Pitching Walleye Cranks: Overlooked And Misunderstood by Matt Straw

Pitching Walleye Cranks: Overlooked And Misunderstood by Matt Straw

Every pass across the tip of a rock point produces a walleye. Troll cranks as far as you want along that break, across several similar rock points, and nothing happens.

Turn around, pass that point, and whap—another marble eye.

A little bulb should light up in your head, telling you to turn around and drop the electric trolling motor. When walleyes concentrate on specific spots, trolling wastes time and energy.

walleye crankbait plug fishing casting pitching

The right move is to spend more time on that specific spot before the fish decide to move.

Many walleye pros opt for baited jigs or they rip-jig with plastics at that point. But Tommy Skarlis, 2008 FLW Walleye Tour Champion, 2009 AIM Pro Walleye Tour champ, and part of the 2010 Full Throttle Big Water Division Team of The Year, says

“the most underutilized presentation in that situation, in any walleye angler’s arsenal, is pitching cranks. I start by pitching cranks when walleyes are concentrated, and it’s generally more productive than pitching jigs. It’s one of the most effective tactics in the walleye angler’s arsenal.”

Tony Roach, one of Minnesota’s finest guides and authorities on walleye tactics, says he can’t wait for late summer because he knows the most exciting fishing of the year is about to begin.

“In August you hear grumblings about the doldrums of summer, but it’s not true,” Roach said. “Late summer is fantastic for pitching cranks every year. We find abundant numbers of walleyes feeding in 2 to 5 feet of water. Few anglers seem to realize it, but walleyes are taking advantage of an abundance of crayfish at that time of year. It’s my favorite time to fish shallow because the fish are so aggressive and full of energy. And they come shallow for one reason—to feed.”

walleye crankbait plug fishing casting pitching

Find Fish Faster

Shallow fish don’t show up on sonar.

In some lakes and rivers, we find them with our eyes. Everywhere else, we find them with cranks. “The common perception is that pro anglers are free to snag up and lose a $5 crank,” Skarlis said. “But no matter who you are, a crank is worth the risk. It will outfish a jig 2 to 1 in most situations. How much are you spending on minnows or leeches? Chances are you spend less even if you lose a crank or two, which is actually pretty rare.

Cranks get through cover better than most presentations.

You can pitch cranks where you locate a concentration of walleyes in places where you can’t troll. Tight spots, like rip-rap on reservoir dam faces. Miles of rock but walleyes might be only on one small segment. You might find them trolling, but you’ll score faster by pitching. Weedy areas, heavy timber—any situation that slows your trolling efforts way down is right for putting the rod back in your hand and pitching.”

In cover, the diving angle comes into play.

“Around snaggy rocks or timber, most anglers won’t use a crank because they’re afraid of losing it,” Skarlis said. “But if you’re using the deepest-diving crank you can throw, the tilt of the lure keeps the hooks away from the cover. The first thing to make contact is always the top of the lure and the edge of the bill. Deep divers will roll through anything, allowing you to find walleyes much faster than anything else around cover.”

Skarlis also finesses baits through weeds by using rod position to control the running depth of his cranks. “Crankbaits work really well when you have a break that’s not too sharp,” he said. “A slow-tapering break is optimum. Say the weed tops are 4 feet under the surface on top of the flat, and you want to fish above them down to where they top out 12 feet beneath the surface, near the deep weed edge. That’s where a Rapala DT6 or DT10, or the size #6 Salmo Hornet is really effective. They tilt fast to get depth quick. I start slow with the rod pointed up, at 1 o’clock, to get it down to running depth, and then I start ripping it along. The faster you go, the less depth the crank will acquire. Along sharper breaks, you want to retrieve slower to get the bait deeper, but that fast retrieve triggers walleyes better, and that’s why I like cranks on slow-tapering flats.”

