Lipless but Hardly Toothless

By Russ Bassdozer

If you went out of your way to tally up the myriad of lipless crankbaits fit for bass fishing, I'm not sure why you'd want to do that, but you'd conclude there are hundreds of different models. No lie. One vendor, Bill Lewis Lures, has more than a dozen different models for bass I'll bet you. SEBILE has ten. Lucky Craft has no less than eight. XCalibur has eight, count 'em eight too. And that's just the lipless tip of the iceberg. Most every hard bait vendor seems to have one or several models of lipless lures in their line up. There are hundreds I'd say.

An Instinctive Profile. One thing that all lipless cranks share in common is an incredibly instinctive profile. This natural shape mimics deep-bodied shad. Also young-of-year sunfish, crappie, tilapia and many other wide-bodied baitfish.

What's more abstract is the notion that the generous willow-shaped silhouette of a lipless crankbait matches the profile of a backward-scooting crawdad, all hunched over like a curlicue with it's tail tucked tightly up under it's carapace, replete with trailing claws folded up into streamlined recesses on its body. A lipless crank can look like that, even though when they paint lipless cranks in craw caricatures, they often paint the craw on them the wrong way - facing forward not backward as is the way craws face when they scoot. Fortunately, bass probably don't recognize this gaffe.

Bottom line, the shapes of lipless cranks instinctively may remind bass of many familiar tasty morsels. That's the first good thing that lipless cranks have going for them.

The second thing they have going for them, most lipless have a very tight shudder or flutter, similar to the tight-swimming body movements of shad, herring and sunfish. In terms of swimming action as well as body shape, lipless fit right into the food chain.

Not All the Same

Lipless cranks may all look somewhat similar, but an important point to realize is that not all lipless cranks behave the same - unless you just chunk and wind them. It's fair to say that most bass anglers today, that's all they do with lipless cranks - chuck them out and wind them back in. If that's all you want to do, then stop reading right now and go use any lipless on the market - and you should have success. Most are good to "chuck and wind" straight back.

If you want to do different things than that with them, you need to realize not all are the same. There is a big difference in what you can and can't do with different brands/models of lipless.

The rest of this article is to educate you on what some of those different things are that different lipless can or cannot do for you.

Make Noise - or Not?

Rattling, Knocking and Silent Types. It's fair to say most all lipless cranks vibrate rapidly when retrieved, but not all rattle. For those that do rattle, some are raucously louder than others. Some others have a moderate decibel level. Yet some others have a more quiet, subdued and seductive chitter-chatter. So rattling types can be broadly subcategorized as either: 1) loud, 2) moderate or 3) relatively quiet rattle baits.

On the other hand, there are other lipless cranks that don't really rattle at all. Instead they emit a tomtom-like knock from a single or pair of heavy ball bearings or even a loose metal plate inside. The Lucky Craft LV200 is one example of a knocking type. XCalibur is another example, having relatively recently introduced one-knocker lipless cranks too. Rapala has one and so on.

A few other lipless cranks are totally silent inside. They vibrate like the dickens when retrieved, but don't have any noise-generating parts inside. The Lucky Craft LV300S is an example of a silent type. SEBILE Flatt Shads are another example of lipless that do not have rattles in them to make noise. They do have weights to provide for stability and action, but the intent is not for the weights to make noise per se. What the Flatt Shads do is vibrate and move a lot or water. So you can think of the silent types as emitting vibration in lieu of rattling noise.

It's fair to say, however, that most bass anglers today prefer lipless cranks that rattle loudly, simply since this is the "norm" or only type of lipless lures that many anglers have fished for the last 2, 5, 10, 20, 30 years. Old habits are hard to break.

What is All That Noise?

