Crankbait Selection: What Really Matters?

Video best crankbait for walleye

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got an overwhelming amount of crankbaits and stickbaits in your tackle box. This is generally the result of shopping in bargain bins, discount prices or just the fact that when you only buy two or three baits at a time they can really add up over the years! The issue is many times we stick to our favorite baits and rarely have the confidence to try new baits. The question is, which is the best approach?

Background Information

Throughout the 2020 open water season, I made it a goal to determine the most effective baits on Lake Sharpe. Lake Sharpe is a Missouri River reservoir between Pierre, South Dakota and Fort Thompson, South Dakota. It sits below Lake Oahe and above Lake Francis Case. The primary forage is gizzard shad and all fishing efforts for this evaluation took place in the upper end of the reservoir, roughly the first 20 miles below Oahe Dam in Pierre. I kept a notebook in the boat and kept track of every walleye I caught on each bait as well as location and running depth. It is also worth noting all of this occurred when I was not doing guide trips, which the vast majority are fishing with bottom bouncers and live bait.

The goal of this effort was to determine what really mattered when it came to crankbait selection and to build a “Lake Sharpe Tacklebox” for myself. For the sake of discussion, I am going to start with saying that most importantly location, running depth and speed were the biggest factors in catching fish. Once I had these factors dialed in, I cycled through baits to give each a fair opportunity. The rules were simple, if it caught fish it stayed in the water. If other baits were catching fish and it wasn’t, it was replaced.

I had three primary bites I had in my study. The first was trolling crankbaits on leadcore along flats, sand bars and breaklines. The second was bottom bouncing stickbaits in the tailrace of the Oahe Dam in the evenings. The third was casting shallow crankbaits from shore along the Oahe Dam tailrace and other rocky shorelines in the upper end of the reservoir. This occurred in the evenings as well.

Bite 1: Trolling Crankbaits on Leadcore

My first bite I examined was fishing along the flats, sand bars and breaklines between Downs Marina and the Fort George boat ramp. This is approximately 10-20 miles below the dam and the average fishing depth was roughly 6-13 feet of water. This area also features a fair amount of current, which influences speed and thus running depth of your baits. It is also important to note that all of this fishing occurred during daylight hours.

As stated above, once I dialed in my location, speed and depth the baits were given one or two passes to show their worth. If other baits were getting bites and a certain one wasn’t, it was replaced. Overall I fished approximately 30-40 unique baits. These baits ranged from Berkley Flicker Shads, Berkley Flicker Minnows, Rapala Shad Raps, Rapala Glass Shad Raps, Rapala Husky Jerks, Rapala Tail Dancers and Salmo Hornets.

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The results of this bite were very one sided. I fished these stretches in May, September, October and November and sampled 59 “keeper” (15 inches or larger) walleyes. There was a clear front-runner, #5 Firetail Chrome Candy Berkley Flicker Shad caught 22 (37%) walleyes. Second place was very similar, a #5 Blue Tiger Berkley Flicker Shad. Blue Tiger caught 11 (19%) walleyes. There was a three-way tie for third place with #5 Racy Shad Berkley Flicker Shad, #5 Purpledescent Rapala Shad Rap RS and #7 Blue Rapala Shad Rap all catching 6 walleyes. Despite maintaining a constant rotation, the above five baits accounted for 86% of walleyes caught.

This lends a strong argument to picking your favorite baits and sticking with them, but what made these baits successful? The first thing I look at is profile. Every bait mentioned above emulates a gizzard shad, the primary forage of Sharpe. This makes sense as to why these baits outproduced competing Husky Jerks and Flicker Minnows, which do a better job emulating shiners, herring and ciscoes.

It is also worth noting that all the above baits featured a shade of either purple or blue. This likely means that purples and blues show up best in the water clarity and depth I was fishing. The better the fish can see the bait, the more likely it is to strike. These colors even outfished more natural silvers, whites and chromes that in theory would emulate shad the best.

The biggest surprise here was bait size. It made sense that smaller, #5 baits would produce the best in May. However, these baits also shined in late November. Despite a variety of blue and purple #7-#9 shad baits tied on, we only see one #7 crack the top five. Even in November, these smaller profile baits were producing 18-20 inch fish as well.

Bite 2: Bottom Bouncing Stickbaits in the Oahe Dam Tailrace

The second bite I examined was significantly different than the first. This bite took place exclusively in the fast water below Oahe Dam and took place within the four hours surrounding sunset. The water coming through the dam is generally quite clear and fishing depths range from 12-23 feet. It is worth noting that shiners and herring from above Lake Oahe will be flushed through the dam and stay within the cooler waters immediately below the dam, creating a more diverse forage base in this section of river.

My presentation for this area is different. For this section of river, I tie on a 1 ½ ounce bottom bouncer and run a 5-6 foot 12lb mono leader to my bait. I then run up to the “No Boats” sign, so as close to the dam as possible, and then kick the boat into neutral and float with the current. Once I float out of the productive area, I restart my pass.

