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Modifying Jerkbaits Over the Winter
By Russ Bassdozer

This article proposes a potential and rewarding winter project of you - modifying jerkbaits. There's some stuff to get you started below, and if you have any other jerkbait modification tips you'd like to share, please feel welcome to post them on the Inside Line online forum!

Many jerkbaits are "floaters" (as opposed to "suspenders"). Rapala Original Minnows, Bomber Long A's, Cordell RedFins, many Yo-Zuri models are mostly floaters. Floaters rarely get more than a few feet down. Most of these resist staying even a few feet down as most rise rapidly when paused even an instant. Good stuff for the specific times and places when fish prefer jerkbaits to rise back to the top on the pause. When the situation calls for it around barely submerged cover and semi-emergent weedbeds, floaters can be jerked or ripped up to the edge of cover or weeds, allowed to rise to the top and then finessed and twitched slowly across the top of the cover, resuming the underwater jerking and twitching as the lure comes into the clear again. Strikes often happen as the lure approaches the far edge of cover, as you flounder it right over the top, or as the lure comes into the clear on the near edge of cover.

Shallow suspending jerkbaits - suspending versions of Smithwick Rogues, Rapala Husky Jerks, Excalibur Long As, etc. - don't get that much deeper than their "floating" counterparts. In fact, most ARE their floating counterparts (or very close remodels) with extra lead strategically added at the factory. But they do differ from the floaters in that they tend to hold their mid-shallow depth a few feet down when you pause them. From Lucky Craft, the Pointer is the model that stays at the mid-shallow depth as most of the other brands mentioned in this paragraph. Good stuff for the specific times and places when fish prefer that, which is when bass are up on the shallow flats where water depth is somewhere between 3 and 7 feet deep.

Next in depth, to consistently work deeper than the above-named lures, you need to drill and add your own weight (water, splitshot or buckshot), attach adhesive lead dots, lead strips or wrap lead wire on the hooks of the above-named models. Rather than you doing that, a manufacturer may instead lengthen the bill, flatten out its angle a bit...and what used to resemble a jerkbait starts looking like a crankbait coming out of the factory. The Lucky Craft Bevy Shad is an example. The Bevy Shad has a bit more of a crankbait-like bill and a bit more shad-shaped (crankbait-shaped?) body than most other thin minnow jerkbaits. Is the Bevy Shad a jerkbait? A crankbait? Two baits in one? Disturbing as such questions may be, should we really care? Does how a lure looks define what it is?...does the suspension system inside it define it?...or how you fish it? The Bevy Shad fishes mostly like other jerkbaits, with a tighter shad-like wiggle, and it holds its depth a couple of feet below the depth range of most other short-lipped suspending jerk baits, let's say 4 to 9 feet - other things like line diameters and casting distance being equal. The important point is a deeper-suspending jerkbait like the Bevy Shad gets down "out of the box" and all the work to make it fish properly with an alluring action is already done by the expert lure designers at the factory's research tanks - as opposed to you doctoring lures at home in hopes to make them do something they were not originally designed to do. (We'll talk about "doctoring" jerkbaits below.)

The next step away from what we commonly think of as being a jerkbait is something like the Lucky Craft StaySee. It's got the thin minnow body that says "jerkbait" but a long thin bill that seems to say "crankbait". When you pause it, it will "Stay" still where it is so fish can "See" it - and get infuriated to strike at it! When you twitch the StaySee, it has a side-gliding action that fishes like a jerkbait. In fact, the StaySee's gliding action when you twitch it looks more like a Suick Thriller muskie glider jerkbait than any bass lure that comes to mind - except that the StaySee consistently hunkers down, let's say, from 6 to 12 feet (depending on line diameter, distance cast, etc.). That's about the deeper limit of most lures I can think of at the moment that bass anglers may be willing to say, "Okay, that's a jerkbait."

Keep in mind, that most jerkbaits on the market today are not designed to get down deeper like the LuckyCraft Bevy Shad or StaySee. Maybe this will change in the next few years as more advanced versions of jerkbaits similiar to the LuckyCrafts are brought onto the market. For the time being, however, many models of jerkbaits will need to be doctored by the angler who wants to get them deeper. The rest of this article is about that - modifying jerkbaits on your own - primarily to get them deeper. Since winter lay-up is coming soon for many anglers, this may be a good mid-winter project to keep you involved in fishing. Best of all, your newly-modified jerkbaits are some of the best tools to use for early pre-spawn bass when the 2001 season opens!

