The Keys to Successful Jig Fishing

Few baits will ever be as successful as the plain lead-head jig.  As a bait-delivery method or a stand-alone option, it excels for multiple species throughout the country, moving water or stagnant, stained or clear.  It can be swam, hopped, plopped, dropped, dragged, shook, pitched, and fished vertically, among other presentations.  No matter how you choose to fish it, there’s a species that’ll eat it on every water body near you.  However, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to fish, and it can be downright challenging if you’ve never been much for jig-fishing. 

I learned to fish jigs on a river system in current, which is quite the curveball compared to natural lakes.  With moving water, you need to take into account more variables like sweep, casting angle, mono vs. braid, among others.  However, with a few pointers, anyone can catch fish with jigs.  Here’s a few to get you started in the right direction.

Use the Right Tools for the Job – Start with a lightweight, high-quality carbon-fiber (no fiberglass) rod in an Extra Fast (XF) action, along with a featherweight reel combination.  Jig-fishing, perhaps more than any other technique relies heavily on feel, and you simply can’t feel much with poor equipment.  While there are techniques that don’t require you to spend as much on a rod and reel, here’s one instance where you really get what you pay for, and better tech quite simply leads to more fish. 

Line – Start with braid and a fluorocarbon leader of a few feet in length, joined by an Albright Special or Uni-to-Uni knot.  This offers you the best ability to feel the jig, while still having some stealth with the nearly translucent fluorocarbon line up against the jig itself.  Mono can excel in certain situations, especially in current where the sweep and way it cuts through the water presents the jig differently, but braid offers you the best feel overall.

Map the Bottom – Your first couple of casts should be an exploratory mission, as you decipher clues that are telegraphed back to your rod-hand.  Cast out and let the jig settle to bottom.  Then slowly drag it back to you, hopping or with mixed-in quicker pulls along the way.  You’re actively figuring out substrate at distance, such that you can understand the big picture and where fish will be holding.  Like any experiment, start with a “control” retrieve, and compare various types of retrieves thereafter. 

No Cross-Wind Casting – No matter the orientation of shore or where you’re pitching, wind could be the single largest inhibitor to your catch-total for the day.  Position your back to the wind, or directly face it to enjoy far better direct contact with what your jig is doing.  Drift into a crosswind, and every fish in the lake could hit your bait on a single retrieve, and you’d never know it because of the huge bow in your line.  Wind triggers many fish species up shallow, so on these days, mitigate the effect by keeping your rod-tip close to the water and off to one side of the boat to reduce that problem.

Stay Back in Clear Water – Jig fishing can only be productive in the clear shallows when you’re not driving over fish.  In hyper-clear water bodies like Mille Lacs, this means fish spook in 10FOW or even more, meaning you have to stay over deep water and simply pitch a little bit further up to the zones you’d like to cover.

Fish From the Outside In – When fish are schooled up near cover, it pays to work your casts from the outside in.  As you pick off fish after fish from the outside, you have less chance of disturbing an entire school by casting up to the center of the most prime piece of cover.

When Vertical, Stay That Way – Vertical jigging works really well in deeper water, but only if you keep your rod tip directly over the top of the bait.  Poor boat control when fishing vertically leads to baits off bottom, and less ability to detect bites, especially when the bait is under the boat. 

Re-Bait – Whether plastics or live-bait, degraded or destroyed additions to a jig hinder the action and direct appeal.  Resist the temptation to leave it on for “one-more-cast” and put your best bait forward.  It’s amazing how selective fish can be at times, and at the end of the day you may only use a handful more minnows or plastic grubs.  Call that cheap insurance to a successful bite. 

Focus – Probably the single biggest deterrent to catching fish on a jig is distracted fishing.  If you prefer to doze off, drink coffee, or otherwise just relax, start trolling or bobber fishing.  The best jig anglers I know are machines.  They’re casting, processing bottom content, hooking walleyes, and positioning the boat for the next cast.  They’re mentally engaged nearly all of the time, as they pick apart pieces of structure bit-by-bit.  While it’s true that the more you pay attention for any fishing scenario, the more you’ll catch, with jig-fishing it’s absolutely critical.    

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What Jig to Fish & When

We are programmed to understand that not all lure types are created equal, with different baits serving different needs seasonally for varying species.  What about baits in the same class however?  While we grasp the thought that a jerkbait is not the same as a spinnerbait, we tend not to distinguish characteristics in-class, with jigs being no exception.  That said, there is a huge number of jig-styles, sizes, shapes, and colors, with all sorts of hardware and appendages molded-in or otherwise attached. 

