Say what you want about today's trendy soft plastic baits, but when veteran anglers are after the biggest bite of the day, they reach for the venerable jig-and-pig.
In fact, the lure may be more effective now than it was 20 years ago. During the early 1980s, it was limited to bottom bumping applications, for fishing in heavy cover or when bass were sluggish. Today, the rubber-legged jig (always with some form of trailer) is being used during all times of the year, thanks to discoveries along the CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail.
Aside from a few cosmetic changes, the jig-and-pig of this millennium is the same as that of the last — a leadhead jig with a rubber skirt, tipped with a pork or plastic trailer. Granted, today's hooks are better, skirts are livelier and colors and sizes cover a broader spectrum. And while plastic trailers have enhanced the lure's color options and configurations, the skirted jig dressed with either plastic or pork continues to fool bass when all else fails.
The evolution of flipping — the short range tactic of easing jigs into heavy cover with a stiff rod and strong line — has helped keep the jig among the most popular baits in the box.
However, some pros believe weekend anglers have become so enamored of the jig as a flipping tool that they have lost sight of its universal effectiveness.
"Casting a jig has become a lost art," says Alabama pro Gerald Swindle. "You're really limiting the jig's potential if flipping is the only way you use it."
Swindle and other experts say the jig is a year-round lure that can be presented at a multitude of depths and around a variety of structure and cover.
"Most people don't think of casting a jig during the hot days of summer," he explains. "It can be the best way to catch a big bass while fishing behind other anglers who are flipping obvious targets or casting more traditional summer lures. Even though my jig may be tied to a flipping rod, I'm making roll casts to areas away from the bank, looking for that isolated piece of cover that everyone else has missed."
More colors, more options
Expanded color offerings have enhanced the jig's appeal to bass under a broader range of conditions. Whereas the black jig tipped with a black or blue trailer may be America's favorite, anglers have discovered other colors enable them to better match their jig to a water condition or forage.
While a dark-colored pork frog kicking beneath a billowy black jig skirt imitates a crawfish flicking along the bottom, a white jig and trailer swimming over cover and around boat docks will fool suspended bass into thinking it's a baitfish.
"A white jig undulating in the water looks just like a shad," says BASS pro Dean Rojas. "It's a good substitute for fishing around cover in places where you can't work a crankbait or jerkbait, or when bass want a slower presentation."
He discovered that during a BASS event on the Louisiana Delta a few years ago. As he tossed a spinnerbait along the bank and caught a 1 ½-pound bass, his partner was swimming a white jig behind him and catching 3-pounders. The next day, he rigged a white jig with a white trailer and caught a good limit.
"The fish were feeding on shad, but they wanted the bait moving slower and with less flash than the spinnerbait was projecting," he explains. "It's a lesson I will never forget."
The acceptance of plastic trailers has helped broaden the scope in which jigs are used today. The pork vs. plastic debate may never be settled, but many anglers prefer plastic during the summer because it doesn't dry out, and the multiplicity of colors and shapes provides more options.
On the other hand, pork has a strong following among anglers who believe it has a more natural appeal to the fish.
"Pork also tends to be more pliable in cold water when plastic gets stiff," says Ohioan Joe Thomas. "I think you get more motion from pork, and in some situations, I believe the bass will hold it longer."
While pork colors have expanded beyond the traditional black, blue and white, they can't be produced in the translucent image or color range available in plastic.
Those kinds of color offerings are impacting clear water fisheries of the upper Midwest and the Northeast, where anglers believe green-colored jigs dressed with matching trailers are more effective in open water around scattered grass and rocks.
For example, northern Indiana angler Greg Mangus casts jigs in neutral colors to bass cruising over sparsely covered bottoms and on shallow, clear water flats — the same places other anglers cast tubes and small finesse baits.
"Most people wouldn't think of using jigs on flats that are 400 yards from the nearest dropoff, but they are overlooking a lot of quality fish and a deadly way to catch them," he explains.
When fishing jigs away from cover and on sandy, shallow bottoms, Mangus opts for smaller, more compact jigs in watermelon or cucumber colors.