As the bait gets closer, moving over deeper water, Skarlis lowers the rod tip to keep the lure brushing through weed tops. Near the end of the retrieve, he may kneel down and plunge the rod tip into the water. “Sometimes a few extra inches of depth makes a big difference,” Skarlis said.

great lakes walleye crankbait plug fishing pitching casting

Too many anglers think crankbait fishing is a no-brainer. If you just cast, reel, and let the lure do all the work, you’re missing fish. “Walleyes will follow cranks, so I fish it like a jerk bait close to the boat,” Skarlis said. “I kill it, snap it, pause it, jerk it, change directions—always doing something to trigger a response late in the retrieve.”

Roach tends to focus on rocky areas, like shallow reefs but sees the same behavior.

“I add a lot of twitches and pauses because walleyes follow,” he said. “Allow them to get too close to the boat before you trigger them and they spook. They follow when you troll, too, when you have more time to trigger them by changing speed and direction. You don’t have the same amount of time or space to trigger when pitching, but you certainly can’t troll on the spots I’m talking about. What’s remarkable is how shallow we catch them in August in 80°F water. You often see the fish hit in 1 foot of water. Seeking deep water because the water is warm is a mistake. Pick up cues from nature. When we see crayfish in big numbers by the ramp, I start getting excited about pitching cranks.”

The Right Tools

“My favorite summer cranks for pitching are Shad Raps, X Raps, and Rapala DTs,” Roach said. “The Rapala DT is the most overlooked walleye crank on the market. For a rounder, sort of classic bass-style crank, it has a tight wobble. That wobble is better in windy conditions, and way more important than color. Things are turbulent in the shallows. The DT tracks really well in there, and walleyes only have seconds to react. They respond best to that tight wobble in those conditions.”

Eight To Pitch  Left column, top-to-bottom: Reef Runner Little Ripper, Lindy Shadling, Rapala RS Shad Rap, Salmo Hornet. Right column, top-to-bottom: Rapala DT6, Berkley Flicker Shad, Smithwick Deep Rogue, Rapala X-Rap.

Eight To Pitch
Left column, top-to-bottom:
Reef Runner Little Ripper, Lindy Shadling, Rapala RS Shad Rap, Salmo Hornet.
Right column, top-to-bottom:
Rapala DT6, Berkley Flicker Shad, Smithwick Deep Rogue, Rapala X-Rap

Roach designed a Signature Series rod for Wright McGill that has a great action for pitching cranks. “It’s a spinning rod,” he said. “I like something with great backbone and a real fast tip because we’re casting long distance and we need to set hooks from afar. Need the fast tip to bury those hooks. I use a fairly large capacity reel and 8- to 10-pound braided line so we can really rifle cranks way out there, covering more water with each cast. I tie direct to a crankbait snap. I might tie in a short 12- to 15-pound fluorocarbon leader for abrasion resistance or when the water is really clear, but they don’t have time to look at a crank like they do with a jig, so leaders are rarely necessary.”

Skarlis takes great pains to nail down the right retrieve speed every day on the water. “For bigger lures, I use a baitcaster,” he said. “The rod is a 7-foot, medium-fast with moss green, 10- to 17-pound Berkley Trilene XT monofilament. I carry three of those sticks, but each reel has a different retrieve ratio—4:1, 5:1 and 6:1. I switch up constantly, using the same retrieve with each rod until the fish tell me which speed works best.

“I throw lighter cranks with a spinning rod,” Skarlis added. “I use a 7-foot  rod with a size 30 spinning rod filled with 8-pound leader. Around timber, where I have to move fish fast, I go to 10-pound Berkley FireLine. But when I can get away with it I like mono because the added stretch keeps me from missing fish. You don’t want to set the moment a walleye hits the bait. You want the rod to load up on him first.”

Skarlis finds himself relying on the Salmo Hornet a lot over the past two years. “It’s my favorite right now because a lot of guys don’t throw it, so it’s giving off vibrations walleyes rarely feel and profiles they don’t see. Everybody that pitches cranks is throwing Rapalas and Bombers. A Size #6 Hornet is awesome on deep wing dams and dirty water. That large profile emits more sound for them to zero in on. Salmo Hornets are great on bodies of water like Devil’s Lake because rattles on other cranks really call in the snot rockets. Hornets have no rattles. But a lot of people won’t throw it because they run $7 or $8 apiece. My attitude is go big or go home.”

