Florida Sportsman Magazine May 2021 Article
By Brett Fitzgerald
"Fish On," said Chris Doyle, barely more audible than the idling boat motors. He had just dropped his jig, a shiny piece of solid metal referred to as a "flat back" to the bottom some 350 feet below the boat just off Pompano Beach, on Florida’s southeast coast, and was hooked up. “Maybe a grouper?” asked Johnny Steadham, who was just working into his own jigging cadence in the bow of
the boat. Pompano Beach, FL being the home of Johnny Jigs they have been fishing these waters for years. “Doesn’t feel like it,” Chris replied, keeping his wispy-looking fishing rod pointed just below the horizon while he cranked slowly and steadily.
Barely 10 minutes into our first drift, I recognized that what these guys were doing was quite a bit different from run-of-the-mill vertical jigging. I’ve used lead-head bucktails, metal speed jigs and various combinations of jigs and trailers over the years, but this was something else—from the size of the rod, reel and line, to the terminal rigging techniques, to the way the different metal jigs were dropped and worked, to the reeling of the hooked fish. Don’t get me wrong—I have caught plenty fish dropping jigs off Palm Beach over the years and enjoyed it immensely. Tunas, AJs, kingfish, ’cudas, snappers and groupers and more have slimed my thighs. Some jigs were long and skinny, some shorter and fat. Some heavy, some less. I fished them all the same way on the same rod and had about the same luck—some days were great, some were not so much. Today, I was excited to add another tactic to my arsenal, slow pitch jigging.
When Chris brought that first fish along the boat, we all admired the barracuda that was well over 3 feet long. Chris and Johnny were pretty surprised this beautiful yet ugly fish was caught right off the bottom at this depth. I was more than surprised at just how simple Chris made the whole thing look without the usual “pump-and-reel” groaning. And, he was using a rod that looked no bigger than what I throw at bluegills in a pond. Within a few minutes we moved to a different spot at around the same depth. “We have spots marked out here, but right now we are looking for blackfin tuna and they move around a lot,” Chris said. “They seem to swim around in huge circles out here so if you keep an eye on your electronics you are bound to run across them at some point if you just drift with the current and wind.” As if on cue, horizontal lines started showing up on the screen in the lower half of the water column and a wimpy looking jig rod was soon doubled down, arcing down towards the water. Again, a slow, steady retrieve was employed. Chris had the butt of the rod tucked under his arm and the tiny reel palmed in his hand while he calmly reeled and talked me through his perspective on fish fighting when jigging.
“Don’t think of it as fighting the fish. Think of it as guiding the fish to the boat,” he cooed. “This reel is deceiving because of its size, but one crank gets me more than 40 inches of line.” In short order, a very respectable blackfin was hoisted over the gunnel and I caught the first glimpse of an increased heart rate by the boys. “That’s a nice one! Sushi tonight!” Johnny exclaimed, and into the cooler it went. “We encourage most first-timers to target blackfin. They are plentiful around here throughout the summer, and readily take slow-pitch jigs.”
The morning was going according to plan, which meant our next move was
to head offshore to deeper waters. Much deeper. “We often start around 300 or 400 feet to get an idea of what the current and wind are looking like for the day. If it seems favorable, we’ll go out to 900 feet or so and drop some jigs out there,” Johnny explained. Once we hit a depth of around 850 feet, Johnny killed the motor
and all eyes turned towards the electronics. The drift was nice and slow—just a couple knots—and there was a gentle cross breeze, nearly perfect.
“I’m going with a 500-gram torpedo jig, and Chris is going a little lighter with a 400- gram torpedo, which is longer and more tubular than the flat back jig we used earlier,” Johnny explained. “Out here, we have to go a lot lighter with the line to make sure we get to the bottom, so we’ll switch to the rods that have 15-pound braid.” During the next few minutes, I received quite an education, and the best way to describe what went down is to just start at the beginning.
Two rods were selected based on the diameter of line on the spool (15-pound, as mentioned). All of the rods were partially rigged in the same manner: reels spooled with various diameters of braid and each one had about a 10-foot flourocarbon leader tied directly to the braid using a FG knot. FG knots can be somewhat tricky to learn at first, but they are the perfect knot for this application because they allow you to avoid doubling your braid when tying directly to a thick leader (which I used to do). The FG is long and thin, allowing it to easily pass through the rod tip. The terminal end of the fluoro was tied directly to a ball bearing swivel via 5-wrap uni- knot. On every racked rod, the business end of the swivel was threaded on to a triple-split ring. Attached to each split ring was a set of two “assist” jig hooks. “Triple split rings just don’t fail as often as doubles, and just as important we prefer them to have a 90-degree cut. Many split rings have a 45-degree cut on the ends of the curved metal. You’d be surprised how often a hook point or something can get caught in there and wedge in between the rings. A 90-degree cut almost eliminates that risk,” Johnny explained.
