Know that this tactic isn’t one that gets numbers of fish. It’s a “Hail Mary” or “swing for the fence” type proposition. But if you are fishing for river smallmouth this winter, you are likely used to hours of inactivity. Most people can’t handle it. Most anglers jerk too often.
Late December two years ago, I was five hours into catching a whole lot of nothing besides pneumonia. I had fished tubes, hair jigs, the suspending jerkbait, and even a slow rolled spinnerbait, without so much as a nudge. The wind had picked up, my gloves were soaked and starting to crunch with ice as I flexed my hand to warm them up. The chill had permeated my body and mind.
Launching the Lucky Craft “Pointer 100” jerkbait into a huge foam eddy, I had thoughts of leaving with hours of daylight remaining. I even thought of how I could spend the rest of the day being more productive than just sitting there, stewing about not being able to get any pattern going. I could clean the garage. I could pour more jig heads. I could do something other than freezing my tail off in a kayak, not catching anything! My confidence meter was zeroing out.
I reached around behind me to grab a sandwich with one hand, still holding the jerkbait rod in the other. I hadn’t twitched the bait in over five minutes. I had given up. Chewing on the mouthful of PBJ, I saw the bright yellow braided line hop like someone had flicked it. My reaction was delayed by disbelief. I swung the rod hard, feeling a snag. I thought pessimistically, “It must have drifted into a log.”
Then the snag throbbed. The half-consumed sandwich fell into my kayak’s soggy footwell, my drag zinged, and a powerful infusion of adrenaline warmed me to my bright red finger tips. The fish even jumped at kayak side while I fumbled for my net. An especially rotund 20”5lb 1oz smallmouth had turned despair into optimism.
The concept of pauses a minute or longer wasn’t new to me, but the “I’ve lost track because I’ve given up” attitude had me thinking of how to attain such unintentional patience again. After taking a photo and releasing the toad, I resumed jerkbaiting in the traditional method. Jerk, jerk, jerk, pause of ten seconds, resume. Two hours passed, I became complacent, ate another sandwich, paid less attention, then nailed an eighteen-incher.
By the time last February rolled around, I was practiced at catching big smallmouth in 38°F water on jerkbait pauses of two minutes or longer. Valentine’s Day last year was especially amorous in terms of the smallmouth loving a Pointer 100 drifting motionless over their lair. By the end of February I had my four and five year olds out there on the cataraft doing it with me.
How I attain the dead drift depends on the craft I am in. I fish in kayaks, in my cataraft, and on occasion in other people’s jet boats. The one constant in how it’s done is establishing the proper amount of line tension, and maintaining that loose connection to the bait at a constant tension. You don’t want to keep the line tension so tight that you move the suspending hard bait. You also don’t want to throw so much slack into the line that when big brown chomps down on it, you never feel the hit. It’s not like jig fishing, when you can maintain that reassuring hard connection to the bottom. You have it out there in space, doing something, but preferably nothing.
If I am in a kayak, I cast cross-river and either speed up or slow down my kayaks drift to maintain the same drift speed as the jerkbait. My preferred rod in the kayak is a spinning rod, a St. Croix “Legend Tournament Big Cranker”. It has a moderate action that helps keep the hard charging smallmouth buttoned on what is often a single treble hook connection. The line is bright yellow 15lb FINS braid, connected to a 10lb Bass Pro Shops flourocarbon leader, about 7’long. The bright braid often helps you see a bite before you feel it, so keep your eyes on it.
When I am in a jet boat or my cataraft, I anchor up and pick apart an area, dropping the anchor, working the water below me for twenty to forty minutes, then lifting the anchor again and working a different lane. The rod I prefer in that situation is also a moderate action St. Croix, but this time it’s a baitcaster, a 7’10” “Magnum Cranker”. Instead of drifting at the same speed of the suspending bait, I have the rod tip follow it down on semi-taut line. With a sloth-like downstream swing of almost 16’, I can lower the minnow imitator down slowly, presenting a convincing injured minnow posture.
Without the “lowering downstream slowly” tactic, a jerkbait thrown from an anchored boat does two unnatural things. On the swing downstream it moves like a pendulum weight, with the nose of the bait pointing toward you, and crossing current at an angle that neither healthy or injured minnows do. Following a good hard rip to get it down in the water column, the bait will be pointed in some direction. Let it maintain that orientation in a path that parallels the current: straight downstream.
No one’s eyesight is good enough to see underwater and know that you are doing it properly. So concentrate on how the bright yellow braided line looks above water. From the end of the initial short yank, position your rod tip so that the line coming off of it slopes a gradual bow down to where it enters the water. The shape of this curve is something that you will have to monitor, so that when you get bit, you know that you got it right, and need to replicate it henceforth. If the line is too straight, you are pulling the bait in. If the line lays on the surface in curves, you have too much slack to feel any bite.
When the rod tip has moved downstream to the point where you feel that the bait is going to start to wobble in place and point toward you, release more line while swinging your rod tip upstream as far as possible before engaging the reel again. This will produce some sort of action to the bait. That’s fine, but don’t get sucked into trying to rip the bait. Your goal is to purchase another 16’of line to slowly lower the bait over the next ledge trench.
In terms of likely locations, current protection is key. Find large eddies that seem to trap foam bubbles and never release them to the next pool. Depth helps provide an added buffer to what these fish endure during a high water event in the winter. Steep banks leading down to these waters often give away their location. Pools with greater volume won’t have the current speed that could require more energy than their cold water-slowed metabolism can take.
Done properly, this anchored boat dead drift presentation can take ten minutes to drift the eddy. Many jerkbaits won’t suspend properly out of the package to maintain a middle-of-the-water column presentation. I’ve had my best luck with Lucky Craft Pointer 100’s. Whether they suspend, float up slowly or sink slowly also depends on the water temperature, as it affects water density. I prefer one that suspends perfectly, will go ahead and fish one that sinks slowly, and will throw away or add Storm “Suspendots” to ones that float up even a little.
Probably the best advice I can give anyone on how to conquer this technique is to forget about it. Forget that you are fishing. Launch it out there, let the mechanics of letting out line or pacing the slow drift be secondary to something else. That something else could be an audio book on an MP3 player, or a conversation with your fishing buddy at the back of the boat. Enjoy the beauty of being on a mid-Atlantic river in the winter, and forget about the jerkbait. A big smallmouth will bring your mind back before you know it!
Jeff Little’s DVD on River Smallmouth Winter Patterns was released last winter. He uploaded each individual chapter on his video page “Tight Line Junkie’s Journal” https://tightlinejunkiejournal.pivotshare.com/. Watch all two hours of them for a subscription of $3.69.
Here's the chapter that deals specifically with this technique: