What’s the difference between a jerkbait and a crankbait?
If you ask the internet, you’ll get answers about lip shapes, body styles, depths to which they run, and maybe even the number of hooks they wear.
What you won’t find is the real answer: they’re totally different lures that just happen to look a lot alike.
Now, that’s a strong answer that runs contrary to what you might have read elsewhere, but I’m going to back that up, and if you keep reading, you’ll understand exactly what I mean.
Table of Contents (clickable)
Jerkbaits vs Crankbaits: Function and Technique Explained
I’m going to work backward, discussing the subtle physical features that differentiate crankbaits from jerkbaits later, and start with what they do - because it’s not at all the same.
Crankbaits are designed to be cast into the thick of it and then run to bounce, skitter, and deflect off logs, stumps, rocks, and even the bottom. The very idea of a crankbait is that it’s a “cover lure,” not an open water runner that you retrieve in a straight line back to your boat.
Don’t trust me; rely on Kevin Van Dam to set you straight.
He designed his 1.5 Flat Side so that it “bounces over rocks, laydowns and other hard cover well, which is a shortcoming for many flat crankbaits.”
And how does he fish it?
"I let the bait digging bottom do most of the work. If I hit something real rough, I might pause for a second. That bait almost suspends."
Gerald Swindle is another name you might recognize. In the spring, he fishes where “natural rocks and riprap comprise the primary cover.” He’ll “crank wood if it's available, but 90 percent of the time,” he’s looking for rocks.
The idea, of course, is to make contact with this hardcover, creating erratic bounces and wild deflections that attract attention.
Think they’re alone?
As Bassmaster reports, “Former CITGO Bassmaster Classic champion Woo Daves routinely clips off the barbs of his hooks when fishing heavy timber and brush in an attempt to limit the number of hang-ups he will experience. And to combat especially thick cover, he removes the treble hooks and replaces them with a single 3/0 worm hook.”
You should be sensing a pattern here.
Crankbaits are designed to run head-down, using their lip and body to protect the two treble hooks they wear. That allows you to run them across rocks, logs, and blowdowns without too many snags. And each bump into cover causes an enticing deflection that triggers a reaction strike, making them a deadly choice for heavy cover.
By contrast, jerkbaits are open water lures that mimic the erratic dance of a dying fish. Pros like Jeff Gustafson, Mike McClelland, and Stephen Browning will tell you that “where a jerk-bait shines is on a snap-pause retrieve, which gives it an erratic, darting action that drives bass wild.”
Now you already should see a difference: you might vary your retrieve speed, and even pause, with a crankbait, but slack-line snaps are where it’s at for jerkbaits, giving them their name.
And where do they suggest you fish jerkbaits for maximum effectiveness?
- “Rocky shorelines, points, and mid-lake structures: Use different casting angles to cover these areas”
- “Sand and grass flats: Cast the bait near light-dark edges and swim it over the tops of vegetation”
- “Ledges and drop-offs: Retrieve the bait perpendicular to the break; fan-cast to cover a range of depths”
- “Around docks: Don’t be shy about working a jerkbait around dock pilings”
- “Open water: Cast anywhere bass are actively feeding on baitfish”
Jerkbaits are not designed to run through heavy cover, and they don’t nose-down to protect the three trebles they often wear. Instead, they’re designed to wriggle and hunt, turn 180 degrees from side to side as you jerk them, and often make tight circles to stay in the strike zone.
As Mike McClelland says, “It’s not that you’re trying to catch fish deep; you’re trying to catch fish that are suspended high in the water column and chasing bait,” he said. “It almost becomes a deal where you’re looking for schoolers.”
And staying in or near that school, while creating an erratic, dying wriggle and turn, is what the jerkbait is all about.
So let’s break it down simply and clearly so you can see the real difference between these lures:
- Are designed to run through heavy cover and bounce, deflect, and skip over rocks, branches, stumps, and the bottom
- Need a tight line to get a good hookset, so you want to keep slack to a minimum
- Run in long, relatively straight lines back your rod
- Are designed for open water, where you use a slack line to jerk them into erratic action. They are not designed for contact with logs and other cover, and will hang up and snag.
- Need slack in the line for the action to work properly.
- Hunt and turn, even circling back on themselves to stay in a tight area where you’ve located fish that are ready to hunt.
Jerkbaits vs Crankbaits: Lips, Body Styles, and Shapes
There are as many styles of crankbait as there are soft plastic worms, so we always need to speak in generalities.
Crankbaits tend to be relatively short, fat, and tall - shaped almost like a teardrop.
They’ll have a lip much of the time, though it’ll vary in size and shape to create different swimming actions (in combination with body shape), and it’s also there to create that head-down orientation that protects those dangling trebles from snags.
The Strike King Pro-Model 6XD is in every pro’s tacklebox, guaranteed.
SPRO’s Little John 50 is a legend for shallow water cranking.
Lipless and “silent” crankbaits are also popular on the tournament trail, and there’s a design for every situation.
And by tweaking body shape, say, like Kevin VanDam’s flat sides 1.5, you can tighten or loosen the wiggle, increase straight-line running or encourage wandering hunting, or pretty much anything in between.
And it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that bigger lips tend to create deeper diving. There are really no mysteries here.
Jerkbaits tend to have elongated bodies and small lips, immediately indicating that they’re not deep divers - though there are models that are. They also won’t have that hydrodynamic lip forcing them head-down, so the trebles are much more exposed to snags.
The Shadow Rap might just be the deadliest jerkbait ever devised.
These are pen water baits, meant to be worked above vegetation and cover, snapped into erratic action, and kept more or less in where you’ve casted them. The retrieve is not their strength, nor is any attempt to bounce them off cover.
Instead, they're usually loaded with some steel balls and carefully shaped to create ridiculous turns and darting 180-degree turn-arounds, rising or falling on the pause to simulate different death reactions for cooler and warmer conditions.
Yes, crankbaits and jerkbaits are shaped a bit differently, have lips that differ in size and shape, and even wear a different number of treble hooks upon occasion.
But those differences are all found within the world of crankbaits, and I can assure you that the SPRO Little John 50 and the Strike King Pro-Model 6XD don’t share the same lip design, side shape, running depth, or action.
But what makes them both crankbaits is their intended technique and purpose: they’re heavy cover lures that are intended to bounce, slide, and deflect off cover.
By contrast, jerkbaits vary, too, in their shapes, lip design, and hook number. But what makes a jerkbait a jerkbait is the slack-line technique that sets them dancing, their strength in open water, and their ability to stay put when you’ve mastered the technique.
As always, we want to hear from you, and if you have a comment or correction, we’d love for you to leave a comment below!