Largemouths cruise over dense weeds they use for bomb shelters later in the day.
Long cast. Twitch, pause. Snap, pause.
The lure hovers over the weed tops and neither sinks nor rises until it emerges in a spray-blasting explosion, fixed to the jaw of a largemouth bass.
Midday. Smallmouths suspend away from a rocky point. They came up for a Pop-R at daybreak, but not now. Long cast. Snap, snap, pause. The bait hovers like a paralyzed baitfish, terrified at the approach of so many bronze shadows from below.
Rapala Husky Jerks, Smithwick Rogues, Lucky Craft Pointers, Megabass Vision OneTen—the list gets longer every year.
Big largemouths are essentially helpless when faced with suspending baits before the spawn and when the water cools again in fall.
Suspending baits—“jerkbaits” to some—are all the rage today, but they aren’t new. Rebel Lures came out with a suspending crankbait called the Suspend-R back in the late 1970s. It had a slimmer profile than most cranks back then—along the lines of a Bomber Model A. One came with me to Canada and cleaned up on walleyes. Every time it cracked a rock, I paused it there. Walleyes would investigate the noise and snarf the lurking crankbait.
That bait didn’t catch on. Such a shame. It wasn’t until somewhere around 1990, with the advent of lures like the Smithwick Suspending Rattlin’ Rogue and then the Rapala Husky Jerk, that suspense came back in vogue. Not surprisingly, those two venerable jerks remain favorites for bass today—especially in cold water.
With the right gear—and careful selection of the right baits—jerkbaits kick bass from ice-out to ice up in Great Lakes country. Many pros use casting gear—6-.6-foot rods with 10-pound monofilament line. Things that make you say “hmmmm.” A 7.5-foot, medium-light to medium power spinning rod (depending on the size and weight of baits being thrown) coupled with a moderate-sized spinning reel casts suspending baits much farther—especially when using 8- to 10-pound braided line. Braid allows you to feel the bait move much better than mono, even when it’s way the heck out there. Telegraphs strikes much better, too. Sets hooks better, too. As much as television demands the opposite, pros don’t know everything.
Braid has far less stretch, so even the lightest take transmits better. It lasts for years without breaking down. And that mushy sensation created by a bass missing or turning away at the last instant is much easier to feel, telling us a fish is there but didn’t like the smell, color, size, or something about the lure. (I always apply scent—usually Dr. Juice— to hardbaits.)
Berkley FireLine works because it’s coated. Coating allows me to tie in an 8- to 10-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader with a back-to-back uni knot—a knot that can slide through the guides and not fail. I think non-coated lines abraid the fluorocarbon, eventually causing the knot to fail. Good connecting knots with FireLine can last all season long, saving time and money.
The leader adds stealth and stretch. Tests in tanks reveal bass can’t see it very well, if at all.
Smallmouths can go wild on suspending baits throughout the entire open-water season.
Braid is opaque and, though much thinner, is conversely much more visible to bass. And a little stretch helps keep bass from ripping free of the hooks. Fishing for river smallmouths when Husky Jerks first appeared, I started out tying direct with braid. I lost the first half dozen fish hooked. I tied in a 10-pound monofilament leader (always an option in dark or cloudy water) and boated the next half dozen.
Color, size, and shape matter. If bass follow but won’t strike, or nothing is happening at all, try chasing colors or models. I always start with perch-imitating colors, especially during pre-spawn (water temperatures below 60°F). Perch spawn in the 50°F range—they’re concentrated and distracted, making easy marks for bass. My next choices tend to follow from gold-black, to baby bass, to silver-black, to pink, then fire-tiger.
Tie a snap to the end of the leader for chasing baits quick. Berkley Cross-Lok snaps are pointed, which dulls the action slightly— perfect in cold water (less than 55°F). Rounded snaps, like the SPRO Duo Locks, allow more freedom of movement. From postspawn through summer (water temperatures of 65°F and higher), erratic action inspires more violence, and rounded snaps intensify those active, snappy retrieves.