You will get extra depth from a loaded hard bait. Of course, you can only do this easily with plastic-walled baits as opposed to wood. Yes, you can drill wood and load lead plugs into them too. Problem is, you easily ruin lots of expensive wood baits during the experimental phase and even on an ongoing basis. With plastics, if they're loaded wrong, you can empty them out and start over. It's not so easy to try again with wood. If you do load wood, best tools become a drill press table with a bit depth stop on it so you consistently drill an equal depth into each bait. Next, seal the bared wood holes by swabbing with a Q-tip dipped in thin waterproof sealant. If you do not do this, the baits will becoem water-logged, not swim, and may even split open. While that's drying, drill a number of holes the exact same depth into a big block of hard woodlike birch. Melt lead or tin and pour it into the holes in the birch. While hot, plane the top of the filled holes flush with a scraping pass made with any old metal square edge. By making separate pours of both lead and tin, you can make two "inserts" that have the same size dimensions but different weights. I've got it written down somewhere, and don't quote me now, but I think the ratio's that lead weighs almost twice tin. Ingots of both lead and tin are often available at plunber's supply stores. Be careful and be responsible for all precautions required when dealing with lead or molten metals. When cool, pry them out, dip the tips in a bit of clear epoxy, and tap them into the perfectly-fitting holes in the baits. That's the utmost in repeatabilty for wood bait performance.

It's rare to hear of people loading baits to get better action from them. In fact, the action becomes muted - more of a waddle than a wiggle, more of a loping glide than a gallop - but that's often what people want because loaded plastic baits are best-used for lethargic or inactive fish, often in cold water of early spring or late fall. Most of all, people load hardbaits for the reason to get more depth from them...and more hunkering down or suspension when stopped as opposed to bobbing to the top. And of course, the beneficial side-effect of further casting qualities from them. On the cast, the load typically piles up in the tail of the bait, making it more castable. On the retrieve, the load - often water (some load with black coffee to better spot leakers) or smallest sizes of birdgun buckshot - moves all about like loose parcels in the back of a van taking a curve. The bait's action usually remains symmetrical but muted - yet sometimes (especially with multi-chambered loads), the load gives an occasional irregular action which can be special because it approximates the mindless dalliance of a real bait better than the mechanical melodrome of a factory bait.

Another reason to load a hardbait is to use it in moving water. For instance, an unloaded bait can become unbalanced and spin out in a strong river or brackish tidal flow, whereas a heavily-loaded bait will remain stable as it hunkers down and strums downstream on the end of a tight string.

I make sure that I have the following materials handy when I load baits: a single edge razor blade or utility knife, round toothpicks, superglue, nail polish (red, yellow and green). I also use a Dremel Mototool on slow speed with a 1/32" bit and finally, a syringe with a blunt-edged, flexible plastic tubing catheter instead of a sharp metal needle. You can pick up such a syringe at a medical supply store, or ask your family doctor. Oh yes, I also use a triple balance beam. The beam balance is not absolutely necessary, but it does help the process if you intend to load lots of hardbaits over the long run. As for the baits you intend to load, it's best to sacrifice one specimen of each bait to cut straight down the middle into left and right halves to ensure what chambers are inside. Some plastics are multi-chambered inside, which opens up a wide (sometimes too wide) puzzle to much to load into which chamber(s)? Once you are sure what the blueprint is like inside, it's time to get started! By the way, I personally do not load plastic baits with buckshot because it is fairly imprecise to close the wider hole, usually with a glop of epoxy, some of which can haphazardly cause a few shot to get glued at the most inappropriate places inside the bait too! Nevertheless, some people do use buckshot with fantastic results, so you can decide on your own to try it or not. One way to eliminate glop is to put a carefully-sized dollop of epoxy on a piece of electrical tape. Shake all the buckshot into the tail of the bait, then position the dollop/tape over the hole in the bait. Tape down firmly and wait, keeping the tape (or hole) side of the bait down. When given enough time to dry, remove the tape, and the exposed epoxy should be more or less straight flush with the surface of the bait. Dip a dot of color (red, yellow, or green) to code the load, then seal the entire epoxy plug and hole area with a generous coat of clear nail polish.

