It’s hard to believe that a piece of plastic or balsawood with a plastic lip has tricked so many walleyes into biting. In all fairness, such a rough description of any lure type would make it appear to be simpler than it really is. Subtle differences in design and minor tweaks in presentation cause huge disparities in productivity. I would, however, argue that there isn’t a best or worst crankbait, instead the key is knowing when and where each one excels. Using a wrench when you need a screwdriver doesn’t make the wrench a bad tool.
One tool that doesn't need to change much is the rods you run your crankbaits behind. You typically want a long rod with a moderate action to allow those plugs to dive and wiggle, but with enough backbone to get the walleye of a lifetime in the boat quickly.
While most of the dominant crankbaits for bass can generically be described as short and fat, most popular walleye lures are longer and skinnier to better represent various minnow species. Here are five crankbaits that you need in your line up to fish the multitude of situations you’re likely to encounter throughout the walleye season.
Rapala Shad Rap This bait was so effective when it first came out that some bait shops didn’t sell them, they rented them. True story. Made from balsa, the Shad Rap has a unique shape and wobble that just seems to catch fish most places you take it. It’s been called the greatest crankbait of all time. Originally it was only available in a handful of colors, but now is available in a larger palette than most lures. The Shad Rap name resonates with fishermen so much that Rapala has expanded the Shad Rap lineup into plastic-bodied options with rattles and even a jointed version. There really isn’t a set of circumstances where you need to fish this bait, it’s just a great all around lure. The variety of size and depth options furthers its versatility.
Reef Runner Some would argue that this bait started the banana bait-style walleye lure craze and I’m not one to argue that. The original 800 size Reef Runner gets deep for a lure its size and most importantly it has a built-in hunting action. Water flowing over the curved back never seems to make it do the same thing twice. These erratic little episodes are what seem to get following fish to commit to it better than many other diving stickbaits.
That Reef Runner action is somewhat overshadowed by its insane number of color options. While most manufactures offer roughly a dozen stock colors and you have to pay to have custom colors painted up, Reef Runners are available in hundreds of “stock custom colors.” The Reef Runner is very versatile and seems to excel in water with all levels of clarity, from clear to stained. Along the same lines, the lure doesn’t seem to have a temperature preference and works all season long. Much like the Shad Rap, it’s available in shallow and deep options and two sizes to cover most circumstances.
One word of caution with Reef Runners, that famous hunting action seems to require them to be tuned more than most lures. Make sure to check on these more than normal to keep everything running true for depth, action, and no tangles.
Bandit This bait took over on Lake Erie roughly five years ago. Out-of-town visitors took Bandits home from trips and quickly learned that they catch fish many other places as well. Where these divers really seems to excel is in dirty water. Walleye guides are consistently catching fish in water so dirty that they wouldn't have even fished in it before Bandits. One shake of the lure and it’s clear as to why.
The Bandit has a clear and unmistakable thud sound with its built-in rattle. Much like the Reef Runner, it also catches fish well in a variety of other water clarity and temperature ranges, but dirty or off-colored water is where it really excels. If there is a knock on the Bandit, it’s that only one size is available and doesn’t have a smaller option (which I would use).
Husky Jerk As a kid traveling with walleye legend Gary Roach, I was able to get my hands on the initial prototypes of the Husky Jerk in the late ’90s. It quickly became clear that this lure was just different. While I have caught fish on it in the heat of summer, it just seems to produce best in cold water lure due to the fact that it suspends perfectly in water less than 50 degrees. On the pause or with slack line, the Husky Jerk just sits there motionless and draws strikes from lethargic walleyes when other lures won’t.
Another big advantage of the Husky Jerk is the wide selection of sizes. Cold water fish can be very picky and having size options from 2.5 to 5.5 inches is definitely advantageous. The same could be said for the color options. The traditional chrome and painted models work well, but when the Glass Series came around it really helped catch rates in gin clear water. Huskies also come in diving depths from a few feet down to 30.
Rat L Trap When you think of the lipless crankbait, you have to think of Bill Lewis as the pioneer and innovator of the category. With more than 150 million sold in the last 60 years, most anglers refer to any lipless crankbait as a Rat L Trap, much like a Q-Tip or Kleenex-level branding.
Truthfully, in walleye fishing there really isn’t a clear-cut favorite lipless crankbait. Many of the different offerings are very close, with the tone and pitch of the rattles making a slight bit of difference. Some of the high-dollar Japanese options are cosmetic masterpieces and work great, but price keeps many anglers from tossing them at rock piles regularly. This is a likely reason for why so many anglers opt for box-store lures that have a lower price tag.
Regardless of the exact lipless crank you tie on, know that they can be used year round. Legendary winter walleye locations like Lake Winnipeg are great places to jig lipless cranks for hardwater walleyes. While ice use isn’t a secret, it’s also not as mainstream as it should be. If we had this same conversation 10 years ago I’d say it was the same for open water walleye, but definitely not now. Casting for walleye to specific pieces of cover and structure has been the hot topic the last few years and the explosion of live sonar has only further encouraged this. The key is to find the lure that has a rattle with a pitch and frequency that turns on the walleyes in your area. It takes some experimentation, but you’ll know it when you find it.
In times where you can locate just about any lure on the you’d ever want on the Internet, you’d be hard pressed to only carry five crankbaits for walleyes. But if for some reason you had to, these five would ensure you didn’t have to cancel a fish fry anytime soon.