Don't Fear the Reaper

I have written about soft plastic baits before in Pike and Predators, but concentrated on things like Fin-S Fish, Slug-Gos, Bull Dawgs and so on. However, there are other soft baits that have been around for far longer. Baits that require rigging on jig heads. Mention jigs to most lure anglers and they will automatically assume that this method is all about light tackle - and maybe even the dreaded finesse fishing! Jigs are definitely about finesse, but not necessarily about fishing fine. I have used light lines with tiny jigs and grubs to catch perch, but if pike are what you are after stick with the heavier gear. The next assumption is likely to be that jigs are a small fish method. Anyone who has read articles on musky fishing, or watched American videos, will be aware that the Yanks use jigs for catching big musky and pike. It will also be obvious that they are using biggish jigs and plastics, a lot bigger than a Mister Twister!

Even so, the Yanks still seem to view jig fishing as a light tackle approach, recommending lighter lines and traces than they would for their crankbaits. In order to enhance the action of the jig it is also recommended that the trace is attached directly to the eye of the jig-hook. Sometimes it is suggested that a fixed spool reel is used to better handle the lighter line. At the risk of sounding arrogant I will state categorically that all this is rubbish! I've tried this approach, and quite frankly my dear, if you want to fish jigs and plastics for pike stick with the outfit you would use for spinnerbaits or crankbaits. A rod of six-and-a-half feet to seven-and-a-half feet, rated around two to three ounces, works just fine, matched with a multiplier reel loaded with thirty to fifty pound braid and a trace to match.*

When it comes to the plastics themselves there are quite a few to choose from in the larger sizes. Some have been designed for sea fishing, others for bass, and one or two actually for musky and other large fish. They are all worth a try. Personally, I steer clear of lizards and snakes, and only use shad bodies and other fish-shaped plastics occasionally on jig heads. This is not to say that such baits don't catch, just that I much prefer to fish large curly-tail grubs, Reaper Tails and Curtis Creatures on my jigs. All these are baits that look very little like fish, but somehow have natural appearances that tempt pike. Unfortunately, with the exception of grubs and shads, most of these plastics are only at present available direct from the USA, so far as I am aware.

Jigs themselves come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from tiny ones weighing 1/32nd of an ounce up to monsters of l2oz! For pike fishing you will be looking at half-ounce, at the lighter end of the scale, up to a maximum of two ounces. Rarely will you find the need to go heavier than that. The shape of the jighead and the placing of its weight relative to the eye of the hook affects the way the jig fishes. Simple ballheads are good, as are stand-up and banana jigs, while laterally-flattened swimmer-head jigs have their uses too. Ballheads and Banana jigs sink rapidly head first while swimmer-heads sink very slowly on a more horizontal plane, having a fluttering action as they fall, with stand-ups dropping fairly quickly and standing up when they have sunk to the bottom - hence the name. Stick with these designs and you won't go far wrong. You could get away with using one style all the time, merely varying the head's weight to achieve different presentations.

One of the most important features of a jig is the hook. Jig hooks for pike fishing should have a good gape, and a long shank. Some jigs come with wide gape, short-shank hooks which puts the hook point too far forward on the plastic bait when rigged up. These jigs will benefit from rigging with an additional hook of some sort, more of which later. The gauge of wire that the hook is made from is also worth considering as some jigs, mostly ballheads, are moulded on fine wire round-bend hooks, which I don't consider to be up to the task in hand. Look for a hook of a similar gauge to that which you would be happy using on a spinnerbait.

In most cases soft plastics should be rigged onto jigs without deforming the lure in any way. Reapers can be rigged a little way round the bend of the hook, but taking this too far can cause them to spin on the retrieve. The simplest way to rig a soft plastic bait with a jig is to lay the hook along the bait and note where the vertical part of the hook's bend lines up on the bait. You can either do this visually or you can mark the spot with a pen. Push the hook point centrally into the head end of the bait, then feed the bait around the bend and along the hook, keeping the hook as close to the centre line of the bait as you can, until the point reaches the mark. Then push the point out as close to the intended spot as you can get it. This might sound complicated, so I hope the accompanying photos will make it clear.

