths before staring to wind them back. They start to return to the surface when the angler starts to run out of line at the end of the retrieve. They are best used in deep water and where snags are less likely. A typical example is the Rapala Countdown Magnum.

Suspending Crankbaits. As the name suggests, this type of crank is balanced so that it suspends at its working depth rather than quickly returning to the surface as a regular crankbait would when you stop winding it in. The advantages are obvious in that the lure can be made to stay in the pikes ‘strike zone’ for longer periods of time. It’s a very useful lure where the pike are fussy, maybe due to being well fed or in cold water. A typical example is the Rapala Jointed Shad Rap. This particular lure, in common with many others, also has an inbuilt ‘rattle’ feature. This is yet another variation on an already complex topic!

By now, your head must be spinning from the complexity of crankbaits, but I hope that I have shown that they can be broken down into categories which make choice a lot simpler! Don’t let this initial confusion put you off from getting started though. The fact is that becoming a good lure angler does not happen overnight. It doesn't even happen over a season or two either and can be a lifetime’s ambition to achieve. Along the way though you will find it fascinating as you teach yourself the skills required, and catch plenty of pike and other predators as you progress.

It should now be easy to see how lure anglers soon build up an almighty collection of lures, but is it through ignorance or wise choice? Anyone can have a box full of colourful lures and catch very little, whereas a good lure angler will have chosen intelligently and kept his expenditure to a minimum. Hopefully this feature will guide you through the tackle shop maze of lure racks and get you catching pike and putting you onto the path to a lifetime of rod bending pleasure!