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Jerk Bait Basics
By Paul Crawford

fishing (noun) : A Jerk on one end of a line waiting for a Jerk on the other.

They've been called the perfect bait. Long and slender, an eratic motion, as close as you can get to an injured shad, jerk baits may load the boat when nothing else will draw a strike. Most every one has at least a few, and a few have mostly jerk baits. But having a jerk bait is only a beginning. Jerk baits are one of the few hard baits, (even though we now have soft jerk baits), where the fisherman himself imparts all of the action. Becoming good with a jerk bait can be just as difficult as learning to fish a worm or a jig. To add to the confusion, jerk baits are made to cover the top of the water column, from the surface to around 15', and everything in between. Some jerk baits float, some sink, and some are neutral. Different sizes, colors, actions, a bewildering array of options, make jerk bait selection, much less use, a guessing game to most and a frustration to many. Yet each bait has it's place and under the right conditions can be as effective as anything that goes over the side.

What is a Jerk Bait?

All jerk baits have a few characteristics which set them apart from all other baits. Jerk baits are slender for their length, presenting an ideal profile for a lurking bass looking for a quick meal. Although most jerk baits are high floaters, they all trigger the bite while underwater, which seperates them from a pure top water lure. All of the hard baits have some type of lip to pull the bait underwater, much the same as a crank bait. But the thing that sets them apart from other lures is the way they are worked. To get the most out of a jerk bait, you use the rod in short or long jerks without reeling. This rod action is what gives jerk baits their name, and their action underwater.

At this point, we really need to separate the baits into two broad catagories, Hard Baits and Soft Baits. The Soft Baits are a fairly new development, originated to overcome some of the restrictions with the Hard Baits. The Soft Baits have now evolved into virtually a separate lure, needing their own type of rod, action, situation, and techniques. For these reasons, let's save the discussion of Soft Baits until next month, when we'll look at Soft Baits in detail. For now, we'll limit the study to their Hard Bait ancestors, since there's more than enough to keep you busy with just that.

Turning to the Hard Baits, we already know they are long, slender, and have some type of diving lip. They also have two or three treble hooks which, because of the bait's slender profile, tend to be rather small when compared with a crankbait of simular size and weight. Other than a couple of specialty baits, which we'll look at later, they float high and level. Most have a one piece body, although some surface types have a joint or ring in the middle. Several manufacturers make these lures, with the main players being: Rapala, Bomber Long A Series, Bagley's Bang-O-lure, and the Smithwick Rogue series. Each of the manufacturers have a slightly different design, and each one has a particular job it seems best at.

Where do I throw a Jerk Bait?

Jerk Baits, by design, are reaction lures. They blend the best of attracting and triggering properties. Since they resemble the profile of a threadfin shad, bass will strike readily. The quick action of the jerk, sometimes combined with splash if worked on top, can attract fish from long range. With it's many variations, jerk baits can be fished in several situations, depending on the mood of the fish and the particular bait and tactic you use. But it's not all together versitile.

Like all crankbait style lures, jerk baits are designed to be struck from below, otherwise they'd have a hook on top of the lure. Jerk baits are almost solely a horizonal presentation, so you need to know exactly the depth you're trying to fish. The small treble hooks poise some serious limitations. Getting a fish hooked up solid with the small hooks can be an accomplishment all by itself, but trying to consistantly pull a fish out of heavy cover is an effort doomed from the start. This limits the situations for best jerk bait fishing to open water where there is little to get tangled up in once a fish is hooked. Now you can, and should, consider a jerk bait when fishing near heavy cover, just as long as you present the lure from an angle which will prevent the fish from heading straight back into the cover after the hook set. In other words, the fish must have an open water area to run to for the fight.

Smithwick, in particular, as spent considerable effort in adding rattles and bright colors to make jerk baits more effective in low visability water. Even at that, jerk baits continue to be primarily a clear water tactic. The quick, erratic motion of the baits is what makes them attractive, so they remain a sight bait for the most part. But clear water is a relative term. Even if you can't see more than a couple of feet below the surface, a bass may well be able to see several feet in the same water. In fact, slightly stained water can be the very best place for a jerk bait since the bass will strike at the motion rather than examining the lure too closely. Any water with over a foot or so visability is a candidate for a jerk bait.

