May 11, 2020
By Ken Duke
If you want to find and catch spring bass quickly, there’s no better tool than a lipless crankbait.
That’s good news—and great news. The good news is that effective lipless crankbait fishing does not require an advanced degree in bass angling. The great news is that there are almost certainly several of these lures in a tackle box near you. In fact, the Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap may be the most ubiquitous lure in bass fishing history. It’s been around for 50 years, and you’d be hard pressed to find an angler who doesn’t own at least one.
The “Trap,” as it’s known by its aficionados, is so prevalent that it’s become the “Band Aid” or “Kleenex” of the lipless crankbait world—the brand name has superceded the generic. Many anglers will say “Rat-L-Trap” when they’re actually talking about a Berkley Warpig, Booyah Hard Knocker, Sébile Flatt Shad, Lucky Craft LV 500, Strike King Red Eye Shad or Yo-Zuri Rattl’n Vibe. All have the same basic qualities—they sink, they vibrate when you crank them, they have internal noisemakers and they catch fish.
GO LIPLESS NOW
Truth is, these baits catch bass all year long because they’re versatile. They cover the water column from top to bottom, but they’re particularly effective right now for three reasons. First, April is prime time for bass to be shallow and feeding. In the South, they’re in some phase of the spawn—pre-spawn, on the beds or post-spawn. Second, lipless crankbaits excel in shallow water; they’re great choices in four to eight feet. Third, lipless cranks cover water fast. No other lure can reveal bass, cover or structure as quickly.
Another reason to love lipless crankbaits is that they’re easy to use. If all you do is cast them out and crank them in, you can catch fish. Even if crankbaits aren’t your thing, lipless cranks might be. And they’re ideal for novices because there’s no “wrong” way to fish them.
The tools you choose to fish a lipless crankbait will determine just how and where you can best fish it, but there are some basic standards. Start with a rod of 7 to 7 1/2 feet in a medium- or medium-heavy action. Pair it with a high-speed baitcasting reel (7:1 gear ratio or faster) and 15-pound-test fluorocarbon line. Such an outfit will keep you in the game no matter where you’re throwing these lures.
Are there times when you’d be better off with a heavier rod? Yes. Should you sometimes choose braid? Absolutely. But for the basics, try the long rod, fast reel and fluorocarbon line. You can get fancy later.
THE RETRIEVE’S THE THING
The critical thing about lipless crankbait fishing is the retrieve, and there are really just three ways to work one: steady,stop-and-go and lift-and-drop. Within the parameters of these basic retrieves, there are an infinite number of nuanced variations. Ultimately, only the bass can tell you if you’re doing it right, and their opinion can change from day to day or even hour to hour.
Luckily, there are some useful guidelines. The most important is water temperature. The warmer the water, the wider the range of viable retrieve speeds, and faster tends to be better. In cold water, slower is usually more productive. A steady retrieve is seldom best unless you’re casting to schooling fish on the surface. That’s when burning the bait as fast as you can reel results in arm-jolting strikes.
Stop-and-go or lift-and-drop should be your default retrieve for one simple reason. Bass typically hit these baits on the fall, and the more often you can make them fall, the more opportunities you’ll create for a bite. In that sense, lipless crankbaits are like plastic worms or jigs. We lift the lure so it can drop into the mouth of a waiting fish.
Lipless Crankbait Tips: Bobby Lane
Go With The Flow — Bobby Lane
You might not think a sinking lure with so many hooks would be a Florida pro’s go-to bait. Florida is known for thick vegetation, soft plastics and topwater lures.
But Bass Pro Tour champion Bobby Lane fishes a lipless crankbait all year long—especially when the bass are mostly post-spawn and scattered.
“That’s a great time to tie on a 3/4-ounce Berkley Warpig (shad pattern) and look for some current,” says Lane. “If I can find current and a hard bottom, I know I’ll find bass.”
In Florida, and some other Southern locations, a hard bottom often means a shell bed. Canals and the chutes between islands create a funnel effect and focus any current.
The mussels that create the bed are filter feeders and collect in these places. Most of Lane’s favorite shell beds are in just four to six feet of water and can produce multiple bass.
Lipless Crankbait Tips: Takahiro Omori
Faster Is Better — Takahiro Omori
According to 2004 Bassmaster Classic champ Takahiro Omori, you can’t fish a lipless crankbait too fast, especially if you’re fishing around submerged vegetation.
