February 12, 2024
There's an old adage that goes, "Fishing is a jerk on one end of the line, waiting on a jerk at the other end." The wisecrack doesn't consider the possibility of a third "jerk" in the equation that can be a critical tool for early-spring success: the suspending jerkbait.
As the water starts to warm ever so slightly during the pre-spawn, the jerkbait possesses the sudden and erratic movement that draws bass from considerable distances as they feed prior to the spawn. Properly employing a jerkbait can lead to that special "jerk" at the end of your line imparted by a pre-spawn female bass.
Jerkbait design has come a long way in the past 20 years. In the past two decades, lure makers started doing what savvy anglers had been doing for years before: adding weight to the lure to make it suspend perfectly in the water column when paused. What once took considerable trial and error to achieve by drilling out lure bodies, adding lead weights or wrapping lead wire around the front treble, now comes ready to go right out of the package.
Additional enhancements to jerkbait designs, such as internal weight transfer systems, corrected the proverbial "potato chip in the wind" issue when casting the lightweight jerkbaits of yesteryear.
Suspending jerkbaits are offered in multiple running depths, with the standard, short-bill designs reaching 4 to 5 feet, while the "deep divers" can attain depths of 8 to 12 feet on a long cast with lighter line. Lure makers are now introducing jerkbaits in sinking models, which are well-suited for reaching fish at any depth range—particularly useful when viewing bass on forward-facing sonar.
WHEN TO JERK
Offshore bass separate into two groups during the winter and pre-spawn months: those that forage along the bottom near structure breaks and those that suspend over deep water as they chase big schools of shad in open water, often within 10 to 15 feet of the surface. The latter group is the target with a jerkbait.
One indicator of when to reach for the jerkbait is water clarity, as the lure's muted action and quiet nature require a good line of sight for the bass to consistently track it down. If the water is heavily stained, bass are less prone to chase down a meal in open water. Therefore, water clarity of at least 24 inches would be ideal. The jerkbait, however, is one of the few lures whose effectiveness continues to increase with improved water clarity, as the lure will draw bass from several feet below to attack the bait in extremely clear water.
The suspending jerkbait plays well as winter transitions to the pre-spawn months due to its adaptability to match the retrieve cadence to the water temperature, with colder water temps in the 40s often mandating softer, shorter twitches and longer pauses to entice the bass to eat. Though some jerkbait enthusiasts advocate leaving the lure paused for up to 30 seconds between twitches in extreme cold, it's not mandatory. Should a hard winter and water temps in the 40s linger into February, consider maintaining a slower cadence with pauses of 5 to 6 seconds between short downward movements of the rod tip.
As the water begins its warming trend, the retrieve cadence can be quickened to match the bass' increasing metabolism. With water temps reaching the mid-50s, more aggressive rod movements imparting the classic twitch-twitch-pause routine have been catching bass for decades.
One of the biggest advancements in understanding how to entice bass with a jerkbait presentation has come from the use of live, forward-facing sonar. This technology offers improvements in efficiency by allowing precise lure presentations to a specific group of fish ahead of the boat, and also reveals the type of jerkbait retrieve the bass are (or are not) responding to. The immediate real-time feedback gained from experimenting with various retrieves and cadences to gauge the bass' response is a huge shortcut to understanding how to trigger the bite. Live sonar has also revealed that bass in open water often feed "up," meaning they will chase a jerkbait presented a few feet above them, but seldom one that runs well below them.
In the absence of forward sonar, fan casting an area remains an effective technique for finding bass, with a willingness to search out multiple locations with a "stick and move" approach. Give yourself 10 to 15 minutes to thoroughly work across an area before moving to the next stop.
It is imperative that any retrieve cadence with a jerkbait is imparted with the rod tip and not the reel, as each downward movement of the rod tip initiating the "twitch" needs to immediately recoil back toward the lure. This recoiling motion provides enough slack back into the line to allow the lure to properly dart left and right, making the lure appear wounded and erratic. Listen to any seminar on jerkbait fishing from pro angler Kevin Van Dam, and he'll emphasize this point as the No. 1 key to getting more bites on a jerkbait.
Most of the time, bass will hit the lure as it sits still in the water on the pause between the twitches. The rod suddenly loads up as you go to make the next twitch with the rod tip, though when the bite is aggressive, the line will literally jump as the bass inhales the sitting lure.