Most baits have a recipe that isn’t included in the box—a blueprint for working a lure in different conditions. Toss a jerkbait about 10 feet from the boat, draw it down to its running depth and watch it work. Start with the rod tip down, get the line tight, and push the rod tip toward the bait, creating about 6-inches of slack line. Snap the slack out of the line. The idea is to “walk the dog” underwater, getting the bait to turn side-to-side with each slack-line snap. Pause after each snap. That’s the basic, bread-and-butter retrieve.
Pay close attention to several things:
Some baits, like the Rapala Husky Jerk and the Smithwich Rattlin’ Rogue, resist erratic action even when the rod tip is snapped violently downward through slack line. Which is a great think in cold water.
Those baits have been my go-to jerks for many years during pre-spawn, especially when water temperatures are in the 40°F range.
Watch a minnow in cold water. It seems to progress from point A to point B without moving any body parts. That’s what bass expect to see, and that’s what bass respond to best in cold water.
Other baits, like the Dynamic Lures J-Spec and the Rapala Shadow Rap, go nuts with the slightest encouragement, making them right during summer. Work them beside the boat and watch to make sure you’re not actually overworking and spinning these lures out.
Husky Jerks and Rogues tend to rise during a pause right out of the box—which is bad in cold water. Sometimes a pause has to last a minute or more before a slowly-rising bass will strike in cold water. Husky Jerks and Rogues each require 2 or 3 Storm Suspen-Dots—sticky little circular lead tapes—to make them suspend perfectly. Lucky Craft Pointers, on the other hand, always come out of the box suspending perfectly, and are a good choice in all conditions.
Suspen-Dots should be placed dead center, right on the seam of the belly. If no seam exists, use the hook anchors as a guide, lining up the center of the Dot with the anchor. If the Dot is farther up one side of the bait than the other, the lure can be thrown off kilter. I want lures to hover horizontally on the pause in the early season, so Dots are placed between the front hook and the middle hook. Sometimes one needs to be placed near the rear hook, especially with Rogues.
Check it out boatside and move Dots around as needed.
Watch at boat side to see what each different lure does through a series of triggering moves. Twitch it, pop it, pull it, rip it, and tease it. Then try lifting the rod tip through a slack-line snap, as opposed to driving the rod tip down. Some baits respond by turning nose up in a vertical position, which is what plankton-feeding baitfish do. Some days that trigger produces the most strikes, some days not. Jerkbaits have an amazing repertoire of triggering moves, and most days each has to be tried before a successful pattern emerges.
Long-bill suspenders, like this LiveTarget Rainbow Smelt Deep-Dive Jerkbait, begin outproducing shallow runners when bass of all species begin to hold on deeper cover and structure from late summer through fall.
But early in the season, the same approach tends to work best year after year:
Cast, pull the bait down to running depth and pause it for 20 seconds or longer. When moving it, don’t snap it at all and don’t reel. Just pull slowly—just fast enough to feel the bait begin to wobble (another reason to use braided line). Pull it about 2 feet, stop, and follow with another long pause. Then barely twitch it with little popping motions of the rod tip. Most days, the strike feel. like an almost imperceptible tap.
Before bass spawn, it’s so very typical to find them cruising several feet off bottom in 6 to 12 feet of water. Shallow-running jerks with standard-sized lips are best. Rogues, Pointer 78s, and Husky Jerks dive about 5 to 6 feet, while Pointer 100s can dive 8 feet on braided line. (The smaller 78 takes more smallmouths in some waters, but the 100 tends to get bit more in big water and it’s always right for largemouths.)
A few weeks after the spawn, bass respond better to a quick, erratic, snap-snap-snap-pauserepeat retrieve—especially smallmouths. But the entire repertoire of triggering moves comes into play. Try something different on each cast, and try to remember what you were doing before being distracted by a thrashing, doubled-over spinning rod.
Spinning gear and braided line produce longer casts, better feel, and solid hooksets, especially when the length of the rod is 7 feet or more.
Keep the wind at your back. Jerks tend to helicopter when pitched into the wind. Controlled drifting is the best way to cover the kinds of flats bass use early in the year. On the Great Lakes, smallmouths go way up on shallow sand flats in spawning bays, typically milling around in water only 5 feet deep or so.
Largemouths tend to cruise the edges of spawning flats, very typically 5 or 6 feet down in 8 feet of water.
