Balancing Acts for Panfish Jigs

Balancing Acts for Panfish Jigs

A jig is weight on a hook. The weight takes the hook down to fish. To allow the bait more freedom of movement, use split shot. Any questions? Class dismissed. Look at the pictures and flip to the muskie article.


Strict bait fishermen might do just that, without any apologies. They determine the depth of the fish, select the appropriate jig weight with the right hook, and cut, slice, or apply the bait just so to create a realistic profile. Done deal.

So how is it we find about two bazillion different panfish jigs cluttering up our shops, catalogs, and department stores? Truth is, anglers are getting better at panfishing. Bait isn't always required, and sometimes it's actually a nuisance. Aggressive jigging tactics provide moments worth remembering.


As a result, ranks are thinning within the once-massive bait and bobber brigade. Not that anything's wrong with a worm on a hook under a float. But anglers who fished that way to the exclusion of all else are changing. Walleye and bass fishermen learned long ago to go to the fish. Finding them generally is quicker than anchoring and waiting for them to find you. Find the motherlode, then anchor, maybe.

On ice or open water, mobility is the difference between fishing and waiting. And jigs are critical to the mobile approach. In a recent ­panfish article, we detailed the ­effectiveness of tiny crankbaits for panfish. That's just the aggressive end of the ­spectrum of techniques every panfisherman should know. Jig pres­entations run the gamut from aggressive to subtle, from ripping a darter head with a Twister Tail to dangling a tiny 1/250-ounce unpainted jig with a tiny piece of bait under a small float.


Under the ice, aggressive takes on new meaning, but the process of selecting a jig follows the same progression.

Experienced fishermen choose aggressive presentations for active fish high off bottom, moving progressively smaller and more subtle as activity levels taper. And they might arrange their tackle accordingly, from highly active swimming jigs, to small swimming jigs, to large teardrops, to small ballheads, to subtle brown tiny tears, and finally, mini ballheads. Jig assortments are arranged by activity modes, or by size and type, or by some other logical system.

To get there requires a selection process that takes into account a bazillion variables on the waters you fish. Panfishermen need a reason for reconsidering jigs they've scorned. We all have that one jig that just slobberknocks pansies even when the fish pucker up and hug bottom, saying no to everything else. But that's not enough. The bazillions beckon.

At any rate, after one little jig article last year, I got "What about my stuff?" letters from the ­Australian Outback. There may be more panfish jigs than stars in the heavens, and sorting through even one bazillion requires a logical process.

We've categorized jigs before. Beyond (again) categorizing panfish jigs, our emphasis turns to a balanced selection. Hook size, eye placement, head shape, collars, and options like hair, feathers, and plastic determine where, when, and how a jig should be fished.

Many panfish jigs are dressed with a little hair, feathers, or synthetic material, often perfect for locating aggressive panfish without bait. Bare jigs are designed for tipping with plastic or bait, and on rare occasions a little flicker of pork. Deciding whether that chunk-of-something you just skewered on a tiny hook balances and fishes properly is also a critical part of the selection process. In other words, select jigs to match depth, wind, cover — prevailing conditions.

Select for balance, both within your arsenal and within individual jigs. To balance the universe and become one with the bazillion, select jigs to harmonize with the nature of the fish, and the nature of the season.

When articles like this are scheduled, lots of new little toys appear. Staff members wander past, look in, and ask, "What's this? I like this one. Perfect for maggies under a float. This one has a nice gap. Good crappie jig." When an ­In-Fisherman staff member picks up a jig, it becomes a job-specific tool. Qualities that make it just right stand out, and the jig is instantly categorized. Sometimes our categories clash, but usually we see jigs the same way.

Eye placement, head shape, hook size, and several other factors are instantly analyzed. One of the first things evident to a seasoned eye is the main functional category of the jig, whether it's designed for vertical jigging or for casting.

Eye Placement

The Fle-Fly Nikki Spin Fly and some of the McKala "Match The Hatch" Reel Jigs are instantly categorized as horizontal tools, because the eye exits the jighead at a 45-degree angle to the hook shank, as opposed to a 90-degree angle on a standard ballhead such as a Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub. Fishing it vertically causes it to hang at an odd angle, while casting and retrieving it provides a more natural profile.

