“DOGGONE IT!” exclaimed my ole fishing partner, Earl. “Either you show me RIGHT NOW exactly how you’re so consistently hooking those big bluegills, or I’m completely done fishing with you!” His tone over missing yet another solid strike indicated the cantankerous old buzzard just might be serious this time!
“Did you feel a pretty good thump on your jig?” I meekly asked.
“Dang right!” he grumped.
“Well there’s your problem; if you felt him, you were already halfway toward TOO LATE!”
I went on to give Earl a brief explanation of the nuances of my technique for using the reel (mostly) and the rod (delivery & playing) to nail-without-fail deep lying panfish who could never resist our small jigs. Always a deep thinker and a quick study, the old timer not only went on to hook virtually all subsequent fish, but also never had another come “unbuttoned” during the fight.
“Well, I guess you can continue sharing a boat with me,” commented Earl, straight-faced. Then, brightening, he added, “And, by golly, I’m gonna treat you to dinner tonight!”
From innumerable years of specializing in light jig tactics, I’ve enjoyed many opportunities to observe the striking patterns of bluegills, perch, sunfish, crappies and bass. These following three axioms have been hammered into my brain:
1. There’s rarely such a thing as a “short strike.” (Hungry panfish don’t “nibble” a proper-sized offering; they suck it in completely.)
2. It’s almost impossible to detect most strikes. (We merely feel the closing stages of rejection.)
3. We must initiate hook penetration BEFORE the fish is felt (not telepathy, just pure efficient tactics).
After repeated on-the-water reminders of these three truths, I began refining my jigging procedures and tackle accordingly. First to go was the standard hop-n-drop method of working a leadhead jig. The problem here was that most panfish zero in on the lure as it drops; line almost always has slack at that time and a sudden take and spit occurs before an angler is ever the wiser. At best, a fish will accidentally impale himself during the blowback, but this sure isn’t our “fault” as fishermen! Instead of hoping for such happy accidents, I began maintaining a fairly tight line almost 100% of the time by employing a variable speed, slow, steady retrieve – even during the sinking phase. That is, I’d begin a minimum-paced retrieve after the jig hit water, then reach depth by ever slower reeling (almost to the stop point, but still delicately cranking). When line slackened, indicating bottom was reached, I’d turn the handle fast for a few revolutions to fly the jig up a few feet into the water column to prepare for another controlled drop. Quite often I’d find myself cranking right into a hefty bluegill or perch – that slack hadn’t been bottom after all! In effect, I found the way to set a hook BEFORE I detected a strike!
Point the rod tip straight down the line and don’t move it until the fish is firmly pinned!! Let the REEL be the muscle machine that handles all the main work. Concentrate totally on the slow steady cranking, visualizing a tiny jig weighing between 1/20 -1/32 oz. trickling toward bottom, yet angled by line tension to maintain slight forward swimming. As I’d instructed Earl, at ANY disturbance (even imagined) in your retrieve, GRIND the handle fast. And think, or even say out loud, the word “GRIND”! What’s happening is that ever so slight glitch in your otherwise smooth reeling is the hook point beginning to penetrate the mouth of an already happily fed finny critter; the grind just adds power and speed to implant the barb all the way. A rod set is absolutely not needed (in fact, it costs you time and power) – whereas two or three turns of the reel handle rockets back 4+ feet of an already taut line, and in the strongest possible manner!
Of course, you’ll require a reel that is very smooth, flawless in operation, and has a great drag to protect skinny line. No need, though, to search out those snooty high-end spinning reels that can cost hundreds of dollars – you actually shouldn’t go any further than the web. Having experimented with many different reels over the years, my current favorite is the ultra efficient, lightweight open faced spinning reel that has to be the best bargain in angling today!
What function is the rod, you may ask, as we strive to “beat fish to the punch”? Well, of course, we first need something limber enough to cast ultralight lures; the extra springy fishing rod I use, tosses ’em a mile when you throw with your whole arm (it is, after all, a fly rod!). Then the perfect balance and near weightless feel offered by positioning the spinning reel behind one’s rod holding hand (actually a fly reel position) allows total concentration on our all-important slow-descending retrieve. But the really unique feature, something I’ve only experienced with the short spring-steel fishing rod, is the “electric” sensation in your hand the instant a fish is on. (Remember, by the nature of our retrieve, he’s already partially hooked!) The best way to describe this feeling is in recalling those “joy buzzers” that surprised us when shaking hands as kids with rascally playmates! That “shock” gets me into the hard couple of cranks, then I position the rod a bit to the side by body turning (not “wristing”) to keep tension on the fish and to let the forgiving steel coils protect my light line.
Over the years I’ve read studies confirming my findings that deeper lying fish can easily engulf any plug, no matter how many trebles it carried, without getting stung or giving the angler above even the least hint of their presence. But if we can maintain forward movement of our lure and have confidence the fish will take (and they do, WAY more often than we know!), our line tension will automatically begin the hooksetting process. However, we must maintain constant vigilance for those ever so slight indicators and, above all, not lollygag around feeling for those hard thumps at line’s end. As I coached ole buddy Earl, “Don’t wait; ANTICIPATE!”