In the Eighties, fishing magazines touted suspending jerkbaits as the "secret baits of the pros." Arkansas bass pro Larry Nixon was among the first to spill the beans about their prowess at catching lunker largemouths in early spring. According to Nixon, prespawn bass, rather than relating to cover, often suspended in the water column. In water anywhere from 40 to 50 degrees, these sluggish fish ignored the bottom-bumping lures most anglers favored at the time, but would take a realistic minnow bait twitched and jerked at their level.
An enticing theory, to be sure. But the trouble was, lure companies didn't manufacture suspending jerkbaits back then, and making one was the do-it-yourself project from Hell. First you had to drill strategically-placed holes in a Rebel Spoonbill or Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue, insert exactly the right amount of lead, test the bait in a bathtub or swimming pool to make sure it suspended (while putting up with wisecracks from family and friends like, "Last time I looked, there weren't any bass in the tub!"), then seal the hole so the lure wouldn't become waterlogged. I figure maybe 1 in 250 attempts was on the money; the rest of the doctored-up minnow baits either popped to the surface or sank like a stone. A whole bunch of bassers, myself included, began cussing out Larry Nixon under our breath once we realized that we were more likely to do a handstand on the moon than achieve neutral buoyancy in a plastic minnow. Truckloads of perfectly good Rogues and Spoonbills ended up in the trashcan, and weekend bass fishermen diverted their attention to crankbaits, spinnerbaits and other lures they didn't have to play doctor with.
Then a lure company began offering stick-on lead tape that promised to make the hand-weighting process a breeze. Bassers nationwide experiment with it; most found there was still way too much trial and error involved to make it a viable part of their fishing routine.
Fast-forward to the late Nineties. Manufacturers finally succeed in making factory-weighted jerkbaits that suspend as perfectly as Nixon's hand-weighted models. But if you're like some bass anglers, you've been reluctant to try them...probably because merely looking at 'em gives you flashbacks about all your failed hand-weighting experiments.
Well, get over it. It's time you gave the latest suspending jerkbaits a try. I did, and they've quickly become my favorite spring bass lures. Let's dig past the hype and mystery surrounding these amazing artificials and find out when, where and how to fish 'em.
Spinnerbaits and crankbaits are highly versatile lures. Not suspending jerkbaits. They're capable of operating within only a narrow depth range -- many models dive just 4 to 6 feet deep when you crank them down. Unlike most other bass baits, they work best in cold, clear water, but lose their magic in warm, murky conditions. And forget about fishing them around heavy cover - those nasty little treble hooks will snag every weed or branch they touch. Yet within these narrow parameters, they're absolutely the deadliest bass lures ever created. Here are the best conditions for using them:
Cold water - Other lures attract bass by producing visual cues, vibrations or rattling sounds when they either swim horizontally, dive to the bottom, or ricochet off cover. By contrast, suspending jerkbaits often get slammed by bass when they're simply hanging motionless in the water column. Their "non-action" takes advantage of the way bass behave -- or don't behave -- in cold water. As the temperature of their environment decreases, bass, being cold-blooded, move around less and often suspend to conserve metabolic energy. In 42-degree water, a big largemouth is unlikely to chase down a fast-moving crankbait, but won't hesitate taking a swipe at a half-dead minnow that's dangling right in front of its nose.
Suspending jerkbaits will routinely catch big bass in water in the low forty-degree range. Conversely, they lose their effectiveness once the water temperature climbs into the 60s, mainly because bass no longer suspend in these conditions, but seek out shallow cover instead.
Clear water -- Jigs, spinnerbaits and rattling crankbaits work great in water that's pea-soup green to chocolate brown. Not suspending jerkbaits. They're best suited to water ranging from vodka-clear to slightly stained. "The colder the water, the clearer it needs to be for a suspending jerkbait to produce," Larry Nixon said. "Once stained water edges toward 55 degrees, they'll work ok, but in colder water, I fish 'em in the clearest water I can find."
Vertical structure -- Prespawn bass don't like to make long-distance moves. That's why you'll find them hanging around vertical or fast-sloping structures, including bluff banks, deep channel points, 45-degree rock banks, standing timber and stair-stepping ledges running from shallow to deep water -- all high-percentage spots for casting suspending jerkbaits. Relating to these structures allows bass to make a significant depth change without swimming far. "A bass on a main-lake flat might have to swim a quarter of a mile to move from 8 to 15 feet deep," Nixon pointed out. "But a bass suspending off a rock bluff would have to move only 7 feet to make the same depth change. In frigid water, the less they have to move, the better they like it. A blade bait or jig is designed to drop quickly through the water column; they're best suited to bass holding tight to ledges or on the bottom. But when bass are suspending, a jerkbait stays in their strike zone indefinitely. It's perfectly suited to the location and mood of prespawn bass."