I have my favorites, but I thought I would call in the advice of successful Dakotas guide and Northland Tackle Pro-Team Coordinator Cody Roswick.  Cody knows his way around both North and South Dakota, often using jigs to guide his clients to quality fish no matter where the bite takes him, or what technique the day calls for.  Like with most guides and pro’s I have fished with, small details frequently reap huge dividends, so it pays to pair the right jig to the scenarios you fish.  Here is a quick run-down of some popular styles, and how to go about choosing which variety to use, and when.  

Jigs For Minnows – These two are an original pairing that have stood the test of time, and Cody fishes them primarily during the early season.  With designs like the Fire-Ball that offer a secondary-eye to attach stinger hooks being extremely successful.  Having the option to attach that extra treble for short-striking fish can really be handy, even if you start the day without.  For larger minnows like shiners, consider this option or other jig types with a long shank that places the business end of the hook further back on the minnow. 

Jigs For Crawlers/Leeches – For the most part, you have quite a few options here, especially with leeches as provided you hook them in the sucker or just underneath, you will not have to worry too much about the hook holding your bait.  With crawlers however, you will want a keeper at the base of the jig ball itself to retain the bait and prevent it from sliding down the hook shank un-naturally. 

Jigs For Plastics – As water temperatures warm, live-bait options for walleyes lose favor to plastic imitations, but you will want some different jig designs for fishing them.  Cody says, “Wire barbs for keepers will prevent everything from bluegills to bass pulling at the tail end of the plastic all the way down to the hook bend.”  Roswick continues, “Not only does this rip your plastics option of choice, it frequently causes the bait to run un-true.”  Premium models that do the best job of avoiding this issue will have dual-barbs or wire-keepers that truly lock the plastic to the base of the jighead. 

Stand Up Jigs – Use this type of jig style in river areas when trying to drag bottom, or lakes when again trying to trace as close to the substrate as possible.  Often, bottom contact can be a crucial part of the presentation, and that is when stand-ups are worth their weight.  “These jigs shine in helping fish suck that bait off of bottom, as the hook points up and back at a 45 degree angle in their face,” mentions Cody.

Jig/Spinner Combinations – This group encompasses a number of jigheads from thumper-style models with a swivel and blade beneath them, to a whistler-style jig with an in-line twin-rotating blade.  Both perform similar tasks in creating flash and vibration to attract fish from distance.  “This can be important in river systems or natural lakes with limited visibility,” says Cody.  “I use them a lot with live-bait when fishing vertically, especially deep river systems.”

Current Cutter – Pill-Shaped Jigheads – Speaking of rivers, current-cutter style jigheads have made some strides in recent years, as the pill-shaped and more elongated design simply offers less drag in current.  “That allows you to fish lighter, while still getting down to the fish,” says Roswick, a key component to many river situations where current can keep a jig higher in the water column than you want it.

Floating Jigs – Of course, one of the best ways to stay near bottom is to rely on another weighting system other than the jig to keep you pinned there.  That makes floating jig head options a mainstay in many anglers’ boxes.  Present livebait in any manner with confidence, knowing your bait will float just above the snags.  Add some current to the mix, and many designs like the Gumdrop or Phelps-Floater will jog side to side like a crankbait for added action.

Hair Jigs -  Whether animal hair like bucktail, marabou, or other synthetic materials, these skirted jigs are often tipped with bait and presented both vertically or casted.  You will need different weights to satisfy the various depths, but hair is a great way to add bulk, color, and life to an otherwise plain offering.  In lakes and rivers, hair jigs do not get as much press as they deserve.

Weedless Jigs – Designs like the Weed Weasel and others with plastic deflectors in front of the hook point are classic heavy cover options.  Roswick who fishes the trees of North Dakota’s Devil’s Lake says, “They’re a mainstay for me anywhere near weeds or timber, and they have a heavy hook if you need to horse them out of nasty cover.”  Tip them with your live bait of choice, and consider them anytime you are afraid to throw other jig styles into the thick stuff. 

