The term "crankbait" was actually first developed by bass tournament anglers back in the late 1960’s, and generally it referred to any hard bodied lure that had a natural, built-in action when retrieved. Before that time, such lures were referred to as plugs, wobblers, vibrating lures, and divers. In fact, the word "plugs" was as much the accepted terminology in this category of lures back in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s as "crankbaits" is today. However, plugs also included topwater lures to some fishermen. Nowadays, the word crankbait does not include surface lures. The term "crankbait" only refers to a subsurface lure today.
What bass fishermen originally coined as a "crankbait", back in the days of Jimi Hendrix, has now solidified into a generic category including any hard bodied lure made out of wood, plastic, foam, or any other market acceptable material, that has a built-in action. It also pertains to lures that float and sink, as well as lures that run deep or shallow. It also means lures with or without a diving bill. For example, the famous Rapala is a floating lure containing a diving bill, and for the most part it is considered a form of the crankbait. Another well known bass lure, the RatLTrap, is a sinking lure that has no diving bill, but it’s also considered a crankbait. The Rapala falls into the crankbait sub-category we now call "minnow baits", while the RatLTrap fits into an equally popular crankbait sub-category called "lipless crankbaits". We’ll decipher these many sub-categories in much more detail later on.
The common denominator in both of these popular lures is a built-in wiggling, wobbling action. As soon as either one of these "baits" is retrieved or "cranked", they automatically wiggle and wobble. Obviously, "cranking a bait" through the water spawned the term we now all refer to as a crankbait. Arguably, one could suggest that all spinners and any other lure that has an automatic action could be construed as a crankbait, but thankfully pro anglers as well as lure manufacturers have separated these other lures into specific categories. Right now the crankbait category encompasses an incredibly wide selection of lures, encompassing many sub-categories. Adding any unusual product to this category might only confuse all parties involved. As long as the lure is a conformed hard body with a built-in wobbling action, it must and should be considered a crankbait.
We’ll get into some great details on how to fish all the various sub-categories of crankbaits, but for now, let’s at least take a look at the evolution of the crankbait to better understand what these lures are all about. In particular, let’s find out where it all began, and how the crankbait got to where it is today. As you will see, the crankbait category has been predominant in evolution of all lures. Various forms of the crankbait have literally existed since the beginning of artificials.
Where it all began for sure, no one knows, but lure collectors have traced the first crankbaits back into the early 1900's. Of course, there wasn’t much lure marketing going on back then, so many of these originals were simply hand-made by some angler strictly for fishing purposes. They did have a built-in action of some kind, and therefore must be considered crankbaits. Eventually, some of the now legendary lure companies sprang up such as Heddon, Pflueger, Shakespeare, Creek Chub, South Bend, Arbogast, and Bomber. The Heddon Company, in particular, pioneered many of the great lure designs and innovations that are still as popular today. Many of Heddon’s original lure innovations are still considered classic manufacturing principles. Their diving lip configurations, hardware usages, body shapes, and painting schemes can still be found in many of today’s lures.
In my opinion, the folks at Heddon were some of the greatest lure innovators in history. Many of their early designs are still being sold today. Lures such as the Zara Spook, Crazy Crawler, and Tiny Torpedo are actually older than I am, and their still immensely popular sellers, as well as fish catchers. In fact, the Zara Spook is probably even more popular today. Heddon’s engineering genius was unmatched in those early marketing days, but it still commands the respect of other lure manufacturers today.
Heddon and their competitors discovered long ago the secret of a diving bill. They realized that diving lips were the key to making a lure dive and wiggle. Initially, diving lips were carved right out of the body on such lures as the South Bend Bass Oreno, Shakespeare Mouse, Creek Chub Darter, Helin Flatfish, and Lazy Ike. The goal here was to get a built-in wiggle from the body itself, utilizing some carved lip configuration from the body. The Bass Oreno, Mouse, Darter and similar lures had a soft, smooth swimming motion that really caught fish of all species, and still does today.
Interestingly, these original old-time lure lip designs were re-employed on more recent phenomenons such as the J-Plug, a highly productive Great Lakes salmon/trout trolling lure. Many large very popular musky lures also borrowed the frontal designs from these classic oldies. The Bobbie Bait, Smitty Bait, Seeker, Stalker, and Burt baits all have either that Bass Oreno or Darter head design on them. All of these lures have similar actions to those originals of yesteryear.
The original Flatfish and Lazy Ike were some of the first lures to feature an improved vibration and body wiggle with a built-in design; not employing any additional attached diving lips. Both lures had a unique banana-like configuration and a line-tie attachment somewhere on the upper head side of the lure. This banana shape created a built-in diving lip. It also resulted in a tremendous resistance and strong vibration when cranked. I remember a time when these two lures, the Lazy Ike and Flatfish, were super hot sellers and fantastic fish catchers. Today, the Lazy Ike is no longer available, and few Flatfish’s fill the trays of tackleboxes.
