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The Marabou Jig, according to Keith Thompson

The Marabou Jig, according to Keith Thompson

Keith Thompson with one of the scores of smallmouth bass that he waylays with a black 1/4-ounce jig on theSusquehana River in Pennsylvania.

On Jan. 20, Jan 25, and Feb. 4, we published Midwest finesse columns about how, when, and where Jeff Gustafson of Kenora, Ontario, Canada,  Josh Douglas of Mound, Minnesota, and Seth Feider of Bloomington, Minnesota, use marabou jigs in the natural lakes that they fish in Ontario, Minnesota,  and Wisconsin.

In our endnotes on the feature about Douglas, we noted that he has never fished with a marabou jig on the Mississippi River, which is often heralded as a smallmouth bass nirvana in Minnesota.  And we wrote that we were in search of smallmouth bass anglers in the northern states who use marabou jigs in rivers to catch smallmouth bass.

After many weeks transpired, we received an email on April 4 from Keith Thompson of Wiconisco, Pennsylvania, who said he is a marabou-jig devotee, and he uses it to inveigle the smallmouth bass that abide in the Susquehanna River.

Thompson lives 20 minutes from the river's nearest boat ramp. He is 26 years old, and he has been fishing the Susquehanna River virtually all of his life. When he was a youngster, he waded it.  He purchased his first boat when he was 21 years old, and since then, he has "been fishing it religiously."

He is the fourth generation of his family to work for Thompson Service Center, which is an automobile service shop in Wiconisco.  He says his work-a-day world allows him to fish frequently. For instance, he was afloat about 30 times between Jan. 1, 2016, and April 30, 2016.  In essence, if the river is not fouled with high and muddy water, and if Old Man Winter and Mother Nature are not on a bad-weather rampage, and if his job is not tying him up, he tries to sneak to the river and pursue its smallmouth bass for a short spell.

Between April 4 and April 21, Thompson and I exchanged many emails, as well as a long telephone conversation.  These encounters garnered an extensive amount of details about how, when, and where he wields a marabou jig on the Susquehanna River from Jan. 1 to April 30, which is the prime time, in his eyes, to use a black 1/4-ounce marabou jig.

Here is how he does it:

Josh Hartman of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, makes the jigs that Thompson uses. Hartman is the proprietor of Hollywood Hairjigs.  Thompson salutes him, calling him a great jig maker. At times, Hartman and Thompson work together on creating different styles of jigs that are adorned with different kinds of materials and hooks. The marabou jig that Thompson uses is a customized one that Hartman makes for him.

Hartman's black marabou jig is the one that Thompson uses the most, but there are spells when he and the smallmouth bass opt for a brown one. Thompson does not attach a trailer to the marabou jig.

Thompson's black 1/4-ounce marabou jig.

He navigates the river in a new Lowe Boat's Roughneck 1860 Tunnel Pathfinder and a four-stroke Mercury Marine 115-horse-power outboard motor with a jet drive.  When he is fishing, he maneuvers and controls the boat's position with a 24-volt and 80-pound-thrust Minn Kota Terrova trolling motor on the bow of the boat, which has i-Pilot and Spot-Lock features.


To cast and retrieve the marabou jig, Thompson works with a G. Loomis NRX802JWR spinning rod, which is six feet, eight inches long. It is medium-power rod with an extra-fast action.  A Shimano Stradic ST2500HGFK spinning reel is affixed to his rod, and it is spooled with six-pound-test neon-green Suffix 832 Braided Line. To the braided line, he uses an Alberto knot to affix an eight-pound-test leader that is made from Seaguar Invizx 100% Fluorocarbon Line.

He casts the jig upstream at a 30-degree angle. His average casts are 30 to 40 feet long.  And around some swells or eddies, some of his casts will be as short as 15 feet. His casts are aimed at the rocks and boulders smallmouth bass abide around. Nowadays, he uses a Garmin Striker 7sv to help pinpoint the exact whereabouts of the rocks and boulders.

When the jig reaches the bottom, he will deadstick it for 10 to 15 seconds. While he is deadsticking it, the tip of his rod is pointed at the noon position, and at the end of the deadstick procedure, he shakes the tip of the rod, which will cause the jig to quiver and shake. After the shake, he uses the rod to drag the jig along the bottom for about 12 inches, and then he deadsticks it again for five to 10 second. As the second deadstick procedure comes to an end, he shakes the tip of the rod, and then he drags the jig another 12 inches. The drag-deadstick-and-shake presentation continues until the jig is nearly under the boat. As the jig gets closer to the boat, Thompson's rod drops from the noon position to the five o'clock position.

Thompson says that being able to feel what the jig is doing as he is dragging, deadsticking, and shaking it along the bottom is a critical element to the retrieve. Also, the neon-green line helps him see where the jig is, and  it will often help him to determine when a smallmouth bass has engulfed it.

Because he is dragging it across bottom that is littered with boulders and rocks, Thompson's jig will often become snagged, and on an average outing, he will lose six to 12 jigs.

He focuses most of his attention on a 30- to 40-mile stretch of the Susquehanna River, and during his four- to six-hour outings in January, February, March, and April, he plies about a four- to five-mile section of that 30- to 40-mile portion of the river. Depending on what four- to five-mile section of the river that he wants to fish, he will launch his boat at the boat ramps at Fort Hunter, Clemson Island, or Shikalemy State Park.

During the months of January, February, March, and April, Thompson focuses on areas that he calls swells, which are eddies. The water movement around these swells or eddies is circular and counter to the main current flow of the river, and it creates a relatively small whirlpool.  He has found that the smallmouth bass abide in these swells during these four months.