Turkey Hunting's Tough Calls

 New heavier-than-lead loads like TSS put more pellets in a 10" circle at 40 yards than any lead I've ever tested.  Knowing your effective range by patterning and pellet-counting helps settle one of the toughest calls as a turkey hunter you'll ever have to make.    Photo Credit -  Matt Addington Photography

New heavier-than-lead loads like TSS put more pellets in a 10" circle at 40 yards than any lead I've ever tested.  Knowing your effective range by patterning and pellet-counting helps settle one of the toughest calls as a turkey hunter you'll ever have to make.  

Photo Credit - Matt Addington Photography

In the course of even a single season, turkeys will challenge your skills and make the most confident hunter into a wuthering pile of loathing and self-doubt.  Each day presents new scenarios, culminating into a number of “tipping-points” that we inevitably look back on with the clarity of 20-20 hindsight.  Here’s a number of those very situations, along with some advice on how I’ve learned to best handle them throughout the years. 

To Call or Not to Call? – You’ve just made a string of yelps and everything in the woods is white hot with excitement.  It’s one of those rare days where you can simply do no wrong, and they’re picking up every call you’re putting down.  Then the other boot drops and silence abounds for 10 minutes or more.  Do you call again?  If no, then how long to wait?  Well my experience has been that sudden pauses in calling are either really good, or really bad.  Birds have heard what they needed and are on a straight-line march to your location, soon to appear at any time.  Or, they’ve been spooked by another hunter or coyote, they’ve flown down and left the audible area with hens, or any other act of tom-foolery.  Birds that are still gobbling occasionally give you clues and cues to go off, and there are no general facts for when and when not to call.  That said, the closest thing to any hard or fast rule that I have is not to call to any bird that is closing the distance to your location.  If he’s coming, don’t call and screw it up!   

Should I Stay or Should I Go? – So often we’re presented with the choice to give chase to birds that are leaving the vicinity, or hold off and wait.  To answer that question, I’ll first think to what other options I have should I pursue and spook.  If you only have 40 acres of access for the season, it’s best not to get too aggressive.  I’ll also think to what other birds I heard in the roost, doing my best to identify how many potential toms heard my calling.  I try my best to wait out any play for 30 minutes after last call if I really got agressive, especially if birds are responding from out deep.  There’s a few exceptions to that rule, but for the most part, I’ll get to the point of almost standing up, then give it another 5 minutes. 

Edge of Range – Just writing it makes my skin crawl.  I can’t begin to tell you the number of birds that have skirted the edge of my weapon’s effective range over the years.  I can very precisely tell you the handful of times I’ve been tempted to push the limits, and let’s just say that it works only occasionally.  You can’t tempt the limit till you define one, so your early season patterning is more than just a fun time at the range, it’s crucial to drawing that line in the sand.  If I can’t put 100 pellets consistently into a 10” circle, then that range draws a distinct line for me to shoot within.  If that distance is 50 yards, 51 yards is flirting with disaster accounting for wind, brush, sore arms, and any number of variables that don’t play out in the field like they do on a lead-sled.  These birds deserve more than “occasionally” so I use a rangefinder where legal, and able, to demarcate a zone that I simply won’t shoot past.

When to Shoot? – The bird has finally crossed into the death zone, and you’re just waiting patiently for the best possible  - can’t mess it up – shot to present itself.  Don’t wait too long, or really at all.  My best advice has always been to take your first, best shot as soon as the bird is in range.  Of course a bird in the wide open with his head down slowly walking your way poses little threat of escape.  Add cover, other birds, partial views, and a tom that’s already nervous, and you’ll find how remarkably possible it is for a tom to sashay into range and out of it before you ever get to pull the trigger.  That’s why I’ve killed so many birds between 35-45 yards.  It’s not because I like pushing the limits of my equipment, but it’s because far too many toms have wandered into “sure thing” setups, only to find a wide tree, hen, or blocking fence-line to walk straight away and in line from, thus preventing any shot.  Fall back on your patterning, and take the very first, best-looking shot you’ve got while the bird is in range.

Brush Birds – See above, then take your best shot even if it involves a few twigs.  With a caveat.  Know that I’d never promote someone taking an unsafe shot (not being sure of target or what’s behind it) or a shot that would potentially maim a turkey (too much brush), but a swarm of pellets especially well inside of your effective range does wonders for peeling back a few sprigs of spring.  On the other hand, if you’re looking at a bird in the brush for which you cannot identify the beard or exact location of his head/neck area, then it’s far too thick to try.  My rule of thumb is to clearly identify the outline of the head and neck area and make sure you can see beard, then squeeze off a quality shot.  If you’re shooting at the outline of a turkey itself or at the edge of your effective range, you don’t have a prayer. 

