Jerkbait fishing has its niche as a springtime tool for putting big limits in the boat, but a jerkbait is more versatile than that. It can be a year-round bait that works in certain situations, if an angler understands how to use it effectively.
For advice, we turned to a professional angler who’s admittedly addicted to jerkbait fishing: Matthew Stefan. The two-time Forrest Wood Cup qualifier says that throwing a jerkbait is his favorite technique, and he uses them all season on the FLW Tour.
Prime times – On the FLW Tour and Costa FLW Series, jerkbaits are used to log top-10 finishes in early spring more often than in any other season. Outside of that time, a jerkbait tends to be more of a situational bait.
“I think prespawn and late fall are probably the two best times to use it, if you’re in clear, cold water,” Stefan adds. “But it’s a bait you can use throughout the year for sure. One of the other times I always have one rigged up is in summer tournaments at places like Kentucky Lake and at the last couple of Forrest Wood Cups. When schooling fish come up, I fire a jerkbait at them.
“But it’s really best any time the water temperature is 60 degrees or less, and in that case I’m probably throwing a jerkbait 50 percent of the time or more,” he continues. “It’s a great search bait, and it’s a great all-species bait. Smallmouths, largemouths and spotted bass all eat a jerkbait.”
Prespawn – Traditional prespawn areas such as channel-swing banks, points, drops in the mouths of creeks, humps and similar types of transitional structure are perfect jerkbait target areas, especially if bass are suspended off bottom around baitfish.
Postspawn and summer – As Stefan mentioned, any schooling situation is also prime. If bass are chasing bait in open water but won’t bust the surface, the jerkbait is a good alternative.
Otherwise, more narrow windows of opportunity do exist. On clear–water fisheries, a jerkbait thrown around docks in summer can draw out bites. It can come into play in the postspawn, especially during the shad spawn. Northern smallmouths are notorious for thrashing a jerkbait fished at a rapid pace across a sandy flat or rocky structure, and Northern largemouths might come up out of weeds to eat a jerkbait fished overhead. Finally, anytime baitfish are congregated on windy points or other structure on a clear lake, a possible jerkbait window opens up.
Fall – In the fall, when fish chase schools of baitfish into creeks, the jerkbait shines again as they dial in on the baitfish profile.
Water clarity – Critical to success in any situation is water color. A jerkbait is a “sight bait,” meaning that fish locate it as much with their eyes as with their lateral lines.
“I’ve heard people say that 2 feet of visibility is too dirty to fish a jerkbait. I don’t think it is,” says Stefan. “Ideally, though, I like to have water clarity that’s at least 3 feet or more. When you run into 3 feet or less of visibility, the fish become more bottom-oriented, and I don’t feel like they’re going to come out of deep water to bite a bait they can’t see. I would also say the dirtier the water, the shallower I fish. That’s a big reason I don’t fish the jerkbait in dirty water too.”
Diving depth – Choosing the proper diving depth depends on the depth of the fish and how they’re set up.
“If they’re bottom-oriented, I feel like I need to get down into their strike zone,” Stefan says. “For the most part, I like to be in the bottom half of the water column. If I’m fishing 20 feet of water, I like to be close to that 10-foot range.
“When they’re suspended, you don’t want to get under them. You want to get right at their level or above them.”
Colors – Every pro has his rule of thumb regarding jerkbait color selection, but most have similar opinions. Stefan’s rule is to start with solid, opaque colors in stained water and translucent finishes in clear water.
“From there, my choice is based on the type of forage,” he adds. “If it’s down south where there’s a shad population, then I’m going with shad-type colors with blue or black tops and a little chartreuse. If I’m fishing up north or in Upstate New York where there’s a really good perch population, I’m usually throwing a perch-colored bait. Firetiger is decent, especially on smallies, but I usually prefer the more naturel greenish hues with orange in the belly.”
Like most things in fishing, don’t get too locked in on a “rule” regarding color. Be willing to experiment, especially when the water clarity or the brightness of the sky changes.
“There definitely is some trial and error,” Stefan says. “I’ve had some pretty crazy days jerkbait fishing, like the first time I was at Beaver Lake. I had four or five jerkbaits tied up, and I could only get bit on one color. [In practice] I’d catch one on it, but I was still rotating through colors, and I could not get bit again until I rotated back to that bait. I couldn’t tell you for sure why. Every time I’ve been back it hasn’t been the same.”
A final consideration is the predominant bass species being targeted. If it’s smallmouths or spotted bass, brighter colors sometimes are more appealing to the fish. Try a jerkbait with some chartreuse or blaze orange on the belly, or add some with a dye pen.
Length and profile – Some anglers greatly prefer to fish jerkbaits with three treble hooks, versus baits with two hooks. They believe the extra treble helps improve hook-up ratios and thus prefer longer baits that have enough size to accommodate the extra hook.
Stefan likes jerkbaits in the neighborhood of about 4 1/2 inches for most “standard” jerkbait situations, but he’ll go with smaller baits sometimes around the spawn, or at times when bass are shallow and unaggressive. It’s also important to match the hatch when the forage is especially large or small.
For instance, in the North, Stefan sometimes throws jerkbaits that are less than 3 inches long, such as the Yo-Zuri Pin Minnow or No. 6 Rapala Husky Jerk, when smallmouths are foraging on tiny young-of-the-year baitfish.
Finally, size isn’t limited to length. Profile and girth – the bait’s “shoulders” – are important too. Stefan suggests bulkier jerkbaits in off-colored water and more slender jerkbaits in clear water.
Action – Some jerkbaits are designed to be highly erratic, and others to be very subtle. They have varying degrees of built-in wobble or darting action, at least according to the manufacturers.
Stefan doesn’t put much stock in matching an advertised action with a situation. He likes jerkbaits with smaller lips that allow him to decide how aggressive the action should be.
