How to Fish Crankbaits for Bass: The Different Types and How To Use Them
Crankbaits are among the most common and best bass fishing lures available on the market, excelling in many fishing situations. These fish-producing lures come in all shapes, sizes, and an even broader spectrum of colors. With so many options, it can be challenging to pick the right crankbait.
In this beginner's guide to crankbaits, we will look at the different types of crankbaits and go over some tips, tricks, and techniques for using them. We'll also discuss how to choose the correct crankbait for your fishing situation, the best time to use a crankbait, and what rod and reel to throw them on.
There's a lot to know about fishing crankbaits for bass, so let's get into it.
What Is a Crankbait?
A crankbait is a popular bass fishing lure that mimics the look and action of their natural prey, like baitfish and crawfish. They typically have 2 treble hooks and may include a plastic lip (bill) that causes it to dive down in the water column and deflect off cover and structure. Different crankbaits are designed to target different depths of the water column.
Most crankbaits are made with hard plastic, a composite material, or carved from wood. They also often include an internal rattle, providing sound as the lure moves through the water.
As with many power fishing lures, crankbaits are great at covering lots of water efficiently. This makes them one of the more popular types of search baits to find areas where bass are holding.
How To Choose The Right Crankbait
Picking the correct crankbait can be the difference between success and failure while fishing plugs.
When choosing a crankbait, anglers should consider the depth and temperature of the water and the type of forage fish they are trying to imitate to select the best bait for the conditions.
Depth: Choose a crankbait that runs slightly deeper than the water you are fishing. This will allow the bait to periodically contact the structure and attract more fish.
Water Temperature: The colder the water, the more the fish will slow down. Choose a crankbait with a tighter wiggle for colder water and a more erratic action for warmer water.
Profile/Color: In addition to the water's color, consider the size and color of the forage you're trying to imitate. In general, brighter colors are more effective in dirty water, while natural colors are popular for clear water.
Size: Take note of the size and movement speed of the forage you're trying to imitate. Downsize or upsize accordingly while accounting for depth, action, and color.
Where and When To Use Crankbaits: The Best Times To Use A Crankbait For Bass Fishing
- Best time to use crankbaits for bass fishing: Spring, Summer, and Fall
- Crankbaits can be used in open waters, shorelines, and around submerged cover and structure.
- Ideal for use in rocky areas, along grass lines, around laydowns, and brush piles
- Avoid areas with pond scum, weeds, leaves, and twigs.
- Your skill and comfort level will help dictate when and where to use a crankbait.
- Experience and practice will help you fish them in more areas.
While crankbaits will catch bass year-round, the best time of year to use them is spring, summer, and fall, when bass are actively feeding on baitfish.
Crankbaits are versatile lures that can be used in many different situations. They can be fished in open waters, along the shoreline, or around submerged cover and structure.
Crankbaits work great around rocky areas, the edge of grass lines, along and over the tops of laydowns, and near brush piles.
Be aware that pond scum, weeds, leaves, and twigs can quickly ruin a crankbait's action and render it ineffective.
Knowing where and when to throw a crankbait comes with experience. Your angling skills will help dictate whether you should use one in a given scenario. You'll gain confidence in using them in more areas as you practice.
Despite the exposed hooks, the bill on a crankbait is surprisingly effective at preventing hang-ups. However, it does require some skill and practice.
If you plan to fish crankbaits with any consistency, picking up a plug knocker can be a big help. They're relatively inexpensive, will pay for themselves quickly, and ease your mind about fishing in riskier areas.
How To Use a Crankbait
Crankbaits are an excellent choice for bass fishing, but knowing how to fish them effectively can be the difference between a slow day of fishing and an awesome one.
To fish with billed crankbaits, drive the lure into the bottom and bang it into structure.
On the other hand, fishing a lipless crankbait is generally done in deeper, open waters. Run them along the tops and edges of grass lines, brush piles, and laydowns to lure bass out of hiding.
Crankbaits are highly effective for targeting largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, and most other types of bass. They're also relatively straightforward to fish, making them a great choice for a novice angler to learn.
To learn to use a crankbait effectively, start by casting it out and retrieving it at a constant pace. If the bass aren't willing to bite, try varying your retrieval cadence by playing with the speed and adding brief pauses.
