April 29, 2020
By Matt Straw
Toss it out, pull it down to running depth, set the rod down, and eat a sandwich. That might be oversimplifying the process of fishing a suspending jerkbait, but not by much.
Suspending baits and long pauses are the keys to the treasury for every species of bass in spring.
Kevin VanDam, Jeff Kriet, Mike McClelland, Tony Roach and a host of other pros and guides have invited me on board to experience jerkbait fishing for bass their way. OK, I’m a name dropper. Point is, I’ve experienced many methods using many tools. McClelland showed me how effective his signature SPRO McStick is for spotted bass. Roach shared his smallmouth secrets with Rapala X-Raps. VanDam helped design the Strike King KVD Suspending Jerkbait 300 and demonstrated the most frenetic, aggressive approach I’ve ever seen.
A fast, erratic approach works really well for bass in warm water. But in early spring, the most effective approach is slow to the point of tedium. Doug Stange, editor in chief of In-Fisherman Magazine, calls it element P6—the Painfully Protracted to the Point of Pathetic Pyzer Pause, after former Ontario fisheries manager Gordon Pyzer.
“I think, in cold water, the Painfully Protracted Pause is the rule,” Pyzer says.
Prior to the spawn, which tends to take place in water temperatures of 58 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit for all species of bass, jerkbaits are among the most effective lures to deploy for largemouths, smallmouths and spots. Some days, nothing works better. It all depends on weather and attitude.
MINING ELEMENT P6
It was great fun, every spring, pretending to fish for walleyes on the opener in a lake that has maybe three walleyes in it, drawing no attention from Minnesota’s rabid walleye crowd, because the bass opener occurred weeks later. Now, it’s less fun because the state opened bass season—in some areas catch-and-release only—on the same day as the walleye opener. But year in and year out, suspending baits rule on that day.
Typically, when weather is stable or warming, largemouth bass will be in about eight feet of water, cruising around two to five feet off the bottom. They might also be in 12 feet or maybe four feet—but bass are up and hunting. The weeds won’t be up yet, and the best suspending baits at this point are not the erratic, wild, wide-swinging versions that get so much hype. Rapala Husky Jerks and Smithwick Rogues tend to resist big right-left swings when snapped. The action is subtle—precisely what appeals to bass in cold water, when minnows progress from point A to point B and nothing seems to move.
The technique depends on a 7-foot-long medium-light rod, 10-pound braided line and an 8- to 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. Light, coated braids—like Berkley FireLine—are thin, low stretch and extremely sensitive, providing long casts and powerful hooksets at distance. If big pike are around, use 20-pound fluoro leaders to prevent bite-offs. A 4- to 9-foot (depending on water clarity) Seaguar or Raven Invisible fluorocarbon leader, tied to the braid with back-to-back uni knots, is essential for both stealth and the “keel effect” provided by a line so dense that it sinks.
Real suspense is important. The lure shouldn’t rise or sink on the pause. It has to sit still long enough for warm-water creatures like bass to slowly stalk and finally nip in cold water. Watch the lure boatside to see if it rises or sinks after being pulled down. If it rises, add a Storm SuspenDot to the belly right behind the middle hook anchor. Make certain it’s centered on the belly. If it continues to rise, add another behind that one, and so on, until it suspends. Or replace the trebles with larger ones.
In water colder than 50 degrees, the right technique is slow and deliberate. I call it “trilling.” Pull a Rogue or Husky Jerk down to running depth and pause for 30 seconds or more. Then use the rod, not the reel, to slowly pull the bait forward, just fast enough to feel the slightest wobble. Pause again. Let it sit until you can’t stand it anymore and then give the lure one little twitch. Start with a small amount of slack line and simply tighten it with a six-inch pop of the rod tip. Practice at boatside. The lure should barely shudder.
Strikes feel like little taps, if anything. Braid floats and acts as a strike indicator. If it twangs or straightens, set the hook. In 1998, my partner Tim Dawidiuk and I won the Sturgeon Bay Open in Wisconsin with jerkbaits. The tournament is held mid-May every year. The predominant season on the northern Great Lakes at that point is pre-spawn. We placed high for 10 years after that, depending on Lucky Craft Pointer 100s much of the time. Every Pointer I’ve ever pulled out of a box suspends perfectly in every water temperature. It won’t rise or sink after minutes on pause, which is exactly what’s needed in cold water, when element P6 rules.
Smallmouths are extremely susceptible to P6 in spring. In fact, Pyzer developed the tactic while fishing for smallmouths.
