Seth Rosenbaum, angler and plug collector extraordinaire (SI, July 14, 1975) cautiously approached the boathouse pier. Rosenbaum had caught steelhead in Alaska, Atlantic salmon in Iceland, cod off Norway, bonefish in the Caribbean and giant striped martin off Panama, but the 10-inch largemouth bass lurking off this pier in Lake Florence in the Catskill Mountains of New York were the greatest challenge of his life. Rosenbaum had caught a lot of largemouths while summering there as a child, but neither he nor anyone else had landed the 10-inch bass that always hung around the pier and were wise to worms and the ways of fishermen.
Excitedly, Rosenbaum tied a tiny jig—which had a head of BB split shot and a skirt of fluffy white hen hackle and fine silver Mylar—to the end of the four-pound-test line on his ultralight spinning rod. He cast the jig so that it landed with a little plop a few feet from the fish. He saw one of the bass turn toward the jig as it settled. He hippety-hopped the jig along the bottom, and on the third hop the bass struck. In the next 10 minutes, Rosenbaum caught four bass, all of which he released in heady triumph.
"It was a very interesting experience," said Rosenbaum, a smile, if not a leer, of satisfaction on his face. "In the past when I'd cast toward them, they'd swim away. This time they swam toward me. They were absolutely fooled by the jig."
A jig is a very simple lure. Classically, it has a lead head and a skirt or tail made of feathers or hair from the tail of a deer, thus the term bucktail jig. Depending on the quarry sought, and on the weight, size and shape of the jig head, it can be bounced on the bottom, made to swim normally or erratically at different depths, or skittered across the surface. It is, in fact, the most versatile and successful lure in the world.
It has become a cliché to say that a jig is the one lure that experienced anglers would choose above all others if they had to make a choice of just one, but compared with dry flies, wet flies, nymphs, streamers, plugs, spinners and spoons, the jig has attracted scandalously little attention. At least 200 books on flies alone have come out in the last 15 years, but only three publications about jigs have appeared in that time: the late Al Reinfelder's Bait Tail Fishing (A.F. Barnes. 1969), a first-rate book on jig-fishing techniques; Lacey E. Gee and Erwin D. Sias's How to Fish with Jigs, a booklet published privately in 1970 in Independence, Iowa; and, most recently, Kenn Oberrecht's Angler's Guide to Jigs and Jigging (Winchester Press, 1982), which is long on how to make jigs but short on their use.
No greater tribute has ever been paid to a lure than that which the Navy bestowed on the Upperman bucktail jig during World War II. The Navy tested every conceivable kind of lure for its survival kits and finally selected the jigs made by the Upperman brothers, Bill and Morrie, of Atlantic City, because they caught more fish than anything else. All a sailor or pilot adrift at sea had to do to catch fish was tie a bucktail to a handline and then jig it by dancing it up and down in the water. In a bobbing sea, fish could even be caught by tying the handline to the raft and letting the waves do the jigging.
Bill Upperman was not surprised that he and his brother won the Navy contract because, as Morrie's widow, Dorothy, recalls, "They always said it was the lure that would catch the most fish in the least amount of time." Mrs. Upperman recalls that for 11 years her husband held the New Jersey state record for striped bass, a 63-pound, 10-ounce striper caught on an Upperman bucktail.
The jig probably goes back to the time of Homer, who mentions something similar in the Iliad, and it has long been favored by saltwater fishermen. Before the days of mechanization and mile-long nets, commercial fishermen out in dories on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland handlined bright, silvery, diamond jigs for cod, pollock and mackerel. Strong-backed crews on larger boats in the Pacific used big feathered jigs, heavy bamboo poles and stout lines to catch tuna, bonito and albacore.
Despite the advent of mechanization at sea, the jig still plays an important role in commercial fishing. According to a bulletin of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the newest Japanese vessels fishing for squid have increased their catches tremendously and simultaneously reduced crew size by installing automatic jigging machines that use barbless jigs. Different-colored jigs are placed about a foot apart on monofilament line attached to each machine, then lowered into the water. The machines jig them up and down; after the squid are hooked, the line winds back up on its own, and the squid are automatically dumped onto a screen. They are washed, sorted and frozen without suffering from broken ink sacs, torn skin or loss of color. In such perfect condition they fetch a premium price, because they are the highest quality squid on the world market.
