Wading side-by-side up a trout stream and casting matching minnow-imitating lures, a buddy and I should have been enjoying at least somewhat similar results. That was far from the case, though. While he was regularly setting the hook and reeling in trout, my score remained parked at zero.
I’d been casting to good spots, as far as I could tell, and had tried everything from slow, steady cranking to fairly erratic jerking retrieves, and everything I tried was yielding the same non-result.
Then he recognized what he thought might be the difference-maker. He was reeling steadily at a moderate pace, but every five or six cranks, he was adding a short but sharp twitch of the rod tip, and he felt most fish were hitting just as he would twitch the rod. Apparently, they were following his lure and its sudden flare out would trigger strikes — and no other presentation seemed quite right that day. I imitated what my friend was doing and soon after joined the catching game.
As vital as it can be to select the right bait or lure and to cast to good spots, it’s also important to find the right presentation. It’s too easy to fall into a rut with the way you retrieve a particular lure, and some days (many days, in fact) that default presentation won’t be the absolute best. Finding the best presentation begins with experimentation and calls for careful observations of what draws fish to follow and especially what prompts strikes.
Crankbaits of various sorts get largely overlooked by many trout fishermen, but these hard-bodied wobblers do an outstanding job of drawing reaction strikes and of prompting the predatory instincts of trout as various cranks imitate everything from minnows to crawfish to large insects. These lures offer easier casting than many micro-sized trout jigs or spinners, and many handle current quite nicely. Another appeal of using crankbaits for trout is that they tend to attract a little larger fish on average than do most flies, jigs or spinners, and they are among the best lures for targeting trophy trout.
It should be noted that we are using the term “crankbait” quite broadly in this story and including lipped hard lures that range from traditional rounded crankbaits to minnow-shaped lures sometimes dubbed as jerkbaits or minnow baits to specially shaped cranks like Rebel Crawfish and Crickhoppers.
Maybe in part because of the name, anglers commonly underutilize the full benefits of crankbaits by simply casting them out and cranking them back. Sometimes that is indeed the best approach, but often some other presentation will produce better results. We’ll look at some basic retrieve types that tend to work well at times and are often worth experimenting with as you seek to pattern the trout. Keep in mind, though, that the best specific presentation for a day might be some variation of one of these or a hybridization of more than one.
CAST & CRANK
Sometimes a straight cranking presentation, which trusts the lure’s built-in action, really is best, and so it’s usually worth trying. Simple cranking tends to work especially well when the water is a little high and fish are in a reactionary mode and in places where many trout are behind recognizable obstructions, like big rocks, and you and can cast beyond an obstruction and crank the lure past it so the fish see it for the first time as it pops out into the ambush zone.
Important variables are cast angle and retrieve speed. Experiment with both. For upstream casts, which tend to work best when a stream has a lot of midstream cover, the best speed often is slightly faster than the current speed — just fast enough to keep the lure’s action engaged. Cross-stream casts, which allow for slower presentations, tend to be effective when most fish-holding cover or structure is along the banks.
If the crankbait you’ve selected runs deeper than the average bottom depth and the bottom isn’t too snaggy, grinding the lure along the bottom so that it kicks up sand or gravel and sometimes flares out from bottom contact can be a great way to prompt good action from the fish. This presentation matches a crawfish or baitfish rooting on the bottom for food, and the lure’s deflective darts commonly trigger strikes.
You can grind effectively by reeling with the rod tip pointed low or by repeatedly sweeping the rod, moving the lure just quickly enough to maintain bottom contact. It’s easy to know if you are hitting bottom because it feels different. You will hang up some in most streams when you use this strategy, but usually your lure will just be wedged between rocks and can be freed.
Another highly effective and easy presentation is simply to let the bait swing downstream against a tight line, allowing the current to engage the diving and wobbling action. This tends to work especially well for fishing strong currents and for fishing down a stream instead of up it.
To execute, cast directly across a stream or angle your cast across and downstream. Then simply reel the line tight and hold the rod parallel to the water’s surface and angled slightly upstream. The current will bring the lure to life as it swings across the stream. Even after it swings to directly downstream of your position, let the lure continue to wobble in the current for a few seconds. Strikes often occur just after the bait stops swinging.
SNAP & PAUSE
Sometimes the erratic action created by snaps of the rod tip will trigger strikes from trout that won’t respond to a steadily swimming offering. Snaps or jerks can be somewhat soft or sharp, and sometimes need to be broken by pauses.
When trout are tight to the bank and in eddies formed by shoreline cover, a suspending minnow bait fished with jerks and substantial pauses often works well because the lure can hang in the zone longer. Cast tight to the bank and the cover, snap the rod hard a few times to get it down and then let it suspend several seconds before snapping the rod tip again.
Other times pauses need to be short and used simply to break the cadence. After cranking the lure down, you might do something like “snap, snap, pause; snap, snap, snap, pause; snap, snap, pause and so forth. Vary the sharpness of tugs and the cadence and let the trout reveal their preferences.
When steady is too steady and jerks create too much action, adding twitches to cranking retrieves might be the key to triggering strikes. Barely twitching the rod tip without altering the cranking speed causes most crankbaits to flare out slightly or dance just a bit differently, and trout sometimes will pounce on the lure at that moment. Twitches can be frequent, or you might just add one or two per cranking presentation. Again, experiment. If you’re adding quite a few twitches per presentation, guard against becoming steady to the point of rhythmic. Keeping things at least a little erratic tends to produce better action.
Because this triggers strikes, on days when twitching the rod seems to be doing the job, be somewhat strategic about your timing. Try it when you see a trout following, just to see how the fish reacts. Also, watch for high percentage ambush zones and add that enticing action just as the lure reaches the zone.
Closely related to twitching the lure is a hesitation in a cranking presentation. This isn’t a noteworthy pause and isn’t normally between jerks. When you are cranking, just hesitate the reeling motion for a moment a couple of times per retrieve. Like the twitch, it breaks the steady wobble to trigger strikes, but it’s more subtle than making the bait flare out, and at times this slight alteration in action is exactly what is needed.
BRINGING IT TOGETHER
This sounds like a lot of variations to try, but the truth is that when you cast a crankbait for trout, you make a lot of casts, and if you’re somewhat intentional about mixing up presentations, you can do a lot of experimentation in short order. You’ll also find that some spots lend themselves best to certain types of retrieves, and some days you’ll find the magic before you’ve tested everything.
Most important, avoid simply falling into a default mode with retrieves, pay attention to what the trout reveal about presentations, and adjust as needed. Do those things, and you’re likely to catch more trout with crankbaits.