Very important for loading (getting back to liquid) is that the drill bit, the syringe catheter, and the round toothpicks all have to be the same diameter. With single-chambered baits, I give them a lobotomy by drilling straight into the top of the bait where its brain would be if it had one. When you drill a hole into your bait, the syringe tube should be able to just barely slide inside the bait's body to give it an injection, and then the round toothpick gets jammed tightly into the hole. You can snip the pointy tip off before it goes in, then use a single edge razor or utility knife to cut the toothpick flush with the top of the bait and then put a drop of superglue, allowing it to wick into the wood fibers of the cut toothpick. The superglue sort of "petrifies" the wood toothpick so the load cannot evaporate through it over time.

Next, use the different color nail polish to color code your loads. Red for heavy loads, yellow for medium loads, and green for light loads. Just a little dab of color on the toothpick. In this way, when you open your tackle bag to change baits, you can instantly see the color codes on their noggins!

To reload or unload your baits, it is just a simple matter of using something (a 1/32" piece of stainless wire, a thin nail, a thin icepick) to exert a downward pressure on the toothpick, thereby pushing it inside of the bait's body. Now you can reload with a different amount or completely drain the load, then insert another toothpick. Superglue it in, use the appropriate color code - or no need to color code at all if you completely unload it.

How much to load? Pre-drill a few baits, grab toothpicks, superglue, razor, and syringe. Go down to a dock, long deep swimming pool or anywhere you can test swim your prototypes. Fill 'em up a bit, swim 'em, shake 'em out a bit. Use a half toothpick to temporarily cork and uncork 'em while you go through this process. Experiment with different loads until you achieve the desired bait actions. Spend a few hours getting it right. When you finally get one loaded that looks good to you, just tap it with a dry toothpick, cut the toothpick flush, and seal it with a shot of superglue. Keep in mind you can make up to three different loads for the same bait model - light, medium and heavy - if need be to match correspondingly light, medium or heavy wind being cast against, tide or moving water being fished against, or simply three increasingly deeper-running variants of the same hardbait.

Now this is where you need the balance beam. With one, it is just a simple matter to take the sealed and loaded baits home, weigh them, and then load all your other baits like so many tin soldiers so they weigh the identical amounts. Write the weights down somewhere. Without a balance beam, you have to keep track of exactly how many cc's you inject into the baits out on the testing grounds. That can be a bit of a hassle as you constantly add a little more, a little less to achieve the desired action. Does such precision matter to the fish? Perhaps not, but I like to know exactly what kind of load I've got tied on, and that I can go home and reproduce it exactly to the gram when I need to make more.

Loosening lips. There is one other modification that you can perform on plastic lipped baits that may make them special. You can take some of these baits - melt the lips to make them temporarily soft and bend them back or up. Bending back allows you to swim them shallower (sometimes only waking the surface), more slowly, and usually with a wider snake-like or twisty-turny wounded wobble. Bending the lip up makes them dive a bit deeper, some models with a tighter, struggling movement, other models with a wider, side-to-side searching type movement.

Ideally, use a reliable hand-held mini-tool torch. You can use a cigarette lighter at your own discretion, understanding that cigarette lighters are not exactly safe tools designed for doing this. Turn the flame way down low, and hold it near the base of the lip where it joins the body of the bait. Better to heat it too slowly than too quickly. This works better on the solid-colored plastics where the paint is bonded and becomes part of the base plastic. The chrome-painted ones, or any ones with shrink-adhesive layers of paint have a tendency to bubble up a bit, and it means you have to use a higher flame and work faster. Yes, you will ruin some baits learning how best to heat each particular model of them. Just heat each bait the best way based on learned experience, and use a flat stick like a paint stirrer or straight-edged ruler to slowly bend the lip back or up a bit. Keep in mind you may not only loosen the lip, but also some of the glues used to hold some insert types of lips in place. Obviously, thin sliver-like lips are more easily bent than thick, heavily-fortified uni-body lips. These points are usually only concerns during the experimental phase, and once you're confident of what modifications you like to make to which baits, it becomes a matter of heating quick, bending just so, and putting it into a bowl of cold water to cure for a minute. Then, it's out to go fishing.

Write all your research down on an notebook because you'll tend to forget what techniques works best with which baits. The best place to perform initial experiments is of course, on the water, if possible. Then you can modify lips between casts until you get the desired angle. Once something looks good, save those prototypes to use as benchmarks to guide you whenever bending the same model in the future.

Of course, you must always be responsible and aware of burn and fire-preventive safety issues affecting yourself and others wherever and whenever working in this way - and you sure want to avoid inhaling any plastic solvent fumes released during the process.

Hope this gives you some interest in modifying jerkbaits over the winter! It's rewarding to catch fish on a lure that you make into a special fish-catcher yourself!

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