Ozark Masters: Jerkbaits ... Jimmy Crisp Introduces Anglers to the Hard Jerkbait
This is the first of a series of articles detailing the history and foundation of tournament winning techniques in the Ozarks. The experts and originators will be interviewed to give insights as to how a specific lure made them one of the “Ozark Masters”.
serious angler’s front deck and likely to the only rod in their hand all day. During late winter and early spring, a jerkbait entices sluggish bass into striking when no other bait will produce a bite.
The current crop of hard jerkbaits is ready to go right out of the box to even the most novice angler. The evolution of jerkbait perfection has made paint schemes ultra-realistic and treble hooks sticky sharp. Internal weight transfer systems have been developed so these baits cast like bullets and suspend flawlessly on the first cast. Gone are the days of adding lead adhesive dots or drilling holes in floating models to add weight. All anglers need to do now is pick a size or color and add water. It wasn’t always that easy.
The development of the jerkbait into a tournament winning technique across the country came from a unique set of circumstances in the Ozarks. Crystal clear, deep water was the foundation. Bull Shoals reservoir and Table Rock Lake
were the genesis but it was quickly proven to be effective anywhere in the Ozarks and beyond. As long as the water was clear and cold, the jerkbait would outshine any other lure.
The “mother” jerkbait was the Rapala floating minnow. The lure was first hand carved by Lauri Rapala, a Finnish angler in 1936. The lure was produced by their family and caught fish all over Europe for a number of years. In 1960, tackle representative Ron Weber of Minnesota bought 500 lures from Lauri Rapala and convinced Ray Ostrom, a local Twin Cities tackle shop owner to sell them. This team formed Normark Company to import and sell this lure. Business boomed after a stroke of luck based on tragedy.
Ostrom helped plant a story, “A Lure Fish Can’t Pass Up.” in the August 1962 issue of Life magazine. This edition of the magazine became the biggest selling issue of all time because America was mourning the death of Marilyn Monroe. The cover bore her photograph and a pictorial of her life was contained inside. As a by-product of the viewership, a small story detailing Lauri Rapala’s lure launched an angling craze.
Orders came pouring in and soon over three million requests were made. Anglers sent cash begging to get their hands on these lures. Those who were lucky enough to obtain the original jerkbait found immediate success on the water. Some lures were even rented daily instead of being sold.
At this time, a young 16 year old boy from Gainesville, Missouri was on a trip when he ran across two baits in a store. They were big #18 Rapalas, one blue and one black backed. Jimmy Crisp bought both lures and went home to sell one to his Uncle who also fished Bull Shoals. His Uncle didn’t want the lure “because it was too big” so Jimmy just kept it. It was a good idea to hold on to both of them.
Jimmy didn’t own a boat so he walked the banks of Bull Shoals to fish his new lure. In each box, instructions were included as to how to fish the bait. It said to use light line and a steady retrieve. Jimmy tried this but quickly found fish to really like a jerking retrieve in the wind. And he was catching bigger than average fish on the oversized Rapala.
Jimmy wanted to buy more of the same #18 Rapalas but couldn’t locate them anywhere. He soon found himself in Springfield, Missouri at a liquor store on Glenstone Avenue which sold lures. This Brown Derby liquor store held the lures of Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. The store could order the Rapalas Jimmy needed and now he was really in business.
Life as a fishing guide when Jimmy was 18 opened the door to developing confidence in the Rapala throughout the year. A trolling motor was a pure luxury at the time, only a sculling paddle was used to control the boat. Jimmy wasn’t afraid of the wind and found his catch rate to increase around wind-blown points. “The harder it would blow, the better I liked it,” recalled Jimmy. “I really caught a lot of fish.”
Although smaller sizes where utilized at certain times, the big #18 Rapala was his bread and butter to catch big fish. Jimmy liked three colors: black/gold/white in off colored water, blue/silver/white early in the morning and black/silver/white the rest of the day. The blue back model was especially seductive to spotted bass and smallmouths.
