Jerkbaits vs. Crankbaits: Which Is Best for You?

Jerkbaits and crankbaits are great for imitating baitfish, but which one should you use? Fishing expert Jake Baum covers their differences and ideal uses.

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Before we start breaking down how and when to use a jerkbait or crankbait, we need to first understand the differences between the two. When you first start out fishing, it is extremely easy to become overwhelmed by all the different choices and fishing lingo. We are going to begin by explaining the differences between jerkbaits and crankbaits, we will then go over how to fish with them, and lastly when to fish each option. Jerkbaits and crankbaits are perfect for imitating baitfish which allows you to catch bass, walleye, lake trout, catfish, and many other species! They also come in such a wide variety of sizes that they can be used to target large game fish like northern pike and muskie. While they make both fresh and saltwater styles, in this article, we are going to focus on jerkbaits and crankbaits that work well for most freshwater species.

A Jerkbait Overview

The entire goal of a jerkbait is to mimic a minnow or baitfish in distress or dying. This drives fish crazy and causes them to strike. Regardless of the type of jerkbait you use, the technique is similar. I almost always go with the same style, which is the ‘jerk, jerk, jerk, and then a few second pause’ technique. The erratic motion gets the fish's attention and makes them want to strike. The pause gives them a good chance to bite and makes them think the bait is wounded. The harder you jerk the rod, the more erratic the action of the bait is. The pause is extremely important, and, in my opinion, you cannot let the bait pause too long. If you are not getting the attention of any fish, then try a different color or a different pattern in your cadence.

The author stands and holds up a bass while wearing a light red shirt with Curated's logo.

Author Jake Baum with a smallmouth bass on a Duo Realis Jerkbait in Prism Shad. Photo courtesy of Jake Baum

Jerkbait Design

Jerkbaits can be broken down into soft jerkbaits and hard jerkbaits. Hard jerkbaits are almost always made of some sort of plastic or polymer, while soft jerkbaits are made from a soft plastic material. On occasion, you will find manufacturers who still make jerkbaits out of balsa wood which gives those baits unique actions because of the varying grain patterns.

Regardless of the type of jerkbait that you use, they all have a similar look and design. They are long-bodied and narrow baits that mimic baitfish. This design really helps in being able to have long casts. All hard-bodied jerkbaits will come with either two or three treble hooks. They also have a plastic lip or bill that helps them dive and gives them their erratic action, whereas soft plastic jerkbaits do not have any lips, which gives them a more natural action.

Check out this video on what action to use when fishing jerkbaits.

Hard Jerkbaits

Hard jerkbaits come in three different styles of buoyancy. They also come in styles that have rattles which help trigger fish into striking. You’ll have to seek these out because not all jerkbaits have rattles.

Floating Jerkbaits Floating jerkbaits will float towards the top of the water after hitting the water. This type is the easiest style to use when starting out since they will float over grass, trees, and other obstructions. These jerkbaits work well when targeting fish that are hitting on topwater. They will dive a few feet every time you give the bait a jerk and then slowly float back to the top.

Suspending Jerkbaits I prefer fishing with suspending jerkbaits! Their buoyancy allows them to stay at the exact height that you leave them at. These are the most used jerkbaits because they are widely available among different lure makers and offer a happy medium in terms of buoyancy options. After you give the bait a few jerks, it will pause and hang where you left it. This gives the fish the time to strike and makes them think that the bait is wounded or dying. To control the depth of a suspending jerkbait, you just simply raise or lower the rod tip. If you want the jerkbait to dive deeper, then you need to lower the rod tip and then jerk the lure. Likewise, to raise it, you will raise the tip of the rod to bring the jerkbait closer to the surface.

A man kneels on a boat and holds up a smallmouth while smiling.

