By Jeff Little
Everyone loves a powerful, rip the rod out of your hands, smashing jig hit. Keep your line taut, focus on the presentation and you usually have no problem feeling the bite. As the water temperature drops south of 40 degrees, however, those bone jarring hits seem to disappear.
Instead, the line just goes mushy, or if you’re lucky the line moves to the side, letting you know it’s time to bury the hook. Honestly, most anglers never feel the hit, and assume after a fishless trip that the bass just don’t bite in cold water. The winter jig bite is the most challenging to tap into, but those who have the right gear and frame of mind can pull it off and even catch their biggest bass of the year. Here’s how:
Mechanics of Vibration Transfer Up The Line
Above all else, any deviation from a perfectly straight line from jig to rod tip is your enemy. Wind blows a curve into your line. Current does the same. Cast over a branch, and that obtuse angle all but wipes out any chance you have of feeling the bite. The longer your cast, the more likely it is that something will put a bow in your line.
Last winter while fishing a reservoir with standing timber, I developed a greater appreciation of the short cast. My usual fishery, a smallmouth river that is rarely deeper than 12 feet, requires longer casts in order to be stealthy. But the deep reservoir required a different set of angles. I learned that making a long cast that draped over the many old standing submerged trees in 30 feet of water equated to not feeling any bites. I had to position over them and jig almost vertically. The casts that caught fish were short because I could feel the bite on a vertically straight taut line.
One way to keep your line as straight as possible while keeping the jig stationary is to tie on a heavier jig. On windy days while reservoir fishing, I’ll go from 3/8-ounce to 1/2-ounce. On the river, when streamflow intensifies, I’ll jump from 1/8-ounce to 1/4- or 3/8-ounce. Fishing water deeper than 30 feet on the reservoir with standing timber and I’ll go all the way up to a 1-ounce jig. Couple those heavy weights with short casts and the mushy bite becomes a crisp tap.
Another variable that needs to be addressed is the drift of your kayak. When we see a likely target, we paddle toward it and make a cast. A crucial step that many kayak anglers miss is stopping forward momentum. If your kayak is still moving in the direction that you just made a cast, there will always be a bow in your line to keep you from feeling the bite during or soon after that first descent of the jig. Pick your target, move toward it, back paddle away from it to kill your momentum, then make your cast. That slow backward drift will maintain constant tension on your line.
The right fishing rod can give you an advantage, but comes after considerations like proper jig weights, casting angles and simply being on point, ready to set the hook at all times. The rod I use matches the weight of jig I am casting. All of my jig rods are either fast or extra fast action. This helps drive the hook home effectively.
The line should be as low stretch as possible in order to feel the difference between your jig bumping into the next rock in it’s path and the jig smacking the roof of a fish’s mouth. Braided line stretches the least, followed by fluorocarbon, then copolymers and monofilament.
Lengthen Bait Retention Time
By increasing the weight of the jig, you’ll feel more bites, but the trade off is that they won’t hold onto the jig as long. Add a soft plastic trailer and they’ll hold it a bit longer. Slather the jig in scent and the window of opportunity to set the hook grows considerably. Bait retention is also a function of how pressured the fish are. If they’ve been caught many times, they are more skeptical, so you better be on point when they do hit in heavily fished waters.
If you believe that the bites are just too subtle for you to ever feel the bite, try going with a fine wire hook. This has been a tactic I’ve used for years on winter river smallmouth with water temperatures in the low 30’s. But it would never fly on those standing timber reservoir largemouth. They would straighten the hook long before I winched them free of the maze of submerged wood.
On one end of the size spectrum is a brush jig with a thick but sharp 5/0 flipping hook and a bristle guard. At the other end is a micro tube rigged on a 1/8-oz jig head with a size 2 hook that buries into flesh as soon as it touches it. One requires a violent full swing hook set, and the other hooks fish that simply mouth the bait and turn, setting the hook on themselves. One goes into the deepest, densest jungle of logs, and the other is light enough to tumble along the river bottom and not get snagged. If you don’t have much cover to contend with, consider going with as thin a diameter hook as you can find.
Get Your Head Right
Focusing on some event that you hope will happen but hasn’t in hours leaves the door open to nagging doubt: "Am I in the right spot?" "Should I head over to the first point where I caught one four hours ago?" "Maybe I need to change colors." "A hot cup of coffee right about now sounds better than sitting out here not getting bit!" All anglers experience a slump from time to time, and it starts with thoughts like these. Negativity and lack of confidence need to be actively pushed back with visualization and positive mental attitude.
Visualization goes hand in hand with positive mental attitude. It’s fabricated confidence building, and it works. Try this next time you cast a jig. Make a short cast, close your eyes, and slowly drag the jig along the bottom. Try to guess the bottom substrate. Is it chunk rock, gravel, sand or a pile of decomposing leaves? Now go over to the spot and see if you were right. Did you guess correctly?
