Diehard anglers, those true fish heads, are often accused of sideways thinking by non-fishing family and friends. But it usually has to do with their general outlook on life and the priorities they set, especially when it comes to a hot bite.
Say, like when they must choose between chasing a rumor of shallow, hungry bass on Lake Iwannacatch and attending the sister-in-law’s birthday party.
There are times, though, when sideways thinking won’t get you into trouble. In fact, it won’t do anything but help you catch more and bigger bass.
Fishermen like Alton Jones, Mitch Looper and Lonnie Stanley think sideways all the time—sideways as in horizontal, and horizontal as in horizontal jigging.
Jones and Stanley say that, under the right circumstances, swimming a jig over, around and through cover, rather than pitching and dropping it into the junk, can bring more fish to boatside. Looper is convinced the technique also triggers strikes from a larger class of bass, as well.
A big-bass specialist from Hackett, Arkansas, Looper is a pioneer in modern swimming jig techniques, as well as the inspiration behind the creation of Booyah’s Swim’n Jig, which features a flattened, winged head that allows the jig to plane near the surface on the retrieve as well as vibrate the skirt and rattles.
Just months after its introduction, however, a different style of swimming jig, Rad Lures’ Chatter Bait, grabbed a good chunk of the spotlight when tournament anglers began cashing checks with the bait. This style has a swimming blade up front, which imparts an even more aggressive wobble to the lure.
These jigs, along with similar baits, spawned a strong resurgence in the technique in 2006. But if you ask Looper, many anglers don’t make the most of the Swim’n Jig’s potential.
Fast And Shallow
“Lure speed is what triggers strikes,” he says. “It causes a reaction strike, and it’s not because the fish ‘gets mad.’ It happens when a bass notices that something is trying to get away.”
Looper learned the beginnings of that lesson two decades ago during a fishing trip with his wife Lisa on one of his many home waters.
While launching the boat he noticed a swirl on the surface in a patch of water willows growing near shore.
“I told my wife that it was either a bass or a carp, but we were going to find out. I started with a spinnerbait, then a buzzbait, and finally pitched a jig to the spot. It was an Arkie-style jig, the only kind we had back then. Still, nothing.
“Finally, I gave up on the fish and decided to move. I was just trying to get the lure in so we could leave, cranking it real fast about an inch under the surface, when a 71/2 pounder annihilated it. Right then, I decided to concentrate on thick, shallow weeds that day, and had 30 bites from bass over 5 pounds.”
As Looper experimented with the technique on subsequent trips, he realized he was onto something, but also that the Arkie-style jighead had its shortcomings. “Most of the time it picked up grass on the retrieve, so I modified it.”
With a file, hammer, metal shears and pliers, Looper flattened the head, snipped it into a wedge and bent the line tie to a more horizontal position. The streamlined jig planed over most weeds, shed those it did touch, and caught bass. Soon, he began selling his swimming jigs to friends and other anglers.
Years later, Looper fished with Chris Gulstad, now National Sales Manager for Pradco, which owns Booyah. After that trip, Gulstad began pushing the company to manufacture the jig.
“We were fishing a lake close to the plant, and having fair luck with topwaters and spinnerbaits,” he says. “Then, Mitch pulled out his swimming jig and we fished the same area. It was obvious he’d been setting me up, because in 15 minutes, I caught more and bigger fish than ever before.”
The appeal, according to both men, is that the fast-moving bait has a tight shimmy that shakes the skirt and built-in rattles. “When you look at the jig in the test tank,” says Looper, “you can see the bottom half of the skirt, below the line of the hook shank, just vibrating as the lure swims.”
Where The Bass Are
“Big largemouths will be in shallow water, using weeds for cover, more often than people think,” says Looper, “and you can catch them with this technique almost anytime.”
On the lakes he fishes, however, a couple of prime periods occur that make the angler drool with anticipation. One is early spring when the water is warming up to about 52 degrees, and the weedtops may be just a few inches to a couple feet under the surface. During this time of year weedbeds often get hammered by anglers, but that doesn’t discourage Looper.
“I’ve watched one or two boats work over a weedbed, then gone in behind them and caught four or five bass in a few minutes.”
Later in the season, Looper’s excitement level rises when the weather begins to turn. “Big bass go shallow when a storm’s coming in. And I mean shallow—in as little as one foot of water. Most people don’t believe it until they’ve seen it.