Stop-and-go presentations can work well when running lures in open water, often with the bass striking on that pause. Pausing when the lure hits an object is also an effective tactic for triggering bites.
To target a piece of structure, you may need to cast over it to give the crankbait enough time to dive down into the strike zone.
You may need a crankbait with a longer bill to dive quicker for deeper structures. If your lure is rated for the depth, you may need to cast the lure further past your intended target or modify your setup to stay in the strike zone as long as possible. We'll go over modifications later.
Long lining (casting the lure and trolling away from it) is another tactic for targeting bass in deep water. However, it's generally not allowed in tournaments.
Setting The Hook With A Crankbait
When setting the hook with a crankbait, sweep the rod to the side. The treble hooks will do most of the work.
Types Of Crankbaits
Crankbaits can be categorized according to diving depth, the sound they produce, and the style of the lip. The diving depth and action are determined by the shape, length, and angle of the bill, the contour of the crankbait's body, and the material it's made from.
Types Of Crankbaits By Diving Depth
Shallow Diving Crankbaits
Shallow diving crankbaits feature a small lip, usually about 0.5" in length, keeping them around a depth range of about 0-4 feet.
Shallow crankbaits like the Jabber Jaw from 13 Fishing are excellent for pond anglers. Run them over the top of grass beds and through flat, expansive areas where deeper diving crankbaits would snag or fowl up easily.
Medium Diving Crankbaits
Medium-diving crankbaits have a slightly longer bill, usually between 0.5" and 1" in length. These crankbaits are designed to run in the 5-12 foot depth range. The body of a medium-diving crankbait is usually between 2 and 3 inches long.
Anglers often fish medium crankbaits in shallow waters in place of shallow-diving crankbaits to help drive the bill of the crankbait into the ground as they retrieve it. The commotion created by doing this can trigger some great reaction bites.
As a rule of thumb, pick a mid-range crankbait that dives 1-2 feet deeper than your target depth. A crankbait that dives too deep can stir up the bottom too much and is more prone to getting hung up.
Deep Diving Crankbaits
Deep diving crankbaits feature a plastic bill of 1" or longer that causes the lure to dive and stay down in the 10-15 foot depth range. Fish cranks like the Rapala Ike's DT10 for those bass suspended in deep waters.
Deep diving crankbaits are effective at targeting fish holding near the bottom. However, note that the deeper you fish a crankbait, the more stout your tackle should be, as longer bills generate more drag.
Extra Deep Diving Crankbaits
The extra deep diving crankbaits like the Rapala DT16 are designed to catch bass in depths of 16 feet or more, up to about 25 feet.
Lipless Crankbaits (Rattle Baits)
Lipless crankbaits, rattle baits, rattle traps, or whatever name you have for them don't have a plastic bill like other crankbaits, as the name implies.
These lures, like the Strike King Red Eyed Shad, work great for enticing suspended bass in deep water. Because the lure is designed to sink, it's easy to keep lipless cranks at depths of 10 or more feet.
You can fish lipless crankbaits by hopping them on the bottom in clear areas and ripping them through sparse grass. They're also effective when skimmed across the tops or edges of thick grass beds.
Tiny and Oversized Crankbaits
It's worth mentioning that mini and oversized crankbaits also exist. While they're less common, they can be helpful in some fishing situations.
Different Types Of Crankbaits By Bill Shape and How It Affects A Crankbait's Action
The shape of a crankbaits bill plays a significant part in determining the lure's action.
As a rule of thumb, the wider a crankbait's bill, the more wobble it will have as it seeks to find its center balance. This increased action is great when bass are more active in more neutral water temperatures.
On the other hand, the narrower the bill, the more compact the action is. As a rule of thumb, the colder the water, the less wobble you want, so reach for your narrow bill crankbaits with less action.
Square Bill vs. Round Bill Crankbaits
The primary difference between square and rounded bills is their ability to navigate around structure. Both are excellent crankbaits in their own right but excel in different situations.
The design of a square bill doesn't allow it to get as deep as a crankbait with a rounded bill. Square bill crankbaits typically max out around a depth of 6 feet.
