Where to next? Into the branches of a fallen tree, or through a patch of dense weeds? Tapping riprap by a bridge, or tickling a rock reef? Swimming through open water, or bouncing down a hard-bottom break? Dragging on gravel or hopping on sand?
Bass fishermen need a bunch of jigs, and not just to match cover and conditions. Heads need to match up with specific plastic trailers fish are reacting to at any given time. One bass jig just won’t cut it. Well—usually not.
Anglers in Minnesota are walleye crazy and always were. But somewhere in the 1990s they transformed from being exclusively walleye mad with occasional crappie dalliances to a more inclusive nature. They began doing something previously unthinkable. They began fishing for bass.
Before that happened, bass fishing in Minnesota was magnificent. Big, untutored bass that struck with violent intent graced even the metropolitan lakes of the Twin Cities. In-Fisherman Field Editor and bass-fishing guru Steve Quinn told me all I needed was a jig-and-pig every day, all day, from ice-out to ice-up. He was right and proved it on several occasions.
A classic example would be a 3/8-ounce Stanley Original Casting Jig tipped with an Uncle Josh Pork Frog (still effective). A more recent example would be the Terminator Pro’s Jig tipped with a Net Bait Paca Craw. Bass would bite worms, rigs, and other things, but Quinn always caught more and bigger bass with skirted brushguard jigs tipped with a craw or pork chunk, ripped through weededges and hopped on bottom.
A lot of the jigs we used back then are gone, unless you saved some. A lot of articles have been written about jigs over the past half century. Many have been relegated to history. Some of the heads mentioned here might be gone, too, when someone dusts off this issue a decade or so from now.
Point is, bass in Minnesota have graduated. People suddenly attacked them with a vengeance and, “poof.” The magic was gone. The best thing to pursue bass with is no longer always a skirted, brushguard jig with a craw trailer (except on Wednesdays). Educated bass won’t hit any ol’ thing. Jigs without balance, realistic movement, natural appearance, and a host of other critical factors end up being pitched one last time—into the bargain bin.
Nothing Stays The Same
Something strange this way comes. That’s what bass must think of swim jigs. We took those bottom-oriented jigs and swam them. Oh, the heresy. Quickly, now—along emergent grass and over the tops of weeds below, silicone and/or rubber strands rippling—reel!
Along comes the Santone Lures Chris McCall Rayburn Swim Jig. “When we designed that jig, we wanted something that would broom through milfoil, hydrilla, buckbrush, and whatever,” says bass pro Chris McCall. “We have all kinds of grass down here in Texas. We wanted a big 5/0 2X Mustad we could fish on 60-pound braid. We wanted a jig that would get though it.”
So, we take it this jig slides through cover better than other swim jigs? “Yes,” says McCall. “But the main feature—no matter what trailer you use, it tracks straight. I’ve won a lot of money on Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, and elsewhere with this jig. It found a big niche on Rayburn. I put it on heavy Lew’s 7-foot 2-inch glass rod with 60-pound braid and tie direct most of the time.”
But clear water demands stealth. “Lake Travis is so clear, I use 17-pound fluorocarbon,” McCall says. “I prefer braid because I like the way it feels when bass hit, and you have a better hookup ratio. But that big hook is designed for heavier line. I cast and give a steady retrieve. Sometimes you want to burn it, sometimes you want to pop it in and out of the grass. You can fish it anywhere you fish a spinnerbait. You can put on a 7/16-ouncer and slow roll it over deeper hydrilla. It’s a great swim jig. It’s a good bait around grass. It stays balanced at speed. I don’t fish the 3/16 a lot. It’s so subtle, though, I have to try it around pads because it slithers through like a frog.”
On the other end of the swim-jig spectrum is the 1/8-ounce Terminator Finesse Jig. Not designed as a swim jig, but nevertheless, I tip it with small, 3-inch grubs, swimbaits, or soft jerks then swim it slowly on 6- to 8-pound Maxima Ultragreen mono or Seaguar Invis-X Fluorocarbon with spinning gear. (Once upon a time, they made a 1/16-ounce version that, well…I still have a few.) It feathers through weeds, dawdles along the deep edge, and suddenly those smart bass in Minnesota aren’t so.
