Photo by Keith Sutton.
Have you ever thought how different bass fishing was in days gone by? The modern tackle we use is very different from — and much better than — the simple tools used by anglers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Back in “the old days,” catching bass was much more difficult.
To compensate for poor-quality short-range tackle, early anglers developed innovative fishing techniques designed to draw up-close strikes. Three such techniques — skittering, jiggerpoling and doodlesocking — are rarely tried by most of today’s bass anglers. But as more people learn about the incredible success one can experience when employing these old-fashioned fishing methods, an increasing number of anglers are giving these tactics a try.
With a bit of improvisation, you can adapt modern tackle for skittering, jiggerpoling and doodlesocking. And you’re sure to find the results pleasing.
When thick weeds hinder an angler’s use of more-conventional fishing techniques, bass can be caught by skittering. This old-fashioned tactic, once used by market fishermen swinging perch bellies or frogs, typically employs a sturdy 10- to 12-foot cane pole, jig pole or fly rod and an equal length of line. A pork frog or strip of fish belly is affixed to a stout hook and the bait skittered across broad openings in weed patches. If bass are present, they’ll hit with frenzied, chomping charges.
One earliest description of skittering was written in 1791 by naturalist/explorer William Bartram who observed it being used in the southeast U.S.
“I found some of my companions fishing for (bass) . . . with a hook and line, but without any bait. Two people are in a little canoe, one sitting in the stern to steer, and the other near the bow, having a rod ten or twelve feet in length, to one end of which is tied a strong line . . . to which are fastened three large hooks, back to back. These are fixed very securely, and covered with the white hair of a deer’s tail, shreds of a red garter, and some parti-coloured feathers, all which form a tuft or tassel, nearly as large as one’s fist, and entirely cover and conceal the hooks: this is called a bob.
The steersman paddles softly, and proceeds slowly along shore, keeping the boat parallel to it, at a distance just sufficient to admit the fisherman to reach the edge of the floating weeds along shore; he now ingeniously swings the bob backwards and forwards, just above the surface, and sometimes tips the water with it; when the unfortunate cheated fish instantly springs from under the weeds, and seizes the supposed prey. Thus he is caught without a possibility of escape, unless he break the hooks, line or rod, which he, however, sometimes does by dint of strength; but, to prevent this, the fisherman used to the sport, is careful not to raise the reed (pole) suddenly up, but jerks it instantly backwards, then steadily drags the sturdy reluctant fish to the side of the canoe, and with a sudden upright jerk brings him into it.”
In Fishing in American Waters published almost a century later in 1888, we learn from Genio Scott that skittering was still popular, and anglers had enhanced their rigs with fishing spoons.
“Angling . . . among the lily-pads and pickerel-weed is very exciting sport. The angler should use a rod from 13 to 15 feet long, flexible, but strong. For skittering, a float is not used, nor is natural bait the best. Use Buel’s or M’Harg’s spoons, mounted with red ibis feather, and white feathers or hair for the under side of the spoon. Stand near the bow . . . and skitter the lure along the surface of the water, near the margins of the lily-pads.”
I often fished with my old Uncle Guy when I was a youngster, and I remember how he skittered for largemouths in the oxbow lakes we visited. He would first catch a sunfish and cut a piece of flesh from its belly. This was affixed to a stout hook tied to several feet of Dacron line on a long, sturdy cane pole. While I sculled him about, he skittered that piece of fish-flesh across openings in weed patches and caught dozens of bass. In later years, he sometimes used a weedless Johnson Silver Minnow spoon with a pork frog or eel trailer, a technique still employed by most “skitterers.”
Uncle Guy also taught me jiggerpoling. This was a fairly common bassing method in the mid-1960s, at least in the backcountry waters we fished. While crappie fishing, we’d watch many anglers working shallow shoreline cover with their jiggerpoles. And if the crappie weren’t biting, we’d join them.
For jiggerpoling, we employed the same cane poles we used for crappie. The light line was replaced by heavy Dacron run along the pole, from butt to tip, and secured at regular intervals with strips of electrical tape. A 12- to 24-inch piece extended beyond the tip. To this was attached a topwater lure, usually a Heddon Dowagiac or Creek Chub Pikie.
“You want to make it look like a little fish is chasing an even littler fish on the surface,” Uncle Guy explained. “You do this by tapping your rod tip on the water ahead of the lure as you pull it around. This makes it look like the lure is chasing a minnow, and when a big bass sees this, he’ll rush in and grab it.”