This rig-up should serve for most situations, but if the hook shank is short, or you find that you are missing takes, it can be worth adding a stinger treble to the set-up. All you have to do is pass the point of the jig hook through the eye of the treble so that two points face upwards and the third can be stuck in the bait. A short piece of thick-walled, fine bore rubber tube is pushed over the point of the jig hook to prevent the treble coming loose. Alternatively, you could use aquarium tube over the eye of the treble, and push the point of the jig hook through that. Rigging the treble this way keeps it uppermost on the lure as you fish, and therefore keeps the lure relatively weed and snag-resistant.

On large soft plastic baits, such as shad bodies, it is possible to wire in one or two trebles to nick into the flanks of the bait. Run the wire from the eye of the jig hook, or make separate rigs to clip onto the snap link of your trace. Most soft plastics work best, in terms of their action, when unencumbered by hooks other than the jig hook. So there is always an element of compromise between action and hook-ups in rigging them up.

When using large grubs and reapers in particular, you can cut the bait back from the 'head' end so as to shorten the body length. This then puts the hook point in a better position. Don't worry about doing this - it might look untidy, but it will help you connect with more pike. While on the subject of modifying soft plastics, it is also possible to cut lures up and weld them back together with a lighter or candle flame. You can cut the tail off a chartreuse Creature, say, and weld it onto the black body of another to make a two-tone bait. This is easiest done at home using a sharp knife to make the cuts and a candle to provide the flame. When out fishing a disposable lighter is the jig-man's saviour as it can also be used to repair soft plastics that are getting well chewed.

One final rig that I use is what I call the Swimming Rig. This is an un-weighted jig hook fitted with a treble hook stinger on the shank and a keeper pin on the eye. I use this rig for fishing soft plastics in shallow water, or over weeds where even a swimmer head jig would drag the lure too deep too quickly. Swimming Rigs work great on large grubs when fished with a steady retrieve.

What is it that makes jigs worth using for pike? The simplest answer is that they are something different. Faced with a water where the pike have seen all the usual jerkbaits, spinnerbaits and so on, jigs are totally unlike any of these. Similarly, if you have been pounding a spot for a couple of hours, maybe catching at the outset, switch to a jig and there is a good chance that you will start picking up fish again. This has been the case far too often for it to be mere coincidence. When fishing a hot spot that cools off it isn't always the case that the pike have moved out, or stopped feeding. They might simply have had enough of the pounding and come to realise that the lures being used mean trouble. Throw a jig at them and they become catchable again.

Actually a trout water pike - blame the original editor!

When pike slow down in winter they can often be caught on jigs when all else fails. Jigs are subtle, and even in coloured water will pick up pike, maybe because you can work them right along the bottom and bounce them off the pike's snouts, I don't know. All I do know is that small(ish) they maybe, and unobtrusive too, yet when the pike are playing hard to get, jigs can often save the day. Speed might have an important part to play in the success rate of jigs on dour days. A jig can be hopped along the bottom far more slowly than most other lures could be effectively fished without the risk of snagging up. The single hook of a jig is as snag-resistant as you can get, and using a stand-up jig will keep the hook point up too. I don't pretend that this is a foolproof arrangement, but it is pretty reliable. In any case, each hop will lift the bait off the bottom and jump it over minor snags. Okay, jig heads can, and do, get pretty chewed up by rocks and so forth. But so what? For fishing deeper than eight feet or so, I find that jig heads of an ounce and upwards are easiest to use in order to maintain bottom contact. Lighter heads can be easily controlled in shallower situations.

