The biggest problem with sushi isn’t that it’s made of seaweed and uncooked ocean critters. The problem is that it comes in pretty little pieces that would look nice on a dollhouse table. When you’re hungry after a full day on the water, a burger you can barely get your mouth around and a big pile of fries look a lot more like dinner than a plate decorated with dainty delights.
The contrast between a micro jig and a 5-inch minnow-imitating plug is similar. Although it’s true that very big trout sometimes will sip the tiniest offerings you can tie to your line, you can greatly enhance your opportunity to catch larger fish by presenting bigger lures. More specifically, minnow-shaped plugs of various sorts tend to be attractive to large fish because trout commonly turn to a fish-heavy diet upon reaching larger sizes, and even the invertebrates they continue eating are often crawfish, dobsonfly larvae or other large morsels.
Minnow-imitating plugs, also commonly called jerkbaits, stickbaits or minnow baits, do a good job of imitating larger forage items. They also provide added visibility any time a stream is high or stained, and they can be worked aggressively to create flash and draw reaction strikes from trout poised to ambush would-be meals. That said, many baits of this sort have highly natural finishes, slender profiles and tight actions and can be presented with surprising finesse while still suggesting a hearty meal to big trout.
Despite the common moniker, jerkbaits aren’t always fished with jerks. Jim, a lifelong trout fisherman who spends 1,000-plus hours astream each year and is a regular author of trout articles and books, relies mostly on a steady swimming action when he has a Rebel Minnow or a Bomber 14A at the end of his line.
Jim normally casts upstream, cross-current or to in-between angles and reels his lure just a little faster than the current so that it dives to its maximum depth and wobbles steadily along. Whenever possible, he uses fairly short and very accurate casts to pick apart current lines, deep runs, downed trees and other likely trout-holding features.
Jim also likes minnow-imitating lures for fishing down into and even under fallen trees that have significant current flowing through their branches. He’ll position himself a short cast upstream of such a tree, pitch his bait to just up of from branches, hold the line tight so that the current pulls the lure under and puts into to motion. Then he slowly feeds just a little line so the bait backs into the cover to do it’s enticing dance. Getting a big fish out of that sort of spot can be interesting challenge, but Jim is happy to cross that bridge when he comes to it because this is an outstanding way to show a lure to a big fish in a place that other baits rarely venture.
Jim sometimes pauses a traditional cranking retrieve as the lure bumps off a specific piece of cover, and occasionally he’ll add slight twitches to his presentations; however, he rarely jerks his rod significantly. For other anglers, jerks, twitches and/or pauses are a part of virtually every presentation.
Jerking the rod tip causes a typical minnow bait to dart, which can be a great strike-triggering mechanism. For big-river fishing and for aggressive trout, sometimes the best presentation is to constantly crank and to repeatedly jerk the rod tip downward. An alternative is to use a mostly steady retrieve but to mix in an occasional twitch or jerk to cause the bait to suddenly jump. Often that’s the triggering mechanism that will prompt a following fish to commit.
With suspending jerkbaits, such as Suspending Rogues and Rapala X-Raps, the pauses that follow the jerks can be as important as the jerks themselves, and the trout often will hit the lure as it is dead-drifting or hanging motionless in a suspended posture. A couple of hard low jerks or quick cranks of the reel handle will get the lure to its running depth. Once it’s in the zone, use alternating series of jerks and pauses, and be sure to vary your cadence, the lengths of your pauses and the sharpness of the jerks until you figure out how the trout want that particular day.
Suspending jerkbaits can be extremely effective when the current is ripping along at a good clip and the trout are tight to shoreline cover and holding in every little pocket-sized eddy. Cast as tight as possible to the bank, jerk sharply with the rod tip down to make the bait dive and dart and then let it drift and watch for the line to jump when a fish grabs the lure. If you don’t get a hit, reel the lure swiftly back and repeat. When the current is running really hard in a big river, few fish will be far from the bank or from some sort of current break so there’s no reason to work the lure all the way back to you.
Conditions and the character of a given stream provide definite clues about the type of presentation that’s most likely to produce the best action, but at times the trout may surprise you. Experiment and pay attention to details any time a trout hits. It’s easy to fall into a rut with some sort of a rhythmic jerking cadence, but often some variation would result in more fish by the end of the day.
In addition to noting which presentations produce strikes, always watch your lure and the water just behind it from the time the lure comes into sight. (polarized sunglasses are important for this.) Trout are notorious followers, and if a lot of fish are following but none are quite committing, that means you’re close but not quite there. Vary your presentations first, and if that doesn’t trigger strikes, start experimenting with colors, sizes or styles.
