June 02, 2015
No tux with tails, but rather an FXE Stormsuit and signature ball cap. The time-tested fishing guide approaches the podium — the bow of his Lund — and acknowledges the orchestra with stately nods to woodwind and flutist sections, then on to the brass and percussionists.
The chamber silences as he taps the podium. The virtuoso raises a baton, fingers pursed in both art and confidence. Arms extended as if to embrace the day, he draws them together with surf-crashing force. The orchestra responds with a powerful, symphonic burst in perfect unison and pitch.
The baton, his rod, is set down as he hooks a shiner minnow on a walleye jig. The conductor fantasy evaporates and reality returns as deep-woods guide Tom Neustrom prepares to make the first pitch of the new day.
"Jigging is like making music," Neustrom says. "It's adaptable, impromptu, responsive, and full of passion and detail." Perhaps we've overlooked Neustrom's deep emotional side? "The rod, reel, jig, bait, and line all act like orchestral pieces." Not the Neustrom I know, but I'm liking this new and improved fishing maestro.
On the open waves, Neustrom has spent decades testing, defining, and redefining jigging techniques. Frankly, he's one of the best jiggers ever, period. As a guest in the boat, I've watched him take the art of jigging through an evolution no less remarkable than ape to man.
Neustrom keeps a masterful mental armory of foundational jigging techniques, each patterned for specific situations and their accompanying seasons. Chronologically, it makes sense to begin at the beginning, when water temperatures struggle to find the low-40°F range. Neustrom calls it his "cold-water example."
"Everything starts with choosing the right jig," he says, recognizing the importance of matching jig weight to factors like wind and depth. "In the early spring, pure and simple, I'm starting with the lightest jig I can get away with and still reach bottom and maintain feel. My preference is for a 1/16-ounce jig — and my favorite has long been the Northland Fire-Ball."
In this scenario, Neustrom is fishing in 6 to 15 feet of water, a common depth range on northern natural lakes and reservoirs in cold-water conditions. If the wind really jacks up, he begrudgingly, but wisely upticks to a 1/8-ounce jig.
Meat hung on the jig with care, he readies to rip. But first he lends detail to his livebait selection. "This early in the season, walleyes aren't on the big chew, so I fish local shiners or minnows — 1.5 to 2 inches long." He resists angler instinct to search out the biggest minnows in the bucket. In the eye of the angler, this minnow logic might seem sacrilegious, but we should trust "Neusy" on this one. Go small.
The symphony is ready to begin. Neustrom casts and here we hear a score from Disney's Fantasia. He dubs it the "glide and slide," his foundational cold-water jigging method. Jig greets the bottom, he lifts the rod and tightens the line just enough to engage. There is to be no snapping or popping, but rather a cadence softer than a first chair violin solo.
"I just lift the rod tip and gently pull back," he says. "Think of it like slowly pumping your bicep muscle. Use your elbow like a fulcrum." The rod tip slips from the 2 to 12 o'clock positions while Neustrom gingerly takes up slack in between. The jig, at most, glides in 2-foot increments, 6 inches off bottom.
This nearly anti-jigging process requires patience, too, says Neustrom. "People always want to snap that thing back to the boat, hurrying up for the next cast. That's going about it all wrong. Keep the jig in the water as long as possible. With patience, you cover water, and greatly improve your chances of getting bit."
Spring Has Sprung
Movement number two takes us to what the we might consider actual spring. Lilacs are exhaling fragrant bouquets. Days grow longer. The water no longer bites to the touch, finding the low- to mid-50°F range. Unless there's been a major exodus of baitfish, Neustrom's 6- to 15-foot span remains relevant. So, too, should the dainty 1/16-ounce jig and lean minnow. But again, if the wind blows he reaches for the tray of 1/8-ouncers. Moreover, the meatier jig can be fished faster, which is part of his next act of musical madness.
"I like giving techniques names," he says. "It makes it easier for clients to remember techniques when they go back home to fish local waters. And this one I call the 'pop and drop,' a speedier and more intense version of the 'slide and glide.'"
