Beginner’s Guide To Crankbait Fishing

UPDATED 31 JULY 2022

by Robert Ceran

Crankbaits are not only the favorite lure type used by many beginners, but also the top choice of professional anglers like Kevin VanDam, one of the most decorated bass pros of all time.

And given that KVD used crankbaits to achieve many of his tournament wins, it’s clear that they are highly effective fishing lures that can help you to put more fish in the boat.

The only problem with crankbaits is that they come in a bewildering variety of shapes, colors, and sizes, making it difficult for beginners to get started with crankbait fishing.

In this article we’ll walk you through the basics of crankbait fishing, and will also cover the most important questions that we get from novice anglers, to help fast track your crankbait fishing success.

What is a crankbait, and what is it used for?

Crankbaits are fishing lures made of hard plastic or wood, and are used to catch predatory fish like bass, walleye and trout.

They usually come with 2 treble hooks, and most crankbaits have a plexiglas lip that controls their swimming action and diving depth in the water.

If you visit any tackle store, you’ll notice that crankbaits are available in a huge variety of different types, sizes, and colors, ranging from micro crankbaits used for trout fishing, to oversized crankbaits used for muskie trolling. 

So if you’re new to crankbait fishing, it’s best to keep things as simple as possible in the beginning, and fish with a handful of different crankbaits until you’re comfortable throwing them and catching fish regularly.

At that point you’ll be ready to start experimenting with the many different crankbait types available on the market

When should you throw a crankbait?

Crankbaits can be thrown all year round, but perform best in spring and fall, when bass are most active in shallow water. This is because crankbaits are ideal lures for fishing close to cover, and so they shine during the seasons when bass ambush prey around cover in shallow water.

This is especially true for square bill crankbaits, which are designed to be fished in shallow water and to deflect and bounce off cover.

With that being said, you can definitely also catch fish with crankbaits during summer and winter, but need to switch to deep diving crankbaits or lipless crankbaits that can be fished in deep water between 20 and 40 feet.

What is the best crankbait?

Most bass anglers agree that squarebill crankbaits are the best crankbait for bass overall, since squarebill crankbaits are great for fishing in shallow water around heavy cover.

The square bill shape of square bill crankbaits allows them to bounce off rocks, stumps and laydowns, which is ideal for triggering bites from bass that are waiting in ambush close to cover.

With that being said, the best crankbait to use for bass depends on the depth at which you’re fishing for bass, which varies depending on the season.

A medium diving crankbait can be a great choice when bass are holding at a medium depth of 5 or 15 feet, while a lipless crankbait is best for fishing for bass in deep water over 20 feet, which is often the case at the peak of summer, or during the winter.

What is the best color crankbait?

As a rule of thumb, the best color crankbait in clear water is natural color (such as shad, crawfish, or bluegill), while the best color crankbait in stained water is brightly colored (such as chartreuse, bright silver, or white).

In addition to this, you also need to adjust crankbait color according to what the bass are feeding on (i.e. match the hatch), which varies by season. In spring, bass often feed on crawfish, while their preferred forage in summer are bluegill, and in fall shad are most often their top forage. 

So when you start fishing at a new lake, try to choose a crankbait color that fits into this seasonal pattern of bass behavior, and in addition select the brightness of your crankbait color based on how clear the water is.

If you notice that bass are following your crankbait, but not committing to eating it, then change up the color to find a pattern that works better. In some cases, relatively minor color variations can trigger a lot more bites on your crankbait. 

What size crankbait should you use?

The ideal size crankbait depends on the species of fish you’re targeting. As a rule of thumb, use the following crankbait sizes for different species:

  • Largemouth bass: 2 – 5 inches
  • Smallmouth bass: 2 – 5 inches
  • Walleye: 3 – 7 inches
  • Trout: 1 – 3 inches
  • Crappie: 1 – 2 inches
  • Northern Pike: 4 – 9 inches
  • Muskie: 4 – 12 inches

Keep in mind that the ideal size crankbait can vary depending on the baitfish species that the predatory fish are keyed in on. So experiment with different sizes, and try to imitate the baitfish size that the fish are currently hunting.

Do you put a weight on a crankbait?

It’s a good idea to put a weight on a crankbait during winter, as that allows you to target deeper water with a slow retrieve speed, which is key for catching bass in winter. Without a weight, the only thing that makes a crankbait dive deeper in the water is more water resistance acting on its bill, but this requires reeling in the crankbait faster.

But since bass are sluggish in cold water, a fast retrieval speed is not ideal in winter, and so you should slow roll your crankbait in order to give them a chance to eat it. The best way to get around this problem is to add extra weight to the crankbait in order to achieve the necessary depth, while reeling in the crankbait as slow as possible. 

You can weight a crankbait with SuspenDots or SuspenStrips (made by Storm). These are adhesive weights that you can stick to your lure to make it heavier. If that’s not enough weight for your purposes, you can try attaching a small clip on weight (or even a small drop shot weight) to the front hook of the crankbait.

How can you tell how deep a crankbait will dive?

The best way to tell if your crankbait is diving deep enough is by feeling it make contact with the bottom or with cover regularly. If you don’t feel your crankbait making contact with cover or bottom, try throwing it in more shallow water, or switch to a deeper diving crankbait.

The ideal way to fish a crankbait is by bouncing it off rocks, stumps, and other kinds of cover as much as possible, since this is what triggers bites from bass. You can feel vibrations in the rod handle when the crankbait hits bottom, rocks, or trees, and this is something you should always pay attention to.

Should you use a swivel with a crankbait?