Long casts are critical, especially in clear-water environments. Bass follow suspending baits— sometimes all the way to the boat. Long casts give you more time and space to find the right trigger—the one that will turn that follower into a biter.
When a bass is hooked, hit spot lock on the trolling motor, pin the boat to bottom with a Talon, or go old school and drop anchor. Work that area in all directions. Whatever attracts one bass to a spot should attract many others.
To rattle or not to rattle?
Give it some thought and listen to each bait. A Rattlin’ Rogue, worked aggressively, tends to shine in dark or cloudy water. A Pointer 78, which has no rattle, tends to work best in clear water. But the opposite can be true in either case. Pressured bass may not respond well to rattles, even in cloudy water. And bass that haven’t seen a lure in long time might just speed across quite a distance to investigate that noise, even in water as clear as air.
But the general rule in stained or dirty water is to use rattling sticks in bright colors—like clown, pink, or fire tiger. And the opposite applies in clear water—start with quiet baits in subtle colors that “match the hatch.”
Pressured and schooling bass can develop tunnel vision, seldom striking lures that don’t roughly match the size, shape, and often the color of the most abundant baitfish in the lake at the time— the schooling baitfish that cause bass to school in the first place. When shiners bunch up by the millions, even an 8-pound largemouth might prefer a black-silver Pointer 78 to a black-silver Pointer 100.
As the season wears on, some bass in some environments go deeper. In clear water, bass might rise 20 feet to hit a shallow diver, but don’t hold your breath for it in green, brown, or stained water. Time to get down where they live with a deep-diving suspender like the Jackall DD Squirrel, the Megabass OneTen Plus, or the Rapala X-Rap Deep. Many other options exist, and all come in several sizes. Smaller models dive about 8 to 10 feet on the cast with braid, larger units get down about 10 to 12 feet—some deeper. These baits get down 15 to 20 feet or more when trolled.
Smallmouths often move to deeper rock piles and reefs from late summer into fall. Largemouths are found increasingly beyond the deepest weedlines—in cloudy water that might be only 10 to 12 feet down. In clear water, 16 to 20 feet is fairly common. Those bass will rise several feet for a well-presented deep jerk. Deep divers can be worked in much the same way as the shallow units, though the added depth and pressure make it harder to create a truly erratic retrieve. Nevertheless, subtle pull-twitch-snap actions are a legitimate option with deep divers all summer and fall.
Sometimes bass rip suspenders with surprising ferocity. You’re pausing the bait, watching an osprey dive, and suddenly the rod doubles up and the drag whines. Many a suspending bait is lost when a surprised angler winds up and sets the hook as if fishing for tuna with 80-pound line. The fish is already hooked. And it’s moving away from you at warp speed. It takes discipline, but slow down, bow to the fish, and just keep the pressure on.
Pull it down to running depth. Pause. Snap it, twitch it, pause again and repeat. Rip, slash, chew. Few things in bass fishing are more exciting than working a suspender when the fish are really grooving on it. Because you know it’s just a matter of minutes before you get ripped again.
Sidebar: (Suggest illustrating with closeup of suspending bait and bass)
Doubting the ability of suspending baits to catch bass is to doubt the market. People running tackle companies are not crazy, and every major tackle company out there not only has suspending baits in the lineup, they have lots—shallow and deep divers in various models, sizes and color patterns. Most big companies offer multiple options. Rapala, for example, has Husky Jerks, X-Raps, Shadow Raps, Rip Stops, and several shad-shaped models—all in shallow and deep versions. Rapala makes the most successful bait in history—the Original Floating Rapala. If Rapala’s suspending baits fail to catch fish (an absurd contention), the most successful hardbait company in history certainly fooled millions of people to an extent never seen (outside the “climate change is a HOAX” hoax).
Many companies make awesome suspending baits—too many to mention in the text of this article.
Select Down Deep Jerks
Clockwise from upper left: Megabass OneTen Plus, Rapala X-Rap Deep, Jackall DD Squirrel, Lucky Craft Pointer XD.
Select Shallow Jerks
Clockwise from upper left: Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue, Rapala RipStop 09, Dynamic Lures J-Spec, Lucky Craft Pointer 78
- written by Matt Straw