Curated Expert Matt Clawges with a smallmouth caught on a Berkley Gulp Jerkshad in Ghost. Photo by Jake Baum

Sinking Jerkbaits This style can be slightly tricky to use if you do not know the depth of the water or the structure below. The sink rate is almost always on the package of the lure, but you can always watch the bait sink and count it down for a handful of seconds to figure out how fast it sinks, which you will need to do to figure out the depth of the lure. This is an excellent technique to target fish that are hiding in cover and gives you the ability to fish at a deeper depth.

Soft Jerkbaits

The author stands on a boat and holds up a smallmouth bass in the same Curated t-shirt he was wearing previously.

Author Jake Baum with a smallmouth on a Berkley Gulp Shad in Albino. Photo courtesy of Jake Baum

Soft plastic jerkbaits are like any other plastic bait that you may use. They can get torn up pretty quick from aggressive fish, but the upside of soft jerkbaits is that fish tend to hold on longer to them. This gives you a better chance at getting a good hook set. Soft plastic jerkbaits do have a more natural action and can be rigged up on a Texas Rig, so they are weedless. They have a very erratic darting action and can be an extremely successful choice in jerkbaits.

Check out this video on how to rig a soft plastic jerkbait.

This video demonstrates how to use a soft plastic jerkbait.

My Top Picks

Some of the best Jerkbaits are the Strike King KVD 100 Jerkbait in Sugar Daddy and the Duo Realis Jerkbait 120SP in Prism Shad. Some of the best soft plastic Jerkbaits are the ZMan Streakz 5" Jerkbait in Hot Chartreuse and the Strike King 5" Z-Too Jerkbait in Pearl, and you can never go wrong with the Rapala X-Rap!

A Crankbait Overview

Crankbaits are similar in design to jerkbaits, except that they are typically a fatter-bodied lure and almost always have a lip or bill. They are versatile and can target fish at many different depths, from 4ft to 25ft. Crankbaits can be retrieved at a variety of speeds and can even be trolled to cover a large area of open water or following adjacent to the bank/shore. When you are retrieving a crankbait, I would recommend a baitcasting reel in the 5.0:1 - 5.4:1 gear range for the best results. If you are going to be running lipless crankbaits you will want a higher gear ratio in the 7.0:1 range. Regardless of the way you retrieve the crankbait, you need to ensure that you follow the water temp, color, and structure guide outlined below.

This lip determines the depth at which they run while being retrieved. The most common lips or bills are the square bills, diamond bills, rounded bills, and lipless (no bills).

The author stands on a boat and holds forward a large smallmouth bass. He wears a sweatshirt, sunglasses, and a backwards hat.

Jake with a smallmouth on a Berkley Flicker Shad Jointed Crankbait. Photo courtesy of Jake Baum

Crankbait Design

There are so many styles and colors of crankbaits that they can be used in almost any situation, but the three main body styles are hard crankbaits, lipless crankbaits, and soft crankbaits. Hard crankbaits are the most common since they imitate baitfish extremely well. They have a wide variety of depth ranges which allows them to be used to target fish, no matter where they are. Lipless crankbaits are best for fishing close to the top of the water, but you can allow them to sink so you can fish slightly deeper. Soft plastic crankbaits are not extremely popular yet. They’re relatively similar to hard-bodied crankbaits but their advantage is that fish tend to hold onto them longer. However, they’re not widely available yet and don’t have the same color range available as the others.

The crankbait’s lip determines the depth at which they run while being retrieved. The longer the lip on the crankbait, the deeper it will dive because of the resistance of the lip in the water. The most common lips or bills are the square bills, diamond bills, rounded bills, and lipless (no bills). The length of the bill determines the depth that the bait runs out, while the different shapes allow the bait to be used in different settings. The most common is the rounded bill since it’s the most versatile. It’s what you’ll see on most crankbaits that run from the surface of the water to 25-ft deep. On the other hand, square bills tend to be smaller and they work well for running through structure and bouncing off of rocks. Lipless Crankbaits are better for use in shallow waters, but also have the capability of diving deep because they are negatively buoyant. Lipless crankbaits are the go-to crankbait for fishing in the falls. You will want to cast these along grass bed edges and reel them in quickly back to shore or the boat!

