Chasing Pike With Swim Jigs
November 16, 2017
The skirted jig with a pork trailer slides through cabbage leaves and bushy coontail stalks as it falls to the bottom. It hops up a couple feet and drops again, raising a cloud of silt. It drags along, stops, wiggles a bit, and zips away as the angler eyes a new target. That's when all hell breaks loose.
In Minnesota before and during the 1990s, all we needed to catch bass in every lake, all day long, was a jig-and-pig. Other things worked. But a silicone-skirted, brushguard head with a pork frog or plastic craw not only caught more bass than anything else, it caught bigger fish with few exceptions.
But the attrition rate was high. Maintaining a supply of favorite jigs in the right sizes and colors was almost impossible. Every day brought several of those inevitable wrist-shocking jolts followed by weightlessness, slack line, and slumping shoulders. "Another snick," Al Lindner would snarl contemptuously. He called pike "snicks" because they relieve us of lures and jigs like huge scissors with fins.
Sometimes, however, the "jolt" was followed by a bent, thrashing rod, line screaming away into the mystery below. Somebody says, "This is no bass." But having a jig-and-pig lodged in the corner of a pike's jaw is rare. Seemingly, pike want to kill the odd-looking thing so badly the lure is often taken deep. Perhaps a thousand jigs into this conundrum a light bulb finally flared in my foggy brain and I began to experiment.
Way up in Canada, year-after-year, my experiments met with spotty success. Matching bigger, heavier jigs designed for flippin' with a variety of plastics caught pike, but something else generally did better. I wondered if pork was the missing ingredient.
Way back when, we pitched 3/8- to 1/2-ounce plain round leadheads with nothing but a long pork strip along deep weedlines. The moment the jig struck bottom we snapped it up as high as we could so it would strike bottom with some velocity after each hop. This left a trail of plumes along bottom that we figured pike would follow. But not so much. A wide variety of jig trailers came and went.
To make a long story short, the key ingredient wasn't the trailer. It was speed, followed by considerations of season, barometric pressure, visibility, and fishing pressure. A jig moping around near bottom can catch pike, but way more bass. A jig swimming horizontally catches both, but each species generally displays different preferences for speed and trailer size or type.
Development of true swim jigs for bass sped up the process. The eye of a swim jig is on the nose, not on top of the head. The brushguard is thinner and more flexible, making it less likely to interfere with the hook when a following fish strikes and carries the lure toward you. The bottom of the head is flatter, sometimes spread out to create a hitch-and-glide effect on the pause. Several manufacturers recently added heavier versions to their lineups.
Last year Lunker City added a 1-ounce version to their highly effective PanHead Jig series. Picasso came out with a 3/4-ounce Swim Jig. While it's sometimes true that a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce head triggers more strikes, heavier versions broaden the range of speeds we can fish at various depths.
Swim-jigging pike works best when it's fished like a spinnerbait — one without a blade. The thump, or lack thereof, is provided by the trailer. The flash is mostly absent, unless the head, trailer, or both have metal flake, which finally brings us to the principle reason for fishing a swim jig for pike — fishing pressure.
In Canada, pike are less pressured and more likely to come barging out of nowhere to murder a flashy lure. The flash draws them from a distance and they arrive in a killing mood. Thus the decent but spotty success with swim jigs.
Swim jigs work wonders in places you can drive to. Dozens of times in the past few years, while fishing local lakes in central Minnesota that receive a daily dose of fishing pressure, I've been amazed at the size and number of pike that fall for a swim jig. Find the right speed at the right depth and pike trip over each other to get at it, sometimes. Just like anything else in the fishing world, details require attention. Where pike get pressured, they may approach a spinnerbait, but lunch it less often than a swim jig. A bright, flashing blade can become a voodoo curse — something pike avoid after a few run-ins.
Weight and speed are critical, yes, but consider profile, too. We think of pike as indiscriminate marauders, but they often key on one prey type at a time — the most abundant species of the right size. This can change from week-to-week, or not. Open-water toothies may follow a school of smelt or ciscoes from spring through winter. But in many natural lakes, various panfish species take turns on the menu. A swimbait fished in the same manner as a swim jig might be a better tool in open water. But the billowing skirt on a swim jig can imitate the profile of a bluegill, perch, crappie, whitefish, or anything else, depending on colors chosen.
Swim jigs work in open water, but seem particularly well adapted to vegetation, woodcover, and structure-loving pike. Skirts add movements pike can discern through a screening wall of weeds. Thumping swimbait tails provide something pike can detect before they see it. I've long believed that if you can arouse the attention of a top-end predator before they see the lure, the longer it remains out of sight, the more aggressive they become. Hunting instincts take over. When a pike finally finds it, a swim jig almost certainly gets ripped — even in heavily pressured waters.
Pike eat swim jigs spring though fall, but respond to different speeds, sizes, and combinations, depending on barometric pressure and water clarity to a large degree. Just before a storm, prior to that spike in air pressure that occurs as cold air subverts warm air, pike go crazy. Best to throw the high hard one — swim a moderately heavy jig fast, high, and erratic in the water column over cover or breaks, as if burning a spinnerbait. Make sudden changes in direction and drop the rod tip. After the front passes, switch to a 1/4-ounce jig and slow way down, swimming it near bottom at a steady pace.
