Why I Fish Jigs
It was a cool and cloudy morning on the South Umpqua River, Oregon. I was with my friend Chris Burt, an avid steelhead and salmon fisherman. On this morning, Chris had invited me to join him on a stretch of water that I had never fished before. I was excited knowing that we were to use tactics that I had very little experience with, jig fishing.
Chris had caught fish here on the South Umpqua the previous week using jigs. Everything I had heard about the South Umpqua was that people like to side-drift with yarn or bait, so I was intrigued. The first spot we approached had good depth and the speed was just right, it looked like a prime spot for a steelhead to hold. The first pass Chris made with his jig, he hooked up and landed a 6-7 pound wild Umpqua River hen! After taking a picture and admiring the fish, we released her, unharmed.
As the next spot became visible in the distance, I realized how popular this area was, with people lining the bank and multiple guide boats side-drifting the main slot. We talked to a few people to see how they were doing and nobody had caught anything yet that morning. Needless to say, we were feeling pretty good about getting Chris’s fish.
As he maneuvered the boat into position, I made my first pass through the tail-out of the run. At the very end of the drift, the bobber went down, and on the end of my line was a nice hatchery buck with my 1/8 oz. pink jig stuck solid in the roof of its mouth! This is when I knew we were going to have a good day of jig fishing. By the time we reached the take out we had successfully hooked up and landed 7 winter steelhead—all of which were on jigs.
Every boat we passed, we were asked if we had any luck and what we were using. It turned out we were the only boat on the river that had caught fish. What was the difference? It was our use of jigs that made the difference. The other anglers were all using bait and/or drift-fishing tactics, which in these low and clear conditions were not doing the trick. Ever since that day of success, jig fishing has been nothing less than an addiction for me; they are always in my tackle box and are now one of my favorite ways to catch steelhead.
How To Get Started
There are two primary ways to fish jigs for steelhead. The first is using a float setup on a spinning rod, the second is using an indicator rig on a fly rod. You can rig the float system very similar to a bobber and eggs. All you need is a float, swivel, leader material, split shot, and jigs. The weight of the jig and split shot combined should be the same as the buoyancy of the float.
The key to success with this system is adjusting the depth of the float so the jig is suspended approximately 12-24 inches off of the bottom at any given time. Float fishing is considered by many to be the most effective way to catch steelhead. This is because the bait used is in the strike zone 100% of the drift. You can also, if necessary, extend the drift for 100+ yards to fully cover a run, flipping the bail and allowing the line to freely feed off of the spool as the float moves downstream with the current.
Fishing jigs on a fly rod can be extremely effective when fishing small streams and creeks where a light presentation is essential to avoid spooking fish. It is also useful when fishing drop-offs into pools. The fly rod should be set up very similar to a nymph rig with a strike indicator; trailing the jig with an egg fly can also be deadly. Again, try to keep the jig slightly suspended so the fish does not have to move down to pick up the bait.
When choosing a jig, there are a number of factors to consider; the most important of these are size and color. Most of the jigs you will see in your local tackle shop come in sizes 1/16oz, 1/8oz, and 1/4oz. The size best suited for the majority of conditions is 1/8oz; however, 1/16oz works extremely well in low clear water, where 1/4oz works well at high water. When fishing a float, just about any size is manageable as long as the float is balanced. On a fly rod, slightly smaller jigs are more user friendly. A fly rod will cast a 1/32oz or 1/16oz jig far more effectively than the larger sizes. Also, the smaller jigs will generally work better in the smaller water more suited to a fly rod.
Being a steelhead fisherman, you probably understand the importance of color. Different shades of pink are almost always safe choices in the majority of fishing conditions. A good way to choose color is by fishing bright jigs during low-light conditions or when the water is off color—dark colors when the water is low and clear—neutral colors during normal water conditions. Jigs come in many different styles, the most popular being made with marabou feathers. Don’t be afraid to try patterns made with more modern materials–just remember to follow the size and color guidelines and they should catch fish.
Hopefully, this information has gotten you excited about fishing jigs for steelhead and will have provided enough to give you a solid start. In future articles I will go into detail on all of the different aspects of jig fishing, such as float fishing with jigs, fly fishing with jigs, jig choices, ideal jig water and conditions, tying jigs, and more. This is all in the hope of helping you become a more successful steelhead fisherman. Support your local tackle shops, and tight lines.