Beginning in April, Omori breaks out his fastest Daiwa baitcasters (9:1 or 10:1), 40- to 50-pound-test braided line and a Lucky Craft LV 500 or Daiwa TD Vibration. Together, they generate reaction strikes most anglers never get because they’re not creating enough bait speed.
“I like to make a long cast and let the bait fall,” Omori says. “When I lift the rod and start the retrieve, I want the bait to contact the grass and even to get hung up. That’s when I tear it loose with a hard pull. Because the braid has no stretch and I rip it with a lot of force, the bait comes out fast. The bass usually hit it just as it pulls free or as I let it fall again.”
Lipless Crankbait Tips: Brian Latimer
Keep Moving — Brian Latimer
Until he catches a bass or two, Bassmaster Open pro Brian Latimer is a lipless cranking perpetual motion machine. Equipped with a 1/4- or 1/2-ounce Rat-L-Trap (Flathead Minnow; pictured above), Latimer uses the lure as a search tool for bass, structure and cover.
He’ll slow down when he finds any one of the three, but only then.
“A lot of guys use a Carolina rig or heavy jig to feel for cover or contour changes,” Latimer says, “but I can do the same thing with a Rat-L-Trap, and I can do it a lot faster.”
Trolling motor on high, Latimer presents his bait to more fish in an hour or two than most anglers will find all day. Once he connects, he settles in and fishes the area thoroughly, and not just with the ’Trap. If conditions dictate, he’ll crawl a worm or jig through a spot he’s pinpointed with the crankbait.
The standard lipless crankbait presentation begins with a long cast. Let the bait settle to the bottom. These lures sink fast—usually about two feet per second—so it won’t take long. From there, either start cranking and use frequent brief pauses to allow the bait to fall, or lift the bait sharply with your rod tip like you’re aggressively hopping a plastic worm or jig.
As the lure settles, maintain a little tension on the line. That subtle “tick” or the slight movement of your line to the left or right is a strike. Set the hook by sweeping the rod sharply to the side and reeling fast. The head-shake of a largemouth is notorious for dislodging lipless crankbaits. A tight line and bent rod are important. So is keeping your rod tip down and maintaining pressure on the fish until it’s in the boat.
WHERE TO GO LIPLESS
If you already know where the bass are, that’s exactly where you should be fishing a lipless crankbait. If not, April and the spawn hold plenty of clues.
Pre-spawn bass will often be holding off main and secondary points and drop-offs near protected flats. If there’s some vegetation taking hold on the bottom and inching toward the surface, that’s even better. Bass will hold in the cover and pop out to feed.
Up on the flats, target bass preparing their nests by fan casting and covering lots of water. Once the spawn is over, bass will foray into the shallows to feed, where they’re susceptible to aggressive retrieves. When the action slows, back off to the points and drops adjacent to the spawning flats and fish a little deeper using the lift-and-drop method.
Most lipless crankbaits make a lot of noise. Rattles, BBs, a lead weight or some other object bouncing around in a chamber inside the lure can make it audible from great distances.
The general attitude is that this noise attracts bass—except when it doesn’t. There are times when silent may be better, like in very clear water or when fishing pressure is heavy and you want something more subtle.
Enter the rattle-less lipless crankbait. They’re not easy to find—Bill Lewis Lures, Damiki, Megabass and a few others make them—but you can make one yourself with a Dremel rotary tool and some expanding foam sealant.
Just drill two small holes into the rattle chamber—one to inject the foam and another for the excess to escape—shoot it full of foam, allow it to dry overnight, and seal it up with a little epoxy. No more rattle!
There’s controversy about the origin of the lipless crankbait. Most anglers can trace the lure back to the Rat-L-Trap (late 1960s) or the Heddon Sonic Spook (1950s), but it’s been around a lot longer. In fact, it may be more than a century old.
In the early 1900s, Bignall & Schaaf of Grand Rapids, Michigan, produced the Diamond Wiggler Minnow. It didn’t have quite the same profile as what we now know as the lipless crankbait (the line-tie was far forward), but it did vibrate on a fast retrieve.
In the early 1950s, the Mubago Bait Company of Lexington, Kentucky, manufactured the Irish Shad. It had a profile we’d recognize and spawned numerous imitations.
The first commercially-produced lure with an internal noisemaker was probably the Sea-Bat by Harry F. Drake of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Drake put a ball bearing inside a chamber to create a rattling noise and patented the lure in 1932.