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Seth Rosenbaum, angler and plug collector extraordinaire (SI, July 14, 1975) cautiously approached the boathouse pier. Rosenbaum had caught steelhead in Alaska, Atlantic salmon in Iceland, cod off Norway, bonefish in the Caribbean and giant striped martin off Panama, but the 10-inch largemouth bass lurking off this pier in Lake Florence in the Catskill Mountains of New York were the greatest challenge of his life. Rosenbaum had caught a lot of largemouths while summering there as a child, but neither he nor anyone else had landed the 10-inch bass that always hung around the pier and were wise to worms and the ways of fishermen.
Excitedly, Rosenbaum tied a tiny jig—which had a head of BB split shot and a skirt of fluffy white hen hackle and fine silver Mylar—to the end of the four-pound-test line on his ultralight spinning rod. He cast the jig so that it landed with a little plop a few feet from the fish. He saw one of the bass turn toward the jig as it settled. He hippety-hopped the jig along the bottom, and on the third hop the bass struck. In the next 10 minutes, Rosenbaum caught four bass, all of which he released in heady triumph.
"It was a very interesting experience," said Rosenbaum, a smile, if not a leer, of satisfaction on his face. "In the past when I'd cast toward them, they'd swim away. This time they swam toward me. They were absolutely fooled by the jig."
A jig is a very simple lure. Classically, it has a lead head and a skirt or tail made of feathers or hair from the tail of a deer, thus the term bucktail jig. Depending on the quarry sought, and on the weight, size and shape of the jig head, it can be bounced on the bottom, made to swim normally or erratically at different depths, or skittered across the surface. It is, in fact, the most versatile and successful lure in the world.
It has become a clich� to say that a jig is the one lure that experienced anglers would choose above all others if they had to make a choice of just one, but compared with dry flies, wet flies, nymphs, streamers, plugs, spinners and spoons, the jig has attracted scandalously little attention. At least 200 books on flies alone have come out in the last 15 years, but only three publications about jigs have appeared in that time: the late Al Reinfelder's Bait Tail Fishing (A.F. Barnes. 1969), a first-rate book on jig-fishing techniques; Lacey E. Gee and Erwin D. Sias's How to Fish with Jigs, a booklet published privately in 1970 in Independence, Iowa; and, most recently, Kenn Oberrecht's Angler's Guide to Jigs and Jigging ( Winchester Press, 1982), which is long on how to make jigs but short on their use.
No greater tribute has ever been paid to a lure than that which the Navy bestowed on the Upperman bucktail jig during World War II. The Navy tested every conceivable kind of lure for its survival kits and finally selected the jigs made by the Upperman brothers, Bill and Morrie, of Atlantic City, because they caught more fish than anything else. All a sailor or pilot adrift at sea had to do to catch fish was tie a bucktail to a handline and then jig it by dancing it up and down in the water. In a bobbing sea, fish could even be caught by tying the handline to the raft and letting the waves do the jigging.
Bill Upperman was not surprised that he and his brother won the Navy contract because, as Morrie's widow, Dorothy, recalls, "They always said it was the lure that would catch the most fish in the least amount of time." Mrs. Upperman recalls that for 11 years her husband held the New Jersey state record for striped bass, a 63-pound, 10-ounce striper caught on an Upperman bucktail.
The jig probably goes back to the time of Homer, who mentions something similar in the Iliad, and it has long been favored by saltwater fishermen. Before the days of mechanization and mile-long nets, commercial fishermen out in dories on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland handlined bright, silvery, diamond jigs for cod, pollock and mackerel. Strong-backed crews on larger boats in the Pacific used big feathered jigs, heavy bamboo poles and stout lines to catch tuna, bonito and albacore.
Despite the advent of mechanization at sea, the jig still plays an important role in commercial fishing. According to a bulletin of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the newest Japanese vessels fishing for squid have increased their catches tremendously and simultaneously reduced crew size by installing automatic jigging machines that use barbless jigs. Different-colored jigs are placed about a foot apart on monofilament line attached to each machine, then lowered into the water. The machines jig them up and down; after the squid are hooked, the line winds back up on its own, and the squid are automatically dumped onto a screen. They are washed, sorted and frozen without suffering from broken ink sacs, torn skin or loss of color. In such perfect condition they fetch a premium price, because they are the highest quality squid on the world market.
Jigs vary in weight from as little as a 64th of an ounce (or less if you happen to be a fanatic jigmaker) to as much as 22 ounces for the so-called Norway jigs, which sport fishermen use for cod or halibut deep in the ocean. The shape of the jig head has much to do with its purpose. A ball-headed jig sinks quickly. It can be danced straight up and down off the bottom, or it can be retrieved with an undulating motion. A compressed jig head, with a silhouette that resembles that of a coin, a lima bean or a football, won't sink as quickly as a ball-headed jig, but it can be made to swim most enticingly. A wedge-headed jig with a bottom keel, such as the Lake Erie walleye jig, is designed to be worked on a rocky bottom, while a flatheaded jig can slide and hop along a sand fiat like a crab eluding a bonefish. In Fishing with McClane, A.J. McClane describes an extraordinarily effective bonefish jig made by Dr. J.H. Cooper, a psychoanalyst from Kansas City, Mo. The blade-shaped flathead is cut from a sheet of thin stainless steel, and the edges are thinned and bent to get a fluttering action. Lead is added to the inside of the blade for weight, and marabou is tied on for the tail. McClane says it is designed to "sink and retrieve slowly with a maximum of action, skip over weeds and coral heads, and at the same time have enough weight for long casts without being splashy," an important point because bonefish feeding in shallow water are very skittish. The first time McClane tried the Cooper jig he caught 41 bonefish. On his worst day out of 10, he took a trio of five-pounders while live-bait fishermen didn't get a nudge.