Fishing lures come in a ton of different shapes and sizes. A crankbait and a jerkbait are two of the most popular versions, though. These particular baits give anglers versatility in the methods of how they fish, as well as options on types of water they can fish. How will you know which of these is right for you? Let’s dive in and find out.
What are Crankbaits and Jerkbaits?
To start with the basics, both of these baits or lures are referred to as lipped hard plastics. This term differentiates them from soft plastics, like false worms or crayfish baits. They are great for most scenarios when fish like bass or walleye are feeding, these could also be effective during the spawn. Lures like these are intended to mimic the natural forage that fish instinctually feed on.
The reason crankbaits and jerkbaits are so popular among anglers, is they are so easy to buy, use, and store. These baits can both be purchased at almost any outdoors store, and even most big box stores, as well as all over the internet. There is no need for terminal tackle, scents, or special rigging. You can just tie one of them directly to your mainline or leader and cast out or troll them very easily. Because they are made from durable materials, they are also very easy to store for long periods with no worries of decay.
Now for the features, both similar, and differentiating. First, we can start with what these baits do have in common. The crankbait and jerkbait both have a distinct lip or bill attached to the front. This is normally where the action and diving characteristics of each bait stem from. They can be purchased in all sorts of color variants to match natural forage. Non-natural color patterns also work well in some situations, so crankbaits and jerkbaits can be purchased with those as well.
What Does a Crankbait Look Like?
A crankbait has a bill that is long and wide. This feature gives your bait the ability to dive deep in the water column, up to about 5 feet as a minimum, and 25 feet at most. When target species like bass or walleye are low in the water column, having a bait that dives down to them is crucial. These fish do not normally swim up to the surface to strike, especially in warmer or bright conditions.
Crankbaits usually mimic larger prey because of their stature. With a larger mass at the front of the bait and a more slender tail section, crankbaits tend to mimic shad or crayfish.
What do Jerkbaits Look Like?
Jerkbaits are my favorite. Because I do a ton of trolling, jerkbaits are my number one lure in the spring.
Jerkbaits are one of the weapons of a tackle box that can be thrown or trolled in most fishing situations and spreads. Almost every fish will strike a jerkbait. The small bill on a traditional jerkbait gives the lure motion but does not let it dive more than a foot or so from the surface. Since it will not dive very deep, the angler does not have to worry about submerged structure or weeds affecting the action.
The shape of a jerkbait is more uniform. They tend to be long and slender through. There are some instances where the front section may end up being slightly taller, but usually never wider. These characteristics make jerkbaits resemble minnows or other baitfish.
When Should I Use a Crankbait?
When should you use which bait, and why? Well, the methods of fishing both the crankbait and jerkbait vary. In a situation where you have keyed in on the fish, knowing that they are suspended or hugging the bottom of the water column and actively feeding, the crankbait is going to work the best.
Crankbaits can be cast out beyond where the fish are schooled and retrieved past the fish at your desired depth. To maximize the dive, reel quickly and dig that bill into the water. This aggressive retrieval triggers fish to bite instinctually. To retrieve the bait at a more modest depth, reel slower and let the bait suspend between revolutions. This method will work on fish that are suspended midway between the surface and bottom of the column.
Do not hesitate to bounce these baits across rocks or structures. Their shape helps them to not get hung up or snagged on rocks or stones. The bouncing also creates vibrations and silt which mimic natural forage. Disrupting the silt on the bottom will no doubt attract some attention.
When Should I Use a Jerkbait?
For covering a ton of water, either by trolling or drifting, a jerkbait is what you will find on the end of my line. Jerkbaits work so well in so many different fisheries because they force fish to strike before having time to decide what they are striking.
To a fish, a jerkbait seems like a baitfish that is scooting across the water just beneath the surface, trying to escape danger. They strike before having a chance to investigate. Jerkbaits can be trolled in and out of deep or shallow water at high or low speeds, making it the best bait for finding schools of feeding fish.
If you troll over a location a few times and realize that the fish are biting in that specific location, you can then mark that location on your graph, and wither anchor or drift fish over it. You will have used the jerkbait to find the fish and can then switch to a crankbait or some other lure to steadily catch from that school.
Where Should I Use a Crankbait or Jerkbait?
Crankbaits are perfect for when you are fishing structure. If you find yourself fishing anywhere that has fallen trees or maybe some boulders, this is the perfect place to throw a large-billed crank. With the stout body profile and large bill, crankbaits can handle bouncing off of some structure or rocks. As long as you are not getting tangled up, you will have a good chance of being in the strike zone. Fish hide amongst this structure and feed on the creatures that live in the rocks or may fall from a tree, which is exactly what a crankbait is meant to imitate.