At first glance, then, the McKala and the Fle-Fly might look like the same tool. But the McKala head is round, and the Fle-Fly head has flatter sides, making it easier to extract from crevices in rocks. The Fle-Fly becomes a good choice for casting to panfish feeding on rock or gravel, while the McKala might be a better choice over sand or silt, and both should fare equally well in weeds.

The differences don't end there. Hook size is comparable, but the Fle-Fly hook points up, in the traditional manner. The McKala hook points down. The Fle Fly has a chenille body and a hackle-feather tail, while the McKala comes plain and undressed with a collar for plastics, or tied up like a nymph with a hackle collar and synthetic body. These various options perform differently, not to mention the difference in hooking. Both jigs catch fish without bait, but adding a small piece of bait to the Fle-Fly would be feasible, while bait imbalances the down-point Mc­Kala.

These differences between two rather similar jigs are evident without being nit-picky, like pointing out that these forward-eye jigs, which also includes the Bait Rigs Slo Poke, fish ever so slightly slower than standard designs of equal weight. The forward eye placement keeps the fishing line in front of the jig, as opposed to pulling it straight down from above, apparently producing a slightly accentuated drag effect that seems to work best on an elongated head.

Eye placement and type can be critical around weeds. The most weedfree position is snubbed tight to the nose with the eye turned vertical, up and down, as on Bobby Garland's Crappie TR head, which has no neck to catch weeds. A perfect weed jig, but take the same design and turn the eye horizontal, and weed resistance is reduced dramatically. Add an extended neck to the horizontal eye design and it transforms from practically weed-free into a weed harvester.

Head Shape

Head shape is critical to the jig selection process. For a slow drop through the water column with bait, the Slo Poke is a good choice, but the slowest jig is completely flattened, like the Comet Shiner or Turner Jones' Micro Jig Mino. Remember trying to drop a quarter through a huge jar of water into a shot glass to win something at the old five-and-dime? The quarter dances, flutters, and misses the shot glass.

Even on 2-pound line, the Mino or Shiner falls in a sliding spiral that always catches light and flash at some point during the descent — absolutely deadly for crappies at times. That these jigs have natural and realistic minnowlike profiles certainly doesn't hurt. Truly flat-sided jigs that fish balanced are rare, however.

The fastest-dropping jigs display a more aqua-dynamic shape, pointed at the nose, like the Blue Fox Foxee Jig. Paired with the Foxee plastic body, with its tentacles, flippers, and marabou tail, this is not a fast-dropping jig. Remove the body, however, or clip off all the tentacles, as the packaging suggests, for "a rapid, lifelike swimming action." When searching for a few highly active fish, a bullet head with an action-plastic tail fishes faster, covers water more efficiently, and locates fish quicker than slow presentations.

Most jigs are simple ballheads, the first jig shape that could do it all and still does. Ballheads are essentially a compromise between the fastest and the slowest heads, between active and subtle, and between snag-­resistant and snaggy. A ballhead can be dressed to fish slow or quite fast.

The Lindy Little-Joe Crappie Queen, for example, is a ballhead that falls in a zig-zag pattern because of its mylar wings. It stays in the strike zone longer when fished on heavy enough monofilament. Dressed with sparse hair, marabou, or straight-tail plastic, ballheads can be fished aggressively with a quick dart-stop motion. A ballhead is rarely the wrong head to use, but it isn't always the perfect head, either.

As mentioned, round heads that are narrower side-to-side or slightly flattened, like the Fle-Fly and Northland's Buck Shot Jig, slide through rocks better than a ballhead. But a ballhead snags less in rock than a wedge head. The Bobby Garland TR Crappie jig is a wedge head — great in weeds, not so great in rocks. Any sinker, lure, or jig with a pointed or narrow snout that widens out can wedge itself into a crevice. Aspirin heads are best for rocks, with the Buck Shot probably coming closest to that design in a panfish jig.

Blunt-end bullet heads that narrow or taper back toward the hook shank, such as the Lindy Little Joe Quiver Jig, are slightly more efficient in rocks, too. The first portion of the head to hit a crevice is the widest. If it goes in, it can generally come out. Well-balanced bullet heads with the eye centered, such as the Quiver Jig or Foxee, also make fine swimming jigs, for casting to suspended fish or for working over the top of brush piles and other snaggy spots. Ballheads also make good swimming jigs.

