The Care and Maintenance of Crankbaits
By Ronald F. Dodson, Ph.D.
Long the bait of choice for serious bass anglers, crankbaits have been used for as many years as mankind has been fishing. First experimenters carved pieces of wood in a variety of shapes and sizes, adding hardware - and in very old baits as many as six hooks (later to be considered extreme). Never believing a better "mousetrap" could not be invented, humans continued to produce, reproduce, reshape and add new colors to the already vast rainbow array of crankbaits on the market today.|
Tinkering with crankbaits, whether changing out hooks or painting them, tuning them for angle of run, etc. is not something anglers should consider a sideline hobby. Making a lure look "different" from what fish are seeing (currently popular models and colors that everyone is using) can make the difference between a decent day of fishing and an exciting one.
Crankbaits are, by their nature, lures that to a degree fish themselves. It's seems reasonable that there can't be much to fishing these plugs since all you have to do is throw and crank them into the boat. Well if you really learn to use these versatile plugs there is lot more to the issue than it appears including keeping them in optimum condition for fishing. Most of today's cranks are rather reliable as purchased off the shelf. They run straight and perform at the depth for which they are rated.
In order to fully appreciate the meaning of having quality control in modern day crankbaits you have to realize their heritage.
The lipless style of cranks such, as Hot Spot and Sonic have always been fairly reliable as to their tracking patterns. But earlier deeper-diving cranks such as Hellbenders and Bombers required a certain ongoing realignment if they were to run true on retrieve.
The line attachment consisted of a wire loop that would tend to bend from either the pressure exerted from a thrashing fish or often when a violent contact occurred such as with underwater brush or structure during retrieve. The line attachment of these plugs well as our present day lures, must be in alignment with the mid-line of the plug if they are to track straight. The other factor which causes the plugs to track to one side or the other on retrieve is for any eye, particularly the one attaching the front hook to the lure, to get bent to the side.
You can get a crankbait to go somewhat deeper if you can change its angle of dive. In the case of the older metal-lipped cranks this could be done with a careful bending of the front edge of the plug with a pair of needle nose pliers. The bend couldn't be too extreme or you got too much wobble and little in the way of extra depth on the dive. It takes a real effort to get this same on a bait with clip, but the Luhr-Jenson folks tried to use this concept in their earlier Hot lips series. The instructions included heating the lip at an etched line and bending the front of the lip up to catch more water, thus causing a steeper dive angle. They have since offered a longer lipped version without the option for bending the lip. The problem was the same as with the metal lips in that the exact angle of the bend could work as billed or if over exaggerated ruin the action. The Mann's Deep 20 and 30 models have this physical concept built into the lip in the form of a small curl around the front edge.
We may not always appreciate the importance of the reliability of today's versions of crankbaits, but there was an era when a bunch of brands that didn't run true were on the market. The real mushrooming as to the number of crankbaits in my opinion can be attributed to one phase in the evolution of bass fishing. That occurred when Cordell introduced the Little O and Norman, hot on his heels, introduced a thinner version - the little N. These plugs ran straight on retrieve, were easy to cast, and thus anyone could catch some fish on them. During the same time frame a multitude of imitations came forward and most of the "Little Whatevers" bit the dust simply because of their lack of ability to perform when taken straight out of the box. This was only a slight problem for those of us who had been adjusting Bombers and Hellbenders for years, but the public wasn't interested in learning how to tune a bait by forcing the lip eye to the far right or left on each one they bought.
Another problem with some of the plastic plugs coming on the market at that time was a little seepage, which then as now wipes out the action by destroying the balance. I really won the warmth award from one lure manufacturer by suggesting during a fishing show he market four to a package. One would run to the left, one to the right, one would sink and the final one would run straight.
If for some reason one of your favorite plugs does get a leak and you just can't replace it (for some reason) then there are options for making repairs. If you can find the leak, it is relatively simple to shake the water out of the plug and epoxy the hole. When the site of the leak is not evident you may have to drill a small drain hole, epoxy the hole after getting the water out and then spray the plug with a clear sealer.
Even with the reliability of today's products for running correctly - right out of the box, you will still occasionally have to tune the plugs. The best way is to look at the plug from the front and see if the lip eye is straight. If it is, then check the position of the eyes holding the hooks. The front and back eye should be lined up exactly along the mid-line of the body of the lure or balance is going to be altered.
Another type of crankbait that has its own unique areas of concern are jerkbaits which have a lip glued into the body. If the lip shifts ever so slightly, the actual stability of the bait on retrieve is altered. I have spent several minutes checking eyes only to realize that the lip has a slight play to one side. Remove the lip and re-glue it in place. There is no pressure on the lip when fighting a fish so it only controls the action and the tracking on retrieve. If there is any looseness, or apparent movement, of a lip in which there is an eye located, then chunk the lure. The other option is to lose a good fish when it finally gives way. A couple of companies are no longer in favor because folks don't take to kindly to pulling in an O-ring or a lip when they catch a large fish or hang-up their plugs.
There are some checks that you need to perform on crankbaits - preferably before you go to the lake. Of utmost importance is to see if your O-rings are showing signs of wear. You should use a good quality stainless steel O-ring that is equivalent to what most companies use as original equipment. While these are tough, they do wear out. If they seem to easily spring apart when you stick your fingernail between the layers then chunk them. If you are going to use crankbaits, a good pair of O-ring pliers is a necessity for quick replacement as well as minimizing the risk of you sticking a hook in your hand.
