A lot of things in fly fishing are borrowed and re-branded as something new. And the further along we travel into the age of information, the more accepting the average angler becomes to these new ideas (or old ideas re-branded).
Once upon a time, cones and beadheads were frowned upon. When Fish Skulls first hit fly shop shelves, there were furrowed brows and head shakes. Now molded heads and rubber parts tied to a streamer are common. Whatever improves catch rates and keeps new ideas flowing forward is good with me. This fly fishing game holds our interest because there’s always a next thing to learn. That’s valuable. Progress keeps all of us moving on, wondering, learning and sharing ideas.
The jig is timeless. Its simplicity of design inspires variations. It begs for adaptation. The heavy head provides an angler with control, and the extra weight aids in the cast. The design of a jig hook inverts the pattern, hook point up, and the extreme weight-forward design makes it . . . well . . . jig. Open your fly tying drawer, close your eyes and pick out any material. Now tie that to a jig hook and you probably have a lure that gets eaten.
What kind of fish do you want to catch? The jig will do it. As a kid, I caught trout, panfish and bass on jigs. This past summer, I was introduced to the idea of fishing bucktail jigs for fluke and striper in the salt. I’ll be back next year with a thoughtful box of hand tied jigs twice the size of my favorite trout jig streamers.
So how can we best use the jig for fly fishing?
Here I’m not referring to nymph sized creations with beadheads on #10-16 jig hooks. I’m talking about streamer-sized meals that attract trout in a whole different way, and (at times) peak the interest of another class of trout.
Get the Jig
It took me a while to dial in exactly how I wanted to work the jigs into my system. There’s not a lot of overlap among the techniques I swap through while on the river. Everything has its place, and the same goes for the flies. But when I tied the first jig streamer to my line, I knew it had the potential to fill in a system gap. It just took me a long time to get it right. In fact, it took me about five years.
That gap in my system was an inability to truly ride the bottom. Ever since I’d first gone underneath with nymphs and streamers, I’d been frustrated by getting my flies low enough to catch trout, but dealing with the inevitable hang ups that followed. “Get the nymphs to the bottom and stay there,” they say. “Put your streamer in the strike zone, right on the bottom where trout hold.” And I wanted to do that, but I hung up too often. And so, like most anglers, I did a dance between low enough and too low. (I still do that dance. And it’s a good one for regular nymph fishing.)
With the jig tied in, I quickly learned that nothing rides the bottom of the river like a ball jig. It bounces, canters, pivots and tap dances around rocks and gravel like nothing else. The ball itself is the key. It allows for some very unique presentations and movements. And when you really want to hug the bottom, you can set up your rig to feel those taps, as the jig glides and scratches along the river bed.
That’s not to suggest that I constantly present a jig deep down and glued to the rocks. Not at all. But when I do want to touch the bottom, to feel the rocks, hold a position or reach into the depths with precision, a jig is the perfect vehicle. That is the key. That’s the special sauce of a jig streamer.
I love a jig as the primary fly in what I call the Big Rig. And I use it as my favorite fly choice in a crossover technique.
Just yesterday, I had a wonderful day with nymphs. Wherever I expected a trout, there seemed to be two fish ready to eat my fly when the presentation was right. I had a great time with a full net. And after about six hours of non-stop action, I’d rounded many river bends and needed a change. So I smoothly swapped the nymphs out for two streamers . . . and the action stalled. In the next hour I moved just one trout, all while mixing in every streamer technique I know, and covering a lot more water than I had all day.
So I switched back to nymphs, and the previous action returned. Fun? Sure. But I still needed something different. I wanted to cover more water with every cast, to pick up the pace against the driving sleet that chilled my frame. I wanted to show trout the nymphs. But I also wanted to show them a larger meal, all while covering big swaths of pocket water with one cast and targeting a five foot bucket on the next. So I fished the Big Rig, and they ate all three flies.
Pairing the jig with a nymph or two allows you to tight line at great distances. It’s not a perfect dead drift, but it’s not supposed to be. We already know how to get those types of dead drifts. The jig is unique in its ability to hold the bottom without hanging up (much), providing the angler with contact, and getting mistaken for something yummy all at once.
Other times, I fish jig streamers by themselves or with a regular fly line and a streamer leader. The jig’s same advantage remains. It gets down, rides the bottom and is easy to control. Not only do I jig it (of course), I strip it, head flip it, swing it, glide it and jerk it, just like any other streamer. And I’ve had trout eat a jig in every way I’ve presented it. Think about that. I don’t know if the same can be said for any other type of fly.
