Crankbaits on ice: Follow these tips to catch more fish using crankbaits this winter

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By Tyler French

During the open-water fishing season, trolling and casting crankbaits are popular techniques anglers use to quickly cover water and entice bites out of both active and negative fish. Vibration, flash and rattle all wrapped up into a compact, minnow-shaped crankbait has accounted for many walleye, pike, trout and bass during spring, summer and fall months.

Unfortunately, far too many anglers put away their crankbaits each winter, choosing instead to fish with ultra-small baits worked with finesse. This winter, keep the crankbait mentality and attack your favorite lake with crankbaits through the ice.

Although different than most of the trolling and casting crankbaits we use in open water, ice-fishing crankbaits are lipless, top-towing baits that can be hopped, circled and jigged in a frenzy. Lipless crankbaits jigged through the ice have an unmatched ability to produce feel, sound and motion that drive fish crazy.

Crankbaits entice fish of all kinds. Aggressive fish attack them as they cruise through an area. Neutral fish are intrigued by the sound and vibration, and they investigate out of curiosity. Negative fish hit as a reaction, often defending themselves from the annoying visitor.

Jigging crankbaits such as the Rapala Jigging Rap and open-water bass baits such as the Rat-L-Trap have been fished through the ice for quite some time. Like most things with ice fishing, though, a lot has changed in recent years. Today, almost every major tackle company has a version of a lipless crankbait sized perfectly for ice-fishing scenarios.

There is a simple reason there are so many versions of ice-fishing crankbaits — they work. They work in natural lakes, potholes, rivers and reservoirs over weeds, rock, and mud for perch, trout and walleyes. They also work at your secret spot or even a community hole.

Crankbait styles

Ice crankbaits each have their own unique action, vibration and sound that often require different jigging techniques to fully take advantage of their character. Just like open-water fishing, a crankbait can be the hero one day, and a zero the next.

Ice cranks such as the Jigging Rap have solid minnow-shaped bodies and swim in wide circles when jigged. There are several similar versions of vertical glide baits with some of my favorites being the Moonshine Shiver Minnow, Rapala Jigging Shad and Northland Puppet Minnow.

Glide crankbaits are the quietest of the group, producing relatively zero sound and minimal vibration. A large portion of these baits’ allure rests in their circle-swimming and bouncing action.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, vertical rattle crankbaits are loud and create vibrations you can feel with every jig stroke. Similar to the original Rat-L-Trap, lures such as the Rapala Rippin’ Rap, Lindy Darter and Live Target Golden Shiner are built and sized more specifically for vertical presentations through the ice. With their high-pitched rattles, these baits ring the dinner bell for curious meat eaters.

Landing somewhere between the circling glide baits and the loud rattle baits are several more ice-fishing crankbaits that have a minnow-shaped profile but don’t make as much noise. An old favorite, the Salmo Chubby Darter, and a newer favorite, the Rapala Slab Rap, have a vibrating hum on their vertical ascent, yet they have a slower, rattle-less wobble on the way back down.

Jigging ice crankbaits is an aggressive tactic that provokes strikes and can be fished fast. With so much action built into these crankbaits, live bait is rarely needed. This aggressive tactic defies ice fishing’s long-thought requirement for finesse, proving that aggressiveness can lead to effectiveness through the ice.

When to jig crankbaits

A main reason crankbaits work at any time of the year is that they appeal to the senses of fish in several ways. Active fish think they just found a big, easy meal, while negative fish get angry at the bait. In other words, there isn’t a bad time to fish a crankbait.

During the ice season, crankbaits are my go-to tool when I’m in search mode, during feeding windows and when fish are bunched up in schools.

When it comes to searching, jigging crankbaits is one of the best ways to search for fish. Vibration and rattles catch their interest from long distances, helping you cover more water.

A Rippin’ Rap will just plain find fish. Send it down, give it a few pumps and more often than not the screen on my Marcum comes alive. This is especially true when targeting roaming perch and crappies. Nothing will call the fish in faster than a rattling ice crankbait.

Feeding windows, which typically occur during the low-light periods of sun up and sun down, are when fish turn aggressive, and big, noisy baits are never too much when fish are on the move looking to feed. While most any spoon or jig will get bit, using crankbaits without bait will help efficiently call in and catch fish, which means you can get your bait back down to the active fish below.

Groups of fish create competition which benefits the angler. More often than not, though, the small fish in a school are faster and get to your line before the big ones.

In these cases, a rattle-less Slab Rap works great to pluck out the biggest fish from the school. Smaller fish will often hesitate to eat the larger minnow-shaped bait, allowing just enough time for the bigger ones to slide in and attack.

Another great bait for fishing schools is the Shiver Minnow. Its heavy head and body drop fast down to those deep schools before they can swim off.

When the going gets tough

Every time I use crankbaits through the ice I am reminded of the ability they have to bring fish to me. There are some days, however, that the Marcum lights up with fish, but they just won’t commit to the crankbait. On these days there are several tricks you can use to turn the lookers into biters.

First, try using bait. Crankbaits don’t need additional bait to catch fish a majority of the time, but when biters turn to lookers, tip the crank’s middle hook with a minnow head, a couple spikes or even a small chunk of nightcrawler. The trick is to keep the piece of bait small enough to avoid impairing the action of the crankbait. A small bit of scent can trigger enough interest or aggression to attack the crankbait.