The square bill is designed to deflect off cover better than a rounded bill. A square bill crankbait will almost bounce back upon impact, and skilled anglers can often bounce a square bill off structure twice because of this.
One tip to try when fishing square bill crankbaits is to pause your retrieve upon impact and let the lure float back up for just a moment before continuing. This makes it look like a stunned baitfish and is a known tactic for triggering bites.
Round bills are typically associated with deeper diving crankbaits, as they can reach depths up to 25 feet. Round bill crankbaits are most popular when fishing in cold, deep waters. However, there are also many shallow diving round bill crankbaits, such as the Rapala DT.
The shape of a round bill causes the crankbait to roll as it comes in contact with cover. This can expose the treble hooks, causing them to get hung up easier, and makes them a less popular choice for running around cover.
Other Types of Crankbait Bills
Coffin bills are a bit of a hybrid between a round bill and a square bill crankbait, trying to offer the best of both worlds. They run to deeper depths than a square bill and maneuver structure better than round bill crankbaits do.
Wake Bait Bills
At first glance, wake baits look a lot like a square bill, but upon further inspection, you'll notice the angle of the bill is much steeper.
Wake baits are subsurface lures that run just underneath the water's surface, leaving a v-shaped wake in their trail. The violent wobble from side to side as the water crosses the bill's surface gives them a particularly unique action..
L-bill crankbaits are a less common type of crankbait that looks like your traditional crankbait but feature a unique L-shaped lip.
The action on an L-bill crank is erratic. It's loud, buoyant, and moves as if it's hunting. Imagine some combination of a jerkbait, lipless crank, and squarebill. The L-style bill crankbaits are great smallmouth bass lures and are best fished in clear-water lakes with minimal vegetation. If you contact grass, pause your retrieve and let the lure fix itself.
Circuit Board Bills
Circuit board bills are more about the material than the shape of the bill. As the name implies, they are made from the same material as circuit boards in electronics and come in the most common crankbait bill shapes.
The material used on circuit board crankbait bills is softer than your standard PVC bill. This allows the lip to flex and absorb some shock when the crankbait contacts structure, similar to how a rod gets loaded when casting.
Types of Crankbait Materials
The material a crankbait is made from greatly affects the action and depths it can dive. The 3 primary materials crankbaits are made from are wood, plastic, and composite.
Typically made from balsa wood and offer a unique action. Balsa crankbaits have many advantages over traditional plastic baits, including their ability to deflect off of cover easier and maintain top-notch action in colder water. However, balsa crankbaits are also more fragile than plastic baits and tend to run shallower, so be aware of these drawbacks when using them. They're also more difficult to manufacture with consistency due to the nature of wood, so you don't always know what you'll get out of the box.
Check out the Rapala DT crankbait made with balsa wood.
Most modern crankbaits are made of plastic, which has several advantages over other materials. Plastic is uniform in weight and vibration, less expensive than other materials, and easy to work with, meaning manufacturers can consistently produce plastic crankbaits. They are often well balanced out of the box and require minimal modifications. Plastic crankbaits tend to run a little deeper than wooden crankbaits.
Composite baits are made from lots of stuff, but the most common material is compressed foam. It's the same thing buoys are made from. Crankbaits made from composite are tough and last a long time.
The disadvantage of composite crankbaits is that most of them are heavy, which can cause them to twist as they float back to the surface.
Crankbait Body Styles
There are 4 primary body styles for crankbaits, each offering a different action. Minnow and shad bodies are the two most popular crankbait body styles used in bass fishing. Depending on the region you're from, you may know them by different names:
Shad Body Baits
Shad body crankbaits are one of the most popularly used hard-bodied plugs with a bill for fishing largemouth bass, though they are also used for smallmouth bass.
The body of shad-style crankbaits is a teardrop shape, featuring a large rounded head that tapers to a thin tail. Shad baits typically have a tight wiggling action. They're also typically shorter than minnow baits.
Minnow Body Baits
Minnow-shaped crankbaits have many names, and some anglers may not even consider them crankbait. Depending on your region, you may hear them called jerkbaits, twitch baits, or stick baits due to their shape.
