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How to Fish a Crankbait Like a Pro: Everything You Need to Know

Crankbaits, like jerkbaits and chatterbaits, are among the most misunderstood lure options despite also being among the most popular.

In some sense, they’re a counter-intuitive lure: loaded with sharp treble hooks, they’re meant to be run into sticks, stumps, logs, rocks, and other cover that threatens to snag them faster than a new shirt in a blackberry bush.

Today, we’re going to demystify crankbaits, giving you the full run down to improve your success with this awesome lure type.


How To Fish a Crankbait like a Pro

Run it into cover

We said this at the top, and it bears repeating: crankbaits are meant for deflection and bouncing, and if you’re not hitting sticks, stumps, and logs, you’re not getting the full potential from your lures.

Even if you run a crankbait over a weed bed, purposefully run that crankbait into the top of the vegetation and rip it loose. That erratic action will trigger strikes, and it’s one of the tricks that separates the folks who win tournaments from those who just fish on weekends.

Slow down and ease up on the hookset

As you probably figured out from our discussion of rod and lure selection, you need to slow down and ease up.

Bass sometimes bump or nudge a crankbait before really taking it, and even when they do hit it hard, you should resist the temptation for a hard, fast hookset.

Give that bass just a split second to really let the barbs get entangled with its mouth and jaw. Just keep your line tight and give a gentle tug--you’ll be surprised at how strong your hookups will be.

Redirect the motion of your hookset

Another common mistake is the strong overhead hookset.

Think about what that does to the lure. Depending on the distance from your rod, that may force the crankbait down, driving those treble hooks into the bass’s lower jaw. But closer to your boat, it’s likely to lift the back of the crankbait, pulling the hooks up and out of the bass’s mouth.

Instead, think horizontal. When you want to set your hook, sweep away from the fish with a sideways motion. That aligns the hooks with the bass’s mouth, putting the nasty stuff where it needs to be.

Loosen your drag

Cushion, cushion, cushion: that’s the secret to good hooksets with crankbaits.

And one mistake that many anglers make is to have their drag set way too high, as though they’re fishing with soft plastics and single hooks. 

Turn your drag down a bit, softening the hookset slightly. That will help prevent you from ripping your crankbait free, or worse yet, bending or breaking a hook. 

I’ve seen that plenty, with both crankbaits and jerkbaits, when the drag was cranked up and the rod wasn’t ideal for crankbaits.

Crankbait 101: Cover Hunters, Not Open-Water Runners

When you look for advice about fishing crankbaits online, there’s a lot of worthwhile information out there.

Issues like color choice, depth, lip shape, and even rod and line selection are common topics, and we’ll cover them as well. But the first and most important thing to know about crankbaits is how they’ve been designed to be worked.

While you can send a wobbling crankbait down the side of a weed bed or skim it along the top, these open water applications are just not the strongest suit this lure has to play.

Instead, crankbaits are specifically designed to be run into cover, with the intention that they deflect, bounce, and skitter off rocks, trees, stumps, branches, and anything else down there - including the bottom.

Check out our list of the best crankbaits

That may sound strange, but trust Kevin VanDam:

The idea is that those erratic turns and bumps trigger strikes, and if you’re not running your crankbaits into underwater hazards, you’re wasting their true potential.

Lip Design

I know that sounds strange for a lure dragging two nasty treble hooks, but hear me out.

Most of you already know that the crankbait’s lip is designed to catch water like a fin and send the lure diving. And by changing the shape and size of the lip, as well as the buoyancy and body shape of the lure, manufacturers can determine the depth that a crankbait runs to within a foot or two.

It also affects action, creating differences in wobble and wiggle as the crankbait is pulled through the water - though I would say those changes are very, very small.

You be the judge:

Strike King Pro-Model 6XD

The massive lip on the Strike King Pro-Model 6XD allows it to dive deep.

But that lip has a secret purpose that many anglers don’t know about: it forces the crankbait into a head-down posture, shielding the hooks with the lip and the body and cutting down on otherwise inevitable snags.