WHERE TO JERK
During the deep winter months, the mouths of major tributaries, dominant points and sharp channel bends along the main lake will be key locations to find bass chasing down schools of shad. Though the water depths may be in the 30- to 40-foot range, schools of shad and bass will often be positioned in the top 10 to 15 feet of water to take advantage of the sun's rays. In February, as winter begins to give way to spring, similar locations farther within the feeder creeks and tributaries become more of a player as bass begin moving closer to their spawning grounds regardless of the water temperatures.
Locations for finding pre-spawn bass with jerkbaits in highland reservoirs include multiple possibilities but share the common trait of offering a quick transition from deep to shallow water. Examples include channel swing banks where the old creek channel makes a sharp bend against a bluff wall or point outside of a spawning pocket. Additionally, long, tapering points and gravel bars leading into spawning flats and steep rock banks with chunk rock that transition to gravel can be key areas. If bass are within 5 to 10 feet of the surface, the 4- to 5-foot, shallow-running lures will suffice; however, the deep divers may be needed if bass are deeper than 10 feet below the surface.
On lowland reservoirs, creek channel bends and points within creek arms will still be prime targets, though the overall depths of the lake bottom are likely not as deep as in highland reservoirs. In lakes with vegetation such as hydrilla, grass flats outside of spawning bays and grass-filled depressions or drains leading into the backs of creeks can hold groups of big female bass prior to moving into spawning pockets.
Boat docks within these creek arms are always a draw for pre-spawn bass, so working a jerkbait along the pilings from multiple angles is always a high-percentage tactic, with an emphasis on docks located along points. As mentioned, experiment with diving depths to keep the lure above or at eye level with the bass.
Finally, warm, sunny days often bring wind, which puts a focus on windy points outside of spawning flats. Shad will move onto these points and banks, receiving direct wind and drawing groups of bass with them. The erratic retrieve of a shallow-diving jerkbait is ideal to attract the feeding bass. Make the cast up into the shallower turbid waterline caused by the wind and bring the lure out with a fast and aggressive cadence into the clearer water.
Opinions vary on rod length. However, shorter rods in the 6-foot-6-inch to 6-foot-10-inch range allow faster response time in twitching the jerkbait and are less likely to hit the side of the boat on the retrieve than longer rods. Shorter rod handles are also less likely to get tangled in bulky clothing in February.
Fluorocarbon offers multiple advantages over monofilament and braided line for fishing a jerkbait, including low visibility and a sink rate that doesn't limit lure depth. Line in the 8- to 12-pound-test range is ideal for jerkbait fishing, with the heavier lines slightly inhibiting the lure's maximum depth. The tradeoff, of course, is the added strength of the 12-pound test, which is some comfort when fishing around standing timber or docks.
While some prefer spinning tackle for fishing 8- to 10-pound test to achieve longer casts with a jerkbait, the increasingly popular small-framed, 70- to 100-size "finesse" baitcasters work very well when paired with lighter lines. It's simply a matter of angler preference.
CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON
- Add one or all of these top jerkbaits to your arsenal.
This classic design, with its subtle darting action, has spawned countless imitations by other lure manufacturers. The Vision Oneten is offered in a vast assortment of colors, with both gloss and matte finishes, and is available in both shallow and deep-diving versions. ($24.99; megabassusa.com)
Introduced in 2023, the PXR Mavrik is considered the new flagship jerkbait in the Rapala lineup. It comes standard with premium VMC trebles and has an improved weight transfer system for longer casts. ($14.99; rapala.com)
Designed by Kevin Van Dam, one of the best jerkbait anglers of all time, the 300 series has an aggressive side-to-side darting action on the retrieve. The new sinking version works well with forward-facing sonar. ($11.99; strikeking.com)
The taller profile of the Scope Stik makes for better sonar returns when viewed on forward-facing sonar and creates an erratic, darting action in the water. It’s offered in suspending and sinking models and comes with Mustad Triple Grip UltraPoint hooks. ($8.39; rat-l-trap.com)
This series of jerkbaits has a great underwater “walk the dog” action and erratic wobble thanks to a low center of gravity. The Pointer Series is available from shallow to deep-diving, with a maximum depth range of 9 to 10 feet. ($15.99; luckycraft.com)
- This article was featured in the South edition of the February 2024 issue of Game & Fish Magazine. Click to subscribe