Under floats or through the ice, where flutter and slow drop speed are critical, teardrop shapes, such as the Thunderhawk Talon Tear or Apex Tear Drop, shine. This flat shape in a vertical package rises slightly higher than a standard jig when the float is moved or popped, and drops slowly back into place. Jiggling this head shape in place causes it to dance a little more, raising and lowering the bait slightly, for a different triggering effect.

Ballheads or specialty heads like the HT Enterprises Mamushka might be the next logical choice under the ice, while a horizontal profile like the Northland Jig-Let offers a realistic package under a float. The flat bottom causes it to glide as the float is pulled through the water.

A piece of crawler or a small minnow appears natural, flowing behind this horizontal head, while a smaller bait, like a maggot or grub, looks more natural behind a smaller head, like the bullet-shaped Turner Jones Original Micro Jig.

But shape isn't the main consideration. Given no other options, various-size ballheads work just fine.

Weight

Seems too simple, but weight is really the primary factor in choosing a jig. Depth, desired drop speed, wind, current, and casting distance determine which weight to choose. For panfish, having infinitesimally incremental choices in weight is preferable, but few manufacturers offer more than 1/16-, 1/32-, and sometimes 1/64-ounce sizes.

Custom Jigs and Spins, however, produces six different panfish sizes of their Rat Finkee Jig, from about 1/200 ounce up to 1/32 ounce. Having an assortment of sizes in the same jig appeals to the convenience and confidence factors. If a wind comes up or the fish move deeper, just step up a size in the same color, style, and jig type. But even more critical is the opportunity to conduct serious experiments with drop speed.

Whether you fish a jig under a float, vertically jig, or cast it, most strikes occur as the jig drops on a slack or semi-slack line. Say you're catching nice panfish, but only one every ten minutes. You're doing something right, but maybe not right enough. Tinkering with the pres­entation can sometimes turn around a slow bite. I might try the same jig with the same bait or dressing in a slightly lighter weight, to slow drop speed. I also might experiment with color. Being able to make size changes in small increments is important when drop speed is the key to triggering more strikes.

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As a rule, jigs over 1/16-ounce usually are unnecessary for panfish. On the Great Plains, where a 20-mph wind is considered a light breeze, a 1/8-ounce jig at times may be needed for crappies. And white bass respond well to a 1/8-ounce jig in various reservoirs across the continent. For bluegills, shellcrackers, pumpkinseeds, and other sunfishes, however, a 1/8-ouncer is barbaric. A 1/32-ounce or smaller size is better because finicky bluegills often feed by inhaling. If they can't suck it in, they swim away.

Our rule for casting with 2-pound line is to throw 1/250- to 1/100-ounce jigs in water less than 6-feet deep, 1/80- (suspended fish) to 1/64-ounce down to about 10 or 12 feet, and 1/32- to 1/16-ounce down to 25 feet. The rules change with fish position in the water column. They change around heavy cover, too. Shallow brush piles and rock bars demand a tough 4-pound (maybe 6-pound) line with 1/64- to 1/16-ounce jigs.

For ice-fishing, tiny teardrops, bullet heads, and ballheads from 1/250 to 1/80-ounce rule in 5- to 10-foot depths. Dense 1/80- to 1/60-ounce jigs, such as the System Tackle Fat Boy or Pounder, get down efficiently to 25 feet or deeper on 2-pound test (but only in a portable shelter in anything more than a breeze), which is all you really need for panfish through the ice about 80 percent of the time. Search lures for perch in 20 to 60 feet of water, with a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce spoon like the Acme Kastmaster or Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple and a tiny jig tied to the bottom split ring on a 2- to 3-inch leader, call for 4-pound test.

Of course, line thickness affects drop speed and castability, so the weight of the jig can't be determined by depth alone. Wind, current, and other factors play into the equation, creating the need for a complete selection of jig weights to match varying conditions and line choices, and the hook must match the bait.

Hook Size

Most jigs come with one size hook in each head size. To select for various hook sizes, it's necessary to buy jigs of the same weight from a variety of manufacturers. Unless that manufacturer is Jack's Jigs.

Jack's specializes in a line of jigs of the same size and weight with a variety of hook sizes for changing from one bait type to another without changing weight. The Jack's basic 1/64-ounce ballhead with no collar has #12, #10, and #8 hooks, for fishing anything from a single maggot to a small crappie minnow without changing the color, size, or weight of the jig.

