Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Using cranks correctly – Part I

(Photo courtesy of Vexilar)

By Joel Nelson
Contributing Writer

If you’ve ever walked into a sporting goods store with the intention of buying some crankbaits, you know that the selection can be downright overwhelming. Not only are there different shapes and sizes and colors, but there’s also host of brands from which to choose.  

Some crankbaits have rattles, some don’t. You’ve got stickbaits, shad-style baits, jointed versions, and a variety of bill shapes and sizes, too. 

So, where do you start?  

Well, it depends – on things such as the fish species, the time of year, if you’re casting or trolling, and a host of other variables. In Part 1, we’ll break look into these differences and more while also exploring what could be the most effective bait of summertime for most fish.  


Regarding crankbait materials, you’ve really got just two options: balsa and plastic. These two materials account for almost all crankbaits on the market, and for good reason. Balsa has an unmistakably “live” action given its incredible buoyancy. 

But balsa without some form of heat-compression molding and through-wire reinforcing can be weak, causing bills to break off or baits to snap in half.  

Plastic is durable but has slightly less action than its balsa brethren. However, plastic baits can be more easily molded to fit rattle chambers, different shapes, and a host of other modifications most often found in hollow-body baits.  

One crank (balsa) floats, and the other (plastic) can, but often sinks slowly. Depending on the cover in which you may be cranking, balsa could be more useful.


There are some really wild crankbait shapes out there intended to mimic a variety of fish forage. Chief among them are relatively narrow, shad-style baits that copy a host of minnow species quite well.  

From there, we get fatter, shallower-running baits that often serve bass fishers more readily than the walleye anglers. 

You’ve also got stickbaits, which are aptly-named longer varieties that can run shallow with a modest bill, or very deep with a large and long bill that brings them to the depths.  

Breaking baits down into these three categories of shad, fatter baits (nontechnical term), and stickbaits really helps in identifying where and how they may be used.  

But there also are all kinds of baits available – just in lesser numbers with fewer uses. First would be a hybrid of fatter, shad-style baits that have become popular for both casting and trolling. 

Jointed baits are commonly used when a bit more wobble or action is needed. Larger, predator-style offerings simply mimic larger forage.


As a general rule, the larger and longer the bill configuration, the deeper the bait is designed to dive. The converse is also true, especially if the split ring comes out of the front point of the bait, and the diving bill is below and detached from the bill itself. These are truly shallow-running crankbaits that rarely get past 3 feet in depth.  

Rounded bill designs are far more common than are their square-bill counterparts. But square-bill baits have seen a surge in popularity in bass circles. That’s because square-bill baits have a more natural tendency to bounce off of rocks, wood, and other cover without hanging up, so these baits should be considered when shallow cranking in the thick stuff.  

Most crankbait bills are plastic of some kind, although, again, the square-bill case does see some alternative plastics that resemble computer chip material more so than standard bills found on most baits.  

The longest and largest bills on big stickbaits can bring these lures down to the 30-feet-of-water region and beyond, such that bill size and length can make a big difference regarding the depths you’re covering. 

The opposite is true of shallow-running or “step-style bill” crankbaits. By putting a jog in the bait’s bill, you can get many of the shad-style or stickbaits to run 1 to 3 feet below the surface.

Casting or trolling?

As a general rule, many of the shad- and stickbait-style lures are ones that can be trolled effectively. That’s not to say they can’t be casted as well, but many of the smaller balsa lures can be tricky to launch given how light they are on conventional tackle.  

The larger (fatter) varieties are classic casters that many bass anglers associate with working a shoreline, a deep break, or other structure and cover. While many people associate trolling with walleye fishing, and casting with bass fishing, there’s quite a bit of crossover in river scenarios and elsewhere, because predators of all kinds readily eat baits that are either trolled or casted.  

Deep-running baits with large bills, as well as the shallow-running stepped-bill varieties, are almost always trolled. However, these are more one-dimensional in their use.

To get the most from each bait, it’s useful to understand more about their construction, shape, bill characteristics, and applications, so that you use them properly when on the water. Really, it’s all about putting an enticing offering in front of the most fish at any given time, so that’s what we’ll focus on for Part 2, where we’ll tackle running depth as dive curves, some general advice for tuning, and some advanced trolling information.

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