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Classic Crankbaits
By Paul Crawford

The last 7 years or so have seen a remarkable rediscovery of one of bass fishing's oldest lures, the crankbait. You could fill a good size library with what's been written about crankbaits over the years, yet everyone is on such a crankbait surge, you'd think they were invented yesterday. In a way, maybe they were. The touring pros have found new and innovative ways to fish crankbaits that only our grandfathers knew.

In the 30s and 40s, crankbaits and topwaters, and several lures that acted as both, were about all there was available. Bass fishermen learned truly exotic ways of use the baits, but even they were limited by the equipment available. The baits themselves, mostly made of wood or maybe the occasional hollow metal, didn't run too deep. If you wanted to get down to the big fish, you trolled. When throwing plugs, you were pretty much limited to shallow water.

In the late 50s and early 60s, we discovered other types of lures. Rubber worms took their place in the tackle box, and later spinner baits then modern soft plastics were all the rage.

In the 70s, crankbaits made a reappearance starting with a plug called the Big O. This big round body bait caught fish everywhere it went, and pretty soon, it and all it's imitators were pretty much everywhere. As all baits overexposed are prone to do, it cooled off after a few years and fishermen moved on to new baits once again. Carolina Rigs brought plastic worms back into vogue and the spinnerbaits had a big run.

But then came along one Mr. Rick Clunn. He was already well established on the tour making an early name for himself throwing spinner baits. He started winning consistently at the bigger tournaments, and won a couple of Bassmaster Classics. Then he designed some flat sided baits with a tight wiggle for a small lure company called Poe's that specialized in cedar lures. When Rick won the Bassmaster Classic again with his shallow running baits, the rush was on! Spurred by a wonderful blow by blow account of Rick's winning day with the RC1 and RC3 baits, (he had the tournament pretty much sowed up by 9:00), and a fantastic come from behind victory, crankbaits were rediscovered. At least RC1 and RC3 crankbaits. Everyone was throwing crankbaits and a few were catching fish. But quietly in the background, new ways to fish them were being developed.

The next year found crankbaits in the news again. This time, Paul Elias had used an obnoxious looking oversized plastic crankbait loaded with BBs called the Mann's Loudmouth to make a run in the Chesapeake Bay Classic. Paul's Big Bass, caught on national TV caught the imaginations of fishermen as well as the fish, (Ken Cook won in '92 with a spinner bait, but that's another story.) These big old deep divers had been around for several years, and since everyone knew the bigger fish were down deep, it was only a matter of time before someone connected. But wait a minute! Paul wasn't deep! Paul was throwing this lure designed to be fished in 15' of water in just 5' of water! But won't it hit bottom? Sure it will, that's the whole idea! Churns up the bottom just like a crawdad. Never mind that it's blue and green, it's a crawdad in the mud. Color just lets them see it good! That's also the year we learned a new word about crankbaits, "deflection". Paul's theory was the fish wouldn't touch a crankbait just pulled through the water. It needed to bounce off something to give it an erratic motion. And while other people were making a little tuff of mud plumes with their jigs, Paul was digging trenches in the mud with his crankbait. And he won cash doing it! About that time all of the other pros chimed in "Sure, we knew that all along!" The word was never to throw a crankbait unless it hit something. About anything would do. Hit the bottom, hit the weeds, hit the rocks, hit the stumps, hit the dock pilings, hit anything but make sure it deflected the lure, that's when all the strikes come.

Well, why didn't someone tell us that before. We can all throw a crankbait into something hard and get a deflection, can't we? The next spring saw overhanging trees and underwater stumps across America filled with ugly blue/green rattling, deep diving crankbaits. Tom Mann retired a rich man while making them and Paul Elias got several new endorsement deals. There were so many rattles in the lures that year I'm surprised the fish didn't climb out of the water just to get some peace and quiet. And the hot color that year was brown, red, and black, just like a crawfish.

The next year was Robert Hamilton's turn. He threw a crankbait right over the top of a brush pile setting on top of a hump with nobody around and won the Classic doing it! Again, a spinner bait and worm played heavily in his game plan, but all of the talk was about throwing crankbaits around brush. It had always worked around fish attractors, right? Might be something to this stuff after all! Tackle boxes and tree stumps across the land were filled with crankbaits until the trays and limbs rattled. Even Bill Dance was giving shows on crankbaits.

The crankbait craze was well underway. Fast Forward to a relatively unknown pro, again in the Bassmaster Classic, by the name of Mr. David Fritz. While everyone else was deflecting crankbaits off of shallow cover, David found a way fish crankbaits deeper than anyone else had since the trolling days. Dave rediscovered what our grandfathers knew, put a crankbait in deep water, work it slow, and really BIG fish will slam it. Everyone spent the following few months buying deep water crankbaits and moving to offshore structure, sure that it was all figured out at last. About that time, it was a new tournament year, and guess who was in the winner circle again. Yelp, Dave did it again, and the next week, again! Unheard of! How? Why? And this time he was in shallow water when everyone else went deep! What's going on! Turns out Dave's secret wasn't just going deep. He had developed a whole new system on how to fish crankbaits and it worked just about anywhere he cared to try it. Dave was about the only one who noticed that Rick's earlier win had come throwing crankbaits where few others dared, straight into the heavy wood. Rick was fishing the knees of cypress trees, and Robert was fishing brush piles. Dave was fishing bush piles, stumps, timber, or anything else wood he could find, and the fish loved it! Wood has always been a known magnet for bass, and people have been throwing crankbaits in wood since they were invented, (much to the delight of lure manufacturers.) So why now, after all these years, was a wooden crankbait working around wood cover the magic answer?