I fished this bite in June, September and October. Throughout that time I caught 30 “keeper” (15 inches or larger) walleyes. This bite required a shallow running stickbait, so I deployed Original Floating Rapalas and Rapala Husky Jerks. Although this did not allow me to experiment with profile, I once again saw distinct patterns in both size and color of baits.

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A #9 Floating Rapala produced 23 walleyes, while a #11 Floating Rapala only produced 7 walleyes. While this was one pattern that emerged, the big key was color. To maintain consistency, each angler in the boat would have two rods they could deploy. One featured a #11 and one featured a #9. Color was opposite the other anglers in the boat, so for example #9 baits would be Hot Steel and Silver or Chartreuse and Blue.

The bite window in this area takes place right about sunset and will then continue into complete darkness. Overall, Hot Steel produced 14 (47%) walleyes. Silver produced 7 (23%) walleyes and Blue produced 6 (20%) walleyes. These three colors accounted for 90% of walleyes caught. However, it wasn’t that a hot color emerged each day. It was that adjusting color was key to success.

Over the season, I found that Silver and Blue were the most productive baits until roughly 20 minutes after sunset. After this time, Hot Steel became the dominant color as darkness set hold. This makes sense as blue and silver are more “natural” colors that fish well in clear water and bright conditions, while Hot Steel is a bright color that shines in dark conditions.

Bite 3: Casting Shallow Crankbaits Along Rocky Shorelines

The third and final bite took place from shore along the rocky shorelines in Pierre and at the Oahe Dam. Once again, this bite took place primarily in the hour surrounding sunset. In fact a solid pattern emerged with the 40 minutes after sunset having a strong bite for “eater” class fish between 15-17 inches with more quality fish, 18-22 inches, biting in a 15 minute window after that bite concluded.

The results of this bite ended up being a combination of all of the above. I casted both #12 Rapala Husky Jerks and #7 Rapala Shallow Shad Raps. These were the two key baits as they reached the correct depth to fish along these shorelines. I fished this bite in September, October and November and caught 59 “keeper” (15 inches or larger) walleyes.

The first key was profile. Despite a variety of Husky Jerks, every fish was caught on a Shallow Shad Rap. The next key was color. Once again, a similar pattern emerged where the best color would change with the light conditions. Hot Steel led the way with 38 (64%) walleyes, this makes sense because as stated above the best bite revolved around as darkness set in. Purpledescent, Walleye and Blue produced the best in brighter conditions, although they all did produce fish in the darkness as well. Purpledescent and Walleye both caught 7 walleyes, while Blue was right behind them with 6 walleyes. The combination of the above four baits accounted for 98% of walleyes caught.

What Does This All Mean?

Let’s go back to our original question. What is a better approach: sticking with your favorite lures or deploying a wide variety of baits? In all three bites we evaluated, a core group of baits produced 86-98% of walleyes caught in each situation. It’s fair to say that despite experimenting with a variety of options, my “favorite” baits held true.

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Now we need to determine what made these baits “favorites.” The first topic we evaluated was profile. In each situation, the top baits emulated the primary forage in that section of river. Shad profile baits produced in all sections of the river, while a minnow profile was productive out of the boat in the tailrace. This all makes sense because shad are found throughout the reservoir while shiners and herring will also be found in the tailrace areas, where the minnow profile produced.

The next aspect was size. Bait size had an influence on running depth while casting, but by deploying leadcore I was able to set smaller, shallower running baits in the strike zone. Particularly in this leadcore situation, we see there was a distinct preference in bait size, with smaller baits out producing larger baits.

The third and final aspect was color. If you look at all three bites combined, we don’t see a hot color emerge. Hot Steel produced 53 fish, blues produced 38 fish and purples produced 35 fish. However, when you do break it down by each bite we do see hot colors emerge. The deciding factor is light conditions.

Whether I was trolling crankbaits downstream, bouncing baits in the tailrace or casting baits if it was during the daylight hours, we saw that blues and purples were the top baits. As the light conditions darkened, Hot Steel emerged as the best color. The key is picking the right color for the right situation. The driver of that decision is light intensity.

The next time you’re shopping for crankbaits or deciding which one to tie on ask yourself the following questions. What is the primary forage in the system? Approximately how large will that forage be or will my bait size influence my running depth? What color will show up best in the light conditions I will be fishing? If you answer these three questions, I have no doubt you’re going to put more fish in the boat. Good fishing!

Related Articles

One of the most common questions walleye anglers ask is “what is the hot color?” In reality, does color really matter to walleye? Nick Harrington evaluates three case studies and shares his thoughts on the importance of color in your presentation in Does Color Matter to Walleye?

Light intensity is a critical aspect to walleye fishing. Learn what to look for when evaluating light conditions and how to use these conditions to your advantage in How Light Intensity Impacts Walleye Fishing.

The key to strong walleye populations and growing trophy caliber walleyes is abundant forage! While forage is vital for fish to grow and survive, anglers need to understand the various types of forage walleye feed on and how that can impact their bait selection and presentation. Learn all that you need to know in What’s on the Menu: Walleye Forage.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>