The first thing you have to consider when you’re selecting a jerkbait is the size of the lure. Most minnow plugs used in trout waters will fall in the 3- to 4-inch range, but in large streams that have big trout in them, using a 5-inch Rattlin’ Rogue or Lucky Craft Pointer might be the key to attracting a larger grade of trout. Along with appealing to larger fish overall, bigger lures can be cast farther and create more flash and vibration for getting the fish’s attention during periods of heavier flow.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the smallest Rapala Countdowns and Rebel Minnows made can be tough to beat in small waters and even in larger rivers where the prevalent forage fish are 1 or 2 inches long.
Along with looking at a lure’s length, it’s important to consider its shape and the bulkiness of its profile. A Rapala Husky Jerk, for example, is a notably larger lure than a Rapala Original Floater, even though both are the same length. Neither is necessarily better or worse. These are just differences that must be considered as you look at the water and consider conditions and the likely mood of the fish.
Another critical distinction of among various minnow baits is their buoyancy. Floaters, suspenders and sinkers each have advantages, and it’s important to match the buoyancy to the waters fished and the situation. Floaters run shallower overall and are generally better for fishing over timber or other snaggy cover. Suspenders allow you to pause the bait and hang at the same level where the trout just watched it dance. Sinkers allow you to fish a much broader swath of the water column. You can fish deep pools by counting a sinking bait down before beginning the retrieve, but you can present the same lure shallow by keeping it moving and holding your rod tip high.
Beyond those differences that are obvious from looking at a lure or reading its package, various jerkbaits that look fairly similar have very different actions. XCalibur Twitch Baits and Rapala X-Raps, for example, have a tight wiggle when cranked steadily but they dart very erratically when you jerk them. Rogues move much more subtly, even when jerked, doing more of a wobbling glide, without much side-to-side darting.
Picking the specific lures that suit the rivers you fish and the types of presentations you favor requires experimentation. You don’t need every size and color of every minnow bait ever made, but if you strive for variety with brands and basic models as you begin playing with jerkbaits, you’ll soon discover the unique personality of those that best suit your trout fishing. You’ll also learn slight differences in maximum running depths that will be more specific than what you can read on a package.
A final distinction that cannot be ignored is color, and effective jerkbait color patterns range from the most basic silver or gold and black combinations to highly realistic imitations of various trout foods. Among the most effective patterns for big brown trout are the baby trout patterns, with the darker tones of brown trout patterns often working best on dark days and the lighter rainbow colors shining when the skies are bright.
Jim commonly adds a little dot of fluorescent orange paint to the nose of a plug, but he is not seeking to enhance the color scheme to appeal to more trout. Instead it’s a visual aid for Jim, who wants to be able to track his lure as he works it around cover.
Jim swims his lure as close as possible to the thickest cover he can find, knowing that’s where the big browns like to lurk. The bright spot provides just enough visibility for him to track a plug’s path, even at full running depth, which allows for much more precise presentations.
Another thing that commonly helps Jim catch more fish is tying a snap to his line instead of tying his lures directly to the end of the line. For jerkbait fishing, the snap provides the same benefit as a loop knot, allowing the lure more freedom to swim uninhibited. A more significant benefit, though, is the capacity to change lures quickly.
Jim carries only a handful of lures in the stream each day, but each is carefully chosen, and he’ll change frequently as he fishes. If he comes to specific hole that’s a foot or two deeper than most of what he has been fishing, for example, he might take snap off a Bomber 14A and replace it with an XCalibur Deep Twitch Bait. Once he has worked that specific hole, whether that calls for five casts or five minutes of casting, he’ll switch back to the lure he had been using.
Similarly, Jim often will fish the same potentially productive run first with a plug and then with a spinner because switching lures is such a simple matter for him, and often the second lure will produce a fish on the exact casts that yielded nothing with the first lure.
A final important note about jerkbaits is that while most of these lures come equipped with two or even three treble hooks, this should not be an inhibitant to using this style of lure in a stream that has a single-hook requirement. It’s not at all difficult to remove the stock treble hooks and put a larger single hook on the back split ring, and hookup rates tend to be very good as long as the new hook is sufficiently large for the size of the lure and plenty sharp. These special regulations streams are actually among the very best places for using jerkbaits for big trout because the fish often see almost nothing but flies and traditional in-line spinners most days.