“When the water is very cold (40 to 45 degrees), I use a dead-stick philosophy,” he says. “Draw the bait down to six or seven feet and pause it for up to 60 seconds. They always bite at the end of the pause. If not, I twitch it two or three times with the rod tip, moving the bait two to five inches each time. Then I pause it again, trying to imitate a dying or stressed gizzard shad.”
In my travels through the region, some smallmouths have shown a preference for smaller jerks, like the Pointer 78 or No. 8 Rapala X-Rap. In most places, a No. 10 X-Rap or Pointer 100 is right. It probably depends on the size of the predominant prey, but be prepared with different sizes for smallmouths and spots. Largemouths almost universally prefer larger No. 12 Husky Jerks, standard Rogues and Pointer 100s.
“The first opportunity I have for smallmouths in spring, I love throwing a jerkbait,” says famed Minnesota guide Tony Roach. “I’m really happy to pitch a hard bait after staring down a hole all winter. Early and late in the season, jerks are equally effective for smallmouths, walleyes and pike. Early on, pull it down to running depth and let it sit. Use the line as a strike indicator. Bass hit jerks during long pauses in spring. Size No. 10 Rapala X-Raps and size No. 11 Shadow Raps are my favorites. The X-Rap stays where it’s at during a long pause, but the Shadow Rap slowly sinks.
“If bass are deeper than eight feet, I use the Shadow Rap with long pauses” Roach continues. “Rip the rod tip downward to push it farther down, then follow with a long pause. You can throw it sideways on a slack-line snap, but I tend to fish too fast early. You can tell by how they follow. If a bass is barely behind the bait, slow down a little. If it’s six or seven feet back, you need a 30-second pause or longer.”
Find the warmest water in the right areas early and active bass will be there. Water temperatures surrounding a hot bite can be 40 degrees or even a bit colder—as long as the water is warming up. When water is cooling—no matter how slowly—bass exit the shallows and mid-depths for deeper water, where they tend to be inactive. The best areas tend to surround spawning habitat, so look for light breezes blowing into shore in those places to find the most active bass.
Beware, though. Everything eats suspending baits in spring, including muskies. Almost every spring tournament day at the weigh in, somebody has shots of a 50-inch-or-bigger muskie on their phone, taken with a jerkbait. On the outer tips of the bays on the Great Lakes, big brown trout and steelhead often rip Pointers. White bass, stripers, walleyes—some days you catch more of those than the bass you target.
This isn’t about covering a lot of water in a hurry. Slow down. Make long casts to the right spots. Embrace the painfully-protracted-to-the-point-of pathetic pause. Catch bass and enjoy all the bonus fish that invariably snap at a well-presented jerkbait.
THE RIGHT RODS FOR SPRINGTIME JERKBAITS
Distance casting results from tip speed, balance and spool size on the reel. Make the same casting motion with a 6-foot rod and a 7-foot rod, and the tip on the longer blank has to travel farther in the same amount of time, causing it to travel faster. Spinning gear casts farther than casting gear. A larger spool on the reel means fewer coils, less line slap and less friction overall. And the weight of the lure has to balance with the blank. Attach a lure to the end of the line and hold the rod out horizontally. If the blank doesn’t bend at all, it won’t snap forward at the end of the casting motion, adding distance. And if it bends too far, it deadens the cast with too much buggy-whip motion at the launching point. The tip should bend just slightly. The right suspending-bait rod needs to be sensitive, too. Bites are light. The movement of the bait needs to be subtle in spring, and being able to feel it just begin to wobble is critical. The right sticks for distance, feel and manipulation of the bait are fast, 7 to 7 1/2 feet long and medium-light in power, like the Elliott Rods ES76ML-F ($255; elliottfishingrods.com) and the St Croix Legend Elite ES70MLF ($410; stcroixrods.com). Both rods balance perfectly with the sizes of suspending baits used for bass in spring, catapulting casts way out there, setting hooks at distance and transmitting the lightest bites.
B.A.S.S. Elite Series angler Mike McClelland has long been an advocate of jerkbaits, particularly early in the season when water is cold and bass are sluggish. Some years back, McClelland partnered with SPRO to design the McStick 110, a roughly four-inch jerkbait built to suspend at lower water temperatures.
McClelland fishes the bait very slowly for pre-spawn fish. He starts with a long cast, then winds the bait to the desired depth, pauses, pulls a couple of times and then continues with a mix of twitches, pauses and pulls. Pauses can be up to 15 or 20 seconds. Hits often occur after the pause.
New for this season, the classic McStick 110 will be available in four new fish-enticing colors. These include PM Twilight, Ghost Magic Purple, McAyu and Nanko Reaction. It’s also available in a bunch of other great colors. ($14.93; spro.com)