It’s generally not a good idea to use a snap swivel with a crankbait, as that will affect its balance and make it swim less naturally during retrieval. Also, a snap swivel adds an extra inch of hardware to your crankbait, which makes it look even more unnatural to fish.

The best way to attach a crankbait to your fishing line is with a loop knot, since that gives the crankbait maximum freedom to move naturally in the water.

However, if you’re fishing in a situation where it’s hard to tie a knot (in the dark, for example), you can also opt for a very light snap or clip, which allows you to change your crankbaits quickly without impairing their swimming action too much.

How fast should you reel in a crankbait?

A fast retrieval speed is usually better for crankbait in spring, summer, and fall, while in winter you should reel it in much more slowly, to the point where the crankbait is crawling along close to the bottom. Also, when you use a fast retrieval speed during the warm months, try to pause the crankbait every now and then, since changes in speed often trigger bites.

The ideal speed to reel in a crankbait also depends on the type of crankbait that you’re fishing. When fishing shallow with square bill crankbaits, it’s usually best to speed up the retrieval speed to trigger bites by deflecting the crankbait off of rocks and other cover.

On the other hand, when fishing with medium depth diving crankbaits, you’ll want to fish them deep and slow in most cases. Likewise, when fishing lipless crankbaits, you’ll usually want to slow roll them in deep water, where they trigger bites with their tight wiggling action.

How do you choose a crankbait rod?

The best all around crankbait rod is a graphite/glass composite rod between 6’7” and 7’3”, with medium or medium heavy rod power. A graphite/glass composite rod is ideal for taking advantage of the sensitivity of graphite (which allows you to feel everything your crankbait is doing in the water), with the strong backbone of fiberglass (which helps you to keep big bass pinned down after you hook them).

What action rod is best for crankbaits?

A moderate action rod is generally best for crankbaits, as it has a soft tip with enough flex to set the big treble hooks of a crankbait in the mouth of a bass.

If you use a fast action rod instead, the lack of flex of the rod tip has a tendency to rip the whole crankbait out of the mouth of a bass when you set the hook, before the hooks get a chance to penetrate the hard part of the mouth.

However, with that being said, a moderate fast action rod can sometimes be a better choice as a crankbait rod, since it’s better at transferring vibrations from the fishing line down into the rod handle, which allows you to feel the vibrations of your crankbait as you pull it through the water.

The increased sensitivity of a moderate fast action rod makes it easy to feel every time your crankbait bumps into a rock, or deflects off a tree trunk, which helps to fish a crankbait effectively in the strike zone as much as possible. 

So you’ll need to weigh these two advantages against each other when choosing the right action of your crankbait rod, and decide which of these qualities is more important for you.

What is the best line for crankbait fishing?

The best all around line for crankbait fishing is monofilament, since it comes with more stretch than either fluorocarbon or braid. The extra stretch of monofilament helps to avoid getting your crankbait snagged on cover all the time, as it causes a slight delay when the crankbait starts to get snagged, which allows you to pause the retrieve before the hooks dig into the cover.

This is important, since the best way to fish a crankbait is by letting it bump into cover as much as possible, as that triggers bass bits, but it comes at the risk of getting your precious crank snagged in the cover.

So using a monofilament fishing line helps you to achieve that while minimizing the likelihood of getting snagged.

What gear ratio is best for crankbaits?

The best all around gear ratio for crankbaits is between 6.0:1 or 7.0:1. This is a medium speed gear ratio, which allows you to slow down or speed up your retrieval in order to cover the whole range of speeds that you need for crankbait fishing.

You’ll want to have a reel gear ratio that allows you to speed up the retrieval rate (or even burn your crankbait), while also allowing you to slow it down to a slow roll. A 6.0:1 gear ratio baitcaster hits the sweet spot right in the middle between those two extremes.

However, if you prefer to fish your crankbaits mostly fast, or mostly slow, you can also go with a faster or slower gear ratio.

How to fish crankbaits for bass

Crankbaits are among the most effective lures for bass fishing, and can be used almost anywhere that bass like to hold, including laydowns, rocky banks, grass beds, shallow flats, timber, rock piles, and brush piles. However, it’s important to use the right crankbait for each situation, and to fish it with the right technique.

When fishing close to cover in shallow water, use a shallow diving square bill crankbait, and make sure to fish it as close to the cover as possible. Ideally you’ll want to run your crankbait right through the cover, with the crank bumping into tree branches or rocks as you retrieve it.

Squarebill crankbaits are perfect for this type of fishing, since their bill is designed to deflect off the objects they bump into, while round bill cranks tend to dig into them.

And while fishing crankbaits like this does tend to result in a lot of snags, you can minimize this by using monofilament. Whenever you feel the crank starting to get hung up on a branch or a log, stop reeling in right away, and in many cases the crankbait will then float free from the cover and you can start reeling it in again.

The monofilament helps with this because it has a little more stretch, which gives you more time to stop reeling before the hooks of the crankbait get deeply embedded into a piece of cover.

When fishing around deeper cover, use a deep diving crankbait or lipless crankbait (or a weighted crankbait), and also aim to fish your crankbait close enough to the bottom to bump it into rocks and other cover as it goes along.

How to fish crankbaits from shore

The best way to fish crankbaits from shore is to throw a squarebill crankbait around cover, such as laydowns, grass, and docks. Try to get the crank to bump into the cover while you retrieve it, as this is most effective at triggering bass strikers.

When crankbait fishing in shallow water close to shore it’s generally best to use a fast retrieval speed, and to pause the crank every now and then. In many cases you’ll find yourself getting bit right when you pause it, or when you start reeling it in again.