Fishing Rod Selection - Technique Specific Applications

In the last article, we defined the terms “power” and “action” while discussing the benefits of specific types of each.  It is difficult to walk into a sporting goods store and select the perfect rod for the job, and even tougher to take non-specific, anecdotal advice on a brand in the effort to finding your perfect stick.  That is why I will offer a few popular lengths, powers, and actions along with typical applications so you can have the right tool for the job.  No matter what your price point, we’ll focus on finding the right fishing rod characteristics to handle the task at hand.

It is surprising how many people select rods based on species alone, as if there were separate rods to use for bass or walleye or pike.  Instead, the focus should be placed heavily on technique and the interplay between length, power, and action.  Fishing rods perform best when fished with lure-types, and most importantly, lure weights, that fit the build and design of the particular rod in-hand.  This places an emphasis on situation-specific rods that place an emphasis on handling a certain scenario in the fishing world.  Again, you can use a screwdriver to knock out bolts, but a hammer and punch are far more effective.

Still, there are species-specific considerations, often based on tradition, that creep into rod design.  Take the split-grip phenomenon for example and how prevalent it is in bass rods.  Walleye anglers on the other hand, tend to lean more towards full cork handles that have typically been more commonplace.  Spinning vs. casting does also offer a few changes to the mix, as each of them fish differently for different fish species, with spinning being far more common for walleye, trout, panfish, etc., and casting rods getting the nod for bass, pike, musky, salmon, and catfish. 

There are far too many ways to fish for a list of all technique-specific recommendations, however, here is a few common ones that I feel will offer you a distinct advantage on the water, and get you thinking of the interplay between length, power, and action:

Pitching/Casting Jigs – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power – ML, M, Action – XF, Length 6’ 6” – 7’ - If there were ever a case where the best of the best makes a big difference, jig-fishing is where.  Better blanks have lighter, faster actions that translate to more hooks in more fish.  Pair common jig sizes fished to the range of weights that rod handles as listed on the blank.

Vertical Jigging – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power – ML or M, Action – XF, Length 6’ – 6’6” – Most anglers prefer the rod tip a bit closer to them when jigging over the side of the boat.  Line watching and overall management is far easier, while still having enough length to keeping big fish buttoned up.

Rigging – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power – ML or M, Action – Fast or XF, Length 7’ – 8’6” – Live bait rigging involves feeling a fish before it feels you, making Fast and Extra Fast (XF) actions perfect for the task at hand.  Riggers also have to manage the length of a snell boat-side as they net fish.  Longer rods do a great job of keeping the fish hooked up with a bouncing sinker and long leader lengths, though sometimes at the expense of feel in a big wind.  Choose accordingly.

Casting Crankbaits – Material – Carbon Fiber/Glass Blend or all Glass - Power – M - MH, Action – Moderate, Length 6’6” – 7’6” – Casting crankbaits happens for a variety of species, but the highlight of any good crankbait rod is some give in the middle section, hence the moderate action.  Crankbaits notoriously pull out of fish’s mouths if the rod (or line) doesn’t have enough give to let the fish engulf it in the first place.  The next key is pairing common bait sizes to the range of weights that each rod handles as listed on the blank. 

Trolling Crankbaits – Material – Carbon Fiber/Glass Blend or all Glass - Power – M - MH, Action – Moderate, Length 5’ – 10’ – Again, the key component of a good crankbait trolling rod is the moderate action and give that it offers.  You’ll see a very large range in lengths, and that’s because most trollers are trying to pair multiple rods at various lengths to cover the most water without tangles.  For example, many trollers pair 8’-10’ rods with a set of 6’ rods to be able to troll 4 lines un-tangled.

Finesse Jigging/Drop-Shot – Material – Carbon Fiber - Power –  L - ML, Action – Fast/XF, Length 6’6” – 8’6” – Fishing small baits for panfish, bass, or walleye, requires a blank matched to the weight of that specific jig.  Longer rods make for further casts of small baits, so consider going as long as your rod locker has storage for and you’re comfortable with.

These recommendations are only basic guidelines, as there needs to be some wiggle-room for hard-earned experience and personal preference to inform the process.  One last piece of advice is to buy the best rod you can in terms of price point, while adhering to the basic rules of length, power, and action.  Especially for light-biting fish, you get what you pay for in that higher price-point rods are typically lighter, more sensitive, and help you experience a technique in the best way possible.  With today’s materials and craftsmanship, you can get a good rod at a great price, but it’s not a sales pitch in saying that the net result of higher quality is more bites and more fish.

