Using Lipless Crankbaits

News & Tips: Using Lipless Crankbaits

Normally I would have grabbed my 12-weight fly rod, a box of bead-eyed streamers and climbed into the wooden boat to battle high-jumping tarpon at the exotic Costa Rica fishing lodge. But the camp owner was noticeably grim-faced when he greeted me. I knew something was up.

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Stripers caught on lipless crankbaits on Gaston Lake in North Carolina.

 Past trips battling tarpon wouldn't be duplicated this time. A major flood had descended on northern Costa Rica just before I arrived. The river was churning milky brown and fishing for the silver king was impossible.  

Fortunately, however, my guide Armando Brown knew of a few spots we could try for other fish to avoid a total washout. Steering the boat through debris clogging the river, he found a side channel, then a clear green creek pouring into the muddy flowage. Rifling through my tackle box, he picked out a Cordell Spot and tied it to the line. Virtually every cast for the next three hours until dinner time yielded a feisty snook or variety of local panfish.  

That wasn't the only exotic trip where the tried-and-proven lipless crankbait, or "vibrator," had come through for me. In the jungles of Venezuela they've nailed double-digit peacock bass and in the Northwest Territories huge lake trout and Arctic char gobbled them greedily.  

But you don't have to go to an exotic location to put these lures to work. In fact, probably 95 percent of the fish caught on these shimmying baits are more common gamefish like largemouths, smallmouths, freshwater stripers, hybrids, walleyes and panfish.

Bass pros love them because they can cover lots of water quickly with long casts and zipping retrieves. And that's how they produce for most fishermen. Simply reel out and crank them back. A long rod, 6 1/2-7 feet is best, with a somewhat limber action and 10-20 pound line.  

But flinging the lure out and cranking it back isn't the only way to fish this unique artificial. The lipless crankbait is a more versatile lure than many people realize. Before going into some of the different presentations you can use with vibrators, a closer look at the lure may be helpful.


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Cordell Spot, a classic vibrator, will fool bass, stripers, walleyes and many other fish like peacock bass, snook and char.

In spite of its current popularity, early versions of this type of lure have actually been around for a long time. The first was the Pico Perch, created in the 1940s. The Bayou Boogie and Heddon Sonic were two other popular early models. Today most major lure companies have their versions, with the Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap and Cordell Spot two of the most popular.  

Vibrators are flat lures that look almost like they were stamped out with a cookie cutter in the shape of a shad. They lack a lip, but instead count on three things for their immense fish-appeal: a realistic shad silhouette; a tight, side-to-side shimmying action; and noise created by metal shot inside that rattles as they're retrieved. This clattering noise is particularly important in enticing strikes in murky or muddy water, heavy cover, windy weather or at night. The lures are also great in clear water and calm wind conditions, however, because they simply look so realistic.  

Some lipless crankbaits have different sizes of shot in separate internal chambers. The Rat-L-Trap and Rattlin' Rap have several large rattles in the front section and about a dozen smaller pellets in a rear chamber. This creates a multi-frequency sound-a high-pitched clatter that the fish hears with its inner ear and a low frequency sound that's picked up by the lateral line.

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Lipless crankbaits can be productive in open water when aimed at schooling fish.

A wide range of sizes are available, typically from 1/4-1 ounce. Most serious bass fishermen prefer the 1/2-ounce size for the majority of their fishing. If the water is particularly clear or the forage small, go with smaller lures. For muddy water or when fish are feeding on large baitfish, 3/4 or even one-ounce versions can be effective.  

Color choice depends on what the local forage fish look like and what hues work best on a particular body of water. Chrome with a blue or black back is most popular. Red, "fire tiger" and gold are also good.  

Both sinking and floating vibrators are sold, but sinkers are by far the most popular and versatile. Typically they'll drop at about 12 inches per second. Knowing this lets you cast over suspended fish or weed beds and count down to put the bait right above the quarry or the cover you're fishing. Count as the lure drops until you hit weeds or bottom, then start the retrieve the next time a second or two earlier on the drop.  

Lipless crankbaits can be productive either in open water cast towards schooling fish or aimed at cover such as humps, points, ledges, docks, stumps, rock piles, islands, sunken brush and drop-off edges. Working them along the top of sunken weed beds or the outer edges of vegetation is deadly.  

Stock a selection of lipless crankbaits from 1/4 to 1 ounce in a variety of colors and try one of the retrieves listed below and chances are you'll draw a willing response whether you're going after largemouths and stripers or snook in the jungles of Costa Rica.  



How To Do It

Rip It Simply cast out as far as you can towards potential fish-holding water,  let the lure sink 3-12 seconds, then crank it back steady and fast.  Great for aggressive fish in warm water.
Crawl It Same retrieve, only slow it down. Let the lure sink until it is just off  the bottom, then crank it just slow enough that it doesn't hang up.  Most good vibrators will still wobble enticingly at these slow speeds.  Good for wary fish or cold water conditions.
Sweep and Drop Cast out and let the lure sink to the bottom until the line goes slack.  Then sweep the rod up high and fast, 2-6 feet. Then let it drop back.  Keep excessive slack out as it flutters back, since strikes are common  at this point, but be sure you don't impede the free fall of the lure.
Vertical Jig Joe Hughes, former Public Relations Director for Rebel Lures, showed  me this tactic. Fish it like you would a slab spoon. Locate bait or good  structure with fish on it, then lower the vibrator straight down to the  fish's level or just slightly above.

Raise the rod straight  up 12-48 inches, then lower it back down. Keep excessive slack out, but  let it fall freely. This is similar to the sweep-and-drop, but instead  of casting the lure you're fishing it directly beneath the boat. It's  great for mid-winter and the heat of summer when fish are deep and in a  sluggish mood. Works well over river channel edges, deep points and next  to bridge pilings.

Twitch It A steady retrieve usually works best, but sometimes a bit of extra  action will entice more strikes. As you retrieve, twitch the rod upwards  a foot or so every few seconds to add a different motion to the lure.  This often works on hard-pressed waters where fish have seen dozens of  steadily-retrieved Spots and Rat-L-Traps pulled past them.
Trolling Not many people fish vibrators this way, but it's an excellent tactic  for exploring new water and keeping your lure in the strike zone for  long periods of time. Use an electric or gas motor and work along  contour lines in large creek arms of lakes and along channel drop-off  edges. Also troll over points, humps and reefs, as well as between  bridge columns. Stripers, hybrids, walleyes and bass will all take  vibrators presented this way.
Sudden Stop

If a cold front has pushed through, I like this presentation. Cast  out past a likely fish-holding spot, let the lure sink to the bottom or  just above it, then begin a slow to moderate steady retrieve. As you get  near the prime area with the lure, simply stop your retrieve and let  the lure sink.

There's something about this free-falling shad  imitation that even lethargic cold-front bass and wary stripers find  hard to resist. If possible, time it so that the pause occurs when the  lure is over a prime area such as a drop-off or weed bed edge where fish  might be hovering waiting for an easy meal. It must look like the shad  swimming past them ran out of gas and is wounded and fluttering  downward.