When he’s not fishing Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments, Jimmy Mason of Rogersville, Alabama, guides for winter smallmouth bass at Wheeler, Wilson and Pickwick reservoirs.
From November into March, his clients routinely dredge up 4- and 5-pound smallmouths by sweeping Smithwick Deep Rogues over gravel bars, bluff points and rock slides. Mason’s biggest smallie on a Deep Rogue could have been a sumo wrestler. It weighed 7 pounds, 14 ounces.
Deep jerkbaits also put Mason in touch with big cold-water spotted bass on his home lakes as well as places like Table Rock and Lake Lanier. If you fish rocky reservoirs that support smallmouth bass, spotted bass, or both, pay attention. His methods will work for you, too.
A Long Education
Mason began experimenting with jerkbaits the year after Japanese angler Norio Tanabe won an April Bassmaster tournament on Kentucky Lake in 1993. Though the second day of that tournament was canceled due to dangerous weather, Tanabe weighed in 10 bass in two days that totaled 43 pounds, 6 ounces. All the bass were prespawn smallmouths, and every one belted a suspending jerkbait. The impressive catch got Mason’s attention.
“Kentucky Lake is the next reservoir downstream from Pickwick, and I figured jerkbaits would also catch smallmouths on the lakes I fish,” he says.
Since Tanabe had won the Kentucky Lake tournament on short-billed jerkbaits, Mason initially bought a bunch of regular suspending Rogues. As he experimented with them over next four years, he worked part-time as a bass guide while attending the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. While guiding, he received a self-taught Bachelor’s degree in jerkbait fishing for cold-water smallmouths.
In the winter of 1998 he added the Deep Rattlin’ Rogue to his jerkbait arsenal and went for his smallmouth Master’s. The long-billed lure gets down 8 to 9 feet on 8-pound line, about twice as deep as short-billed jerks. The increased depth puts the bait closer to the bass, and the sluggish fish don’t have to move as far to nab it. He was suddenly catching more heavyweight smallies than ever.
A major piece of the winter smallmouth puzzle fell in his lap when he guided two 12-year-old boys in early March on Wilson Lake. Mason’s basic retrieve before that outing was a jerk-jerk-pause cadence that let the bait rest for a span of about two seconds during the pause.
“One of the boys got to daydreaming, and he’d let his bait sit for maybe 15 seconds between jerks,” he says. “That’s when he started crushing big bass, including one that weighed 6 1/2 pounds.”
When Mason learned that a long pause was the final key to jerkbaiting cold-water smallmouths, his success skyrocketed. Two things became clear. One, winter bass are inactive and need more time to respond to the bait. Two, although the jerkbait suspends at rest, wind and water currents give it subtle movements that coax bites.
“I believe a jerkbait looks like a dying shad when you give it a long pause,” he says. “Shad die-offs are common in the winter, and the bass take full advantage of them.”
The long-billed jerkbaits Mason relies on include the 1/2-ounce, 51/2-inch, Deep Suspending Rattlin’ Rogue, and the 5/16-ounce, 31/2-inch, Floating Deep Rogue, Jr.
He says the larger model usually suspends nicely right out of the box, but he must occasionally upsize the hooks from No. 6 to No. 4 to reduce a given bait’s buoyancy. Mason always checks each of these altered lures to make sure the bigger hooks don’t make it sink, rather than suspend.
The little Floating Deep Rogue Jr. does most of the heavy lifting when Mason fishes winter smallmouths. He makes the bait suspend with three Storm Suspen-Strips and one SuspenDot. He cuts the strips in half crosswise and stacks three pieces to each side of the lure’s belly between the bill and the front hook hanger. He places the dot in the center of the belly on top of the strips. Besides making the Deep Rogue Jr. suspend, the extra weight gives the bait a nose down attitude so it dives deeper.
He often replaces the rear treble on his deep diving jerkbaits with a feathered one, such as the Xcalibur Tx3 Point Feather Dressed Rotating treble in white with red flash. He believes the subtle movements of the feathers goad strikes when bass eyeball the bait during a pause.
As for colors, he opts for gold with black back (Golden Rogue) on cloudy days, and chrome with a blue back and orange belly, or the gaudy, redheaded clown color on sunny days.
Mason leans on both spinning and baitcasting tackle to serve up his jerkbaits. His baitcasting outfit is a 7-foot Kistler Magnesium TS Crankbait Composite Glass/Graphite rod matched with an Ardent XS reel spooled with 8-pound fluorocarbon.
“A lazier fiberglass rod gives a jerkbait more of a side-to-side action when you jerk it,” he says.
Mason also loses fewer bass with the ’glass rod than with a fast-action graphite stick. This is partly because many jerkbait bass are hooked outside the mouth, where the barbs can easily tear out if you’re using a stiff stick.
Distance casting is crucial to deep jerkbait fishing. Mason points out that you need to stay well back from the bass to avoid spooking them in clear water. Also, you must cast beyond the bass so you can work the jerkbait down to its maximum depth before it reaches the fish.
