When pro angler Dave Lefebre briefed me by phone during his drive home from Minnesota that he'd scored a couple crucial big smallmouths on a jerkbait fished in 17 feet of water during the 2016 Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Mille Lacs Lake, I knew I had my lead for this article. Although Lefebre didn't win the Championship with those fish, his second- and third-day catches boosted him to 3rd place for the event, ensuring him a berth in the 2017 Bassmaster Classic.
During the event, Lefebre targeted smallmouths around large isolated boulders he'd located by side-imaging. His main focus was a group of bass holding near two boulders about 10 feet apart in 17 feet of water. When the fish decided to feed, he observed them rise from the bottom, which enabled him to catch a few on a drop-shot rig. But when the smallies were spooked or decided to stop feeding (which was most of the time), they tucked down in the trough between the rocks and blended into the bottom.
Trying to coax bites from these sullen smallies was nearly impossible even with a drop-shot rig. But Lefebre felt if he could dance a jerkbait erratically in front of them, he might tempt one to bite. At one point on day-two, he tied on a slow-sinking Rapala Shadow Rap Deep and cast it well beyond the two rocks and slowly worked the lure to the bottom with slow pulls and lots of patience.
When he finally felt it tick bottom a short distance past the rocks, he started a rip-pause-rip retrieve. While not always successful, this enticing dance drew the occasional strike from huge smallmouths, one weighing 5.8 pounds and another 5.3 pounds, allowing him to cull two smaller fish and gain several pounds.
When was the last time you danced a jerkbait on the bottom in 17 feet of water? Throughout his long career, Lefebre has been known for his independent approach and figuring out solutions to puzzling situations. Perhaps best known for his jig and crankbait skills, jerkbaits play a key role in his year-round arsenal, too.
"When I started using jerkbaits, Rapala's Husky Jerk was in vogue and I caught lots of big largemouths and smallmouths on them in spring," he says. "But I realized there was no such thing as a true suspending jerkbait. In spring, with as little as a 10-degree difference in water temperature from lake to lake, suspending baits might rise or sink slowly. I spent a lot of time at the kitchen sink with a thermometer, ice, jerkbaits, and various hooks and weighting methods to make them suspend at water temperatures I expected to encounter."
The game has changed since his Husky Jerk days. Improvements in suspending technology allowed Lefebre to expand his use of jerkbaits. "Now we have an array of suspending baits—some that truly suspend at a certain depth, as well as those designed to either sink or rise slowly—in the most lifelike baitfish colors yet," he says. "I don't view these jerkbaits as gimmicks or rip-offs but rather as specific tools that help me maximize my catch at different times of the season.
"The deep-lip models of Rapala's Shadow Rap and Shadow Rap Shad series have great action and cast well. The old spoonbill-type baits were hard to cast and difficult to get down down deep. And they didn't have the crisp cutting action needed in a jerkbait."
Bass anglers routinely attempt to mimic dying baitfish with lures. But Lefebre points out that careful observation of dying baitfish shows it's not easy to get details right.
Struggling preyfish act disoriented but still exhibit a subtle kick. A preyfish may start to sink, then turn and swim upward a bit before stopping and drifting back. As it attempts to maintain an upright position, often a slight shudder travels through the body. Lots of things are happening. "All these movements are triggers for bass," he says, "and good jerkbaits can replicate these movements. Whether rising or sinking, the best jerkbaits are designed to provide a shimmying action when paused. That seems to tease bass into striking."
To put a jerkbait through its paces, Lefebre uses a 6.5-foot medium-power casting rod with a soft tip. Long rods can slap the water during an aggressive retrieve. He favors 10-pound fluorocarbon, but may switch to mono when trying to float a lure over dead grass in early spring.
"There's no magic jerkbait dance for all situations," he says. "At certain times of year largemouths and smallmouths react differently to the same cadence. In cold water, a nearly motionless lure often draws a strike. With bass moving onto spawning flats, a rip-pause motion tends to work. Or it might be a rip-rip-rip-pause or maybe just a nudge with a long pause. You've got to experiment each time out. During summer, I usually use the most aggressive cadence, rarely stopping the lure."
