Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Jig rod philosophy

Lower Yellowstone River sunset

Jigging on a river for trout, to me, is casting and retrieving, working the lure, and picking the water apart. It's being in tune with the bottom and the flow. It's like a combination of drifting a fly and plug fishing. It's part dead drift, part swing, and part mimicking life and action.

A good jig rod is lightweight and able to cast and feel tiny lures, but strong enough, stiff enough to be able to set the hook and fight. It needs to be limber, but not anywhere near floppy. It should be able to cast a 1/32nd ounce lure and fish about 2 to 6lb line. I want enough length for some reach, but not so long that its cumbersome to work the jig. Exact length is least important to me - but I want longer when wading big water and shorter when in a boat or on small water.

Long rod on a rainy Northwest steelhead stream
I love to fish one of my 9.5ft light action rods whenever reach is desirable. By 'reach' I mean lifting the line above the water to eliminate drag - same as when mending a fly line. The difference being that, unless the jig is smaller than about 1/16th ounce, your rod tip will be connected to the bait by a near weightless line - rather than a near weightless lure connected to the rod by a heavy line. The advantage of having reach with a long jig rod is like "high sticking" a dry fly in a small stream - where you float the fly in a small pocket while all the line, except perhaps a portion of the leader, is in the air. Without the drag of the fly line on the current, the fly can stay put nearly indefinitely. The longer the fly rod, the more stream you can high stick. In the case of a jig on a long rod,
small-stream, long rod steelhead
you aren't limited to only the reach of your rod. A cast can be made across current to reach a seam or pocket. Then the length of the rod bridges the line between tip and where the line enters the water. The higher the reach, the less drag.  Length, within reason, equals control. Without the drag, the jig stays put longer, much like the fly. This could be for the presentation itself, or it could be to achieve the depth needed before allowing the jig to swing downstream along the current seam.  A longer rod gives greater reach, and a steeper angle between rod tip and lure.  Again, length equals control. This is even more pronounced when fishing a jig float-n-fly method - where the jig is suspended under a float (similar to a nymph under an indicator). Often you can lift your line off the water entirely so that your rod tip is connected directly to the float, bridging all water, current, and obstacles between you and your lure.

Montana carp on a kiddie rod
A long, limber rod has other benefits as well, a primary one being the enhanced ability to use light line. After 'discovering' the long rod while fishing the streams of the Northwest I efficiently fought and landed numerous small-stream steelhead on four pound line.  Light line has many advantages – invisibility, castability, lure action and presentation, reaching bottom quickly, etc.  All of which benefit jigs greatly.  But it has obvious disadvantages too – breakage on the hookset, breakage during a strong run, abrasion on teeth or structure, too long of a fight prior to release, etc.  I’ve spoken with many anglers who contend that big fish can’t be landed - at least consistently - on light line.  But that doesn’t explain the countless heavy fish landed on tiny fly tippets every day.  It doesn’t explain the Northwest anglers netting salmon and steelhead in small streams every year.  Of course a 15-pound fish can be landed with 4-pound line on a 5-foot rod – it happens all the time.  My son and I landed a carp like that on his kiddie rod with two eyelets and a non-existent drag. But the angler with a long rod has a much greater degree of control during that fight, and his chances of landing the fish, in my opinion, are much greater.  And in a timely manner. I’ve caught steelhead and big trout on 5.5-t o 6-foot rods and light line, but, unless the lure presentation requires a short rod, I’d rather have a 9 or 10 footer in hand if given the option ahead of time.  
big-river, long rod rainbow on jig

Lighter lines aren’t fully capable handling the shock of a big fish on their own. This was demonstrated plainly and uniquely to me once in Florida during the after-midnight hours while tarpon “jumping” with a random angler I’d met earlier in the day when flipping plastic worms to lily pads for largemouth.  This guy would go out on bridges in the wee hours of the morning and swim large single-hooked, barbless jigs on heavy gear along the shadow line created by the bridge lights.  Maybe it is big sport down there, maybe he was alone in his pastime, I really don’t know.  The goal was to hook tarpon, let them go ballistic, and then shake the hook out without landing it.  He used a “shock” leader – a heavy piece of monofilament (as in maybe 100-150 lb test) for the first several feet, then something like 50 or 80-lb on the spool.  I’m sure this is common in salt water big game fish, but it was new to me.  To me a leader usually goes the other way – connecting a heavier line to a lure/fly via a lighter, less visible line.  That night only brought action from one tarpon, but I’ll never forget the refrigerator-sized fish that launched itself out of the black water into the glow of the street light to nail that lure as it was rising to meet the surface.  I could see how the sheer power of that hit would likely have blasted through that 80-lb line as if it were a strand of spider web.  The man I was fishing with explained how without the leader the line often breaks just from being battered by the powerful body during the fight - at least with his unforgiving style perched on a bridge with a stout rod. 

