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Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
What if I told you there was one bass lure that you could effectively use in water of virtually any depth, regardless of water clarity or cover that would catch fish day in day out during every month of the year? A lure that effectively mimics both baitfish and crawfish, that can be burned, slow rolled, ripped, jigged or banged off solid structure such as rocks, dock pilings or tree stumps.
You’d probably want to run out and pick up a selection of these miracle lures, right?
Well, the good news is that you probably have some of these lures in your tackle box right now, but the bad news is that you likely tie these lures on infrequently at most and if you are like many bass anglers you don’t use them at all. The lure I’m referring too is the lipless crankbait.
The Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap, Cordell Spot and Berkley Frenzy are just a few of the different lipless crankbaits that crowd the market. The fact of the matter is that virtually every manufacturer of hard baits offers a lipless crankbait. Most of these lures share common characteristics. They all shake violently when retrieved, most have internal rattles that generate a ton of noise and they all drive bass crazy.
I have no idea why more bass anglers don’t utilize these super effective lures. Perhaps they are just too simple to fish and therefore anglers dismiss them as the tools of rookies or the unsophisticated. Well, if catching bass after bass while simply chunking and winding a lure makes you a rube, kindly label me as being unsophisticated!
Why do lipless cranks appeal to bass? Well it’s actually pretty simple. Lures like Spots and Rat-L-Traps present bass with several different triggers.
First is the shape of the bait. Lipless cranks are shaped like shad and bluegill and when burned through open water they move like them too. When skittered along a rocky bottom, dark colored models look a lot like a panicked crawfish and as they clack along they sound like them too.
As we all know, bass rely heavily on their lateral lines to pick up the vibrations put off by potential prey. When you are retrieving a lipless crank back to the boat, it isn’t uncommon to hear the rattles working when the bait is still 5 or 6 feet below the surface. If you can hear the bait when it is that deep, it must sound like the proverbial brass band to any bass in the immediate vicinity. All this noise and vibration acts as a magnet for bass.
These baits also create a lot of flash as a result of their intense side-to-side wiggle. This creates a now you see it, now you don’t scenario very much like bass experience when attacking a fast moving baitfish.
Lipless cranks come in a range of sizes from tiny 1/8-ounce models (that are often deadly on trout) to big 1.5-ounce bombs that are most useful for targeting stripers and saltwater gamefish. For the black basser models that range from ½ to 1 ounce are most useful.
Don’t quote me on this, but based on casual observation I believe that lipless cranks are offered in more different finishes than any other hard bait. Luckily for us it doesn’t take a big assortment of different colored baits to consistently catch fish. On the other hand, you don’t have to be too frugal when it comes to buying lipless cranks, since they are not overly expensive and you can stock up a bit without breaking the bank.
As you pick out lipless cranks in various colors, think about the forage bass eat and the conditions you are likely to encounter. You’ll want models that imitate shad and other baitfish, so you’ll want baits with chrome sides and dark backs, but you’ll also want a bait or two with gold sides and a dark back.
For working rocks and rip rap where bass are likely to be feeding on crawfish, dark crawfish finishes make sense and of course if you fish the Delta you want some red craw colored baits. Finally you’ll want a gaudy colored bait for working muddy or stained water and there is no better finish for this work than the tried and true chartreuse, orange and black combination known as firetiger.
Before we start thinking about how to present these baits let’s consider the type of tackle you’ll want to employ. Like most cranks, lipless crankbaits sport small trebles that are prone to tearing out if you use a rod that is too stiff. For this reason, reasonably flexible sticks are a wise choice, with fiberglass cranking rods offering the best chance of avoiding mishaps.
You’ll want to team the rod with a high-speed bait caster that has a gear ratio of at least 6.4 to 1. I prefer an Abu Garcia Revo STX that features a 7.1 to 1 gear ratio. For working relatively open water with half ounce baits 12 to 17 pound mono or fluorocarbon works well. Many knowledge able anglers advise using mono over fluorocarbon because mono tends to float up and they feel this helps to avoid snags when working shallow water.
If the game plan calls for you to work weed beds or tule edges, forget about using mono and spool up with 30 to 50 pound braid. When using braid, remember to fish with a relatively light drag to keep from straightening out hooks when a good size bass strikes, but you’ll appreciate the power braid offers when you have to rip you bait free from the matted salad.
Swapping out hooks on new baits isn’t one of my favorite activities, but lipless cranks are one of the lures that really benefit from being armed with larger heavier wire hooks than they come from the factory with. Bigger, stronger hooks will help you land more fish, that’s the bottom line.
As long as we are talking about landing fish and not losing them, we might as well talk about the most effective way to fight fish hooked on lipless cranks. These baits are heavy and small, making them one of the easiest of all bait for bass to throw with headshakes.
