Jerkbaits catch bruiser bass, especially in spring. Countless tournament victories and firsthand experiences of bass hunters nationwide confirm it. Yet, few anglers understand how to wring the full potential from these lures.
NAFC friend and bass pro Mark Menendez of Paducah, Kentucky, is one who does. He has tremendous success on the tournament trails, and says jerkbaits deserve much of the credit. In fact, a few years ago, he set a record three-day total of 60 pounds, 3 ounces on Smithwick Rattling Rogues during a B.A.S.S. Top 100 tourney on Pickwick and Wilson lakes.
The reason, he says, is simple. “In cold, clear-water periods, there’s no better bait for big bass—I’m talking 5-, 6-, 7-pound fish, and better. The minnow shape is something bass, particularly larger fish, really key on. They let me cover a lot of water, and make my job a whole lot easier.”
Of course, like any lure, a jerkbait isn’t magic—catching fish consistently depends on knowing where, when and how to use them. If you’re missing any of these puzzle pieces, you might as well be fishing in a bathtub.
Through his extensive experience fishing jerks from early spring through summer in waters across the country, Menendez has developed a formula for success. He breaks down spring water temperatures into four distinct ranges, and uses specific jerkbait styles, retrieve speeds and cadences for each, to match predominant bass behavior.
Armed with his secrets, you too can unlock jerkbaits’ true potential for duping largemouths this spring. Let’s examine his proven formula.
WATER TEMPS: 38 TO 42 DEGREES
These temps are downright chilly, but such conditions, combined with clear water, are hot for jerkbaits.
“When you’ve got clear water in the 38- to 42-degree range, it’s prime time.”
Under these conditions, Menendez chooses a deep-diving rattling jerkbait. Although a shallow- diving rattler is his go-to lure for much of the spring, he gives the deep diver the nod early on because of its 12- to 13-foot running depth.
“This time of year, deep divers outshine all others. They get down to where bass are holding, which is critical when water’s cold— bass won’t chase lures far.”
He targets main-lake points and ends of bluffs adjacent to river channels, positioning his boat in as deep as 40 feet of water and casting into 20 to 25. There, he says, bass often suspend 12 to 15 feet down—perfect for deep divers.
Rather than jerk or twitch the lure, Menendez reels it down to maximum depth, then uses a slow, sweeping-style retrieve—as if he’s fishing a Carolina rig. He sweeps the bait forward, pauses two to three seconds, and repeats.
Add up all those pauses and pulls, and it may take up to two minutes to retrieve a bait. “That can feel excruciatingly slow,” he says, “but it’s absolutely deadly on big, cold-water bass.”
To fight the temptation to speed up, he sits down while casting. “I find I’m much more patient and trigger a lot more strikes when I just take a deep breath and force myself to settle down in that front boat seat,” he says.
WATER TEMPS: 43 TO 48 DEGREES
When the temperature rises above 42, Menendez will switch gears slightly. He finds bass in about the same areas, but now they’ll chase the bait. For these fish, he ties on a 41/2- or 51/2-inch suspending rattler, usually a Rogue because he likes the way it sits in the water column.
“I like the 45-degree head-down posture this bait produces. The angle lets it quickly dive to that 7- or 8-foot range, and you can cast farther. More importantly, though, 45 degrees is a non-natural angle for healthy baitfish. In early spring, gizzard shad are dying all over the place and they have that same headdown posture. When bass see that, it often triggers a strike.”
If your lure doesn’t produce quite the right posture, apply lead tape to the front half of the bait or add weight to the lead treble. Use the lightest line possible; Menendez prefers 8-pound Excalibur. Thinner line lets the bait dive faster and produces a better action.
At these temperatures, he uses a jerk- jerk-pause retrieve, but Menendez says there’s no set-in-stone formula for overall speed or pause duration.
“I generally start with a three-second pause, softer jerks and a moderate speed when water temps are in the low to mid- 40s,” he says. “But I’ve been known to pause as long as 12 seconds. Every day I go out, it’s my job to find the speed and cadence bass respond to.”
If, for example, you’re getting strikes, but fish are hooked on the back trebles, lengthen the pause and slow down the overall retrieve speed.
WATER TEMPS: 49 TO 55 DEGREES
When water temps climb into this range, it’s crossover time. Using bass behavior as a guide, Menendez begins to abandon suspending jerkbaits in favor of straight floaters.
“Bass are more active and will move farther to capture a baitfish. That means you don’t have to get the lure as close to their depth—and that means you can cover more water.”
He also whittles down his pauses to one or two seconds. “I also start jerking the bait harder, depending on the bass’ mood. You have to let the fish dictate your retrieve style.”
Toward the upper end of this transitional period, Menendez begins exclusively using a 41/2-inch floater and a significantly faster twitch-twitch-twitch retrieve.
“At this time I’m moving fast, and this presentation lets me do just that. If I’m fishing a tournament, this pattern ismy goto way to fill a limit,” he says.
WATER TEMPS: 55 TO 65 DEGREES
At 55 to 65 degrees, bass move into the shallow spawning areas and floating jerkbaits displace suspenders and divers. The floaters stay in the strike zone, letting Menendez goad strikes from temperamental fish.
“Bass in spawning areas hate having a jerkbait over their heads. I cast over the fish and twitch the lure in place. Even-tually, they take a swipe at it,” he says.
Menendez warns that it’s critical to keep your hooks razor sharp in these situations. “A lot of bites you’ll get from bedding bass will be slashing strikes. If your hooks aren’t sharp, they’ll slide away from the fish’s mouth.”
SEE THE BIGGER PICTURE
Aside from water temperature, a host of other factors further dictate presentation. Menendez says clear water is a must for jerkbaits. “You need a minimum of 18 to 24 inches of clarity,” he says. “Murkier waters call for different presentations."
“If you can’t see your bait a couple feet through the water, jerkbaits aren’t going to work, regardless of temperature,” he says.
It’s also imperative to use highly visible colors. For Menendez, that usually means lures with a white belly; orange in questionable water clarity.
“Wind is another big factor,” he says. “I really speed things up when the wind is blowing, because I’ve found fish are more active and willing to strike.”
A warm, calm day calls for the contrary. “When you’ve got no wind and high, blue skies, use patience, even if the water’s a little warmer. You need a slower retrieve and longer pauses between jerks.”
So keep your eyes on your surface thermometer and attention on detail when you hit your favorite bass spot this spring.