Now that jerkbaits have become established as essential bass lures, a consensus exists among many respected anglers regarding when and where to cast these baits for optimal success.
Since a bass responds to a jerkbait mainly through its sense of sight, clear water ensures more strikes. A visibility of 2 feet is minimal, and some accomplished anglers won't cast a jerkbait unless visibility exceeds 3 feet.
As for primary jerkbait cover, rocks and aquatic vegetation stand apart from other options. In early spring, main lake bluff walls figure high on Tim Horton's jerkbait hit list. This young Alabamian, the 2000 BASS Angler of the Year, claims he fishes jerkbaits as much as 70 percent of the time during the prespawn phase.
"The best time to fish rocky bluffs is when the water temperature climbs to the high 40s to low 50s," says Horton. "That's when you'll catch big females feeding up before they move into spawning areas. This pattern works on Pickwick, Wilson, Ouachita, Lake of the Ozarks, Bull Shoals and many other clear water impoundments."
Horton concentrates his casts on bluffs where the walls start to break up, where points form and where the rock composition changes. It was a change in composition that did the trick for Horton when he fished a Bassmaster Invitational in February on Alabama's Lake Martin. He had located spotted bass on bluffs that plunged into 30 to 40 feet of water. The bass were holding along edges where the predominantly light limestone converted to short stretches of black sandstone.
"I suspect more algae grew on the darker rock, and that was what attracted the baitfish the bass were feeding on," says Horton.
Though Horton's primary jerkbait is a 5-inch Smithwick suspending Super Rogue, a 4 1/8-inch suspending Super Rogue Jr. produced more strikes during the Lake Martin tournament. With the water temperature in the mid-50s, the bass were active and responsive to a steady twitch-twitch-pause retrieve that incorporated pauses of about two seconds. A 4-pound, 15-ounce spotted bass earned Horton big bass honors on the second competition day and helped him finish the tournament in 15th place.
"The spots were holding about 5 feet off the bluffs, maybe 10 feet deep," says Horton. "It's common for bass to suspend off a bluff as far as 10 feet. That's true whether the fish are spots, smallmouth or largemouth."
While searching for bass along bluffs with a depthfinder, Horton often finds them suspended about 15 feet deep over 20 or more feet of water. McCoy Mean Green 8-pound copolymer allows Horton to work a 5-inch suspending Super Rogue 6 to 7 feet deep and impart a livelier action than can be accomplished with heavier line.
"Early in the spring, I have more success drawing bass up to a jerkbait than running a crankbait down past them," says Horton. "When they see a jerkbait above them, I think bass commit to the strike before they get a close look at the bait."
Horton flings a clown color Rogue most often, and he frequently does well with a chrome Rogue sporting a black back and orange belly. He casts these lures with a 6-foot, 6-inch Pflueger Trion medium heavy graphite baitcasting rod. The exception is when he is bucking a stiff wind, in which case he switches to a spinning rod in the same length and action to avoid backlashes and achieve sufficient casting distance.
To stay in tune with bass, Horton's jerkbait cadence varies considerably. He typically gives the bait two or three jerks between pauses. The length of the pause may be as long as 15 seconds in cold water, or just a heartbeat in warm water when the bass are more active. As a general rule, he employs a more upbeat retrieve when fishing for smallmouth and spots than for largemouth.
Prespawn bass also swarm aquatic vegetation, such as hydrilla and milfoil. No one is more aware of this fact than Cincinnati, Ohio, BASS veteran Joe Thomas, who relies heavily on jerkbaits when fishing such grass-rich impoundments as Sam Rayburn and Guntersville. Thomas begins catching bass from grass on jerkbaits when the water hits 50 degrees, and he continues to have success with this approach until the bass commence spawning.
"Early in the spring, I concentrate on emerging grass near secondary points in coves," says Thomas. "There may not be any grass on the point itself, because it may have a hard bottom, such as gravel. The grass usually grows in pockets adjacent to the points. The bass may stage on the points first, and then move into the grass to feed before they spawn."
If Thomas finds grass growing about 18 inches tall in 4 to 7 feet of water around a secondary point, his pulse quickens. He regards this as a superb combination for prespawn jerkbait fishing. The grass is too short to be seen with the eye and must be located with a depthfinder. The Bottom Line 4300 on the bow of Thomas' Skeeter lets him know when he has found the vegetation he seeks.
"When the grass is short, you may not find a well-defined edge," says Thomas. "That's really not a big deal, because the bass could be anywhere in the grassbed."
Thomas keeps his boat moving while he fan casts a Lucky Craft Pointer 100 or Staysee jerkbait over the grass. The short-billed Pointer 100 runs 3 to 4 feet deep on the 12-pound Stren Moss Green monofilament Thomas always uses when fishing jerkbaits over grass. The long-billed Staysee digs to about 6 feet. Thomas goes with whichever model is required to occasionally snatch the tips of the grass.
