Fall on the river can be a great time to catch the smallmouth of a lifetime. Shorter days and cooling water temperatures trigger smallmouth to go on a feeding binge as they prepare for the the long cold winter. Moving into the cool water period of fall and the cold water of early winter, river smallmouth start to key on bait fish. One way to take advantage of this is by using suspending jerkbaits. In my opinion, there are very few baits that can rival its effectiveness in catching big river smallmouth in fall to early winter. In this article I’ll convey the basics of when, where and how to use these baits to catch a smallmouth of a lifetime.
When is the best time to use a suspending jerkbait?
Honestly jerkbaits will work year round to catch smallmouth bass but they become extremely effective in specific water conditions that are associated with fall and early winter. I typically look at two primary water conditions when deciding if it is time to dig out my 360 Plano box of suspending jerkbaits.
This is by far the most critical factor in the equation. When water temperatures dip under 60 degrees headed toward 55 degrees I expect that suspending jerkbaits will be on the fish’s menu. I’ll continue to fish a suspending jerkbait into the early winter with excellent results on big smallmouth bass. I’ve caught fish consistently on this bait down to water temperatures of 38 degrees.
Water clarity is important factor when your looking to toss suspending jerkbaits. These baits really shine when the water is clear. As the water becomes more stained, typically their effectiveness drops. The bite will typically start to fade once the water visibility falls below 3 feet headed toward 2 feet or below. This is not a hard and fast rule though. I’ve caught fish on suspending jerkbaits in murky water by upgrading the size of the bait and adjusting color. When the water is very clear I’ll use more natural colors in my jerkbaits . As water clarity diminishes, I’ll change up to patterns with more reds, yellows, oranges and chartreuse colors in them. Across the board though, I prefer color patterns with some reds and oranges in them.
Where should I fish the bait?
It’s important to understand where the fish will be positioned when the water starts to cool. The great thing about fall is once you find one fish, chances are, there are multiple fish on that location. Fall tends to be a time when river smallmouth stack up on very defined spots or areas. I do not consider jerkbaits a “search bait” when fished in cold water. Pinpointing targets is critical to success with this bait once the water temperature start to dip below 55 degrees. The colder the water, the more targeted your presentation will need to be. Below are a few areas where you should start your search.
Push water is located at the end of a deep hole. As the name implies, It’s the water at the tail end of a hole that pushes up fairly abruptly out of the depths just before it drops off into the riffles. The contour of the bottom and the movement of the water tends to create a nice funnel that pushes bait fish and other aquatic delicacies to the feeding smallmouth. Push water is most utilized by smallmouth during the early fall. As water temperatures drop into the upper 40′s fish will typically seek deeper water and more “defined locations”.
major current breaks
Major current beaks caused by naturally occurring wing dams, fallen trees, rock piles, boulders, or ledges will hold large numbers of smallmouth once water temperatures drop to around 55 degrees or below. These targets can be particularly productive once water temperatures fall into the upper 40′s or below. I tend to focus on current breaks that have at least 4 feet of water. Again, this is just a general rule of thumb. I’ve caught smallmouth from current breaks with only 2-3 feet of water in 40 degree water temperatures. This is rare, but it happens. The key point about fishing current breaks is that the smallmouth in cold water will be positioned on the current break or just inside the current break in the slack water side. These are location where they can take advantage of the current to bring the food to them rather than chasing the food. Very precise placement of your bait is important.
How should I fish the bait?
Fishing a suspending jerkbait in cold water is far different than fishing this very same bait in July or August. I am reminded of a day in early spring when I was fishing a current break on the Juniata River created by a good sized island. The water temperature was 45 degrees. I was sharing the water with another angler. I was tossing aRapala XR8 which is a suspending jerkbait. I could see that the young gentleman was tossing a suspending jerkbait as well. As it turned out, we were both throwing very similar baits to the same current break but I was catching smallmouth and he was not.
I struck up a conversation with the young gentleman and we talked for several minutes while I continued to catch fish. Eventually the conversation came around to the differing results we were experiencing with very similar baits. I could see that he was overworking his bait. He was using lots of jerks but very few pauses. I quickly explained to the young man that the difference was not in the baits but the actions. A couple of quick pointers and he was catching fish too. As a matter of fact, he caught the two biggest smallmouth! One measured 18 inches and the largest was a 19 inch bruiser!
Use long pauses
Cold water suspending jerkbait fishing requires long pauses. There is no way around it if you want to catch fish. I will typically cast the bait out, jerk it two or three times to get it down to depth and then just let it drifting with the current for a minimum of 10 seconds. I’ll then repeat the two or three jerks and let it sit some more. It sounds simple but it does take a lot of discipline. Ten seconds is like an eternity in fishing time! The colder the water, the longer the pauses must be. When water temperatures are in the low 40′s, I’ll let the thing just hang there in the current break for minutes at a time. It is excruciating but it works! One of my heaviest cold water river smallmouth came after a pause of at least 3 minutes.
use the current
Earlier when I mentioned fishing current breaks, I talked about the importance of fishing right on the break or just inside the break. You can use the current to help you get your bait right where you want it. When I’m fishing a suspending jerkbait on a current break, I’ll start by positioning myself above the break. I’ll then throw my bait at an angle down stream several feet out into the current. I’ll jerk the bait down to depth two or three times, then just let the bait swing into the current seam. Remember to pause the bait. Don’t do anything. Like I told the young gentleman, you’ll feel like your working the bait wrong but believe me, it is right! I’ll typically continue throwing my bait at various distances down the current break until I’ve swung it into every area along its length. Sometimes you wont’ be able to get a good position upstream so you’ll have to toss the bait into the slack water then let it swing out onto the break. This will work but it is not the optimal presentation that you want.
Push water is a little easier. Again, I’ll position myself upstream from the push water I want to fish. I’ll then make a cast at a 5 o’clock or 10 o’clock angle downstream across the current. When the bait hits the water, I’ll jerk it down to depth two or three times then just let it swing across my targeted area. I’ll continue making various casts and moving until I’ve blanketed the push water.
- Be a line watcher. Sometimes you just see your line jump and that will be the only indication of a strike. Other times though, the fish can almost rip the rod out of your hand.
- If the fish aren’t aggressively attacking your bait on the strike, try changing the color or the size…or both.
- A medium light rod over 6 foot is best. You can spool your reel with fluorocarbon or mono. Remember, clear water is typical in fall so fluorocarbon may be the best choice.
Fall is one of the best times to be on the water. It can combine some of the best fishing of the year with some great fall foliage. Next time you findyourself fishing the cold water of fall on your favorite smallmouth stream, don’t forget to toss a couple suspending jerkbaits at them. You might catch a smallmouth of a lifetime!