"Those subtle colors are more natural and come closer to matching the bottom," he describes. "The typical black/blue jig is a great color combination when fishing around a lot of cover, but it doesn't look natural in ultraclear open water. The greens tend to resemble the crawfish better."
Massachusetts pro Danny Correia agrees, noting that brown and orange creations that match the crawfish at certain times of the year can be deadly on smallmouth.
"I think it's very important to match your forage in size and color when fishing clear water," he explains. "With the variety of colors available today, that's not hard to do."
Size matters, too
Jig size has evolved in recent years as well. While the 3/8-ounce jig remains the most popular, smaller versions and bulky heavyweights are gaining acceptance. The finesse jigs tend to be more effective in clear water, while the larger jigs are good for fishing deep in stained water or around thick cover.
"That's not to say that a ½-ounce jig wouldn't be effective in shallow, open water," notes Mangus. "However, a more compact 1/2 ounce would be a better choice — especially if smallmouth live in the water you're fishing."
His compact Mango jig, which he designed for Nichols Lures, consists of a skirt trimmed to the back of a 3/0 hook and a small frog-style trailer. The Mango's head is pointed, allowing it to be worked with ease through scattered grass.
"A heavier jig is a better choice when the bass are aggressive," he explains. "It allows you to work it faster and cover water more thoroughly."
As in all styles of fishing, there are no certainties. That's why Mangus recommends that fishermen experiment with jig presentations.
"If I'm fishing with a partner, we'll have different sizes of jigs and different types of trailers," he explains. "It can change from day to day, so it's important to let the fish tell you what they want."
Lighter jigs come into play when you need to keep the bait in the strike zone longer, or when fish are suspended. Arkansas pro Mike Wurm opts for a jig weighing ¼ ounce, or even less, when swimming a lure around boat docks during summer afternoons. The smaller jig, tipped with a frog chunk or plastic tail, can be retrieved slowly to imitate a crawfish or baitfish.
"The problem with small jigs is that most don't have a big enough hook to handle quality bass," he cautions. "Strike King's Bitsy Flippin' Jig is one I use, because it has the bigger hook."
The shape of the jig trailer is equally important, and it is cause for more experimentation. As a rule, anglers opt for bulkier and more active trailers in stained water, because they displace more water and make it easier for bass to hone in on the bait.
Grubs or worms with swimming tails are viable options in warm, clear water when you want the jig to emulate a crawfish. The busy legs on a twin-tail grub resemble the kicking claws of a crawfish when scooted over the bottom.
Jighead designs are another factor to consider, and should be matched to the type of cover you're fishing. A head that is more pointed, with its eyelet coming out the front rather than the top, is going to pull through weeds better than a broad-shouldered jig, says 2001 Bassmasters Classic Champion Kevin VanDam.
"Now, if I'm fishing wood and rocks, I like a jig with some shoulders to help stop it momentarily," he describes. "When I pull it over objects, the jig tips, adding action. The design also makes the jig move slower, creates more disturbance and causes the bait to quiver more."
VanDam says anglers also need to match their line size to the jig hook they are fishing. For example, a heavy-duty jig hook is going to require a more powerful hook-set to penetrate, so you need heavier line to withstand the pressure. On the other hand, a light wire hook fished on a flipping rod and 20-pound line is more likely to flex, or even break.
Of course, it helps to know when you're getting a bite — a factor that troubles many novice anglers. Bass (especially big bass) rarely thump the jig with the same ferocity as they do plastic worms. Many strikes are projected simply as a spongy sensation or, as Thomas says, "it feels like you're dragging a dishcloth at the end of the line.
"That's why it's important to jerk on anything that feels unnatural," he adds. "It could be moss, or it could be a 6-pounder."
Louie Stout has teamed with 2001 Bassmasters Classic Champion Kevin VanDam to produce Secrets of a Champion, a compilation of VanDam's best bass-catching tips. It's available for $21.95 (includes shipping) from KVD Publications, P.O. Box 174, Jones, MI 49061, or by calling 800-544-9343.