It's a sun-patched cloudy/bright day in the back of one of Toledo Bend's stump-filled creeks, and for Oregon-based CITGO Bassmaster Tour pro Darryl Burkhardt, conditions couldn't be better, even though it's his first day ever on the huge Texas reservoir. After one look at the stumpy water, he puts away every rod except one — the 7 1/2-foot pitching stick with a jig tied on.
Burkhardt, a 10-year tournament pro in the West, has pretty much made his living with jigs — two 10th place BASS finishes, a nine time qualifier for the Oregon State Team, seventh overall in the 2003 Everstart Tournament Series — and he's done it in a way that his competitors have begun to notice.
In a word, Burkhardt has simplified the jig-and-pig to almost elementary proportions, and in so doing has totally demystified what many have long regarded as one of the most difficult of all lures to master.
"Using a jig-and-pig is not as complicated as some think it is," he emphasizes. "A lot of my friends have a hundred pounds of jigs — and a long time ago I did, too - but then I realized I was only using a very few of them regularly, because they were the ones I had the most confidence in.
"At the same time, I realized I was pretty much fishing jigs the same way most of the time, too," Burkhardt continues, "and I was doing it because I was catching bass. After that, it was just a matter of continuing the same way."
The first rule Burkhardt breaks is in choosing his jig colors. In both clear and dingy water he fishes black jigs for largemouths, and either black or brown when he's after smallmouth. The only real concession he makes to color is that in dirty water he uses a trailer that has some chartreuse in it, such as a black crawfish with chartreuse pincers.
"I know other colors also catch bass," Burkhardt readily acknowledges, "but I don't let that bother me, because I know bass will hit black jigs. Perhaps it's only because I have confidence in black, or maybe it's the way bass actually see the jig; I don't know.
"What I do know is that black works for me in both clear and dingy water."
The second way Burkhardt has simplified his jig fishing is in how he works the lures. Because he firmly believes jigs are most effective as target-specific lures, more than 90 percent of his jig fishing is pitching or flipping to visible targets in water less than 12 feet deep.
Indeed, this is where most anglers use jigs, but it's what Burkhardt does with his jig once it's on the bottom that separates him from other anglers. Again, it could not be any easier: he deadsticks it, leaving the lure motionless for as long as 60 seconds before reeling in for another pitch.
"This is a presentation I use during the prespawn period of spring," explains Burkhardt. "This is when bass are often very spooky as well as territorial, and I've watched how they react in clear water.
"When a jig splashes down, the fish come out and frequently swim in a big circle around the lure, then they finally come in close for a better look. If the lure is leaving their territory, they lose interest and don't follow it, but if the jig is still there, then they'll get interested and often hit it."
This seemingly unorthodox technique is how Burkhardt caught his largest jig bass to date, an 8-pounder that formed part of his 60-pound catch during a tournament one weekend on the California Delta. The fish were staging at the edge of the tules and Burkhardt was simply pitching his jig to the reeds and leaving it there. Strikes, when they came, were ferocious; the hard part was the 60 second wait after each presentation for it to happen.
Deadsticking isn't the only jig presentation Burkhardt uses. In cloudy weather, when bass are generally not holding quite as tight to cover, and during the winter, when bass may be more lethargic, he drags his jig past each piece of cover. He doesn't hop, swim, or pop the lure; he drags it slowly but steadily right along the bottom.
"Sometimes strikes come 12 to 15 feet from the cover," he notes. "When fish are not holding tight to cover, I believe they follow lures — as if trying to decide what they want to do. I'm sure it's primarily curiosity, but then instinct takes over. They hit because they're programmed to take advantage of an easy opportunity."
Around stumps, Burkhardt often employs another simple presentation; which is, pitching to the target and letting the jig fall straight to the bottom. This is purely for a reaction bite that will come on that initial fall, and if it doesn't happen, he reels in and pitches to another target.
"I guess my basic philosophy with jigs is that the bass either want the lure or they don't, and I don't try to force-feed them if they don't. That might be one problem some anglers have with jigs. They keep trying all types of colors and presentations, hoping to find some formula that does work, but that's not my style."
Burkhardt's two primary jig weights are 3/8 and 1/2 ounce, and he'll always choose the lighter jig if the wind allows it. To him, the lighter jig looks more natural in the water.
"You can make the argument that a heavier jig falls faster and thus is more likely to generate a reaction strike," he points out, "and this is just something you have to decide for yourself. Remember, however, that sometimes bass hit lighter jigs because they enter the water with less splash, and fall slower."
Even when he's fishing vegetation like the submerged hydrilla he found at Toledo Bend, Burkhardt kept things simple. He did change to a heavier, 1-ounce jig that would penetrate the thick grass easily, but when the jig hit bottom, he raised it only once to produce a second fall, then reeled in for another presentation. Once again, he used a very basic take-it-or-leave-it philosophy.
I guess my basic philosophy with jigs is that the bass either want the lure or they don't, and I don't try to force-feed them if they don't. ”
Even Burkhardt's theory about jig trailers, the "pig" part of the jig-and-pig combo, is simple and seems to contradict what many consider a major factor with the lure.
"I switch back and forth between pork and plastic," he says, "because I can't really tell that much difference in how they perform. I use whatever seems to be catching fish the best. One of my favorite plastic trailers is a 5-inch ribbed Zipper worm that I use a lot in dingy water because it creates a lot of vibrations, but it doesn't work well when I'm fishing in tree limbs, so that's when I'll change to pork."
When he is fishing a pork trailer, Burkhardt likes to cut slices into the fatty part of the trailer, because it provides more flexibility. He also cuts a 1/4-inch section of a plastic grub (usually chartreuse) that he threads on his jig hook and pushes up underneath the skirt. This not only helps bulge the skirt but also prevents the trailer from sliding up the shank and keeping the pork legs from getting caught on the hook point.
"I also turn the jig upside down and trim the outside skirt strands a little shorter," he continues.
During the course of a day, Burkhardt also changes between jigs with rattles and those without. Again, he's simply trying to determine if one will outperform the other. He has no thoughts that one is always better than the other.
Even Burkhardt's choice of a jig rod continues his philosophy of keeping things simple. His Lamiglas 764 is a 7-6, 4-power (medium) rod that not only lets him flip and pitch comfortably, it's also suitable for other lures and techniques. The advantage here, of course, is that all his rods feel the same. He spools them with 15-pound Hard Core Fluorocarbon line.
Most fishermen consider the hardest part of jig fishing is learning how to detect a strike, and years ago this is what Burkhardt believed, too. He and a friend followed all the published "rules" and took nothing but jigs with them on a fishing trip. They were both accomplished plastic wormers, and on their first few bass strikes they set the hook after the second "tap" and, of course, missed fish each time.
It didn't take Burkhardt long, however, to recognize that the first tap was the fish sucking in the jig, while the second was the fish spitting the jig back out. Once he learned to swing the instant anything at all felt different about the jig, his confidence and his success with jigs grew quickly.
True to form, he's not a pure line watcher, another of the widely accepted axioms of jig fishing. Instead, he relies on feel, slipping his thumb under the line just ahead of the reel, where he holds the rod.
"To me, learning to detect a strike is not the hardest thing to learn about jig fishing," he says. "I believe learning to make a good presentation is more important. If you can make a flip or a pitch land quietly and accurately right beside a target on your first try, then I believe your chances of catching a bass - if it's there - are excellent, no matter what color the jig is or how it's falling. It's really that simple."