Tuesday, January 31st, 2023
Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

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Using cranks correctly, Part 2

(Photo courtesy of Joel Nelson)

By Joel Nelson
Contributing Writer

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we tackled some basics regarding construction of crankbaits themselves, along with diving lips, shapes, and the difference between baits that are trolled versus ones that are casted and retrieved. For Part 2, we’re going to focus more on the trolling side of things, mostly because there’s more to talk about.  

Casting baits usually have an advertised (on the box) depth range. You simply make a long cast and mid-speed retrieve to achieve a depth. When it comes to trolling, depth is dependent on more variables, and there are multiple means of presenting the bait.  


With most crankbaits, smaller lures have lower-numbered sizes, and larger, longer baits are assigned higher numbers. But that doesn’t always mean that larger lures dive deeper. Let me explain.  

For shad-style baits, numbers are commonly 5’s, 7’s, and 9’s, with the larger sizes being larger and actually diving deeper. When it comes to stickbaits, it’s common to see 10’s, 12’s, and even 14’s, but you’ve got shallow versions of these and deep-diving versions, too.  In other words, the numbers don’t always correspond to depth of dive, which is crucial for understanding which baits work best and where.  

Size, of course, is also a concern when you’re trying to match what fish are naturally eating as much as dive to a specific depth.  

Earlier in the season, it’s much more common to use No. 5 shad-style baits to match young-of-the-year minnows. In the fall, it’s common to use big baits to mimic baitfish species that have reached the peak of their growth. Sometimes, you’re forced to make a trade-off in size to achieve the dive of depth at which you wish to troll. For example, I’ll often use No. 7 shad-style baits to troll to the 12- to 15-foot depths I need, even when I think they’re a bit too big for the situation at hand.  

Trolling systems

It’s common to troll baits on monofilament, fluorocarbon, or braided line – just back behind the boat a certain distance to reach a desired depth.  The technique is referred to as “long-lining” and really is there only to distinguish from another major delivery system in trolling leadcore line.  

Leadcore is a hollow braid with a lead core that helps the line sink and thus brings baits deeper than the advertised lure depth. With long-lining or leadcore trolling, there’s usually a fluorocarbon leader between the bait and main line with lengths of 3 to 6 feet, all the way up to 30 feet or more for extremely clear-water scenarios. With leadcore or long-line trolling, the use of “birds” or planer boards to spread more baits evenly away from the boat is common, thus allowing for more lines to be run from a single craft.  

In both cases, it’s useful to get in the habit of having dedicated trolling rods with medium to medium-heavy power and moderate action. These rods are an investment in catching more fish, because you’ll hook more of them without pulling the hook from their mouths, which happens with slower, softer actions.  

While you’re at it, add a quality line-counter reel to those trolling rods so that you can replicate your runs. Here’s why: When it comes to trolling depth, it’s all about the amount of line you have behind the boat to achieve the correct depth. Once found, you need to be able to dial in the rest of your baits to that desired depth, and a line-counter reel is paramount to making that happen.  

In fact, spool up with the same amount of line with the same reels for all of your setups. If you’re not sure how, many sporting goods stores will do this for you, making it much easier to replicate success once it’s been found.


I’m often reminded of the importance of a well-tuned crankbait when there seems to be a certain bait that’s just on fire. No matter where you pull, that bait is getting eaten.  

What’s often the case is that this bait is tuned well, and your other baits could be just as popular if they were hitting the correct depths. 

Before deploying any bait, run it on a 6-foot lead length right next to the boat at the same speed you’ll be trolling. It should dive straight down, not wander either direction, and not consistently pull left or right. If it does, you can carefully use a needle-nose pliers or other tuning device to move the metal “eye” in the bill where the split ring attaches, to the opposite side to which it’s pulling. You’ll need to experiment and continually check your tune, especially if a toothy critter or other large fish mauls your bait.  

Color selection  

I was at a Scheels event with walleye tourney pro and guide legend Johnnie Candle a few years ago where we rapped about color a good bit. We’re both in agreement that while colors may certainly affect buying decisions, they don’t always affect a fish’s decision to bite.  

In fact, the reason it’s placed last in this story is because I truly believe the other variables discussed have more importance. Sure, there are places where fish see a good many baits and thus where custom colors – and the right colors on a particular day – can make a difference. I’ve certainly seen that.  

But with most systems, it’s about the general hue and broader color spectrum – how it shows up in clear water versus stained systems, and what kind of bait we’re looking to mimic. I like bright baits in turbid conditions – colors such as reds, pinks, and purples. I stick to more natural shades in clear-water scenarios. 

I appreciate how far color and painting have come in a short amount of time. But I think some people focus too much on color and not enough on many of the other factors that can often matter more.

Parting thoughts

I believe it’s always useful to run a snap swivel, specifically an oversized or crankbait snap. Not only is it handy when switching out baits constantly, but also the wider loop gives the bait that much more action and room to travel. It’s a minor detail that can make a major difference when fish really home in on a certain vibration or wiggle.  

I think organization is a key part of crankbait fishing, too – including how you store your baits by color, size, and even manufacturer. That way, switching to what you want and assessing what needs to be replaced is that much easier.  

On that note, I never buy only one crankbait of a certain shape, style, size, or color at a time. I always buy them in at least pairs. Too often, you’ll find a winning combination and wish above all other wishes that you had more.  

Pike, snags, and zebra mussels can end a perfect day if you don’t have at least one backup to the magic of the moment.  

Study those styles and spend some time learning the differences. 

We didn’t cover suspending jerkbaits, lipless cranks, and a host of other “‘tweeners,” but starting with the basics will get you further first until there’s room for understanding of the other varieties.  

Break them down by all these factors, and you’ll have an easier time decided what to use, and determining what to buy the next time you’re staring at that wall of balsa, plastic, and packaging.

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