Fishing a Jerkbait – Top Techniques, Best Practices, and Mistakes to Avoid

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What is Jerkbait and how does it work?

A jerkbait is a hard-texture fishing lure with a lip to impart swimming action when retrieved – and whose profile is typically longer and narrower than a crankbait. Most often made from hard plastic or wood, a typical jerkbait action is a wiggle when retrieved at a constant pace – with a pronounced “turn out” to one side during pauses in the retrieve. Jerk/pause style retrieves will create a wider zig-zagging action that results in first one flank and then the other to be alternately shown to any fish tracking behind it.

Fishing a jerkbait works by imitating a baitfish acting in a way that suggests it should be easier for a predator to capture. When baitfish get sideways on to the normal direction of swimming or current – it’s usually a sign they’re in trouble. Similarly, when a real baitfish swim with a degree of body-roll and a slightly labored cadence, things aren’t going well for it. Therefore, the typical jerkbait action sends out signals to a predatory fish similar to the signals that make a wounded wildebeeste appealing to a hungry lion.

While some jerkbait lures are painted in recognisably “crawfish” colors, most have either baitfish-imitating or more abstract “attractor” colors. Overall, the action and slender profile are really what set jerkbaits apart.

Types of fish jerkbait attracts

Using a jerkbait means that you are targeting fish with strong predatory instincts. The great thing is, just by changing the size of bait you throw opens up a really wide range of target species. In freshwater, everything from bass fishing (smallies and largemouth) to walleye, pike and muskie fishing and even right on through to trout with baits in the two to three inch long category. It doesn’t even matter whether we are talking lakes or rivers and streams – jerkbaits will attract all those fish and more.

When it comes to saltwater, almost anything you’d target with a lure and swimming in those mid to upper ocean layers, in the surf, around flats or mangroves is a possibility – from striped bass to tarpon and barracuda. At first you might think the main limitation of jerkbait fishing would be in a fairly restricted fishing-depth range. It would seem to be difficult, for instance, to fish in deeper water due to the natural limit to how fast you can make a jerkbait sink under its own steam. However, as well as being manufactured to dive to and run at a certain depth, it turns out that jerkbaits are excellent choices to fish from downriggers or planer boards when trolling behind a boat.

Obviously when trolling, you wont be able to fish a jerkbait in the classic slack line, hard jerk/pause retrieve. However, the body-roll and inherently attractive swimming action under a constant retrieve (along with the shad or minnow shaped elongated profile) make them really great choices for trolling too.

All in all, these factors make a jerkbait a powerful choice for targeting a huge range of predatory fish in a wide range of venues, depths and bait-sizes.

Main Types of Jerkbaits

For all but tiny jerkbaits, it is common to see internal weight transfer systems. These are typically made using steel balls which are thrown to the back of the baits when cast – but which return to a more central position during the retrieve. The reason for them is that they help the lure fly much more straight and true – creating much longer casts. With the cast accomplished, then the balls roll back to create a properly balanced lure during the retrieve.

Jerkbaits

Beyond that (and the obvious factor of size of baits) there are three main categories of jerkbait…

Floating jerkbait

A jerkbait that naturally floats towards the surface when paused is a great option for either shallow water or for a “stop and go” tactic while trolling using a downrigger. Let’s take the slightly more unusual tactic first. The lure’s buoyancy during the pause or slowing of the trolling speed creates a very attractive “hover-up” effect, before the lure kicks into life again when the boat moves away again. It’s certainly another option compared to lures that stall, and then flutter downwards during the pause (which can be an effective trigger in its own right).

At the finesse end of the jerkbait techniques scale would be fishing a floating, flat-sided minnow in coldwater trout streams. This is brilliant sport and something you see quite a lot of in Japan – and increasingly around the world.

Basically, for targeting any predatory species and fishing down to around 6ft below the surface, just choose the appropriate size of buoyant jerk bait for the species you’re targeting. That buoyancy can be the key to staying clear of snags (as we’ll see in the Top Techniques section coming up).

Suspending jerkbaits

This is probably the “industry standard” jerkbait. The neutral buoyancy of suspending models closely mimics the behaviour of a dying baitfish. Going back to that powerful trigger of the “slack line pause” and turning-out behaviour; having that in a truly hovering bait presents a provocative prey image to a predator.

Sometimes, to pressured fish, if a bait sinks or pops up too rapidly it can start to look artificial and they might even spook. The ability to fish a jerkbait right in the face of a following predator and have it suspend naturally in the water column between each kick is a wonderful thing. Often, it proves irresistable.

Particularly for cold water bass fishing, the unique thing about a neutral buoyancy bait is that you can jerk and then pause for maybe even a count of ten or more before twitching and then pausing for another long count. That way you can create an incredibly slow retrieve that still throws out a strong trigger to attract bass.

The size of the lip on suspending models of jerkbait controls the dive depths – and it is possible to fish mid depth and even really pretty deep layers using jerkbaits with large, deep-diving lips.