Fluorocarbon is less visible and helps the jerkbait get a little deeper because it sinks. Its low stretch helps you detect strikes, which are often as light as worm bites in the cold water.
Mason switches to a 6-foot, 6-inch, medium-action graphite spinning rod with a large-spool reel in windy conditions. This outfit lets him continue to make the long casts needed to get jerkbaits deep.
Sweeping Vs. Jerking
Sweeping a jerkbait and jerking one are two completely different things. Mason fairs better with a sweep retrieve when the water temperature drops below 50. After making the cast, he points his rod at the lure and holds the tip low. Then he sweeps the rodtip to his right (with his left hand) and pulls the bait ahead three to five feet. He initially makes two or three sweeps to get the jerkbait to its peak diving depth.
Once the jerkbait is down, he lets it pause for a 10-count. Then he sweeps the bait again and pauses it for a 9-count, then an 8-count, and so on. This dials in the precise pause length the bass want, since it can vary from day to day.
“If I start getting bites on a 3- to 4-count, I’ll cut back to 6-count and stick with that,” Mason says. “If I’m getting bites at an 8- to 10-count, I’ll begin with a 15-count and work down.”
The longest count Mason has had to endure happened when he fished a tournament on Alabama’s Smith Lake. Spotted bass were relating to rocky points leading into major creeks, so he would put his boat over 40 feet of water, work his jerkbait down over the points, which were about 20 feet deep, and let his bait pause for 30 seconds. He got only seven bites that day, but the five biggest totaled nearly 20 pounds!
“The water temperature was in the low 40s, and the strike was really lethargic,” he says. “You’d see your line jump and feel a little tick. That was it.”
When the water temperature is in the low 50s, Mason works jerkbaits down with a series of jerks, rather than sweeps. Then he lets the bait pause for a 10-count, works it ahead with a jerk-jerk-pause action, drops to a 9-count, and so on. A jerking action triggers more strikes than sweeping in the warmer water, since the bass are more active.
Winter smallmouths in clear reservoirs require two things: baitfish and deep water. They find both on bluff banks, bluff points, and gravel bars that drop into main lake river channels. If these structures don’t drop into a deep channel, they’re unlikely to hold bass.
“On Lake Wilson, there are quite a few bluffs that drop into 20 feet,” Mason says. “I catch a lot of smallmouths from them early in the fall, but the bass move to bluffs that drop into 40 feet as the water gets colder.”
The bass suspend along bluff walls when they’re not feeding, which usually happens when there is little or no current. Because the bluffs on Mason’s lakes are composed of limestone, which is light in color, they don’t hold heat as well as the dark shale bluffs found on smallmouth reservoirs like Dale Hollow. On sunny days, bass often move to dark shale banks to feed in the winter. This normally doesn’t happen on Wilson, Wheeler and Pickwick.
Mason’s basic presentation when fishing a bluff is to hold the boat close to the face and cast upstream and parallel to it. This lets him retrieve his jerkbait with whatever current may be present. Since the bass face into the flow, they see the bait coming and have more time to react. Though Mason might catch a bass anywhere along the bluff, he concentrates on rock slides, chunk rock and any other irregularities that hold the bass.
When the current flows, bass actively feed on points where the river channel swings into or away from the bluff. The points stair-step down, rather than drop vertically into the depths as do bluffs.
Other key feeding areas are gravel bars. These are formed by deposits that settle on the river channel’s edge where it turns out downstream from a bluff. Gravel bars typically lie within 100 yards of the bluff point, are 40 to 50 yards long, and rise within 10 to 15 feet of the surface. Gravel bars and bluff points give bass a current break, and smallmouths use the current to feed, even in the winter.
“When I fish these structures, I usually keep my boat over 25 to 30 feet and cast into water anywhere from 10 to 15 feet deep,” he says.
Mason lets the water temperature tell him where to position his boat and cast. When the water temperature is above 50, bass feed along the upstream sides of gravel bars and points that extend from the downstream ends of bluffs. Mason picks off the bass by putting his boat on the downstream end of the structure. Then he casts parallel to the upstream side of it and lets the current push his jerkbait to the bass during pauses.
“When the water gets colder than 50 degrees, the bass move to the backside of points and gravel bars to get out of the current,” he says.
Mason adjusts by positioning his boat on the downstream sides of structure. He casts upstream and works his jerkbait over the point or bar and into the slack water behind them.
When he fishes an up-stream point that leads into a bluff, Mason holds his boat tight to the bluff and casts upstream over the point. Then he works his jerkbait over and into the eddy that forms below the structure. This is where the bass usually hold and feed.
If you’re wondering what Mason did with his degree in electrical engineering, he took a lucrative job in the field. He re-signed five years later, though, to go back to guiding and take a shot at going pro. That was four years ago. Mason couldn’t be happier, and neither could his clients, who clean up on heavy winter bass.