Cranking Winter Steel by Matt Straw

Cranking Winter Steel by Matt Straw

After years in the wide-open Great Lakes, steelhead suddenly run upstream. The walls close in. Steelhead are jacked up on speed as it is, but just being in a river is enough to drive them up the phobia scale. Hit one with a hardbait bristling with trebles and waders better be strapped on tight.

steelhead fishing crankbaits great lakes river plugs

Kevin Morlock of Indigo Guide Service knows a thing or two about cranking salmonids. Travel any big river in West Michigan during the height of the salmon run and you’ll see cranks dangling from spinning rods designed for pitching on almost every jet and drift boat. That was never the case before Morlock came along.

Up until then, cranks were fished drop-back style with casting gear in rod holders from oar-driven drift boats. Then Morlock showed us how effective casting could be. And about 10 years ago, in January, Morlock demonstrated how steelhead come at cranks like torpedoes out of a submarine and we filmed an exciting piece on it. As he points out, there are times when they hit cranks better than anything else.

The Pitch

“Whenever a really hot bite is going on, cranking is my first choice,” Morlock said.

steelhead fishing crankbaits great lakes river plugs salmon trout

“Being a fast-paced presentation style, it allows you to cover the most water in the least time, but also lets you cover water you can’t reach any other way. Odd as it may seem, cranks put a steelhead or two in the boat when nothing else can—when the fish are totally off. I think it’s because cranks encourage a territorial response when steelhead aren’t feeding.”

(Which is most of the time in rivers, by the way.)

The best season for cranking steel extends fall through winter. “Feisty fall steelies are fresh out of the lake and moving hole-to-hole,” Morlock said. “They’re more active than at any point for months. Covering the maximum amount of water possible with cranks is my top pick in fall. Some days, when fish are less active, a bait or fly rig can outproduce cranks, but I think that’s the exception. Day in and day out, I start with cranks in fall whenever experienced clients allow me to suggest a method.”

In winter, steelhead become a little more sedentary.

They might stay in the same hole for weeks at a time. They may not move to hit a spawn bag or fly, so presentation has to be right on the money. But, just as we have always known about spinners and spoons, a crank can rile them up and pull them out of that easy chair they’ve settled into, making winter another prime time for cranking river steel.

Back-drifting cranks in the traditional manner, with rods propped in holders, is not Morlock’s usual style. “An experienced angler that can make precise casts and adapt to changes in current speed, depth control, and other factors will catch more fish than anybody traditionally ‘plugging’ our rivers today,” Morlock said. “Casting is always the way to go with cranks, in my mind. It allows versatility that simply putting your rods in holders can’t provide.” And few things are more exciting than a steelhead ripping a crankbait pitched on a hand-held rod.

steelhead fishing crankbaits great lakes river plugs salmon trout

Tackling Cranks

This is not an exercise in donating $8 hunks of plastic to the river gods. I’ve practiced this technique with Morlock for a total of maybe 8 days. All told, we lost one crank while boating well over a dozen steelhead (losing several more). If it snags, go get it. About the only way to lose one is to have a steelhead take it and go spiraling into a logjam. But by using heavier tackle than normal, we can turn more of those fish and straighten hooks to get the lures back even when they do rip free on wood.

Year ‘round I prefer an 8 ½-foot, medium-light spinning outfit with 20-pound Braid.” Morlock said. “I like those longer rods. You have to develop a knack for casting accurately, but it’s a better shock absorber and you can manipulate the lure over a wider area. I add 2 to 3 feet of 20-pound Fluorocarbon. I don’t want to sacrifice any plugs, and we can usually straighten the hooks with that combination. But at least I know where that line’s going to break and I’m not leaving 20 feet of braid in the river when we can’t reach the lure.”

