The Mystery & Mastery of Jigs for Winter Bass
March 15, 2019
There’s rarely a bad time to fish a jig. Over the years, I’ve caught big largemouths on them in all 12 months. But if you live south of the Ice Belt, a jig becomes a top pick during the coldest times.
One reason is that it’s deadly when fishing at a range of depths and speeds, but always scores high when the bite is slow and moderately deep, which generally describes the whereabouts of big largemouths now. Work it with patience, with an eye peeled for a slight bump in the line and be attentive to that mushy feeling that often signals a bite.
Jigs today come in an amazing variety—swim jigs, hair jigs, bladed jigs, wobble-head jigs, and more. But for now, we refine the discussion to the classic skirted bass jig in its various shapes and styles.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde of Lawrence, Kansas, recalls working with early fishing pioneers like Virgil Ward and his son Bill of Bass Buster Lures and Bob Carnes, founder of Arkie Jigs. “The Wards built and sold lots of marabou and bucktail jigs in the late 1950s, then they made the first fiberguard in the mid-1960s,” he says. “In the 1970s, Carnes saw the Wards fishing a jig with a fiberguard on the ’Sportsman’s Friend’ television show and adopted a similar one on his jigs, which were well balanced, creating a lure that was less snag-prone than any on the market at that time. He’d first used bucktail, then tied them with living rubber, with silicone coming along later. After Bo Dowden won the 1980 Bassmaster Classic on one, Carnes sold 36,000 at the Okie Bug Show in Tulsa.
“Guido Hibdon’s father ‘Big Gete’ was introduced to bucktail jigs by Harold Ensley and Virgil Ward, and the younger Hibdon worked to become a jigging master on reservoirs of the Ozark region,” Kehde says. “His victory at the 1980 BASS Missouri Invitational on Lake of the Ozarks ignited his career, and he followed that with a win the following year at that same event. In both cases, he used a black-skirted jig with a hand-poured Guido Bug as a trailer.”
Lonnie Stanley of Stanley Jigs recalls the early days as well. “In 1979, I started pouring leadhead jigs of a modified Arkie design with a fiberguard, using 33 strands of nylon, plus a living rubber skirt and Eagle Claw hooks,” Stanley says. “I won the 1980 Lonestar Tournament on Toledo Bend with one of our jigs and went into production. I poured them, my wife painted them, and the kids bagged them. We brought them to local tournaments and sold them for a buck apiece. About two years later, Rick Clunn brought me a needle-point hook from England that he’d found in Herter’s catalog. We convinced Mustad to produce needle points for our jigs, which became the top seller.
“For jigs, balance is critical to reduce snags and increase hooking percentage,” he says. “It didn’t hurt when Mark Stevenson caught the Texas record bass at Lake Fork on one of our jigs, the bass named “Ethel” that was viewed my millions at the Bass Pro Shops headquarters in Missouri.” Over the years, Stanley made many jig innovations, including metal-flake skirts, FireTip skirts, multi-color fiberguards, and hooks of .062-inch wire that wouldn’t flex, with a 2-degree outbend, a key to high hooking percentages.
Along the way, the Ozarks spawned a jig offshoot called the “Eakins Jig,” originally crafted in the early 1990s by guide and tournament pro Jim Eakins and made by Jewel Bait Company. This compact round ballhead has a clipped skirt that perfectly matches Jewel’s Eakins Craw, a flat realistic rendering of a 2.5-inch crayfish, which Eakins reduced to just 2 inches to give the package an enticing glide that fooled bass wherever anglers tried it—deep under docks, brushpiles, cold-front conditions, finicky bass, and more. Experts generally favor the smallest version, 5/16-ounce, for its slow fall, with heftier models for extra-deep water or windy conditions. This lure ignited the trend to finesse jigs—lighter and compact with a short skirt with half of it clipped to give the lure a bristly appearance, with a hook of lighter gauge wire, and flexible fiberguard. Dozens are on the market today, but it’s tough to beat the original.
While football heads date to the late 1970s, they rose to prominence when touted by Minnesota pro Jim Moynagh for fishing deep rockpiles. He coupled a 3/4-ounce head he called a Roll’r Jig with a double-tail grub trailer. He won many big tournaments on that pattern and lure. When the jig moved, its shape forced it to tip forward when it encountered the slightest obstruction. Not ideal in cover, they’re deadly on deeper fish feeding on shellbeds, hard-bottom areas, and offshore structure with little vegetation. Winter bass often hold deep until increased sunlight and warming temperatures summon them shallower. While Moynagh preferred a jig with no guard, anglers fishing waters with deep brush and stumps prefer those with fiberguards, and hookup percentage is similar.
