May 21, 2018
Jig and softbait combinations do a terrific job of triggering pike. They can be tempered to fish well for smaller fish as well as to target big fish. They cast well, hook fish superbly, and it's easy to handle them once you land them, because a single hook usually is easier to extract than multiple hooks. So it's easy on fish, too — minimal hook damage and, typically, less handling time. On fisheries requiring single barbless hooks, it only takes a moment to flatten the barb on the single hook with pliers.
I use jigs from spring until freeze-up, playing a handful of proven options against select crankbaits, jerkbaits, glidebaits, and other single-hook lures. In some situations, those "other lures" are the best thing to throw. I've noted many times, for example, how magical glidebaits can be at times in changing the attitude of reluctant pike. But jigs do that, too. If I was reduced to fishing with one lure type day after day, in all kinds of conditions, my choice would be a jig and soft trailer.
As a backdrop to everything you read here about jigs, remember that getting them to the appropriate depth is the most important priority. Generally, that means running jigs at the level of the fish. But at times pike like jigs tip-tipped along bottom. Usually, though, that's for pike in colder water, although anglers flying or driving in to far northern waters may still find pike shallow in bays in July. No so much in August, when pike look for deeper weedgrowth.
Other times — many times, actually — they like a jig running above them. It's also common to trigger fish when you kill a jig during the retrieve and let it drop toward bottom. Jigs are so effective because they offer such versatility in controlling depth. Nothing else comes close.
Jigs must also be moving at the right speed, the second most important aspect of the presentation process. It's not just straight running speed. How you work a jig is a vital element of speed control. We get more deeply into that in a moment.
Overall, a lure's appearance as it moves through the water is critical. The right profile is important. Vibrations projected by a lure also play an essential role, not only in appearance but also in "the feeling" that surrounds a lure when fish move in close. Our understanding of how sensitive pike are to vibrations and how they sense them plays a key role choosing a soft trailer. Finally, color can be an underlying factor in putting it all together, although admittedly many times it plays a minor role.
Let's get down to the nitty gritty of working with a few exceptional options, instead of trying to cover a large contingent of jigs and an even larger array of softbait trailers. Details are important, but this isn't difficult or complicated. And once you see what I'm successful using, you can put your own plan into play, relying on jig and softbait choices you have confidence in.
This jig remains a fundamental part of my plan for pike and has for several decades. It's available in 5/8-, 1-, 11„4-, and 11„2-ounce sizes. It has a long hook shank that couples well with two terrific softbait styles. The weedguard helps a bit to get it through weedgrowth without hanging up. The lightest two jigs usually work best for pike that typically are along deep weededges at this time of year. As summer progresses, they also at times hold on medium-depth rock flats or rock points and flats in deeper water.
When the water I'm fishing has both muskies and pike, I usually couple the jig with a 4.5-, 5-, or 6-inch shad-bodied paddletail softbait, rigged flat on the jig. These bodies weren't designed to be rigged flat yet they work best that way on a skirted jig. The bodies are much more pliable this way and provide more action and a smooth glide toward bottom when you kill the jig during a retrieve. This rigging also increases hook gap to provide consistent hookups.
Rigged correctly, this combo swims in subtle crankbait fashion, rocking back and forth as the paddletail also does its thing. The Lunker City Shaker is the body I started fishing years ago, but there are many options on the market now. One durable option is the 5-inch Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad.
This combination triggers both muskies and pike, but I prefer rigging with a curlytail trailer when I'm only after pike. Most 4-inch grubs are too small, while most 7- and 8-inch options are too large. A 5-inch Kalin's Lunker Grub does a nice job on a 5/8-ounce jighead, but many other curlytails work. J-Mac offers a generic 5-inch option that works fine. You need to stock a few 6-inch curlytails, too.
Working the J-mac Combos
You might think of the J-mac and paddletail combo as a crankbait or a bucktail spinner. To get started, cast it out, count it down to the depth you want to run, and retrieve it slowly and steadily to get started. Rigged as I've suggested, it swims like a stickbait or a light bucktail spinner. The bulk added by the skirt helps to keep the combo running shallower and more slowly if you want. Usually, though, along weedlines you're counting the jig down and working it deeper, bumping it and pumping it through weedgrowth. Hesitating the jig during the retrieve often triggers following fish. Occasionally, a long pause works best, as you let the jig fall all the way to bottom.
The J-mac and curlytail fishes more compactly than the J-mac and paddletail. It's the main combo I fish when muskies aren't part of the equation. As is the case with the paddletail combo, you work it along weedlines by counting it down and then bumping it through the weededge. Swim it along and then kill it and let if fall. Pike eat the jig as it's running straight like a crankbait and also often as it falls.