Sinking jerkbaits

All the action in the world is wasted if you can’t get your bait close to the eye-line of your target. By being able to cast out and count-down to a particular fishing depth, you can search out the feeding depth on a given day. Depending on the interaction between the density and diameter of your line, its vertical angle through the water and the sink-rate of the lure, you can have the bait sink down to and “work” at a certain depth. That complex relationship can also create quite a subtle hover or very slow sink during the pauses between each jerk of the rod tip (or each snatch of the reel handle). In other words, a sinking jerkbait is a very different “look” than a weighted jig during any pauses in the retrieve.

Downriggers aside, a sinking bait is an obvious way to explore some deeper water while benefiting from the advantages of a jerkbait action and profile. It also allows you to have the bait fall in front of the fish in quite a subtle way.

Top techniques

Learning to fish a jerkbait with a handful of core tactics puts you in good shape to catch more fish. These basics will cover you especially well for bass fishing, pike fishing and trout fishing.

Cropped image of a fish

Jerking

It makes sense to start out with the classic technique before covering anything else. The imitation of a struggling minnow, shad or any other relatively slender baitfish is what this game is all about.

If you’re fishing from a standing position – after making a long cast and getting your bait to the desired depth – try raising the rod while reeling up most of the slack and then snapping the rod down in one of these tried and tested cadences:

  • Simple “One-Two-Pause, One-Two-Pause” (repeated)
  • Semi-Predictable Mixed 1-2 “One-Pause, One-Two-Pause” (repeated)
  • Mixed 1-2-3 “One-Pause, One-Tw0-Three-Pause” (plus random mixes of each)

The temperature of the water should help you decide on the best length of pause to use. The warmer the water, the shorter the pause and vice versa. It’s important to avoid reeling all of the slack up between each pause – as this can dilute the sharp zig/zag action you’re aiming for.

Standard jerking is a great search method for open water – as well as a good way to draw your minnows and shad baits past likely-looking cover.

Popping/Twitching

It’s always important for anglers to match the intensity of a retrieve to the lure action and particularly to the lure size. Big lures (especially those with big lips) tend to respond with a smart zig-zag and an exaggerated body-roll when jerked hard. One of the best jerkbait tips, therefore, is to know when to go with a much lighter touch. The smaller and lighter a lure is, the less stable it will be in response to savage jerks of the rod.

With smaller, lighter lures (and for coaxing reluctant fish into a feeding response), just popping the rod tip much more gently can really unlock the action of your bait.

All of the same tried and tested cadences for standard jerking can be used

Floating Up Over Cover

Another of those sneaky jerkbait tips includes the deliberate use of a floating bait combined with whatever density of line allows you to get down to the bass, pike or whatever target species you like. When you know where there’s submerged structure (e.g. when you can directly see it in clear water), you can work your bait right up to it and then let it rise gently over it before cranking hard and getting it to dive down again.

This way you can make an extremely productive and attractive presentation working closely to cover – without risking an irretrievable hook up on that snag.

Flowing Water/Tiny baits “Reel Twitching”

For rivers and streams (particularly when trout fishing) you’ll find yourself casting upstream. This means you’ll need to engage the spool right away and start your retrieve immediately (so you don’t lose contact with the bait). For tiny minnow suspension baits around the 2″ (and perhaps shorter) length, jerking the rod can totally overpower the action. For these situations one of my favourite jerkbait tips is to keep the rod pointing towards the lure and use snappy turns of the reel handle to create the zig-zag action.

The stream current will wash a little slack into the line during each pause, which is why you can get away with keeping the rod still. Depending on the size of the bait and the speed of your reel, you might be using anything from quarter to half turns of the crank handle to get it to “walk” left and right. This is one of the lesser-known (or lesser shared at least) jerkbait tips – and can give you a headstart on stream.

Fish very often bite during the pause phase so you can watch your line for signs of a bite – plus the timing needed to stay in touch with the bait as it washes towards you often mean you’ll feel the fish on the next turn of the crank.

Rods, lines, and lures to use

Rods

Choosing the proper rod makes the difference between moderate and great success. It’s probably one of the most important jerkbait tips I can offer. Overall, shorter rods (typically in the 6′ to 6’10” range for bass and pike fishing) create several advantages. When standing and fishing from a platform or a boat, snapping a longer rod down towards the water risks smacking the surface and spooking fish.

fishing rods

In addition, it is hard to get a long rod which can transmit the sharp jerks down the line as the tip flexes too much. Shorter rods are more likely to have that rare combination of a tip that is stiff enough to “snap” the bait properly – while the overall bend in the rod is progressive enough to keep a lively fish pinned on small treble hooks (typically in the size 4-6 range).

For trout fishing on streams, you will probably be looking at going shorter again – with rods in the 4’3 to 5’11” range.

Lines

As with all gear, there will be personal preferences for each angler. For bass a popular go-to line will be fine fluorocarbon in the 8-12lb range. The reasons for this include the greater density of fluorocarbon compared to braid or nylon/copolymer mono. The density, coupled with finer diameter line, helps allow the bait to reach and maintain depth effectively.