The football jig remains a staple in the arsenal of anglers who ply reservoir ledges—off-channel areas that offer feeding flats with current—along with deep-diving crankbaits, large “Preacher-style” bucktail jigs, Carolina rigs, giant flutterspoons, and heavily weighted swimbaits. Bass feed in such locations from shortly after they leave spawning areas until early in the Prespawn Period the following spring.
Jig Tactics Today
Over the decades, jigs have continued to be a key lure. For many, jig-fishing remains mysterious, but when you’ve mastered the subtle nuances of lure placement and honed a keen sense of feel for cover and light bites, you can conquer the bassin’ world. That’s just what Denny Brauer did throughout his unparalleled career as a pro fisherman. Originally from Nebraska, he moved to the Ozark region, jig-central since Virgil’s Ward’s time, and now lives near the shores of Lake Amistad on the Texas-Mexico border, having retired from national competition. In the fickle field of fishing, he won well over $2.5 million in top-level events alone, most thanks to a jig.
“I first learned the power of jigs when I started to flip,” Brauer says. “In tournaments back in the 1970s, it was deadly for probing cover and catching the biggest bass.” He parleyed his flippin’ skills to a Bassmaster Classic victory and more than a dozen other wins on the Bassmaster and FLW tours. “Early on, I was fortunate to get sponsored by Strike King and I worked with them to design jigs,” he says. “We came up with the Premier Pro Model Jig, which I consider the ideal lure for flipping brush and wood. I fish it on fluorocarbon in most situations in wood.
“You get better hook penetration with horizontal jig eye,” he says, “and that placement also helps keep the jig from snagging in wood. One of the keys to hooking bass solidly is to set the hook as soon as you see the jig move, so you stick them in the top of the mouth, not the corner, where the hook can tear out. Teeth marks on a slipsinker or jig show your hook didn’t penetrate when you set. That’s one reason you want a hard finish on a jighead.” Brauer, like Tommy Biffle and other jig experts, has a lightning-quick set, a product of good instincts and constant monitoring of the line and lure movement. Bass often fool us with mushy bites or drops that we could have set on if we were dialed in to the bite.
Precision casting is also important. Practice, practice, practice. Try to hit a cup consistently at 30 feet, move it out to 40, and keep working. Like a major league pitcher, inches are what make all the difference.
For fishing vegetation, another sort of jig is in order—a more slender design that can slip among plant stalks or punch through a mat on the surface. For such applications, Brauer switches to Strike King’s Hack Attack Jig, with a heavy-gauge Gamakatsu hook and what he calls a “grass eye,” one parallel to the hook shank instead of turned. This helps it pass through vegetation. Most experts prefer heavy braided line for the densest vegetation, due to its ability to slice through stalks and keep big bass under control.
Guide Andrew Grills is one of the most popular young guides on famed Lake Fork. “If it wasn’t for a jig, I wouldn’t be guiding,” he says. Beginning in 2007, he fished there from January through March, when his construction projects were shut down in Kentucky. “I fished the lake from a 10-foot jonboat for several years while I learned to fish a jig for winter bass.” In 2010, he left his job to move there, bought a big Skeeter, and began guiding.
“Many clients lack confidence with jigs, so I help them catch a big bass or two,” he says. “Then they don’t want to put it down. To get them on fish, I hold the boat over deeper water and cast shallower. I believe bass tend to face deeper water so I work the jig so it comes over their shoulder, moving along steadily and slowly; no hopping or banging. They suddenly spot the lure and suck it in. Get ready when you feel the jig come over an object and drop. In winter, there’s no magic depth here, I fish from 3 to 30 feet deep.
“My favorite jig for winter fishing here is Santone’s M Series, a balanced Arkie-style jig, and I also use their Rattling Jig. We fish a 5/8-ounce model most of the time, but switch to 3/4-ounce in some situations. You get more bites on a lighter jig, but big fish can be more attracted to the heavier jig as it kicks up bottom and has a larger presence. The heavy jig hangs more, so you want to learn how to snap them loose by plucking the line. Most often, the head wedges in limbs, so the hook isn’t embedded unless you set hard into wood. Santone Jigs plane upward when you set, so you stick bass better. The hook points upward and won’t roll over.”