Missouri rainbow on a jig and Crossfire rod
Back in a trout stream or steelhead river my tarpon experience seems hardly applicable.  I suppose the lesson is simply in the shock a big fish can impart.  Lighter lines can benefit from some help when battling big fish.  Much of that help comes from an angler's skill and experience, as well as the quality of the reel's drag system, but also from other tools used.  For the tarpon, that was the buffer of a shock leader.  For salmonoids, I feel like a long rod is one of the best tools to make fishing a light line most feasible.  I have no measured statistics, but a long limber rod must absorb a great deal more shock than a shorter one.  Combine a long rod with a good drag, and a light line is practically unbreakable.  I even find myself palming my spool, same as I would a fly reel. With more control supplied by the rod, the drag can be set more loosely, and custom adjustments made with pressure from the hand in direct response to whatever the fish is doing.  Runs can be more quickly stifled and the fish more effectively turned or steered.

9.5 foot G. Loomis Bronzeback. Notice the deep bend
and palming the spool.
And then in the other direction, when a fish jumps or turns and the line would normally go slack, the deep bend of the rod helps maintain tension as it begins to unload before your reel can catch back up.  The line is more gently loaded and unloaded, which translates into less shock.  Even the shock of the hookset is tempered a bit, which I think is more beneficial than not.  It reduces the chance of breaking off in that moment, and I don't find I that need to compensate for what seems like a softer hookset.  My theory is that because of the rod length, the tip travels a far greater distance with the same hookset motion made on a short rod, so despite the "softer" or less rigid hookset, it has still been done adequately, with all the same power, and perhaps even more evenly in that the rod has been well-loaded with a deep bend, alleviating the need to "catch up" and reel down to the a fighting position.  How often have you seen someone make a hookset and then lose the fish as they try to bring their rod back down out of the air, reeling wildly to gain back all the line their overzealous jerk created.  A long rod does this in one motion - the rod goes back for the set, bows deeply and stays arced, and then the fight can begin from that point as the blank unloads the tension.  

The longer length also allows for the fish to be landed and released more quickly than on a shorter rod.  The fight is more in the angler's court, where with the shorter rod the fisherman is much more dependent on the reel's drag alone, and will lose much more line and much more time to runs and surges.  This same advantage is well portrayed by tenkara fly rods (which is described well here by Gink and Gasoline).  Even if you've never used one, or never had the surprise of tying into a bass while fishing for bluegill with a cane pole, imagine trying to fight a sizeable fish with the line tied to your finger tip versus fighting that same fish on a line tied to the end of a long, limber rod.  Pretty easy to visualize which one is more in the fisherman's favor.

mature rainbow taken on a jig in tiny, clear water
Aside from its forgiving qualities, during the fight the long rod helps reach over logs and rocks your line might have been raked across with a shorter rod, and it helps you reach over streamside bushes when a jog downstream becomes necessary.  Fly fisherman already utilize all this, even if just by default of having a long rod in their hands already for the purpose of making more efficient castsAs a fly fisherman, I love to fight fish on a longer rod.  I did right from the beginning, and I’ve been doing it most of my life.  But until I got the Northwest and was introduced to long spinning rods, it never occurred to me that the same advantages were available to spinning gear.  Before then, a long spinning rod to me was 7 feet.  And in my little world, they tended to get heavier as they got longer.  When I used spinning gear for trout before leaving the South, my rod was often only 5 feet long. Sometimes when I was fishing jigs I'd bring a 6-footer I might normally use for smallmouth bass jigs. 

Rod length is less important from a boat, where you are already elevated above the water and more likely to maneuver yourself closer to your target.  It is also less important on smaller streams where the scale of everything you are doing is simply smaller, coupled with the fact that you can often gain additional height from the bank or some obstacle in the stream.  The exception being when conditions are such that there is less of a cast and more of a "hold over and drop," like along extremely brushy streams, or when you are reaching horizontally over structure, such as a vertical stream bank.

