By Jason Mitchell
Jerkbaits are known by a lot of different names. For example, some folks might call them twitch, stick or minnow baits, but basically any slender-profile, shallow-running, minnow-shaped, hard-sided bait can be classified as a jerkbait.
The classic lure that started this entire lure category is the original Floating Rapala, which has a subdued action along with a very subtle roll and shimmy. Over time, other lures came on the scene, such as the Smithwick Rogue and Rattling Rogue, the Rapala Husky Jerk and X Rap, Lucky Craft Pointer Minnow, Mega Bass Vision and the Salmo Rattlin’ Sting. The list could go on, but it’s important to understand that the actions and characteristics of each jerkbait can vary dramatically between different companies and lures.
What’s even more important to understand is that this entire lure category can be fished to extremes. At one end of the spectrum there are slower, more subtle retrieves where the lure has a tiny footprint, or even steady retrieves interrupted by pauses and stalls with suspending lures.
At the other end of the spectrum are retrieves that snap forward so the jerkbait erratically slashes or slides off one direction only to slide off to the opposite direction on the next rip. Lures designed for these sharp snaps have a much more aggressive action, where anglers often snap the lure forward with a much faster retrieve. Sometimes it might even include three rapid snaps during a reel revolution that causes the lure to snap and slash forward rapidly, then stop or suspend momentarily as you bring your rod back toward the lure.
In my opinion, the very best lures ride horizontally on the stall, and many of the most recent lure designs feature sliding-weight transfers that aid in longer casts. One lure in particular, the new Salmo Rattlin’ Sting, has been called an absolute jerkbait masterpiece by many astute walleye and bass anglers, simply because it does so many things so well.
Traditionally, bass anglers would cast jerkbaits in the spring and fall to cover water fast, while walleye anglers trolled these lures in the spring and fall to cover water fast. Trolling jerkbaits along rip rap or over shallow sand, gravel and rock contours is a proven big walleye equation each year, and another pattern gaining momentum each season is working these lures over flats and shoreline tapers that have emerging weed growth in less than 10 feet of water.
Now, it’s true that some walleye anglers have been casting jerkbaits for years, particularly while wader fishing in the spring and fall around rip rap, current bottlenecks and gravel, but more and more walleye anglers are taking plays from the bass-fishing handbook by casting these lures in more situations at various times of the year.
Trolling vs. Casting
Both casting and trolling jerkbaits have advantages and disadvantages for working these lures to catch walleyes.
Trolling shines whenever fish are relating to large, nondescript locations where fish are spread out over broad areas or whenever you are in search mode trying to quickly work through a new area. Trolling also shines whenever fish are deeper than 5 feet but shallower than 10 feet and won’t rise to chase down a bait.
Casting can be more effective whenever fish are relating to a specific structure or are stacked up against a shoreline. Typically these areas are in less than 5 feet of water or are positioned higher in the water column during high wind periods or after dark.
Casting is also much more efficient when fish are relating to the spot on the spot, which is often the case when fish are clinging to rock piles or weed clumps.
Think of trolling as a broad brush, while casting is a much more precise application. With the advancements in spot-locking features on trolling motors and anchoring devices such as Talons and Power Poles, precise fishing is easier than ever.
Early in the season before the water temperatures hit 60 degrees, I find that I catch more fish trolling jerkbaits by pulling the boat with the bow-mount trolling motor. By trolling with an electric trolling motor, I can creep along at slower speeds that might range from 1 to 1.5 mph.
In extremely clear water, I often use planer boards, monofilament line and do a lot of “S” curves with the boat. Early in the year, fish often seem much spookier, but as the water temps rise, I can get away with a lot more. As the summer progresses, I find that I can pick up my speed to well over 2 mph.
Regardless of time of year, I know for a fact that there are many days when I catch more fish with the rod I am holding by pumping and stopping the lure compared to the stationary rods in holders. It’s been my experience that many hits will come on the turn or the stop after a snap or pump forward.
Wind or weeds combined with really shallow fish often call for casting these baits. Again, early in the season, we often catch more fish with mono and often prefer using a spinning reel as the slower gear ratios make it easier to crawl these lures forward.
If you’re casting, change up your retrieve speed and cadence so you methodically fish every cast a little differently to find a specific groove that fish will respond to. Early in the year, it is really easy to fish these lures too fast. I have to keep reminding myself to slow down. What also happens almost subconsciously is that we tend to fish faster when we are excited. For example, I find that I often have a tendency to fish faster after catching a fish and have to tell myself to slow back down. Finding that zone each day is paramount, and I even go so far as to make every angler in the boat use the exact same rod and reel so that if somebody starts hooking up, we can match the retrieve speed by watching each other.
When fish are a little off, long casts often catch more fish because walleyes are notorious for following and pecking at the back of the lure for a considerable distance. When the fish are aggressive, short casts will allow you to make more casts right in the zone.
When fishing over emerging weeds like cabbage or pencil reeds, fish high in the water column and make the fish come up for the lure, as you won’t catch anything if the lure is constantly fouled up with chaff. As the weeds keep growing higher through the summer, we often find ourselves using shallower lures to stay above the weeds.
Strong wind and waves can also turn on a jerkbait bite. As a rule of thumb, the sweet spot for running depth is double the height of the waves. In other words, in 3-foot swells, try to run about 6 feet deep, but keep in mind that big fish have no problem riding the turbulence right below the surface.
As the water temps heat up over 65 degrees and fish start responding to more aggressive cadences and faster speeds, braided line with a fluorocarbon leader can give the lure a much more pronounced action. It’s also sometimes necessary for snapping off weed stalks while you fish.
Jerkbaits have been in tackle boxes for decades, but they are becoming more popular with mainstream walleye anglers each and every year. Today’s new lure designs have evolved to the point that they can trigger fish regardless of their attitude or time of year. So, whenever fish are shallow, jerkbaits can find and catch fish much more quickly than many other more traditional soft- and live-bait presentations.
About the Author: Jason Mitchell earned his reputation as a fishing guide on North Dakota’s Devils Lake and now hosts the outdoor television program Jason Mitchell Outdoors, which airs on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Midwest. For more information, go to www.jasonmitchelloutdoors.com.