The swim-jig story is still being written, as evidenced by the Advantage Bait Company Swim Jig. Small swim-jig companies have sprung up everywhere, but who can compete with color patterns like Bruised Ego and Okeechobee Craw? Actually, lots of companies can—but the Advance Swim Jig is well balanced, has a unique head shape, and the bottom of the jig is flat, helping it to plane. I’ve taken countless bass on it, but other heads swim, too.
None so well, perhaps, as the Lunker City Pan Head—a miniaturized cast-iron skillet that swims in a way no other jig does—always balanced and tracking straight. But beware. Walleyes, pike, catfish, and other mysterious things tend to devour a Pan Head when it slips along on a horizontal plane, reeled steadily at various speeds and depths. Tip it with a 5-inch Kalin’s Lunker Grub or a twintail and anything might eat it.
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange spent a lot of time over the past decade fishing big largemouths for TV. “I’ve spent lots of time in two main locations,” Stange says. “The reservoirs in North Texas, especially Fork, but also a few smaller reservoirs—and the waters we have around here, from Fergus Falls to Grand Rapids, and some in South Dakota. Then, too, I fish smallmouths in the Mississippi River and consistently catch big fish around stickups and downed trees.
“The one thing my approach in all those areas has in common is the Santone Rattlin’ jig, which has a modified wedge head not so unlike the original Arkie, but with a finely perfected weedguard, which allows the jighead to slide through thick timber piles and fish superbly through various types of vegetation. Nothing comes through the stringiest stuff without gathering strands, but this wedge head bumps through better than just about anything else. Using braid, keep the rod tip high to bump, rumble, and snake through weedgrowth. In the process, the jig looks alive with the right trailer and consistently triggers big fish using timber or vegetation, whether in Minnesota or Texas. I especially like it tipped with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Creature Hawg.”
Famous pro Denny Brauer designed the Strike King Structure Jig to beat hydrilla. “We needed a deep hydra jig,” he says. “The shape of a football head is great for gravel, but it doesn’t come through wood or hydrilla. The Structure Jig doesn’t hang up around wood, either, and you can flip with it. I wanted a versatile jig, especially one that was efficient on deep structure. At 1/2-, 3/4-, and 1-ounce, it gets the job done down there.”
Then came the Baby Structure Jig. “The Baby is something you can use for smallmouths or largemouths with lighter tackle,” Brauer says. “The brushguard is lighter. I trim the top corner to make it more compact. I sometimes want it even weaker and I thin it for lighter line. You have to be careful about having too stiff a weedguard with 1/4- and 3/8-ounce jigs on light line.
“I tip it with the Strike King Rage Chunk or Rage DB Craw,” he says. “That craw vibrates rather than flaps and it creates a more compact bait. It’s a standard size craw so I trim it down. It’s perfect for smallmouths that way, and spotted bass on deeper structure. I shorten and thin the skirt if I want it even more compact, depending on how fast I want to work it. I pull out as many as a third of the strands to get it down quicker. If I want it dropping slow, I leave it the way it is. It’s been very successful, opening up avenues for fishing different kinds of cover—and I think that’s why it’s so popular.”
Edwin Evers designed the jig that helped him win the 2016 Bassmaster Classic—Andy’s Edwin Evers E-Series Finesse Jig. “I fish jigs a lot,” Evers says. “It’s a staple in my arsenal, and the flat living rubber is unique in color and action. The fishing industry lost if for a long time before Andy (Vallumbroso) reintroduced it. It’s a versatile head style that comes through anything, stands up when dragged, and easily slides through the mouth of the fish when setting hooks. I won the Classic with it. I tip it with little plastic craws and fish it on Bass Pro 12-pound XDS Fluorocarbon with an 8:1 to 9:1 Johnny Morris Platinum Reel and 7-foot 1-inch medium-heavy Platinum rod.”
Heads that swing freely on the eye of a hook have suddenly been embraced by some high-profile anglers, like four-time Classic winner Kevin VanDam. “I haven’t won a tournament on it, but I’ve placed well using a big 10-inch worm on the Strike King Swinging Football Head,” he says. “You can clip any hook on it you want. I use a Mustad KVD Grip Pin, which has a keeper that seals the eye so plastics can’t slide down. The tungsten is compact for its weight and hard, making lots of noise on anything hard. It telegraphs the feel of the bottom to your hands.
