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9 Characteristics of Crankbaits

The vast variety of crankbaits on the market is mind-boggling; there are hundreds of styles available, and literally thousands of different color and size combinations for anglers to choose from

9 Characteristics of Crankbaits
9 Characteristics of Crankbaits

The seemingly infinite number of crankbait options presents a dilemma for anglers who use them when fishing for bass and other species. How do you select a lure that will catch the most fish? Are there certain conditions when one crankbait is preferred over another? When are big crankbaits more appropriate? Small ones? How does one choose the best color? Is a floating bait best or one that dives deep? Should it be cranked fast or slow?

There are no pat answers to these questions. But don't fret. Help is available from “The Doctor of Diving Plugs,” Joe Hughes of Mount Ida, Arkansas. Hughes has worked hand-in-hand with numerous lure designers and fishing professionals to help develop fishing lures for major companies such as Rebel, Cotton Cordell, Heddon and Bomber. His knowledge of crankbaits and crankbait fishing is unexcelled.

“I sat down one day and tried to determine what makes crankbaits perform the way they do under various conditions,” Hughes says. “The word ‘characteristic’ kept popping up. It has a characteristic of sinking, a characteristic of high buoyancy, a characteristic of the depth it attains. I put these on paper and came up with nine basic characteristics.”


The first characteristic is depth.

“Depth is where the fish are,” Hughes says. “You must select a lure that will go to that depth to be successful.

“When people go to a marina for fishing information, they tend to ask, ‘What are they biting?’” Hughes continues. “That’s the wrong question. The question to ask is, ‘How deep are they?’ That’s the first thing you need to know. If you trust the information you’re given, you know what ball park you’re in as far as selecting a lure.”

Many anglers think crankbaits run deeper than they actually will.

“You must determine yourself what depth a crankbait will run, or at least trust the information you’re given by the manufacturer,” Hughes says. “The best thing to do is determine how deep the bait runs on the length of cast you make, the size line you use and the type reel you use. Typically, if you work a deep-diving crankbait with your rod pointed into the water, the bait will run deeper with longer casts, lighter line and slow retrieves.”


The second crankbait characteristic, speed, is closely tied to depth.

“Speed affects depth,” Hughes says. “That’s why it’s important to look on your reel to determine its speed. Some reels are slower, like 3.8:1 (line circles the spool 3.8 times for every turn of the reel handle). Others are high-speed reels with a 7:1 ratio. Others fall between the extremes.

“The way these reels affect the depth a lure swims is based on the fact that most people turn the handle about the same speed,” he continues. “So the reel takes over for them. To get the crankbait to its maximum depth, visually appraise its action in the water. When you see the lure giving a good action, that’s the speed you want to crank it. When you get it down there, you can speed it up, or stop and start it, but first look at the bait in the water to see the best way to retrieve it.”


Action is another important crankbait characteristic.

“Action relates to two different areas,” says Hughes. “First, action is the action the bait has—the side-to-side action, the wobble. The other action is what you do from a mental standpoint with the lure, like fishing a topwater, for instance. You twist and jerk and think about how to get fish to hit the topwater. If you take this same mental involvement you have with a topwater plug and use it in plugs that work down out of sight, you’ll enhance your productivity. A steady retrieve only catches fish about 10 percent of the time. Other times, the things you do to provide erratic action to the lure mean the difference in catching fish and not catching fish.”


Characteristic four is buoyancy. This determines whether a lure floats (positive buoyancy), sinks (negative buoyancy) or suspends (neutral buoyancy).

“Buoyancy is something professional anglers are very attuned to,” Hughes says. “When fishing heavy cover, they want baits that back up, float and have a degree of buoyancy. When fishing during cool-water periods, they want baits that can be stopped without popping back to the surface, baits that stay where they are, suspended. Negative buoyancy baits like vibrating, lipless crankbaits allow you to fish all depths. You can fish them on bottom, near the top or in between. Be attuned to buoyancy to know which baits to select for certain fishing conditions.”


Color is the characteristic anglers probably give the most consideration when selecting a crankbait.

“Color, as a characteristic of fishing lures, got a great boost from research conducted by Dr. Loren Hill (developer of the Color-C-Lector),” says Hughes. “There are colors anglers find very productive that most would never have tied on had it not been for the impact of the Color-C-Lector. The color gray, for instance, is a color that doesn’t sell well. But, it’s a great fish-catcher. Gray, according to Loren’s research, was the number one color overall. It wasn’t always the most visible to bass, but it was always one of the most visible under various conditions. The fact that gray catches fish makes sense when you consider that most forage fish are some shade of gray.”

According to Hill’s research, red also is a top color.

“Red signifies blood or circulation, like something that can be easily captured because it’s injured,” says Hughes. “Red has reproductive connotations, too. To show how important it is to anglers, consider this example. Several years ago, someone at a major lure manufacturer I worked for said, look, if we don’t paint these little red mouths on our minnow plugs, we can save a lot of money. So we quit doing it. The consumers came out of their skulls! We got dozens of letters saying, ‘What happened to the red mouth? These baits don’t produce as well.’ So we went back to putting red on our lures. You’ll notice that many lures have a red gill, throat or belly. It’s not there for decoration; it’s there because fishermen said the baits don’t work as well without it.”


Hughes’ thoughts on size, the sixth characteristic, also offer unique insights for crankbait anglers. Many of us were taught that catching big fish requires big lures, but Hughes says this isn’t true.

“If you use a big lure, all you’ll catch is a big fish,” he notes. “But big fish are just as likely to hit a small bait as a big one if the bait is presented at the proper depth and the right speed, if it’s the right color, and if you do the right things as far as action is concerned. Get into the smaller bait philosophy, and you can say, I’m fishing for every predator fish in this body of water. You’ll have more fun.”


Shape is less important than most other characteristics.

“Shape is basically a way to match the hatch,” Hughes says. “If you fish where crawfish are the primary forage animals, use a bait resembling a crawfish. If fishing where there are lots of shad, use a shad-type lure. Still, this is probably the one characteristic where you can arbitrarily make a choice and not hurt your fishing success. If you’re at the right depth and use the right speed, action and color, then, except in some clear-water situations, shape may not be terribly important.”


Sound/vibration is the eighth characteristic of crankbaits.

“Sound hasn’t been exploited to the maximum by lure manufacturers,” says Hughes. “Still, sound is important. A predator fish will accept or reject your lure based on what he sees, but sound could be the enticement that gets him to look.”


Though Hughes includes scent as the final characteristic on his list, he says this one has little importance when fishing crankbaits for bass.

“Bass have a poor sense of smell,” he says. “When fishing crankbaits for trout and walleye, scents may have some use, but to a large extent, they’re unnecessary for bass fishing.”

Hughes developed his list of crankbait characteristics only after a great deal of thought and research.

“It was a process of many years fishing various crankbaits and trying to learn more about them.” he says. “Now when someone asks, ‘How does that lure catch fish?’ I can talk about the specific characteristics that make it work.”

Don’t get bewildered by the many varieties of crankbaits available today. When making a purchase, or when selecting a crankbait to fish with, take Joe Hughes’ list of crankbait characteristics and give them some thought. You’ll find you’ve put an end to crankbait confusion.

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