The Definitive Guide to Jerkbait

In most cases the better a bait emulates the prey of a hungry fish the more effective it is. Some baits are designed to mimic more active bottom-feeding baitfish while others, like the jerkbait, look just like a fish in the throes of death. It is this trick that has made the jerkbait so effective. You can catch a wide variety of fish, especially bass, throughout the year with jerkbaits. If you are new to these though it can be a little intimidating.

Jerkbaits are made to suit many different needs and they all have different features. Some float, some sink, some are neutral and the degree to which each one does so varies. They also come in different sizes and colors with a multitude of options available for customization. This all makes the selection, let alone use, of a jerkbait an often daunting and difficult experience. It really doesn’t have to be though. Once you have broken through the initial learning curve of jerkbaits you’ll be using them all the time. 

Defining the jerkbait 

Despite all the variety available for jerkbaits there is still a basic definition to be followed. For one, jerkbaits get their name because of the way that they are fished. Instead of reeling the lure in you move the rod in short and long jerks between long pauses to give the jerkbait that occasionally twitchy look of a dying fish. To best achieve this technique then, there are certain baits that have been designed to do this best under certain conditions. 

The baits themselves come as hard baits and soft baits. The soft baits are relatively new, ultimately have the same effect, but require different tackle and technique. For that reason, we are only going to cover the much more common hard jerkbaits here. These baits are always long and slender and come equipped with a lip that helps pull them under the water. Typically these come as one solid piece, fitted with two or three treble hooks, and designed to float high and level in the water. 

A jerkbait can be fished at varying depths, at different times of the year, in very different water conditions, and for different types of fish. This is where all the variety comes in. The hard-bodied, level floating, lipped bait that is fished in a pause, jerk, pause type style is the quintessential jerkbait. From there you can go wild. 

Getting started with jerkbaits 

To be proficient with jerkbaits there are two things you need to know how to do. The first one is understanding what type of jerkbait you need for the situation at hand. The second is understanding how to use it. If you can pick the right jerkbait and then use it properly you will almost certainly land a fish. Here we will cover the basics of how to do that. 

Selecting the jerkbait you need 

If you have looked at a selection of jerkbaits in a store you’ll know that it can be challenging to know where to start. For such a simple lure there is quite the variety. That’s ok though because we will cover the essential checklist that you need to think through when making your selection. That will streamline the process. The important variations are in size, running depth, action, material, and color. You can start with these and then branch out from there. 

Size matters

For size what you are really looking at is the length and profile of the jerkbait. Keep in mind that you are trying to mimic whatever your targeted fish is eating. Depending on location and time of year this will change. If the baitfish are younger and smaller then you’ll probably want a smaller jerkbait, if they are older and larger you’ll want the opposite. For the average jerkbait situation many anglers prefer a 3 to 5-inch jerkbait for bass. Some folks lean towards the longer end to accommodate three treble hooks instead of three. 

At spawn and at times when fish are sitting shallow and behaving un-aggressively you are better suited to use smaller jerkbaits. When looking at the profile and girth of the jerkbait you need to consider water conditions. If the water is very clear you should use a more slender jerkbait. If the water is murkier though a bulkier jerkbait is better. The rule that supersedes all of this is when in doubt, ask. Locals and jerkbait aficionados can always help guide you. 

Running depth

The most important thing to keep in mind with your jerkbaits concerning depth is that you always want to swim it over the fish and not under them. However, you don’t want to be so far above the fish that you are way out of their strike zone. This is why jerkbaits are designed to function best at different depths and come made with different buoyancies.  

The most common depth options are the shallow 0-3 feet range, the mid-depth 4-7 feet range, and the deep 7 foot plus range. These are the depths that the jerkbait sinks too so that means the fish you are going after will have to be even deeper than that. It is best to have a collection of jerkbaits to target each depth range so you can respond appropriately in each given situation.

You also have to consider the buoyancy of any jerkbait you get. With jerkbaits, you can get floating models, suspending models, and sinking models. The baits usually fall along a spectrum though so it isn’t an exact science. Most jerkbaits are made to suspend when at rest meaning they maintain their depth when paused. This doesn’t mean they are totally motionless though. Good jerkbaits are designed to rock and roll while suspended. These micro-movements attract the largemouth and smallmouth bass

The suspended jerkbaits can also be made to float more or sink more depending on what you add to them. Anglers use certain modifications with jerkbaits to target the exact depths and fish they want. Floaters are really only used in very shallow water while sinking jerkbaits are for probing deeper waters. Having a variety of jerkbaits for different depths and buoyancies is always best. If you’d rather have a minimalist kit though you should have at least three suspending models of jerkbait, one for each depth category. 

The more your jerkbait looks like the baitfish that your targeted fish eats the better off you are.

The action of a jerkbait has come to be one of those subjective things that seem to differ from fisherman to fisherman. Some jerkbaits are designed to pitch and roll erratically while others are very subtle. Built-in wobble and darting action is something that you can consider too. The lip of the jerkbait plays a role in this. A larger lip provides more resistance in the water making the jerkbait harder to control. You will probably want more say in the action of the jerkbait so you should opt for a smaller lip with less resistance.   

Part of fishing with jerkbaits is controlling the action and cadence of the lure. That is the “jerk” in jerkbait. You move the rod, not the reel, to stimulate the movements you want in the bait. After we have finished going over how to select your jerkbait we will then dive into how to fish with it. For now, we will just say that a jerkbait that you can control is usually better than the one you can’t.            