“It’s deadly because you can fish it fast. I put on the 3/4-ouncer and roll it along like a bowling ball, knocking down pins. The head is swinging and kicking side-to-side. It’s versatile, matching well with a worm, Rage Craw, creature, and other plastics. It has a small profile but creates the sound and disturbance of heavier lead heads. Even on Lake St. Clair, I fish a 1-ouncer. It’s only 17 feet or so out there and it gets down quick, stays down, and just gives an entirely unique action to the bait. I use it more like a Carolina Rig. I’m not a slow-paced dragger—I’m blowing down pins.”
Another jointed Strike King jig, the Jointed Structure Jig, is VanDam’s pick in weeds. “It has the pointed eye design and it’s amazing in grass, pulling through much easier.”
Allan Ranson, Chief Operating Officer at Strike King, uses the Structure Jig where he once used a football head. “I fish football jigs a lot,” he says. “I want a wide head that provides good feel of the bottom—one that won’t topple over. I fish around wood and rock cover so I want a jig that won’t hang up. When fishing in grass I want a head that comes through without picking up a bunch of weeds, and I love to swim a jig without getting messy. The Structure Jig is all that and more. It has a reputation for terrific hookups and landing ratios. It’s very snag free and all but weedless.
“The pointed nose and wide head design excels at football jig applications, and anglers are using it in place of traditional football heads. You can swim it, and it skips great, too. With 1/4- to 1-ounce options, I can cover the entire water column. The weedguard has a good, all-around stiffness. In thick cover you can bend it back toward the head a bit and flare it out to reduce hang-ups. In open water you can reduce strands and/or bend it down to the hook point for even easier hookups.”
I’ve yet to fish articulating heads as football jigs, but often turn to a Gamakatsu Football 24. The bulk of the weight on that head bulges down below the level of the hook shaft, making it easy to flip the tail up and down on the slightest obstruction or hang-up. I fish it with Yamamoto Hula Grubs or Fat Baby Craws on gravel bars and rocky flats patrolled by smallmouth bass, usually on 10-pound Maxima Ultragreen or Sufix Siege with medium-power spinning rods.
The jigworm remains the most classic and common approach to both smallmouth and largemouth bass among locals in Minnesota. And nothing fishes a 4-inch Case Ring Worm or Berkley PowerBait Finesse Worm stronger than a mushroom-style head like the VMC Half Moon Jig. Light line is needed to cast these baits, and the 1/16- and 1/8-ounce versions of the Half Moon sport light-wire, super-sharp VMC hooks that can be lodged through bone with 4- to 6-pound line on medium-light spinning sticks. The flat-backed head creates a seamless, natural profile when swimming worms over rock reefs, finessing them through cabbage tops, or drag-hopping along weededges.
But if I want to swim worms or soft swimbaits deeper or on heavier tackle, nothing beats the Z-Man HeadlockZ HD for tracking true and holding onto plastics during a hot bite. The unique split keeper has a half dozen “teeth” for gripping plastics tight. Three other jigs have performed above and beyond the call for me with soft swimmers—the Lunkerhunt Silver Wing Swim Head, the Strike King Swimbait Jig Head, and the Trokar Swimbait Head.
For small, 3- to 4-inch swimbaits, the versatility of a good ol’ fashioned, well-balanced ballhead, like the Owner Ultrahead Round Type, is a good thing to have in the box. It presents almost anything well—including worms, lizards, creatures, and craws. It excels in open water. The hook is light but super strong, setting hooks on 4-pound fluorocarbon yet refusing to straighten when tied to 20-pound braid. Not the best in weeds or broken rocks, but far from the worst.
Where to next? So many jigs, so little time—designed by fishermen and bass pros to fill in the gaps they encountered on the water, or to present new plastics. Every bass jig has a story, and somewhere, out there, is a jig or two to match your fishing style, and every condition you face on the water all year long.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw lives in the bass-rich Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota, where he spends much time afield experimenting with lures and presentations.