LIFTING THE SKIRT ON JIGS
Glen “Stewie” Stewart
Glen Stewart, or “Stewie” as he is better known in freshwater fishing circles, is a dedicated recreational fisher with an equally dedicated band of followers who appreciate his unassuming, subtle influence and his sharing of insights and innovations, often well before they become “a thing”.
A regular contributor to NSW Fishing Monthly Magazine for over 15 years, Glen also contributes written and visual content for a number of leading fishing and hunting social media titles, nationwide.
He spends countless hours — and travels even more kilometres — in the pursuit of our beloved freshwater fish. An enquiring mind and a dogged pursuit of greater understanding are his driving forces — and his desire to encourage, inspire and challenge others to be thinking anglers is his gift to the Australian fishing community.
Skirted jigs may just be one of the most overlooked and under-utilised lures on the market for catching golden perch. In this fantastic how-to piece Glen ‘Stewie’ Stewart lifts the lid — or rather, the skirt — on these deadly weapons.
The humble jig has intrigued me for many years, particularly when it comes to targeting golden perch or yellowbelly in our stocked, freshwater impoundments.
Like so many of the freshwater lure techniques we use here in Australia for our native species, skirted jigs had their birthplace on the good old American largemouth bass scene.
Warmer days later in the season generally mean you’ll do better by moving the jig a little faster.
The history of the skirted jig is quite interesting, if a little fragmented. This was bound to be the case, with so many backyard Chucks and Hanks across the USA tinkering in their sheds with old tyre balance weights, squirrel fur, deer hair and some hooks!
The first shredded rubber skirts were apparently fashioned from the strands off a lady’s girdle… One can only imagine how that particular conversation unfolded!
The sink rate and bulk of the jig can be adjusted by trimming, plucking or changing out the skirt. These subtle variations can mean the difference between some fish and lots of fish.
Set up some obstacles on the lawn: a few rocks and some sticks. Make a cast, then close your eyes for the retrieve. In next to no time, you’ll be able to tell the difference between grass, rocks, sand, gravel, sticks and so on.
Bob Carnes from Arkie Jigs was possibly the first guy to take things to another level, with mass production, quality control, marketing and distribution. Meanwhile, gun anglers were also stepping it up with experimentation and adaptation of their own. One of those was none other than Dee Thomas, a Californian Delta fisherman of some note. Dee is credited with the invention of flippin’ and pitchin’ in the late 1960s and early ’70s. (For those unfamiliar with pitching and flipping, they are rod-and-line control methods for casting short distances very accurately and quietly delivering skirted jigs and other lures into precise target areas with barely a splash.)
Interestingly, flipping and pitching were developed in direct response to a ban placed on “tule dipping” during fishing tournaments (“tule” is a species of water plant). Previously, jigs and other lures were being dipped or dapped directly into the water, deep within the dense tule beds, using a long pole, with the line tied to its end (Ned Kelly style)… Basic, but very very effective at the time! However, once this strategy was banned, tournament anglers needed to develop new methods for delivering their lures to the target. Thus flippin’ and pitchin’ were born, and the jigs to go with them.
Skirted jigs come in all manner of shapes, sizes, actions and colours. Each has its place.
I find it extraordinary the amount of development that has taken place across 40 years in the USA with skirted jigs. I mean, really what is there to it? It’s just a chunk of lead, a hook and a rubberized skirt, right?
Well, no. Not quite. There are so many variables, many of which I struggled with in my pursuit of skirted jig success on golden perch in the early years.
There are so many variables, many of which I struggled with in my pursuit of skirted jig success
on golden perch in the early years.
Back in the day, my first purchases were made overseas, via mail order, as industry enthusiasm in Australia for skirted jigs was roughly zero. Conversations in the local tackle shop typically ended with something like “skirted what?”. Thankfully, that’s all changed now, due in large part to Peter Phelps’ and Mitchell Cones’ efforts on our own Australian bass, and their numerous high profile tournament wins using these lures.
I remember an ecstatic phone conversation with Peter after his win in an ABT BASS Pro Grand Final while using skirted jigs on Glenbawn Dam. I don’t know who was more excited: him or me! Either way, I knew that win would catapult the skirted jig firmly into the mix, and availability locally would become much less of an issue. To a point, that has been the case, but in my opinion, many anglers are still to realize the advantages of this style of fishing, and perhaps this will always be the way.
