BoatUS ANGLER: Bait and Tackle
by Capt. Steve Chaconas, BoatUS ANGLER Pro Staff
So, you bought a new "favorite" crankbait. Taking it out of the package carefully, you tie it, toss it and start cranking. WHOA! Many of the top pros make modifications before the bait even gets wet!
This year's BASSMASTER Classic winner, Nitro/Mercury Elite Series pro Kevin VanDam made an immediate switch out of the standard hooks of the Strike King Red Eye Shad lipless crank bait, to his newly designed Mustad Ultra Point Triple Grip short shank treble. The short shank allowed him to move up to the next size in hooks, giving him more hooking power without inhibiting the action of the bait. Hook changing is one of the most common crankbait makeovers.
Pros change out hooks for style, size, and quality. Ranger/Yamaha FLW pro Jacob Powroznik switches out standard split rings for smaller ones to allow him to put bigger hooks to prevent the hooks from catching each other. He tries several hook/split ring combos to find the biggest hooks that won't catch each other. When he buys a crank bait he always removes the hooks. He contends most crankbaits come with cheaper hooks that might rust, leaving a stain on his lures. As for hook style, he sticks with round bends. An on-the-water experiment demonstrated to him that round bends hook fish better than triple grip styles.
But it's more than hooks, Powroznik changes the face of his lures. Fellow pro Craig Powers paints some of his deeper diving crankbaits in 2 colors shad or chartreuse colors. But, just as important as the crankbait is the accompanying tackle. Depending on circumstances he uses to bigger line to keep baits over the grass. Fluorocarbon, while abrasion resistant is his low stretch line for deep cranking. Low stretch enables hook sets on long casts, sensitivity is secondary. He also doesn't use wimpy rods, opting for a long 7'6 Berkley Elite Carolina rigging rod because he is driving 6 hooks into a fish - not just one. Besides, he usually uses a fast speed, eliminating a need to feel. He crashes cover to get reaction strikes.
Bass Cat/Evinrude pro Bill Chapman, winner of the points title in the American Fishing Series Northern Division qualifying for the 2011 Forrest Wood Cup, notes crankbaits may look the same, but perform differently. Some go deeper or have different actions, either running erratically or the bait "hunts", an erratic movement. This could be caused by excess glue, a misplaced internal rattle or irregular thickness. If the baits aren't "special", he takes them back to the store and buys more! He takes note of these and saves some for tournament occasions. He adds bigger hooks for weight to go a bit deeper.
Like most, Chevy/Ranger FLW pro Dave Lefebre changes hooks, but he also tinkers with baits like not many others. Even on his reliable Rapala crankbaits Lefebre alters the diving bills, using scissors, snips and a file to change round bills to square and square bills to round. This changes the action and presentation of any lure, making them roll and have a different action. A shorter bill allows them to run shallower. Thinner lipped Rapala crankbaits create different and more pronounced deflections. Lefebre scratches the surface of his lures. Though he says it primarily makes him feel better, he scrapes lure finishes to make them look like they've been catching fish but in reality it changes color patterns adding contrast. As for hooks, he'll cut the lower hook on each treble to make them more weedless over cover. Otherwise, he uses red hooks, sometimes applying nail polish remover to reveal the gold hook underneath. Still one to sharpen hooks; he leaves some red on the hooks, as he believes different colored hooks help when the fishery is pressured, giving him a bit more confidence. Finally, Lefebre removes the line-tie split ring using super tiny snaps.
Sometimes pros just can't make enough changes on the fly, instead designing their own "Frankenstein" lures, with parts of several baits to create a fishing lure monster. Bass Cat/Mercury Elite Series pro John Crews is one of those guys. By throwing different crankbaits, he found he preferred flat-sided lures. The selection was limited. He sought a flat-sided crankbait that would cast well and have good action. Handmade cranks were the easiest for Crews to modify as they were made of wood and the bill was easier to change. Bending the line tie up or down would alter the running pattern of the bait. With the tie in the nose generally, a bend of the tie toward the bill would produce a harder action. But, further away from the bill, it tended to swim side-to-side, not rolling or tight. Thus began the design of his Little John Spro crankbaits.
It was constant trial and error, experimenting with bill angles and line ties taking the bill out, shaving and reshaping changing the angle using epoxy. To achieve maximum casting distance, Crews placed Storm Suspend Dots on the belly, focusing weight around the front hook hanger. Adding tube weights hanging on the front hook fine-tuned the slight nose-down angle. Crews even drilled his way to balance, dropping BBs into hollow hard plastic baits, finding belly chambers or seeing through a clear bait version to locate them. He added BBs one at a time, sealing holes with plumbers' putty, two-part clay epoxy. After weighting, he positioned the bill for the ideal diving hard wiggle vibration. Crews' baits swim horizontally, slightly tilted down but still come through cover even grass, ticking the top rather then hooking it with the lip. His weighted lure became a triple threat. Longer casts, faster/deeper diving and the angle Crew's prefers, all designed with a channel that, during casts, transfers a rolling weight to the tail. After the cast, the weight moves to the front hook-hanger during the retrieve. Adding a ballast weight keeps the bait upright to allow the ball to roll to the front. Crews spent a few years to get it just right, including having enough weight to produce a slow rise making it different than others in this class. Crews' Little John rips free from grass and sits in the strike zone just a little longer. His modified lure is available from Spro Lures.
