Among all types of fishing lures, the jig is the least complicated—simply a piece of dense metal molded around a hook; no more, no less. Even its name is short and to-the-point. Yet, arguably, this angling wonder is responsible for tightening more lines and bending more rods than any other form of artificial lure.
The major reason for its success is its ability to cross so many boundaries. A jig will entice and trigger strikes from a countless variety of gamefish species; it can be fished in any type of water body imaginable; plus, you can deadstick, crawl, hop or swim a jig, adjusting its speed in frog’s-hair increments to exactly match the activity level of the fish you’re targeting.
Because of its total lack of buoyancy, however, there’s one thing you can’t readily do with a jig—swim it very slowly off the bottom. At least you can’t without a little help, that is.
I ran into this problem one day long ago as I was trying to catch enough crappies to satisfy my family’s craving for a fresh-caught fish dinner.
It was early spring, and I was on a shallow, dark-bottom backwater that registered a surface temp in the low 50s. The fish were in prespawn feeding mode, but they were only active, not aggressive.
The shallow water meant I had to make long casts to keep the boat from spooking fish out of the zone. It worked, but only just. Crappies would greedily engulf any lively minnow pinned to a size 10 Aberdeen hook suspended under a slip float; the problem was that maybe only one out of four minnows actually made it all the way to the strike zone.
The force required to launch the light rig 40 feet with a 61/2-foot rod caused the bait’s lip or dorsal skin to tear, and the little minnow would depart the hook like a Navy pilot ejecting from a jet fighter in a flatspin.
Swapping the bait rig for a small curlytail jig wasn’t a viable option either because the retrieve speed needed to keep the jig off bottom was too fast. The crappies were willing to chase, but not too much, and ignored anything that moved quickly.
Combining the two presentations was the solution, except that I tied in a fixed, instead of a slip, float above the jig. Although the crappies were no more than moderately active, they were still dialed into a horizontal presentation, and the float allowed me to drag the jig through the water at an ultra-slow pace—too slow to have fished the jig effectively without the float.
Multi Species Magic
Many anglers have done the same thing while targeting a variety of gamefish species, but a cadre of diehard fishermen in the Southeast has perfected the “float-and-fly” system to a near scientific level.
Bob Coan, premier guide on Tennes-see’s famous Dale Hollow Lake, was one of the first to embrace the technique, and spent years tweaking and fine tuning the components and his presentation.
“First of all, the term ‘fly’ is just the redneck expression for ‘doll fly,’” explains Coan, referring to what leadhead jigs adorned with hair or feathers are called in some parts of the country, “and the whole float-and-fly technique started with a bunch of hardcore East Tennessee crappie anglers who used cane poles to dabble the rig around brush.
“But the problem was, the area they could fish was limited by the length of the pole they used. The water in Dale Hollow is ultra clear, so I wanted to be able to cast the rig 30, 40, even 50 feet to skittish crappies, smallmouths, largemouths and spotted bass.”
After experimenting for some time, Coan came up with a modified weighted float that not only provided extra casting weight, but also registered even the lightest bites. He took the idea to his lifelong friend Stephen Headrick, owner of Punisher Lures.
“Bob’s an outstanding angler,” says Headrick. “He knows fish, and is always looking for better ways to catch them.”
Between the two, they devised a rod, line, float and fly combination that is far more versatile than a dabbling pole, and much more productive, especially during the winter months when finesse tactics become more important.
Out West, float-and-fly techniques for oversize largemouths are just beginning to blossom, and NAFC member, big-bass specialist and lure designer Bill Siemantel is a true pioneer in the art, having first experienced the magic multi-species attraction jigs offer when he was just a young fisherman.
“I remember my dad tying a float and marabou jig on my line when we were fishing crappies,” he says, “but we’d also catch bass, trout, catfish and bluegills while fishing the rig. It wasn’t too long before I started trying things on my own and began fishing it in spots I knew crappies weren’t likely to be. And I started catching big bass.”
Different Regions And Styles
East or West, float-and-fly fishing is obviously a finesse technique, but the equipment these two anglers use, and the ways they employ it, diverge tremendouly. Siemantel’s tools are fairly standard, while a breakdown of Coan’s gear includes a 9-foot, light-action All Pro spinning rod, 6-pound test (2-pound diameter) FireLine, a 4- or 6-pound, 11- to 14-foot fluorocarbon leader, a weighted Punisher float and 1/16-ounce hair or feather jig.
Everything that makes Coan’s rig work is about balance, balance between rod and leader lengths, and balance among the float, a three-way swivel and the jig.
Rather than simply wrapping his line around the float’s bottom hook, Coan attaches it to the open loop of a size 4 three-way swivel that connects the main line to the leader. This not only prevents line wear and twist, he says, but also helps create a delicate equilibrium between the bait and float.
“Punisher floats are weighted internally so they’re top-heavy (see “Top Weighted Round Float” illustration), but the weight of the swivel, along with the 1/16-ounce jig balance it perfectly. When the jig hangs below the float, the float stands straight up.”
Purposely weighting the float in this manner offers a number of advantages, he explains. With a standard round float, it’s often difficult to recognize a strike when a fish takes the jig and continues swimming upward. The top-weighted float, however, immediately rolls on its side. Likewise, when a fish strikes as the fly falls to terminal depth, the float won’t stand up at all.
In other situations, such as when fishing close to a shoreline, a float that doesn’t go upright could mean the jig has hit bottom, or come to rest on a weed or twig, in which case you need to pull the rig farther downslope or away from cover.
