by Jim Porter
(Is this version of the crank bait the "ultimate lure"? I believe it may just be. Read on and decide for yourself.)
Crank plugs come in all sizes, shapes and styles. They can be long, short, wide, flat, narrow, fat, small, large or skinny. Some have rattles, some have none and some have far too many rattles. There are top water baits, shallow runners, mid-range, deep, deeper, gosh-awful deep and all variations in between. Add to that a myriad of color selections (I just counted 78 colors or color combinations in a single major lure manufacturer's catalog) and you've got a lot of tackle choices out there. It's probably no wonder many of today's anglers have big boats. They need it just to float all the lures they carry.
However, when you honestly assess the need, there are really only a handful of lures that each of us uses to catch the majority of our fish. We all have our favorites. And, if forced, we could probably reduce our 75-pound tackle packs down to a cigar box-size selection. That would, however, admittedly take a lot of the fun out of fishing.
For many years, survival kits that the Department of Defense issued to pilots and specialized operations units contained a couple of small jigs and 20 yards of fishing line. While many believe that the jig is the best all-around lure for catching some species of fish from most any type of water, they're not the "universal" bait some anglers proclaim them to be. There is another lure family, which very nearly fulfills the same requirements as the jig, if not even more of them. I call it the ultimate crank bait and it, too, will catch virtually every species of predatory fish. Many anglers call them 'lipless, vibrating crank baits'.
Most anglers define a crank bait as a plug with a lip in its nose that makes it dive and wiggle side-to-side. Such lures are often retrieved steadily, and they do fool a lot of fish. The vibrating crank bait is different, yet still much the same. It has no separate 'lip' to make it dive and wiggle enticingly. Instead, its forward-facing body surface (that which 'attacks' the water) is flat and, when pulled through the water, boasts a snappy action side-to-side vibrating action. The flat body surface also provides just enough downwards drag to keep the lure running below the surface on a fast retrieve.
Better-known brands, such as the Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap and the Cordell Super Spot, can be found in virtually every experienced angler's tackle box, whether he is fresh or saltwater oriented. That's because day-in and day-out, the lipless vibrating lures prove themselves one of the most valuable tools in a fisherman's arsenal-and that even includes offshore anglers.
Many readers know these baits well. You probably even have a half-dozen of them in your box. Why? Because they catch fish, of course. Though they're not the long sought and elusive 'magic' lure we all fantasize about (the one that catches everything, any time), they may well be the closest things to it.
To some anglers, vibrating lures are just another style of lure to be taken out and dusted off for a short while when the local Sunday newspaper mentions one has been used to catch fish. But, to a smaller crew of hard-core fishermen, this style is considered indispensable. For a few, they're the only style of lure used.
The first version of this 'ultimate' crank bait this writer recalls was the legendary Bayou Boogie. A flat, oval lure with a nose that appeared to be lopped off a bit short by an errant knife stroke, the plug was so easy to fish that even a novice angler could become immediately effective. And, if it was cast in the vicinity of a hungry fish, the Bayou Boogie stood a very good chance of coming back with the finny critter attached to one or both of its treble hooks. It was so good that I recall (too many years ago for most of you to want to even think about) when local anglers were actually hoarding Boogies to keep other fishermen from catching fish.
I once researched the origin of the Bayou Boogie. My old notes and fading recollections reminded me that they were first hand-carved from cedar and redwood and were specifically intended to be imitations of small baitfish. In actuality, the idea for the design came from lures developed for jig fishing through the ice by northern anglers. These lures wiggled side-to-side when jigged up, and the lures' weight made them sink on a slack line. At some point in the evolution of fishing, an innovative angler wondered, that if the lure worked while going up and down, why shouldn't it be equally productive when towed through the water while trolling, or pulled along with a reel? That sounded good, but the lure was not quite designed for those applications. It was not stable and was not controllable.
In looking at today's Bayou Boogie and similar modern lures, that early angling innovator's problems and the eventual solutions are obvious. But, stability and holding an underwater running position were the hard nuts to crack.
The lure needed to run in a nose-down position for stability. Two choices existed. One was to somehow add weight to the head of the lure to hold it down. Our angler-of-old, however, solved the problem by going with the second choice - carving out an angled surface on the front of the lure so that water resistance would force the nose down. The Bayou Boogie design went further by trimming back the lure's head until it reached a thicker (wider) part of the body to provide maximum surface area for water resistance. Hence, the lure looked as though part of the front of the body had been inadvertently cut off. The venerable Bayou Boogie, one of the first vibrating crank baits, still catches a lot of bass today.
Many modern vibrating lures still use this same flat-nose design, although most incorporate it into the natural appearance of the lure. Some designers take things a step further with the strategic placement of rattle devices and lead slugs to put more weight up front and control the nose-down attitude during retrieve. No matter what it looks like or how it sounds, these baits all feature a tight, side-to-side wiggle that produces vibrations a fish can "feel" through its sensitive lateral line.
That, in itself, is not the real reason they're so productive, though. While the steady 'buzz' of the retrieved lure can certainly gain the attention of fish, the key to the continual success of the lipless vibrating lure is that the angler can present it at any depth, at any speed, around nearly any cover and with just about any action he chooses. In its adaptability to a wide variety of cover and terrain, it is nearly a perfect lure.