Material  

Most jerkbaits these days are made of a durable plastic that allows for customization and precision in crafting. Some are even modified with rattles that can attract fish. Owning the silent variety and the noisemakers is usually best. Some jerkbaits are made of wood such as balsa wood and these can be very interesting. The irregular grain in wood makes each one unique so it’s action is also unique. The wooden ones might be a little harder to control at first but a good one can bring out some real surprises. 

Color

There has already been a lot to consider when selecting your jerkbaits but the more you do it the easier it will become. You’ll start to default on, say, a 4.5” suspended jerkbait with minimal action that works at a shallow depth. All that remains then is color. To determine what color you should get you need to consider a couple of things first. Experienced anglers will probably have their own system for deciding on exactly what colors to use and, as with many things in fishing, it is better to avoid any hard and fast rules here. 

Generally speaking, you need to consider water clarity, how bright a day it is, and what type of baitfish the fish you want is going for. You can go with more solid/opaque colors in stained water and more translucent ones in clear waters. Go with natural patterns that match the local fish but also have a few crazy colors to mix things up. Sometimes it is simply a matter of trial and error until you find something that sticks. This is how it goes with jerkbaits. You need options that you can knowledgeably play with until you find the sweet spot for the day and location you are fishing. 

Modifying the baits 

Once you have developed a small arsenal of jerkbaits you are ready to go. Now you just have to learn how to use them and how to modify them. We will get to the technique of casting and retrieving jerkbaits shortly. The main modifications for jerkbaits involve adding modifications to a basic jerkbait such as lead strips to help it sink more or feathers to make it more visually stimulating. Some anglers get very creative here. The goal of most modifications is to customize buoyancy and visibility. 

Considerations for jerkbait tackle 

You can have some of the best jerkbaits in the world but if you fish them with the wrong tackle you won’t get as much out of them as you could. First, let’s discuss your rod. The jerkbait’s effectiveness relies upon how it is presented and how well you can jerk it with the rod. Medium-power rods around 6’6” to 7’ are most popular with jerkbaits. These rods allow anglers to make nice downward rod snaps without touching the water. The faster the action the better. 

The next major consideration is what type of line you use. Line choice will influence a jerkbait’s performance. If you go with the braided line then 15 to 20 lb test braid is what is most common. Braid is great for longer casts in clear water and allows for more transmittance of force from rod snaps to the jerkbait. Sometimes it is worth adding a fluorocarbon leader to soften the cast. It makes you a little more stealthy. 

Alternatively, you might want to go for an 8 to 14-pound test fluorocarbon or monofilament for your line. If you go with fluorocarbon you can avoid tying a leader and the line itself is much less visible if you are dealing with any line averse fish in clear waters. The fluoro is more likely to sink though so your lure will dive deeper on this line. With the mono, you get the opposite effect. It will float so the jerkbait will stay shallower. 

The when, where, and how of jerkbaits 

The three components of actually fishing with a jerkbait are where you do it, when you do it, and how you do it. Each is informed by the other. Location plays a big part in the use of jerkbait. The type of jerkbait you use really depends on the fish you are going for. Location, as well as the time of year, influences that. You can fish the jerkbait in just about any location though. Rocky shorelines, grass flats, near docks, at drop-offs, and even out in open water. 

It is up to you to do your research on the location. As we have covered, depth plays a major role in what kind of jerkbait you are going to use. As does the time of year. If you are fishing around spawn you might want to use a smaller lure to mimic the baitfish. Your choice of tackle needs to be influenced by the location and time of year. The whole goal is to make the jerkbait look like a tasty snack to the fish you want.

Pre-spawn and late fall are probably the two best times to use a jerkbait if you are fishing in cold clear waters. Another great time to shoot for is the summer months when schooling fish come up. Regardless of the season though the rule stands that clear waters make for better jerkbait fishing. This is definitely a sight bait.   

Creating the jerk in jerkbait 

To begin fishing with a jerkbait start with the rod pointing down at the 4 o’clock position. Then snap the rod down to 5 or 6 o’clock leaving some slack in the line when the rod is snapped. You want to quickly bring the rod back to the 4 o’clock position and reel in some line. Again, maintain enough slack so the jerkbait has some freedom to move on its own. 

Now, to bring it all together you just repeat these first steps but introduce some pauses. Try variations of jerking and pausing like jerk, jerk, pause or jerk, pause, jerk and see what works best. You need to make sure you are matching the energy level of the fish you want to catch too. If waters are warmer and the fish are more energetic you can be faster on the retrieve with shorter pauses. When it is cold, you should slow down. 

The fun of fishing with jerkbaits is that there is never one way to do it. You can always start with a few tried and true methods but as conditions like temperature, wind, cloudiness, and others change you have to as well. Some seasons the baitfish are bigger, sometimes smaller, other seasons the fish are more lethargic in warm waters and other times not. You need to be prepared to introduce some variety into your choice of jerkbait and retrieve technique until you find what best matches the fish that day. 

With the right jerkbait in the right conditions almost anyone can catch a fish. 

Final Verdict:

The jerkbait is something that works very well at certain times of the year but can be used year-round by someone who knows what they are doing. Understanding the varieties of jerkbaits available really helps and then knowing how to best present them to the fish your targeting finishes the task. The best jerkbait fishermen always keep the fish in mind. They are mindful of where the fish are feeding and what they are feeding on. Understanding this allows you to pick the right jerkbait and present it in the right place. Once you can do that you will be well on your way to landing all sorts of fish with this effective lure.    

Bonus tip: Learn how to make beautiful handmade wooden jerkbaits from home!   

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