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The Jig Is Up

By Dave Vedder, 🕔Mon, Mar 21st, 2011


Western anglers have recently discovered a hot new lure for steelhead . The age-old lead head jig that has proven deadly for walleye, crappie, perch and bass has been reinvented, redesigned and tricked out to become the hottest steelhead lure to hit the west coast in years. The reason for this boon in popularity is simple . . . jigs are deadly steelheading lures. Those who have switched to jigs swear that they are the ultimate steelhead lure.

Why Jigs Work
So Well Jigs have several advantages over more traditional steelhead gear. Most steelhead lures rely on some type of lead weight to get the bait or lure into the steelhead's strike zone. Typically, the weight is fifteen to thirty inches above the hook. With this system the bait or lure slowly settles into the strike zone, after every cast.

Because steelhead usually have their bellies on the gravel, the time it takes a traditional lure to sink is wasted time. Jigs, with the weight built into the lure, waste little time reaching the strike zone.

When you consider that we make hundreds of casts a day this seemingly small detail can make a huge difference in the amount of time our lure spends in the strike zone. Jigs also offer the advantage of enticing action even in slow moving or still water. Most of today's steelhead jigs feature marabou or rabbit fur dressings. Both of these materials will wiggle and dance in the slightest current. More traditional steelhead lures must be moved rapidly, either by the current or the angler, to impart the flash and wiggle necessary to trigger a strike. Jigs let you fish swirling back eddys and slack water far more effectivly than is possible with other lures.

Another reason that jigs often outfish other steelhead gear is because jigs are, of necessity, fished beneath a float. Steelheaders who fish with floats know that floats provide a very effective presentation with less hangups and resulting downtime than bottom bouncing gear. Float anglers miss fewer strikes than others because they have a visual strike indicator as well as the feel of the take. Entire books have been written on the advantages of using floats. Suffice it to say they are the delivery system of the future.

When and Where to Use Jigs
It's easier to discuss the few situations where jigs won't work well than it is to list all the times they are devastating. Because jigs rely primarily on color and action to trigger a strike, they perform poorly in low visibility situations. When the visibility is less than two feet it's time to switch to bait. For similar reasons jigs are at a disadvantage in fast pocket water. In almost every other steelheading situation jigs are deadly.

Jigs come into their own in slow moving or still water. When the wiggle of marabou or rabbit fur is combined with a small dab of bait or scent, jigs are undoubtedly the most effective steelhead lures in slow or still water.

Jigs also shine in moderate to fast currents as long as the water has good visibility. In gin clear water nothing beats a tiny jig tipped with a single egg, a piece of earth worm, or a maggot. For the situations most of us fish - two to ten-foot deep water moving at two to four knots - jigs prove irresistible to steelhead. As your float bounces along in the surface chop the jig mirrors that action right in the heart of the steelhead's lair. Few steelhead can resist a brightly colored bit of marabou of rabbit fur that dips and swoops through their dining room.

Rigging for Jig Fishing
Terminal gear for jig fishing is simplicity itself. All you need is your favorite jig and enough added weight to properly cock your float. The choice of a jig is largely personal preference, but a few rules can help you make the best choice. Low clear water calls for small jigs in pale shades. Faded pinks, pink and white, and pale blues are favorite clear water jig colors. For low clear waters choose jigs in the 1/32 to 1/8 ounce size range. When fishing big rivers with strong flows, as is typical in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, you need to choose large jigs and bright colors. My favorite jigs for big waters are the hot pink, 1/4 ounce Beau Mac marabou jig and the cerise John's Jig made with rabbit fur.

To weight your float and jig, you have a choice of pencil lead, split shot or a slinky. My favorite weighting system is a slinky tied in line with my float and jig. It is not important what weighting system you use. What is important is that the combined weight of your jig and lead allows your float to ride at the proper level in the river. Most floats come with a brightly colored band near the top that indicates how much of the float should protrude above the water.

To select the best rod and reel combination for jig fishing, you again must consider the type of water you intend to fish and the size of jigs that work best under those conditions. For tossing jigs weighing 1/4 ounce and more, a level wind reel is the best bet. My personal favorite is the Shimano Curado or Citica. If you must fish tiny jigs with correspondingly small floats and weights, your best bet is a spinning reel. My personal favorite steelhead spinning reel is the Shimano Stradic 2000.

Rods for fishing jigs must be long and light. Long rods are a must to help keep your line off the water as your float wends its way downstream. Light rods are a must to avoid fatigue over a long season. Look for a bait casting rod in the ten to twelve foot range designed for six to twelve pound test lines.

My favorite bait casting rod is a Lamiglas 10 1/2 foot model X106MLC, Dave Vedder signature series rod, which I helped design. If you decide to go with a spinning rod, choose one with a slow action. A top spinning rod for jig fishing is the Lamiglas X96JS, a 9 1/2 foot model rated for 6 to 15 pound test lines.

Fishing the Jig
One of the appeals of jig fishing is it's simplicity. Once you decide where you want to fish, all that's necessary is to estimate the depth of the run, adjust your float so that the jig is one to three feet above the bottom and begin fishing. Let's say you are working a long seam where fast and slow currents converge. You estimate the water is about five feet deep. Simply adjust your float so you have four feet of line between the float and your jig. Cast to the upstream end of the seam and free spool line to let your float ride the edge of the seam. If you have too much line between the float and your jig, the float jerk will jerk under water as the jig bounces on the bottom. Immediately reel in and shorten your leader. One disadvantage of jigs is that they are "rock magnets." If your jig is bouncing on the bottom you will rapidly lose it.

If your float never dips under or tilts downstream you know your jig is dancing along above the bottom. It is not imperative that it be right on the bottom. Steelhead will move long distances to smash a jig. If you are worried that you may be fishing too shallow, lengthen your leader with each cast until the float signals that your jig is occasionally bouncing on the bottom. Then reel in and shorten up by about a foot and recast. Now you know you are working the heart of the steelhead's strike zone.

Work each run carefully. Begin by fishing the nearest holding, then lengthen each cast by a foot or two until you have worked all the holding water. Work each run until you are certain every fish in the run has seen your jig at least three times. Steelhead often ignore a lure the first several times it passes by, then turn and slam it the next time they see it.

If you are working a run that you know holds fish, take the time to try several different sizes and colors before moving on. Every rule of steelheading has exceptions. Look for the exceptions that will work for you. For example, you may want to try a small drab jig, even if you are working a deep, fast run where logic says to use large, bright jigs. You may want to try tipping your jig with a small spawn sack, a prawn tail or a bit of scent if the fish are ignoring unscented jigs.

As with any new technique, you must give jigs a long hard look before stubbornly switching back to your old methods. Don't wait to try jigs only after all your old stand-bys have failed. Give them an all-day test for two or three days when you know fish are around. Remember, nothing always work for steelhead, our most contrary game fish. Remember too that many guides, who's livelihood depends on catching fish, have switched to jigs. If you give jigs a fair test, there's an excellent chance you too will never again venture out without a selection of jigs in your vest.

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