My boat rods are 5.5 to 6.5 feet.  My small stream rods range on up to 7 (and occasionally up to 9.5).  Typically I outfit folks with the 5.5 or 6 foot rod lengths, although I do keep at least two "loaner" 9.5 foot rods in my tubes for those folks who'd like to give one a go.  I find generally that people fishing with me who aren't jig fisherman already have a better command of shorter rods, and it's just best to start with what you know. Especially in the confined space of a boat.  For myself, while in the boat, I'll fish plugs on the shorter rods (because my retrieve is mostly done with tip down) and toss jigs on the 6 and 6.5 foot rods - often my Crossfire. The Crossfire makes an excellent boat road for working jigs, and was developed especially for that purpose.  It is also often my second rod when walking along and wading big water - I generally keep one holstered behind me while using the other, each with a different purpose.

For travel, I use 7-foot four-piece rods.  Easily packable, and its length fills most situations - enough length to be serviceable on large water and short enough to handle small water.  I typically would prefer to err on the side of too long than too short anyway. I toss it both in a suitcase for car travel and
7-foot Diawa Spincast pack rod
in my
backpack for hikes. Diawas's Spincast is under $50 and feels far more quality than that. It comes is lengths from 5.5ft to 7ft. For those a bit more performance driven, the Presso is just a step up and runs about $80. There's a lot of value and performance stuffed into those rods, and they are among very few spinning rods (particularly light spinning rods) that come in four sections. Many come in three, which to me, just isn't very handy in terms of packability.  I have multiple fly rods that come in four pieces. In fact, it is the norm these days for a fly rod to be offered in four sections. Maybe the rest of the industry will catch on. Fenwick has a 7-footer that comes in four pieces, and Okuma has one as well. I haven't tried either. 

Now that said, I LOVE a one-piece rod. Many of my rods, including the Crossfire and an array of others, are single piece. You can't beat a continuous blank when it comes to sensitivity and power. And it's superior in terms of maintenance and durability - no ferrules to crack, no sockets to fill with dirt, no casted off rod tips, no eyelets out of alignment, no second thoughts on a powerful hookset or hang up. When possible, I use my one piece rods. The rest of the time, which is a considerable amount, I want my rod to be as packable as possible.

Any rod can be a jig rod, but like any fishing situation, you will get far more out of your gear and your day on the water if you match your gear to the presentation you are trying to make.  Far too many people try to match their gear to the fish they are hoping to catch, or load their spools with a heavy line because they don't want to break off.  Start with the lure you are going to toss and the presentation you are going to make, then work backwards from there, choosing the best line to match it, the best rod for that line, lure, and presentation, and then the most appropriate reel for that line weight.  The fish, regardless of size, can be landed on just about any set up - but you have to hook it first.  Fish the right gear and you will greatly increase your chances of that.
 22-inch brown taken on a jig and long rod

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Outdoors in Montana: 2014

2014 began with lots of changes.  The final weeks of 2013 found us moving to Helena from Billings. I'd been given the opportunity to transfer there, and things fell into place rather rapidly on all fronts to make that happen.  We celebrated New Years in a new home. And the outdoors were now at our fingertips.

I started making trips onto the Missouri right away, and by March I'd quadrupled my previous knowledge of fishing on that river. This blog was born as a result. There is so much more to learn.

2014's best rainbow

Throughout the year I regularly hit the Missouri.  I fished below Three Forks, frequently walked into the Land of the Giants, and fished all over the place below Holter. Sometimes I floated, sometimes I was on foot.  I'd slip down there to start the day,  I'd stop as I drove along to somewhere else, or I'd hike in or float and spend dawn to dusk.

2014 saw other changes too.  Turned 35.  Gray showed up more
Missouri rainbow
prominently in the sideburns. The hair on top continued its decline toward whispy like a thick foggy reluctant to burn off. There's a possibility I may have hit my belly a time or two when closing my tailgate. Sometimes when I bend over to tie my shoes or pick something up I catch myself wondering what else I might be able to accomplish while I'm down there.  And I finished out the year with a bunion surgery...

Spring brought camping trips to places like the Musselshell and Marias Rivers for browns and pike, day trips onto local waters like Park Lake in the Elkhorns for cutthroat and grayling.

Madison brown, Kit's Tackle glass minnow
Work and family trips took me to the Madison multiple times.  I fished in the Beartrap twice, above Ennis, and the stretch beneath Hebgen Lake. Each trip there saw browns over 20 inches. At least one rainbow exceeded that length along with several others that were close to breaking the mark. I also learned that often nobody is there at the first of April - or anywhere else for that matter.  Prime waters, all to yourself.

