October-November 2020 Issue
This Month in In-Fisherman
Jig Time for Bass—& Trailers That Seal the Deal
By Steve Quinn
Jig fishing and fall foliage go together like. . . You fill in the metaphor. It’s my favorite time for big bass tactics, as fish are feeding before winter, which is tolerated by the tough northern strain of this warmwater fish, but nonetheless drastically curtails their feeding. They take advantage of reduced vegetation and denser aggregations of preyfish at this time. In shad-based reservoir systems farther south, there isn’t so much of a metabolic spur to feed, but the congregations of shad, either in creeks or in the deeper channel turns of impoundments, open the window for heavy feeding in cooling waters.
Deep or shallow, jigs fish effectively through various types of cover, whether it’s fallen trees, stumps, standing timber, rocks, docks, or vegetation that can last until ice-up. Jigs offer bass a meaty and wiggly profile that seems easy to catch. Selecting an appropriate trailer puts the frosting on the cake and can alter how a jig fishes. Trailers can increase realism with crawfish shapes, bulk the package to appeal to lunkers, increase underwater vibration, and slow the fall rate. These lures are effective on the fall, when slowly crawled through cover, or deadsticked with an occasional shake of the line or rod tip to activate the skirt and trailer.
A leadhead jig is perhaps the most basic fishing tool ever invented. In its basic form, an angler uses lead to lower bait to fish. This simple style lives on; witness the immense popularity of the Ned rig. Over the years, we’ve learned that the shape of the leadhead is important to its design and the application it works best for. The Ned-style head is mushroom-shape to provide a slow straight fall, and make it easy for a light jig to bump along the bottom while keeping a softbait up in the water column, avoiding snags. But in this review, we focus on styles of classic skirted jigs.
Timber Jigs: This style encompasses traditional flippin’ jigs as they were interpreted by long-rod/short-line masters like Denny Brauer and Tommy Biffle. They primarily used flippin’ to probe fallen trees and standing timber in reservoirs, and the shape and consistency of wood helped define optimal head shapes and hook styles. Brauer lent his expertise to the Strike King pro team, designing the Premier Pro Model Jig with a turned eye and short shank to help it leverage through branches without snagging.
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange often travels to Texas during the winter, filming television shows on reservoirs there, many of which feature woodcover. “I was introduced to Santone Jigs by Lake Fork guide Andrew Grills,” Stange says. “He’s a jig master, worming them down breaklines where bass hold during winter, and only occasionally hanging up. He can almost always free the lure by twanging on the line, almost like plucking a guitar string. The Santone excels in wood, but also works great in grass, as its head is rather narrow, not bulbous like some flipping jigs. I’ve used one to catch more than 100 bass in Minnesota lakes, mostly in vegetation. Note that I tie a thin wire leader to prevent bite-offs by pike. I’ve never seen the leader affect bites at all.”
Grass Jigs: For fishing vegetation, a slender or wedge-shaped head works best, allowing the lure to slip among stalks of vegetation or to drive through thick overhead cover like an arrow. The guard need not be quite as stiff as with a timber jig, so either thinner fibers or fewer of them suffice. If hung up, a vicious tug on heavy braided line slices the plants to free the lure, sometimes enticing a bite from nearby bass alerted by that burst of speed. On a grass jig, the eye generally lies parallel to the hook shank to avoid catching stalks. While some models like Strike King’s popular Hack Attack Heavy Cover Jig carry stout 5/0 hooks, there’s a place for downsized models as well, especially as water temperatures fall below 50°F.
Rock Jigs: This category is dominated by football jigs as that style was designed to move across rock, rubble, and sand. The hefty forward-weighted head is able to lever a trailer higher in the water column as the jig contacts hard objects and tips forward. Models of lead and especially tungsten excel for clinging to bottom and telegraphing underwater features to the angler, as the head catches and pauses.