Crisp preferred to stay with that color pattern if he knew he would be fishing for bigger spots and smallies instead of largemouths. The reason Jimmy came to work the Rapala the way he did was because of another lure. The Heddon Torpedo was a productive top water bait that was weighed in the tail. In very choppy water, Jimmy could work this bait under the surface by jerking it down. It was effective but anglers will always work to build a better mousetrap. When the Rapala came along, Jimmy could get the bait down to 5 or 6 feet every cast. The consistency of the lure wasn’t always the same and a few baits always run deeper than others. These were held back for when the money was at stake.
Most anglers in the 1960s and 70s were visual fisherman who worked the shoreline. High resolution graphs were only science fiction and one was lucky to have a Lowrance “Little Green Box” then. The flasher was luxury which most could do without by staying close to shore. Jimmy was introduced to the world away from the bank by the first owner of the Pontiac Boat Dock, a man related to Jimmy’s Uncle called Robbins. Robbins was very good at swimming a jig through submerged tree tops on Bull Shoals. He would count the jig down before working that specific depth back to the boat. This opened up a new world of fishing as many fish suspended in these trees through the winter. Also, nobody was fishing in the dead of winter. They assumed it was too cold.
After Robbins showed Jimmy that there were suspended fish to catch, he went to work trying to entice them with his jerkbait. He tried to weight the Rapala by wrapping lead around the hooks but preferred not to add weight as it deadened the action. Fish would come from 30 feet away to hit the lure but Jimmy wanted a bait to fish at a deeper level. Rapala came out with a countdown model in the smaller #8 and #12 sizes which was just what Jimmy needed to reach those suspended winter fish.
The gear available to properly work the jerkbait was primitive compared to today’s standards. The Ambassador 5000 was the gold standard baitcasting reel of the day. Initially braided line was all that was available but monofilament soon became the line of choice. A German brand was stiff as wire but the #12 diameter allowed for greater depth and the right action.
Jimmy found a 5’6” fiberglass Lew’s Speed Stick with a pistol grip handle to his liking. The soft action allowed Jimmy to keep the bait in one area as long as possible. He liked to target specific areas such as the tip of a point, individual trees or even a lone bedding bass. His presentation included cranking the bait down to its maximum depth and then snapping the slack out of the line with the rod. With a graphite rod, the action was immediate and sudden which bass didn’t find as enticing. The fiberglass rod had a lot of bend to it and would impart a softer action to the bait, closely resembling an injured shad. The softer action kept the bait in the strike zone much longer.
Although the Rapala could catch fish all year round on a variety of banks, Jimmy’s favorite structure was a deep point that a creek channel swung off of and had the wind blowing directly into in early spring. He would fish down the banks on each side of the point but the best fish were typically relating to the tip of the point. Because of the strong wind, fish were using the point at a feeding shelf. The deep water allowed the fish quick sanctuary if the weather changed and big fish seemed to prefer deep water.
In the late 1970’s and early 80’s, Jimmy tried his hand at BASS and also a western circuit. He registered 3rd and 8th Place finishes with BASS and also won a $100,000 cash tournament on Table Rock Lake in 1983. All of his tournament success came on the jerkbait and he was able to dominate the jerkbait bite across the Ozarks.
Jimmy’s jerkbait legacy can be traced to this very day. His success influenced numerous professional anglers such as Gary Klein, Guido Hibdon and Basil Bacon with BASS as well as western Pro Gary Dobyns. The word was spread through the Pro-on-Pro draw tournaments where other Pros had the opportunity to view his jerkbait system first-hand.
Modern technology has made drastic changes to the function of jerkbaits. The spread of information through seminars, magazine articles and the internet allows all anglers to be instant experts today. Through dedication to one technique, Jimmy Crisp has earned a jerkbait PhD and the title of a true Ozark Master.
Lucky Craft. Megabass. Smithwick. The list could go on and on for a lure category known as hard jerkbaits. Right now is the prime time to fish a jerkbait, rogue, or ripbait, all common names for this slim, shallow diving minnow bait armed with treble hooks.
When the water temperature dips into the low 40’s to upper 30’s, a jerkbait will be found on virtually every