Jigs vary in weight from as little as a 64th of an ounce (or less if you happen to be a fanatic jigmaker) to as much as 22 ounces for the so-called Norway jigs, which sport fishermen use for cod or halibut deep in the ocean. The shape of the jig head has much to do with its purpose. A ball-headed jig sinks quickly. It can be danced straight up and down off the bottom, or it can be retrieved with an undulating motion. A compressed jig head, with a silhouette that resembles that of a coin, a lima bean or a football, won't sink as quickly as a ball-headed jig, but it can be made to swim most enticingly. A wedge-headed jig with a bottom keel, such as the Lake Erie walleye jig, is designed to be worked on a rocky bottom, while a flatheaded jig can slide and hop along a sand fiat like a crab eluding a bonefish. In Fishing with McClane, A.J. McClane describes an extraordinarily effective bonefish jig made by Dr. J.H. Cooper, a psychoanalyst from Kansas City, Mo. The blade-shaped flathead is cut from a sheet of thin stainless steel, and the edges are thinned and bent to get a fluttering action. Lead is added to the inside of the blade for weight, and marabou is tied on for the tail. McClane says it is designed to "sink and retrieve slowly with a maximum of action, skip over weeds and coral heads, and at the same time have enough weight for long casts without being splashy," an important point because bonefish feeding in shallow water are very skittish. The first time McClane tried the Cooper jig he caught 41 bonefish. On his worst day out of 10, he took a trio of five-pounders while live-bait fishermen didn't get a nudge.
Jigs are the cheapest lures on the market. A typical commercially made U.S. jig costs about 60 cents, and they are even cheaper if you make them yourself. The materials for one probably cost less than a nickel. Despite their low cost and great effectiveness, jigs have yet to realize their potential, especially in fresh water. Except for crappie fishermen, relatively few freshwater anglers use them. There are a couple of reasons for this. Anglers who try them often use too heavy a line or too big a jig. The key is to go as light as possible with both. Unlike a plug, spinner or spoon, a jig has no built-in action. It is up to the angler to impart the action by varying the speed of retrieve and manipulating the rod tip, and some people find this difficult.
Ah, but there is an easy way to obtain instant expertise, and that, as Reinfelder suggested in Bait Tail Fishing, is to use the rod rather like an orchestra conductor wielding a baton. The basic retrieve is to a regular beat in which the rod tip is moved once a second. Reinfelder advised an angler to get the beat down pat by saying "one thousand" in between movements of the rod tip. If that retrieve doesn't work, the beat can be quickened or slowed and tried at different depths.
I pattern the beat of my basic jigging retrieve on the opening notes—bim, bim, bim, bim, bim, bim, bim—of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, with each bim standing for a short movement of the jig. This motif is repeated throughout the entire first movement, which might have been written for a jig fisherman catching a limit of bass. The score not only mimics the bim, bim movement of the jig, it also evokes the frantic leaps of a hooked fish.
When the Fourth Symphony doesn't produce, I usually switch to the simple and magnificent four-note opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which goes "bom, bom, bom, boom." Each bom is a six-inch movement of the rod tip, while the boom is about a two-foot retrieve.
In my experience, a fisherman will take the most fish, be it in salt water or fresh water, on microjigs similar to the one Rosenbaum used on the bass in Lake Florence. They are easy to make. Use a pair of pliers to press a BB split spot onto the head of the shank of a size 10, 12 or 14 hook. Then tie on a skirt of white or yellow hackle barbs. That's it. If you wish, you can add several strands of fine silver or gold Mylar to the skirt and paint eyes on the split-shot head. There is only one difficulty: The old-fashioned split shot with a straight groove is becoming harder to find, as manufacturers have turned to making reusable split shot with a zigzag groove that won't fit on the hook shank.
The microjig will really do a job on panfish, but, on occasion, largemouth bass, striped bass and trout from three to five pounds will engulf one, even when stuffed full of baitfish.
There are some fly fishermen who object to the use of microjigs for trout as smacking of spinning, even though they will tie their own nymphs with lead underbodies and then press a split shot or two on the leader just to make sure the nymph gets down on the bottom of the stream. Unless the rules of the stream forbid it, I have no qualms about using microjigs on a fly rod. In fact, I can easily cast one 50 feet, farther than I can toss it on a spinning rod with two-pound-test line. I am hardly the best fly fisherman in the world, but when I tie on a microjig I feel like Clark Kent disrobing in a phone booth. I make the hooks barbless so any excess trout can be released without harm.