Back and forth went Guy’s rod tip. He held the jiggerpole in his left hand, and balanced it across his right knee. He would gently shake the pole with his right hand, flipping the water with the pole’s tip. Then, without warning, the water would boil as if someone had flushed a toilet: Bass on! Uncle Guy would back the pole in and hoist another largemouth into the boat.
We worked all cover near the banks thoroughly. This provided a sure advantage. Anglers who cast and retrieve may miss fish lying between targets, but with a jiggerpole, you can cover an entire shoreline. And because the pole is so long, you can lift your lure and put it in pockets that might otherwise be missed. You can fish in the center of logjams, under low-hanging boat docks and behind stumps and bushes. Few places exist where a jiggerpole won’t swim a topwater.
Reason two for jiggerpoling’s effectiveness: The lure remains longer in the fish’s strike zone than does a lure being cast and retrieved. Bass see and hear the lure coming down the bank and wait in ambush. When fish aren’t feeding aggressively, an angler can slow the pole’s rhythm, making the lure look so tempting a bass will strike even if it’s not hungry.
rpoling was at the peak of its popularity, cane poles were used, but modern practitioners prefer 12- to 16-foot fiberglass or graphite/composite jigging poles. Dacron was the line of choice for old-timers, but folks now use braided lines. The line should be stout, 30-pound-test minimum. To avoid losing fish if the pole’s tip breaks, run line along the whole length, and tape it at several points. Leave only a foot or two beyond the tip, and place a snap swivel at line’s end to lessen line twist.
I suppose any topwater lure could be used, but prop baits seem especially effective. My favorite was always the big Heddon Dowagiac, a model with propellers fore and aft, which was armed with five sets of treble hooks. In fact, this bassing technique once was called “dowjacking,” a name that originated from the use of this lure. Other lures I have employed successfully include the Smithwick Devil’s Horse, Cordell’s Boy Howdy, Luhr-Jensen’s Nip-I-Diddee and Heddon’s Torpedo.
In many ways, doodlesocking is like jiggerpoling. You can use the same pole, line and lures, rigged as I have already described. But while jiggerpoling requires finesse to work successfully, doodlesocking does not. In this instance, the lure is worked back and forth very quickly with short repetitive sweeps of the pole. This is hurly-burly stuff, and the objective is to make as much noise as you can with the lure. Doodlesocking is similar to skittering as well, but the lure is on a short line — no more than 24 inches and usually shorter — so it can be fished in a circular or figure-eight pattern in small openings. Skittering uses a line typically as long as the pole, and the lure is usually worked on the open surface above weed beds.
It’s exciting when a bass gets a bellyful of your doodlesocking plug making bubble trails across its ceiling. The strikes are violent; sometimes a fish hits so hard it throws water in your face. If a bass misses your lure, no problem: Drag the enticement back over the fish and hold tight. Lunkers may hit several times before you hook up.
On one Southern river I often fish, which is loaded with largemouth and spotted bass, local anglers say the best time for doodlesocking is late July, August and September when water levels are low.
“I use a strong, 12-foot fly rod, one that’s stout enough to maneuver bass out of heavy cover,” said one man I interviewed on the water. “Tie on a spinnerbait or topwater lure, leaving about a foot of line between the rod and the lure. Then you’re ready for action.” Good lures include the Arbogast Sputterbuzz, the Rebel Buzz’n Frog and Booyah’s Pond Magic buzzbait.
Another angler I talked to said that he fishes his rig around drift piles, where logs and debris floated together in rafts along the river’s main channel. Wading to these areas or positioning a boat nearby, he then works the lure through the water with quick, back-and forth sweeps of the rod.
“Stick the lure back under those drifts, then jerk it back and forth,” he said. “If there’s a bass back under there, he’ll come out and get it.”
Shad or big minnows also can be used for doodlesocking. “Tie on a 3/0 hook instead of the lure,” the fisherman said, “add a small sinker to get the bait under the water, then run the hook down through the bait’s mouth and out its side. Then doodlesock the bait around drifts with a swimming motion.”
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Catching bass using these old-fashioned techniques takes a bit of learning, but don’t let that discourage you. Skittering, jiggerpoling and doodlesocking may seem out-of-date for catching today’s largemouths, but these tactics are just as relevant and potent now as they were decades ago.