Here are just a few examples of the seemingly limitless presentation techniques possible.
Even offshore anglers have discovered the virtues of this style of lure. Perhaps the best-known offshore vibrator is the Boone Cairns Swimmer. It's little more than a giant version of the same style used inshore or in freshwater, but is far too heavy to cast. Swimmers, Tremblers and other brands are usually trolled over reefs or other structure and account for plenty of grouper. They can be made to perform the same way as smaller models, except that instead of using a rod and reel to instill action, the angler uses the boat. These big lures aren't limited to the reefs, either. Trolled on flatlines behind the boat, they account for a wide variety of game fish, including wahoo and tuna.
- Retrieve: Of all the ways to fish a vibrating lure of this type, the simple, steady retrieve may be the most productive. It will work for any angler, regardless of experience level. However, it has been proven that there are times when erratic or stop-and-go retrieves appear to work best. For example, a series of short, intermittent pauses or even an erratic jerk or two during the retrieve will often bring vicious strikes when otherwise there would be no response. There's a logical reason for this action's effectiveness. Fish, which are not on an active feed, will often just follow a lure out of curiosity. But, all predators are instinctively drawn to injured prey, or prey that suddenly tries to get away, and will often attack whether hungry or not. Most of us have witnessed this phenomenon at one time or another in the form of a fish attacking our lure and later found to have a full-size, freshly devoured baitfish protruding from its gullet. Obviously, this fish wasn't hungry, but attacked the lure out of some instinctive response. Possibly the most unbelievable retrieve technique I ever witnessed was demonstrated on a very cold, blustery winter day by Wister G. Smith, an Alabama angler of some renown. Smith called it the "Dead Spot Trick" after the Cordell Spot lure he was using at the time.
Personally, I thought that it was far too cold for any largemouth bass to be chasing a lure that day, so I had opted for jig-and-rind combination. While I was slowly working my bait, Smith cast his lure parallel to the edge of a submerged hydrilla bed and let it sink to the bottom. After a second or two, he took up the slack line and gently lifted the lure off bottom a foot or so. He then let the lure fall back down on a tight line, shaking his rod tip as he did so. The retrieve was nearly devoid of any lure action, save some slight trembling of the Spot caused by the rod tip movement. I swear to you that Wister must have caught 50 bass that day. Of course, I switched lures after his fifth or sixth catch. I may have been fishing in freezing weather, but I wasn't totally nuts. By holding the rod tip high and adjusting the retrieve, a floating vibrator can be made to run with the tail high, just barely under the surface. It looks a lot like a bass fisherman's buzz bait. Floating vibrating crank baits have had devastating applications on the waters in and around the Sunshine State. They adapt beautifully to the shallows during the largemouth bass spawn, when they can be absolute killers. In the famous, brush-infested Farm 13 complex at the headwaters of the St. Johns River, such lures have led many anglers to 100 bass-per-day success stories.
- Depth: Ken Chaumont, the promotions guru for the Rat-L-Trap series of lures, told me that of all the criteria in lure selection and presentation, depth is absolutely the most critical. He noted that the lure must be in front of the fish, whether shallow or deep or somewhere in-between, if it is going to be eaten. Said Ken, "With the Rat-L-Trap, or similar vibrating crank bait, an angler has absolute control over the depth at which he presents his lure. He can let it sink to a desired depth and then control that depth by the retrieve speed, by holding the rod tip higher or lower, or by varying the size of the lure he selects. Line size is another control technique, in that lighter line produces less resistance in the water and allows the lure to stay deeper."
- Speed: While depth is the major lure selection factor, speed follows as a close second. We have all experienced the effects of varying the speed. The rule of thumb has always been to use a fast retrieve during the warm months and to slow it down during the colder periods. My experience, which matches that of many professional anglers, is that a fast retrieve is always the best starting point. When the fish ignore that, it's time to try something different. Largemouth bass, spotted sea trout, snook, striped bass and most all other species often seem to be provoked by speed. An exception to that rule is redfish in deep water. They seem to like a bait moved slowly and lazily, with a stop-and-go retrieve. I've taken many reds using a modified version of the Wister G. Smith Dead Spot Trick. It's a stop-and-go technique that uses a fast, short retrieve for a few feet, followed by stopping the lure and allowing it to sink to the bottom on a tight line. By varying the speed of the retrieve, an angler can keep a vibrating lure at the correct depth over grass beds or in shallow water. The same floating lures used for bass are just as deadly in salt water, too. Lots of inshore sight-fishermen are now using them instead of spoons for flats redfish. They will also work in the surf on bluefish and many others.
I'm certain that the lipless, vibrating crank bait is the best, most versatile lure available. It'll catch nearly any species of fish that swims. It's that good. I'm just as certain that some anglers will swear that jigs are better. Such differences of opinion make the World of fishing go 'round.
However, never forget that the best piece of fishing gear any of us will ever own is the one that sits atop our shoulders. Used wisely, it catches a lot of fish.
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