Dancing the Saltwater Jig

Posted by  Tuesday, May 07 2013 4:00 pm
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DancingSaltwaterJig1Ever danced a jig? It's not an Irish jig we're talking about. For offshore fishermen, dancing a jig means running offshore and working a fast-sinking lure that imitates a crippled baitfish or squid. Jigging has been called the most effective, go-to lure ever invented, and it certainly works for anglers who don't mind expending extra energy while out in the boat.

This isn't laid-back fishing where you sit and wait for something to nibble your bait. It's more proactive — where you drop it deep, hit bottom and work it briskly, with plenty of action. We used to call it "crank and yank," which meant yanking the rod tip and cranking the reel fast. A rod with a stiff tip gave the jig more action, as did braided line, which doesn't stretch. (Using a soft-tip rod with mono line only increased your work).

What sort of fish did we catch? In the Gulf of Mexico around countless production platforms, jigging was just the ticket. Lead-head jigs cover the entire water column, which is good, since these platforms are built from the Gulf's bottom to high above the water. That attracts fish of many kinds, from bottom-hugging snapper, grouper, redfish and Gulf trout, to mid-depth amberjack, pompano, kingfish, bluefish, and Spanish mackerel, to topwater cobia. Bonus fish included spotted seatrout, tripletail, sheepshead, flounder, blue runners and black drum. All hit our jigs, though some preferred our feather and lead creations of a certain size.

You could spend the entire day out there fighting fish. One year we outfished the local guides on red snapper, by pinning a frozen cigar minnow to our 2-ounce jigs and lowering them 50 feet. The locals were using 2-ounce egg sinkers and a mono leader with hook, but our white jigs rigged with a foot of wire leader were catching limits of 12- to 15-pound red snappers, and the occasional kingfish. And that was back when the bag limit was five snapper. If a snapper hit and we missed him, you could bounce the jig around and the same fish (or another) would grab that unbaited jig. Wham! Another 15-pounder. It was sinful fishing. We did this by drifting past the platforms, keeping at least 50 yards away from structure, where bait-stealing triggerfish were waiting.

This was in Texas and Louisiana, where few suitable jigs could be found except in the bigger stores in certain cities. However, I kept myself in stock with jigs for many years, while visiting friends in Miami. That's where every little neighborhood tackle store had a fine assortment of jigs. There were also a few jig companies, and we found Lead Enterprises on the Miami River, where you could order jigs by the dozen. Before long, I had them shipping me five dozen yellows and five dozen whites, all weighing one to three ounces, either arrowheads or spearheads.

Those weren't the only jigs we carried, of course. A tray of smaller jigs that weighed from 1/4 to 1/2 ounce were used against pompano, bluefish, blue runner, Spanish mackerel, sheepshead and tripletail. Pink or white was fine, mylar or bucktail, but you needed a strong hook that wouldn't straighten. This wasn't crappie fishing, but often desperate battles close to steel pilings covered with razor-sharp barnacles. You really have to lay into an amberjack, cobia or tripletail, when they're only five or 10 feet away from cover, and have a propensity for wrapping around structure. Think of those guys on Saturday TV, when they "rare back" into a big bass in heavy cover.

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A big amberjack lays on deck, after it grabbed a heavy metal jig that sinks quickly to 200 feet or so.

Flip the jig out a few feet from the boat, then strip line from the reel until the jig hits bottom. Then, slap the reel in gear and begin jigging back up. If you miss a bump or strike, drop the jig back down at least five feet, and try him again. These fish often circle around for another hit. Either that, or they have plenty of friends swimming alongside.

Sometimes a cobia would follow a little jig and scarf it down, since cobia will eat very small items. Suddenly you have this 30 or 40-pound cobia shaking its head in annoyance at the pesky jig, before cruising off. If that fish heads for steel pilings, you have to get tough on him.

I should mention here that the ideal tackle for this lighter jigging offshore is a fairly stiff, 7-foot rod and a baitcasting reel armed with 15- or 20-pound line. We used the red Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000, 5500 and 6000 reels for many years. The only reel like it now in my tackle room is a Calcutta reel with 15-pound clear Ande line, and that combination has done some good work.

Heavier jigging is done with an 8-foot blank with a long cork handle, and a sturdier reels like the Ambassadeur 7000 or Shimano TLD 15, or something similar. Pack it with 30- or 40-pound line, which means you can really lean into a fish. That arrangement will also handle the heavier 2- or 3-ounce jigs, and drive that bigger hook home, when a fish strikes. We've caught countless amberjack, kingfish, cobia and bigger snapper with this rig. The biggest two fish I've caught with this outfit was an 80-pound cobia in the Atlantic, and a 66-pound wahoo off Galveston, mentioned in another article.

More recently I've taken to using a bigger spin rod meant for Atlantic sailfish, and rigged with 65-pound braid line. With this, you can cast without fear of backlash, but can still apply serious pressure on a hooked fish.

Newer on the market are bar jigs (also referred to as heavy metal jigs), which are quite different. They're up to a foot long with beautiful paint jobs, a stick of metal that sinks very fast. Each is rigged with one or two single hooks, and they're very effective. If you're anchored in 100 to 250 feet of water, these jigs plummet deep without having to strip line from the reel. Sweep the jig up as high as you can, then let it drop back. An 8-foot rod, very stiff, is more efficient at jigging here, certainly more so than a stubby broomstick grouper rod.

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An angler from Beaumont, Texas, with a red snapper caught on a jig.

Anglers are even using this heavy metal jig setup for deepwater grouper, down to depths of 800 feet or so. Apparently, snowy grouper, perhaps the most common species at that depth, can see a jig and will attack it. At such depths braid line is mandatory, of course. (Mono line will suffice down to 200 feet for amberjack and grouper.) Imagine feeling every nibble and tug, 900 feet below. That isn't possible, except with zero-stretch line.

To spice up that jig action, a box of frozen bait is nice in more shallow water. One should also carry a few plastic twister tails, which add plenty of wiggle. Carry a few scented plastic bait strips in a sealed bag, to add taste and smell.

There you have it. Keep an assortment of jigs in at least one of those flat, plastic boxes with a few trays; they don't take up much room. Keep the small jigs separate from the one to three ounce biggies (with maybe a couple of heavier six-ounce jigs if the current is strong that day). Also carry a few metal jigs, as well. You won't need 100 jigs on the same trip; that only exposes them to corrosion or getting misplaced, as in left on somebody's boat.
Better to keep much of your jig collection at home, where they can be kept in reserve. Or altered with different colors, even dipped in marine resin, to harden and preserve their factory coating. When purchasing jigs, also keep in mind that powder-coated jigs have a much harder paint coating, that will last longer.

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Capt. Joe Richard
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Joe Richard has fished the Gulf since 1967, starting out of Port Arthur, Texas, but his adventures have taken him up and down the entire Gulf Coast. He was the editor of Tide magazine for eight years, and later Florida Sportsman's book and assistant magazine editor. He began guiding out of Port O'Connor, Texas, in 1994, and later on in Florida. His specialty is big kingfish, and his latest book is "The Kingfish Bible, New Revelations", due for publication in 2013. His website, seafavorites.com, includes a large collection of his outdoor photography.

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