The loudest lipless models can be heard from afar through the water, at times even from the end of the cast. Especially in a boat, the hull acts like a sounding board that resonates the loud rattling noise of these baits, even when they're a good distance away. Many persons wonder why rattling lipless crankbaits work since they are so noisy? People feel the loud rattling noise is unnatural, that it should frighten and alert fish by such an unnatural sound - but that isn't true. Most anglers do not know that the noise made by lipless rattling crankbaits is quite close to the noise made by shad, herring, sawbelly, blueback or alewife schools swimming tightly together. Few anglers have ever heard the very loud wriggling, writhing noise made by a school of such baitfish, but it is true. I have heard the noise made by tightly swimming schools of shad (herring, alewives, etc.) on occasion. The sounds of shad schools can even be heard above the water when conditions are right. The chatter of a lipless crankbait is remarkably similar to the noise made by such schools. The noisy rattling made by lipless crankbaits is a natural dinner bell for bass!

Which to Use When? When fish are on a lipless crankbait bite, it often pays handsomely for me to have at least two or even three types: 1) rattling, 2) knocking and 3) silent baits rigged up on different rods. As I cover new water, I'll usually start with the traditional rattling type. After I feel I've caught a good batch of bass on the rattling variety, I'll turn right around and refish the same area with a quieter rattling, knocking or silent lipless crank. It's convenient to have two or three rods, but you really don't need more than one rod to do this. Just untie the noisy lure which caught you the first nice bunch of bass. Tie on a quieter rattling, knocker or silent type, and you can often proceed to catch a second nice helping of good bass from the same spot. I've won a couple of local tournaments using this change-up tactic. It really works. Give it a try. And once you've gotten to the stage where all you're doing is culling clones without really upgrading your weight, then up the odds by switching to the biggest profile lipless crank you've got to go for that kicker. Bigger lipless do bag bigger bass on average.

Initial Rise Upon Start of Retrieve. Most all lipless cranks (at least the ones we're covering in this article) sink. A few suspend or float, but this article isn't about them. With sinking lipless, when the retrieve is at first started, a few lipless cranks will actually rise for the first few feet and for the first few seconds of the retrieve. Some lipless cranks will rise at first until they break the water's surface, which is the trigger that trips them to self-right themselves. They'll break the surface and then they'll self-right and start to hunker back down to their normal underwater running depth. As I say, this all occurs within a few feet and a few seconds of starting the retrieve.

You may wonder why this initial rise may be desirable? Good question. It's beneficial when fishing areas of submerged weed clumps, scattered underwater brush or irregular rock beds, stump fields and so on. A lipless crank that will rise straight up out of and over snaggy cover at first allows you - and the lure - to both collect your composure without getting instantly bogged down right at the start in weeds or brush or wood or rocks. The Lucky Craft LVR series contains examples of lipless cranks that can perform this initial rise.

Most other models of lipless cranks do not have this initial rise upon the start of the retrieve, and what they do instead is sink until the retrieve is started. Then they'll dive directly down, embedding deep into snaggy cover right at the start. What you need to do in this case is wind down all your line until line pressure begins to be sensed, meanwhile pointing your rod directly straight down the line, and then drop and/or push the tip forward to generate a little slack and snap the rod straight back directly up (never to the side) - carefully - so to literally rocket launch the snagged lipless crank straight up out of whatever it embedded itself into. In terms of line, stretchless braid is best for this maneuver. You can't be reckless doing this, or else the lipless crank may rocket right back at you. You need to learn how to carefully perform a power snap out of an initial snag that most lipless cranks wedge themselves into, otherwise you'll be consistently stuck right at the start of many casts into thick or scattered cover. So now it may begin to make good sense to you why a lipless crank that initially rises up and over snags at the start of a retrieve can give you a presentation advantage when fishing snaggy cover.

Back Flipping Bumpers. A few models of lipless cranks will flip completely upside down 180 degrees onto their backs when they get into trouble, such as bumping through thick brush. Why that's beneficial behavior is because it flips the belly hooks 180 degrees over onto the top of an upside down lipless crank. When it clears the brush and gets back into open water, the lipless crank will self-right itself and return to running normally. The Berkley Frenzy Rattl'r 3/4 oz is one example that does backflips over brush all day long, thereby avoiding many snags.