Jack's 1/32-ounce no-collar ballheads are available in three hook sizes — #8, #6, #4 — to go from a slice of crawdad tail to quite large minnows.

To operate efficiently, the hook can neither be buried in the bait nor completely overpower it. Delicate baits like maggots and live nymphs require a fine-wire #12 to #8 hook. Best to pinch the barb down, too, because too large a hook tears a big hole, either destroying the bait or milking it out too quickly. Small delicate baits require small fine-wire hooks.

On the other end of the scale, putting a minnow on that #12 hook would lead to missing most if not all strikes. The point and gap are buried by the bait and can't work through the bait on a hookset. Better to go with a #6 or #4, depending on minnow size.

Having a variety of hook sizes on heads of every size or weight is crucial. And having those different hook sizes available on one jig size is best.

Selecting for Active Fish

Calling cards for active fish are increased (1) vibration, (2) flash, (3) size, and (4) brighter colors. Anything that can be seen, felt, or heard from a fair distance attracts active panfish. They approach lures half their own size. And while they may not bite such a large lure (bluegills and crappies will on rare occasions), they certainly follow it.

Of course, tossing big, flashy, thumpy things and fishing them the same as bait negates the whole effect. Select heads that swim or dart, or heads with blades attached, such as the Blakemore Road Runner. And fish like you mean it. The basic retrieve for active panfish is to pump or rip the the jig up and forward one to two feet, pause to let it drop (vary the pause length), and repeat the process.

An aggressive retrieve for a spinnerhead like the Johnson Beetle Spin is to buzz it just under the surface (great for finding high-riding crappies in the evening). Ripping, pumping, or buzzing magnifies the flash, vibration, or thump designed into the jigging package. Vary the pause to determine which cadence trips their trigger.

But aggressive means something else on ice. It's vertical, but that doesn't mean it can't be highly active. Dave Genz, one of the nation's top ice-­fishing advocates and a frequent contributor to ­In-Fisherman, practices rip jigging, which he modifies for panfish through the ice.

"I almost always use a System Tackle jig — the Fat Boy, the Pounder, or the Genz Worm — for panfish on ice," Genz says. "I like dense little jigs because they fish small but drop fast. When I have a fish on screen that won't bite, I rip the bait away, moving it about a foot to 18 inches, then quiver it as I slowly drop it back to the fish. Ripping gets their attention, and the quiver triggers strikes."

In open water, specialty heads like the Jigg's World of Jigs Dart (1/80-ounce, which balances best with 2-pound line) or the Thunderhawk Viper (about 1/32-ounce, balancing best with a thin, limp 4-pound line) offer similar triggering potential in a horizontal presentation. Work these jigs in a rip-pause-rip cadence, varying the lengths of rips and pauses to determine triggering potential. Polarized sunglasses help spot fish that follow but won't bite. Time to switch tactics.

In matching the activity level of panfish, crossover occurs. Jigs that catch the most inactive fish also catch the most active fish, but not vice-versa, and typically not quite so well.

Selecting For Less Active Fish

Locating fish with active jigging techniques (or on sonar) is just the beginning. Most of the fish in a large school tend to be neutral or inactive. To select jigs for neutral fish choose a more natural package in something closer to natural colors than the bright pink or chartreuse. Plain yellow, white, grape, and black are neutral colors.

And present them slower. Slowly swimming a small plastic Twister Tail on a 1/32-ounce Mister Twister ­ballhead on 4-pound line is the timeless classic. For slightly less active panfish, try a 1/100-ounce Thunderhawk Mean-E Spin.

Determine depth of the fish, count the jig down until it's just over their heads, and swim it back by reeling while lifting the rod tip from 9 o'clock to 10:30. Drop the rod tip and repeat, watching the line as the jig ever-so-briefly drops back to the fish.

Neutral fish like drop baits, and few lures catch 'em on the drop better than a tube. Lures like the Kalin Trout Tube could be classified as slightly less aggressive than an augertail. Subtle breathing motions in the tentacles during the drop drive panfish crazy. Active and neutral fish respond to larger tubes like the Creme Tube Jig or Bobbie Garland Crappie Tube on 4-pound line. The least active fish in the school should react better to a smaller package, like the Turner Jones Micro Split Tail or Micro Shrimp fished on 1- or 2-pound test.