Minnow-style crankbaits are long, thin, hard plastic plugs with a bill that looks like a common minnow found throughout North America.
Minnow baits feature a more erratic (or wide) wobbling action than shad-style cranks and are popular for targeting smallmouth bass. They're also great for targeting spots and largies, pike, and musky.
Flat Body Baits
Flat-bodied crankbaits are your lipless cranks or "Rattle Traps." They look similar to a shad-style crankbait but have a thinner and less pronounced teardrop shape and are flat on both sides. They also don't have a diving lip and instead feature a sharply tapered head and belly, forming a pointed nose. Most flat-bodied baits have rattles injected during the molding process to help attract bass, pike, and musky.
Flat-body crankbaits typically sink and are sometimes called countdown baits, as they drop about one foot per second in the water column.
Other Types of Crankbait Bodies
Some crankbaits might be classified as creature baits as they aren't shaped like your shad, minnow, or flat-bodied baits. Some feature appendages like claws to mimic a crawfish, caterpillar, grasshopper, or other natural-looking bait.
Crankbait Tackle: What Rod and Reel Setup To Use For Crankbaits
To be effective when fishing with a crankbait, you'll need to select the right rod and reel setup. A good crankbait rod should have a relatively slow action. Rod action refers to where the bend in the rod begins. In other words, a good crankbait rod would start to bend about halfway down when moderate pressure is applied to the top section.
Slower rods will help cast the lure further and help keep from tearing out the hooks during your hook set or when a fish turns and runs hard in a different direction while fighting it. The slower action will also give the bass more time to inhale the bait before you set the hook, ensuring that you don't rip the bait away from the fish before it gets the hook.
Reels are a little less crucial for effective cranking. But, many experienced anglers opt for slower gear ratios, like a 4:1 or 5:1 reel, to slow down the bait and provide more power for cranking in heavy fish. Make sure the reel has plenty of line capacity since you will often be making long casts. You can send a big crankbait a long way with a bit of wind at your back.
Best Fishing Line For Crankbaits
As a general answer to what the best line for crankbaits is, fluorocarbon is the best line for crankbaits due to its abrasion resistance and limited visibility in the water. That said, fluoro is only the best on a cranking rod with a soft tip. If you still need to pick up a good crankbait rod, you're better off using monofilament for the stretch it provides.
With crankbaits, you don't want to set the hook on a bass as soon as you feel the bite. It's too easy to pull the lure away before the fish has the hooks in its mouth. Bass will often strike your lure without opening its mouth first. A softer rod tip or monofilament fishing line will help prevent premature hook sets with crankbaits.
Best Colors For Crankbaits
The best color for crankbaits depends on water clarity and what the bass are feeding on. The color of baitfish changes with the seasons, so make sure you change with them. Generally, it is always best to match the hatch with crankbait colors.
Crankbait Colors by Water Clarity
Clear Water Crankbait Colors
Natural colors work best in clear waters, such as silvers, whites, shad, bluegill, perch, crawfish, and other baitfish color imitations. Translucent or ghost colors are popular in clear waters. When shopping for clear water crankbait colors, look for:
- Ghost Shad
- Sexy Shad
- Natural Bluegill/Bream
- Natural Crawfish
Stained and Dirty Water Crankbait Colors
Bright, flashy, and contrasting colors like chartreuse, gold, and firetiger patterns work well in dirty and stained waters for increased visibility. Black also works well to create a silhouette. In dirtier water, switch from translucent colors to more opaque and loud colors. When shopping for stained/muddy water crankbait colors, look for:
- Fire Tiger
- Chartreuse/Blue Back
Crankbait Colors by Season
Spring and Summer Crankbait Colors
- Shad Color Patterns - white/silver base with chartreuse, orange, and red highlights
- Bluegill/Bream Color Patterns - green/brown/yellow base with chartreuse, orange, or red highlights
- Crawfish Color Patterns - black/brown base with red or orange highlights - black/blue patterns work too
Fall and Winter Crankbait Colors
- Shad Color Patterns - white/silver base with chartreuse, orange, and red highlights
- Crawfish Color Patterns - black/brown base with red or orange highlights - black/blue patterns work too
Adjusting the Depth of a Crankbait
There are a few ways to adjust the depth of a crankbait. One way is using a thinner diameter fishing line, which causes less water resistance, helping the lure dive deeper. Another way is using lead strips or dots to weigh the lure down.
