“It was a bit slow today,” Bret Stuart told me. “Hooked seven is all. Yesterday we hit 15 fish on the same stretch. One day last week we hooked 20 in this section. I don’t know what happened today.”
I stood slackjawed: 15, 20 summer steelhead hookups in one day on the same section of river I’d been fishing the past 25 years? I’d come to be happy with four or five fish hooked each trip.
Jig-fishing for steelhead is nothing new to Western anglers, but the way Stuart approaches it is. The fishing guide has his approach down to a science, and what I’ve learned from him and picked up through my own trial and error has added a new and exciting dimension to the way I attack steelhead. Change is good, and if you want to increase your odds of catching fish, this is one change you’ll want to make immediately.
“The biggest mistake I see being made is people trying to fish jigs with their baitcasting setup,” comments Stuart. That was my error a year prior, and I didn’t even realize it.
I love rolling eggs and Corkys for steelies, and carting another rod setup around just to fish jigs seemed unnecessary. After two days of dedicated fishing with bobbers – and not getting so much as a single nibble – I reverted back to my usual tactics and wrote jig-fishing off as a fad. Not until a year later, when I personally fished with Stuart, did I learn how to work a bobber and jig properly.
The spinning outfit is the most critical element in jig-fishing. Without it you won’t cover water, you can’t properly work the bobber, and thus, the jig will not be fishing with 100 percent accuracy. A spinning reel lets you work the jig where you want it and allows you to mend the line when needed, which can be several times a cast in fast water. This is something that simply cannot be done as effectively with a baitcasting arrangement.
The second key element – and the one that forever changed the art of jig-fishing – is the bobber stopper. In all my research, my leads take me back to Stuart as the man who introduced the bobber stopper to steelhead fishing in fast rivers. Ardent jig fanatics who don’t even know Stuart credit “The Jig Man” for bringing the bobber stopper to steelhead waters.
He first tried the bobber stopper for steelhead in 1998. For years anglers had been applying the bobber stopper for bait-fishing salmon in tidewater, and Stuart reasoned that it should work with artificial attractants in fast, shallow water. After a bit of tinkering, he had a fail-safe system in place.
The entire setup consists of a jig tied to a leader, the opposite end of which is tied off to a ball-bearing barrel swivel that’s attached to the mainline. On the main line sits the bobber, and above that, a small bead. Affixed to the mainline, above the bead, is the bobber stopper: a piece of string that snugs against the line, not moving until you make it move, and not allowing the bobber to slide past.
Rod-wrapping string or a heavy gauge thread will work best, as they will not slide up and down the line until physically moved. Pre-made bobber stoppers can be purchased, complete with beads, which work to some people’s satisfaction; I’ve had too much slipping occur with such models.
By positioning the bobber stopper where you want it, you control the depth at which you fish. If you want to fish in a foot of water, simply shorten the leader to 6 to 8 inches in length and slide the stopper down near the top of the bobber. If you want to fish 20 feet of water, slide the stopper 20 feet up your line. Another bonus is that the bobber stopper easily winds on the spool and slides freely through the guides when cast.
There are two types of bobbers I use: A foam bobber crafted by West Coast Floats and the wooden Center Slide bobber created by Thill. Both are ideal, for they are sensitive, offer high visibility and are easy to read.
The smaller, more streamlined the bobber, the less likely fish are to detect any resistance when striking the jig. Large bobbers create too much drag and make proper mending next to impossible. If shaping your own floats, craft one that is sleek and allows the jig to move downstream in a natural position.
When cast upstream, you want to get your bobber floating vertically as quickly as possible. Watch your bobber closely. If the top tips downstream, your jig is hitting bottom and you need to adjust your bobber stopper. If your bobber tips upstream, mend the line. This is where the 12-foot noodle rod is preferred, as it allows you to aggressively move more line, thereby working more water.
Upwards of 90 percent of bobber-and-jig fishing involves looselining – that is, the bail is flipped open and the line freely falls from the spool. This insures there is no resistance on the line, allowing your bobber to ride vertically and hold the jig in a natural position as it drifts downstream. From the top of the cast to the bottom of the drift – which may be 150 yards – I rarely reel.
Though lightweight monofilament can be used, the ideal mainline is one that rides high in the river. Floating line lets you mend easily and fish more water. The longer you can keep your line floating, the easier it is to mend, thus, the more water you fish.
Leaders are ever changing with water conditions. Early in the year when the water is high and the fish full of life, a 10-pound leader is ideal. I know of anglers who’ll go u
p to 12-pound in extreme conditions. As summer progresses, low, clear water can make fishing jigs a challenge. Dropping to 8-, 6- or even 4-pound leader is a wise move at this stage. A 12-foot noodler absorbs much of the fight, thus allowing lighter line to be employed.
Jig colors can vary from river to river, day to day, depending on water conditions and personal preference. A pink-headed, purple-bodied jig is one I keep in the water as much as possible. This color combination has had the most consistent success no matter when or where fished. There are no limits to the color of jigs available, but orange, green, black, pink and white – alone or in combination – are all must-haves.
There are several jigs on the market, but the only ones I use – along with many converted jig fanatics – are those crafted by Stuart himself. He hand ties each jig, gets a nice tight wrap and uses only the best, most reactive marabou. Another key component of Stuart’s jigs is how the heads are finished. Many anglers leave the lead head bare, while others apply various paints. By blending Cabela’s Vinyl Lure And Jig Finish Paints, Stuart produces color combinations that create the illusion of three dimensions and look captivating underwater. Prior to fishing jigs, offset the hook so it’s not in direct alignment with the cumbersome jighead. This will result in a high percentage of hookups.
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