Given reasonably clear open water, you now have to worry about depth and whether or not fish are there to start with. As it turns out, at this point there is a variety of choices depending largely on what depth you wish to fish. But all depths are not created equal and a jerk bait is limited by the mood of the fish combined with the depth. For the sake of discussion, let's break the discussion into four parts, each related to a depth: Top Water; 1 -3 Feet, 4 - 10 Feet, and Below 10 Feet. This refers to how deep the lure runs, not the depth of either the water or the fish. If fish are suspended in 10 feet over a 30 foot hole, a jerk bait running 3 feet deep is still effective. Keep in mind we are expecting the fish to attack from below the lure, so in all execpt the most negative moods, we'd like the lure to run above the depth the fish are using.

Top Water

When a jerk bait is fished on top, it is the classic minnow plug. This was the orginal idea of the baits all along. The slender shape moves little water so it is a delicate, subtle presentation. The most effective conditions to use this bait is little or no wind and obviously shallow water, say 1 to 5 feet. Since the bait won't make too big of splash, you need to work an area slowly and place each cast so you cover the precise area you think the fish are holding. Very gentle movements are the key. A slight twitch of the rod tip is all you need. With a small bill and a gentle touch, you can keep these baits all day long in a area the size of a coffee cup. If possible, cast just past your target and work the bait slowly up to the strike zone, just like any other top water. Once you're in the strike zone, don't get in a hurry. Most of the time, you don't get the violent explosion, the bait will just disappear from the top. Fish often suspend just below the bait and examine it for a while, so any sudden jerk will spook them. A fish attractant can help draw a leary strike. While holding in the strike zone, just gently pull the bait rather than twitch it, which will cause the lure to dip slightly to one side then return to the surface. If you don't get a strike near the target, work the bait back in the 1 to 3 feet range. This is a time consuming presentation but well worth the effort for a finicky bite working exceptionally well just before and after the spawn. Recognize this as a target presentation to be used in those isolated high percentage spots.

Because the floating properties of the presentation, this is the case where I alway perfer a Rapala bait. Rapala baits are slightly more round than the other jerk baits, have a more subtle finish, and are made of Balsa wood. My standard color choice is silver/black back anytime it is not overcast. For those cloudy days, a gold/black back seems to work better in most water. This is also the only time I really like the jointed versions. The Broken Back Rapala not only can be worked slower, but has the advantage of a hook that hangs almost straight down when motionless, making the business end a very inviting target.

Now there is another, very effective, top water presentation using a different version of the jerk bait. Bagley's Bang-O-Lure adds a small prop to the rear hook. This makes the bait a compromise between a true jerk bait and a top water prop bait. The difference here is, you give the bait a sharp jerk, and it will make quite a racket. You can fish this bait in a number of different ways from slow and eratic, (usually the most effective), to quick and rhythmic, (wonderful in the early summer.) Vary the strength of you jerks and you can add the occasional big splash with a more subtle ripping effect. This particular lure can cover a huge area very quickly and effecently. The small hooks, normally trouble around heavy vegatation, work well over pocketted grass beds, although keeping the casts short will still improve the boating ratio. You can still work this bait slow and since it's also made of Balsa, it simply adds the possiblity of alot of noise with the otherwise quiet presentation. This is one compromise that truely does seem to offer the best of both worlds. I rely on the Bang-O-Lure in those tough bite conditions when the fish are scattered, shallow, and reluctant. It seems to work when nothing else will.

1 - 3 Feet

Prime Time for Jerk Baits. This is the pattern where jerk baits work the best. Reel the bait under the surface then, pointing your rod tip down, use a series of quick jerks with the rod to keep the bait submerged while taking up the line between jerks. While many like to keep a steady rhythm I prefer an erratic retrieve with fairly long pauses between two or three quick jerks. Some fish will absolutely blast the lure, but most of the bites will only be a tick as the lure floats up.

