Don’t overlook the most productive lure in the history of angling
Jigs aren’t flashy. They aren’t new and exciting. They don’t require special skills, and most of them aren’t all that attractive. They don’t lead to dramatic topwater strikes, they aren’t glamorous, and throwing one all day can get a little monotonous. So…why would anyone fish a jig? Simple: since the dawn of angling, no lure has accounted for more fish than the plain old jig. That applies to all gamefish, including shallow-water species.
I can personally attest to their deadly action. The three biggest snook I’ve ever caught (with the exception of a plug-caught monster) came on jigs fished in moving water. And the most redfish I ever caught in a single setting came on plain white bucktails on a tide change. Most longtime anglers can offer similar testimonials on this venerable lure. While softbaits have rightly begun to take the place of jigs in the tackle boxes of many skinny-water aficionados, old-school jigs still deserve their own tray.
Choices, Choices, Choices
So, what’s the best type of jig to use for shallow water gamefish? Well, that’s a simple question without a simple answer. Jigs are available in a dizzying array of styles, colors, sizes, weights and textures. The basic jig features a weighted head (usually made of metal) molded to a hook and adorned with some type of body material, usually either hair (bucktail or synthetic) or a plastic body that mimics everything from shrimp to crabs to small baitfish. Jig heads come in many sizes, and each style lends the lure a different action when retrieved. Most quality bucktail jigs feature heads that are roughly teardrop-shaped, and thread wraps just behind the head that hold the hair on the lure. Most plastic body jigs feature bullet-shaped head that is flat toward the back, allowing the plastic bodies to slide flush with the head for a realistic appearance and streamlined design. These two styles are the most popular by far, though different jig head designs – from round heads to lima bean-shaped heads – can also be productive. So…which jig should you use? Well, weight is a more important factor than shape, as is the area where you’ll be fishing.
A Weighty Issue
Picking a jig to fit your intended fishing spot ain’t rocket science. Common sense dictates that you’ll use a lighter jig in shallow water, for a number of reasons. If you’re fishing the flats, you’ll want to pick a jig that will allow you to make long casts to spooky fish across wide expanses of shallow water. Your natural inclination may be to use a heavier lure to cover that distance, but the wiser move is to use lighter spinning tackle (in the six to 10 lb. class) and a lighter jig (1/4 or 3/8 ounce is usually the best bet). Lighter jigs require lighter shock leader so they maintain their action, but that’s not a big concern since flats-bound fish aren’t as likely to break you off on structure as are shoreline fish. If you’ll be fishing along shorelines, a 3/8 ounce jig is about right. Why? Because when you fish are hugging land, you’ll need to use some fairly stout tackle to horse them away from the trees and roots once hooked. Heavier tackle (spinning or bait-casting tackle in the 10-14 lb. class is the norm) makes it tougher to cast light jigs. The 3/8 ounce size allows you to cast with accuracy yet lands without too much commotion. Heavier jigs – from 1/2 ounce up to an ounce or so – are designed for use in the kind of deep and/or fast moving water most shallow water anglers avoid. However, at certain times of year those passes and channels hold lots of fish in fast moving tidewater, so it pays to have a heavy jig or two at your disposal.
How and When
What’s the best way to use a jig? Let’s take a look at some of the more common fishing scenarios:
When fishing the flats, the best way to fish a light jig is to try and see fish before you cast to them. Look for cruising wakes, fins or tails on the surface or fleeing baitfish, and try to get the jig ahead of the fish’s apparent path. Work jigs on the flats with small, quick hops, mimicking the type of critters (craps, shrimp) that frequent that habitat. If you can’t see fish, make long, arching casts and hop the jig back to the boat, pausing a second or so between each rod pump. The deeper the water, the higher the “hop.” Of course, some flats are deeper than others, so if the water gets over four feet or so you may want to switch to a heavier jig. If you see baitfish in abundance, try retrieving your jig more quickly to keep it “swimming” in the water column and more accurately mimicking a baitfish.
When fishing shorelines or oyster bars on lower tide stages, stay back and cast to the deeper water 5-15 yards off the structure. When fishing shorelines on deeper stages of the tide, it’s important to get your jig as far back into the “sticks” as you can, even if it means getting hung up from time to time. During higher tides, fish chase baitfish far back under overhanging branches, and they won’t see your jig unless it gets back where they’re hiding. Many veteran anglers possess the ability to toss jigs with great accuracy into even the tightest of holes. The best among them are practically magicians, directing their offerings with uncanny accuracy. They also cover a lot of water, casting and retrieving at a brisk, steady rate. And they seldom work the lure comlpletely back to the boat, realizing that most (though not all) strikes will happen closer to the shore.
When fishing deep and/or moving water, cast uptide and retrieve the jig as it moves down with the flow. Fighting a strong current not only ruins the action of your jig, it also creates an unrealistic profile: most small baitfish aren’t strong enough to fight a strong current for long, and they prefer to go with the flow, not against it. Cast your jig out and let it sink all the way to the bottom. Once your line goes slack, retrieve it with long, steady upward or sideways pumps of the rod, creating a long, gliding action that mimics a large baitfish such as a mullet or ladyfish. If that doesn’t draw strikes, try bouncing the jig off of the bottom by using quicker upward strokes of the rod (guides in Florida’s famous Boca Grande Pass catch more tarpon by deep-jigging than by any other method). And watch your slack line between pumps – fish often hit jigs as they fall, and the only sign of a strike may be a quick tap in the line. If you feel that, crank in your slack and set the hook hard. When faced with a very strong tide, it’s best to look for breaks in the current where fish can hide without fighting the flow – be that a break in a bank, a submerged tree or an underwater bar. As the tide slows, the fish will move out into the main current, so your casts can be a bit more random in nature. And remember that the best time to fish deep water (such as you’ll find in cuts and passes) is after dark. Bigger fish tend to feed at night, and they’re suckers for a lively jig.
So yes, the jig is a bit boring in design, and frankly, it can be a bit monotonous to use. But there’s nothing boring about big fish, and this venerable lure has accounted for more big snook, reds and tarpon than all other lures put together. Put one to use sometime soon.
Good luck on the water.
Examples of productive jigs
This shrimp jig does an amazing job of mimicking the real deal, a prominent item on the menu of every shallow-water gamefish. This type of jig is productive along shorelines and on the flats, and can be deadly under lights at night.
This is a classic bucktail jig, and it’s hard to beat for realistic action. Bucktail jigs have caught more fish than any other lure, and are effective in a variety of colors. White is a popular choice, as it resembles any number of small baitfish.
This is a relatively new jig/softbait. It features a very durable and realistic body which can be replaced once it becomes worn. This lure has a subtle gliding, swimming action.
This flare-hair jig is made by Bomber. It features a traditional bucktail body complemented by a plastic “pork” type tail which has been effective on freshwater bass for years.