To determine the best area, Thompson examines the National Weather Service's hydrograph at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He has found that the optimal river level is around 5.5 feet. But when the river level reaches nine feet or more, he has found that it is difficult to locate the swells or eddies. He notes the level can change almost daily. For instance, from 11:00 a.m. on April 20 to noon on April 21, the river level was slightly more than five feet, and it was flowing at less than 40,000 cubic feet per second.  Then by 11 a.m. on April 23, the river level was 8.9 feet and it was flowing at a rate of 114,000 cubic feet per second.

Thompson is not concerned about how many cubic feet per second of water is flowing across the areas he fishes. It is the depth of water that concerns him.

When the depth of the water broaches nine feet, Thompson leaves the river and explores the small feeder creeks, where he will often find some smallmouth bass abiding around some current breaks. For instance, he wrote in an email about his April 23 outing that the river had risen three feet in two days, and it was muddy, looking a lot like chocolate milk.  Therefore, he ventured into a feeder creek, where the water was stained rather than muddy.  The water temperature inside this feeder-creek was 51 degrees at 8:00 a.m. and 53 degrees at noon. During those four hours of fishing, he used a 1/4-ounce black marabou jig and caught about 50 smallmouth bass. These smallmouth bass were abiding in six feet of water and about 10 feet from the water's edge and situated around underwater objects.  To present the jig, he pointed the rod tip down at the five o'clock position, and he used the rod to drag the jig along the bottom, and after he dragged it somewhere between five and 10 feet, he used his rod to pop the jig slightly off the bottom, and that pop seemed to provoke some of the smallmouth bass to engulf the jig.  But some of the smallmouth bass engulfed the jig on the initial fall. He ventured about 80 yards inside this feeder creek, and he consistently caught smallmouth bass wherever his Garmin Striker 7sv pinpointed the whereabouts of a rock or boulder. The most fruitful area was around a tree that was under the water, and for 30 minutes, he made casts around that tree.

Along the 30- to 40-mile stretch of the Susquehanna River that Thompson routinely fishes, there are more than one hundred islands. Some of the islands are very small. Some of them are large, containing 100 yards of landmass. There are more than a dozen islands that range in size from 20 to 30 acres.  The most fruitful smallmouth bass swells or eddies lie on the backside or downstream side of the big islands.

The swells or eddies below the islands range in size from 20 to 30 yards in width and from 20 to 100 yards in length. The size of the swells or eddies depends on the speed of the current and the configuration of the island and how it breaks up the flow of the river's current.

When he fishes theses swells or eddies, the depth of water that courses around these swells or eddies ranges from 5 1/2 feet to nine feet.

He prefers the water clarity to be slightly stained, exhibiting two to three feet of visibility. When the water is clear, Thompson finds that the smallmouth bass that are abiding in 5 1/2 feet of water in the swells or eddies tend to become wary and difficult to inveigle. But he says that he will fish a marabou jig in all kinds of water clarity — even when the river has the hue of chocolate milk.

Thompson says that there are some miniature swells or eddies that are two feet wide and three feet long, which are created by a boulder.  And he says, "More times than not, there will be smallmouth bass around it , and I will usually catch it, and it will be a big one, too."

In Jaunary, February, and March, when Thompson is dissecting the big swells or eddies with a 1/4-ounce black marabou jig, he will fish it extremely slowly, and he will make as many as 10 casts and retrieves to the same spot. And there are spells when it takes 1o casts and retrieves to elicit a strike.

Once the water temperature climbs into the 40s, he will begin to fish a tad faster, but he says that "it is still a rather slow-paced" presentation. By the middle of April, he will make no more than three casts to the same spot, and if those casts fail to garner a smallmouth bass, he will take aim at other spots with the big swells or eddies.

The underwater terrain of his most productive swells or eddies will possess a rock-laden bottom that are embellished with boulders, and the smallmouth bass will abide around the boulders.

That is not say that mud bottoms are totally fruitless, but day in and day out, a rock-and-boulder-laden terrain has always yielded more smallmouth bass for Thompson than mud terrains.

Between late March and the end of April, feeder creeks will usually harbor an impressive array of pre-spawn and spawning smallmouth bass.  And Thompson says there are five feeder creeks that he regularly fishes during the spawning season.

During the heart of the winter months, when the water temperature is in the 30s, Thompson says he has endured many four- to six-hour outing when it was a struggle to catch five to 10 smallmouth bass. And a 10-smallmouth-bass outing is heralded as a good one during the extreme cold spells of winter. But he has enjoyed many March and April outings when he has tangled with an average of 15 smallmouth bass an hour.

From his many days of wielding a black marabou jig, Thompson has come to the conclusion that it is an extremely effective river bait, equaling the effectiveness that Jeff Gustafson, Josh Douglas and Seth Feider have found it to be on the natural lakes that they fish. And he suspects that river anglers all across the nation who are in pursuit of smallmouth bass are making a major mistake if they are not employing it.

In an email on April 25 , Thompson  said that he will use a 1/4-ounce black marabou jig in the summer when the river is heavily fished and the smallmouth bass are difficult to catch.  He said, "there is just something about that feather that can make the highly pressured fish bite."


(1) Here is a link to Hollywood Hairjig's website:

(2) Here is the link to the National Weather Service's Hydrograph at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:

(3) Here is the link to the Midwest Finesse column that features Seth Feider's ways with a marabou jig:

(4) Here is the link to the Midwest Finesse column that features Josh Douglas' ways with a marabou jig:

(5) Here is the link to the Midwest Finesse column that features Jeff Gustafson's ways with a marabou jig:


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