Those who have fished with Mike McClelland were not at all surprised at the young pro's wire-to-wire victory in the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament at Grand Lake last June. Or his seventh-place finish two weeks earlier at the Bassmaster Memorial on Eagle Mountain Lake in Fort Worth. Or his win in the Open Championship in December 2005 on the Alabama River.
Around home in Bella Vista, Ark., he's well-known for his expertise with jigs, and in each of those events jigs played a key role for him.
In fact, if you look in his boat at any given time of year, you'll see at least one and usually two different jigs on his rods, no matter what lake he's fishing. They're not just his go-to baits, they're his all-I-need baits.
"Jigs are a lot more versatile than many anglers realize," says McClelland. "They're not limited to flipping and pitching. The biggest problem is figuring out how the bass want a jig presented, but once you do that, I don't think you can ask for a more dependable lure."
McClelland uses two different models, a football head and a round head, depending on the conditions. Both are made by Jewel Bait Co. (www.jewelbait.com), and each offers several features not commonly found on other jigs. The round head model, known as the Eakins Jig, is designed to imitate a crawfish as it falls slowly and horizontally; the football head jig, known as the Heavy Cover Finesse Jig, is not only a heavier jig in a very compact size, but it's also almost completely weedless."I prefer to use the football head jig in water 7 to 20 feet deep around gravel, rock or brush," explains McClelland, "but I'll use it as deep as 40 feet in the winter. At Grand Lake the bass were not aggressive, so I used a 1/2-ounce model along the edges of creek or river channels about 15 feet deep.
"I'd keep the lure in contact with the bottom and pull it up to a brushpile, then yo-yo the jig against the edge of the brush rather than work through it. Fish would just come get it."Earlier at Lake Benbrook, McClelland used the same jig at the same 8- to 15-foot range but hopped it over the rocks at the dam.
STROKE A REACTION
Peter Thliveros won at the same spot using a jig technique the pros call "stroking."
"Stroking is a technique I've used all over the country and especially during the postspawn. You simply jump the jig 5 or 6 feet off the bottom," says Thliveros. "You can do it whenever you have nonaggressive bass, or when they're suspended, and it works on breaklines, on ledges, around rocks, and even in standing timber."You're looking for a reaction strike, and because bass hit jigs as they fall, you're making a presentation with multiple falls."
Thliveros fished a 1/2-ounce Team Supreme Jig and used stroking on the dams at both Eagle Mountain and Benbrook, showing that even though the two lakes have completely different characteristics, the same jig technique can produce good catches on both. Not only that, Thliveros' stroking presentation produced a daily Big Bass (7-0) from Eagle Mountain, and the Purolator Big Bass of the Tournament (7-5) from Benbrook.
SWIMMING WITH A TWIST
McClelland also will swim a football head jig around deeper cover if stroking isn't the answer. His jig features a slightly concave head design as well as an angled horizontal line-tie eye; when it hits a limb or rock, the jig usually flips over it. The Jewel jig also has a brush-type weedguard, and a spider jig skirt collar around the head that also helps deflect cover and move water "In years past, the football head was stereotyped as a heavier deep water jig you fished in areas without much cover," notes McClelland. "You threw it against a bluff wall and let it keep falling until it finally hit the bottom. You hopped it once or twice, then reeled it in and cast it up against the wall again.
Now with this lighter football jig, I can put a big Zoom Super Chunk or Baby Brush Hog on as a trailer to slow the fall even more, and I can fish it much shallower. I would have used a football head jig in the river current at the Open Championship but it wasn't available from the company then."Instead, McClelland used a heavier ball head-design Eakins Jig. Normally he prefers to use a ball head jig in shallower water, where he likes to crawl it along the bottom, taking advantage of the jig's slow fall and compact size to make bass think it's a crawfish.
"During the first two days of the Memorial tournament on Eagle Mountain Lake, I was swimming the ball head around docks just under the surface," McClelland continues. "Sometimes bass won't react to a crankbait or spinnerbait but they do want a moving lure with a more natural appearance, so swimming the jig became an effective alternative.
"Contrary to what a lot of anglers think, you don't have to have vegetation to swim a jig. I know we swim jigs a lot around shallow weeds on the Arkansas River, but the swimming technique can actually be used practically anywhere.
"During both the spring and fall, I swim a ball head jig across secondary points, over channel banks, and even over shallow cover. It's really an effective technique in clear water because it presents a more natural appearance than a crankbait."When he swims a jig, McClelland moves the lure as much with his rod tip as with his reel. He holds his rod high, then hops the jig up a few inches, lets it fall, then hops it again — all the while reeling it back. In deeper water, he'll do the same thing just a couple of feet above the bottom.
His victory in the Open Championship, where water temperature hovered in the 50s, is another example of how jigs can be fished year-round. When he had current, he let the water's flow swim his jig down into laydown logs. When current was absent, he simply crawled the jig along the bottom into the same laydowns.
"I like to fish this round head jig in shallow cover, too, combining a swimming presentation with more traditional bottom crawling," continues the Arkansas pro, "and I can do it because of how Jim Eakins designed the jig. A round head naturally comes through brush better, but again, the horizontal, slightly angled line tie allows the jig to flip over obstacles. A vertical line tie causes the jig to roll to one side, which is why it snags."
In essence, McClelland likes to swim/hop his jig through shallow water, much like a spinnerbait presentation. When he sees or finds a brushtop, he can actually let the jig fall beside it and then crawl the lure through the cover.
Even though both the round head Eakins Jig and the football-style Heavy Cover Finesse Jig have shorter than usual skirts to make them appear smaller, McClelland cannot think of a single time he fishes either without a plastic trailer, even though a trailer increases the overall size of the bait.
"The trailer is all about adding action, slowing the jig's fall, and even improving the lure's visual appearance," he says. "Action becomes especially important whenever I'm swimming a jig, but often a slower fall makes the jig even more appealing to nonaggressive bass."Under those conditions, I think it's important to have a completely nonthreatening bait," McClelland continues, "and even though a trailer does increase the jig's size, it allows you to make a more subtle presentation. Even though you are fishing the lure slower than normal, something on the trailer will still move."
Another important aspect of McClelland's jig fishing relates to his line and rod. He always fishes the heaviest line he can get away with, and it's always Seaguar fluorocarbon, between 10- and 20-pound strength. The line has very little stretch and becomes almost invisible underwater. The original 5/16-ounce Eakins Jig was designed to be fished with 10-pound line .McClelland's rods are either a 7-2 Falcon Swimming Jig model he uses for water depths to about 15 feet, or a 7-0 Falcon with a slightly heavier action when he's fishing especially heavy cover or in water where larger bass live.
"What I really want with the longer rod is to be able to move the lure when I set the hook," explains McClelland. "When you fish either of these jigs the way I do, which is a nonvertical presentation, the hook set is more of a sweeping motion. This is especially true in deeper water, and the longer rod gives me that movement."
It's interesting to note that while McClelland and Thliveros won Elite Series events on jigs, they're not alone. Morizo Shimizu included a jig as part of his arsenal in winning the Elite tournament on Kentucky Lake last June, and Denny Brauer used a Strike King jig to win the Champion's Choice Elite event on Lake Champlain.
Overall, that's an amazing testimonial for a lure many anglers would rather not fish if they could use anything else. But as McClelland has shown, new designs have truly made today's jig a lure for all seasons.