"Most anglers work jerkbaits way too hard and fast," stated veteran bass pro Charlie Ingram. "They think since it's called a 'jerkbait', they should keep the lure darting aggressively with hard jerks and rips of the rod tip. But with these lures, less is more. Over-working the bait with your rod defeats everything a suspending jerkbait is about. On most days, prespawn bass want it to be either barely moving or completely motionless."
Ingram makes a long cast, reels the lure down quickly to its maximum depth, pauses, twitches or jerks it with one or two light to moderate downward or sideways strokes of his 6 1/2-foot medium-action baitcasting rod, then pauses again before moving the bait. "Working a suspending jerkbait is like doing a standup comedy routine -- your success, or lack of it, hinges on your timing," he said. "Some days the bass want it barely twitched; other days they want it sitting dead still. Let the fish tell you how to work it. If you're not getting strikes with a jerk/twitch/pause or twitch/pause/jerk/jerk routine, vary the intensity and number of rod movements and the duration of the pauses until you get positive feedback from the bass."
In the frigid water of early spring, "dead-sticking" a suspending jerkbait can be amazingly effective on sluggish bass. This bizarre method is the ultimate do-nothing bass presentation. Mt. Juliet, Tennessee bass expert Steve Dodson has mastered the technique on nearby Priest Reservoir. "When the surface temperature hovers around 41 degrees, usually in late February, largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass will suspend off steep banks that transition from gravel to chunk rock," Dodson said. "I'll cast a Smithwick Suspending Pro Rogue across the transition, crank it down, then stop reeling so it hangs motionless in the water column. Then I'll let the bait sit there as long as I can stand it -- sometimes up to two minutes -- before moving it. While it's dead in the water, I watch my line like a hawk. If it hops, twitches or takes off, I've got a bass."
Using the right rod is critical, not only for presenting a suspending jerkbait properly, but for boating bass that strike it. "A stiff rod moves the lure too aggressively for cold-water bass," Larry Nixon said. "And, many fish will be foul-hooked on a jerkbait because they'll swim up and roll on the lure, or take a lazy swipe at it, rather than grab it with their mouths. A medium- to light-action rod gives the bait the best action, and provides the shock absorption needed to keep foul-hooked fish from ripping free."
Nixon uses 10 pound line with suspending jerkbaits, explaining, "This fairly light line facilitates longer casts and helps give the lure the right look in cold, clear, open water. When a bass loads on, simply reel down tight on it; if you rear back and try to hammer the fish, you may tear the hooks out. You've got to play bass out that are hooked on a jerkbait -- don't ever try to horse 'em in."
After fishing suspending jerkbaits on several different baitcasting and spinning outfits, you'll eventually find the one that works best for you. My favorite setup is a 7 foot G. Loomis CBR 841 light-action rod coupled with a Shimano Citica 200 reel and 10 pound Silver Thread mono. This exquisitely lightweight rod is so sensitive, you can feel a bass flash on the lure; I like the 5:1 reel because it keeps the presentation slow, a must in chilled water. I've jerked up largemouths over 8 pounds on this combo.
Jerkbait aficionados place great importance on color. Before stocking up on these lures, keep the following in mind: (1) Some lakes have massive shad kills in late winter, and a suspending jerkbait captures a shad's dying flutter perfectly. Silver with black back is a convincing shad pattern. (2) Trout, an important bass forage in many lakes, stay deep in hot weather, but move shallow once the water temp drops into the low to mid 40s. Rainbow and "clown" (a flashy combination of red, yellow and white that's a favorite of pros) are both good trout color patterns. (3) On overcast days, reflective finishes become less visible. Try hot colors (chartreuse, fire tiger) or flat finishes (purple, white) instead.
Storing suspending jerkbaits can be a nightmare -- their small, needle-sharp hooks invite monumental tangles. Falcon makes a great tacklebox especially for these tangly lures; it neatly cradles and separates up to 14 baits.
SIX SENSATIONAL SUSPENDERS
Bomber Pro Suspending Long A - A weighted version of the venerable Long A floater/diver minnow. The oversized eyes make a great target for lethargic bass.
Lucky Craft Pointer 100 - A premium Japanese jerkbait favored by many bass pros. Brass rattle weights give it a low center of gravity so it wobbles and vibrates even after you've stopped jerking it.
Smithwick Suspending Pro Rogue - Considered the gold standard in this genre by many jerkbait aficionados. If repeated twitches and jerks don't work, try slow-reeling it straight in.
Strike King KVD Wild Shiner - Designed by superstar bass pro Kevin Van Dam, this lure has a slender tail, under-slung belly and a distinctive side-to-side roll when twitched.
Yo-Zuri Suspending Crystal Minnow - Designed to swim frantically to depth of 2'-3', then stay there indefinitely. Its streamlined body, brilliant holographic finish and super-tight wiggle create an incredible flash on the retrieve.
Bass Pro Shops XPS Extreme Suspending Nitro Minnows - Precisely weighted, lifelike minnow is neutrally buoyant, so it'll stay in the strike zone.