Jerkbaits have come a long way since they were invented, and they are still a great way to bring bass to the boat or bank.
In 1936, Lauri Rapala, a 31-year-old part-time lumberjack and full-time commercial fisherman in Finland, made two profound observations. While tending his lines, he noticed that big fish eat smaller fish and most fish wobble slightly when they swim, especially when injured. He also observed that predators would often dart into minnow schools and single out the ones struggling most to escape.
With that knowledge, Rapala carved, filed and sanded cork chunks into various shapes to create a wobbling lure that mimicked wounded baitfish. When Rapala finally came up with a design he liked, he wrapped his creation in tinfoil and coated the body with melted photographic negatives to seal it.
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With a black back, gold sides and white belly, the long, slender lure resembled a minnow. After Lauri and his sons began catching more fish with the new lure, other fishermen begged Rapala to carve similar lures for them.
By 1959, the Rapala Original Floater hit the United States, but sales really skyrocketed three years later when an article in “Life” magazine proclaimed Rapala’s creation “A Lure Fish Can’t Pass Up.”
Growing up on the Gulf Coast, I often fished in tidal lagoons less than 3 feet deep. Grass matted the surface in many places, but stopped below it elsewhere.
Frequently, I caught more than 100 bass in a day, throwing only one lure: a three-treble-hook black and gold Rapala Original Floater, relatively unchanged for decades except switching from cork bodies to balsawood. Besides bass, I sometimes caught redfish, speckled trout and even an occasional flounder in those same marshes.
Back then, I didn’t even know to call it a “jerkbait,” a term that describes any long, slender minnow-like diving lure with a small lip that makes the bait dive under the water when an angler jerks the rod.
Typically, I tossed these highly buoyant baits near a reedy shoreline or grassy patch and let it sit on the surface until the ripples faded. Then, I jerked the rod, causing the lure to dive a foot or two with an erratic side-to-side action. When it floated back to the surface, I let it sit for a few more seconds before jerking the rod again.
Sometimes, I’d pop the rod hard enough to make the lure gurgle the surface. I could also wake it just below the surface or run it 2 or 3 feet deep, keeping it just above the submerged vegetation. Sometimes, I’d reel the lure steadily for a while and then pause to let it float to the surface. Then, I’d jerk it down to the depth I wanted to fish and continue the retrieve for several more feet. As it wobbled through the water, the lure gave off significant vibrations. Habitually, bass followed it and hit the lure right at the boat with vengeance.
“I love to fish jerkbaits,” commented Randy Howell, former Bassmaster Classic champion. “They’re extremely versatile lures that can be fished in many different situations, particularly in water up to about 6 feet deep. I use them in the fall when the water starts to cool and fish start chasing baitfish, but they are effective all year long.”
Today, jerkbaits come in various configurations. Anglers can choose wooden or plastic models. Some float and some suspend or slowly sink, but the short lip always provides an erratic side-to side motion.
Floating jerkbaits usually dive about 1 to 3 feet deep. They work very well around shallow cover, such as weedy shorelines or submerged grasses growing to within a foot or two of the surface. They also work well around shallow, stumpy flats, flooded timber and similar cover near the surface. These baits fill a niche between topwater baits and deep-diving crankbaits.
“Although it has a lip, a floating jerkbait is actually a lot more like a topwater bait than a crankbait,” explained John Crews, professional bass angler. “A crankbait is more for fishing a steadier retrieve that makes contact with the bottom or hard cover. Jerkbaits are more for fishing higher in the water column so fish come up to eat them. Twitch them over bass beds.”
Slowly sinking or suspending jerkbaits look almost identical to floating models, but weigh a bit more. These baits often come with rattles for added enticement.
Some even enhance casting because metal pellets inside the bait move and transfer weight forward to make a bait sail much farther.
“Fishing a suspended jerkbait is totally different than fishing a floating jerkbait,” Howell advised. “A suspending jerkbait is a little heavier and people can throw it farther. When the angler stops the retrieve, it just hovers in the strike zone, giving fish a chance to eat it. When it’s moving, fish often trail it. When it stops in their face, they eat it reactively.”
Since these lures can cover long tracts of water, jerkbaits make excellent search baits.
For targeting schoolies, rip a suspending jerkbait through the baitfish school, making great flash and commotion. Then, pause so the bait hovers as if staring bass in the face and daring them to strike.
“Jerkbaits cause reaction strikes,” Crews said. “Programmed to eat the easiest prey, bass key on any injured or erratic baitfish. A jerkbait darting every which way gets bass fired up. It’s much easier for bass to catch and swallow a long skinny fish, which is what a jerkbait resembles, than a shorter, stubbier fish like a sunfish.”
Suspending jerkbaits can work in slightly deeper water than floating baits. Toss a suspending jerkbait to a good area and let it sink to the desired depth. Anglers can estimate the sink rate of a lure by counting down one second for each foot of depth.
Anglers can also make jerkbaits sink faster by giving the rod several vigorous jerks to make it dive deeper. At the desired depth, jerk it so it darts and dashes. Then pause. Bass often strike as the bait sits motionless.
“Jerkbaits are very good for targeting non-active fish and provoking a reaction strike in the middle of the day,” Howell explained. “To get really good with a jerkbait, fish it with a pop, pop, stop — pop, pop, stop cadence. Pause a couple seconds between the fall and the start back. Most often, bass hit on the pause. When the angler goes to jerk it again, the fish is on the line.”
For fishing suspending jerkbaits, use a 7-foot medium-light to medium rod with a soft tip. Use 12-pound test fluorocarbon line. Fluorocarbon sinks faster than monofilament and virtually disappears in the water.
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Jerkbaits also work great for tempting smallmouth and spotted bass. When fishing for smallies, look for more rocky conditions and current. Smallmouth bass like chunk rocks and boulders with access to deeper water. Smallies also suspend more than largemouth and may run up from 25 feet deep to hit a jerkbait near the surface.
“I’ve had some good luck fishing for smallmouths with jerkbaits,” Crews remarked. “Smallmouth tend to stay more on vertical banks in creeks or the main river channels. I work a jerkbait the same for smallmouth as I do for largemouth, but I might add a bit of chartreuse into the color selection.”
Spotted bass frequently act more like smallmouths than largemouths and typically prefer cooler streams, deeper water and more current. Spots stay around main channel points, ledge edges with rock or woody debris, rocky shorelines, sandbars, riprap and similar places. Even in deep water, a hungry spotted bass might rise to attack a suspending or slow-sinking jerkbait worked vigorously above its head.
Both floaters and sinkers resemble baitfish and work best whenever bass feed upon shad or similar baitfish. Try to mimic what bass want to eat that day. When bass prey upon shad, use silver or silver and blue, gray, white with a black back or similar color combinations.
Simple to use, effective, jerkbaits remain on the market after decades because they continue to catch fish. While they might not catch fish in all situations, they frequently put fish in the boat quickly under the right conditions.