What Size Split Ring for Crankbaits
For most crankbaits, the most common size is a #2 split ring, but many anglers move to a #3 split ring when swapping out hooks on larger crankbaits.
Upgrading Crankbait Hooks - What Size Replacement Treble Hooks?
The size of the treble hooks depends on the size of the crankbait. Be aware that changing the treble hooks on a crankbait can alter the action, balance, and buoyancy of the lure. Unless you know what you're doing, try to match the size of your replacement treble hooks to the originals. But, if you don't know the size of treble hooks, here is a general guideline you can go by:
- Smaller Crankbaits - For small cranks, size 8 or 6 treble hooks will probably work best.
- Medium Crankbaits - For mid-size crankbaits, size 6 or 4 is common.
- Larger Crankbaits - A size 2 treble hook is common for large crankbaits.
How to Tune a Crankbait To Track Correctly In The Water
Sometimes crankbaits come perfectly tuned out of the box, but often you'll need to adjust it. If you notice your crankbait is tracking to one side in the water, you'll need to tune it.
Tuning a crankbait is an easy process that involves gently bending the eyelet attached to the lure in the opposite direction the lure is tracking.
In other words, if the crankbait is tracking to the left during the retrieve, gently bend it to the right. If the bait is tracking to the right, gently bend the eye to the left.
Be careful when tuning a crankbait, as the connection of the line tie can weaken and eventually break. You may also need to retune a crankbait after catching a few fish.
Crankbait vs Jerkbait - What's the difference?
Crankbaits and jerkbaits look very similar in appearance. Both are hard plastic bass lures with treble hooks and a bill that causes them to dive down into the water column. But the action of a jerkbait is very different from a crankbait. How you fish a jerkbait is typically very different from how you fish a crankbait.
The easiest way to tell the difference between a crankbait and a jerkbait is by the lure's shape, size, and contour.
Jerkbaits are longer and thinner, typically have 3 treble hooks and a small bill, and usually suspend in the water column. Crankbaits have a thick body, two treble hooks, and a larger bill.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to keep crankbaits from snagging?
Crankbaits can be intimidating, and many anglers avoid throwing a crankbait for fear of losing it.
The truth is that you're going to get hung up on a branch or other piece of cover from time to time. But by investing in a good plug knocker, you can fish where the bass are, often in and around cover, without worrying about snagging and losing a lure so much.
Plug knockers allow you to recover lost crankbaits when you get hung up, so invest in a good one, and it'll more than pay for itself.
Do Crankbaits Have to Hit Bottom?
Not necessarily. You can catch bass on a crankbait in open water without running it into the bottom or structure. Experiment with various retrieval methods to figure out what they want. Running a crank in open water around a school of baitfish can work wonders.
Can You Use a Swivel With a Crankbait?
Using a swivel on a crankbait is a big no-no to some. This is because a swivel can make it difficult to tune a crankbait to track correctly in the water.
With that said, I've met anglers who use snap swivels to make changing lures quick and easy. They catch fish on it. One could argue it's a preference thing, so long as your bait is properly tracking in the water. As with most things in fishing, try it and see if it works for you.
Do Crankbaits Float or Sink?
Most lipped crankbaits are buoyant and quickly float back to the surface, though some are designed to suspend or slowly rise to the surface. Lipless crankbaits are designed to sink, while crankbaits with a bill typically float.
Are Crankbaits Topwater?
Most crankbaits are not considered topwater. But the wake bait is a crankbait-like hard-bodied lure with a bill designed to fish just below the surface. It is categorized as a subsurface topwater bass lure that creates a v-shaped wake as it's retrieved.
Should you use a weight/sinker with a crankbait?
Using a weight on a crankbait will negatively impact the lure's action. However, using a crankbait on a Carolina Rig can be effective.
Do you put worms on crankbait?
No, using worms on a crankbait will negatively affect the lure's action. Think how your crankbait acts when the treble hooks pick up a leaf or grass. It doesn't track properly. The same happens when adding bait to a crankbait's treble hooks.