Solutions for Smallmouth Bass Jigs
February 24, 2016
This little jiggy falls too fast. This little jiggy falls too slow. And this little jiggy is just right. All there is to it? If so, Goldilocks could have solved any jigging problem for smallmouths before this old nursery rhyme could go wee, wee, wee all the way home. For more than 30 years I've been writing about jigs for bass, pike, trout, steelhead, salmon, panfish—even carp. Jigs are that wonderful mainstay, that everyday solution in the fishing world.
Every jig is a solution to a problem on the water. A cheap jig with a pot-metal hook is a lower-percentage solution. But around timber you can straighten those cheap hooks and get back to fishing without retying. Sometimes the only difference between two good anglers is efficiency, but the primary difference is in the details.
When somebody says, "We caught 'em on 1/8-ounce jig-plastic combos," I want to know more: The name and length of the softbait, the shape of the head; size of the hook; and whatever else I can learn. All 1/8-ounce jigs A) Do not weigh 1/8-ounce, and B) Every different shape or style of the head makes a difference.
Best in Swim
In every jigging situation, we're looking for a jig that's best for that presentation. Jigs can be designed to fall fast or slowly, swim horizontally, spiral on the drop, glide, shed cover, carry specific types of plastic, dart to the side—any number of things. Each situation calls for a specific technique, and each technique suggests fairly specific tools. The more specific we can make tools in meeting demands in each situation, the better off we are.
For the past few years I've been exploring the realm between ultralight and light tackle. Some may remember the Dr. Jekyl—Mr. Hyde analogy from past articles. Today's unbelievably light-yet-powerful 3- to 5-pound braided lines are like an elixir, transforming light-power Dr. Jekyl rods into maniacal Mr. Hyde whuppin' sticks. Tie in three feet of 6- to 8-pound fluorocarbon leader on your jig combo. It's capable of casting 5-inch grubs, worms, other plastics, and light hair jigs farther than you've thrown them before, with the right reel.
Many jigs match this system, depending on conditions. Say you're swimming 4-inch finesse worms horizontally, off bottom over rock fields and along the edges of shallow reefs. With 4-pound braid and a 1/16-ounce jig in water less than 6 feet deep, the package sinks too fast to swim at effective speeds. Despite braid's lack of stretch, 4-pound will not drive home a stout hook when combined with a whippy rod.
Stout hooks are heavy. Most manufacturers weigh the head, not the whole package. For lightweight operations, the Gopher Tackle Mushroom Head Jig with Gamakatsu 1/0 and 2/0 hooks excel. Gopher offers options in hook style and size with each head. They vary in weight, gap, sharpness, and bendability.
The flat back of the Gopher and other mushroom-shape jigs creates a seamless profile between the head and the softbait for a natural appearance in shallow water, where visibility is best. The right shape, hook, and weight make this head ideal for swimming softbaits on spinning tackle with braid and a fluoro leader. But the vast "swim jig" category encompasses almost every style of jig and every kind of tackle. Go online to Tackle Warehouse and search for "bass swim jig." Sixty models pop up. Most have skirts and weedguards.
In-Fisherman contributor Rich Zaleski told me a couple years ago he used Lunker City Football Heads to swim plastics for smallmouths. "I'm still a big fan of light football heads with wire weedguards for grub fishing," he told me. "I fish grubs slowly, and often let them rest on bottom. The football head lies flat, making it more snag-resistant than a ballhead. I usually fish 1/16- to 1/4-ounce versions with a twin wire guard if there's wood or rock cover to deal with."
Why not? Football heads are stable. They resist turning sideways when a grub or action-tail worm gets torn. Based on Zaleski's advice, I started using football heads to swim plastics in rivers, where current plays tricks with other styles, especially when forced to cast perpendicular to current. I like them.