Another Skarlis staple is the Berkley Flicker Shad—a lure that put a lot of money in his pocket over the past several years. “Rattles sometimes help, until they attract too many northerns,” he said. “The new size #6 Flicker Shad suspends. One of my best-kept secrets revolves around killing that bait—just killing the retrieve and letting it sit there about halfway back to the boat. I’ll let it sit for 30 seconds or more. If you get an important cell phone call, cast this lure first and reel it down to running depth before answering. The Flicker Shad will sit horizontal, unless you use an oversize snap to connect it to your line. A motionless lure sitting in the middle of the water column creates a level of impatience in walleyes, but you have to overcome your own impatience to see it work. Let it sit.”

Skarlis is always looking for baits other people overlook. “Another bait other guys don’t throw very often is the Reef Runner Deep Little Ripper,” he said. “It’s a popular trolling bait but people rarely pitch them. And people ignore small baits, too. Sometimes walleyes want smaller cranks, like the little #4 Hornet and the #5 Flicker Shad. Smaller baits dial down noise, vibration and profile factors. Subtle is the way to go sometimes in cold water or after a front passes.”

walleye crankbait plug fishing casting pitching

Playing The Wind

Summer walleyes invade shallows in main-lake areas, including weeds on humps, shallow reefs, rocky shorelines, big shoreline points, and cabbage beds. Choose an area where the wind is blowing directly into elements like those, then use the wind as your ally to control the boat and make longer casts.

“Don’t fight the wind,” Roach said. “Every angler reacts a little differently to the wind. I start on the windy side first, especially when I’m keying in on rocks. I like to start off structure and work into it, controlling the drift with the trolling motor and if it’s really windy I use a drift sock to slow us down. We fan cast in every direction. Sometimes all the walleyes will be on one side of the reef or the other, or on one particular contour turn. If they’re on a small spot, you need the wind to be behind you coming into the structure so you can find that spot quick and set up so every cast reaches that spot with the wind behind it. Don’t fight the wind—use it.”

walleye crankbait plug fishing casting pitching

Wind can cause a complete reversal in speciation over shallow rocks. “On super windy days in August, the bass move out and the walleyes slip in,” Roach said. “They switch places. But every time you pull up to a reef, you have no idea where the fish might be. It’s slow going with jigs. Get up on top and fan cast cranks until you find schools. Drop an icon and work those schools.”

Roach says matching the hatch is unnecessary. “Walleyes don’t discriminate in shallow water,” he said. “They feed on whatever comes by, so patterns are less important than baits with the right action. Making contact with the rocks is unavoidable sometimes, but it helps walleyes zero in. Hit the rocks and pause, then give the lure a twitch. Sometimes they’re so shallow you can’t constantly reel or you’re just hanging up and banging rocks constantly. Try twitching more than reeling, with the rod tip pointing up. Reel, pause, and twitch.”

walleye crankbait plug fishing casting pitching

When the crayfish drop off in number, walleyes find other reasons to stay shallow.

“In September you see baitfish coming out of the basin and invading shallow rocks,” Roach said. “It’s a great time to pitch cranks. My favorite tactic in late fall is slow rolling a size #8 or #9 Rapala Shad Rap. It’s balsa and it pops up quick out of snaggy spots. Walleyes hit it so hard you think you’re hung on rocks, and the bait is all tangled up deep in their mouths. That’s how aggressive they get, and walleyes won’t be the only things biting. We encounter muskies and large pike up shallow, too.”

In fact, cranks are likely to catch everything that swims from late summer through fall. “It’s a multi-species cornucopia,” Skarlis said. “Smallmouths, pike, white bass, crappies, largemouths, even bluegills will hit cranks this time of year. You’re always fighting something when you hunt for walleyes with cranks.”

walleye crankbait plug fishing casting pitching

Pitching cranks might be the fastest way to find shallow walleyes, but it can be the best way to keep catching them, too. After finding concentrations of fish you might need to follow up by pitching jigs tipped with bait or plastics. But once you start pitching cranks for walleyes, you might notice your live bait expenses dwindlng away to nothing.

- written by Matt Straw


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