Ask a bass fisherman who cut his teeth on a clear water lake to name his go-to lure — the one he turns to when he can't catch a fish on anything else — and the odds are he'll quietly say it's a leadhead jig teamed with some kind of plastic body.
The reason he speaks quietly is not that he's trying to keep this lure a secret. It's more a lack of glamour; no one will step up and tout the wonders of the leadhead because it doesn't capture the imagination. There is no hype about leadheads.
But the pros will tell you the leadhead jig works. It's one of the most versatile, precise tools you will ever tie on your line. Fishing a leadhead is more of an approach or system than it is just another lure. It's a method of presentation that can be as simple or as complex as the angler wishes.
"I grew up fishing a leadhead jig on Lake Ouachita," says Hot Springs, Ark., angler Rob Kilby. "When I started bass fishing, the lake didn't have a lot of weeds, and it was easy to fish an open-hook jig.
"It's a lure I still use when I really, really need to catch a fish. You could blindfold me, drop me out of an airplane and point me to the nearest lake. With a leadhead jig, I could have a limit of fish before you could land the plane and come pick me up."
Guy Eaker, 10 time Classic qualifier, says pretty much the same thing. "It's my go-to lure when I can't catch fish any other way. When the fishing is tough or I'm on a lake that is fished hard, I know I can put on a little bitty jig and catch bass."
To understand this confidence, you need to understand the bait. Leadheads are simple in construction: A piece of lead is molded on the front of a hook, and the hook, in turn, is threaded into a soft plastic body.
The basic jig has a round head with a short collar extending back toward the hook bend, used to hold the plastic body in place. The leadhead is not the attraction; it's the soft plastic body.
And here, the variety of shapes, sizes and colors is limitless. You can rig and fish leadheads on 11-inch plastic worms or small 1-inch crappie tubes. Too many bass fishermen use only grubs, and that is a mistake. There's more variability in the system than that.
For instance, Kilby and Eaker both use a straight-tailed finesse worm in concert with the jig.
However, Lake Fork guide John Tanner uses a leadhead and a Fluke-style body to fish deep for that Texas lake's outsize bass.
In California, finesse fishermen team darter head jigs with either finesse worms or grubs for doodling deep fish.
In Arizona and Nevada, desert fishermen dress 1-ounce football heads with spider grub skirts for deep water bottom bumping.
Washington state smallmouth guide John Carruth uses leadheads and ringworms, grubs, finesse worms and tubes for big smallmouth as well as largemouth, trout and walleyes.
In the Midwest, bass guides fish small mushroom heads with downsized hooks and 7-inch worms on weedlines for bass and just about everything else.
The reality is that leadhead jigs with a soft plastic body will catch bass in just about any water at any time. The trick is to tweak the various parts of the system to fit the situation.
It's important to understand that the style of jighead doesn't make a lot of difference much of the time. The really important part is that it is a jighead rather than a Texas rigged hook-and-sinker combination.
Why is that important? A lure comprised of a jighead and a plastic body is more precise in presentation than the same plastic body Texas rigged with a comparable worm weight and hook. Jigheads, at least those with the hook eye oriented 90 degrees from the hook shank, fall directly down.
Texas rigged lures, however, tend to swim and slide forward, because the line is tied at the point or head of the hook. This small difference is a big one when fish are picky or holding very tight to cover or structure. That's why Kilby and Eaker both fish leadheads around standing timber, pilings, docks or any other structure that is truly vertical.
Another advantage of jigheads is their exposed hooks, which offer much better hooking percentages than Texas rigs.
"That's what I've found," says Kilby. "I can rig a jighead Alabama style so it's weedless, but I'll miss fish. If I can fish this lure with the hook exposed, I hook a lot more fish."
While fishing in weedy or woody cover requires a weedless setup most of the time, you can still use what Kilby calls an Alabama rig — essentially Texas rigging the worm on the jighead. Or, you can buy heads that have wire weedguards molded into the jighead. Both options are useful when fishing in and around wood.
Another possibility is the method of jig fishing used by fishermen in the upper Midwest.
In the natural lakes of this region, weeds are the major source of cover for bass. Largemouth and smallmouth both use the weedline as an ambush zone, picking out those features that make their attack on prey most effective.
In many cases, weeds grow 6, 8 or even 10 feet tall, acting more like a rock wall than vegetation. Generally, the bass will hang out along the face of the wall or at the base.
To fish this kind of cover, the name of the game is fall rate. The slower the fall, the better.
Here, the fishermen use mushroom-shaped jigheads in combination with larger plastic baits and heavier line. Where 1/16-, 1/8- or 1/4-ounce heads are common throughout the rest of the country, in the upper Midwest, smaller sizes — 1/32, 1/16 and 3/32 ounce — are the usual fare when matched with 10-pound test.
The method here is to cast, let the lure settle slightly on the weeds (but not into the weed cover), and then pop it off to settle again on the next weed down. It's the same technique fishermen use when fishing rock slides with a pull-and-drop presentation.