Several alternative shapes also work well on hard substrates. Missile Baits offers Ike’s Head Banger, built for duty around rockpiles. Its triangular-shaped head and tightly bunched weedguard are designed to keep it out of trouble as it bumps and grinds over cover. Strike King’s Denny Brauer Structure Jig and Baby Structure Jig are meant for those situations, too. Brauer, now retired from top-tier tournament competition, moved to Lake Amistad on the Texas-Mexico border, which offers lots of deep rock and sand structure that hold fish in this deep, clear impoundment. “This jig has a 2X strong hook for easy hook-sets at long range and a zero-degree line tie for a straight pull through rocky terrain,” Brauer says. “The head is balanced to fish on hard cover like a football jig, but it’s more versatile. It’s great on transitions from hard bottom to vegetation, where bass often hold on Amistad and other lakes.”
Dock Jigs: As the lakeshore of our lakes and reservoirs become more developed with homes, dock fishing continues to increase in importance, as these manmade features replace the fallen trees, stumps, and other natural cover that used to adorn the bank. Largemouth bass find these shade-filled spots prime real estate for feeding from the Postspawn Period until the snow flies.
When I moved to Minnesota in 1988, I was amazed to see how shallow productive docks could be. In Georgia, we’d generally sought piers that extended out to at least 5 or 6 feet. But here, pontoon boats that were barely afloat might have a lunker beneath their hull. One bassin’ buddy known for his dock fishing skills, told me, “There’s no such thing as a bad dock.”
While expert skippers can shoot a light jig or softbait under a walkway or platform with spinning tackle, many anglers have honed their skills with baitcasting tackle, using heavier jigs and larger trailers. Anglers have generally looked for flatter heads, in the style of original Arkie heads.
Several jig makers have designed lures for this purpose. Steve Hauge of All-Terrain Tackle in Minnesota (now owned by Clam Outdoors) designed the Skip-N-Jig flat on the bottom to enable it to scoot easily along the surface, almost like skipping a flat stone. It’s available in 1/4- and 3/8-ounce weights with a powder-coated head that resists chipping, since even the best dock shooters sometimes clang jigs off posts or aluminum boat hulls.
It’s equipped with Hauge’s Trail-R-Loc, a heavy rubber band anchored on the jig collar that can be stretched over the hook point and onto the bend to keep a trailer in place. This feature is useful for most jig types, but especially for dock jigs that are whipped with great force and a low-trajectory cast against the surface to skip them beneath overhead cover, which exerts torque on a trailer that can pull it down the shank.
Late last winter, Hank Cherry of North Carolina won the 50th edition of the Bassmaster Classic on Lake Guntersville in Alabama, working several patterns to keep up with bass that were transitioning from winter patterns to the Prespawn Period. Before the event, he’d worked with Terry Monteleone of Picasso Lures to make a jig they named the Dock Rocket. Cherry used it to fool several of his bigger bass in compiling his winning weight. “Hank had an idea and we made a prototype, then used a 3-D printer to make samples,” Monteleone says. “It came out great on the first shot, with a 60-degree recessed and turned eye, modified Arkie-style head, and nickel-titanium weedguard. We call it an Invis Weedguard, since it’s so thin and flexible. It has four strands of wire—two on each side and two in front, to the side of the hook point so it’s not obstructed. When Hank tested it, he said he rarely lost a bass.” To increase its skipping potential, Cherry matches a Dock Rocket with a Berkley MaxScent Meaty Chunk, a pork-style trailer that’s flat and infused with a potent array of flavor attractants.
Years ago, several companies made pork rind, so you could choose your favorite cut to hang on the back of a jig. The trailer scene has changed so much that Uncle Josh, who formerly dominated the market, quit making pork more than five years ago. Strips and Chunks were the original shapes and proved most popular over the years. Luremakers blamed consumer demand for leaner pork for the demise of baits with a fatty chunk that provided unique buoyancy, flare, and a salty taste.
