Early spring is sort of the official kickoff of what might be called "Trap Time" everywhere in Florida, the time when lipless crankbaits become the go-to lure for most guides, pros and expert anglers anywhere spring comes a month early.
The trigger is the budding growth of hydrilla and other underwater weeds on many lakes. In summer the plants often grow in vast, solid mats all the way to the surface, making it impossible to fish with anything but a weedless-rig soft plastic — slow and tedious.
But winter causes these big mats to die back, and the dead vegetation then washes away with wind and waves. They never disappear in Florida lakes, but they're considerably reduced.
Though the weeds are decimated, the bass they harbored never go far away, and as soon as the first new shoots start out of the bottom in late winter and early spring, the fish are back in these locations. But now, the ideal lure for rapidly finding and catching the fish is a fast-moving lipless crankbait. It's quick, it's easy — and it's fun.
Lipless crankbaits are basically slabs of hard plastic, apparently originated by Bill Lewis in the 1960's — and the name of his invention, the Rat-L-Trap, has become almost generic for this type of lure though there are now dozens of imitations. (Lewis reportedly named the lure for the clattery old station wagon he used to drive the roads of the South delivering his lures to tackle dealers.)
When the lure is cranked steadily, the flattened head causes it to vibrate rapidly. Rattles inside the lure set up a racket that can actually be heard above the surface as well as below. Fish apparently are attracted by both the sight and sound; the lures have caught millions of bass over the last 40 years.
Rat-L-Traps are available in seven sizes from 1/8-ounce to 3.5 ounces — the 1/4- to 3/4-ounce versions are preferred for bass fishing. Chrome colors are always good choices, but many anglers also do well with lures finished in various shades of red at some lakes. Wes Higgins, company president, tells me a new color, "Cali-Craw" may be the secret weapon this spring — it's got the reddish hues laid over a chrome base, giving both flash and that attractive "wounded crawfish" color.
The great thing about lipless crankers is that they are truly no-brainer lures; throw them out on points and creek bends, reel them back fast enough to feel the vibration and you'll catch fish, especially if fished around shad schools or breaking bass. (If you need to get deeper, choose the larger, heavier models — the retrieve speed can be maintained while the lure stays deep due to the extra weight.) The compact shape and high density make it possible to throw them great distances, reaching way out to schoolers you see at the surface.
But there are ways to make them even more effective.
One is "ripping" the lure — allowing it to sink just enough to tick the sprouting weeds, then snatching it forward hard enough to shake the weeds from the hooks each time you feel a snag, then letting it fall again. The dart and flash of the lures often triggers strikes from fish that could pass up a steady retrieve, with the strikes typically coming on the fall or just after you start cranking again. Bumping stumps, rocks and logs is similarly effective. Crank until you hit something, hesitate just a second, then crank some more — often the strike comes just after the movement starts again.
And because of the shape of the lures, they are good for "skipping" under low-hanging docks. The lower and wider the dock the better, and the farther underneath you can scoot them, the more often you'll get bit.
Most anglers use a 6:1 or faster reel to work trap-style baits; slower ratios make it too tough to keep up the speed that works best. Mono or fluoro lines testing 15 to 20 pounds are favored. They give a bit of stretch on the fight, and for these easily-tossed lures, that can help in getting fish to the boat. Braid, which works great in some applications, is not what you want for lipless crankbaits — it pulls the hooks frequently.
Rods with fairly soft tips are favored for the same reason — "fast" rods tend to pull the hooks on these lures too often. Some guys even use compound rods, with soft fiberglass tips to keep fish from coming unbuttoned.
In addition to Bill Lewis, Cordell, Koppers, Livingston, Lucky Craft, Rapala, Sebile, Strike King, X-Caliber, Yo-Zuri and many other companies make lipless crankers that might be just the ticket on your home lake in the coming weeks.