It may be misleading to call this article a SHOPWALK, because the only person around who makes silly jigs for sale is Walt Dette of Sullivan County in New York, and he only turns them out (at $7 a dozen) when he can find the time. However, it's not hard to make one for yourself, and the result will be more than worth the effort.
I first saw one of these all-purpose lures five years ago, when Seth Rosenbaum, a New York systems engineer and angling fanatic, joined me to fish for striped bass in the murky Hudson River. I was using bloodworms—a sure bet—but Rosenbaum out-fished me 10 to 1, casting what he called a silly jig. He had discovered it some years previous at Jim Deren's Angler's Roost, a Manhattan tackle shop. Deren was then buying the jigs from George Singer, one of his fly tiers. When Singer got involved in graduate studies in biochemistry and could no longer make the jigs, Rosenbaum got Dette, a well-known Catskill tier, to make some for him. Dette soon found himself unable to meet the demand, so Rosenbaum spent $20 to have a mold cast and began turning out his own.
It was not too difficult. The jig weighs about one-eighth of an ounce. It has a head made of lead in the shape of a football, painted white on the bottom and red on top, and a bucktail skirt. Instead of a large, tinned hook, it carries a long-shanked streamer hook, size 8, which can really dig in on any fish that strikes, big or small. Besides this, it is almost snag proof, because it rides hook up when retrieved across the bottom. But if it is used in salt water, it should be washed afterward in fresh water—otherwise the steel hook will corrode.
Fishing mainly in the East with this delectable enticer, Rosenbaum has taken brook, brown, rainbow and lake trout, small-mouth and largemouth bass, pickerel, northern pike, yellow perch, crappies, sunfish, chubs, white perch, striped bass, herring, shad, weakfish, bluefish, mackerel, blackfish, jack crevalle, cod, pollock, dolphin, banded rudderfish, porgies, bonito, silver hake, flounder, fluke and even sea robins, long-horned sculpin and spearing. In Iceland he struck out with the silly jig on Atlantic salmon, but he took sea trout and arctic charr with ease. In Florida and the Caribbean he has taken amberjack, black jack, yellow jack, blue runner, pompano, palometa, look-down, barracuda (he lost one that went up to 30 pounds), margate snapper, mangrove snapper, yellowtail snapper, spotted grouper, triggerfish, jawfish and lizard fish. "One day," Rosenbaum told me, "I was bone fishing with a silly jig and I managed to hook one. By the time I landed him, the tide had carried me off the flats and into a channel. I made three casts in the deeper water and got a jack, a grouper and a yellowtail."
Rosenbaum credits much of the success of the silly jig to its shape. On four-pound or six-pound test line, he is able to give it all sorts of action. "It can be a baitfish or possibly a shrimp," he says. "It's a little small to be a squid, but you can never tell what a fish is thinking. I can bounce it, move it sideways, up and down or backward. When trout are not hitting I can take them by giving the jig a very fast retrieve. It has a great swimming action. Other jigs seem to be made for one special purpose. The ball-shaped jig is for bouncing up and down off the bottom. When you bring it in after a cast it won't swim in a straight line. It goes up and down like the graph of a company sales chart: good year, bad year, good year. But this silly jig can do almost anything you want it to."
Shortly after we met, Rosenbaum lent me his mold, and since then, with a bit of experimenting here and there, I have been turning out silly jigs of my own. One thing I've done is to use white feathers instead of bucktail or polar-bear hair. The feathers have a suppleness that hair lacks, and they add to the jig's enticing motion. It takes about an hour to mold, paint and feather half a dozen.
I have taken any number of the species Rosenbaum has with my jigs, and I have even added to the tropical list with butterfish, squirrelfish, needlefish and a couple of loathsome-looking little fish I was unable to identify. One of the minor triumphs in my life occurred recently on a seawall in the Bahamas, where I caught four mangrove snappers with a silly jig, one after the other from beneath a pier.
The snapper is said to be a very smart fish with little interest in artificial lures. Even if you happen to fool one, you're not supposed to be able to catch the others in the vicinity because they sense something wrong.
In an effort to turn the silly jig into a fly-rod lure I have squeezed a small bead of split shot onto a No. 14 hook, painted it red and white and added tiny feathers. Using this miniversion of the silly jig with a barbless hook, I once caught and released 40 striped bass in an hour. (What I usually don't tell people is that these were two-to-four-inch fish, part of the spring hatch in the Hudson.) In the Bahamas I used the same small jig to catch pilchard, a tasty species of sardine usually only taken by netting.
Try making a silly for yourself. Any lure that has taken some 60 different fish in fresh water and salt, in Iceland, the U.S. and the Caribbean, has to be worth the trouble. But if you're just too busy, try Walt Dette, in Roscoe, N.Y. Maybe he isn't.