Tailspins. Most lipless cranks sink (at least the ones we're discussing here) and can be counted down to any depth. Some models tailspin, spiral and often foul the line in the process. That's not necessarily a reason to reject or not use a lipless crank if it tailspins. It just means you have to pay particular attention to how you use it. For example, the Lucky Craft LV500 is notoriously known to tailspin and foul the line when allowed to fall. The solution is easy - just don't give tailspinner types much time to fall.

Running Depths. On it's own, the LV500 will seek a consistent running depth of 8 feet deep. You don't need to let it sink or count it down or anything. Just start winding it in, and next thing you know, it will seek its own running level around the 8 foot mark (or thereabouts depending on line type and line diameter). Most other lipless cranks have their own natural running depths too. Most all run much shallower than the LV500. So although it tailspins, the LV500, with its deeper running depth, is one lipless crank I have with me all the time. When bass want that deeper running depth (which is often the case on bluffs or deep points), the LV500's the best lipless crank in my bag! It's true you can count down other lipless crank to eight feet, but it's not their natural level, and they're not going to perform as easily nor as well as lipless cranks that naturally run deeper. Keep in mind, the difference from 10 lb to 20 lb line may change the effective running depth by several feet.

Even though you may count a lipless down to a specific depth, not all will stay down at the depth to which they were counted down to. Most lipless cranks won't do that. Even if you can count them down, many lipless cranks tend to rise up higher like kites once the retrieve is started, not staying at the desired depth for you. So be aware of running depth as a lipless crank feature, and try to find a few that naturally run best at several different depths because you can count them all down, but you can't make them all stay there.

Head Hunters. There are some lipless cranks specifically forward-weighted to run head down when retrieved, and this also helps them fall head down while sinking. These typically won't spin as they fall. They have a more realistic and natural falling action than tailspinner types. Some swagger side to side or "hunt" as they fall forward toward you, head first. Head hunters tend to attract strikes (and can be worked with angler-imparted action) as they swagger or glide side to side on the fall. Because they work side-to-side, generating water resistance. they do not always fall quickly.

The Jackall TN70 in one example that has an externally-exposed tungsten lip to make it run and fall head first. Some, others have internal weights you can't see inside that are placed far forward to help them fall forward head-first in a hunting zig-zag manner. The 5/8 oz size Daiwa TD Vibration is a good example of this.

Pendulum Falling Nose First. When bass are suspended or simply schooling over structure (points, channels, ledges, etc.), I'll tend to position the boat over a high spot or over the shallowest spot, and cast toward deeper, open water. Then simply let these kinds of head-hunting lipless cranks pendulum fall in an arc toward me. The key is how far to let the crankbait sink at first. When I let it get down to where I think the fish are, I'll give the crankbait one flip. This is an attention-getter. It signals something is not quite right. It's just like a shad in trouble that flips up on its side, making an attempt to right itself. I then let it fall again and give it two flips. Then let it pendulum fall in toward me again. All the while it is coming back to me in a pendulum arc, and give it three more flips. Just pop it quick, to give it a short, erratic, struggling movement. It moves at most one foot when you flip it. It's just an attention-getter that shows bass something is not right. I basically let the crankbait swing back in to me, through the fish, above any cover, over any structure, and pop it once, twice or three times. On its way back in, as the bottom becomes shallower (remember to have  the boat directly atop the high spot), it's advantageous if the crankbait bumps into brush or anything else as it arcs down closer to the bottom. That obstacle impact is a great strike trigger, and because it's falling nose first, its posture helps protect the hooks from snags. This may not seem like it would matter much, but the nose-down posture truly affords far more hook protection than a bait that tailspins as it falls or one that falls more horizontally (as opposed to head down). More often than not, the crankbait will get nipped as it bounces off anything in its path. Once it reaches bottom, yoyo it up and down as you reel it in the rest of the way back to the boat.