Another angler who won't take what the package offers is Skeeter/Yamaha Elite Series pro Mark Menendez. This Kentucky angler also makes good use of the Storm Suspend Dots & Strips, not to suspend but for casting. Similar placement as Crews, but normally a bit more forward, under where the bill protrudes from the body of the bait. Menendez does this on hard-to-cast baits, like the Strike King Stealth Shad. Changing to the sharpest hooks he can find, Menendez alters the hook sizing on Strike Kings Spitting King upsizing the #6 front hook to #4. He suggests this changes the attitude to balance the bait allowing him to walk the bait better.
But, one of his simplest tricks is to use a black Sharpie marker to add a false eye to the bait above the front hook- a big help with Red Eye Shad lipless baits - to provide a target area in a better part of the lure for better hook ups, not more bites. Black is his go-to color, but he carries red and green as well.
When modifying jerkbaits or diving minnow crankbaits, one name comes to mind and it's Mark Menendez. He wants baits to suspend at a 45-degree angle, nose down. He is also looking for baits that cast further into the wind, run deeper and stay put! Menendez's modified lures start with floating baits because they're louder compared to suspending baits, which come with fewer rattles and a smaller internal chamber. Up-sizing to #4 hooks on 5-inch and #6 on 4½-inch baits, he chooses wide gap trebles, which are usually stronger than regular round bend trebles. But, not liking angled hooks Menendez straightens out the bend with pliers. Affixing Suspend Dots and Strips, Menendez goes old school with ¼ ounce rubber core weights on 5-inch baits and 1/8 ounce on 4¼-inch baits. Clamping on the front hook, he whittles away the lead and adds suspend strips to achieve neutral buoyancy. He chills his test tank to 38-50 degrees when building these.
Topwater lures, while not really crankbaits, do have treble hooks and have been morphing over past decades. One of the true pioneers is top water aficionado Skeeter/Yamaha Elite Series pro Zell Rowland. The Texan started carving up what would become the standard in topwater designs about 25 years ago. Armed with a dremel tool, sandpaper, and airbrush, Rowland revolutionized topwater popper fishing. Taking the legendarily popular Rebel Pop-R, Rowland sanded the sides, and flattened the mouth to be more oval rather than round turning it into a thinner-sided spitting topwater. Trial and error produced a balanced bait. His finishing touch with the airbrush created a masterpiece. Through sanding and carving, the baits became lighter, allowing them to sit up higher in the water, slightly tail down, attracting more fish. It also changed the sound of the bait quite a bit. Today his designs are mass-produced by the XCalibur division of Pradco. The Zell-Pop is one of today's best spitters (rather than popping), walking across the surface to generate huge topwater strikes.
You don't have to be a pro to modify lures. Hooks, colors, and physical changes can make any bait on the shelf become one-of-a-kind. Here are some other tips and tweaks. Slightly bending a line tie will force a lure to run left or right to run into a dock or bridge pilings. To a limited extent, bending the line tie up or down will make a lure run shallower or deeper. For brand new crankbaits, it's a good idea to remove the hooks to clean paint over-spray out of the hook hangers to allow hooks to swing freely. Since bluegill and yellow perch have orange on their bellies, and that's what the fish see when cranks go by, some pros paint bait bellies orange. Many change to an oval split ring to avoid tying the knot on a round split ring to prevent placing the knot in the "split".
Finally, a tip that improves fishing with crankbaits, not really a modification, but rather involves digging out old gear. When the fishing reel industry switched to infinite anti-reverse, a lot of very important feel while cranking was lost! Crankbait rods are usually the softest rods to allow lures to be inhaled by fish. Unfortunately, this "give" also deadens the "feel" as contact with cover or fish is absorbed, not transmitted. Old style reels without infinite anti-reverse allow "feel" in reel handles that crank backwards a quarter turn to nearly a half turn when hitting cover or when a fish bites. To anglers, this allows more feel while cranking as the bait will hit cover and pull back on the handle just a bit. This allows the angler to slow down and to keep the bait from getting hung up. Likewise it also allows feeling the often subtle crankbait bite...in the cranking hand, signaling the angler to set the hook! This extra feel is particularly important in deep cranking or when the bite is soft. In any case the "feel in the reel" is lost in infinite anti-reverse reels. When looking for an edge, old school reels are something new to consider!
Cranking is more than just opening a package and tying one on. It's the little things that can reel in big fish. Loaded with odds and ends; paints, Suspend Dots & Strips, hooks, and even stick-on eyes, Jann's Netcraft (jannsnetcraft.com) has everything needed to modify lures. Just making them look or perform differently, can turn a tackle box bottom-dweller into an odds-on favorite.