Braid is thinner than mono and that allows long casting with light lures to achieve maximum depth. “A longer rod allows me to reach here and there to change directions and angles,” Morlock said. “It also absorbs the power of a sudden strike from a steelhead that built momentum from 15 feet away blasts into your crank at speeds in excess of 35 mph. And long rods protect line and knots better, allowing you to horse a steelhead when you absolutely have to.”

steelhead fishing crankbaits great lakes river plugs salmon trout wiggle warts

Early in the season, when the water is somewhat warmer, “steelhead will grab just about anything,” Morlock added. “But for most of the year, after water temperatures drop into the 40°F range and below, steelhead really seem to prefer short, fat baits with a wide, erratic wobble.

Call me and my steelhead old fashioned, but our top two crankbaits are the Storm Hot N' Tot and the Storm Original Wiggle Wart. Another positive to these baits is their ability to stay down and wobble when moving very slowly. In contrast, my favorite baits for many other conditions—the Rapala Shad Rap and Original Floating Rapala—will go dead and float to the top when you try to crawl the bait—conditions where a Tot or Wart are still down and working for you.”

Morlock removes therear treble. He then removes the front treble, runs a swivel onto the split ring, and clips the hook to that. “Rigged that way, the Hot ’N Tot increases my landing percentage by 20%,” Morlock said. “If it was 50%, now it’s 70%.

You throw spinners and you miss very few. They mostly go in the net. But throw a crank and you get only half the fish that strike. By dropping one hook back I no longer had two hooks working against each other. The swivel keeps them from twisting free, too. And it’s a lot nicer getting fish out of the net with one treble.”

steelhead fishing crankbaits great lakes river plugs salmon troutThe lure has to dive and wobble at the lowest possible speeds in winter. “When the water’s low and in the 30°F range, you can’t have the lure wobbling all over the place,” Morlock said. “Most cranks can’t operate at slow enough speed. In winter, I have a client up front throwing a Hot ’N Tot and the guy in the back throws a Wiggle Wart, which has a clanking rattle. That steel ball makes it much easier to cast in the wind than the Hot ’N Tot. So we find out if they want a rattle or not and which lure action they prefer.”

Lure size is an issue with steelhead.

“On smaller rivers I like the smaller, 2-inch Hot N’ Tot,” Morlock said. “I go bigger if I need more depth, but that seems to be the only time. I use Original Wiggle Warts in the regular size—not the magnum. Sometimes they want the rattling versions, sometimes not. Rattles seem to correlate with aggression levels more than water conditions. The rattle is king when the bite is hot. No question—the right color selection will put more steelhead in the net, but it’s always the last consideration. Before fine-tuning with color, I need to find fish and figure out where they’re holding. After that, retrieve speed and angle become the prime considerations. After determining all that, then I start worrying about color.”

Morlock starts each day with a bread-and-butter bait in the color that’s been producing best on one rod and an entirely different pattern on each of his other rods. “I keep switching baits on that second rod, keeping the bread-and-butter combo alive as a control factor until steelhead tell me they want something in particular,” he said. “Color selection, for me, is a simple boil-down between bright fluorescent, bright flashy, natural light, and natural dark. Those are my four food groups."

"Once I determine the color group I can start narrowing down specific colors. By the time we find the perfect color, conditions change and everything flies out the window,” he laughed.

Changes in cloud cover, wind, precipitation, and water color are some of the conditions that affect color selection. Water temperature determines, to some degree, body shape and action. But retrieve speed and angle to the current is a day-to-day consideration, regardless of conditions.

Braided line has less stretch, providing more control over wild fish in dangerous environs. It allows cranks to dig a little deeper on short casts because it provides less resistance to the flow than mono. And it’s thinner, so light baits cast farther when the need arises. “I begrudgingly switch to 15-pound mono when the weather turns cold and the braid starts freezing together on the spool,” he said.