True Countdown Lures for Deep Vertical Falls or Jigging Bottom. Most all lipless cranks sink, but many spin or foul the line as they do, so they're really not useful for counting down to deeper depths. That's the last thing you want - a lipless crank that fouls itself when it falls or is jigged, ruining cast after cast. On the other hand, a legitimate, useful countdown lure won't readily tangle the line as it falls - but it won't necessarily shimmy, head-hunt or have other action in order to attract strikes as it falls either. They just fall perfectly, plainly, quickly like rocks and without easily fouling, which makes them useful to countdown to various depths, and also ideal for deep vertical jigging with repeated lifts and falls. This doesn't mean these types will never tangle. When popped sharply on a lift-and-fall or jigged erratically using a yoyo presentation, any bait will occasionally tangle. It's just the nature of such techniques. However, the true countdown and vertical-jigging types will tangle far, far less than some of the other lipless that aren't useful this way. As you're realizing by now, not all lipless act the same!

Shimmying Fall Like a Yamamoto Senko. Some lipless crankbait models sink way too quickly or plainly to appeal to fish as they fall. If you want to countdown to a depth quickly however, they may be your best bet as they sink straight, fast and true. Some models tailspin and foul your line when they sink, but like the LV500 mentioned earlier, they may have other redeeming values that make them indispensable.

Some other lipless cranks have a perfect horizontal fall and flutter slowly as they sink. You can almost say they shimmy as they fall like a Yamamoto Senko. Of course, they are not a Yamamoto Senko, but the way that some lipless cranks shimmy and sideshift and shake as they fall can only be described as a Senko kind of action in a lipless bait. This ability is beneficial when a fish swipes and misses during a retrieve, you can just let this type lipless crank fall and flutter. It is its own built-in follow-up bait. The Strike King Red Eye Shad and Lucky Craft LV100 are two examples that have some modicum of attractive action as they fall. Due to the slow-falling, fluttering action of these particular kinds, you stand a great chance of enticing fish that swiped at or chased the lure if you simply stop and let it flutter as it falls.  Some of these types will shimmy so much as they slowly sink that they rattle all by themselves just from shimmying on the drop, even when the angler is doing nothing. When bass can be spotted following the bait (or even blindly in the middle of a retrieve), simply stop reeling and the built-in shake and chatter as the lure simply drops can be more than trailing bass can stand.

Even when a fish follows another type of bait to the boat - a topwater, jerkbait, a big-lipped crank or anything else, there are slim odds you can throw some of those same baits back on a following fish and expect it to bite. After all, if it didn't strike the bait the first time it saw it, what makes you think it will hit the second time? But if you keep a horizontal-falling lipless crankbait - one that has some shimmy - tied on another rod, you can throw it in where the follower was last seen (or in the direction it was headed), and simply let it drop and wiggle and flutter all the way to bottom. Just let it fall and let it hit bottom. Pop or subtly shake it once or twice if you wish. Then wait for the bite. Chances are good that any lingering bass will follow it down and pluck it off the bottom. If not, just raise and let it drop back to bottom a few times. There's an excellent chance you can convert many missed strikes or follow-ups into fish caught with this drop back tactic. Keep in mind, a big percentage of strikes won't happen until after the fluttering bait hits the bottom.

A Few Words on Hooks

Bigging Up The Hooks. This is nothing new, but for some odd reason, most lipless cranks continue to come with hooks too small. On a 1/2 oz size lipless crank, you'll usually receive a #4 on the belly and a weensy #6 tail hook. Most articles, outdoor journalists or pros today routinely recommend you use at least two #4 trebles on 1/2 oz size cranks - if not a #2 and #4. Top pros like Kevin Van Dam and Team Yamamoto pro Takahiro Omori even amp up to two #2's provided they won't overpower the lipless crank or the rod/reel/line you use.

The hook hangers molded into the bait, which are typically figure-eight or hourglass shaped stainless wire eyes will determine how big you can go with hooks (and how heavy a rod/reel/line you can use). Thicker diameter wire molded deeper into harder plastic baits will be able to handle bigger hooks without pulling the hangers out on a big fish or tough snag. An example of an extremely strong lipless is the Jackall Doozer. That baby's built! And if the hook hangers themselves are stout enough, then the split ring may become the weak link. An undersized split ring could uncurl under pressure if it is mismatched for this bigged up approach, especially with heavy braided line.