“I love to be out there when it gets nasty, just before a storm. The wind might be blowing 25 miles an hour, but I’m fishing. It’s a great opportunity to catch numbers of huge fish, and it happens more times than people realize.”
Almost anywhere Looper fishes a Swim’n Jig, he says a fast retrieve, heavy line and stout gear are essential.
“When cover is medium to fairly heavy, I use a 61/2-foot medium-action rod and 25-pound mono. If it’s really heavy, I’ll go to a heavy-action rod that’s the same length.”
The shorter rod, as opposed to a 71/2 or 8 footer, doesn’t hinder the long-range casts he needs to keep from spooking shallow bass, plus it provides the muscle required to pull a hefty fish out of the junk.
His baitcasting reel, a Pflueger Trion LP, is muscular, too, he says, with a spool wide enough to hold lots of 25-pound line.
“It has a 6.3-to-1 retrieve ratio and a big arbor. When the spool is full, I bring in up to 31 inches of line per crank.”
Because Looper concentrates on probing thick cover, every part of his arsenal, right down to the hook, is chosen for its strength. Some jig swimmers prefer a bait with a light-wire hook in order to get maximum penetration, but Looper’s not in that camp. “You’ve got to have enough hook; otherwise a big fish is just going to straighten it out and break your heart.”
Slow And Deep
Professional angler and long-time NAFC friend Alton Jones of Waco, Texas, is another who includes jig-swimming techniques in his angling repertoire.
Like Looper, Jones says the Swim’n Jig shines when bass are shallow and back in the cover. “It’s ideal in lily pads, alligator weed and other thick vegetation.”
He burns the bait just inches below the surface, but likes to add a rapid-fire rodtip twitch to the retrieve. “It’s a fast twitch—real fast. You want to make it look like it’s swimming for its life; make the bass think that something else is chasing that bait, and it had better grab it quick.”
More often, though, especially during the late-winter and prespawn periods, Jones targets fish in deeper water, eight to 20 feet, with a standard bass jig.
Swimming jigs like Tom Monsoor’s or the Road Runner are meant to come through weeds more slowly; even Looper slow-rolls a Swim’n Jig over deep weeds on occasion. But Jones preferes a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce Booyah Boo Jig for the job.
The presentation depends on what the bass are doing—a crayfish bite would mean working the jig on the bottom. If they’re chasing baitfish, swimming is more productive.
“That can change from day-to-day, though,” he says. “Look for things that will show you what to do. One big clue—if bass follow your jig to the boat—swim the bait.
“It’s a great presentation for suspended bass in the treetops, and around boat docks. It’s a look they don’t see from other anglers.”
Jones goes big when gearing up for this presentation, using 30-pound braided line when fishing weeds, and 50-pound when probing wood. He tips each with a 4-foot length of 20- to 25-pound fluorocarbon leader, and spools the works onto an Ardent baitcaster, anchored to a 61/2-foot, medium-heavy action Kistler Helium LTA casting rod.
Undoubtedly, bladed swimming jigs have caused the greatest stir most recently, and some anglers have given it “magic bait” status. Others, like Jones and Looper, say they have their place, mostly where cover is sparse or absent—like sand or gravel flats, or along outside weedlines.
“A bladed swimming jig is a different tool completely,” says Jones, “and the drawback is that it’s not particularly weedless. Most days I can catch more bass on a standard jig, but I’ll say this—when they’re biting the blade, you better be throwing it.”
Lonnie Stanley, of the famous tackle company that bears his name, takes a broader view, saying the weedguard and teardrop blade on his Swim Jig has proven itself in many situations, including in lily pads and brush.
“You can swim it over the pads and drop it into pockets. I’ve caught 7s and 8s doing this,” he says.
He’s also had success fishing the lure over deep trees, and over ledges and humps in the 15- to 25-foot range, although the presentation is typically more like vertical jigging. The blade vibrates on the upstroke, attracting fish that usually strike as the jig falls back.
“A swimming jig will work anywhere,” he says, “under boat docks, through peppergrass; I think it would work on bedding bass. Drag it slow across the bottom, but fast enough to keep the blade moving.”
The fact is, bass chase prey, and not every minnow, shad or bluegill they eat is wounded and fluttering. Next time you break out the jig box, engage in a little sideways thinking, the kind that won’t get you into trouble at home.