May 18, 2023
By Jeff Knapp
The sun’s rays, unfiltered in the cloudless sky, penetrated the calm surface of the reservoir. With eager anticipation, I watched the progression of the suspended hard jerkbait as I worked it over the rocky ledge that paralleled the bank.
Jerk, pause, jerk, pause. The lure made its way over the ledge. In spite of a desire to trigger a bass into striking, I suppressed the urge to work the lure too fast. Experience had taught me that long pauses are more effective than short ones, particularly for larger fish. You learn how long five seconds can be.
At first, I had a feeling that something was different—an unnatural shadow lurked below the lure. Then the shadow took the unmistakable shape of a smallmouth bass. The presence of the jerkbait hovering nearly motionless in front of it became too much. The fish rose the necessary few inches and T-boned it.
Like tools in a mechanic’s tool chest, different families of lures have specific times and places where they function best. Jerkbaits—both suspending hard jerkbaits and soft, "fluke-style" jerkbaits—excel at triggering bass from early spring through the pre-spawn period.
Suspending hard jerkbaits are minnow-shaped baits that, after being cranked down to their diving depth, suspend at that level, neither sinking nor rising appreciably. Examples include Rapala’s classic Husky Jerk and X-Rap, as well as relative newcomer RipStop; Megabass’s Vision; and Lucky Craft’s Pointer.
As their name suggests, soft jerkbaits are soft-plastic, minnow-shaped baits, typically 4 to 5 inches in length, and are often referred to as "flukes," a moniker derived from Zoom’s classic Fluke and Super Fluke. Most soft-plastic bait makers offer some version of a soft jerkbait, such as Yum’s Houdini Shad, Berkley’s Jerk Shad and Case Plastic’s Sinkin Salty Shad. In general, unweighted soft jerkbaits will slowly sink when paused, the ballast provided by the bait’s salt impregnation as well as the hook. Variations in rigging and retrieve take advantage of the fluke’s tantalizing “slow sink” characteristic.
HARD JERKBAIT TACTICS
There is some overlap in the times and places when both hard and soft jerkbaits are appropriate; however, certain situations favor one over the other. I find that hard jerkbaits are more effective than flukes during the early part of the season, when surface-water temperatures run from 40 up to around 55 degrees. There are two reasons for this. First, hard jerkbaits hover at a fairly consistent level, something that bass apparently find maddening at this time. Second, early-season bass are known to merely nip at the tail of a lure rather than going for the body. A hard bait’s tail hook will often catch these fish. With a fluke, which is commonly rigged with a single hook, these fish are often missed.
The foundation of the hard jerkbait’s success during the early season is in the retrieve, one that employs a jerk-pause cadence. The keyword when the water is cold is "slow." Subtle twitches with the rod tip activate the lure. These are followed by pauses to allow any nearby fish to eat it; nearly all the strikes will occur during the pause. It might seem like torture to pause a lure for 5 to 10 seconds, but that is often what it takes to get a fish to pull the trigger.
The twitch/pause is made with a 10- to 12-inch pull of the rod tip. The resulting slack is then recovered with the reel, but be careful to gather up only the slack. It’s best not to move the bait forward when doing so. It takes discipline to fish a horizontal bait this slowly. However, if you were working a finesse jig along the bottom (another top tactic at this time, by the way) you’d work the bait slowly and not consider it foreign. That’s the mindset you need when fishing the hard jerkbait.
One common early-spring setting for a hard jerkbait is a rocky, relatively shallow flat next to deeper water in a smallmouth river. Another is a gravel point that extends out from the mouth of a bay or cove on a lake or reservoir. Basically, you’re looking for a potential feeding flat or point in 3 to 6 feet of water near deeper water where bass might have wintered.
Conditions play a big part. Sunny days are often more productive jerkbait days than cloudy ones. Afternoons are better than mornings. The best scenarios are those in which the water is warming, inspiring bass to move shallow.
Since the retrieve is a slow one and not conducive to covering a lot of water, it’s often best to play the odds and keep the bait in the prime zone. For instance, if you’re holding the boat in deeper water and casting over a flat, consider winding the bait in for the next cast after it’s cleared the shallows. To keep the fish honest, occasionally fish the bait over open water in case there are fish suspended in the warm surface layer.