In other cases, slowing the crank down might be the trick. One- to 2-foot jigging strokes work great to call fish in. Once the fish are nearby, it sometimes takes smaller jig strokes to coax a bite. Quivers, small hops, slow flutters and micro-circles can be deadly.

Each style of crankbait has a different action from both big and small jig strokes, though, which means your jigging style and cadence should change depending on the crankbait you are using. The best approach to learning how to slow it down with each crankbait is to experiment while watching on an underwater camera or right underneath the hole in clear water.

Another tip is to try swapping your presentation. Use a crankbait’s unannounced ability to draw fish in to your advantage, and then if fish come in that just won’t commit, reel up and do a quick rod swap to a small jigging spoon or jig tipped with bait. Use the crankbait to draw fish in and get them fired up, but seal the deal with a finesse bait.

Also, try changing your style, and not the size of your crank. Our instinct as ice anglers is to downsize when fish come in but don’t bite. With jigging crankbaits, change the style before the size. If they won’t bite a rattle bait, go silent with a Slab Rap. If they hesitate to eat the skinny-profiled, fast-circling Jigging Rap, try the slower, fatter Jigging Shad. Each crankbait has a unique action, rattle pitch and vibration, and one of them is almost guaranteed to be right for a reaction bite.

Big baits, hard bodies, multiple hooks and no scent all lead us to believe that fish will turn their nose up if we ever stop jigging, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most times the best way to coax weary biters is to hold steady.

First, coax fish up off the bottom 2 or 3 feet to investigate. When a fish comes in, gradually slow your stroke to a complete stop. Once the crankbait stops moving, just hold on. More often than not, by the time the fish reaches your crankbait the lack of movement will cause a reaction bite on a minnow that looks to be dying.

One last tip is something I call the “elevator.” Slowly and steadily raising the crankbait up as a fish comes closer is an effective way to get tough fish to commit. Don’t be afraid to add in a jiggle or a pause.

Crappies and trout will chase high into the water column. Perch and walleyes will usually move up a couple feet off the bottom. In either case, luring a fish out of its comfort range by using the elevator will provoke it to attack.

The right rigging

The ideal rigging for ice crankbaiting starts with a fast-action rod. The fast tip allows good control of those small, sharp hops, while letting you feel the vibration and rattle of every jig stroke. A good backbone is needed to drive the treble hooks in when a fish strikes.

Superlines are great when fishing inside a shack or when the weather is nice. More often than not, though, it’s cold outside and I’m rigged with monofilament. As far as what I use for line, I typically run 6-pound-test Berkley Micro Ice when targeting walleyes and pike. For crappies and perch, I downsize to 4-pound Micro Ice.

Whether using braid or monofilament, I tie on the smallest Spro ball-bearing swivel and then run a leader a foot or two in length down to the smallest crankbait snap. The swivel prevents my line from twisting while the crankbait hops and swims in circles, and the snap allows me to switch crankbaits on the go. Remember, this isn’t a finesse tactic, so don’t get too caught up on ultra-stealth line and hardware.

Much like crankbaits in open water, the factors of speed, depth, profile and action are more important than color. Sure, there are days when one color seems to catch more, but for the most part don’t overthink colors. That said, it’s always nice to have a few different extremes available if you feel the need to refine the small details.

Ideally, have one bait in each color theme, such as glow, natural, bright and shiny. Many times one crankbait can cover multiple categories. Moonshine’s Golden Perch, for example, has a color scheme that blends together shiny gold in a natural perch pattern. There’s also Rapala’s Glow Tiger (glow fire tiger), which uses a distinct, contrasting color scheme and pattern.

Gain confidence

The key factor with any fishing technique is developing confidence that what you are using will catch fish. Don’t use crankbaits after you have fished for hours and they “aren’t biting.” Instead, start the day off with a crankbait tied on and a few in your pocket. Move until you find fish that will eat what you give them. I bet it won’t take long.

The more I fish crankbaits through the ice, the more I am amazed by how fish react to them. My confidence is high, and yours will be, too. I really do believe there is an ice crankbait that can catch fish in every situation.

About the author: Tyler French is a water resources engineer and freelance outdoor writer who grew up in South Dakota and now lives in Sheridan, Wyo.

Choosing the right ice rod

Rods off the shelf are often too soft and wimpy, or they’re quite the opposite and stiff as pool cues. For this reason I prefer custom-ordered rods for jigging crankbaits.

Glacial Lakes Outdoors builds custom rods to your specifications right here in eastern South Dakota. Their Tiger Tamer blank is perfect for jigging crankbaits, as it has a sensitive fast-action tip and a quick backbone.

The feel produced from the fast action is great for detecting those delicate crappie bites, but the backbone is stiff enough to handle big walleyes and pike.

Order your own custom rod for any technique at

— Tyler French

The author, pictured here with a giant jumbo perch, firmly believes crankbaits can catch a variety of fish in any ice-fishing situation, and confidence goes a long way to catching more fish, regardless of when or how you’re fishing. Photo by Tyler French
Ice-fishing crankbaits are lipless, top-towing baits that can be hopped, circled and jigged in a frenzy. Lipless cranks jigged through the ice have an unmatched ability to produce feel, sound and motion that drive fish crazy. Photo by Tyler French