Musky Hunter Catches Up With Bill Crane
By Steve Heiting, Managing Editor
West Virginia may be far removed from the musky-crazed Midwest, but when it comes to lure manufacturing, it’s at the forefront. Cranes, Cobbs, Amma Bammas and Hughes Rivers, among others, are handcrafted there, musky baits which have transcended their home state to become staples in tackle boxes everywhere.
To Bill Crane, it’s no surprise. “I figure people look at me and say that if Bill Crane can do it, then I can too,” he laughed.
Crane is considered one of the true gentlemen of musky fishing. Now 67 years old, he’s in good health and looking forward to another season. Though he was in the process of moving to a new home with a 40×95-foot manufacturing facility in its backyard, Crane took a break in January to talk with Musky Hunter and discuss his life, lure manufacturing, and the world of musky fishing.
Musky Hunter: Bill, tell us about the early years.
Crane: I caught my first musky in the fall of 1963. I thought I was musky fishing for a couple of years before that, but I didn’t catch any. I caught 14 in the fall of 1963. Musky fishing is so much better now than then. Back then, everybody kept their fish and those you caught were fairly small. It was fairly common to fish all year and not catch anything.
MHM: Where did you do most of your fishing?
Crane: I fished many of the streams around here (for years Bill has called Friendly, West Virginia, home). Streams like the Little Kanawha River, the North and South Fork of the Hughes River, Steer Creek and its tributaries, the Buckhannon River, Dunkard Creek, Mud River, Twelve Pole Creek, Elk River, and Middle Island Creek.
MHM: When did you start making musky baits?
Crane: I always tinkered with lures even before I got into musky fishing. I started in the middle 1960s by making jointed 5 1/2-inch Rebels. I’d cut them in half and make them jointed. Rebel eventually did that, but I did it before they did. I caught a 45-inch musky on a jointed Rebel. I just went from there, cutting lures and putting lips in them and weighting them.
In 1975 I started making lures from scratch, making them from wood and buying Lexan (for the lips). In 1976 I bought out J.C. Dicks who was a custom lure manufacturer who made wooden lures turned on a lathe and used various metal lips. His two most popular lures had a Cisco Kid-like lip. My wife Sharon and I decided to get our store license and got our Federal excise tax license, so in 1976 we officially got into business. Dicks made a couple of musky lures, a Hoss Wrangler and a Musky Special, and he bought his materials from Herter’s. Then we found out Herter’s wasn’t going to be making the lips anymore, so I started buying up all the lips I could and had about 8,000 lips and figured that would last us a long time, but they only lasted a couple of years. I couldn’t find anyone who could make the lips right so I eventually stopped making them. That’s when I started making all of my own lures.
MHM: Has lure-making ever been a full-time job for you?
Crane: I worked in the chemical industry for 40 years and have a degree in chemistry. I was a lab technician and did this on the side. Basically, I make most of the bodies but Sharon does the painting. I never painted a lure in my life. My brother-in-law Dave Ramsey helps out, but that’s it.
People always ask me how many I make in a year. I never did keep an accurate track of it, but I would answer that I thought we turned out 6,000 to 8,000. Then one year I kept track of it and we made 7,844.
MHM: How many lure models and colors do you offer?
Crane: It’s just about out of hand. We’re making 17 models in 14 colors, and Sharon’s just starting to get into holoform colors.
MHM: Besides your minnowbaits that you’re best known for, what other lures are you producing now?
Crane: We always had our stickbaits and now we’re making them jointed, too. We recently started making jerkbaits out of polyurethane foam. Back in the 1970s I made some lures out of foam and played around with that stuff but I got to learn more about woodworking at that time and I could turn out more lures out of balsawood and kind of forgot about the foam. Now you can get that in sheets, the lures work good and hold up good.
MHM: Which is lure is your favorite?
Crane: It comes and goes. The 206 has probably been the best seller and has caught some big fish. Bob LaMay caught a line class world record on one (a 50-pounder on 6-pound test line from High Falls Flowage, Wisconsin, in 1983). When I met him he had that fish mounted in a glass box and he had the 206 coming out of its mouth. I thought that was the neatest thing.
MHM: How widespread is your distribution?
Crane: We sell lures to distributors in Ontario and Germany, and they’re in all the musky states.