To learn when, where, and how Lefebre uses jerkbaits, let's start at the beginning of the season—ice-out Up North. As largemouths begin to stir, he fishes a sinking jerkbait around shallow dead grass. "I started doing this in Northwest Pennsylvania lakes years before going on the pro tour. I discovered that at that time of year, when many anglers cast rattlebaits around last season's grassbeds, I could catch largemouths on a CountDown Rapala. When I started fishing the FLW tour, I had success with this technique on all the major grass lakes of the Midsouth."
In this situation, he uses a longer and stiffer rod than he normally does for jerkbaits. He lets the lure sink until it contacts vegetation. Then he raises it a bit. If he detects grass on the lure, he snaps it hard to clean it. He then lets the lure drop back to the stalks before the next pull and snap. He calls the technique "worming a jerkbait" through grass.
"I continued using the classic gold or silver CountDown until the introduction of Shadow Rap Deep," he says. "Besides outstanding natural baitfish patterns, the Shadow Rap Deep has a slower sink rate than the CountDown, yet it easily reaches the 4- to 8-foot zone of last year's grass beds. Rip it up and it sinks slowly back down."
"Early on, I realized that in spring, smallmouth bass won't bite a paused jerkbait that's sinking. Largemouths yes, smallies no. A slow sinker may have a place for smallmouths at other times, but not in the cold water of early spring and the Prespawn Period," he adds.
When smallmouths begin to stage in 14 to 17 feet of water off the flats, Lefebre reaches for the X-Rap Deep with its feathered rear treble. Fished on fluorocarbon, the X-Rap Deep can almost get down to the depth of staging smallies. But most of these bass tend to look upward, so in very clear water it's not uncommon for smallies to rise to a lure suspended above them. "This almost stationary lure hangs in the water with a feathered tail hook waving an invitation to come and eat," smiles Lefebre. "That feather flat drives smallies wild!"
Then as smallmouths begin their advance onto spawning flats, he pulls out the shallow-lip slow-risers and slashbaits. "Prespawn smallmouths are particularly drawn to a resting jerkbait that's rising slowly," he says. "I can't explain it, but I've never caught a smallmouth in spring on a sinking jerkbait. The Shadow Rap Shad is my top pick. But if I need a smaller profile, the 3.3-inch Storm Twitch Stick is great for an aggressive rip-rip-rip-pause presentation." Lefebre emphasizes that largemouth bass are not as discriminating as smallmouths at this time of year. "Throw a suspender, a sinker, or a slow riser; doesn't matter. Just figure out the right cadence with sufficient pause time, and largemouths eat it."
Throughout summer, Lefebre always has a jerkbait rod on deck. "I may not have fished it at all during practice, but I want one ready for surface-busting schooling bass that appear suddenly—usually largemouths, but sometimes spotted bass. Whether the jerkbait sinks, rises, or suspends doesn't matter as long as it's a great baitfish color. During summer, a jerkbait is a reaction lure for bass near the surface. I don't let it sit still long enough to make a difference. At times, however, I want to get a jerkbait down to 6 or 8 feet around a suspended baitfish school, so a long-bill model is best."
After the Mille Lacs tournament, he's been forced to re-evaluate his depth strategy. Lefebre admits that was the deepest he'd ever fished a jerkbait. "Due to the Shadow Rap Deep's great baitfish profile and colors, I'll be experimenting with fishing it as deep as I can to prepare for another situation that calls for it. With 10-pound sinking fluorocarbon and a sinking jerkbait, what's the limit I can effectively fish it? I'm going to find out," says Lefebre, who lives near the shore of Lake Erie in Pennsylvania.
As water temperature starts to drop in early fall, the shallow jerkbait bite returns. Lefebre ties on a suspending X-Rap, slow-rise Shadow Rap Shad, or Storm Twitch Stick. "This is the time of year on northern lakes where you catch both largemouths and smallmouths on the flats with a jerkbait. These lures often outproduce crankbaits, spinnerbaits, swimbaits, and other favorites. Don't leave home without them."
As water temperature tumbles into the low-40°F range, many anglers stow their jerkbaits. But not Lefebre. As northern largemouths move into wintering areas on natural lakes, he recognizes that nothing trips their trigger like a struggling baitfish. "At this time of year I've been able to catch largemouths by twitching a fast-sink CountDown near bottom," he says. "But I think a new chapter on deep-jerking for coldwater bass is soon to be written, based on results with new slow-sink jerkbaits that offer much better injured preyfish action than a CountDown. I can't wait to see."