Treat cloudy or stained water like unstable weather — swim the jig slow and steady, but tip it with a heavy-thumping trailer. Use bright colors and metal flake. In ultra-clear water, go the opposite route — dial down the thump and use subtle colors, especially in populated areas. One favorite package in clear water is all green pumpkin, unless trout are in the system. Then homemade skirts come into play, adding a few strands of pink and white to a bunch of watermelon green. Pike zip right past a wounded bluegill to nail a trout, so having a few homemade skirts can pay big dividends on trout lakes.
A long rod facilitates lateral movement and depth control when swimming a jig. I've been using a 7-foot 11-inch Abu Garcia Veracity heavy-power casting rod (VERCW711) coupled with an Abu Garcia Revo Toro NaCl and 40-pound braid for heavy jigs and big trailers when pike are active. That stick can haul a kraken out of heavy veg. For light jigs and trailers fished along breaks and away from cover, the 7-foot 6-inch, fast-action, medium-power Abu Garcia Volatile (VOLS76-5) spinning rod coupled with an Abu Garcia Soron STX 60 reel spooled with 30-pound Seaguar Smackdown is sweet. My leaders consist of a #4 or #5 SPRO Power Swivel, 15 inches of 40-pound Toray Super Hard Fluorocarbon, and a Berkley Cross-Lok Snap. Typically, the jig should track straight most of the time, but a rounded clip like the VMC Duolock Snap is a good choice when experimenting with snapping and nodding the jig to flair the skirt.
These combos flat-out cast. Swimming a jig is all about covering water, 80 percent of the time. The "spinnerless spinnerbait" effect creates a dragnet that can corral pike over, through, along, and outside vegetation. It can comb breaks, deep humps, and rock reefs at all depths pike occupy. Weather history is a good starting point. For two days after a cold front during spring and early summer, I use a 1/4-ounce jig with a 3- to 4-inch trailer for working the base of deep weedlines. For working the base of a hump, reef, or break along a main-basin point, I use a 1/2- to 1-ounce jig, depending on depth, and tack on a 3-inch trailer. Pike should be close to the bottom. In both cases, slow-roll the jig the same way you would a spinnerbait. Pause occasionally. Let it drop to bottom and rest. Then resume a slow, steady retrieve with the rod tip low.
After three or more days of stable weather, start by fancasting over and along vegetation at a faster clip with a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce jig and 4- to 5-inch trailer. In cloudy weather, look for pike to suspend higher in the water column. In bright weather, think the opposite. Pike can attack a jig burned faster than a high-speed reel can crank. But moderate to slow speeds win the day mostly, even when pike are moderately active.
In early spring, when the water is below 50°F, start by slow-rolling a light jig over developing vegetation about halfway down. If the water is 8 feet deep (which is a magic depth during spring in the natural lakes of Minnesota), swim the jig 4 feet off bottom. Keep it moving horizontally and tracking straight as an arrow. If that isn't working, speed up, try some changes of direction, maybe try a bigger trailer. But my next move would be to a suspending jerkbait like the Lucky Craft Pointer 100 or a Rapala HJ 12 Husky Jerk. Jerkbaits slay dragons in spring and early summer when other tactics fail.
Ol' snaggletooth might follow a jig all the way back to the boat. Keep an eye out for her with polarized glasses. Strikes often come when the jig starts to rise, or when it's is worked vertically with a snap or two right below the boat. You can trick followers away from the boat with a change of speed and direction. That's where a long rod helps. Sweep the tip out to one side, reel a few cranks, then sweep the rod over to the other side, reeling steadily. The increase in speed and change of direction can trigger those followers.
Trailer choices are vast. Craws, creatures, soft jerkbaits, shad bodies, and other plastics work, but most of my success has come with swimbait bodies. Dial up the water displacement with 4.8-inch Kalin's Sizmic Shad or Berkley PowerBait Rib Shad. Dial down the vibration with a slimmer Keitech Swing Impact or Jackall Rhythm Wave with a smaller paddletail. Other favorites include Bass Pro Shops Paddle Tail Shad and Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad. And I think the new Storm 360GT Searchbait will get absolutely mauled. A selection covering attractor patterns and natural shades mimicking various baitfish pays dividends. Having a choice between thin and thick bodies with different shapes and tapers is a good idea, too.
A plain ol' grub comes in second for me. Problem is, skirts interfere with its action. A short-skirted jig like the Booyah Swim 'N Jig works best with 5- to 6- inch plastics like Kalin's Lunker Grub or Mogambo Grub. Jigs that rattle work well in cloudy water. The wide thumping tail on a soft swimbait makes a rattling jig sound like a maraca.
The key ingredients are weight and speed. Experiment with those every day when the game plan isn't working. Let the trailer's wobble shake the skirt. And keep your shoes tied on tight. Ol' snaggletooth is a skirt chaser. Likes to plow into a jig just as you lift it from the water.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid pike chaser all across North America.