June 21, 2022
Anglers who head to offshore hotspots like the Tanner and Cortez banks off San Diego or the blue-water break off Oregon and Washington have long been aware of the effectiveness of vertical jigging, but the relatively new gear and approach used in a method known as slow-pitch jigging is making the tactic much easier than ever before—and more successful.
Anglers are loading up on bottom species including ocean whitefish, lingcod, sea bass and the various species of rockfish found all along the Pacific Coast without ever touching natural baits. Not only that, the same gear also has proved amazingly effective on a wide variety of pelagic species, including albacore, amberjack, bluefin and yellowfin tuna, dorado and even the occasional wahoo—all species primarily caught suspended in mid-water depths.
The slow-pitch process combines relatively lightweight tackle that won’t wear out the angler, with super dense, javelin-shaped lures that penetrate the depths very fast. Some of the rods are so light in action they could be used by freshwater bass anglers, but they have a parabolic action, flexing evenly from tip to grip, that’s key in presenting the slow-pitch hardware.
Polyethylene braided line is also part of what makes slow pitching work. Braid’s diameter-to-strength ratio is such that it doesn’t “kite” in ocean currents like monofilament does. Also, because there’s no stretch, the angler stays in touch with the lure all the way down to 300 feet and more—and can successfully fight the fish on the much more manageable tackle than with traditional blocky reels and broomstick rods. Power-Pro Depth Hunter, Shimano Tanatoru and Daiwa J-Braid, among others, are available in lines that change colors at specific lengths so anglers can know about how much line they have out.
In slow-pitching for bottom huggers, the lure is typically allowed to free-spool all the way to the ocean floor. The rod is then twitched upward a couple feet and stopped, allowing the parabolic spring of the rod to pull the bait upward. Then, the tip is lowered, following the lure back down. The angler keeps very slight backpressure on the line as the jig falls, so if there’s any hesitation or the slightest tick is transmitted, he can immediately set the hook.
The process is repeated, but each time a crank or two on the reel moves the lure higher off the bottom. Sometimes bottom fish don’t want the lure on the bottom, and takes 10 or 15 feet off the rocks can be common. The boat is usually allowed to drift over suitable bottom structure, or anchor line is gradually let out, so every drop presents the lure to different fish.
When a fish is hooked, the angler typically winches it up on the reel, rather than pumping the rod and taking up slack on the reel, as is usually done with other tackle. The rod is pointed down at about 45 degrees for much of the battle—the soft parabolic action is not meant for whipping the fish, but instead to induce the strike and make life easy for the angler.
As in most bottom fishing, the majority of the fight is in the first few seconds. As soon as you get a fish 15 to 20 feet off his home rock or wreck, you’re on your way to fish sandwiches. But you really have to put the wood to them for those first few feet. Bowing up the soft rod won’t move them much, but turning a reel that retrieves almost four feet of line per revolution will pull them up quickly.
Anglers after pelagic species such as the albacore found 40 to 50 miles off Washington and Oregon from late summer into fall have typically relied on trolling old favorites like the cedar plug to load the cooler. This is effective but sometimes boring on the long ride between strikes, and the angler is basically just a reel operator and not directly involved in fooling the fish.
Slow-pitch anglers, on the other hand, are involved with the fish from the get-go. Schools are located breaking on the surface or where birds are seen diving, then graphed on sonar.
Anglers work the fast-diving lures at the depth the fish show up on screen, and the school is kept close to the boat by pitching live anchovies or other baits overboard.
The albies might strike at any depth from 10 feet to 150 feet down—the angler “plays” the lure down in a series of twitches and short strokes to make it dart and flutter like a dying anchovy or sardine as it falls. Most use 20 feet or so of 30-pound-test fluoro tied to a main line of 30- to 50-pound braid.
THE RIGHT LURE FOR THE TASK
Mustad, Shimano and other companies make a variety of slow-pitch jigs these days, varying in weights from as little as 50 grams (about 1.7 ounces) to as much as 500 grams (just over 17 ounces). The lures are made of painted lead, often with fluorescent paint and/or chromed foil on one side to create a sort of off-and-on flashing as they flutter down.
A distinguishing feature is the hooking arrangement. Many are equipped with two single hooks attached to the upper eye of the jig with short Kevlar cords and welded steel rings. The hooks are typically extra-strong models in 1/0 to 5/0 depending on the size of the jig and the target species.
The hook setup not only keeps the lures from snagging when worked over rocks, coral or artificial reef rubble as they would with a treble hook on the tail, but also helps keep a fish from shaking free as it might if the hooks were attached with the usual split-ring arrangement.
Lures weighing 50 to 100 grams are typically fished in depths of 30 to 100 feet, but can also be used near the surface to catch the pelagics. Lures weighing 150 to 250 grams are designed to fish 150 to 300 feet deep for bottom species, or to get down very quickly and excite tuna and other mid-water species into striking.
Some lures, like Mustad’s Daggerman and Rip Roller and Shimano’s Shimmerfall models, are javelin-shaped for a fast drop and best for bottom fishing. Others, like the Mustad Staggerbod and the Shimano Butterfly models, are designed for a slower, fluttering fall that works best for pelagics. Mustad also offers the InkVader Octopus Jig, a soft plastic with the assist double hooks for slow-pitch action and available in sizes from 2 to 12 ounces. It even squirts black ink.
Technique-specific rods and reels give anglers the advantage.
Daiwa, Okuma, Penn, Shimano and others now make rods specifically designed for slow-pitch jigging. The rods are designated by the weight of the lures with which they’re intended to be fished.
Rods are typically 6 feet 6 inches to 7 feet 6 inches long, with an extended butt section so the rod can easily be tucked under the arm. The action of the rods would probably be designated parabolic or medium-slow. They flex across most of their length rather than just at the tip, which is the case with the fast-action rods that are favored for casting most artificials.
Models designed for lighter jigs in the 50- to 100-gram class look like freshwater bass or walleye rods except for the extended butt section. Those designated for 100 to 300 grams look more like you’d expect a saltwater rod to look, but have a slower action.
The rod is designed to lift the lure upward with the power of the middle part of the rod when matched with lures of the designated weights. A lure that’s too heavy won’t get much lift, while one that’s too light won’t flex the rod so it can do the work for the angler.
Slow-pitch reels are offered in both conventional and spinning configurations. While they’re relatively small for offshore use, they do include heavy-duty machined gears, deep spools and powerful drags to handle the load of a hooked fish. Because slow-pitch jigging is often done in deep water, a fast retrieve is also a must. Gearing that retrieves 35 to 45 inches per crank is preferred. Handles are longer than usual for the size of the reel to provide added leverage.
Revolving-spool reels suitable for pelagics like the Daiwa Saltist line, Okuma Custom Blue series or the Shimano Speedmaster II have a lever drag for quick adjustment if a larger fish takes off on a run. These reels are in the $200 to $250 range—not exorbitant as some reels designated for slow-pitch fishing are.
The leader is typically 30- to 60-pound test fluorocarbon about 20 feet long. This is less visible than braid and acts to stiffen the attachment to the lure so it’s less likely to tangle than with very flexible braid. It also gives you a “handle” at boatside. A small-diameter FG or Alberto knot that will go through the guides easily is used to join line and leader.