Deep water smallmouths can be elusive and unpredictable, engaging in stealthy survival tactics that can frustrate the best anglers. But every fish has a window where aggression overtakes logic.
Therein lies the beauty of properly executed deep jerkbait presentations. Top ranked Canadian angler Dave Chong, smallmouth ace Joe Balog, and 2013 Bassmaster Elite Green Bay champion Jonathon VanDam, nicknamed "JVD" to differentiate him from his famous uncle, have recognized the value of this technique for catching big-water smallies through several seasons.
While the deep jerkbait can work well through spring, summer, and fall, anglers need to be aware of seasonal cues. As fish are moving up to spawn, VanDam looks for spots outside major spawning flats, deeper places bass hold prior to and after the spawn. He typically camps on the first transition outside spawning areas. "My timing was right one spring on a lake in Michigan," he reports. "Smallies were just moving in, holding on the edge in 15 to 20 feet of water. With a Lucky Craft Pointer 100 DD, I caught three over seven pounds and another over 6, along with a lot of 4- and 5-pounders. The erratic action of that bait is hard for springtime smallies to resist."
Balog is ready to intercept smallmouths as they leave the spawning flats, when they often suspend. He monitors this situation by side-imaging with a Humminbird 1198, scanning for baitfish and bass. "When it's sunny out, they're more likely to come up for a bait," Balog says. "These Great Lakes waters are clear and bass often suspend during the Postspawn Period, holding near big schools of shiners.
"They don't like sharp drops or rockpiles right after they spawn. Instead, they hold on 'nothing' spots, like soft sloping breaks and grasslines. They suspend there until they move into summer patterns. Those transitions are prime places for a deep jerkbait. During this period, they often won't track down a crankbait but hit a jerkbait well."
As summer approaches, VanDam heads to the 19- to 25-foot depths on many deep, clear smallie waters, including Lake Erie. He often fishes a deep jerkbait in the same places one might fish a dropshot. He's found that when bass suspend, they're sometimes more likely to come up and smash a deep jerkbait than to nibble a worm. "Even bottom-oriented bass often feed up," he says. In addition, he respects the deep jerkbait's ability to consistently produce big fish.
Ontario's bass season opens in June. Once it does, Chong tries to quickly dial in what sort of structure bass are holding on and what baits they're responding to. "Smallmouth bass often suspend over deep water on natural lakes," he says, due to the availability of baitfish. "Often, when I'm fishing deep jerkbaits, I'm drawing bass off the bottom as much as 20 feet." Chong, who boasts 21 smallmouths over 7 pounds, caught on various techniques including the deep jerkbait, knows that this bite can continue into fall.
Fall finds VanDam back in areas similar to those he targets in spring. "They sometimes move back to shallow gravel areas and the mouths of rivers because that's where the bait is," he says. "Other times, they hold near that first transition, as they would in spring when heading in to spawn. Toward the end of September, when confronted with clear water, Balog focuses on areas about 10 feet deep, as bass move onto sand spots in the grass. He finds that often the only "cast and retrieve" bait they hit is a deep jerkbait.
For Balog, deep jerkbaits are effective whenever bass are scattered but won't hit crankbaits or spinnerbaits, when they suspend, and when the bite is tough around the spawn. He finds them best in clear waters with big fish, in the face of substantial fishing pressure, and in the case of Lake St. Clair, giant grass flats with abundant perch and minnows. "I think smallies consider a jerkbait a small perch that's feeding on baitfish," he says. VanDam seeks concentrations of baitfish, but also finds success around small pods of bait.
Chong points to wind factors. "Surface disturbance definitely helps," he says. "I've caught fish on jerks in 4- to 5-foot waves. In calm conditions, it's hard to get bit because they can see the lure so well. A little murk can help, too, but not too much." For VanDam, clouds can be a bonus as well.
In many waters, smallies tend to group by size. But schools of big fish contain fewer members. "During the Green Bay tournament, I spotted wolfpacks of five to ten 4-pounders, then I'd see three or four 5-pounders in a group," VanDam says.
In all jerkbait fishing, retrieve cadence is important. It often means the difference between fish that follow and those that eat the bait. "I fish jerkbaits in water that's from 40°F to 80°F," Balog says, "but I fish them far differently. Wave factors can play a part, but water temperature has most influence on your retrieve pace. In early spring, pauses lasting several seconds between jerks are critical."
VanDam adds that he never pauses the same amount of time twice in a row on his retrieves. "I try to avoid a predictable pattern," he says. "I keep changing and let the fish tell me how long to pause. At times in spring it seems like you've paused forever, then your rod loads up. They don't hammer it hard at that time."
During the Postspawn Period, Balog fishes a jerkbait at a blistering pace. "There's too much strain on your wrists and elbows to keep up the staccato cadence for more than a few dozen casts," he says. "On those days, I fish it for a while, jerking as hard and fast as possible, then fish a tube for a break."
Chong is a veteran on Lake Simcoe, as well as the Great Lakes, a fishery known for giant smallmouths. During summer there, he uses a slack-line retrieve to impart a walk-the-dog action, making his bait swing side to side rhythmically to entice bass to bite. He notes that long casts are required to get a bait deep and keep it where it needs to be.
In the cold waters of spring and fall, all three pros add extra-long pauses or barely twitch the bait. In late fall, when Simcoe smallies are fat but inactive, Chong also finds success strolling a jerkbait, drifting or towing it at a snail's pace with the boat. "In strolling, lure action is subtle, with only the occasional jerk. That slight wobble often is best," he says.
To achieve these actions, our panel of pros selects particular rod-reel-line combos. Balog favors a Daiwa Zillion 7-foot medium-power casting rod, Daiwa Zillion reel (6.3:1 ratio) with Reel Grips, and 10- or 12-pound-test Sufix Fluorocarbon line.
VanDam uses a G. Loomis PR844, a saltwater popping rod, with a Shimano Stradic 4000 C14+ spinning reel. Its oversized spool enables long casts and the combo forces him to fish jerkbaits methodically. He also finds it easier to play big smallies on spinning gear. When high-speed retrieves are needed, he selects a G. Loomis JBR 812 baitcasting rod with a Chronarch C14+ reel. He spools both setups with 8- or 10-pound fluorocarbon.
Chong likes Daiwa's Fuego 6-foot 10-inch medium-power spinning rod with a Daiwa Certate 2500 spooled with Sunline SX1 braid, with an 8- to 12-foot leader of 16-pound Sunline FC Leader, switching to 12-pound fluoro for small jerkbaits.
Anglers need to spend time fishing jerkbaits in various conditions, practicing retrieve cadences, and gaining confidence with the method. It also helps to test baits in a swimming pool to see how they suspend and respond to rod movements.
Observing their lifelike actions goes a long way to making you a believer. When a few big bronzebacks load up on your lure, deep jerkbaits will secure permanent place in your box.
* Jonathan LePera, Port Robinson, Ontario, is an avid bass angler and a freelance writer. This is his first contribution to Bass Guide.
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