Multispecies crankbaits

If you’ve ever wondered what fish species live in a given body of water, you can always put on a mask and fins and have a look-see — or, you can tie on a crankbait, cast it out and wind it back. Designed to interact with the water for enticing motion, a crankbait really is that simple.

And here’s the best part: Just about every predator fish in a lake will bite a crankbait.

One of the most user-friendly baits available, a crankbait mimics a wide array of forage, but the basic baitfish form and wobbling, side-to-side motion makes it irresistible to anything with small fish in its diet.

Bassmaster Elite Series pro Mark Menendez finds that striped bass are a highly aggressive species that will readily gobble a crankbait.

A common choice for tournament anglers targeting the black bass species (largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass), crankbaits also appeal to the smaller rock bass (aka “goggle-eye”), white bass, striped bass, hybrid bass, crappie, walleye, pike, catfish and freshwater drum. Drop down to the teeny, tiny models like Strike King’s Bitsy Minnow or Rapala’s Ultra Light Crank and you’ll tempt aggressive bluegill.

“For a beginner, a crankbait is a great way to know that you’re fishing,” said Bassmaster Elite Series angler and accomplished cranker John Crews. “When you throw a crankbait out there, it’s not going to do anything unless you reel it. When you reel it, you can feel the bait vibrating and you know it’s doing something.

“When it’s vibrating, you know it could get bit at any time. Once you catch a few fish, you kind of have an idea when you might be getting bit.”

Pointing out the crankbait’s time-efficient benefit, Crews said, “You can cast crankbaits a long way and cover a lot of water quickly. Also, if you don’t have a lot of time to fish, you’re not wasting time.”

(Photo: Laurie Tisdale)

Bait styles

Scanning a tackle store’s crankbait section or scrolling through an online retailer like or can quickly become overwhelming. While Crews’ job as a professional angler requires hundreds of baits, he says a beginning cranker needs only a handful.

You’ll want to match the size of your crankbait to the size of fish you’re targeting, but for beginner-level cranking, smaller baits will turn up the widest variety of species. Big fish will eat small baits, and you can always upsize as needed, but if you start too big, you may be missing opportunities.

Here’s a good starting lineup.

Shallow Diver: Something in the 1- to 2-foot range, such as the Spro Baby Fat John, does a good job of running across riprap, gravel and other hard surfaces.

Medium Diver: For hitting spots in 8 to 10 feet, Crews likes the Spro Little John Micro DD. He’ll throw this one over deeper rocks and around bridge pilings.

Squarebill: Unlike the rounded bills of most crankbaits, a squarebill’s sharply angled lip allows it to deflect off of cover. This is ideal for bumping around logs, stumps and cypress knees. Options include the Spro Essential Series Hunter 65, Strike King KVD 1.5, Bagley Honey B and Rapala DT Fat.

Lipless Bait: Differing from the standard crankbait form, this one drops the lip/bill and relies on a flat and sharply angled head to gain depth and create a dramatic vibrating motion. Options include the original Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap, Storm Arashi Shad, Spro Aruku Shad and Booyah Hard Knocker.

Walleye grow much larger than this, but at all sizes they often fall for crankbaits.

Technique tips

Crews suggests a rod angle that’s just off a straight line to the bait. Start by pointing the rod tip right at where the line enters the water and then move it about a foot to the right or left.

“Angling the rod tip increases sensitivity and puts you in a better position to set the hook,” Crews said. “If you hold the rod in your right hand, angle the tip to the right; if you hold the rod in your left hand, angle the tip to the left. That way when you get a bite, you can swing into your forehand, not your backhand.”

Consider that rod posture also influences bait depth. The lower the angle, the deeper the bait runs (up to its maximum design depth). Conversely, a higher rod posture decreases the running depth.

“If you’re fishing in a really shallow area, you may want to [use a higher rod posture],” Crews said. “You just have to know the depth you’re fishing.

“If you hit bottom and you get some moss on your crankbait, then maybe the next time you’ll keep your rod tip a little higher and you’ll keep your bait just above that. If you’re fishing from the bank, you may want to raise your rod tip as the crankbait gets close so you’re not grinding it into the bottom.”

Bridges and the associated riprap are ideal places to throw a crankbait.

Snag potential

What makes a crankbait so effective — maximum grabbing power with a pair of treble hooks — can also become a liability. Fact is, those dangling hooks have a lot of room to grab random items like a 2-year-old in a grocery cart.

“Be aware of the treble hooks, because you can hang yourself, you can hang trees, you can hang things in the water,” Crews warns.

Actually, keeping hooks out of your clothing, hats and boat seats is much easier than keeping them out of submerged habitat features. Don’t fret; if you’re not getting hung now and then, you’re not fishing where the fish are. Fact is, the logs, sunken trees and vegetation elements that threaten to grab crankbait hooks are the same things that attract fish.

If snags occur, your best bet is to ease directly over or behind the trouble spot and try to wiggle your bait backward. Hold the rod tip high and use gentle rod movements, as excessive jerking usually sinks the hooks deeper.

If you can tell your bait is snagged on vegetation or a small twig from a submerged tree, you may be able to pull the bait free with steady pressure. Tighten your drag and pull in a straight line. Just be ready to duck and cover your face if the lure suddenly pops free.

In shallow, clear water, you may be able to see exactly where your bait is snagged. In this scenario, lean over the side of your boat and steadily reel up line until your rod tip ends up in the water. Continue to reel until the rod tip reaches the bait and then use the rod to push the bait out of the snag.

Safety note: When storing or carrying rods rigged with crankbaits, hook one of the points under the frame of a rod guide (never hang a hook in the guide, as this can nick the eye and leave a line-damaging surface).

If you store your rods vertically, use a lure wrap to completely cover the bait and avoid accidental snags. (Tip: If you have a cat or other curious pets, keep all lures/hooks out of reach. If it tempts a fish, it’ll tempt a hapless paw.)

An easy bait to cast and retrieve, the crankbait will show you what’s living in your lake. This rock bass blasted John Crews’ bait under a bridge.

Tackle considerations

While experienced crankers prefer the efficiency of baitcasting gear, spinning rods work fine. With either style, a 7-foot medium-heavy rod with a flexible tip fits the crankbait presentation. You want plenty of backbone to fight a big fish, but nothing too rigid, or you’ll pull the hooks out of the fish’s mouth.

Crews warns against impeding your casts with a line that’s too heavy — especially with tiny crankbaits. He suggests 8- to 12-pound Sunline Crank FC fluorocarbon, a smooth, forgiving line with fluorocarbon’s characteristic low visibility and abrasion resistance.

When tying on crankbaits, Crews likes the San Diego Jam knot, (but for beginners, he suggests the simpler Berkley Trilene knot.

Keep your colors simple at the beginning. You can’t go wrong with shad colors almost any time of the year. In the spring, you may want to also try imitating crawfish with green pumpkin, brown, orange or red color patterns.

Whatever you choose, make lots of casts, cover water and stand ready to reel in one of the many fish that like crankbaits.