Four to 5-inch hard jerkbaits are the norm for early-season use. Experiment with color, as hot patterns such as clown can trigger bites, especially from smallmouths. Also, tailor lure choice to the depth being fished, as some models are suited for 2 to 4 feet of water, others slightly deeper.
SOFT JERKBAIT TACTICS
Fluke-style jerkbaits come into their own, in my experience, once that water reaches the mid-50-degree range—in other words, the pre-spawn period. The advantage flukes have over hard jerkbaits in this warmer water is their ability to be worked in a wide variety of depths. Plus, they can be fished over newly emerging weeds, which are common to bass-holding areas during the latter portions of the spring.
Regarding rigging, my first choice is unweighted. A 3/0 to 5/0 wide-gap worm hook mates well with a soft jerkbait in the 4 1/2- to 5-inch range, like a Zoom Super Fluke. A light-wire hook is best when fishing smallmouth water. A heavier wire hook is appropriate for largemouth water and/or around heavier weed cover. The heavier hook, however, is less kind to the thin nose of the fluke than the lighter one. Expect to replace baits more often as the thin tip of the bait wears out. Unlike Senko-style stick baits, which can still be effective after trimming a bit off the damaged nose, flukes don’t work properly after being pruned.
Soft jerkbaits commonly have a hook slot that accepts the worm-style hook. I rig up through the slot so the point portion of the hook rests along the unslotted top side of the bait. If it’s weedy, you can lightly hook the bait. Otherwise, it’s best to leave the point exposed.
Rigged this way you can adjust the rate of retrieve to the depth being fished. If it’s 2 feet deep, work the bait with light twitches followed by a short pause, being careful not to let the bait make contact with bottom. In deeper water, say 2 to 4 feet, lengthen the pause to allow the lure to sink farther.
As with the hard jerkbait, only reel in the slack line generated by the foot-long jerk. Otherwise, you’ll scoot the bait back to the surface. If your lure consistently comes to the top, chances are you’re not maintaining the necessary amount of slack line.
The strike will occur on the pause. You might feel it, see a line twitch or detect weight when you attempt the next jerk. Whatever the case, wind in the slack before setting the hook. Sometimes, bass swim toward the boat when they strike the lure; keep reeling and setting when you find this to be the case.
Flukes work well in tight corners, such as shoreline pockets where bass stage prior to the spawn—places where hard jerkbaits commonly snag or foul with bottom debris.
Unweighted flukes excel under fairly calm conditions. When the wind picks up, keep your rod tip close to the surface to minimize the amount of exposed line. If necessary, use a worm hook with a light belly weight—around 1/16 ounce—to counteract the wind. The bait won’t flutter down as naturally, but this is a necessary compromise when stronger wind eliminates the possibility of using an unweighted presentation.
Hard and soft jerkbaits are effective springtime offerings, and worthy of a place on the deck of all those targeting smallmouths and largemouths now.
Rod-and-reel combos for jerkbaits
- Hard Jerkbaits: I prefer throwing hard jerkbaits on a baitcaster, more specifically a medium-power, fast-action rod such as St. Croix’s 6-foot-8-inch Mojo Bass (MJC68MF). The rod is coupled with an Abu Garcia Revo casting reel spooled with 10-pound-test Gamma Edge Fluorocarbon line. This outfit is appropriate for the 4- to 5-inch suspending hard jerkbaits that are effective during the early spring. As described earlier, working a hard jerkbait in cold water is a slack-line technique. Fluorocarbon line is superior in transmitting strikes when the line is less than taut. And fluorocarbon line sinks, which I feel is a plus in this situation.
- Soft Jerkbaits: While I’ll concede that baitcasters work fine for soft jerkbaits, I opt for a spinning combo. Soft jerkbaits can be worked on a variety of retrieves—a level of versatility I find easier to achieve with a spinning rod in my hand. My choice is a 6-foot-8-inch, medium-power, extra-fast rod, specifically the St. Croix MJS68MXF. This is mated to a 2000-size Revo X spinning reel. The reel is loaded with 15-pound-test Sufix 832 braid in a high-visibility color. Since the line floats, it acts as a strike indicator, which is why I opt for the more visible line. A 3- to 4-foot section of Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line serves as a leader and is joined to the braid with an Albright knot.