Despite the name 'jig', I have found that the best way to fish these lures close to the bottom is not to jig them with up-and-down movements of the rod tip - this is too violent an action and it is difficult to keep the line tight as the jig drops back. It is far better to work the lure off the reel. After letting the jig sink to the bottom, keep the rod pointing down the line, crank the handle two or three turns, then pause. A couple more cranks and pause. Repeat this procedure until the lure is close in then rip it up in the water with the rod, let it drop back a little on a tight line and then wind it in ready for the next cast. By varying the speed and number of cranks between pauses, and the length of the pauses themselves, you can achieve a wide range of presentations. One hidden extra to jig fishing like this is that you can do it effectively while sat down! When casting from a boat I am sure that this is a boon on certain days. Standing up you present a large silhouette against the skyline to the pike, but sat down they might only see the boat, and that is something that they rarely worry about. Just a thought.

It isn't always essential to maintain continual bottom contact when using jigs and plastics. This may well be where they have the big advantage over other lures, but they can also be used to offer a subtle presentation in mid-water. When fishing at mid-water it can be okay to use the rod to work the lure and you can use a similar action as you might to fish a spoon - sideways sweeps of the rod to move the jig forwards and pauses to let it drop. You could use the upward flicks usually associated with jigging, but I have found takes difficult to hit when fishing like this; probably because this encourages slack line, and the jig can be ejected before you have time to react.

You can also fish jigs in mid-water by working the lure with the reel, but in order to keep the bait up the process is speeded up a little compared to hopping baits along the bottom. Reapers, Creatures and grubs all work fished up in the water on a hesitant retrieve. Grubs, however, can be fished very successfully on a steady crank as the rippling tail provides a visually attractive action. For off bottom jig fishing I recommend a head weight of half to one ounce, and a swimmer head will make life easier, particularly in shallow water owing to its slower fall rate.

Sometimes when fishing a jig in mid-water you will get pike following the lure in, as you will with any lure at times. There is one trick that you can try with a soft plastic bait on a jig that has never worked for me on any other lure type, and that is to let it sink to the bottom and leave it there. Especially when using stand-up jigs, but also with other styles, pike will eye up soft plastic baits that are resting on the bottom, and after a few seconds decide to take them. The take is not a violent affair, the jig is simply sucked into the pike's mouth. Watching this happen is quite fantastic, and has made me wonder how often, and for how long, pike might sit looking at legered deadbaits without taking them!

There are a couple of variations on the jig theme that are worth mentioning here, as they are best fished with the same techniques. One is really no more than a modified soft plastic bait. Now the Curtis Creature is a preposterous looking bit of plastic to start with - at least a Reaper has some­thing of an eel about it! I came across the following modification in a musky fishing book, and it involves the removal of the paddle tail from a Creature and its replacement with a spinner blade. After cutting off the tail you sew a small snap-link swivel onto the stump that is left with strong thread (I use 301b braid) and after tying off and trimming the thread soak it in superglue. Then attach a number six Colorado blade to the snap and off you go. Mounted on a jig you have what looks to me like a back-to-front spinner, with the body in front of the blade. Still, bizarre though it might look, it works. Fish the Creature Spin at midwater as previously described and throw in a few longer pauses to let the bait drop, spinning its tail as it goes. Needless to say, there is scope for varying the blade style and colour, and even trying this modification on other soft plastics.

This combination of a soft plastic bait and a spinning blade is also available in another lure type that actually looks more like a spinnerbait. This is the jig­spin. These lures really are no more than jigs fitted with L-shaped wire frames, with a spinning blade on the shorter arm. Rather than fishing these lures as if they were spinnerbaits, my advice is to use them in situations where you might opt for a jig, and fish them in a similar manner. That is to say, clip one on when the pike have seen it all or are particularly reluctant to come up off the bottom. I have even caught on a jig­spin when literally jigging it up and down at the side of the boat, fishing it from the bottom to about a foot higher, keeping a tight line all the time. I will be quite honest and admit that I was only doing this in order to keep a lure in the water while I drank a brew! It just goes to show that you should never write any method off as a waste of time. There is no doubt in my mind that jigs and soft plastics are not a waste of time.

(This article first appeared in Pike and Predators issue 15 - February 1999)

* These days I would go with 50lb or 65lb Power Pro.