That’s just as true for lipless crankbaits like the legendary Rat-L-Trap. That long curve along the nose does the same thing, forcing the lure’s head down and causing it to dive while protecting the hooks from snags.

differences in lip design

You can see differences in lip design as well as body shape.

Lip shape - or its absence - can affect how deep a crankbait dives, just as lip size has a huge effect on depth.

But one often overlooked aspect of lip shape is how it affects deflection when you run your lure into a branch, log, or rock - and there definitely is a difference. 

Which action is better depends on what’s working at the time, so it’s best to keep both in your tackle box and try different styles until you find what the bass are taking that day.

Body Design

Crankbait designers have a few tricks up their sleeves, beyond tweaking lip shape and size, and one of them is to alter the shape of the sides of the lure. 

Flatter-sided crankbaits have a tighter wiggle, generally increasing vibration and sound. Pros Like VanDam swear by them in colder water, running them as soon as they can get a boat on the water.

Strike King’s KVD 1.5 Flat Side crankbait

Strike King’s KVD 1.5 Flat Side almost writhes as it wiggles and is an ideal choice for cold water.

By contrast, rounded sides on a crankbait create a looser, wobbling action that can be a better choice when the pressure is dialed up in tournament season or when the water temp is high.

Depth Coverage

From SPRO’s Little John 50 Crankbait that cruises along at about 5 feet, to deep divers like Strike King’s Pro-Model 6XD, to medium depth “dive-to” crankbaits like Rapala’s DT (Dives-To) Series 6 and 10, you need an arsenal of crankbaits on hand to help you cover every possible depth.

Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that when the bass are holding shallow or actively feeding on baitfish at the surface that a shallow-runner is the best bet. 

I’m not going to insult your intelligence.

Instead, let’s talk about two other aspects of depth: the arc of descent and ascent and how you can affect depth with your rod.

First off, when you cast a crankbait and it hits the water, you’ll start your retrieve. Let’s say that’s a deep diver that’ll run down to 20 feet or so.

It won’t magically start running that at that depth, and it’ll take time to work its way down, diving to that depth over time. Lots of anglers are obsessed with line choice because they believe the right pick will help that crankbait get lower, faster. But the truth is the actual, measured differences are minuscule.

It’s going to take at least a few cranks to really get your crankbait running, and it’ll take a few more to get it headed deep. And toward the end of your retrieve, the opposite happens: the crankbait rises, despite the lip, because of the angle of the line.

That’s true of every crankbait you can buy: each one will make a dive, hit its stride, and rise again toward the end of the retrieve.

And you can use that to your advantage, working more of the water column by pausing - essentially restarting the dive a bit - or working the contour of a lake from shallow to deep to shallow again.

Second, you can vary how deep your crankbait runs by raising or lowering the tip of your rod. Now, that’s only going to have an effect of a foot or two, but sometimes a foot or two is all you need.

Color and Pattern

For clear water, the best choices are almost always natural hues and patterns that match the hatch.

Know what the bass are feeding on that time of year, and throw crankbaits that mimic those prey items. For instance, pre-spawn females, looking to fatten up and ingest mineral-rich prey, will often target crawfish, and red and orange can be hot colors.

Rapala DT (Dives-To) Series 6 and 10

The Rapala DT (Dives-To) Series 6 and 10 in “Red Crawdad” can be a real killer pre-spawn.

When the bass are feeding actively on minnows, immature bluegill, or shad, select a crankbait to match.

Strike King KVD 1.5 Flat Side

The Strike King KVD 1.5 Flat Side is a great pick in “Sexy Ghost Minnow” when bait fish are on the menu.

But in stained water and other low-visibility situations, brighter colors are a better bet. Look for bright yellows, reds, metallics, and some flash.

SPRO Little John 50 Crankbait

SPRO’s Little John 50 Crankbait in bright colors is murder when the water’s muddy, stained, or murky.

Rod selection

Many of you reading this probably know how to fish a Texas-rigged worm, and you know that your rod needs to be incredibly sensitive at the tip and have a powerful backbone. You need that sensitivity to feel every motion of your worm and to detect the sometimes gently “suck” of a bass inhaling your Senko.