My preference for this depth is the Bomber Long A with a black back. I use gold sides and orange belly on cloudy days and silver sides the rest of the time. The reason I like this brand is the tremendous flash the lure gives off as you jerk it. You can easily see the sides flash when the lure is only half way back to the boat. With that kind of flash, you can draw a bite from a considerable distance. Even though the bait is running only 3 feet under the water, it is effect worked over depths up to 20 feet in clear water.

If the fish are in a chasing mood, this pattern will catch them. You can cover a huge area quickly and fish that ignore spinner baits or crankbaits will nail this baby. It's one of the best baits I know for searching out the fish or working a widely scattered pattern. It will work anytime the fish aren't hugging the bottom and is one of the best baits for those fish that suspend during a warming period between winter cold fronts. A smaller version of the jerk bait, the 4" size with only two hooks, is dynamite for schoolers. The pros will also tell you it's one of the best baits you can use over deep weed beds. The bait can be worked well in the wind up to about the point where you're in white caps, (in heavy winds I use the gold color.) All in all, this bait and pattern is second none when fish are feeding on shad in open water.

4 - 10 Feet

We are starting a specialty pattern here. If you know the fish are suspended and you just can't get them to come up to 3 feet for the bait, you can change baits and get a bit deeper with them. For this application, I prefer the Smithwick Rouge series. It's a bit bigger and heavier than the other baits and you can get it in a suspending model that's great for about the 7 foot range. Since you're fishing deeper, you're not going to get as much flash as with the shallow baits. The Rouges have two advantages to compensate for this; One, their side pattern that's broken and releived reflects disfused light well; and Two, they are available with rattles if you think the fish need some extra help finding the bait. I work the Rouges slower and more methodical than I do the shallow baits with long pauses particularly with the suspending series. This is because if I'm forced to go deeper, the fish are likely in a negative mode and I'm running the bait right around the thermocline, a tough bite under the best of conditions. Other than that, it's pretty much the same as the shallower running action.

Another option, at least with practice, is the Count Down Rapala. This bait actually sinks instead of floats. The idea is to let the bait sink to just past it's working depth by slowing counting down the sink rate. When you get a bite, just count to the same number and you should be close to the same depth. It's a good theory that doesn't always work since the sink rate can vary with wind direction, boat movement, and a half a dozen other things. But in a pinch, when you want a small slow bait for a suspended fish, it can be a winner. You will need to practice this one before you go. The lure will sink a different rate if you have a taunt or slack line, so be consistent. Even with the small lip, the lure will tend to rise as the line angle increases either by raising the rod tip or as the lure approaches the boat. To get a complete cast in at the same depth, count the lure down on a taunt line and start with you rod tip slightly above horizonal. As you work the lure closer to the boat, lower your rod tip to keep the lure working the same depth. Use consistent jerks, both in force and length or the lure will rise and fall accordingly. With a little practice, you really can hit just about any depth down to around 10 feet consistently. If you're marking a hard thermocline with your depth finder less than 10 feet deep, and you're having trouble getting bit with anything else, remember the Count Down Rapala. Another situation where they are great is over deep weed beds. Position the boat in shallow water and the count the bait down to just over the weed tops in the deep water. Now just work the bait as if it didn't rise at all! If you hit the correct pace, the lure will work itself shallower at the same rate as the rise of the weed bed, so you're right above the weeds at all times. Again, it takes a bit of practice, but it will be well worth it come weight in.

Over 10 Feet

This is really a specialty! In 99% of the cases, I can find something better than a jerk bait below 10 feet, (that's why God invented spinnerbaits), but one particular situation is the exception. If you find fish that are suspended just off a deep ledge, between say 15 and 25 feet down, a deep diving jerk bait can get you some extra heavy weights.

For deep jerking, I like the deep diving Rouge series. The Spoonbill Rapala also works well and will float up quicker than the Rouges, which can be an advantage at times. In either case I prefer the silver/black model while many others like the gold/black. Use the one you have the most confidence in.