The other check-up that you need to do before heading to the lake is to see if any of your treble hooks have either bent or broken tips. Either of these flaws provides a real guarantee that you are going to lose fish. You have a couple of options for replacements of treble hooks. There are some really extra sharp hooks available, however you might want to see which ones have the longest functional life particularly if you fish in heavy brush. A very sharp hook that looses its point the first time you hang up is going to drive you up the wall since you are going to spend a appreciable time in replacing them.
Some times you have to replace hooks and O-rings on the water, but this is preferably an off-the-lake operation since any on the water repairs costs you valuable casting time. One thing that doesn't cost you much fishing time is to use a good hook sharpener at any time you feel that the tips may be getting dull.
Another area of crankbait modification is styling your own colors. I may not be a genius, but as a kid I figured out pretty soon that all of the minnows and shad that folks were getting out of minnow series came in variations of silver. So when I went from the live bait phase to throwing crankbaits I figured these should certainly be represented by chrome or silver versions. A couple of my fishing buddies in Houston bought into the concept (if it works you can easily convince folks with an open mind). The result of this cult was that our bass club would as likely as not have one or more boats in which there were a couple of newly painted Hellbenders dangling over the edge and awaiting their turn in line as soon as they got dry. I always carry one of each of my favorite crankbaits painted with a chrome-aluminum finish. Money back guarantee is that in relatively clear water and when bass are feeding on shad, this color will produce big time.
Another casualty of the development of the more commercially complex lure colors was dropping those painted in either solid white or bone. Early on folks on Rayburn and Toledo Bend noticed that the Little N's often got even more effective as the coat coloring wore off exposing the bone color of the plastic. Many a Little N or Deep Little N was purchased only to have the original color scrapped off before it was ever thrown. You can't find a bone color in most lure lines. However you can buy that exact color in exterior spray paint and make your own. Either white or bone is a killer in low light conditions such as early morning or in stained water.
The paint options are now much superior to when I first started spraying anything that didn't move with aluminum color. Most exterior paints by companies such as Krylon not only are tough but also dry in a matter of minutes. Any discount or hardware store will also have a wide variety of very bright colors in shades of orange, yellow and red.
If you have read my articles over time you have heard me mention Floyd Mabry. Mr. Mabry is in the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Athens. From my standpoint he is the father of crankbait fishing. For years he worked with Bomber Baits and developed many of their basic colors. As with many changes in the fishing industry, the Gainesville company was purchased. With that acquisition two of my favorite colors that Mr. Mabry helped developed were either offered in limited types of lures or dropped. This presented a major family crisis for my father and I. Subsequently I was able to get a couple of lure manufactures to paint the shad color, but until that occurred I had to work out an emergency strategy.
One of my friends, who had also gotten a religious zeal for the color, actually bought an airbrush sprayer in an attempt to copy the colors. Painting the body of a plug solid white, allowing the white to dry and then passing a burst of chrome spray over the top half of the plug could make the general color. The final touch was a pale pink tone along the side. The lacking part was trying to figure out how to add scales. This actually became the easiest part once I hit on the answer. Once the white dries simply obtain some fiberglass mesh-joint and patch tape from any hardware store and cut the tape to the desired pattern for the area of the scales. The tape sticks to the dried white surface and the over-spray of your desired color gives a professional design in the form of a scaled pattern.
Obviously you don't mess with paint at any stage until it is completely dry and you also need to work with paint in a well-ventilated area. You can get as creative in color designs and combinations as you desire but you need to always start with a solid white base color if you want to get the most vivid colors from the other contrasting colors you want to add. You also need to remember in painting lures as with painting most things, it's best to use several thin coats rather than trying to add a thick finish at one sitting.
It's fun to bring back old colors, such as parrot. This color is a base bone with a florescent yellow-green on top and orange throat patch on the bottom. A friend from south Texas was fishing an off-colored lake and wasn't happy with his crankbait results. He had never heard of this color combination, but those of us who fished Livingston when it was new swore by it. I sent him a plug I had painted in a parrot color and got a call which while polite had rather skeptical overtones. The next week I got another call advising me he had won a Honey Hole tournament with the plug and his wife implied the whole tackle box looked like a big parrot.
If you let the finish dry for at least a day on any of your color combinations you can add a bit of extra surface protection by spraying a thin coat of clear high gloss polyurethane. In most cases it is not needed unless you really want a gloss. When you decide to bring back older, roughed-up lures by painting them, you probably are going to have to sand them or use a paint remover to get rid of the old color which will leave you with a smooth surface on which you will get the best finish with the new paint job. The other thing about painting your plugs is that you can buy plugs when on sale or close-out because you don't care if the color won't catch fish - you are going to paint it to the new color of your choice.
There are several things we have discussed that you have to do in the proper care of crankbaits, but there are others such as designing your own favorite colors that simply let you be creative in making your own patterns. It's not only fun to realize you can create these unique color combinations, but there are some interesting side effects that occur when you pull such a color from your tackle box and it is first seen by your fishing buddy.