October 4, 2011
Late last week a little brown jet pack arrived in the mail from Jonn Graham of Warrior Jigs in Minonk, Illinois. It contained a half-dozen of Jonn's hand-tied swim jigs and selection of Big Hammer tails. Jonn had graciously made the jigs for me to try on the river smallmouth this autumn. The swim jigs have already been proven a dozen times over. Jonn is a master at the swim jig and so are several of the best smallmouth fisherman I know. Me, not so much. Let's just say my confidence level is low. I'm used to tossing high-disturbance lures like big spinnerbaits, rattling crankbaits, buzzbaits and other topwaters. To me, fishing a swim jig is like trying to listen to music with your fingers in year ears. Just doesn't feel right!
Jonn warned me via e-mail what to expect. It was like when the old man in Gremlins said, "Don't feed them after midnight." He told me in plain terms, "The swim jig finds BIG fish." That simple sentence has been on my mind since I received the jigs. Lord knows I've been through some incredibly fishy waters over the past week. But I have to admit, selfishly, perhaps foolishly, I always seemed to fall back on old habits.
After a long day at work, I broke for the river around rush hour. I started out from shore and tried a crawfish crankbait, rattling minnowbait, and even a jig and twister. Despite working through where I spotted surface feeding off the tip of a stream barb, my offerings went unnoticed. I walked back to the car and suited up. I saw Jonn's jigs sitting neatly in my trunk. F it! I tied on the 3/8-ounce crawfish pattern and tipped it with a rootbeer colored 3" Big Hammer tail. That was the only lure I brought. I was going to wade with the swim jig with no fall-back plan. That's how you force yourself to learn something new!
I began my wade and tried some short casts to get used to the weight and the action. When I saw the jig cutting through the murky water of the Fox River, I had second thoughts about my color selection. Would the fish even see it? Would the dark green and orange be mistaken for leaves or other debris washing downriver? Perhaps white would have been a better choice. But then I thought about it some more -- I know Jonn is only going to send me good stuff! That was the reassurance I needed!
So I kept casting. Upriver, clumsily bouncing the rod tip as I tried to get the feel of the lure. I snagged boulders, logs, and just about everything. I was ruining the spot in short order. No bumps or bites on the swim jig. I gotta be doing something wrong! Duh! It's a swim jig! Try swimming it with a straight retrieve and hold the rod tip a little higher. That was the ticket. I brought it alongside some boulders, straight retrieve, no extra action from me. I let the Big Hammer tail do the talking. Sure enough, BOOM! Big strike but the fish just grabbed the tail and turned, practically parting the water on its retreat. My heart was in my throat as I realized this is the kind of fish I've been looking for! Around three casts later the swim jig got clobbered and I had a hookup! The brute swam at me but I was ready for it, reeled quickly and kept an even pace. As it got downriver of me, I swung it towards shore and it tailwalked and thrashed as I reached for it. Those few seconds where you realize you've got a trophy but haven't secured it between your thumb and index finger seem like they drag on forever! Finally, success!
The bronze beauty taped at 19.75". Legs shaking, with one fish landed, I called it a night. There was an hour of daylight left on a warm October evening but there was no way I was going to surpass a fish like that. I got back to my car and called Jonn, thanking him for the jigs. Wish all outings could go that way! USGS 11.58' / 1,220 CFS
Above: 3/8-ounce crawfish pattern Warrior Jig with premium Owner hook + 3" Big Hammer tail.