When hanging up on the vegetation is a serious problem, fishermen use the smaller, lighter heads with the correspondingly smaller hooks. The smallest hooks currently offered are No. 6 on a 1/32-ounce mushroom head.
The light jighead, larger plastic and heavier line all produce a slow fall that triggers strikes from bass waiting for lunch.
While head style is important at times, in reality, the leadhead's weight has more to do with the way it fishes than the shape.
The size varies, but for the most part, 1/16- to 3/8-ounce weights cover most situations. However, I know of one tournament fisherman who did well in a California contest fishing 1/32-ounce heads on 2-pound test very, very deep. There also are fishermen who think a 1-ounce head is about right.
The ultimate choice depends upon the depth of the water, the wind, the size of the soft plastic, the activity level of the bass and the amount and kind of cover. As a rule, you'll use heavier heads in deeper water to maintain contact with the bottom. The same holds true with wind — the stronger the wind, the heavier the head.
Also, when bass are actively feeding, you can use a heavier head to cover water more quickly and run your lure by more fish. When bass aren't active, you can slow down your presentation by switching to a lighter head.
The speed at which you can fish a bait depends upon a couple of factors. With a heavy jig, the jighead itself dictates how fast you fish. But if you're fishing smaller heads, say, 1/8 ounce or less, the style of soft plastic lure will call the shots.
For example, if you're using a light head and a straight-tailed finesse worm, such as the Riverside Finesse worm favored by Eaker and Kilby, you can expect a fairly rapid fall. If you choose a small worm with a little corkscrew tail, it will sink a bit slower. A ribbon tail worm the same size will fall slower still. And a bigger worm, because of its increased mass and resistance in the water, will drop even slower. One of the popular hawg or creature baits of the same mass will fall dead-slow when compared to the finesse worm, because the appendages create a tremendous amount of drag.
Guide John Carruth of Davenport, Wash., favors a 4-inch ringworm made in nearby Spokane by Jerry's Lures as his slow-fall, do-everything soft plastic. The Saturn Worm falls slowly partly because of its action tail, partly because of the resistance of its rings and partly because it's fairly buoyant.
"It's really a combination of things," says Carruth, "but the rings and the soft plastic make this worm swim as it sinks, and I think that helps catch fish."
It's a fact that as jighead weight decreases, the body has more of an impact on how the lure performs. For instance, pair a 1/32-ounce head with a 3-inch grub, and you'll see a lure that swims slowly, side-to-side, as it falls. To visualize this action, think of a minnow slowly swimming downward. The action is the same.
Of course, another factor in lure performance is the choice of line, where diameter plays a big part in how fast a lure falls and its overall action. The larger the line diameter, the slower the sink rate, since the jig has to pull the line with it as it sinks.
For most fishermen, light jigs call for spinning gear and light line. It's surprising the size of fish that can be landed on 6-pound test in clear water. Even 10-pound test in weeds and wood is heavy enough for most fish.
Carruth focuses on spinning gear and uses line from 4- to 8-pound test, and mostly it's Berkley Trilene. He'll team this with 6-foot, 6-inch Fenwick HMG AV rods in either medium or medium-heavy actions, depending upon the weight of the jig he's throwing.
Eaker relies on spinning gear and 6- or 8-pound-test Stren Ultracast, even though he'll be fishing around wood and other hard structure: pilings, docks, bridge piers. He prefers Fenwick Techna rods.
"I really don't go over 10-pound test, and never under 6," he says. "But I don't expect to catch big fish with this technique; mostly, I use it to catch spotted bass.
"That little Riverside Finesse Worm appeals to bass, and it's the one bait I know I can catch fish on at any time."
Kilby also uses spinning gear, but he does so on light jigs only, preferring to use a 7-foot baitcasting rod and 10-pound test with heavier heads. "A quarter-ounce jig with a plastic body is a great alternative to a Carolina rig," Kilby says. "In fact, I use it a lot in places where other fishermen are using a Carolina rig, and I do really well on it." Kilby says he fishes this heavier jig with little pops and hops, with plenty of time for the jig to sink between movements.
Kilby also stresses the importance of line watching. "When you're fishing this jig, you need to watch your line for little tell-tale movements. If it does something it shouldn't — maybe it doesn't sink after you pull it off a rock — then whack it! You'd be surprised at how subtle some of the bites can be."
Kilby fishes a leadhead extensively a couple of times a year. He uses it in the fall and early winter, and then again in the prespawn. Eaker fishes it for spots just about year-round, at least when he expects to find the fish near wood. Carruth fishes jigs year-round because that is his favorite and most effective way to fish.
Whether a leadhead becomes a go-to option, something you use year-round, or just something you'll try when other tactics fail, there is one thing that is certain: Give this method a fair test, and you won't be talking quietly about it; it's too good to keep to yourself.
For more information on leadhead jigs
Guide John Carruth, Davenport, Wash., 509-725-2545.
Gopher Tackle is a great source for mushroom heads, 218-546-8195; www.gophertackle.com.
Jerry's Lures, 509-465-5552; www.jerrysbest.com.
Owner American Corp. has a large line of leadheads molded on premium hooks, 714-668-9011; www.ownerhooks.com.