Almost 15 years ago, my coming out of the closet moment with skirted jigs. It was onward and upward from this point. My confidence was sky-high.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that my first mail-order purchases were not well suited to fishing for golden perch. The hooks, for one thing, were way too big and heavy, not to mention those stiff-as-a-board weed guards. Also, the jig heads were what’s called “Arkie-style”, which is perfect for flipping presentations into heavy cover, but — as I was to find out — not exactly what the doctor ordered when it came to golden perch on open banks and over scattered, broken rock and gravel.
At the time, I was copping a fair bit of flak from some of my mates for using these jigs. Constantly getting snagged and missing fish wasn’t helping. I decide to shelve my jig ambitions when in company and only tinker away in the background with them on solo missions.
Working and adapting new techniques to suit our freshwater species is something I enjoy doing, but I’ve found experimentation is best done alone, away from distraction. It’s really the only way you can fully immerse yourself in the task at hand.
As the seasons rolled on, I continued my research. I was constantly fine tuning my approach. The Arkie-style flipping jigs had well and truly been shelved. I’d tried numerous other styles, and even caught a few fish on them, but by far the most successful style were the ones designed for smallmouth bass rather than largemouth. Well, hello! Light bulb moment. Why didn’t I think of this earlier? My catch rate went through the roof!
I can see now why my early efforts with skirted jigs on golden perch were such a flop. I had the mouth-to-jig-size ratio way out of kilter. It was a no-brainer, really. Once I started using jigs designed for smallmouth bass, my catch rates went through the roof.
Skirted jigs designed for smallmouth bass are smaller in size, the hook is of a finer gauge, the skirt is quiet often “spider cut”, with less strands. Also, the weed guard is usually softer or non-existent — which is fine by me, as I cut most of them off, anyway.
If you’re getting the message that “less is more” with golden perch on skirted jigs, than you’re on the money.
My time of reckoning came with a trip to Windamere Dam with Alex Hickson. We’d just drifted over a small patch of football- to fist-sized rocks. It was an area about as big as the average lounge room, located in five to six metres of water. A couple of familiar arches showed up on the sounder screen. My confidence had grown to a point where I knew that this set up was ideal for the jig. Alex has always been very accommodating when it came to my fishing experimentations, so out went the jig. Two small hops and I was on! From memory, I landed another two in quick succession off the same patch of rock. It was a breakthrough moment for me.
Inhaled! When you get the presentation down pat, this sort of situation is normal.
Happenings since have been many and varied. I now own a lot more jigs, each one specific for a given situation and circumstance.
Jigs designed for bottom contact in amongst football- to fist-sized rocks in the scenario I mentioned earlier are next to useless when fished around healthy weed beds or on active fish holding higher in the water column. It’s a real case of horses for courses when you get into the nitty-gritty of jig fishing.
Jig head design, line tie position, style of hook, rate of fall (ROF), skirt material or thickness and overall lure size are all factors that need to be carefully considered.
Jig head design, line tie position, style of hook, rate of fall (ROF), skirt material or thickness and overall lure size
are all factors that need to be carefully considered.
Interestingly, rate of fall (ROF), skirt thickness and overall size can be adjusted on the run. More than once, I’ve plucked or cut skirt strands to reduce overall bulk, and removed or added plastic trailers to change the size and ROF. At times, it’s been the difference between some fish and lots of fish.
Not any rod will do, either. Having no foregrip (or a very short one) is almost a must, I reckon. Direct contact via one or even two fingers right on the blank itself is very important in terms of “feel”. I’m not a big fan of cork or Hypalon grips on my jig rods. In fact, if I could duct tape my reels directly to the blank and get away with it, I probably would!
Being able to keep at least one finger in direct contact with the rod blank throughout the retrieve is a critical element in reading the bottom and detecting subtle takes.
If you feel a pluck on the pause but no solid take,
rip the jig away as quickly as possible with a fast rod sweep, then let it pendulum back towards the bottom on a semi-tight line. It rarely makes it down before getting engulfed!
Baitcaster set-ups are better than spin gear when slower bottom contact presentations are needed. Small reels are handy in that they allow you to smother the reel and get as many fingers forward of the reel as possible, onto the blank. Sometimes, on ultra-slow dragging presentations with jigs, I will even run the braid over an index finger just in front of the level wind, as if I was bait fishing.