Ballheads like the VooDoo Custom XX BallHead or Owner Ultrahead Round Head, otherwise the most stable, are great for swimming plastics, too. Every shape has its moments. But a balanced darter head, like the Gamakatsu Darter 26, actually flicks side-to-side slightly on a straight, swimming retrieve, adding a subtle ripple through the plastic, and a realistic swimming motion. Sometimes smallmouths prefer darter heads, sometimes not.
Some pros, like FLW veteran Tom Monsoor of Wisconsin, swim skirted jigs with single-tail grubs for smallmouths. "I always swim skirted jigs up high, and I've been doing it a long time," he says. "I often swim them only 1 to 3 feet down over humps and reefs, and for bass suspended in 20 feet of water or more. In open water, I use a 1/4-ounce, homemade, Arkie-style head with no weedguard. If smallmouths go near it, they're hooked. I tip it with a 4-inch white Yamamoto grub. I match skirts to shad, shiners, ciscoes—whatever the predominant forage fish in the lake is."
The skirt not only adds movement, it adds bulk, which Monsoor counts on when asking smallmouths to rise 10 feet or more to intercept a jig. Visibility is critical in other situations, too, since smallies are notorious sight-feeders. I use a similar tactic over and through weedbeds and tangled wood with skirted Terminator Finesse Jigs and Booyah Baby Boo Jigs. With a single-tail grub slowing the drop speed, small skirted jigs with premium hooks provide more hang time. Smallmouths locate them faster. But no jig is efficient in cover without a vertical eye placed at the nose. With horizontal eyes or eyes on top of the head, cover catches and clings to the head.
Monsoor swims jigs in the near-surface zone all summer, but works them deeper in spring and fall. "I reel steadily," he says, "for smallmouths, largemouths, and spots. Sometimes I cast and let it drop through them, but I usually keep it within 3 feet of the surface. I like to be able to see it. If I start to reel too fast and I recite my mantra: 'Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.'"
When swimming plastics through wood, reeds, or cabbage, I use 10-pound line with Texas-style jigs like the Fin-tech Title SHot Jig, Charlie Brewer's Slider Company Spider Head, or the Northland Jungle Jig-Loc. All have eyes right at the nose, perfect for shedding cover on a straight retrieve. The Spider Head has an offset hook. With the other two, twist or push the nose of the plastic onto the "worm collar," or wire spike in the case of the Fin-tech jig, then run the hook through the plastic and texpose the point for a weedless dynamo. Treat these jigs like spinnerbaits—starting the retrieve just prior to splash down—and snags become rare, even in formidable cover.
"For most softbaits, I use the Title SHot about 90 percent of the time," Zaleski says. "It's virtually replaced the Texas rig for me. Fin-tech makes it in a variety of styles, but I use the standard streamlined version almost exclusively, typically in the 3/16- to 3/8-ounce sizes."
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Jeremy Altman, owner of Buckeye Lures, has made significant developments in jigs designed for specific purposes. "I'd say the Spot Remover, the Flick-It, and the Goby Sled have been the most important in terms of sales and customer response," Altman says. "The Spot Remover is a jigworm head, designed to stand and keep a finesse worm pointing up at the fish. It may have been designed for spotted bass, but it's become a mainstay for smallmouths and largemouths, too."
Many jigs have been designed for wacky rigging, with smaller hooks and weedguards for finessing through cover, like the Keitech Tungsten Fine Guard Jig, which has a head that excels for "swim shaking" around cover in clear water. The Buckeye Flick-It was designed for wacky rigging on bottom. "We built it once we saw the success of Jackall's Flick Shake Worm," Altman says. "It's designed for wacky presentations on bottom. The head is designed to get on bottom quickly, walk efficiently, and keep the bait in an upright position with a hook angle of about 60 degrees."
The newest Buckeye jig is the Goby Sled, designed by inventive bass pro Anthony Gagliardi. "It's designed to lie on bottom, with the hook pointing up," Gagliardi says. "Lift the rod tip and it glides along bottom. On the Great Lakes, I wanted to drag a goby lure on bottom because that's what gobies do—glide along the bottom. I couldn't find a suitable jig to make it look natural, so I took a hammer to a 1/4-ounce sinker and pounded it flat and epoxied a hook to it. That was my prototype.
