Jig Fishing 101
Until recent years, if you walked into a tackle shop and inquired about how to catch steelhead, you’d have walked out with a spool of pencil lead, some drift bobbers, hooks, yarn, leader, snap swivels and a bucket of eggs or shrimp. In short from, you’d be on your way to becoming a drift fisherman. On that path you’d go through a ton of tackle, endure severe frustration, and if you were lucky, hook a couple of steelhead along the way to allow the spark of steelhead passion to catch fire. It’s a tough road, and for decades it was the beaten path. But that’s all changed now. Armed with a jig and a bobber, countless new steelheaders are racking up success stories on beautiful fish as the jig takes over steelhead fishing.
Learning to jig fish not only puts an angler on the fast road to catching, it offers a lot of lessons about steelhead along the way. Successful jig fishing is about covering a lot of water. When the presentation is right, the fish will in most instances take the jig on the first or second pass. With confidence in that approach, a day’s fishing involves a lot of moving from spot, to spot, to spot, to spot. Instead of camping on one hole, you’re seeing, experiencing and learning about the available water and how to approach it. Sprinkle in some success here and there and you’re quickly developing trends on where these fish prefer to rest, and bite. More importantly, because the float is directly above the jig, when it goes under, you know exactly where that fish was sitting and then have a pinpoint location you can target with other techniques. The more of these locations you can string together, the more time you’ll spend presenting offerings to steelhead, instead of barren gravel.
Bad jig fishermen catch fish. Good jig fishermen catch a lot of fish. Like in all things, the devil’s in the details. Luckily though, there are only two rules to keep in mind. The first is to present the jig near the bottom, or where the fish are…simple enough and at times there is enough room for error in this that making it a rule is stretching a bit. Sometimes steelhead will move long distances both vertically and horizontally to take a jig, but in most cases, try to be within one or two feet of the bottom. The second rule is that the jig must be presented at the speed of the current. And for all intensive purposes, this rule is set in stone. Drag, whether downstream, upstream, or sideways will void the presentation. Catching a lot of steelhead on jigs is about learning to manipulate rod and line to make the float drift completely drag free. Fish don’t take the first presentation, they take the first good presentation. And in tougher water that can take a dozen casts or so until you know it was right.
Because of their lightweight and the angler’s need to quickly feed a lot of line to the presentation, jigs are best fished on long spinning rods with light actions. Long because of the casting distance and line control offered and light action because total weight of the float and jig may only amount to 1/4-ounce and a soft rod is necessary to cast. In Oregon, a Lamiglas X96LS, X96LLS or similar fits the bill. In Washington, ten-foot and longer rods are not uncommon due to the larger size of many rivers, try a Lamiglas X106MLS. For reels, think larger rather than smaller. Although a 2000 series reel handles plenty of line, the larger diameter of a 4000 series spool allows more line to come off faster, increasing casting distance. The larger diameter also means less spool revolutions for the drag system to keep up with a hot fish.
For line there are a few good options. There’s nothing wrong with good clear monofilament in 8lb. test. Any larger and drag and mending ability becomes an issue. For the ultimate in mending ability and rock solid hooksets, Berkley Fireline in 14lb, or Tuf-Line in 20lb are hard to beat. The braids float which makes them a dream to pick up off the water and reposition in the drift (mending) and their lack of stretch means a hookset hits as hard at 40 yards as it does at 20 feet. When braids are used you need a monofilament leader. Either employ a short two foot section of leader and operate the float above it, or use a monofilament leader that is as long as the deepest hole you will fish, and operate the float on the leader material. The idea here is to not have to jump knots with the float. Between monofilament and braids as mainlines, which is better is a matter of preference. The monofilament casts very smooth and is easier to work with in general, the braids handle best on the water, have no memory and last for years.
Bobber setups are as varied as every other technique out there, but for someone getting started there is one rig that is both the easiest to put together and arguably the best, a sliding fixed float and a jig, nothing more, nothing less. The Thill Turbomaster 3 float is a great place to start. First, it affixes to your line with two silicone sleeves. The sleeves hold the line to the float, yet allow for quick and easy depth adjustments. The Turbomaster 3 also balances perfectly with a 1/8-ounce jig, the #4 with a 1/4-ounce. Finally, the balsa float has a thin wire protruding from the bottom. This extended length exaggerates any bits of drag on the jig, helping to make the drag-free drift easily recognizable. It cannot be stressed enough: if the float is not riding straight up and down, you’re not fishing.
