By Mike Stephens - email
Fall and pre-winter water conditions are a time when smallmouth bass feed heavy. In a sense, they want to fatten up before winter and become extremely aggressive. But the timeframe between summer and winter is plagued with constant, sometimes extreme pressure front and other weather fluctuations that can trump natural feeding instincts. To combat this you need a lure that has the ability to cover a lot of water fast and give both an aggressive and a finesse presentation. This is why jerk baits reign supreme in the fall.
Before we talk technique, let's go over some equipment selections. A reel with a gear ratio in the 4.5:1 to 6:1 range is ideal. This gear range gives you the ability for fast line retrieval, but allows you to slow it down when needed. You need to spool the reel with line that has very minimal or no stretch, preferably braided line. A medium weight rod with a fast action is also needed to fish jerk baits. If you use a line with too much stretch or a rod with an action that is to slow it will be like swinging a baseball bat all day. You are also going to miss fish because you won't be able to set the hook fast enough or you will lose contact with the lure causing disruptions in the bait presentation.
Most jerk bait fishing is done with hard plastics but soft plastics are useful to fish close to structure in deeper waters. They're also particularly useful when rigged weed-less to target fish hiding in aquatic vegetation. Soft plastic jerks are typically minnow shaped and commonly called "flukes" but can be fat bodied grubs or creature baits.
Hard jerks or stick baits can be any floating or suspending lure affixed with a dive bill. Floating lures will return to the surface when line tension is relieved while suspending lures will remain under the water surface. The general approach to fishing with jerks is to reel in the lure while jerking and twitching the rod so the lure makes sporadic movements that mimic a wounded baitfish to attract fish. The main key is to find what retrieval speed the fish like and where they like the bait at in the water column so you have to mix it up and you have to have a plan.
Planning is the simple part but you need to be methodical, fish hard, and cover a lot of water. Look for ledges or rock structure in water that is 12 foot deep or less. Start at the surface and work your way down to the bottom until you find fish or vice versa. Regardless of how you start, it's important to alter retrieval techniques until the fish bite. There are 3 main retrieval techniques I use for jerk baits; Fast, Slow, & Intermittent.
"Fast" is a continuous retrieve that involves turning the reel crank and jerking the rod at the same time. Crank the reel 1 to 2.5 times a second and jerk the rod every 2 to 4 cranks. Try single jerks as well as double jerks and randomly alternate. Remember to mix it up. Alternate the frequency of the jerks and crank speed. It's an aggressive technique. If the fish take your lure with a fast retrieve it means they're aggressively feeding and catching will be awesome.
The slow technique moves the lure continuously through the water but you are never cranking the reel and jerking the rod at the same time. Start with a jerk followed by 1 to 4 cranks on the reel. As soon as you stop the crank, jerk the rod again. Alternate the number of cranks between jerks as well as the crank speed. Use a little patience. If you have to crank the reel while jerking the rod to keep tension on the line you're going too fast or your jerks are too aggressive for a slow retrieve.
"Intermittent" is a retrieval technique used to entice fish that aren't sure if they're hungry or maybe aren't in a mood to chase their food. This technique requires the lure to pause during the retrieve. The reel is not used to advance the lure but only to take up slack in the line. It's a similar technique to the slow retrieve but after your line slack is taken in you will pause 1/2 to 5 seconds before your next jerk sequence. Randomly alter your slack retrieval speed, pause time, and jerk sequence. The jerk sequence with this technique can be a small twitch, an aggressive jerk, a long pull or a series of twitches, jerks, pulls or any combo you can think of. The beauty of this technique is that it can be a faster retrieve or a patience testing ultra-slow retrieve that moves the lure towards you inches at a time.
As with any type of fishing, it's important to employ good rod handling practices and line retention. Always keep tension on your line. When jerking or twitching the rod, use downward angle jerks or horizontal strokes that keeps the rod tip in a position that allows you to set the hook when a fish strikes.
When building your jerk bait box set it up to so you have a variety of lures. Try to have small lures in the 2" to 3" size and large lures in the 4" to 6" range. Collect lures with different dive bill sizes and keep a couple different colors on hand. White, silver, & gold bases cover a wide range of baitfish imitators. When choosing suspending baits, use different brand names. Different manufactured lures suspend at different depths which gives you more versatility when trying to find fish in the water column.