"We came up with the screw eye to secure a goby to the head later. It scoots across rock like a miniature sled. It's made for casting—not vertical jigging. Any situation where you would cast a tube, you can cast the Buckeye Goby Sled. When a fish bites down on it, the shape of that head keeps the hook pointing up for a better hook-set. It never turns sideways like some jigs do."
Gagliardi fishes goby baits like he fishes tubes, with a slow swim. "I use 8- to 10-pound line in clear water for smallmouths, heavier line with casting gear in cloudy water, with a 7-foot worm rod," he says. "I use hand-pours because the flat bottom seats nicely on that head.
A specialized jig arises as a solution to something that didn't previously exist. Falcon Lures' "K" Shaky Head is a prime example—a Texas-rig jig designed for shaky-worm tactics in dense weedcover. The growth of soft swimbaits demanded specialized heads for exposed-hook, horizontal techniques with dense plastics. Soft swimbaits tend to be heavy, demanding stout tackle and stout hooks. The Yamamoto Swim Jig, Buckeye J-Will Swimbait Head, and Lunker City Fin-S Head match swimbait tactics for big smallmouths. They're not too heavy, but certainly heavy enough.
"J-Will Swimbait Heads have become my standard for larger swimbaits," Zaleski reports. "I like the stout hook they use in heads that weigh only 1/4- and 3/8-ounce. The location of the line tie is great, too, making it effective around thin vegetation."
Thin 4- to 5-inch swimbaits match 1/8- to 3/8-ounce ballheads, like the Gamakatsu Round 26 and Owner Ultrahead Round Heads, which are positive hookers, or Gopher's Mushroom Head Jig with a VMC Barbarian hook. Another jig that dances the light-swimbait fandango well is Bait Rigs' Pro Slo-Poke LS. Its bullet-shaped fish head is designed to stand on bottom at a low angle, keeping the hook and bait upright, like the real thing trying to hide. Its Mustad Accu-Point hook is thin, strong, and the points never bend. It balances with a wide array of tackle choices.
If a style of softbait ever needed a specialty head, it's Berkley Gulp! It's a great fish-catching concoction, but so slippery it tends to slide down and bunch on the hook after a swing-and-miss. Berkley designed new Gulp! Heads to solve that well enough to win the Best Terminal Tackle Award at the 2013 ICAST show. The Gulp! Grip Baitholder is the key, gripping the slippery stuff better than ever. Gulp! Heads, made with a new lead-free Tundra Composite, are available in three styles: JiggHead, Minnow JiggHead, and BDS (Bait Delivery System). The hooks are right for smallmouths—the 1/8-ounce versions with thin-wire, 1/0 and 2/0 needlepoints, and sizes up to 3/8- and 5/8-ounce for exploring deep.
The moral of my mixed-up nursery rhyme was to pay attention to drop speed and balance. No matter what smallmouth bass jigs we select (dozens of great options exist), we need to cover weights from 1/32- to 1/2-ounce. Each weight-class requires models with different hooks in different diameters to both alter drop speed and match different line diameters. Only then can your selection be "just right" for each situation.
Cops and Collars
Call the cops! Something stole my worm! Keeping plastics in place during a hot bite creates better results. "Most jigs have big, soft-plastic keepers of molded lead on the hook shank behind the head that tend to tear softbaits," says In-Fisherman Field Editor, Gord Pyzer. "I cut those off with side cutters and use shrink wrap to make a much better keeper on a jig. Another trick: Cut off the thick lead collar and use Loctite Super Gel. I don't know why, but Loctite is much better than all the others. I talked to a soft-plastic manufacturer and he told me they use Loctite Super Gel to secure eyes on softbaits. So the stuff works. It joins plastisol to the jighead better than anything, eliminating the need for a collar."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is an avid and innovative smallmouth bass angler who regularly contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.