Pair of bull moose in the Elkhorn Mountains near home

We traveled through Yellowstone and the Tetons, and later Glacier. I saw more moose this year than any year previously that I've been in the West. Only one was in a national park. The rest were elsewhere, spotted while driving or hiking.  Including a pair of bulls in late summer four miles from our house. Other trips included driving roads of the Missouri Breaks, rubbernecking through Virginia City, and touring Lewis and Clark Caverns.

Typical upper Missouri walleye
2014 saw more walleye on the end of my line than probably any year prior.  And I encountered them in several places.  Its the first time in more than a dozen years that I've lived anywhere near them.
I also made a good run at northern pike this year, taking them in multiple places as well. Hooked them on surface baits, plugs, and soft plastics. The best of the year was a fat 36-incher taken on a sight-cast when my partner pointed it out as we floated by.
2014's best pike

Summer brought more floats, and some great hikes. My wife got to make some of her own solo camping and hiking trips.  She spent time in Glacier with a friend from out of state.  I joined a friend of mine on an awesome 14-mile day trip into the Beartooth wilderness to fish a couple lakes for cutthroat and saw another moose.  Summer brought camping trips to places like the Little Blackfoot River and the Boulder River and saw lots of dry fly action.  Friends and family from different parts of the country came to visit.  Some joined camping trips. Some joined trips to the national parks. Some just floated down a river with me.
2014 Tetons snapshot

In addition to those rivers already mentioned, day trips were made on others like the Stillwater, Yellowstone, Boulder, Swan, North Fork Flathead. More day trips were made to some of the same rivers from before, like the Little Blackfoot, Madison, and Missouri from its headwaters to around

Swan River rainbow on Zig Jig
Great Falls and below Fort Peck. Often those day trips would coincide with other travel in the form of an opportunity taken when passing a river, fishing a stream after a day of field work, or hitting the water at daylight before the rest of the family was ready to roll out of bed.   Some of those opportunistic trips resulted in me hooking my first several bulls, taking some nice westslope cutthroats, some crazy fighting pike, a few smallmouth bass, hawgish browns, and some fat small water rainbows.  I walked the massive Fort Peck dam and dabbled in tiny pike streams in northeast Montana along the Canadian border.  All were fish I wouldn't have caught and places I wouldn't have explored without always travelling with fishing gear.

double (headed for the grill)

An afternoon trip early in the year resulted in a phenomenal double with my six year old son.  On a summer trip my five year old daughter caught her first trout on a fly unassisted.

first unassisted catch on a fly

My kids and I also took  a number of short summer trips into the mountains around our house. These trips were for adventure and exploration for those members of the family under four feet tall.  We fashioned bows and arrows, swords, and spears.  Over the summer the arsenal in the garage grew.  We took hikes, climbed trees, and saw what we could see.  We blew up an ant hill with my .44.  On one outing we stalked a herd of cattle in the woods, and it gave the kids a glimpse of what that kind of hunt can be like.  It ended well, with a cow finally discovering our presence but unsure of what we were.  So we stood and showed ourselves and backed away before she took guarding the herd a little too seriously.

Later on we made a final adventure of 2014 to search out and track down a Christmas tree while snow shoeing in some national forest.

successful tree hunters

2013 Washington steelhead

I didn't get a trip in to Washington for steelhead like in 2013.  I sure hope 2015 brings one.
But I did travel to Michigan and brought back a Stealthcraft.  I'd spent much of the spring and summer getting the details of the order worked out, and by the end of August it was finally floating in Montana waters. While in Michigan I got to take a short trip down a small piece of the Pere Marquette.

Stealthcraft MiniFly leaving the shop

Back in Montana the boat spent the rest of 2014 taking friends and family for floats down the Missouri. Once it took a mother and son duo from Chicago on a couple November days of drifting.  There were also trips where the boat took only me down the river, and I'd ride my bike back up.
Jaime and Aiden from Chicago in the MiniFly

I started laying the groundwork for serious night fishing for big browns in 2015.  I began locating areas browns key in on and spent time getting to know reaches of river for dark floats and stretches of river bank for night hikes.  I'm going to mark off every full moon of the warm  months on the calendar and start amassing a big collection of mouse patterns and other furry fly beasts. And I also intend to see what nocturnal browns think of some bass techniques. Looking forward to some big topwater action.