"I snap the jerkbait slowly across the grass with a jerk-jerk, pause; jerk-jerk, pause," says Thomas. "The only thing I change is the length of the pauses. When the water's 50 degrees, I might give the pause a three count, which seems like an eternity when you're fishing in a tournament."
Long casts rule when Thomas combs grassbeds, which is the reason he wields a 7-foot medium light graphite Quantum Tour Edition rod. His jerkbaits are likely to draw a bass from anywhere within a grassbed, but his odds increase substantially when the lure comes across a boulder, sand patch or some other hard bottom bald spot. Such places often yield more than one bass and, at times, harbor a mother lode.
"When you find an opening like that in a grassbed, you'll usually catch numerous fish," says Thomas. "I do get big fish on this pattern, but I have better luck catching limits of keeper bass with it."
As the water warms in the spring, the grass grows closer to the surface as bass move farther back into more protected waters, where they eventually spawn. At this time, the grass is plainly visible beneath the surface through polarized sunglasses.
"Canals and small pockets that have shallow vegetation are excellent spots for a jerkbait presentation," says Thomas. "You'll find places like these on any grass lake, including those in Florida, like the Harris Chain and St. Johns River. Bass will stage on grass in the middle of a canal before they move to the bank to spawn."
If the shallow bottom has clumps of grass with sandy bare spots in it, Thomas knows he has found ideal jerkbait water. He casts his bait past individual grass clumps and twitches it across the cover. Because the water is generally out of the wind and calm, the bass often respond to a more subtle presentation. Thomas adjusts by switching to a 3-inch Pointer 78, which runs 2 to 3 feet deep.
Weather and water conditions dictate Thomas' jerkbait color. In cold water, he favors Lucky Craft's Nishiki (clown). He responds to bright skies with Aurora Black, which has a black back, bluish silver sides and a white belly. Under cloudy conditions, he favors gold with a black back and orange belly.
"I give jerkbaits a hard workout until bass go on the beds," says Thomas. "Then I switch to other tactics, such as sight fishing. Even during postspawn, I generally have better luck with a soft plastic jerkbait or a topwater plug than I do with a hard jerkbait."
Jerkbait fishing picks up again in the fall, as cooling water pulls shad and other baitfish up from deep water. The baitfish often congregate on riprap and chunk rock on which algae has grown. Windy conditions also push baitfish against rocky banks. Bass follow their food source, which allows Kentuckian Scott Patton to pick them off the rocks with a 5 ½-inch Rapala Husky Jerk.
Fishing a jerkbait in autumn produces largemouth and smallmouth bass for Patton when he guides on Cumberland, Dale Hollow and Kentucky lakes. Autumn rocks also have come through many times in tournaments for this CITGO Bassmaster Tour professional.
"I fish a lot of rocky banks in the fall, especially when I'm guiding on Dale Hollow and Cumberland," says Patton. "The action starts picking up in October. I find a lot of bass on secondary points in creeks. I have good luck on points made up of riprap or natural rock."
The most productive points, Patton has found, have a channel with deeper water that swings close to them. Early in the fall, he concentrates on points in the midsections of major creek arms. As the water continues to cool, Patton finds bass on secondary points farther up into the creeks. The points are likely to yield bass anytime in autumn, but they are at their best when a stiff wind blows.
"When the wind drives baitfish tight to the rocks, I keep my boat close to the bank and work a jerkbait parallel to the point," says Patton. "I try to keep my bait in water from about 2 to 10 feet deep."
A 7-foot, medium action fiberglass rod matched with 10-pound line serves up Patton's Husky Jerks. In fall, he opts for chrome with black back, and chrome with a green back.
Patton also fishes windblown main lake points with his jerkbaits, especially points that have a deep channel running along one side. Many anglers overlook bass in these locations because they concentrate on the steep side of the point, where the bottom plunges to 30 feet or more. Before the water temperature drops below 60 degrees or so, Patton finds bass feeding on the shallow sides of such points.
"On lakes like Cumberland and Dale Hollow, even the shallow side of a creek channel point will have 10 to 15 feet of water," says Patton. "When bass are on the flat side, you can load up on them with a jerkbait. But when the water drops much below 60 degrees, they move around to the channel side of the point and usually hold too deep to catch consistently with jerkbaits."
Prime jerkbait conditions
"The absolute best time to fish jerkbaits is when you've got sun and wind," says Joe Thomas. "These conditions are generally more common at midday. I'm not saying you can't catch bass on jerkbaits when it's overcast, but my confidence goes way up under bright skies and windy weather. That holds true whether I'm fishing in the spring or fall, and even during cold water periods."
Mark Hicks is the author of Fishing The Ohio River, which may be purchased for $15.95 (shipping included). Send checks to Big River Press, P.O. Box 130, Millfield, OH 45761; credit card orders, 800-447-8238.