The author stands and holds up a walleye while grinning.

Jake Baum with a walleye caught on the Berkley Flicker Shad Crankbait in Racy Shad. Photo courtesy of Jake Baum

My Top Picks

Some of the best crankbaits are the Berkley Flicker Shad Crankbait in Racy Shad and the 6th Sense Crush 100X Squarebill Crankbait in Chartreuse Black Back.

Pro tip: When you buy crankbaits, they will tell you what depth they run at. I like to organize my tackle box by the crankbait’s depth! This helps you keep track of them and makes it easier when switching out colors.

Jerkbait vs. Crankbait

Choosing whether to use a jerkbait or a crankbait is based on a few factors:

Water Clarity

Jerkbaits are the ideal way to go when you are fishing in a shallow area that is rocky, weedy, or has a lot of sunken cover, such as trees. Crankbaits are meant to dive deep and hit the rocks on the bottom which causes their erratic motion and produces loud noises which attract fish in murky water. When targeting fish that are deep in clear water, you will want to use crankbaits that have a natural color or that mimic baitfish in that water. Try using crankbaits that mimic crayfish, shad, or other small baitfish!

Pro tip: Remember to use the right fishing line when fishing in clear water. If you are using braid use a heavy fluorocarbon leader, like this one!

When picking your colors, you want to do it based on water clarity. A rule of thumb my father taught me is “the clearer the water, the more natural the bait color and the brighter you want it to be. The murkier the water, the darker the bait you want (with the exception of pink and chartreuse).”

Temperature

Jerkbaits are perfect for fishing shallow waters. The erratic motion that jerkbaits have works well in the warmer temperatures and the jerkbaits require less of a pause because bass are more active. In early spring or late fall, when the water temperatures are lower, bass and other fish become slower, and jerkbaits are awesome for targeting the slower fish by using the erratic motion and giving them a long pause, which keeps the lure in the strike zone as long as possible. Hard plastic and Soft plastic Jerkbaits work really well during the spawn because they can be fished close to the beds of spawning bass to trigger strikes.

Crankbaits work well pretty much in any water temperature because they have such a variety of depth ranges. During the spawn, you will want to target the pre-staged bass that are hanging out around the spawning beds. They can typically be found in structure or rocks near the spawning beds. Crankbaits can work really well for targeting large bass during the spawn since they allow you to cover a lot of area quickly and present a different action than the typical approach of spinners and other style baits.

Locations

Shallow water in lakes, ponds, creeks, and rivers is perfect for jerkbaits. You want to look for areas with shallow water adjacent to deeper pockets. In these areas, you are going to want to find places that also have good structure, such as trees, large rocks, docks, and grass. There should be a good presence of baitfish in these areas so they’re where fish love to wait to ambush their prey. Jerkbaits will draw them out and make them want to strike.

Crankbaits are great for lakes, rivers, and deep water. You want to look for areas with drop-offs, ledges, or large deep pockets. These areas are perfect for crankbaits because they can dive down into them and get the fish’s attention. Retrieving a crankbait over a large shelf or pocket can get you a variety of amazing fish!

Color

You always want to try and match the bait’s color to the prey that the fish are chasing or eating. If you see a lot of shiny bait balls or shimmery bait being chased by fish, you want to match that color as closely as possible. I recommend having a good range of colors such as white, chartreuse, orange, black and green.

Connect with a Curated Expert for free to discuss what type of bait you should be using and what type of rod will work best for these techniques! With the right baits and gear, you will be ready to rip some big bass!

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Written By
Jake B.
Conventional Fishing Expert
I started fishing at the age of 4. I am a well traveled fisherman having fished in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Mexico, Japan and Malaysia. I love fishing for big catfish, walleye, perch, bass and trout. I love hiking remote streams and mountain...
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