Now take it to the next level. If you’ve done this a few times, you’ll know what the bottom should feel like. Imagine your jig slowly dragging over that bottom substrate. Then imagine that a fish saw the jig splash down and descend to the bottom. It’s cold water, so with a slowed metabolism, that big bass will take her time making her way over to investigate. She passes the jig on the wrong side of a log and doesn’t see it yet. You pull the 1 ounce black skirted jig off of the rock it’s resting on and it hops a short distance, smacking into the next rock. The noise of the collision captures the attention of the fish and she flares her pectoral fins to turn and change direction. The scent trail is two feet in front of her. She catches it, tracks it to the jig and turns her mouth downward to the jig. The jig’s skirt has opened up like a flower in the sunlight. The individual strands of the skirt quiver in the wake of water coming off the shoulders of that big bass hovering inches away. In a moment too brief to see happen, she flares her gill plates and sucks the heavy jig into her mouth. The crisp vibration travels up the 25-pound test fluorocarbon line to your rod tip.
Did you feel it, or were you distracted with thoughts of changing jig colors, or leaving to find a hot cup of coffee? If you visualize the sequence of events that you want to happen, you’ll be on point to set the hook when the deed goes down. By the way, on the jig color question, black always works. Throw black and quiet that mental noise.
What Does It Feel Like When They Hit?
As a rookie winter river smallmouth angler many seasons ago, I asked this question. I’ve been asked the same question by others many times since then. Descriptors of the sensation vary from "tick" to "thump" to "throb" to "feel funny". Along the learning curve of knowing what it feels like are many frustrating moments of realizing that the weird little quiver you felt a moment ago and didn’t set the hook was indeed a fish. It’s absolutely maddening at times.
My advice to new winter jig anglers has evolved over the years. I used to list all of the different sensations and vibrations that could possibly travel up your line. This wasn’t of much use to many of my students. It’s confusing. The follow up piece of advice, "You’ll get it with time on the water" wasn’t very satisfying either. The breakthrough piece of advice was actually the inverse of asking "What does it feel like when they hit?" Rather than asking that question, ask yourself, "What does the bottom feel like when they aren’t hitting?"
Focusing on that static hard pressure you feel while holding your rod tip up, line taut and jig sitting still on bottom is exactly how you figure out "What it feels like when they hit". Focus on the rhythm of bumps and grinds of the jig being dragged across the bottom. Know what "normal" feels like for that jig resting on that bottom substrate or being dragged across it. The abrupt absence of that "normal" is often your only indication that the jig is in a fish’s mouth. Hooksets are free, and if you are waiting for that signature "thump", you’ll be missing out on easily 80% of your chances to set the hook on a fish this winter.
How Slow Should I Fish the Jig?
Despite the commonly cited characteristic of anglers being patient, we aren’t. Most of us certainly aren’t patient enough when it comes to how slowly we need to fish a jig in winter. Here’s a way to comprehend the necessary presentation of a jig in 34-degree water. Flip rocks, and find a crawfish. Once you do, you might assume that it’s a dead one. It won’t quickly flip it’s tail to escape. It won’t move at all until you place it somewhere else. Move it to a shallow gravel flat, take a seat nearby and make note of the time. Five minutes later, take a measurement of how much ground it covered. I recorded the slow movement of a Susquehanna River crawfish in February for my DVD on Winter River Smallmouth Patterns. The crawfish pulled from 34 degree water did move, but the distance it covered in the time I took to narrate the segment was less than 3 inches.
So if your jig is hopping like popcorn, how likely is it for a fish to believe that what they are seeing is a crawfish? The movement that real crawfish have is a subtle one. The animal may not advance in position, but the antennae swing, the legs slowly swing out, and the claws ever so slowly waver in place. A jig with a short skirt, especially one with a round rubber body mixed into the skirt, that sits in one place mimics this perfectly.
But my telling you how slow you need to fish won’t give you the depth of confidence needed to just let it sit there minutes at a time. Only time spent on the water followed by catching a fish at the end of a 10-minute pause will convince you of that. Have faith, and if you don’t have it yet, force it by counting or setting a stopwatch for two minutes before you can so much as tumble the jig three more inches to the next spot you’ll let it rest another two minutes.
Successful winter jig fishing means having the right gear. It means being able to maintain focus and keep your head in a positive place while nothing is happening. But mastering it has rewards that go far beyond the winter season. You’ll develop a set of strike detection skills that will make you a better jig angler in all seasons. When the hit finally does come, there’s no better feeling, even if it’s so cold that you’ve lost feeling in your toes.