Several years ago, my wife and I were invited to the Poconos to fish a club stream owned by some staid Philadelphians who prided themselves on their angling proficiency. Alone on my half-mile beat, I tried some dry flies, and when they didn't produce I went into the phone booth, tied on a microjig and eventually returned to the clubhouse for lunch with a creel so heavy it prompted gasps of surprise. In their genteel way, my hosts hinted that I had used worms or some other chicanery, and when I showed them the microjigs they remained skeptical. They insisted that I go to the club pond, which was the home of a number of big browns and rainbows that were considered all but impossible to catch.
About eight of us, including the club superintendent, trooped up to the pond, but before I could fish, one of the club members cast flies over the trout, which were herded together in midpond. A friend of the hosts cast a number of times, but the trout wouldn't move an inch for his flies. With a smile, he handed me his rod, and I tied on a microjig. I have never homered in the World Series or caught the winning pass in the Super Bowl, but in three casts I had three trout, thanks to Beethoven's Fourth.
I first tied my own microjigs 14 years ago to catch alewives and blueback herring as they entered the Croton River from the Hudson on their spawning runs. Although endowed with hair-boned flesh that would make eating a screen door a treat by comparison, the females are swollen with roe that is finer-grained and tastier than that of their cousin, the shad. The alewives and bluebacks will often take those little microjigs on every cast worked deep enough, and if you tie on two it's no trick to get a doubleheader. I have even used microjigs to catch golden shiners and chub, and once in the Bahamas, I used them to catch pilchard, a sardine that supposedly could only be captured in a net. I am not alone in my enthusiasm for microjigs. As Pete Grigalunas, proprietor of Pete's Tackle Shop in Clarks Summit, Pa., who has been fishing, selling and talking up jigs for 35 years, exclaims, "You can clean out a lake with those little microjigs! Jigs will take everything. Trout, bluegills, crappies, walleyes, muskies!"
The most effective jig I have ever used for fish 10 inches or so is a one-eighth-ounce job on a size eight streamer hook known as the silly jig. First made by George Singer, a graduate student in biochemistry at Northeastern University, the silly jig resembles a slender football and is colored red and white or red and yellow, with a tail of matching bucktail or feathers. The silly jig is best fished on four-to six-pound-test line, and the angler can impart all sorts of action. Rosenbaum, who now has his silly jigs made for him by Lockett Industries in Lewistown, Pa., has caught more than 60 species of fish on them, ranging from Arctic char to dolphin, and he says, "The silly jig has great swimming action. I can bounce it, move it sideways, up and down or backward. It can do almost anything I want it to, including Immelmanns and barrel rolls."
I have found a yellow silly jig to be very effective on smallmouth bass, but Billy Westmorland of Celina, Tenn., who may be the best smallmouth fisherman in the country, prefers a jig he molds himself and calls the Hoss Fly. Like the silly jig, it weighs only one-eighth of an ounce, but the yellow head is shaped like an upright aspirin tablet. It has a collar of artificial brown hair, and the tail is two-inch clear plastic grub. Westmorland wants an aspirin-shaped head instead of a pointed head so the jig won't get hung up in rocks on the bottom, and he prefers a lightweight jig, especially in colder months, because it falls slowly, and smallmouths, which are somewhat lethargic in colder water, are reluctant to strike a jig that's falling quickly.
Like Westmorland, a number of fishermen are making their own special-purpose jigs. Richard Fasanello of Angler's Specialties in Clinton, N.J., who formerly worked for Orvis in Vermont, makes specially plated and fluorescent-collared shad darts, jigs with a slanted face that enjoy wide popularity on the Delaware River. A friend of his, Robert Dalley, who fishes the Delaware and Pocono streams and lakes in Pennsylvania during the summer, has carried jigmaking to high-tech extremes. An assistant professor in the School of Technology and Applied Science at Western Carolina University, Dalley makes not only his own jigs but also the aluminum molds in which to cast the blanks. His round-headed, white chenille-bodied jig has taken everything from barracuda in Florida to walleyes in Minnesota.
Given all this, maybe more fishermen should pay attention to the simple jig that has proven itself since the time of Homer.
Bom, bom, bom, boom!