For the least active fish, drop down in size and action, with colors matching natural forage. I carry a variety of tiny grub bodies that balance with tiny jigheads in shades of brown, gray, avocado green, and cream-­yellow. Favorite tools for inactive fish include the Slo-Poke, for casting and tickling bottom. Under floats, I like the 1/100-ounce Thunderhawk Mean-E Grub or the 1/256-ounce Turner Jones Original Micro Jig. Add a single maggot, and fish these jigs under a weighted float, such as the Rainbow Plastics Adjust-A-Bubble. Without sinkers, these jigs drop enticingly slow below the float, and the sparse hackle on the Micro Jig breathes in a subtle fashion to trigger reluctant pansies.

Nothing but nothing is as inactive as a panfish under the ice in March in a lake where the oxygen count declines. People who panfish in the South could learn volumes from dedicated ice-­fishermen who drop nearly microscopic tears, as small as 1/500 ounce. Jigs that small barely function on 1-pound test line, sometimes forcing a switch to 1/2-pound test sewing thread or European lines. Ever fished half a maggot on a #18 hook?

Selecting For Balance

Jigs to be fished with plastics have barbed collars, while those used with bait have no collars. Plastics can be fished successfully through a range of activity levels, determined by, among other things, the jighead. And jigheads, too, can be fished through a range of activity levels.

For instance, select the plastic body first, then match the jig to the plastic. The jig must be heavy enough to carry the plastic down, make the action tail work properly, and keep it from tumbling or spinning. Plastics too large for the jig overpower it, making it look like what it is — a hunk of plastic on a hook. To appear alive, plastics must balance with the weight. Almost all 2-inch or longer action-tail plastics require at least a 1/16-ounce head. To fish tiny heads with collars, choose tiny plastics.

Jigs designed for bait work by the same rules. Overbaiting overbalances the jig. To fish a 1/100-ounce jig with a minnow is a conceit, and fishing a single maggot on a 1/16-ounce jig is just foolish. The package has to look like something, fish like something, be something. To fish a whole minnow, select jigs with a wide enough gap between the point and the shank for the minnow to slide up and down slightly within the gap, leaving room for the minnow to be pushed out of the way on the hookset.

Leeches may be a hot bait for bluegills, but bluegills have an uncanny knack for getting the bait while avoiding the hook. Problem? Too much bait. A slice of leech is rarely thrown off the hook, is sucked all the way into a fish's mouth, gives off as much if not more scent, and catches five times more fish than a whole leech. Likewise for crayfish tails and nightcrawlers. A piece goes farther than the whole and won't overbalance the jig, especially on a slow drop with a package weighing 1/64 ounce or less.

Hair jigs, too, must balance. The classic panfish jig is a ballhead with a long-shank hook wrapped with chenille and sporting a marabou tail. Lindy-Little Joe, Mister Twister, Bass Pro Shops, and Cabela's all market examples of this simple, basic design. And they catch fish, but fewer if the package is too large. If the body is too heavy or the tail too thick, the jig lists to one side or looks like seagull droppings in the water. The key to selecting hair jigs for panfish is to choose the sparser ties.

Bucktail is the most common material in hair jigs. It's hollow, buoyant, and a small amount makes a 1/32-ounce jig tip head down in the water or roll on its side.

Some examples of well-balanced hair jigs (marabou, other feathers, and synthetics are included in this category) are the Lindy-Little Joe Little Nipper (goose feathers), Irve Bouley's Stumpy Bayou (calf tail), Turner Jones' Original Micro Jig (hackle feathers), the Gitzit (marabou and flashabou), and the Blue Fox Big Crappie Jig (synthetic). The latter entry doesn't look the part. The Big Crappie Jig looks big and bulky, but it's tied with a light hollow fiber that doesn't overbalance the light head. It drops slowly, and panfish bite and hold on, encouraged by the soft, cushy texture.

Just remember that ice-fishing jigs don't exist and open-water jigs don't exist. If South Carolina crappie enthusiasts had to fish for an entire season with "ice jigs," they would invariably find several keepers for their box from then on. Ice-fishermen might be faced with less active fish more often than open-water fishermen in the South, but panfish in open water can be equally inactive. Don't select for seasons so much as for activity level. Select jigs to match the environments you fish. Select with a purpose — to fill gaps within a wider range of presentations. Key techniques can be limited by the tools used. Don't limit yourself with the wrong tools at the right time.

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