The Complete Guide to Jerkbait Fishing For Smallmouth Bass
There is nothing quite like the strike of a smallmouth bass; this is especially true when they are crushing jerkbaits, hard or soft. What do these lures do well? How should we be fishing them? What gear should we be using? It’s time to dive into the ins and outs of jerkbait fishing for smallmouth bass.
I realised a long time ago that smallmouth and jerkbaits have a special relationship. Those long, slender profiles get northeastern smallies to come unglued like no other!
When looking at jerkbaits, they can be split into two main categories – hard baits and soft baits.
Let’s start by looking at hard baits. Generally long and thin, these baits can be broken down into two further styles – suspending and floating.
Hard Jerkbaits: Suspending
The first and most popular style is the suspending jerkbait. These lures “suspend” in the water column, meaning that once they reach running depth, they will sit in that zone. The running depth is dictated by the size of the lip – the bigger the lip, the deeper it will run.
Suspending jerkbaits are weighted in a way that makes them neutrally buoyant, allowing for long stop-and-go retrieves. I use suspending jerkbaits in the cooler months to target deeper structures such as drop-offs, submerged cover, and ledges.
I like to have a range of suspending jerkbaits that cover all depths and color spectrums
Gear for Suspending Jerkbaits
When fishing suspending jerkbaits, there are a few things to consider from a rod and reel perspective. We’re looking for a setup that can support long casts and pick up line quickly.You’ll need a rod with enough power to handle long-distance hook sets and keep the treble hooks in place while fighting fish. On top of this, the rod needs enough give to keep smallmouth pinned, with a backbone capable of moving hard fighting fish when required.
Use a reel with a fast gear ratio. You need to be able to pick up slack line after ripping the bait and catch up with fish pushing the bait from the rear.
Hard Jerkbaits: Floating
Floating jerkbaits float at rest and dive on retrieval. Any pause or stop in the retrieve will allow them time to rise through the water column, eventually reaching the surface.
These baits are deadly in the summer and when the fish lurk under and around cover. You can tick the top of the cover, pause, and the bait will rise up enough to not get snagged. They are usually fished much faster than suspending jerkbaits, and their action is generally more erratic.
Floating jerkbaits can be a deadly summer bait
Gear for Floating Jerkbaits
As the name suggests, floating jerkbaits are lighter than their suspending or soft plastic brothers. For balsa baits and other very lightweight floaters, I use spinning tackle for the sake of casting. The sinking action of fluorocarbon line provides floating jerkbaits with a nose-down presentation and helps them come over cover without snagging.
Soft plastic jerkbaits can be fished in any manner that an angler would use a traditional soft plastic lure. They are long, slender, minnow-shaped plastics, and most have a channel through the middle for the hook to sit in.This channel helps with hook sets, as you don’t need to penetrate through the entire plastic body to reach the fish. These lures are incredibly versatile, with many ways to rig them including weightless Texas, traditional Texas, hard head, Tokyo, and drop shot. They can also be used on a jig head or an underspin setup.
Unlike their hard body counterparts, soft plastic jerkbaits can be fished through the entire water column, regardless of depth. The one area soft jerkbaits cannot compete with hard baits is in the realm of being truly suspended in the water.
Versatility is the reason that soft plastic jerkbaits are such a workhorse
Gear for Soft Plastic Jerkbaits
The ideal gear setup for soft plastic jerkbaits depends entirely on the approach being used.
For standard, single hook Texas rig presentations, I recommend using a braided mainline and a stout rod, for increased responsiveness. This approach makes it easier to drive the hook through the lure’s plastic body. With a weightless soft jerkbait, there will be moments of slack. The braid helps combat the loss of contact with increased sensitivity.
I change up my rod when fishing a hard head or Tokyo rig. These presentations call for rapid line pick-up, longer casts, and great hook-setting power. We will need a longer rod to move as much line as possible and enough give in the tip to keep the bait in the fish’s mouth. I stick with my Daiwa CA80 reel in 8.3:1, but I pair it with Smackdown Braid in 30 lb test and either a 15 lb Red Label leader or tied directly to the braid. All rigged up on a Dobyns Fury 7’3” heavy action rod.
The Dobyns Fury 7’3” heavy action rod is a great choice for soft plastic jerkbaits
Jerkbait Selection: Fit the Season
The season is the number one factor when deciding where and what jerkbait to target lunker smallies with. Here, we will break down the main seasonal considerations and my approach for catching smallmouth bass on jerkbaits.
Spring Jerkbait Fishing
When water temperatures are in the 40s to low 50s, it’s time for a suspending jerkbait. Smallmouth bass are cold-blooded, so they become docile when the water is close to freezing. With that said, smallmouths still need to eat. Suspending jerkbaits are a great option here, as they sit in their faces and look like a quick meal.
When moving into that true pre-spawn time of year – when water temperatures reach the low 60s – I always have a suspending jerkbait and a soft jerkbait rigged up and ready to go. If the area I am in has substantial weed growth, I will be throwing the soft jerkbait predominantly.
Especially in spring, I like to fish my soft plastic jerkbaits on a short drop shot or Tokyo rig, to target those bedding fish when the spawn occurs. This is when I also reach for a paddle or wide tail jerkbait. The added thump helps stir up bedding fish, plus it’s more of a visual to key in on.