Your number one priority when fighting a bass hooked on a lipless crank is to keep the fish from jumping. If you see the line start to rise, plunge the rod tip into the water to keep the fish down. A head-shaking jump is pure poison to the lipless crank angler.
Beyond discouraging bass from jumping, just remember to play the fish gingerly. A bass will usually fight you as hard as you fight them. Just keep the rod loaded and work the bass to the boat with a steady retrieve and you’ll avoid a lot of heartbreak.
Okay enough is enough...let’s fish! Fishing lipless cranks can be super simple or as complex as you want it to be. At times all you need to do is make a long cast and steadily crank the bait back to the rod tip.
When the water is clear, you’ll want to crank quickly. When the water is stained or muddy, back off with the speed. Most lipless cranks sink. This allows you to systematically cover a broad range of different depths with a simple cast, count down and crank approach.
As with most crankbaits, lipless cranks will catch a bass once in a while when retrieved through open water, but it’s when they are worked near or actually bouncing off cover that they are at their most effective. Bass anglers encounter three basic types of cover…rocks, wood and weeds. Rocks are the easiest to work for the beginner. Simply cast the bait beyond the area where you think the bass are holding, allow it to sink and retrieve it such that it bangs and bounces off the rocks.
If you are working a fairly deep rocky bank when the water is cold and the bass are not responding to the bait when it is bounced along the rocks, a yo-yo type retrieve might be the ticket. To do the yo-yo, make a long cast along the length of the bank over 10 to 20 feet of water. Allow the bait to sink on a tight line.
When it reaches the desired depth, sweep the rod tip upward, use the reel to retrieve the slack and repeat. This will make the bait shoot upward while vibrating violently and then it will fall like an injured baitfish. Typically you won’t feel the bass hit the bait. Instead the fish will just be there when you make your next sweep.
The procedure for working wood is pretty much the same, except you’ll usually have a more defined target. If you are working a downed tree, for example, you’ll know exactly where the tree is. You want to cast the bait well beyond the target and then retrieve it such that it bangs off a certain section of the tree. Lipless cranks don’t hang up too often when working rocks and when they do you can usually shake them loose.
Wood is a different story. When dealing with wood the front hook will often hang up and if it gets buried there is no getting the bait loose. For this reason if your game plan calls for encountering a lot of wood, for example if you were going to work the standing timber in Shasta’s Pit River Arm, it is a good idea to remove the bait’s front hook. You’ll still hook plenty of bass, but the amount of snags will be cut down tremendously.
Weeds and crankbaits don’t mix, everyone knows that, but this assertion is dead wrong when it comes to lipless cranks. When working submerged weed beds and weed edges, a lipless crank is one of the very best baits you can employ.
Many anglers find working weeds confusing. After all when confronted with a large bay or flat that sports an extensive weed bed the weeds look pretty featureless and you are left wondering where the bass will be holding.
The simple answer and really all you need to know is that the bass will be holding in the pockets and open areas that lay beneath the tops of the weeds. You can catch these fish by simply making long casts and working the bait just above the tops of the weeds. The bass will key in on the sound of the bait and will rush out of the cover to ambush it.
To really pinpoint the bass holding in weeds you’ll want to consider the topography that lies beneath the weeds. The bass will still gravitate to creek beds, humps and breaks, just like they would if there were no weeds in the equation. Locate these areas and you’ll likely enjoy very good results.
Bass will emerge from the weeds and whack a lipless crank, there is no question about that, but that is really generalizing. Most of your strikes will occur just after the bait hangs up, provided you react the right way. When you feel your bait load up in the weeds you want to respond by ripping it loose and then burning it with the reel. This is the way that you trigger reaction bites when working the salad. Remember, if you’re not hanging weeds, you’re not fishing the bait correctly.
When working fish in deep water that are holding on humps or along creek beds a slower retrieve is generally the best approach. Simply make a long cast well beyond the area you want to fish, allow the bait to sink all the way to the bottom and then slow roll it just above the cover. If it hits the occasional rock or stump so much the better. You might also try sweeping the rod tip up every once in a while to break the rhythm and trigger strikes from fish that are following the bait.
Bluff and bridge pilings can be worked very effectively by jigging a lipless crank. To accomplish this, free spool the bait down directly below the boat next to the piling or bluff face or make a short pitch and let the bait sink.
Once it is down in the zone where you think the fish are holding begin lifting the bait quickly and lower it on a semi tight line just like you’d work a jigging spoon. Watch your line as you do this. Some fish will be hooked when the lure is lifted, but if you see the line go slack or move to the side, set the hook hard, because you’ve likely gotten hit.
As you can see versatility is a term that aptly describes lipless crankbaits. In this article we’ve touched on the basics. Try some of these methods and you’ll build a whole new respect for the effectiveness of lipless crankbaits, but don’t hesitate to experiment. These baits will catch bass from the surface to the bottom using just about any type of retrieve that you can imagine.
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