There had to be more to this story. We now know that Dave hadn't been throwing near the wood, but right into the heart of it, treble hooks blazing. Anyone who has ever tried this, say every fisherman in the world, knows with a doubt this is a pretty dumb thing to do since you always get hung up. Well, you almost always get hung up. Turns out if you start using a little smaller hook, you don't get hung up so much. And if you keep some tension on the line, the bill of the bait will bounce off the wood and you don't get hung up so much. And if you go really, really slow, you don't get hung up so much. And if when you feel the lure move up and hit a limb, then give it a little slack, the lure will kind of float up from behind the limb, and you don't get hung up so much. And, of course, if a 5 pound bass swallows the lure down to his anal fin, you don't get hung up much at all! And guess what happens when you're the first one do all of these things at once? Yelp, that's right, you win the Bassmaster Classic and everything else you enter. Still a couple of problems here.

Now let me see if I have this right. I'm suppose to crank real slow and when I hit a limb, let the lure float out from behind it. But how in the world am I suppose to get the lure down there to start with?!? If I reel slow, the bait doesn't dive deep enough to get to the limb, and if I reel fast, I get hung up! What's the deal here? OH! You didn't tell me about adding lead to the lure to make it float up real slow! Just almost to where it suspends, right? The following year broke all records for sales of drill presses and lead melting pots at Sears. You just couldn't fish without one of these specially weighted lures. And since you have to practice drilling and filling a little to get it right, we better buy some extra lures while we're at it just in case, much to the manufacturer's disappointment, I'm sure.

Fortunately, right before we had to buy 10 different versions of each lure to make sure we had the correct rise rate, someone came up with an idea that ranks right up there with the paper clip, Post It note, and pet rock, the Suspend-A-Dot. Take some thin lead foil, add a water proof glue backing, put it in a plastic package, show it to a couple of fishermen, and buy that retirement island in the Bahamas.

One of the better ideas for crankbaits and jerkbaits ever come up with. They come with both a small dot, and a strip equal to about 3 of the dots. Just peel them off and stick them to the underside of your favorite lure, and PRESTO, instant rise rate control. Just about every lure in my box has a couple of them on there somewhere. You can not only change the rise rate, or make a suspending version of the lure, but you can control the action of the lure by where you place them on it's body. I only wish I had thought of it. Now there is one other little part of this crankbait thing. Remember that part about the smaller hooks? Guess what happens when a pro just barely hooks a bass, works him out of the cover, then looses him when the fish jumps right beside the boat? Right Again, you learn a lot of new words your mom never taught you. In order for all of this system to work, you have to come up with some way to keep a big fish, just barely hooked, attached to the lure. Well, it turns out the fly fishermen have been having that problem for years, and they invented fly rods. With a fly rod, the rod has so much give, it's almost impossible for the fish, even on a tiny hook, to throw the bait or get any slack. Just keep the line pulled up and don't try to overpower the fish, and the rod does the rest.

Well, back when flippin' first got started, they put a rod length limit of 8' on the rods to keep people from doodlin' with 20' rods. And bait caster looks pretty stupid on a fly rod anyway. But if you go back and pull out one of those old wet noodle rods we used in the 60s, you get pretty much the same effect. If you happen to make one of those rods with modern light weight material, all the better. So, grab yourself about a 7' light action rod and some line that will take the abrasion of rubbing against wood all day, and you're pretty much set up to go. And over the next year or so, everyone bought light action rods and truck loads of wooden crankbaits. They then proceeded to loose enough wood to frame a 3 bedroom house. But after some practice, most of them did start tapping in on those heavy cover bass, even if they did cost them about $20 an ounce. I can only pray Denny Brauer wins the next Classic so we can all get back to flipping sticks and jigs before we go broke.

Speaking of going broke, I guess you've now all see the new "super" crankbaits. In the few years since Paul Elias introduced us to Chartreuse with a Blue back as a natural color, those clever Japanese have taken their color copies, love of bass fishing, and some assorted bait fish to produce crankbaits for $40 a pop. Now you can have a lure that not only looks like a shad, but actually has a life sized picture of a shad pasted over it's sides. Not to be outdone, other manufacturers have jumped in the fray offering museum quality prints of blue gill, threadfin shad, and crawfish under a gel coat better than on your Ranger on lures of the proper size, weight, action, and having $5 hooks hanging from the belly. I honestly don't have the heart to put one of the pieces of art in the water, even if I go crazy enough to give you $50 for one. I'm sure they catch fish. And I'll also buy in on them catching more fish to a point. But if I had the money to fill a tackle box with these new lures, I'd buy a house instead. Anyway, I'm saving my money for that new $400 Loomis rod I have my eye on. So, what have we learned so far. Well, crankbaits work better around heavy cover, (there's a surprise), and catch more fish if you bounce them off of something giving them an erratic motion, (another surprise.) They work even better if you crank them in real, real slow, and to make them work at these slower speeds, you need to add a little weight to get them down, (will wonders never cease.) You need all the help you can get if you use small hooks. And a fisherman will buy damn near anything if it wins the Bassmaster Classic!

See you on the water. I've got to go to the store for some more crankbaits.

Paul Crawford

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