Crankbaits, the what, the how and why

Ever since man first became fascinated with catching fish, the urge to design artificial lures that accurately simulated natural bait fish has been an obsession. Artificial lures are made from every conceivable substance from wood, metal, lead, plastic, soft plastic, natural yarn, synthetic fibers, feathers and animal fur. Basically, if there was even a remote chance that it might fool a fish, anglers have tried it.

The most popular baits are those that look like real baitfish but that’s where the opinions part between those who believe in a paint job that’s an exact replica of the real fish and others who say it’s the vibrant unnatural colors that trigger a strike more often. 

The truth is that the colors change the deeper the lure runs and more than a few feet down in murky waters and they all look brown.

There’s one fact that’s unchallenged. You catch more fish with the lure you fish with most often. 


While spinnerbaits, buzzbaits and jigs are all productive lures under varying conditions, the most popular baits are those that look like real baitfish. Their popularity is probably due to the fact that they produce more consistently than other lures, but the fact that they produce more often may be related to the fact that they are used more often – because they look like the real thing to fishermen. Fortunately, they look the same to fish.

Originally called plugs, this style of lure has come to be known as crankbaits because their action is imparted when the reel handle is cranked. They are also effective trolled deep for fish holding at greater depths. Crankbaits are hard bodied and most often made from wood or hard plastic, but new innovations in design have produced soft-bodied swim baits with lead heads that closely resemble actual baitfish. Body shapes vary from short and fat to long and lean, solid to jointed and double jointed. Sharp treble hooks are attached to the body with eyelet screws in numbers and size based on the size and length of the lure, with larger baits having as many as four.


The advantage to artificial baitfish is obvious at first blush, but more diverse upon consideration. The most blatant advantage is that they look and swim like the real thing, but you don’t have to keep them aerated. A less obvious advantage is the wide range of colors that can be used to make them more likely to produce strikes under various water conditions.

Crankbaits are most commonly separated or categorized by the position they seek in the water when cranked. These three basic divisions can then be broken down into one of three options that affect the bait when it is not being retrieved – floating, sinking and suspending. Lures with these buoyancy attributes can be purchased in each of the three main divisions based on target areas in the water column.

Floating or top-water lures are effective where there is heavy cover because, in most instances, they will float free once they hit an obstruction, if you give the lure a little slack. Nothing is more exciting than a strike on the surface. For that reason I keep a selection of baits that emulate creatures that should logically be found on the surface, including frogs, snakes and wounded bait fish. 

Sinking lures are an advantage when you want the lure to get down to its maximum depth as quickly as possible, and suspending lures work well when you are targeting fish that are suspended below the surface and feeding at one depth. With suspending lures you can work the bait with several cranks and jerks to simulate a wounded baitfish, then stop and let the lure lie still as if it is exhausted. Strikes often come when in the suspended mode.



Surface Lures

Also known as top water lures, surface baits are used when fish are feeding on the surface, chasing schooling baitfish or capitalizing on the errant frog that wanders too far from protection. No other form of presentation will produce a more exciting strike than when aggressive fish, feeding on the surface, take a top water lure. Surface lures can be unadorned or propeller-accented hard-bodied baits; wire-framed buzzbaits designed to create a lot of disturbance, or slowly retrieved poppers or wiggling lures such as jitterbugs that are subtler in effect.


Some lures are designed to work just below the surface of the water.

Some lures are designed to work just below the surface of the water.

Subsurface Lures

Some lures are designed to work just below the surface of the water. These baits have a lip that is made of either metal that is attached to the body with small screws, or molded plastic that is an integral part of the lure body. Subsurface lures are designed with a smaller lip that produces a minimal dive when cranked, and are ideal for working shallow water or areas with heavy cover reaching up close to the surface.

Deep-Diving Lures

Diving lures come in one of three configurations, floating, sinking or suspending, and are designed to reach varying depth depending on the speed at which they are retrieved. It is a good idea to have a variety of lip configurations for each body shape, and color, so that you can target fish at various depths depending upon where the fish are active. When you learn that fish are hitting a blue Shad Rap at 15 feet, you need to be able to reach into your tackle box and find one waiting.


Deep-diving crankbaits are also used extensively for trolling, in pursuit of a wide variety of species. Trolling is a very effective way to prospect for active fish that are feeding. You can cover a lot of water in a short period of time, locating the areas where fish are holding and willing to take the bait you are offering. Crankbaits are designed to reach a maximum depth at a given speed of troll or retrieve, and the bait that you need to use will be determined by the depth at which you are marking fish on your sonar. Without sonar, you can explore several depths at the same time by trolling multiple rods and varying the depth by letting out more line on selected rods. The more line you pay out, the deeper a lure will dive. In this manner, you can determine what depth the fish are feeding at without sonar.


The perfect marriage for targeting fish holding deep is an accurate sonar reading and a book called Precision Trolling. It’s out of print, and a bit pricey but an excellent source. Precision trolling is filled with extremely accurate data for just about every diving bait on the market. Charts detail speed, and length of line required to reach any depth.


“Precision Trolling- the Big Water Edition” includes information on the precise dive depths and data for all sizes of the Dipsy Diver®, Jet Diver®, Deep Six and  BigJon Mini Disks. You’ll also find information on the running depths of snap weights, lines of different test, lead core lines, and one-pound lead balls. Another great book for downrigger fishermen would be Cabela’s Downrigger Fishing Techniques.



Beginning anglers should consider stocking their tackle box with a selection of surface, subsurface and diving lures of similar colors and sizes in each of the three buoyancies – floating, sinking and suspending. Select lures from small and medium to large, and add additional color variations in the same manner, as the budget permits.