Cranking things up, Neustrom's cadence gets more aggressive, representative of a symphony building in tempo and ferocity. Lifts strengthen to pops. So it's pop, fall, pop, fall. Again, always hoisting in slack line to keep tension right down to the lure. If walleyes aren't succumbing to the tune, he blends in a few glides, which often causes a reaction as walleyes succumb to irregularity, especially ones that have been following the bait.
Neustrom returns to orchestra hall. "You impart the action, change the music. Don't get stuck in a grind. If you're not getting bit, don't immediately assume the fish aren't there or are totally inactive. You wouldn't believe how many times I've seen even the slightest modification in jig speed and cadence put fish in the boat.
"Oh and another thing — fish with a purpose," he says. "Visualize every cast. Think about what the jig is doing under water. The two most common mistakes I see people make are jigging too hard and leaving too much slack in the line. They end up jerking the bait away from fish, and if a fish takes, it easily goes unnoticed if there's a lot of slack in the line."
Let's call this next piece of time late spring to early summer. Water temps are in the upper-50°F to mid-60°F range. The lunch line is open. Walleyes are feasting with fervor and better tempted by speed and size. Neustrom, continuing with his drunk-on-life orchestral analogy, says it's "time to bring in the drums, the percussion."
He stows the 1/16-ounce jigs, and while 1/8 ounce remains common fare, he now brandishes full-figured 1/4-ounce Fire-Balls. The introduction of this heftier hunk is two-fold. Firstly, the previous 6- to 15-foot range could have shifted deeper. Secondly, the extra weight is necessary to take retrieve speed up a notch.
Surprisingly, our gracious guide doesn't ratchet up the size of his minnows. "It's the chase and smell of the bait, not the size of the minnow," he says. "In spring, even in early summer, you don't need a big minnow to catch a big fish."
Pops convert to bangs and glide moves are shelved until next spring. Neustrom is firing up the band. His new amped-up cadence goes, "pop, pop, pop," with a short pause between to pick up line. No matter how fast you fish you need tension — no slack in the line. "And always be conscious of where the jig is. Always feel it on the line," he sermonizes with a lifetime of walleyes to back up the good word.
Regardless of season, regardless of jig speed and cadence, everything ends with the proper hook-set. He's equally as thorough about putting the pins to the fish. "If you sense any resistance, drop the rod tip just slightly, feel for the pressure to return, and set the hook. The whole process can take 5, maybe up to 10 seconds. And when you set, sweep sideways. I see a lot of fish missed when a client jerks straight up into the sky without reeling up the slack, without verifying that the fish is still on."
Jig color? In actuality, jig weight, speed, and cadence rank higher than color selection. Add bait to that list as well, because your minnows need to be animated. But he also has color preferences for specific situations.
"In clear water, which is typical in spring, I get bit best on jigs that blend chartreuse and fluorescent green," he says. "Northland's Parakeet pattern is my favorite, followed by Parrot, which adds in some blue and orange." Neustrom says the additional colors heighten contrast. As well, orange is a perennial producer in turbid water, like you encounter in rivers and reservoirs in spring.
A note about the aforementioned minnows: He keeps it simple when it comes to applying the bait to the jig. "Just go in the mouth, through the top of their head, and right between the eyes. The straighter the better for controlling the jigging action. Hook a minnow off kilter and no matter how well you work the rod the jig is doing something totally different under water."
His described techniques presuppose that he's casting, but they translate to a drift as well. "Wind and spring go hand and hand," he says. "The same lifting, gliding, and popping actions are just as effect on the drift. But if it's howling, throw out a driftsock, or even anchor up to slow things down. It's impossible to offer the proper cold-water presentation when the boat is moving too fast."
He felt compelled to complete this concert by needling Al. Yes, his buddy the legendary Al Lindner. "Just this past season we were fishing for walleyes on a lake near Grand Rapids, Minnesota," he says. "Al had gotten into the coffee and was jigging pretty aggressively and not getting bit. Me? I slowed down to a mellow lift and fall, lift and fall, lift and fall. Eventually, Al saw things my way when I started plastering the walleyes."
Neustrom and Lindner have been fishing buddies for decades, but no matter how tight that bond, there's always a mental clicker registering who's outfishing whom. Next time we'll ask Al for his take on a few of those outings.
Noel Vick has been contributing articles to In-Fisherman publications for many years, and writes from his home in Isanti, Minnesota.