Taking It To The Water
When I first started fishing jigs, I didn’t see a lot of other anglers. The main reason for that is that jigs excel in clear water conditions. As water conditions went from high, to steelhead green, to low, pressure went from minimal, to maximum, to non-existent, respectively. Clear water, or nearly clear is ideal for jigs and it was just a short time ago that these conditions left rivers vacant. How times have changed.
Choose a river that’s manageable in size. The closer range in which you can work will make learning how to mend line and the development of a deadly presentation all the easier. Smaller water is also covered faster; making sure that within a day’s fishing you’re contacting quantities of fish-holding water. Once an angler recognizes good water in a small river, identifying those characteristics amongst the expanse of larger rivers becomes a much easier task.
Personally, I’ve caught fish with as little as six inches of line beneath the float, up to fourteen feet beneath the same float. Both of those are extremes. Generally, in a riffle, pool, tailout configuration in a river, the ideal spot you’ll recognize is the last wave of the riffle. Water comes crashing into a hole creating waves. As the water settles, the waves get smaller and smaller before the river goes flat and heads toward the tailout. In the stretch of water between the last small wave and where the tailout shallows up dramatically is pay dirt. It could be a five-, ten- or one hundred-foot stretch but it is identifiable in most every small to mid-sized river. Put another way, this is flat-surfaced, walking-speed water where three to six feet of depth under the float puts the jig within two feet of the bottom.
Achieving a drag-free drift requires mending. Mending will interrupt the drift, so it’s best to make good large mends, positioning the line well upstream of the float. Immediately after the cast, put a big mend in the line to set up the drift. Mend as often as it takes to maintain the drag-free drift.
To economize on gear, begin each new piece of water with the jig depth set to fall well short of bottom. This will avoid the immediate hang-up that’s common when you overestimate depth. Increase depth with each ensuing cast until the jig begins to tick bottom. You can then shorten up a foot and know you’re in the zone. If it happens that a fish strikes the jig well short of bottom, continue through the process after releasing that one. When multiple fish are present, often times one will rush the jig. Continuing deeper can oftentimes produce extra fish that are not as aggressive. Additionally, changing colors when you feel more fish are present can trigger additional strikes.
Jigs and Jig Colors
As for colors of jigs, choose any as long as it’s pink. Pink and white is the number one jig throughout the Northwest and accounts for more steelhead than any other color. Plain cerise is excellent. Pink and black has its place, as well as straight black. Many colors can and will work, but begin with pink and expand with trial and error from there.
There are dozens of great jigs on the market, with more arriving every day. I was taught to fish jigs using Beau Mac jigs. Having had the opportunity to talk with the late Paul Beaupre, founder of Beau Mac, I’ve never had a reason to look elsewhere. Paul was an innovator, a fishing fanatic, and one hell of a nice person. He was the kind of guy that causes you to have sleepless nights, with steelhead entrenched in your brain. He had a passion for the fish and the sport and the Beau Mac Marabou Steelhead Jig was the first I knew of to carry the red beads on the hook shank. There is something to that, and Paul knew it. His family carries on the company: great people, great product. Living in Oregon, 1/8-ounce jigs are the best size. In Washington, where larger waters, and larger fish are present, use of 1/4-ounce jigs is more prevalent.
The jig set-up I’ve outlined is a rock solid way to become very proficient with jigs. There are circumstances, mainly big water, that the rig is insufficient. Sliding floats with added weight between float and jig will master these situations. They’re not a great way to start because the additional weight between the float and jig, can mask a poor presentation, causing your float to stand straight when the jig is actually swinging. Master the lightweight rig, and you’ll fish the rigs with more weight with deadly efficiency.
Taking Part in the Rage
Jigs have taken a lead role in steelhead fishing in just a very short time. Their effectiveness will anchor them in the angler’s arsenal for decades to come. Jig fishing is light on investment, low on frustration, and high on productivity. It’s a wonderfully visual way to fish that in a short time will have you naming pockets and calling strikes before they happen. Basically, they’ve shortened the learning curve on successful steelhead fishing to the length of a matchstick.
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