“I've heard that companies are making ice-fishing braid, and I need to try some. But every time you reel in, braid carries water to the spool. Every time you change spots in winter, you give that water enough time to freeze solid, making it impossible to cast. I tie in two or three feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon with back-to-back uni-knots. I recently purchased a Daiwa Tournament spinning reel and I’m quickly falling in love with it in cold weather. Being well built yet simple and basic, it just seems to have less small parts to freeze together and have troubles.”

steelhead fishing crankbaits great lakes river plugs salmon trout

Morlock doesn’t advocate switching hooks out on most baits. “I'm satisfied with the hooks that come standard with most baits,” he said, “but when I have to replace bent and broken hooks, I like to go with lighter-wire versions than those that come standard. It has to be strong enough to hold a hard fighting fish, but it has to quickly penetrate with little pressure because a steelhead can react so fast. Light, premium hooks offer the only way to stay connected to crazy cart-wheeling, chrome rockets. Fishing in woody rivers, thinner hooks straighten on 20 pound to free the bait from snags on a direct pull.”


One of the great things about pitching a crank is how accurately it can be placed next to the bank or behind a fallen tree when compared with a float rig or bottom-bouncing bait rig. Cranks can be placed in spots that can’t be reached with most other methods. When a tree lays down on the bank, most of it in the river, steelhead hovering on the downstream side of the trunk and branches can only be reached by casting. Bait rigs and flies won’t settle in time to reach fish tight to the obstruction, but a well-placed crank can dive into the strike zone even quicker than spoons or spinners.

A floating crank can be paused the moment it touches wood, allowing it to float up and away from trouble. Obviously, metal baits can’t accomplish that. Nor can you cast a spinner to the bank then let it float underneath overhanging branches almost touching the water. In many cases, you can cast to a spot, feed line, and allow a crank to drift way beyond the “spook zone” around you and your boat, hooking fish that would otherwise be missed, and getting under obstructions to make presentations that would be impossible with any other method.

One reason Morlock uses longer rods is to create sweeping directional changes to trigger fish. By pointing the rod at the water, holding it off to the right or left as the retrieve begins, sweeping it to the opposite side mid retrieve creates a dynamic course change. The longer the rod, the more severe that direction change becomes. A rod over 8 feet also accelerates a lure well beyond the ability of a high-speed reel alone. Starting with the rod tip out in front, pointing at the lure, sweep it to the side while reeling to super charge those speed changes.

You can never move a bait too slow in cold water, Morlock says. “The main shortcoming for first-time steel crankers is retrieving too fast,” he explained. “Backplugging with the rods in holders is an immediate fix, and probably why most guides do it. Rod holders are also pretty nice when it’s really cold, when keeping hands in pockets is better that casting and holding a cold rod.”

steelhead fishing crankbaits great lakes river plugs salmon trout

Casting angle is always an issue in current. Fishing cranks in rivers for smallmouths and walleyes, it’s generally better to cast upstream and bring the lure down toward their faces, as opposed to running it up their tails. But steelhead are rarely feeding, as those other fish are when responding to cranks. “I rarely have success casting upstream and bringing the lure toward a steelhead's face,” Morlock said. “I think it puts them in a defensive posture. Instead I like a cross-stream presentation in warm water, progressing toward casting straight downstream as the water cools.”

The way steelhead relate to current has a lot to do with water temperature. “Warm is fast and cold is slow,” Morlock said. “In warm temperatures, steelhead hold in fast water and respond better to quick presentations. As the water cools, cold-blooded steelhead shift to slower currents and respond better to slower presentation speeds. But I always want the lure a few feet off bottom if possible, holding the rod tip high if necessary—setting everything up for a predator to come up from underneath a crankbait.”

And it keeps coming up. It’s like hitting a trip wire. Touch it and things explode. Touch steel with a crank and they generally go airborne, even in winter. Better check those wader straps again.

- written by Matt STraw 


Studio Shot Callouts And Caption

Tots And Warts

Top: Storm Hot N' Tots

Bottom: Storm Wiggle Warts


Steelhead guide Kevin Morlock removes the rear trebles from his favorite winter crankbaits. He then removes the front treble, runs a Berkley Cross-Lok snap swivel onto that split ring, and clips the hook on. Three reasons: 1/ One treble is no longer fighting the other one when a steelhead goes nuts; 2/ The swivel doesn’t allow the fish to apply torque or twist to the single treble; and 3/ A single treble is easier to remove from the fish and the net.








Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.