Areas to Target
In spring, I like to make long casts over pre-spawn flats and deep points. Rocky bottoms hold heat better than sand or wood laydowns, so I aim to target these areas. I want that bait to get down and stay down, so longer, wider lipped jerkbait models get the nod.
The retrieve during the pre-spawn period starts with a friendly, slow jerk, jerk, pause, and changes depending on the response from the fish. Don’t be afraid to get aggressive with your retrieve. Smallmouth bass love a good snap, snap retrieve. Concentrate on staging areas, such as deep breaks adjacent to shallow water and big spawning flats.
Don’t hesitate to move into areas with emerging weeds. A hard or soft jerkbait ticking off the top of vegetation is too much for many smallies to resist.
When jerkbait fishing for smallmouth bass, I prefer areas with clear water and a slight wind to create some surface chop. With that said, don’t shy away from throwing jerkbaits in the spring where murky water meets clear, which can happen with ever-changing water levels.
During spring, I lean on natural colors – shad, perch, and other baitfish colors. For some reason, I find clown colors to be a consistent producer in the colder periods of spring – although this may just be on my local water!
I use brighter colored baits when fishing a Tokyo rig, as this situation is as much a deep-sight fishing technique as it is a game of feeling the bite.
I prefer a 4-6 inch bait when using jerkbaits in spring. The baitfish that inhabit the waters at this time of year aren’t fry size; they are fully grown. Match the hatch with the size of your bait.
I like the Lucky Craft Pointer series, Smithwick Rattlin Rogue, and Rapala Husky Jerkbaits during spring. These are traditional producers with a tight wiggle instead of a wobble. These baits have years of proven fish catching behind them.
As far as a drop shot goes, I like tossing a Z-Man Finesse Shadz. They float, which adds to their action on a drop shot.
During the spawn, when bed fishing calls for a Tokyo, I reach for a Gambler Flappin Shad or a Yum Houdini Shad. I like the bigger flat tail instead of the twin tails that I typically run on a soft jerkbait.
The Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue jerkbait is one of my spring favorites
Summer Jerkbait Fishing
Areas to Target
As we move into the post-spawn period, look to target those weed beds using soft jerkbaits, rigged weedless. The Zoom Super Fluke is the only bait I use for this purpose. The outside edge of the weedline acts as a structure, rather than cover. In summer, I will target this area with a suspending jerkbait, usually reaching for the Rapala X Rap or Lucky Craft Pointer.
Erratic baits such as the Rapala X Rap get the nod in the heat of the summer
During summer, highly visual, contrast baits are the way to go. With increased boat traffic and more weeds, the lure needs to stand out. I like Fire tiger, Chartreuse, and Bubblegum colors for summer jerkbait fishing.
The evening bite in summer requires a different approach. Floating jerkbaits over rock piles and other hard structures are known to draw bites from big smallmouth bass.
Put an aggressive action on your jerkbait – fast snaps with a fast retrieve. The floating jerkbait backs up on the pauses, often causing a smallmouth to hammer it.
My favorite baits for this technique are Storm Thunder Sticks, Yo Zuri Crystal Minnows, Original Rapala Floating Minnow, and the Smithwick Floating Rattlin Rogue. Try to throw big baits, generally three hook models when available.
Another summer smallmouth in slightly off-color water
Fall Jerkbait Fishing
An angler should follow the earlier progression but in reverse order. Keep in mind that the bronzebacks are trying to pack on that winter weight and will be targeting full-sized baitfish.
As the water warms, we speed up our retrieve, and as the water cools, we slow down. We will generally be working with dropping temperatures in the fall, which means start the period fast and finish slow.
Natural baitfish colors are the way to go. Throw them in Perch, Shad, and Shiner patterns. Black and silver are also great options when in doubt.
A smallmouth bass falling to a jerkbait in fall
Winter Jerkbait Fishing
As temperatures plummet, it’s essential to seek out deeper structures and topography. Again, rocky bottoms are ideal areas as they retain heat and ultimately, the fish will hold wherever it is warmest. Be that open water or areas with dead foliage.We are chasing warmer water temperatures as much as we are forage in the winter. Stick with the same baits from fall and early spring, but work them s-l-o-w. Do not hesitate to pause for long periods, measured in seconds. Count if you have to; I like to snap the rod, and then count 5-7 seconds before the next snap.
3 Top Jerkbait Tips
1. Try a Carolina Rig
Partnering a jerkbait with a Carolina rig is an often-overlooked approach. Carolina rigs are a power presentation and draw big bites. With the weight out in front of the leader and the bait suspended above the bottom, you can target those chunks down in very deep water.
This approach has paid off for me personally. During a local tournament, when everyone else was focusing on fishing shallow, I targeted a deep structure with a soft plastic jerkbait on a Carolina Rig to pick off a winning sack of smallmouth.
2. Follow Up Missed Strikes
Soft plastic jerkbaits are great for following up a missed topwater or spinnerbait bite. Immediately drop the rod from the missed bait, toss a soft jerkbait to the spot, and hold on.
3. Search for Fish
I often use suspending jerkbaits as a search bait – do not discount the jerkbait’s ability to cover water; this also applies to soft jerkbaits.
Now it’s time to go out there and give it a go! As with everything, the best teacher is experience. Take the seasonal cues I’ve laid out, and then work out what the fish want. Remember, fishing is supposed to be fun, and there isn’t anything more fun than a tank of a smallmouth loading up on a suspended jerkbait.