by Lee Brake
Over the next few weeks Lee Brake will be taking a look at some of the more popular ammunition used by deepwater jigging enthusiasts. This week we are looking at the arrow-like, flicking, darting wonders that are jerkshad soft plastics.
Big cod love jerkshad. For fish often thought of as big, slow and dumb, they will go after a darting jerkshad with all the ravenous hunger of a charging lion.
The jerkshad is probably my favourite deepwater lure and that's why we are kicking things off with it. As the name suggests, the jerkshad is a perfect small fish (shad) imitation that works best when 'jerked' through the water column. The average jerkshad resembles an arrow that is straight and tapers down to a small tail, which is usually forked like a snake's tongue, though some finish with single point and are often referred to as 'stickbaits'.
They differ from other softies in that it's the body of the plastic that provides the action, not the tail like curltails or paddletails. When rigged with a jighead and dropped through the depths, the lure will spear downwards with a slight quiver from the tail like a baitfish charging for the safety of bottom structure. Then, once it hits the bottom and you jerk it upwards, it'll dart from side to side erratically like a wounded and panicking baitfish, before diving once more when you pause.
If you can find a bait ball on the sounder and can imitate a panicked fish that is separated from its safety, then the predators will take notice.
The advantage of the jerkshad is the speed with which you can work it. Most plastics work better at slow to medium speeds to enable their tails to swim, but the jerkshad can be cranked and jerked hard to really imitate a fish fleeing for its life. For this reason, the jerkshad becomes your ultimate soft plastic when targeting feeding fish. If there is bait present on the sounder then chances are there are predatory fish feeding on any poor unfortunate fish that leaves the security of the bait ball. A jerkshad darting and diving near that bait ball becomes an immediate target, however, predators expect their prey to flee, so never be afraid to really crank your plastic up fast, especially after it has just taken a hit!
My usual technique when jigging these lures is to drift fish. I'll identify fish on the sounder, usually around or on prominent structure, and then I'll drift over the mark, starting far enough past it to ensure the lure is on the bottom before the boat reaches it. Then, once I know I'm over the mark, I'll usually increase the speed and ferocity of my action to attract the attention of the sounded fish. It seems that it's this fast action that entices most strikes. In fact, often I've finished a drift, gone well past the mark, and then started cranking the jerkshad in to start a new drift when I've gotten slammed. I can only imagine that the fish was following the lure and only struck when it looked to be making a break for it!
This nannygai came from a very deep mark. Note the four ounce jighead used to get the 6.5" Atomic jerkshad down into the depths.
Prime target species on jerkshads range from pelagics like trevally, cobia, queenfish and even mackerel to big bottom dwellers like fingermark, reef jack, nannygai, red emperor, cod and coral trout. Lure size plays a big role in what you target. For example, if I am inshore around a creek mouth or island chasing queenfish, tuna or small mackerel, I'll use a clear-coloured jerkshad around 5' to imitate a whitebait or hardyhead; if I'm jigging an isolated bombie or shoal for fingermark or nannygai, I'll use a 7' jerkshad; and if I'm fishing a deep trench or offshore mark after big fingermark, Spanish mackerel, cobia or even a big red, I'll go to a 8' or even a 9'. My two favourite jerkshads are Berkley Gulp 7' Jerkshads and Zman XL StreakZ which are 8'. Both have accounted for more than their fair share of big fish over the years.
A solid giant trevally emerges from the depths, jerkshad firmly embedding in its jaw corner.
Lure selection aside, rigging is incredibly important when using jerkshads. The biggest mistake is hook size. If the hook is too big (i.e. has a shank that's too long) for the jerkshad you are using then the lure becomes stiff and loses its darting action. If the hook is too small, you'll miss a lot of hits, as the fish will be grabbing the tail. As a general rule of thumb: 5' and 6' use a 5/0, 7' use a 7/0 and 8' or 9' use a 9/0.
The next most important rigging rule is to rig them straight. Take the time to make sure the hook is sitting straight in the plastic. If it's off centre, even a little bit, then the softy will swim to the side and instead of darting from side to side, it'll swim unnaturally in circles.
This smaller 4" Berkley Jerkshad was smashed by a nice coral trout along an island drop-off.
Weight choice is also obviously important. A jighead's fast action revolves around you being in contact with the lure, yet it also needs to be light enough to glide naturally forward as it darts through the water. If your jighead is too light, you won't feel the lure and will struggle to keep it near the bottom, and if it's too heavy, it'll just 'lift and thud' rather than 'dart and dive'.
Lastly, as mentioned, the jerkshad has the speed to attract an assortment of pelagic species, and with many pelagics comes teeth! For this reason never be afraid to throw on a short length of wire if you know mackerel are around. I will usually try wireless first and then upgrade if I get bitten off. Sometimes around pressured areas the wire will put them off, so it's worth trying without first.
This trophy fingermark took a Got Stryper Pintail from the States (http://www.gotstryper.com/). Note the single pointed tail more in the stickbait style.
Another advantage of jerkshads is that you don't need too much specialist gear to work them. The fast nature of the retrieve and the viciousness of the hits means specialist finesse gear is less important, however in saying that, some things will be an asset. I like a lightweight, graphite, fast tapered combo around 24kg. This allows some shock absorption during the hard strikes that can pull hooks if your rod is too stiff and it means that you can jig for long periods without getting tired. I use a LJ Customs XZoga jigstick that's 5'6' and 25kg (http://www.ljcustomrods.com/pages/jigging-rods.php) with a Shimano 500 Tekota reel and 300m-plus of 50lb Platypus Pretest braid. This little combo is a real pocket rocket and has stopped everything from huge giant trevally to 90cm fingermark. In saying that though, when you're starting out, most general purpose offshore combos will get the job done.
Fish hard and stay safe.