Fishermen have been described as “a jerk on one end waiting for a jerk on the other”. In my case, it’s more accurate to say, “a jerk on one end fishing a jerk on the other”, because the jerkbait is probably my favorite presentation for enticing gamefish. From diminutive to gargantuan, floating to sinking, subtle to gaudy, there are literally hundreds of jerkbaits available to anglers. It’s a good thing too, because predatory gamefish of all description will fall for the charm of a well presented jerkbait. Did you notice I said well presented? It’s because a jerkbait, more so than any other hard bait, derives the vast majority of its fish catching appeal from the angler’s actions. And the secret to success is all in the name.
Before we get into the secret, let’s get into the nuts and bolts (or jerks and pauses, hint, hint) of jerkbait fishing by first examining what constitutes good jerkbait conditions for sport fish. First and foremost is water clarity; the jerkbait needs to be seen to work and thus requires good visibility, preferably at least a couple of feet. Generally speaking, bright light and clear water dictate a shallow, fast jerkbait in most cases. Stained water or low light makes a deeper, slower presentation more effective.
The next factor in deciding if the jerkbait is the right tool is the depth range my intended bite is in. Jerkbaits are available that will run from the surface to about 15 feet, but if the bite is deeper than that then again, there are better tools. I said bite, not fish because deeper fish will often come up to attack the bait in very clear water. Smallmouth and spotted bass in particular will surge from the depths to blast the erratic offering. Again, clearer or warmer water usually means a shallower, faster jerkbait, while colder or more stained water requires the bait to get in their face and stay there.
Water temperature is a key factor in all fishing and jerkbaits are no exception. However, water temp doesn’t dictate when and when not to use the bait, rather the speed at which it’s fished. Regardless of clarity, warmer water allows faster retrieves and colder water forces slower retrieves, with “warmer” or “colder” being relative to the species. A jerkbait will produce at nearly any temperature the fish can handle, so long as the speed is tailored to the conditions.
Conditions are great, but I already said the secret’s in the name. So how are we going to jerk the bait? Fundamentally, the retrieve is a series of jerks and pauses with variations lying in the speed, cadence, amplitude and length of pauses. The standard retrieve, if there is such a thing, is to pull it down to its running depth with the rod tip, allowing a bit of slack line and then snapping the rod tip down, then immediately throwing a minimal amount of slack line back at the lure. The goal is to make the bait snap sideways and stop which can only happen with a small amount of slack line. Try it while watching your bait and you’ll see what I’m saying. It’s probably the most difficult retrieve to master in that timing is critical – but the rewards are worth the practice.
The speed of the retrieve is determined by the cadence and amplitude, with cadence being the combination of jerks and pauses (i.e., jerk, jerk, pause or jerk, pause, jerk, jerk, pause, etc) and amplitude being how hard you actually jerk the rod tip down before allowing slack. In some conditions like warm or very clear water, I may not allow any pauses; rather I continuously bounce the rod tip off the resistance very quickly and rhythmically. In very cold water (again, temp being relative to the species) I may have one jerk followed by pauses of 30 seconds or more on slack line. Amplitude is often determined by the stillness of the water and mood of the fish and can range from a twitch to full on snap. Unless it is very cold, clearer or calmer water or neutral (non-feeding) fish, means less amplitude but a faster cadence and shorter pauses – a high speed retrieve. In this case you’re soliciting the purest of reaction strikes.
Tannin-stained or wind chopped water or aggressive fish, means more amplitude and potentially a slower cadence and longer pauses with the goal that your bait be noticed. Keep in mind that the slack line between jerks is at least as important as the jerk itself.
My personal jerkbait rig is a 6’8” medium power, extra fast action St. Croix Avid X rod paired with an Abu Garcia Revo spinning reel, spooled with 17 pound Fireline Ultra 8 Braid knotted to an 12” Trilene 100% Flourocarbon leader. I like the extra fast action rod for imparting crisp lure action. The drag should be set very soft to cushion the small trebles from the rod and line. These days I utilize Berkley Cutter jerkbaits in the majority of my fishing.
The best part about jerkbait fishing is that not many anglers do it well. With some practice and the right setup, you can catch fish behind other anglers. On those really tough days, you can cover a ton of water and it’s likely you’ll find fish that’ll strike out of reaction.