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Northern Trails: Understanding Crank Baits

Wizards Demo Day

There was a time when crankbaits were a little exotic, a little clunky and not that usable. Some of the old time wooden cranks, like the River Runt, were neither all that pretty or very effective. They couldn’t be trolled quickly and didn’t cast well. But in 1962, Life magazine published an article on the Rapala minnow, from Finland. The issue it appeared in also included a retrospective on the then recently departed Marilyn Monroe. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Rapala is still the standard bearer of the crankbait world, but there are many other companies making these lures, including Rebel, Smithwick and Lucky Craft. The crankbait has become not only an extremely popular type of lure to fish with, but one that can literally catch every species of game fish.    

Author Gord Ellis with a big Lake Superior steelie, caught using a silver Live Target jerkbait. | GORD ELLIS

The term crankbait covers a lot of real estate in the fishing world. Basically, these lures are made to represent minnows and baitfish. To do this, they come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Cranks are very diverse in shape and action, but there are a few basic types that can cover almost any fishing situation. Here is a basic guide to understanding cranks.

Minnow Baits

The minnow crankbait is long and slender, with a shallow lip and a floating body. The classic, original Rapala floating minnow is still the best example of this lure. The action of this lure is tight, and it is great for trolling with a rubber core weight or bottom bouncer. The floating body means the lure will stay out of snags well. The old time minnow lure was balsa, but the vast majority of the newer minnow baits are made of plastic. The floating crankbait can also double as a top-water lure.

Shad/Fat Body

These crankbaits have a squatter body, medium to shallow lip and lack the long profile of the minnow bait. The shad body baits—the most famous example being the Shad Rap—looks like a small perch or herring. The action is tight with a fast wiggle. The fat body baits are on the round side and have a wider wobble. These lures are often used to catch bass, as they look like a crawfish or tadpole scuttling along the bottom. Both these squat lures can be cast or trolled, although shad baits are especially deadly trolled. Shad and fat bodied lures generally have floating bodies, but will dive from 4-to 7-feet.


Very similar in shape to the minnow baits, the jerkbaits normally have one big difference; jerkbaits are neutrally buoyant, so they neither float nor sink. When you cast a jerkbait, you retrieve the lure with downward sweeps of the rod tip. This makes the jerkbait dart erratically and that will trigger the strike. When you stop the retrieve, the lure hangs in the water column like a wounded minnow. It’s amazing how often that suspended, unmoving bait gets blasted by fish. The most popular lure in this style may be the Husky Jerk, although there are countless other jerkbaits on the market.  It’s certainly a type of bait that has become wildly popular. The jerkbait can also be trolled, although they tend not to have as much built in action. A little snap of the rod tip will help a trolled jerkbait come alive.

Deep Divers

Any crankbait that features a deep diving lip fits this family. And nearly every crankbait style, from the minnow to the shad body, can come in a deep diving model. Some of these diving cranks can go as deep as 20 feet or more. The average is closer to 10 feet. However, when fish are living below 10 feet, these models often clean house. These lures can be cast or trolled, but they are most effective trolled as the steady speed keeps them at the maximum depth.


The number of hybrid-style cranks is too numerous to mention them all. A large number of cranks can be jointed, and some have multi-jointed body segments. Increasingly, jerkbaits that are neutrally buoyant are sporting larger lips, so they can be reeled down and suspended deep. Some crankbaits veer extremely close to another whole family of lures, the banana baits. All these types of lures have possibilities.

These lures are truly worth your time, no matter what the species you prefer. If it’s big fish you prefer, look no further. Crankbaits catch the giants time and time again.

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