Check out our list of the best crankbait rods

You need all that backbone for a hookset that really drives that single worm hook home. A more flexible rod, that is, a rod with a slower action and lighter power, just won’t give you the lockup you need with a worm.

But crankbaits rods face an entirely different set of issues.

I’m not going to say that sensitivity doesn't matter - it’s awfully nice to be able to feel when you picked up some trash on your treble or to detect the subtle bump of a curious largemouth. But truth be told, sensitivity isn’t very important in a crankbait rod, and bass aren’t usually going to nibble on your treble-hooked Rapala. 

But when a big bass does come calling, a stiff rod that fishes like a steel pipe isn’t going to help you at all. Those treble hooks work, and there are plenty of them to catch and hold. And instead of a hard hookset, what you actually need is a soft, almost slow hook.

Pull too hard, too fast, and you’ll rip the crankbait clear of the bass before it gets its mouth really around it.

That’s why a slower action is going to improve hooksets with crankbaits - no question about it - but it’s also going to keep your rod loaded during the fight. That matters a lot more than you might think. A fast action rod will actually unload during the fight, especially when a bass jumps. As it does, there will be much less pressure on your hooks, making it easier for the bass to throw them.

Believe me: a slower action keeps your rod loaded longer - even if it’s just a fraction of a second - and that translates into steadier, more constant pressure on the hook. You’ll find bass won’t throw your lures nearly as often, and you’ll land a lot more big ones than you did before.

For me, and for plenty of pros, that means medium-heavy powers with moderate to slow actions, making fiberglass and fiberglass composites top choices.

Again, here’s a word to two from KVD himself:

Reel Selection: Dedicated Crankbait Reels

Crankbait reels are a breed apart, and what makes them tick isn’t what’s marketed to bass anglers.

Take a look at new baitcasting reels these days, and you'll see that high speed is all the rage.

That’s great if you’re working a worm all day and need to pick it up quickly to cast again. But for crankbaits, slower is better - and slow, high-torque reels are in relatively short supply.

Here at USAngler, we love crankbaits - and I bet you do, too.

But to get the most from them, especially deep-divers, they need to be worked slowly, demanding reels that have gear ratios in the neighborhood of 5:1, if you can find them. Barring that, you’re looking for retrieval rates around 22 inches per turn, far slower than the majority of baitcasters you’ll find for sale.

If you’re in the market for a dedicated crankbait reel, check out our full buying guide and reviews: Best Dedicated Crankbait Reels

Line Selection: Flouro for the Pros, but Reconsider Mono

On the prod circuit, fluoro is often the line of choice for crankbaits. And matched with top-end crankbait rods, that makes sense. 

Think about rods like Lew's KVD Series Crankbait Casting Rod or Lew's David Fritts Perfect Crankbait Speed Stick Casting Rod. Both have the power you need, with the softer action that really helps cushion hooksets.

Excellent fluorocarbon like Seaguar Invizx is very abrasion resistant, takes much more load to stretch than mono, and is more sensitive to boot, making it a great option if you’re fishing a rod that already offers plenty of cushion through a slow action.

But if you’re not using a crankbait-specific rod, you want to reconsider mono fishing line.

We’ve talked about its many strengths before, and if you’re not sure why monofilament is a good choice, take a look at that article.

It takes bass a microsecond or two to really hook up with your crankbait, and too much stiffness in your rod, a hard, overhead hookset, and not enough stretch in your line can all add up to ripping those treble hooks free before they have a chance to catch.

Mono has the advantage of adding a bit of cushion and stretch to that process, slowing things down, if you will, and if you’re fishing a rod with a faster action, it’s the clear choice to improve hooksets.

Final Thoughts

Crankbaits are among the most effective lures out there, explaining why they’re a fixture of tournament fishing. But to get the most from them, you need to do a bit more than cast and retrieve.

We hope you’ve learned something from this article and that you’ll reconsider how you use crankbaits now.

As always, we’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment below!

About The Author
Pete Danylewycz
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Pete grew up fishing on the Great Lakes. Whether he's casting a line in a quiet freshwater stream or battling a monster bass, fishing is his true passion.