This option also fishes well tipped along the bottom when pike aren't aggressive, as can be the case in far northern waters when they remain in shallow bays and you can see them. Move it past a fish's face, but at least on the initial retrieve, make sure your retrieve doesn't approach them aggressively. Don't sneak up on the fish. Move it past several feet away.
If you can get fish to respond enough to approach the bait, you often catch them. Sometimes they slowly overtake it from behind. Other times they move toward the bait but won't take it. Try killing the lure. Often these fish approach the bait as it rests on bottom. When the fish is right on the lure, use the rod tip and a wrist snap to lift the bait up 6 inches before letting it drop again. Many times a fish darts forward and slurps the jig in.
I stock three fundamental jig-skirt color choices: dark (black and blue), white (or white and red), and a brighter option like firetiger or chartreuse. If you're just getting started go with black and blue. Couple it with a body that either matches or contrasts. With paddletails, pike often like something that flashes as the jig moves, so a body that's shad-colored or at least lighter than the dark-skirted jig. Same deal with curlytails.
Rod, Reel, Line, and Wire
The J-mac combos fish best on casting tackle, although you can also do well with the lighter two jigheads on the spinning tackle I describe later for fishing open-hook jigheads and paddletail swimbaits. For most situations, I use a medium-power 7-foot casting rod and a low-profile reel that holds about 130 yards of 30-pound Berkley Trilene Braid. This braid has a smaller diameter than the other braids I've tried, so whereas I once used 20-pound Sufix 832 in a situation like this, I now use the 30-pound braid and get the same casting performance and durability with a bit more break strength.
To the end of the braid, using back-to-back uni-knots (4 wraps each, tied direct without doubled line) I tie on a 5-foot section of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader (typically Trilene 100%). The fluorocarbon leader, with its additional diameter compared to the braid, aids in handling fish at boatside and is more abrasion resistant than the braid. Then, to guard against bite-offs, again using back-to-back uni-knots, I tie on a 12-inch section of 20-pound Surflon Micro Supreme, a tieable wire from American Fishing Wire. Their 26-pound wire works fine, too. Finally, use a three-wrap Trilene knot to connect the wire to the jig.
In heavy cover when there's potential for big fish, I use a 7-foot medium-heavy power rod with a low-profile reel and 30-pound Trilene Braid. The terminal end of this is 25-pound fluorocarbon and 26-pound or 40-pound Surlon Micro Supreme. This rigging also works best for heavier J-mac jig combos. And I use this rod when I fish heavier open-hook jigs like the 1.5-ounce Owner Jighead, cast to deeper water beyond weededges. For giant fish in heavy cover, I would also rig a medium-heavy combo with 50-pound braid.
Rigged like this you're ready to work jigheads through weedcover. With your back to the wind, or casting directly into the wind, cast, count the jig down, then position your rod tip high, at about 11 o'clock. The combination of the no-stretch braid working at a right angle to your rod tip and lure allows maximum sensitivity for reading what's happening with the jighead, which needs to be bumped and pumped and poked and swum through the cover. This is how you read the habitat conditions that influence where pike hold. Snap the jig free when you hang up. With stiffer vegetation it helps to reel the weed toward you a bit before snapping.
The rod tip moves the jig along, working from about 10:30 to 12 o'clock. Pausing the jig during the retrieve often triggers following fish, too. Occasionally, a long pause works best, as you let the jig fall to bottom. Casts generally are from deeper water up onto the weedflat, although when the cover on weedflats is too thick, casts are just up onto the edge, or longer casts are made down the edge.
When the wind isn't at your back, drop your rod tip to about 10:30. You won't be able to stay as connected to what the jig is doing, and now you're watching your line for bites as well as feeling for them as the wind works against your line. Often you just need to reel the jig along like a crankbait, pausing at intervals to let it connect with vegetation or drop back toward the bottom.
No need to set hard with no- stretch line. With your rod tip high, just drop back a foot or so and firmly come tight on the fish. With your rod tip lower, do the same thing. Otherwise you tear a big hole, which means more physical damage to fish, if you're releasing them. The big hole also makes it easier for the hook to wiggle free.
With your rod tip high it's easy to feel the difference in plant types as well as how thick the vegetation is. Pike usually like some room to maneuver, so dense beds don't produce well, although edges and pockets in heavy growth can be good.
Bass Jigs for Modest Fish
Of course, many of the waters we fish don't host many, and often not any pike approaching 20 pounds. Indeed, lots of waters don't have pike approaching 10 pounds. One can still have a memorable day of fishing. We at times need to take advantage of what's available to us.