Grills favors green hues in winter, particularly Bullfrog and Mexican Heaven in Santone’s selection. He isn’t picky about trailers, but cautions, “Less is more in winter,” he says. “You don’t want flapping trailers now. I usually use a small Zoom Chunk. Save your action trailers, like Strike King’s Rage Craw or Berkley’s Chigger Craw, for later in spring and summer.
“My favorite rod is the G. Loomis 854, 7-foot 1-inch with #4 power,” he says. “Another good one is Dobyns’ 736 model. A 7-footer or 7-foot 1-inch rod is ideal. Don’t go too long. Sensitivity is key, along with power to get big fish out of cover. We use 20-pound Seaguar InvisX—you won’t break off with it. Around woodcover, avoid braid. I believe the sound of braid against wood alerts bass and makes them less likely to bite.”
The Winter Night Bite
Some anglers store the boat and stash their tackle once when water temperatures fall into the 40°F range. But if you’re reading this, you’re probably not in that camp. But even most die-hards like to let the sun warm things up a bit before hitting the lake. Not Randy Claybourne of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He’s evolved into a persistent and highly skilled winter jigman, learning from experience that winter presents the best opportunity for a giant. His belief was validated on the night of January 12, 2014, when he landed a 13.86-pound Texas ShareLunker at Lake Fork. As fortune would have it, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange, himself an early riser, had walked down to grab a cup of coffee at Lake Fork Marina and met Claybourne as he babysat his precious catch in the marina’s large bait tank, awaiting the crew from Texas’ Athens Hatchery. It turns out Claybourne had been preparing for that night for almost 20 years, as he honed his jigging skills for winter bass and searched for locations they prefer.
“I had to teach myself to fish slowly,” he says. “I had never been a fast fisherman and don’t do tournaments, but the pace took some getting used to. Fishing a jig helps you do that, as you feel it move along, bumping bottom and working over and through sunken trees. Remember that winter water temperatures may be in the low- or mid-40°F range, even in Texas. Slower is better.
“I learned that big bass may move up quickly to feed, then move back into deeper water. You want to be there when that happens.” He follows solunar periods on the In-Fisherman web page (in-fisherman.com), and favors the full moon.
He also pays attention to the wind. “When fishing deep points, I like some wind coming across the end of the point, and we fish along the tight inside turn on the lee side of it,” he says. “Wind creates slight currents that baitfish and bass relate to, though they often hold on the protected side at this time of year.” During January and February, he finds lunkers deep in these areas, typically from 14 to 24 feet down. He focuses on creek channels that sweep by points, providing that deep-to-shallow scenario that’s so important at this time of year.
A jig is only complete with a trailer of some sort. Back in the 1950s, before the advent of rubber or silicone skirts, bucktail ruled, often finished with a pork-rind trailer, either an eel or a chunk for bulk, underwater action and vibration, and an attractive flavor. Though pork rind production has ceased, reportedly due to the leaner conditions of pigs these days, I have dozens of jars of Uncle Josh and Strike King baits squirreled away, and I use them regularly. For the winter bite, the buoyancy and subtle undulations of pork chunks seem to attract lethargic bass, and its meaty and salty nature seems to encourage fish to hold on. The problems of pork drying out in the hot sun also are minimized at this time of year. Moreover, I often wield a single rod for hours at a time and pork’s durability is unmatched.
But sometimes an active trailer is warranted. Winter bass seem to vary in their activity level and aggressiveness. Craw baits with flapping pincers, such as the Paca Craw, Berkley PowerBait Chigger Craw, Zoom Speed Craw, and Strike King Rage Craw slow a jig’s fall and create vibrations during the retrieve. In murkier water or vegetation, this can bring extra bites. And for shallow work around brush and sparse vegetation, a small swimbait adds thump and a bit of flash, deadly when worked on a slow steady retrieve or a methodical lift-fall cadence. If your jig tends to turn and twist line, adjust the trailer to lie flat. Double-tail grubs, like the Yamamoto DT Grub, offer extra action and also balance a jig and limit rolling. It often pays to experiment with trailers to define bass preference on a given day.
Winter bass can be vertically mobile, often preferring spots that allow them easy access to both shallower flats and deeper sanctuaries with thick cover, depending on water temperature, weather, and other conditions. On sunny days, they tend to move shallower, deeper in cold, cloudy conditions. But when you define a pattern, it’s usually solid, and may produce a superb catch. But have patience this time of year. I’ve had days with only one bite, but it was my biggest fish of the year.
*Steve Quinn, decades-long writer and editor for In-Fisherman publications, is one of the world’s foremost experts on bass and bass fishing.