At the same time, the greater stretch in fluorocarbon creates a slightly more nuanced glide of the baits compared to the almost zero-stretch braid. That amount of stretch can work in conjunction with the progressive rod action to help keep hooks pinned when a bass thrashes and jumps.

For pike fishing – especially with big baits – the non-stretch effect of braid (coupled with the more powerful rod needed to throw a heavy bait) can really help to bang the hooks home in a bony jaw. Whatever reel line you choose, a bite-proof trace will be essential for targeting toothy predators.

When trout fishing in streams, modern braid can be an advantage in maintaining contact in flowing water. There are now fused and blended braids – such as Varivas Double Cross PE that have a greater density to sink the line (where, classically, braid wants to float).

Because the range of baits is so large, the next section cuts through some of that complexity to offer some solid universal options at a range of pricepoints.

Best universal jerkbait lures

For an affordable, suspending bait which comes in a wide color range to suit any water clarity you’re likely to encounter – the Yo-Zuri 3DB Jerkbait Suspending 110 is a great option. As well as coming in “deep” and “shallow” options, the 110 size has very broad appeal to bass and pike of all sizes.

For incredible body-roll during each “snap” the Jackall Rerange 110 (and the 110 MR for fishing a little deeper water) is a great choice. Again, at the 110-size there is wide appeal. These aren’t cheap, but they are great baits.

The Megabass Vision 110 is found in so many tournament bass angler tackle boxes that it’s hard to ignore. As long as you have reasonably clear water, the Mat Shad color is a great universal option for all kinds of daylight – from cloudy to sunny.

For trout and small stream fishing, the Majorcraft Zoner 50SP jerkbait is a great allrounder. Recently updated, it is a little heavier than the original and dives a little deeper – with a bit more stability.

For pike and muskie fishing – the Strike Pro Buster Jerk is worthy of a special mention. Although kind of more of a swimbait (and lipless), fishing this chunky 15cm (150-size; 6″) bait using the jerkbait tips on cadence and retrieve style in this article creates some devastating results with big toothy critters.

Mistakes to avoid when fishing a jerkbait

When fishing any baitfish imitating lure in cold water, it is easy to retrieve them too fast – and jerkbaits are no different. Easy jerkbait tips therefore include slowing your cadence right down when the water temperature drops. While you should experiment with how hard you rip (or how softly you pop or twitch) your baits in cold water; the length of the pause can be hugely extended when the temperatures have plummeted.

A girl is fishing

If you are trying to catch bass (or any predatory fish) in still water venues by ripping or jerking to create a strong “zig-pause-zag-pause” action, don’t make the mistake of dribbling your lure forwards between each rip. This happens when you accidentally wind up too much slack between your rod tip rips. Instead, aim to only wind up 80% of the slack during the pause – that way your jerk motion takes out the slack and almost the full force of the rip hits the lure.

Doing this creates a much bigger contrast between the pause and the jerk phases – and this is one of the keys to creating the most success with a jerkbait.

Another mistake is to automatically start whatever retrieve action right after the bait hits the water. Instead, you need to crank that bait to have it “dig in” and hit its proper running depth first. Only then should you begin to impose the pull and pause cadence of your retrieve. The obvious exception to this is when fishing minnows upstream in flowing water (as discussed in the previous jerkbait tips).

FAQ

What is the best action for jerkbaits?

Probably the biggest advantage when you fish a jerkbait is to utilise that hovering pause (with the bait turned out to one side). That means a suspending bait that you can make dive to the eye-level of the bass, pike, walleye (or whatever!) – and then rip/stop in their face- is the best universal action.

When should I throw a jerkbait?

Because of the ability to go all the way from incredibly long pauses in cold water right up to super-aggressive rip, rip, rip actions when the bass and other predators are active; you can actually use these baits all year round. Spring and Fall might be the typical expectation – but one of the best tips for keeping warm in winter is that jerkbaits are pretty much the only alternative to true “slow fishing” methods.

What is the best line to use for jerkbaits?

As mentioned in the main article, fluorocarbon fished straight through in the 8-12lb range will be the industry standard for bass fishing. Heavy braid with bite-proof traces are the order of the day for toothy predators.

Do jerkbaits work in dirty water?

Yes, for sure! Another of the pro angler bass fishing tips when you don’t have clear water is to throw a white jerkbait (perhaps with a strong accent color) and allow the fish to home in using both sound/vibration and stark color contrast.

Are jerkbaits good for cold water?

Jerkbaits are one of the best options for cold water due to their ability to trigger unresponsive fish. Holding and hovering a bait right in the face of a bass, pike or any predator before kicking that bait around to throw out a flash from its flank can be the key to getting your hook bit in freezing weather.

Do jerkbaits work in ponds?

Jerkbaits work anywhere that predatory species like bass, pike, walleye, muskie swim. Following the jerkbait tips in this article and applying them to ponds will help set you up for success.

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