Recently, I’ve also been successfully using a spinning outfit with no foregrip for some of my skirted jig work, notably faster presentations further away from the boat. It’s something I’m still working on, but it’s coming along nicely.
With the right set-up of hand position and finger placement on a slow presentation, it’s literally like dragging your fingertips across the bottom 40 metres away and six metres down… seriously! Testing your set-up in the yard at home is an awesome way of fine tuning your senses, too. I still do it now, especially a few weeks out from my first jig mission of a new season.
Set up some obstacles on the lawn: a few rocks and some sticks. Make a cast, then close your eyes for the retrieve. In next to no time, you’ll be able to tell the difference between grass, rocks, sand, gravel, sticks and so on. I kid you not! Oh, but just make sure the cat and dog are put away safely inside beforehand. Things can get a little bit scratchy if you don’t!
Late winter and early spring is prime time for skirted jig sessions. Increased daylight hours and a small up-shift in water temperatures gets the yabbies moving in their burrows. I’m sure the golden perch hear them and home in on clay-based rocky banks (football- to fist-sized rocks) waiting for them to emerge.
STATE OF MIND
Listen carefully, because this is important: I’ve come to realise, over time, that fishing a skirted jig —especially using the slowest of bottom-dragging presentations — won’t be for everyone. In fact, at times, I won’t pick one up even if its rigged and ready to go. Sometimes you just want things to be easy and laid-back… and fishing a jig properly is neither easy nor laid-back! The concentration required is totally next level.
Fishing a jig properly is neither easy nor laid-back! The concentration required is totally next level.
I’ve said it a few times now when I’m fishing a skirted jig: “my boat could be on fire and I wouldn’t know it’’. I will at times — depending on the company — even apologise in advance while tying a jig on for the upcoming silence that is sure to follow. Chit-chat and conversation are largely off the menu when I’m working a jig. You really need to be “in the zone”.
Be warned: for particular personalities this caper can also become rather addictive, so much so that at times I’ll persist with it, even when I know that another presentation will probably catch me more fish. It gets you in!
Tungsten heads, fine rubberized skirts, and a lighter gauge, super-sharp hook… The modern skirted jig is a far cry from what was kicking about the California Delta back when Dee Thomas started pitching and flipping the tule beds for largemouth bass.
There is no such thing as a “standard” retrieve when it comes to fishing a skirted jig. You may have heard the term “let the fish tell you what they want”? This is so apt when it comes to jigs. There are, however, some very general rules that are worth mentioning:
Most bottom-contact presentations with a jig are replicating the size, shape and actions of crawling yabbies. They are a key food item — especially in late winter and early spring — for golden perch. Taking the time to observe yabbies during their typical day-to-day activities (in contrast to a provocation into fight or flight) will give you a fair idea on how to best go about such a retrieve. Normally, these crustaceans are pretty sedate and slow moving. Hence the slow dragging retrieve, with lots of pauses.
Fight or flight is where it gets interesting. If I get a pluck on the pause but no solid take, I will rip the jig away as quickly as possible with a fast rod sweep, then pendulum the jig back towards the bottom on a semi-tight line. It rarely makes it back to the bottom before getting engulfed. I came across this trick quiet accidentally when missing fish on a bite and hook-set. It took a little while for the penny to drop, but when you think about it, it’s exactly what happens most of the time when yabbies are attacked: flick, zoom, drop.
Mid-water presentations are more aligned with baitfish, so a slim-line or swim jig with a direct line tie front and centre is best. To fish this way is very much aligned to how you would present a soft plastic. A straight retrieve or slow roll is often best.
A swim-jig with a light weed guard can offer a little more bulk with enhanced movement over a longer portion of its body. I use this quiet often when casting to weed beds when the outline of the weed is hard to define. Ripping the swim jig out of the weed is highly recommended, too, and often induces hits.
My learnings with skirted jigs has been limited mostly to one species: the golden perch. It’s been good in a way, because it has allowed me to define many things in great detail. My expansion into other arenas and species has already begun. Some parallels certainly exist… but that’s a topic for another time and space. Meanwhile, happy jigging!
I’ve shelved my early jig rods as part of the ongoing learning curve. Cork feels great in the hand, but it also insulates you from what you need to feel most. The feedback available from a graphite handle or the blank itself is earth shattering in comparison.