“It [the small lip] lets me impart more darting action with the snapping of the rod because there’s less resistance,” he says.
Buoyancy – Most jerkbaits are designed to suspend when at rest, though various factors can cause a suspending jerkbait to float or sink. If a bait isn’t suspending just right, adding lead wire to a hook or swapping hook sizes can bring it back in tune.
Jerkbaits that float slowly or sink slowly when paused have occasional uses. For instance, a slow-floating jerkbait can “back out” of weeds if it snags. You might try experimenting with them.
Stefan uses a floater in only one situation.
“The only time I want a floater is when I’m in shallow water and bumping bottom a little,” he says. “I use the Megabass Vision 110 High Floater. It’s really a slow-rising bait, but it still pretty much dives to the same level [as the standard 110]. I like it when fishing for smallmouths on shallow sand flats. A lot of times if there are scattered rocks, when I hit one I want the bait to come up over the rock, not suspend next to it. Not to mention, if there are zebra mussels around, if I’m hitting the bottom I’ll use the High Floater so I can let it come up out of the mussels.”
Cadence – What is the “right” action for a jerkbait is very situational, but very important for success. There again, most pros operate by a rule of thumb and start with a cadence that matches the conditions.
“I really start out mixing it up quite a bit until I find a cadence that seems to be drawing more strikes,” says Stefan. “I would say a rule of thumb is the colder the water the slower I move it, the less I snap the rod and the longer I pause it. But there have definitely been times when I’ve felt like if I imparted more action and imparted it faster I might draw some more reaction strikes in cold water.”
Actions range from a slow pull or sweep with pauses up to a minute long in winter to the nonstop jerking – without pauses – that Northern anglers often use to call up smallmouths in summertime.
Working the bait – “On my normal cast, I usually try to throw it as far as I can unless I’m trying to fish a specific target or the bank,” adds Stefan. “When it lands, I’ll probably crank the handle really fast five or six times while snapping at the same time, just to get it down deep quickly. Then I go into my cadence.”
To work the bait, allow a little bit of slack in the line between the rod tip and water. Stefan calls it “controlled slack” – enough that the bait is “free” to suspend, but not enough that he can’t feel a fish bite.
Jerk the bait by snapping the rod tip. The goal isn’t to pull the bait forward. Rather, snap the slack to make the bait dart one way or the other. Take up slack as the bait approaches the boat.
Stefan’s equipment preference – Stefan might be in the minority on the issue of jerkbait tackle, though he’s certainly not alone. He prefers to fish a jerkbait with spinning tackle, and you should hear him out about why.
His go-to rod for nearly every situation and any part of the country is a 6-foot, 6-inch, medium-light St. Croix Premier spinning model.
“I truly believe that this is the best jerkbait rod that I’ve ever used, and I’ve tried a lot,” he says. “I actually like a shorter rod because I’m not moving the bait as much with my snaps. That’s why I like the 6-6.
“The rod has significant bend to it. It’s not a super-fast-tapering rod. It really loads up when I cast, so it almost acts like a sling-shot so I can cast a lot farther. And when a fish bites and you set the hook you’re not ripping the hooks out. It’s the same theory as a crankbait rod.”
“A lot of people laugh that I use 6-pound test, but it allows me to get the bait deeper and get a lot more bites in clear water,” he adds. “For the most part, if you’re fishing relatively open water, as long as you play the fish out it’s OK with light line.
“With today’s hooks and the hooks that come on the majority of baits, they’re so laser sharp that it’s almost not a bad thing to have the fish out there swimming around with it. If you’re fighting them, you’ll actually hook them with one of the other hooks and can get a better hookup. I lose very few fish with a jerkbait and feel very confident that I’m going to get them into the boat.”
Another perspective on equipment – Across the board, the most popular jerkbait rods are baitcasting models that range from about 6 feet, 8 inches to 7 feet, 2 inches long, with medium- to medium-heavy blanks and anywhere from a moderate to fast taper.
Western stick Cody Meyer says his favorite is a 7-foot, medium-power Daiwa Tatula.
“Most guys prefer a shorter rod so they don’t hit the water while working the bait,” he adds. “I love a medium rod, and it’s good to have one that’s pretty parabolic so if a fish eats the bait right at the boat you’re not going to pull the hooks out.”
He says he will occasionally opt for a spinning rod – though it’s rare – to throw very small jerkbaits or if he downsizes all the way to 6-pound test in crystal clear water.
“You can pick up a lot of line quickly if needed or to make another cast,” Meyer says about his choice to use the high-speed reel. “Since you’re not working the bait with the reel, gear ratio doesn’t matter as much [for the presentation], and having a little more speed is always good.”
If you’re not fishing a premium bait, you can often improve your hookups by swapping the shoddy trebles for premium trebles. Or if bass are swiping at the bait but not hooking up, it’s possible your hook points are dull. Replace them. If that doesn’t help, consider swapping for one size larger hook. Don’t go too large, or you could change the bait’s action or cause it to sink.
The X-Rap comes with a feather treble on the tail that Stefan says often makes a difference in getting fish to commit, especially smallmouths. But he cautions anglers to be careful if they hang a feathered treble on other baits. If it’s not designed for the feather, the extra load on the tail could act like an anchor and create enough drag to harm the slashing action.
Learning to fish a jerkbait is an essential step in becoming a better bass fisherman, especially on clear-water fisheries during the prespawn season. In fact, prior to the umbrella-rig craze, jerkbaits accounted for many of the largest limits of the tournament season in the months of February through April.
“For me it’s a very addicting bite,” Stefan says. “It’s almost like a bobber bite, especially when you fish it with a really long pause. You throw it out there and wait and anticipate the bite. Then you feel that tap.”