You can surely tie up any of your own creations on a jig and expect success — and you should. Experimenting is half the fun.
But for my own designs and preferences, simplicity wins the day.
I use a jig streamer to get low, to deliberately touch rocks and probe the depths of the river. And while a jig rarely hangs on stones, it certainly finds its share of sticks. So I lose a lot of flies — some days. But that’s all part of the plan.
With that in mind, I refuse to tie elaborate patterns on a jig platform. And the trout have told me they don’t mind. In fact, I often say that trout are looking for reasons not to take a fly, and keeping our patterns limited in materials gives them less to reject outright.
I’ve settled on three basic designs, and I only alter them in color. None of them take more than five minutes to tie, and none have more than three materials.
I tie ball head jigs with no collar, in three sizes: 1/8 oz, 1/16 oz and 1/32 oz. I buy the jigs with the lead heads pre-molded and unpainted. Then I use Pro-Tec Powder Paint to apply the color.
I most often choose Wapsi Super Jigs. They are easy to find, consistent in size, and built with quality steel. I also buy lead ball jigs from FishCentWilliams on ebay.
Or track down Wapsi Super Jig Hooks, which are also a high quality option.
Now let’s get to the patterns . . .
The Bunny Flash Jig
I wanted a jig version of my Bunny Bullet Sculpin. I tied variations of it, and they all caught trout. But I learned that I wanted something different. Like I said, there’s not much overlap in my system. So I took the rabbit strip tail with the Hareline dubbing, and I added some sparkle — something the Bunny Bullet (purposely) doesn’t have much of. I love the Bunny Flash, and it has become a staple in my fly box.
Tail: Magnum Rabbit Strip (cut to a V at the tip)
Body: Hareline Rabbit Dubbing (red, then olive or black)
Collar: EP Minnow Head Brush 1.5”. It takes 4-6 wraps to fill out a good head. (Everglades for an olive fly and Misty Black for a black fly)
The Craft Fur Jig
Craft fur jigs are popular in the bass world. And years ago, a Google search turned up a lot of results for fishy looking patterns. I was largely inspired by the jig designs I found on Pup’s Jig Works. And digging through the archives there will provide an endless array of ideas. This is my other go-to jig streamer.
Outer body: Super Select Craft Fur (Dark top, Light bottom — or just all one color)
Inner body: Thin layer of Ice dub in a dubbing loop
I like a hot collar of red or orange thread on the Craft Fur Jig.
The Sparkle Jig
This one just makes sense. And my friend Josh first showed it to me a couple years back. Josh’s flies are an adaptation of a Sparkle Minnow, with two tone tails and multi colored bodies. I don’t even take that extra step. I simply tie in a marabou tail and whip up an ice dub body. Trout eat them.
Body: Ice Dub in a dubbing loop
A Bugger Jig works well. Just tie your favorite Wooly Bugger pattern on a jig. I carried them for a while in many variations. Slumpbusters on a jig are another that I’ve had success with. I tied my Half Pint on a jig for a while too. But for whatever reason, the three patterns listed above are the ones that clearly rose to the top for me. Your results may vary.
Rich Strolis has a fly called Marvin the Martian. The head is not a ball jig, technically, so its performance won’t be exactly the same. But you do get those crazy eyes with it! And it looks like a great pattern.
Try them all, and then trust the fish. At some point in our ongoing experimentation on the river, we must learn to believe in the results. After seasons of data gathered, I think it’s okay to say hey, this works best for me.
Ball Painting Parties
Some of my Troutbitten friends came along for the ride of experimentation on these jigs. But I don’t think any of them fell as hard for the jig as I did. Nevertheless, we had some fun sharing beers and painting balls. Yes, I just wrote that.
The Pro-Tec paint is inexpensive.
Painting your jigs is an easy process of heating the lead head over a flame for about fifteen seconds, then quickly swishing it in the powder. The color melts onto the lead. Now clear the hook eye with a bodkin, and set it aside.
Do at least a dozen, heat your kitchen oven to 350 f, and bake the jigs for twenty minutes to secure an enamel-like finish that takes a lot of abuse from river rocks.
What colors? I use Watermelon, Black, Glow in the Dark (white), Copperhead, and Candy Blue. Try whatever inspires you. And have fun.
Mixing up these Jiggy patterns and learning to use the advantages of a ball jig is sure to provide you with years of exploration on the river.
You gotta love it.
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Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N