July 13, 2020
It was a hot and steamy day in July. Swimmers plunged from pontoon boats, then climbed back aboard to retreat beneath the canopies to beers and umbrella drinks. The rest of local humanity took shelter in air-conditioned quarters. As morning sweated into afternoon, the lake was fisherman-free with one exception. Me.
Familiar complaints had been building all week. The weather is too hot. The lake water is too warm. The bass aren't biting. But I was celebrating football season—that is, football jig season—and the bass bite was as hot as the near-triple-digit midday temperature.
A black-and-blue-skirted football jig with a twin-legged trailer of matched hue drew the first strike before the jig hit bottom. A 3-pound largemouth soon came to boat. It was game-on for the next three hours.
The fish were spread out over deep structure—points and inside turns with sunken timber strewn along a bottom that ranged from 9 to 20-plus feet deep. An inside turn brought four fish to the boat on consecutive casts. My first 5-pound largemouth came as I edged out to deeper water and worked the jig with short pulls and brief pauses on a semi-slack line. A second came minutes later. Before the flurry ended, 19 bass, nearly all between 3 and 5-plus pounds, came to boat.
Buck Perry, the father of structure fishing, unlocked a simple secret to summer bass fishing when he posited that "the deep water is the home of the fish." True, a portion of the bass population on any given body of water will find some shelter in shallow water, like under matted vegetation or deadfall, during summer. Or they could be in the shade of docks, boats or tree stumps. Regardless, the lion's share of your favorite lake's big bass retreat to offshore structure—the points, drop-offs, sunken islands, inside turns, bottom content transitions, saddle areas and outside edges of aquatic vegetation—as they settle into summer patterns.
Find cover in the form of tree stumps, chunk rock, boulders, sunken trees, cribs or even an old auto body on that structure, and its real estate value climbs considerably from a bass' perspective.
"Deep" is a relative concept, of course. On many waters in the upper Midwest, for instance, the pivot point from shallow to deep is a natural breakline, or drop-off, at 9 to 12 feet. On deeper, clearer lakes and reservoirs, smallmouths and largemouths alike might reside in far deeper water.
But don't go too deep. Always fish structure above the thermocline, that depth band in the water column at which the temperature drops quickly and beneath which there is little dissolved oxygen.
A clean bottom beyond a grassline is a key target area. Grass edges vary with water clarity. Murky water limits sunlight penetration and plant growth. In dark waters, grasslines might sit high up on a sloping flat. In clear lakes, vegetation might grow down a steep drop-off.
Two of my all-time favorite and most reliable tools for bass that are situated on deep structure in summer are football- and swing-head jigs used in combination with several hand-picked soft-plastic trailers.
Fishing a football jig—so named for its oblong head design—is definitely a "contact" sport. Football jigs tend to be heavyweights in the jig realm, with 1/2- and 3/4-ounce heads dominating the line and 1- to 1 1/2-ounce jigs getting decent use. They are tailor-made for an old leather-helmet ground game. They bump bottom, stir up aquatic turf and stimulate a bass's hunger and aggression.
"A key feature of the football head design is that it can drag bottom, creating a lot of [noise] and stirring up rubble," says Gary Klein, the cerebral MLF bass veteran who has had a hand in multiple jig designs. "Another advantage is that it is designed with a lot of the weight forward of the hook. That allows the angler to make a vertical presentation.”
Those two design advantages dictate key aspects of football jig presentation.
1) Focus On the Fall: If you can pinpoint key structure, you'll get a fairly high number of strikes on the initial descent. "That's why I always use a football-head jig for vertical drops," Klein says. Letting the jig fall vertically on a slack line while maintaining close feel and contact with your jig calls for practice and tackle finely tuned to the task. Spool up with fluorocarbon line of 14- to 17-pound-test for most applications. Fluorocarbon's density gives you a near linear connection to your bait, what Klein calls "a direct line of pull." When casting to precise structural elements like inside turns, rock humps, ledges and saddle areas, capitalize on the falling action of your jig with trailers that produce a lot of movement.
2) Bump and Grind: You can either "stroke" the jig—that is, present it aggressively with sudden hops—or you can go to the other extreme with an extremely slow "stitching" retrieve. My standard retrieve is a series of short 4- to 6-inch pulls punctuated by brief slack-line pauses. Why is that subtle yield in line tension critical to consistent success? I think it is because the football head is a weighty bait, and any added resistance from a tight line either will prompt instant rejection or prevent the fish from picking the lure up cleanly from the bottom.
Football-head jigs are best used over rock and hard bottom. They tend to hang up easily in tree branches and laydowns and fare poorly in aquatic vegetation."If you don't have a hard, clean bottom, you are wasting time fishing a football head," says Klein. "But a lot of lakes are very clean on the outside edge, where the grass quits at a certain depth, and beyond it you have rubble and rock."
Trailer choices are many. My primary summer picks are baits with a lot of action, like the Berkley Chigger Craw, Chigger Bug or Double Tail Grub, or the Strike King Rage Craw or Rage Chunk. They deliver tantalizing action.
Klein takes a seasoned, sophisticated approach to trailer selection. "I can change the action of a jig not only with the type of trailer I use but how I attach that trailer to the jig," he says.
The Berkley Chunk, for example, is a plastic trailer cut in the style of the original pork trailers. It will fall vertically when the trailer is hooked at the head in conventional jig-and-pig fashion. However, threading the hook through the body of the chunk changes the action of the jig.
"If I thread that same trailer so the meat part slides up against the collar of the jig, I have created a planing platform," Klein says. "In a free fall, the jig will do a directional change. It has water planing on the belly."
To take advantage of action trailers like the Berkley Chigger Craw, Klein threads the trailer over the bend of the hook. "To have action, these trailers need water flowing over them," he says. "With the back part of the trailers elevated, they get more water flow. I do the same thing with a twin-tail grub. That's why I lengthened the body of the Berkley Double Tail Grub, also one of my favorite trailers for a football jig."
Swing-head (aka swivel-head) jigs have a similar football- or rounder rugby-style head leading the way, but they bring a different action and delivery system to the game.
Generally fitted with a worm-style hook, swing-head jigs match up well with active Texas-rigged plastics. The swing-head's side-to-side motion enhances the movement of creature-style baits with tails, legs and antennae writhing wildly.
Klein's favorite swing-head trailer is the Berkley Power Hawg, a soft-plasticbait that has numerous appendages and action aplenty.
"It's a phenomenal bait, and the one I use the most," Klein says. "It is relatively small and compact, and it has a lot of meat to put the hook in."
Swing-head lovers regard the jig as a crankbait alternative, one you can use to fish quickly to cover a lot of water, or one you can fish like a worm or football jig if the fish so desire.
"What I like to do is position my boat to work the structure, cast, make contact with the bottom and then just keep reeling," Klein says. "It is one of the best offshore-structure fishing tools you can use."
I've used these jig combos on smallmouth and largemouth bass alike, from the Great Lakes to the Tennessee River impoundments. With every passing year, I'm more inclined to sing their praises, and so are others.
"The biggest stringer of smallmouths I ever caught came in July on a 3/4-ounce football-head jig in 32 feet of water on Lake Erie out of Buffalo, New York," Klein recalls. "The five fish weighed 36 pounds, 12 ounces—all 6-pounders! The football-head jig just flat-out works, for all species of black bass."