Position your boat over the deep water, several feet past where you think the fish are suspended and make long casts past the top of the ledge. Reel down several times to get the bait down to around 10 feet and reel down with a taunt line with you rod point straight out towards the bait. Then, with a long sweeping motion, lift the rod to vertical and quickly reel down to the level and taunt position again. Allow the bait to float up for a few seconds, taking up the slack with the reel but not really moving the bait. The bite will come as the bait is rising. What you are doing is forcing the bait to quickly dive down to around 15 feet in a steep arc and then float up vertically. The bait will appear to the fish as a big shad struggling to get to the bottom but not able to stay down, in other words, "free food." A local guy taught Roland Martin this pattern on Harris chain in during Megabucks. Roland was willing to listen to it since it was 2 hours to weight in and he didn't have a bite. Roland weighed in 89 lbs in 3 days, so he's a big fan if this pattern, (Son!) Obviously, this is not a year round pattern. It seems to work the best during the winter but can work in the dog days of summer. The key is to precisely locate the fish and to recognize the pattern. But it's a neat enough trick to keep a deep diver in your tackle box for those days they just won't touch a jigging spoon.

Rods and Reels

There is a great debate on whether jerk baits should be fished on spinning gear or bait casters. For the hard baits, (that's the only one we're talking about, remember), I prefer the bait caster. The reason is simple, I'm normally looking to cover alot of ground and I can cast further with a bait caster. I also rely alot on the drag system and I like level wind drags much better than spinning reel drags. The other point of view is you don't have to switch hands with a spinning reel and it's less tiring to jerk all day with your right hand as verses your left. Pay your money and take your chances, there's little to choose between the two.

Rods are another area of contention. Everyone seems to agree you want a light fast tip, somewhere between a light and medium action. This does a couple of things. With a light tip, the rod will smooth out the jerking action to some degree so the bait moves more natural. And a light tip is better to play the fish since the smallish hooks leave something to be desired in a power struggle. The area of contention is the length. Since you point your rod tip down, some like a 5 or 5 1/2 foot rod, (mostly spinning rods), so the bait is easy to work and the rod doesn't get in the way when setting the hook. I'm in the long rod camp, preferring a 7 foot rod, allowing increased casting distance and more control during the fight. The longer rod also lets me tighten up the drag a bit, (always use a fairly loose drag with those small hooks), since the rod will give more on the short runs. It's the same principle as a fly rod, let the rod fight the fish for you. So, you'll probably end up with either a short limber spinning rod or a long limber bait caster. Or you can be like one of my friends who uses a short spinning rod because the long rod won't fit in his rod box.

Line size is not that big of deal either. Since you're still protecting against small hooks, there is no need to have 20lb line. The 8 to 12 lb line works just fine and gives you better distance plus runs a bit deeper. The stretch in the monofiliment is not a problem since it just takes up slack for you during the fight. If you do use monofiliment, you may like the additional control of a medium action rod. My preference is the new Fusion line by Spider Wire, (or Berkley Fireline is about the same). I use a light action rod to make up for it. The reason I like the Fusion line is I get the same lure action as with mono, (braided line seems to kill the action for some reason), but I get the increased sensitivity. As I pointed out earlier, most of the bites come with the lure stopped in the water and tend to be little ticks instead of full frontal attacks. So, I like the Fusion line for detecting a bite and loosen up the drag a touch for the fight.

Summing Up

There are a ton of other little tricks with jerk baits, but you have the basics. Treat jerk baits as a system of baits, and don't limit yourself just one or two patterns. Keep a stock of different baits for different situations, you don't need that many. They're a very effective tool under a fairly broad range of circumstances.

Jerk baits are easy to use, that's why a lot of professional guides use them with their customers. They are also a great way to introduce kids to bass fishing. If you're not already relying on jerk baits, give them a try. I'll bet you'll be happy you did about the next weigh in.

Next: Soft Jerk Baits Click here to read it!

Paul Crawford

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