I remember my first pike, which seemed gigantic at the time but didn't weigh two pounds. That catch transpired so long ago that the lure was a primitive leadhead jig made by pinching a piece of lead onto the front end of a Mickey Finn streamer so it fished upside down with hook riding up. The fish took the jig deeply, I naively stuck a finger in to pry it loose, the pike's jaws immediately snapped shut. I remember thinking, "That's not good." And it wasn't.
On waters with modest fish along weededges, I temper back my approach, using bass-style skirted jigs weighting 1/2- or 3/4-ounce, tipping them with a 4-inch swimbait body (rigged flat), or a 4-inch curlytail. The same casting tackle as described before works perfectly.
The best bass jig I've found for working vegetation is a Santone Rattlin' Jig, which has a slightly wedge-shaped standup head with a fiberguard that gets jigs through timber; so it works well through vegetation, too. Jigheads like the Terminator Pro Series, which I have used extensively and, also the J-mac, don't have designs and guards that allow fishing in timber. They do a decent job around vegetation, but they aren't as effective in coming through as the Santone Rattlin' jig, which I order from the company website.
Bullet Jighead and Paddletail Combos
Bullet heads roll easily in combination with paddletail shad bodies, offering a bit more vibrating action. Jigs constructed with wider bottoms to stabilize them don't roll well, but suffice so long as the jig weight and shad body length are well matched. The best jigs have long hooks. My favorite has long been the Owner Ultrahead Saltwater Bullet Jig in 1/2 and 3/4 ounces, although I also carry some 1-ounce and 1.5-ounce jigs. I also use the Kalin's Ultimate Bullet Head Jig. They're easier to find than the Owners and are less expensive.
Here again, the shad bodies I use most often are from Lunker City (the Shaker) and the Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad. I use 6-inch Shakers, which trim back well to 5 inches or so for smaller average fish. With the 5-inch Ripple Shad, trim the nose with a scissors about 1/4-inch back so it's flat and fits snuggly against the jighead. The eyes on this softbait serve no purpose, so remove them and put them in your trash bag, along with used softbaits. I usually rig these bodies in standard fashion and not flat, except when I'm working shallow water.
These jig combos with open hooks work best along edges and also away from edges, including shallow rock edges and over deeper rock-gravel flats and deeper-dropping rock points and the edges of midlake shoals. Long casts are the norm so I use medium- or medium-heavy 7-foot spinning rods with a bigger reel like the 40-class Abu Garcia Revo SX filled with 12-pound NanoFil or the new Berkley FireLine Ultra 8. Some anglers find Ultra 8 is more forgiving than NanoFil. Both are no-stretch lines.
To work with NanoFil or FireLine, double the end of the mainline with a two-wrap spider hitch (otherwise it's so thin it often slips and doesn't hold well), then, using back-to-back four-wrap uni-knots, connect to a 5-foot fluorocarbon leader. Again, 12 inches of 20-pound Surflon Micro Supreme is required at the terminal end to guard against bite-offs.
Retrieves vary from a slow, steady grind, to pumping and swimming with the rod tip high as you nod the tip to give the jig more life. Killing it works, too. And so do ripping retrieves, especially over rock-gravel flats or along the edges of rock-gravel drop-offs. To make a ripping retrieve, make a long cast and let the jig sink to bottom. Then with the rod tip at 9 o'clock rip it up to 11 o'clock and immediately drop it back to the starting position, letting the jig fall on a semi-slack line. Just as the jig touches down on bottom, snap it up again, and repeat. This also works at times several feet above bottom or over more open water for fish suspended from 15 to 25 feet down just away from drop-off edges; or suspended about 10 feet down along weededges.
We've often noted that pike like the turmoil that accompanies modest wind blowing into weededges and rock-gravel bars and flats. They tend to like darker days, too, especially as September rolls in. A dark overcast day with a little mist in the air and a modest wind often produces good pike activity.
So keep it simple, catch fish and have fun. As I've grown older I've often noted that one of the main points of all that experience should be the ability to see through the fog that is the complicated world we live in to offer a straightforward plan that doesn't cost a fortune.
Of course, we can selectively harvest a few pike, too, especially smaller fish on waters with an abundance of them. Pike are delicious and their firm flesh does well in a range of recipes. Yes, you need to master deboning them. It just takes a bit of practice. Meanwhile, release the big ones to be caught again. They are magnificent fish. Catching them with jigs isn't just effective, it's terrific fun — one of my favorites ways to fish. Bonus muskies and big largemouths and walleyes often join the parade as incidental catches.