“Most guys make the mistake of only watching for the float to go down when a fish hits,” says Coan. “You have to keep an eye on it all the time because it will tell you exactly what’s happening every second.”
Balance between rod length and leader length is another critical factor. “Gen-erally, from December through March, when water temps are 50 degrees or lower, we typically target smallmouths in the 11- to 12-foot range because that’s the depth where baitfish tend to hold that time of year,” says Coan.
“Being successful requires locating balls of baitfish with your sonar, then positioning the boat for a cast. Keep it far enough away that it doesn’t spook the fish, then you want the fly to suspend about eight to 10 inches below the ball so it looks like a straggler that will be easy prey to bigger fish that typically hold under the school.”
When Coan targets winter crappies, he looks for green weeds that top out anywhere from eight to 10 feet below the surface in Dale Hollow’s clear water. The crappies find food and shelter in the vegetation, and it’s not uncommon to catch a limit or two out of one patch of green.
Other times you may have to jump from weedbed to weedbed and focus on catching active fish.
“Whether they’re smallies or crappies, the retrieve should be slow,” says Coan. “Bounce the rodtip four or five times to give the fly some action, then slowly reel in about 18 inches of line and bounce the tip again.”
While the retrieve is straightforward, the cast is fairly complex. Getting the float and 10 or more feet of leader moving forward through the air requires the angler to think and act like a fly fisherman (see “Long Leader Casting” illustration). It begins with the rig in the water out in front, then you haul it over your shoulder and let the line straighten out to the rear. Listen for the fly (and sometimes the float) to splash into the water behind you, then begin the forward stroke.
Depending on wind conditions, says Coan, an angler should be able to sail the light float-and-fly up to 50 feet with the long, limber rod.
NAFC member Bill Siemantel has a wide-ranging reputation for thinking far beyond the normal scope of most anglers. So, while his float-and-fly rig is similar to Coan’s, he added a few twists and turns to match his style of fishing for West Coast largemouths. One difference is that he doesn’t consider it strictly a cold-water, fixed-float rig.
“When you talk about a float-and-fly, most guys think about 45- to 50-degree water in the spring, but that’s not always the case. You can fish it anytime you need a precision presentation.
“I use a slip float setup a lot more than most float-and-fly fishermen,” he says. “This allows me to drop the jig vertically into places that I otherwise couldn’t. Weed pockets and brush are just two of many examples.”
At the heart of Siemantel’s system, of course, is the float. He uses a Betts Mr. Crappie Rattlin Pear, or a pear-shape center slider balsa slip float, because this style tends to give away light-biters better than round or standard stem-type floats.
“Either one will work; if you use the Rattlin Pear, all you have to do is turn the bottom hook 180 degrees so the line will slip through.”
For situations that require extreme finesse, however, he prefers the balsa float because the hole through which the line slides is typically small enough that it’s not necessary to use the stopper bead.
“I watch the float stop on the line as the jig sinks to bottom; if it stops or starts skating across the surface, I know a bass hit the jig on the way down.
“I like the slip float rig, fished on 4- or 6-pound Maxima Ultragreen mono, because it lets you pinpoint your presentation. In a weedbed, for example, you can drop the jig into a pocket, then reel it straight up, move it over the weedtops to the next pocket and drop the jig straight down again (see “Slip Float–And-Fly” illustration).
“The beauty of this rig is that there’s no ‘wrong way’ to fish it. The 7/8-inch Rattlin Pear balances perfectly with the 1/16-ounce Phat Fly, and the 1-inch Pear matches up with the 1/8-ounce jig. It’ll work around brush, abutments and bridge pilings, rip rap—whatever you’re fishing. It’s only limited by your imagination.”
Siemantel is also fanatical about making a lure act as much like a natural baitfish as possible, and says the float-and-fly allows him to manipulate the lure so it does just that.
“There are direction changes, like when you twitch the rodtip to make the jig bounce up-and-down, and there are course changes, such as when you make it turn on the retrieve.
“Combine a direction change and a course change and you’ve got a jig that acts like a real baitfish does.”
Siemantel often sweeps the rodtip from side-to-side to affect a course change, but also makes use of wind and water current to do the same thing (see “Using The Wind” illustration).
“When you’re fishing any type of float rig in the wind, it often blows a bow in the line, which acts as a sail and pulls the float across the surface.
“Most fishermen reel in line to get rid of the slack, thinking it will make strike detection more difficult. Really, they should use it to help them get the jig into the strike zone. Instead of casting right to the end of a point, or the top of a hump, cast upwind and let the wind push the rig toward your target. You can take in line to maneuver it along or around the structure and make the jig act like a real baitfish.”
At the same time he’ll subtly snap the rodtip up-and-down to impart action to the jig. It’s all about creating what he calls “multiple angles” with the rod to make the jig appear alive and as natural as possible.
Another Siemantel wrinkle is that he uses a more typical 71/2-foot rod—a Lamiglas RR 76 MTS. It’s a medium-light power, two-piece spinning rod with a fast action. When casting a slip float rig, rod length isn’t such a critical factor, however, he uses the same outfit when fishing a fixed float system. “I’m 6-2, and when I’m standing on a casting deck, I have enough height to cast a 7- or 8-foot leader,” he says.
The float-and-fly is a useful tool when targeting bass and crappies, but don’t leave out bluegills, pike, trout or even walleyes. You may run into situations where this unique rig fits the bill better than anything else.