Making Steelhead Jig Candy


"Painting jigs. What are you doing?"


"Looking at the world through a glass onion."

Phone conversations get weird when it's 70°F in early March around here. Never happens. People don't know how to act. Especially when you're driving on the ice one day and 48 hours later the foot soldiers are falling through.


I've got things to do. No worries, there. Articles to write and bluegill fishing tomorrow in Wisconsin. But tomorrow night I'll set up the studio for painting jigs. Remember that little run in with tall timber we had on the Big Manistee? That gaping "pink void" has to be filled while it's fresh in your mind. Nothing worse than opening the box a month later only to disc0ver you're pinkless. Again. Oh, foul fate.

Use powder paint for glow versions. Hold a 1/32-ounce, TC Tackle (406/683-5485) steelhead jig in the open flame of a candle for 10 seconds; much longer and she melts). Swish it through some fluffed-up Pro-Tec in glow orange, pink, or chartreuse. Always seems to be one of those three, but blue, white, or red can tear things up at times. Hang them in the oven at 250°F for 20 minutes, or hang them high over the candle flame for several minutes. I paint far fewer than I polish, though. As in nail polish. I have more nail-polish pink, mauve, purple, taupe, orange, and yellow jigs than bright, fluorescent or glow colors because most days are average days. Average flows, average clarities, average light penetration. Lessons learned with plain, unpainted jigs directed me to duller shades of the colors steelhead like. Which would include all the sunset colors, earth tones, black, white, metallics, and skin tones. Easier to list what they don't like on average days. A lot depends on the color of the water. You either match it or find its opposite (both choices expressed as a range), depending on other conditions, like wind, clouds, and precipitation.

Other than that, steelhead seem to choose the same colors in the same conditions year after year in rivers with all natural reproduction. Stocked fish are a polyglot of preferences, by comparison, but if a color works in one pool it seems to work all over the river that day. At least until the light changes significantly. Or the creek rises.

One thing is certain: Steelhead can be crazy picky about color.

This is a poor picture of my drying rack. No need for a bigger one. The fumes would kill the cat and drive everybody else out of the house. (Ventilation is the key to prolonged consciousness. These crazy warm days have been great for painting jigs outside, then bringing them in to dry later.) The method, when polishing jigs, is important. Otherwise the finish cracks on the first rock. Using the brush in the bottle of nail polish, cover the head completely and rotate it. Point it up, then down while holding it in front of a small desk fan, then hang it up to dry. A common base coat makes the color pop and last a little longer, but I lose jigs too fast to go crazy about the staying power of the finish. And I don't necessarily want the average jig (for the average day) to pop.

I like to wait 24 hours before putting on the next coat. Same process. I wait another 24 hours before putting on a hard clear coat like Sally Hansen's Hard As Nails. I wait one more day to put the jigs in a clear-top Plano 3583 fly box, just to guarantee they dry hard enough not to stick together if the heads touch.

Mark Chmura, the best steelhead jig captain I know, watched us lose a lot of jigs on his boat this year. He uses a more efficient method — with heavier line and heavier leader so he can straighten his plain hooks and put his clients back in the game quicker. Generally, I'm all over the most efficient method. But, in this case, jigs hanging below a float caught more fish. The proof is in the proof, Yogi, and I'm sticking with  what works even if it costs $20 for a new batch of unpainted jigs.

Why drive all the way to Manistee, Michigan — about 800 miles one way for me — to save $20 on jigs? Not  a good deal, even if it costs but a single beauty like this one. I may be cheap, but not to the point of shaving the catch rate. We lost about two dozen jigs in one day on Mark's boat this winter, true. But that's the worst carnage inflicted on my jig supply in a single day after thirty-odd years of doing this (dangling flies, bait, and plastics under floats for steelhead, that is).

Bring your own jigs, though. Mark uses thin, strong hooks to work fish through jungles of wood to his boat out in the current, where things snap, straighten, and pop with vexing regularity for the unprepared. If you bring jigs, don't rely on pot-metal hooks. TC jigs have premium hooks that won't straighten out. One less thing to worry about. Raven, Ande, and Maxima lines won't snap or pop as often, either.

But — just as important — have a rainbow of colors along. Manistee River fish are a mix of stocked and naturally-reproducing fish that spawn and live to smolt in the smaller tribs. Bad sledding and poor ice? Tell me about it. No ice-fishing for steelhead or smallmouths this year. Was planning a trip this week, but the ice broke up and/or rotted before our eyes in a 65°F heat wave. All the better for fishing steelhead in rivers that open early. Time to break out the jig paint.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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