A couple of companies have entered this market with replacement products. I’ve marveled at the sensory appeal of MaxScent baits, including the Meaty Chunk, becoming confident in its ability to entice extra bites and persuade bass to hold a lure longer. Mike LaBarbara, co-owner of Fat Cow Fishing (fatcowfishing.com) offers Jig Strips and Craw Trailers, shaped like pork baits but made of a flexible synthetic material that doesn’t dry out. As an avid East Coast angler, he regretted the loss of pork for fishing stripers and especially bluefish, as that material was able to withstand their sharp teeth. Leatherbaits offers a Chunk Jig Trailer in four sizes and ninecolors, shaped like a pork chunk but of a leathery material, with flat legs to add a subtle flutter.
While some bucktail and marabou jigs fish fine alone, skirted bass jigs demand a trailer. Jig trailers fill many roles. One that’s not always acknowledged is in adding vibration, beyond the movement of leadhead and skirt. Lab experiments show bass can locate and capture prey without the benefit of vision by using their lateral-line sense, which detects and can identify nearby low-frequency vibrations.
In some of the tests, bass were blinded, others were performed in total darkness. Successful prey capture was poor, however, compared to conditions where fish could see. Bass use their entire toolbox of abilities to capture prey, which often isn’t easy. The lateral line’s sensitivity is limited to a few feet, so bass take advantage of their good vision, but turn to vibration detection in murky water, in thick vegetation, as the sun sets, and when potential prey is inches from their nose.
It’s also been demonstrated that swimming fish leave hydrodynamic trails in the water that can persist for up to several minutes after their passage. By analyzing resulting currents and vortices, predators may be able to identify the species leaving the trail. Stange learned of this concept in the book Bluegills—Biology and Behavior by Stephen Spotte. He’d been impressed at how often bass, walleyes, and other predators completely engulfed swimbaits, getting hooked deep in the mouth. ”The concept of hydrodynamic trails may explain how and why a predator approaches a lure, closes in, and momentarily tracks it before striking,” Stange says. “The lateral line is for close-quarters sensory perception, based on low-frequency vibrations. Once a fish closes on a target, vision isn’t so important. At this points the fish almost goes on autopilot, relying on its lateral line whether or not to eat the object.”
Turning Up the Volume
As with other categories of lures, choosing the right jig combination for conditions depends largely on the position of the predator and its disposition. Bass sometimes feed in open water over 50 feet deep, but also dwell in swampy backwaters where frogs and turtles have to fight their way through the tangle. Where vision is limited, it’s more likely that active trailers, like vibrating pincers on a crawbait, seal the deal. In a similar way, punching through cover with a heavy head causes vibration when the lure hits bottom. Strikes often come immediately.
Several categories allow you to increase the vibration component of the presentation, which can up catch rates when the bite is hot, notably those with vibrating tails or paddle-shape claws and appendages that throb as the lure’s moved. Berkley’s Chigger Craw and the NetBait Paca Craw have been favorites and Strike King upped the vibration ante with its “Rage Tail” baits that are distinctly cupped to catch even more water. On a steady retrieve, it almost feels like you’re reeling a crankbait.
When Less Catches More
In clear open water with no obstructions, mimicking Mother Nature often is best. Too much action and flash can put bass on guard, while subtle colors and motion make them easier to fool. Most favorite finesse presentations emerged for fishing clear environments with limited cover.
In cold water, a subtle look and feel often works best, and smaller lures get more productive as water temperature drops. Plastic pork-shape chunks provide a soft, gliding action. Bassmaster Elite Tour pro John Crews owns Missile Baits and offers a fine line of jigs, including the Flip Out flipping’ style, Mini Flip finesse model, and new Head Banger. In cold water and when bass don’t seem aggressive, he uses chunk-style trailers or ribbed baits like his D-Bomb that create a gliding action and subtle pulses. “Double-tail trailers like the Twin Turbo or Hula Grub work great on the Banger when fish are feeding or in warmer water,” Crews says.
For me, the act of tying on a jig inspires confidence, as I know I’m fishing a lure that’s universally known to be selective for big fish. Picking the best shape and weight for these artfully crafted chunks of metal, then matching a tempting trailer seals the deal. It can take some experience and experimentation, but following these key principles will get you dialed in this fall and winter.
*Steve Quinn, former In-Fisherman Senior Editor and now Field Editor, has penned articles on bass topics for In-Fisherman publications for over three decades.