Bigger hooks may also marry or tangle each other more often, and in the final analysis, that may be a reason not to big up a particular brand/model of lipless crank if it's going to constantly marry on every second or third cast. Ideally, you want to big up hooks on baits that won't marry very easily.

The action of lipped, diving-billed crankbaits is a a little more sensitive to hook size. On the other hand, bigging up the hooks on lipless cranks usually will not affect the action or how many strikes you get on lipless cranks - and you'll hook and hold more fish with bigger hooks, keeping in mind the caveats about hook hangers, split rings and marrying above.

What We Mean by "Natural-Looking" Lures

First and foremost, there are few lures that look absolutely natural and move completely naturally. We all acknowledge that. Especially if you know that's a lure moving in the water over there on the end of your line, it's pretty certain your brain will say it's a fake. Occasionally, when you lose sense of where your lure is in the water, and you spot something swimming over there, you may mistakenly think it's a bluegill, craw or whatever, and suddenly realize, "Hey that is my lure! It looks pretty alive!" But bottom line, no lure is totally natural, although some lures are relatively more natural in look and action than others, if you follow me here, and as far as the shape and profile of a lipless, it is one of the most realistic shapes of all hardbaits. There are no fat, blobby things wobbling around in the water where I fish. Only billed, rotund crankbaits look like that, but nothing natural. There are, however, many natural things I see in the water that look a lot like a lipless cranks profile, and have the tight swimming action like a lipless. Bar none, it is one of the most natural shapes and actions of all hard baits - the lipless is. It has a shad shape and profile, a bluegill, a crappie. It closely imitates the hunched over profile of a backward-scooting craw with its tail tucked under and its claws folded in close to the body. It's one of the most instinctive profiles, body shapes and swimming actions of most any hard-bodied bass baits.

Inturned Trebles. This is nothing new either, but for some odd reason, most lipless cranks continue to come with straight tined, round bend trebles even though most articles, writers or pros today routinely recommend you use inturned trebles such as Mustad Triple Grips or Gamakatsu EWG trebles for example.

Bass that hit lipless cranks are notorious for shaking their heads, opening their mouths and letting lipless cranks plop right out. Inturned hooks will make it just a little harder for bass to do that. Try this - put two dozen straight, round bend trebles in a Dixie cup, shake them up and time how long it takes you to separate all the hooks. Next put two dozen inturned trebles in the Dixie cup, shake and you'll find it takes you longer because it's a little harder to separate inturned trebles. Likewise, it's a little harder for a thrashing bass to separate itself from a lipless crank that has inturned trebles. You'll still drop bass (or they'll drop you) on lipless cranks with inturned tines, just not as many.

Do Red Hooks Matter? I am often asked if red hooks matter or make a difference in any way. After many years of looking for and trying to detect a difference, honestly I cannot notice that red hooks make a difference in any way. If red hooks give one a sense of confidence or add artistic flair to a bait, that's cool. However, I don't think anyone can say for certain that red hooks get more bites or not. A similar situation is that some crankbaits have red splashes under the mouth and some don't. It's not possible to say whether the presence or absence of a red chin splash (or red hook) influences more bites.

When it comes to feather trebles, however, it seems as if I have seen frequent occasions especially during cold weather/water seasons or cold front days when bass would not hit crankbaits very hard or solidly - until a feather treble was added to the tail. A feather tail can make the difference some days between a lot of missed bumps that may be converted to solid takes with a feather treble.

Feather Trebles. Feather tails dampen the action of some brands/models of baits - and seem to enhance the action of others. The dampening effect of feathers is more variable on lipped crankbaits and jerkbaits. Yet it usually doesn't dampen the action of most lipless crankbaits. Bottom line, you really need to try each brand/model with and without feathers, and identify a couple on which you feel feathers enhance the action. You'll uncover a couple of brands/models where feathers truly seem to add a lively, fluttering element.

Some pros pooh-pooh the use of feather trebles on crankbaits, saying that feathers attract smaller bass and/or the feathers shift the strike focus to the tail tip of the bait instead of the mid-belly. I've caught countless bass on lipped and lipless cranks, jerkbaits, topwaters and spoons with and without feather tail hooks. I can't say I've counted more small fish caught with feathers and more big fish without.