Yet, once again the design itself is a classic and many of today’s more popular lures have simply rediscovered the workability of this great crankbait design. Contemporary lures such as the Believer and Swim Whiz are but a few such examples of newer baits utilizing that same banana shaped configuration.
Another style of crankbait that relies totally on the shape of the lure to create a built-in action is the lipless crankbait, reminiscent of today’s popular RatLTrap. Some of today’s anglers might think that this design is relatively new, yet this is not true. Lipless crankbaits have actually been around for quite awhile, and they have some interesting roots.
By the way, the desired action on these lures was quite different from those we just mentioned. Most of these older lure designs like the Creek Chub Darter, Bass Oreno, Lazy Ike, and Flatfish were fat bodied floaters. The lipless crankers, on the other hand, were thin-bodied sinking lures with a very tight vibration. While many consider the RatLTrap to be the original, early 1960’s books show lipless crankbaits such as the Pico Perch, Bayou Boogie, Heddon Sonic, Heddon Sonar, Mitey Minnow and Gay Blade to be the true pioneers. Some of these lures were made of metal, some of wood, and some of plastic. No matter, they all featured the same unique concept --- a sinking, tight vibrating, high speed lure with minimal resistance. This sub-category of the crankbait still remains extremely popular as both a seller and fish catcher.
The RatLTrap and similar lures are some of the hottest selling, big fish catchers on the market. The versatility of this lure remains its best asset. It can be fished at virtually any depth, and for almost any gamefish species.
Eventually, attaching metal lips of various configurations became the rage. The introduction of the attached metal lip was significant in that it enabled lure manufacturers to create an entire family of lures from one body design simply by adding different sized lips to them. Running depth was also vastly increased by the new metal lip attachments. The angle, size and design of the lip could easily be altered to accomplish various tasks. This triggered a huge introduction of plugs from a wide group of manufacturers. Heddon highlighted the River Runt and Vamp series. Creek Chub championed its famous world record catchers, the Wiggle Fish and Pike Minnow. Fred Arbogast featured the Arbogaster and Mudbug. Bomber broke it open with its original big lipped Bomber crankbait. Many more lure designs from a host of manufacturers followed.
I believe it was during this metal lipped era that many of today’s crankbait concepts were born. This is where lip angles, lip size, lip configuration, and many other specific aspects of crankbait action, running depth, and overall performance took hold. Undoubtedly, there will always be an improvement made in lure materials used, and in lure characteristics, but the metal lip era was definitely an important one. Not surprisingly again, lures such as the Mudbug and Bomber are still sold and used today. Their fish catching ability hasn’t deteriorated one bit either.
Sometime in the early 1970’s, clear plastic lips became the thing. The clear lip concept probably originated with the original Rapala lures, which were already popular in the 1960’s. Cosmetically, these lures looked far more natural. This was especially true in more subtle minnow bait lures like the Rapala. Obviously, a Rapala with a metal lip wasn’t going to cut it. The plastic lip was an integral part of this lure’s success as a seller. It wasn’t so much that these lures were better fish catchers, but they definitely were catching more fishermen. Eventually the growing popularity of the Rapala catalyzed a whole new generation of crankbaits that are the lures you see on today’s tackle store shelves.
Realism became the goal and the marketing platform. Clear plastic lips simply looked more realistic than old metal versions. Metal lipped crankbaits and lipless crankbaits still caught plenty of fish, but the marketeers wanted clear lipped baits during this era. By the 1980’s, manufacturing advances produced crankbaits that looked very close to real life-like minnows, baitfish, crawfish, and other fish prey. Cosmetically detracting metal lips were loosing their appeal. Invisible, clear lexan lips were now the rage. Eventually, the entire lure was molded from clear plastic. Clear plastic butyrate, ABS, and other plastic materials were molded with ultra clear masked lips that produced a superbly natural looking product. Best of all, they not only caught fish but were far more durable. This created a new level of manufacturing competition for better made, higher quality crankbaits.
Today these innovative trends continue. The computer age has provided lure companies with some exciting new manufacturing capabilities. This not only includes state-of-the-art design, but also superior finishing techniques. However, never underestimate the true fish catching power of all crankbait designs young and old. The longevity of Heddon’s products as fish catchers proves beyond a doubt that great lures easily withstand the tests of time. Crankbaits of all shapes, sizes, colors, and actions are simply going to catch gamefish of all species. The key here will always be in choosing the right crankbait for the right situation. Much like the old adage "choose the right tool for the job", the seasoned crankbait fisherman assesses the present fishing condition, and chooses the correct crankbait accordingly.
Hall of Fame angler Joe Bucher is the Editor Emeritus for Musky Hunter Magazine and one the most highly recognized multi-species fishing and hunting authorities in the outdoor business trade. Joe is the host of Fishing with Joe Bucher TV show which has been on the air for over 20 years. For more information on Joe please visit his website at www.joebucher.com