MHM: You’re coming up on 30 years of lure manufacturing. What keeps you going?
Crane: It just seems like there is always something new to make. It gets to be work sometimes. For each model, I’ll make thousands of them at a time. I have literally sat there for seven to 12 hours at a day doing thousands of plugs. I wouldn’t recommend that to anybody because it gets to be work. But the fun part about it is coming up with something different, like the jerkbaits last year. They’re kind of unique. And those shallow-running jointed crankbaits that you can fish over the top of the weeds.
MHM: Why do you think your lures have become so popular?
Crane: I think a lot of it is what everyone is calling twitching. The only way you can make a good twitchbait is to make the body out of something light, then weight it and get the weight concentrated in a certain area. And then you have to have the right lip at the right angle. Most of the lures today are heavy plastic, but they just won’t do it. You can’t get a fast enough wiggle out of them.
This sank into me one time when I was in physics class in college. They put me on a piano stool with a barbell in each hand, and then they got me spinning and told me to try to pull the barbells in toward me. Well, it just about pulled me apart. But when I pulled those barbells in the speed picked up. In a fishing lure, if you have the weight on the outside, it’s going to have a slow wobble. The way most of the Crane baits are made, out of balsa wood, to make the lure the right way I concentrate the weight in the right place with lead. If you do that, they have a fast wiggle. You give it a little twitch and it sure has a fast wiggle.
People catch fish on them, but they enjoy fishing with the lure. It’s fun to twitch a lure and see what it does.
MHM: Any new lures in the works?
Crane: We’re planning to make some bigger lures for trolling. They’ll probably be out next year if everything works on them.
MHM: Why are there so many popular lures to come out of West Virginia?
Crane: I think part of it is we’re just that kind of people. We live in a rural area and sometimes we just have to cobble up stuff. Bill Looney, who makes the Amma Bamma, is my first cousin.
I’ve helped out a lot of people. In fact a boy was here just the other day and said he was going to start making jerkbaits and I was telling him what I know about it.
MHM: Do you find much opportunity to go musky fishing?
Crane: I don’t get to go as much as I’d like. Something always seems to come up. I go down to Cave Run and usually make a trip or two to Green River. I still like to fish the streams around here and make float trips with just an electric motor to kind of guide through the riffles and maneuver the boat while you’re fishing. There’s nothing like that ” get in a good stream and there’s a lot of wildlife that doesn’t pay much attention to you in a boat.
MHM: What’s your biggest musky?
Crane: Fifty-one inches out of Eagle Lake, Ontario, caught on a Tally Wacker. It was late in the evening and I was kind of wore out. That Tally Wacker is an amazing lure. You can cast it a mile and don’t have to worry about it getting hung on anything.
It would have been exciting even if it was a 39-incher. I thought, boy that lure is making a funny wave behind it and it just kept getting bigger. It finally sunk into me what was going on. When that fish finally grabbed it, it was unbelievable.
MHM: How has musky fishing changed since you started?
Crane: Everywhere I go there are just more fish and bigger fish. Catch and release, boy, has that paid off. I could foresee that musky fishing would be better, there’d be more to catch and they’d be bigger. It has paid off way beyond my wildest dreams.
I guess I was one of the pioneers of releasing fish in this part of the country. I started about when Muskies, Inc. was formed. It was hard to get the release thing going. It sure was hard around here. If you caught a musky here, you kept it. The legal size was 26 inches and boy, a 26-inch musky is a lot more trouble than it’s worth by the time you got it ready for the table, but people didn’t think about that.
Jim Feaster, of Shinnston, West Virginia, was the first around here to release muskies. He and a group used to come down and fish Middle Island Creek every weekend. He’d like to release them but the other guys would make fun of him. So he’d tie the fish on an old stringer and then stop to get out of the boat, but when the other guys drifted out of sight he’d turn the fish loose. The other guys would get on him if he did that in front of them.
It was also hard to get started in musky fishing back in the 1960s because there was just a few musky fishermen around and they wouldn’t tell you anything. But now, especially in the Muskies Inc. chapters, that’s a big part of it ” the old timers telling the newcomers how to do things and where to go. It’s not near as hard to get started as it used to be.
MHM: Bill, thank you for your time.
Steve Heiting is Managing Editor of Musky Hunter Magazine.
Here is how it all shook out!
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