I have seen feathers shift the strike focus - inciting more engulfing and solid strikes from fish coming up behind the bait versus fish that slashed without having a specific strike spot and missed the same bait without the feather duster.

During cold weather, cool water seasons, cold front days or any time bass seem reluctant to hit very hard or solidly - a feather tail can make the difference some days between a lot of missed bumps that may be converted to solid, engulfing takes with a feather treble.

A Few Good Lipless Rod Recommendations

One good outfit to use with lipless crankbaits (and lipped cranks) is Gary Yamamoto's Crankin' Stick Model #24-60-MHF. Yamamoto's Crankin' Stick is a totally different concept than most other crankbait rods. It's a comparatively stiff crankbait rod with a fast tip action. It's not the traditional soft, wet noodle action of other crankbait rods. Hanging a feather treble off the belly (shown below) of a big lipless crank is unorthodox, but bass don't know any better. They belt it in a big way. Do give it a try!

Here's another noteworthy rod designed to rip lipless cranks in grass. A few years ago, Bruce Holt of G. Loomis showed me their new (at that time) CBR906 medium/heavy crankbait series rod. "This rod is almost an oxymoron (opposite) to the normally soft action graphite we put into our crankbait rods," confessed Bruce. "We were thinking we still had more work to do, but our pro anglers who were ripping lipless crankbaits in the grass to get a reaction bite told us, 'No, you nailed it. Don't change a thing.'

Any rod so highly endorsed by Bruce Holt, you can bet it's perfect for the application, and so is Gary Yamamoto's Crankin' Stick.

Doing Your Homework is Not Hard

This article features photos of 26 different brands/models of lipless cranks, but that's only the tip of the lipless iceberg. A popular fishing master catalog of one big retailer offered no fewer than 43 different lipless crankbaits for bass. Not sure why you would, but if you cared to count, there are possibly hundreds of brands/models of lipless baits overall.

Now you certainly do not need 100's, 43 or even 26 different lipless cranks. But you certainly should fish regularly with at least one model, and I personally favor fishing with several different models that have varying sizes, different noise types, different running depths and other different characteristics and unique benefits.

Here is a handy worksheet I use to identify the different features and benefits that I evaluate and look for in the lipless lures I choose to use:

 Brand/Model of
Lipless Crankbait
Weight Length Running
Depth*
Rattles
(L,M,H)
Knocks Silent Initial
Riser
Backflips
Cover
Shimmies
Like Senko
Hunts
Head Down
Tailspins
on Fall
Deep
Jigging
This model                        
That model                        
The other                        
And so on                        

Running Depth*: The chart shows the running depth if not allowed to sink. Lipless may be counted down to sink as deep as you allow them, to 20-30 feet or deeper, but if you simply start reeling as soon as one hits the water, a bait will seek its natural running depth range recorded on the chart.

(L, M, H = Light, medium or heavy rattling noise)

Manufacturers are constantly improving lipless crankbaits with every new model, but no one has yet pulled together all the desirable features into a single perfect model. Actually, all of the desirable features can't be possessed in the very same bait, For instance, I don't think one bait could rattle and/or knock and/or be silent at different times - unless it has a little watertight hatch through which you may somehow add or subtract rattles and/or knockers on the water (what an idea!). Until that one perfect lure is produced, I find my best success is to identify and use a small handful of different lipless cranks possessing different features as shown on the worksheet above. As mentioned above, I'll cycle through them, casting different lipless cranks one after another, often in the same fishing location, and I tend to land more bass using several different lipless crankbaits than if I just used one.

It only takes a few exploratory casts to fill out the worksheet for any brand/model of lipless crank. You'll learn a lot about different baits, and after a fishing trip or two pulling cranks past the ultimate judges (that'd be the bass), you should be confident of what each lipless crank has got going for it, and whether it's worthy to add it to your regular team roster or not.

In ending this story for now, we haven't even gotten into the different things that you can do with a lipless (using angler-imparted action). This article has been all about the different things that different lipless can do for you!