Jerkbaits are commonly known as stick baits because of the way they are designed. The profile of a jerkbait is slender and smooth. They tend to work better over open water, where you would normally find the similar size and shaped baitfish cruising around. That small lip provides just enough action and wobble to the bait, which makes it seem like an insured baitfish.
Should I Use a Crankbait or Jerkbait?
There are a few factors that you will want to consider when deciding which bait to use. The first factor is forage. What are the fish you are targeting feeding on? Are those fish feeding on bait that is long and slender? An example of something long and slender could be a minnow. This is the perfect time to throw a jerkbait. The fish will already be used to striking natural prey with the same profile as your artificial lure, so you will tend to have better luck.
Conversely, if the fish species you are targeting have been feeding on something a little more stout, this is a better time to throw a crankbait. Not only will the profile of the lure match what the fish are currently feeding on, but a crankbait will also dive to the deeper zones in the water column. This is where you would naturally find a crawfish, rather than near the surface.
Another factor you will want to take into consideration when choosing to use a crankbait or jerkbait is not what your target fish is feeding on, but rather, how they are feeding. This may be a bit more difficult to figure out. It may help to have a fish finder for this question. If you do have a way to view the fish, whether it be with sonar or an underwater camera, look to see if the fish are rising to attack your bait, or if they are staying along the bottom of the water column. If you can determine this, you will be able to decide which bait is best. For fish that are feeding upward and rising to strike, a jerkbait is the best choice. If the fish are staying close to the bottom of the water column, the crankbait will be what I would throw on.
Water clarity is the next factor on our how to choose what to use list. Think of this as how well or poorly a fish can see your bait. If the water is green, murky, or muddy, your best bet is not going to be a jerkbait with a subtle wabble up near the surface. These baits do not create enough vibration for the fish to see and feel in dirty water. This is what makes a crankbait the better bait for these situations. The crankbait has a more aggressive thump due to its large bill. This lets fish key in on them even in the dirty water.
Now, if the water is gin-clear, you are probably going to want to lean toward the more natural presentation of a jerkbait. They will look more like baitfish and can be twitched or steadily retrieved, Even if a fish gets the time to check out a jerkbait for an extended period, it will most likely hit a jerkbait.
The last major deciding factor is going to be the depth of the water you are fishing. Now, we have gone over this a few times and it seems to be a major theme throughout, maybe it ends up being the most important factor by the time we are done. Depth of the entire body of water is important. But, the depth at which the fish are feeding is what the real key is. We know the depths at which each bait will swim upon retrieval, so as long as you know where the fish are and how they are feeding on a particular depth, you should be able to choose your lure accordingly.
What are Lipless Crankbaits?
Outliers are rare occurrences in any category. For these hard plastics, this is no exception. The outliers in this category are the lipless crankbaits and balsa wood jerkbaits.
Lipless are classified as the same even though they should be in one of their own. These baits are normally called rattle-traps. Similar to the crankbait in their vibration output strategy, they are dissimilar in almost every other way.
Tall and slender, lipless crankbaits are shaped like baitfish or sunfish. They have beads inside which rattle, which is where their nickname stems from. Ideal for casting in shallow water, these baits do not dive to great depths. Usually equipped with treble hooks front and rear, they tend to get hung up and tangled quite frequently.
I would use a lipless crankbait in a situation where the water is very clear and a weed line is nearby. Cast out and retrieve the bait parallel to the weed line in the open water, using the rattle and vibration of the bait to entice a strike from fish hiding in the weeds.
What are Suspended Jerkbaits?
As for the balsa wood versions of jerkbaits, these look very similar to the traditional plastic jerkbaits but are constructed from different materials. With a wood core that makes them denser, these baits can either float or suspend in the water column. Suspending baits have weight embedded in the wood core to counteract buoyancy.
These baits are coated with epoxy that makes them very durable. The brand name that is most commonly known for this style of bait is Rapala. They tend to work the best and last the longest, but will cost significantly more than a hollow plastic bait that can be made in a mold or with 3D printing.
Hard plastics are one of the best lures to purchase for all of the reasons we have discussed and more. They work well in tons of different scenarios, and as long as you take care of them, they will last forever. While technology advances and the shapes or colors become more realistic, crankbaits and jerkbaits hold to their roots with their profiles and sizes. So, find one at a store, online, or even your local garage sale, tie it on and get fishing.