Fishing Rod Selection - Power and Action

Fishing Rod Selection – Power and Action

The art of selecting a quality fishing rod is a time-honored tradition that takes place across the country every spring.  Anglers flock to sporting goods stores, weary of winter’s woes, dreaming of the first cast of the season.  They pull a rod from the display and perform their tests of choice.  A shake, a bend on the ground, or a dreaded “grab the tip and pull down” are what most folks use as criteria for determining their stick of choice. 

Most never give a thought to how they’ll use it or for what.  Instead, they’re motivated by feel, price, marketing materials and large numbers after the letters “I-M” that would seem to indicate sensitivity and/or quality.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Here’s the first of a two part series on rod selection that’ll put the right tool in your hand for the job at hand, no matter what price point you’re looking to spend to.

Any good story starts at the beginning, and for fishing rods, that discussion gets off the ground with the terms “power” and “action.”  Contrary to popular belief, the terms are not interchangeable, and mean drastically different things.  Before you think we’re getting bogged down into an engineering debate, know that “power” relates to the amount of pressure it takes to impart a bend in the rod, and “action” is the part of the blank that actually deflects.  That’s a big distinction, as I’ve heard pro after pro relate to rods as a heavy or medium action, knowing full-well that they mean “power” here, as I’ve made the same mistake myself. 

While power is an easy concept to grasp, as we’re used to purchasing the appropriate power for the species we like to target, “action” is a more abstract notion.  That is, until you look at a rod chart and see that actions start at moderate, bending closer to the mid-section, and progress all the way to fast, then extra-fast actions that bend far closer to the tip of the rod.  

It’s important to realize that you’ll need to understand both terms, as two medium power rods can have completely divergent actions which will benefit drastically different styles of angling.  It’ll also help to know a bit about a few other variables as you decipher which rod to buy, namely rod length, materials, components, and a bit about the manufacturer you’re purchasing from.  Did I mention that not all rod companies mention the action, and there are few universal standards by which the entire industry grades their powers and actions?  We’ll make it simpler, I promise.

Start with the power, knowing that your ability to impart extra leverage on larger fish will hinge on it.  Powers range from Ultra-Light, to Light, Medium Light, Medium, Medium Heavy, and Heavy.  Choose wisely based both on the species you’re targeting, but also the lure weight you’ll be using to target these species.  If you’re angling for a good number of species, Medium Light and Medium powers handle the largest swath of lure designs and fish species. 

While you’re thinking of lure types, know that the fastest of all actions like Extra Fast (XF) will excel when you need to move the rod minimally to set the hook fastest.  Baits like jigs that rely on extreme sensitivity and feel find huge benefit with these XF actions, as you get to the backbone of the rod that much more quickly on a hookset.  XF actions are so often paired with the highest end carbon fiber rods at the peak of sensitivity and price.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ve got moderate actions, which most of the cheaper rods already exhibit and truly excel for things such as crankbait fishing where you want some give to account for the bend that the diving crankbait’s bill will impart on the rod.  A crankbait rod without the proper “give” sees you missing far more fish on account of hooks pulling out of the mouth of the fish.

Rod length can be a function of personal preference, height of your casting platform, or any number of customized factors, so be sure to choose what you like here while observing a few generalities.  The trend has been towards longer rods in the 7 foot region and longer for a number of reasons.  Longer rods offer a number of advantages from casting distance to leverage and coverage, and as rod storage in boats gets more accommodating while rod manufacturers build increasingly lighter rods, I don’t see this reversing itself.  For that reason, I’m a big fan of shorter rods primarily for vertical jigging, and longer rods moving longer for most applications outside of this. 

Materials are harder to decipher, as all companies offer different marketing strategies to endear their version to you.  Most rods however are made in the same factories, offering the same technologies branded differently for different importers.  Very few rods are vertically manufactured, offering the customer a product that was custom made from scratch to solve a specific fishing problem.  Know that more technology, better components, and lighter materials make for more expensive rods.  It can also make them more brittle and prone to breakage as engineers push the limits of the goods at hand, making a solid warranty a necessity when purchasing a high end rod.

In the second part of this series, I’ll offer some personal suggestions for common species and techniques, as well as a few shopping pointers to make sure you get the best rod for the money.       

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