Next, a folder of jigs was laid across the bench and we were looking at a highly organized spread of metal jigs in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. A smaller box of rings, additional hooks and other goodies was opened next to it. Once the preferred torpedo jigs were picked out, split ring pliers attached a set of two hooks to the bottom of the jig, then the top of the jig was connected to the same split ring that connected the ball bearing swivel to the dangling hooks.
This answered a question I often asked myself: Was I supposed to tie my leader directly to the jig loop, or the split ring, or the closed metal circle that held the two hooks? Turns out the answer was none of the above. “We have found through a lot of trial and error that using a ball bearing swivel that attaches directly to the split gives us the best combination of action and strength,” Chris said. The bottom of the lure is the same except there is no need for the swivel. I pointed out that many slow pitch jigs are sold with hooks at only one end and asked if jigs are often fished with just one set. “If you are getting hung up on rocky bottom or reefs, you can remove the lower hooks,” Chris answered. “But they do help keep a bigger fish on the hook because the lower hooks will often grab the fish and hold the lure in place so it doesn’t flop around. One way to reduce bottom snags is to make sure your hooks open facing in towards the jig, not the other way around.”
I didn’t feel the need to confess that I used to use only one set of hooks, often on the wrong end of the jig...Johnny tossed a drift sock off the back of the boat to help keep us moving at about the same speed and direction as the current. Then the jigs were swung over the gunnel, bails were opened, and the hardware was going down. And down. And down. Both anglers were lightly thumbing the spool, and I asked if backlash was an issue with the heavier jigs and light line. “Not really. This is to allow the jigs to drop faster,” Chris told me. Turns out, these jigs are designed to have action when they drop freely. Some fall like a leaf from a tree if they are deployed with a total free-spool, which is the intended action during the jig. At this depth, the lure would never reach the bottom, so applying just a little drag can straighten the jig to a vertical position and allow it to drop much faster. Every 30 seconds or so, each angler would close the bail and reel in several cranks, then open the bail and send it back towards the bottom. “This is not to fish the column; this is just an attempt to keep the line as straight as possible. Currents can move in different directions along the way down, causing the line to bow out this way or that. Braid is sensitive but it can be very tough to feel any bite if you don’t tend your line during the descent.” The 500-gram lure touched bottom first, and Johnny started an exaggerated, sweeping vertical jig. Chris’s smaller jig hit bottom shortly after and they both were hooked up within a couple minutes. In what felt like less time than it took for the jigs to find bottom, both flopped two blackbelly rosefish (a type of scup) into the cooler. One jig, one drop, two fish each—not bad. “These fish don’t get too big, but wait till you taste them tonight,” Johnny said. “The texture is like nothing you’ve had, almost like a shellfish, and they are as sweet as can be.” The man spoke the truth. We were after golden tilefish, so the scups were a welcome catch. “Usually when you get into these fish, you find a mess of them. Tilefish are usually nearby too,” Chris said. As I was somewhat pressed for time, we scooted out of there after just a couple more drops (and more black bellies—and a beardfish. A new species for me, the 99th I have entered in my iAngler log book). “Come back tomorrow, we’ll head straight out and get your tilefish,” Johnny offered. I was landlocked the next day, but they did indeed get some tiles.
After an eventful morning on the water, my brain was full. I realized that eventually, I will be upgrading my slow-pitch jigging gear. But for now, armed with new knowledge and skills, my current jigging rods and reels will do the trick. I have since learned that there is a subculture of deepwater jiggers with videos on YouTube; search away (as with any trip into that rabbit hole, however, be prepared to filter some of the advice from sources evidently sponsored or otherwise profiting off of component sales). Many local tackle shops along the Florida coasts are well stocked with slow pitch jigs, as well as other types. You can hit up the Johnny Jigs guys in person at their new showroom on Federal Hwy in Pompano, or visit their website johnnyjigs.com to pick up more tips and tidbits. FS
SLOW PITCH JIGGING CADENCE
There is an art to maximizing the action of your slow-pitch jig in deep water. There are many variations to how you might work the water column, but a basic way to get started is to get your metal to the bottom and work the lower few yards. The best action of the jigs occurs during the fall after you sweep your rod up in a jigging motion.
It might seem logical to crank your reel a bit at the top of the vertical sweep, but this is not the case. “You actually want to crank the reel when you first start your jig. This helps load the rod and increase the speed and distance of your vertical lift. In the perfect scenario, the jig will fling up very quickly because of the rod flexing up as you sweep your arm up. This way, there is a longer fall before you start the process again,” instructs Johnny Steadman. Cranking slack at the top of your jigging action reels the slack line during the fall, shortening the duration of the lure’s intended action. After a few repetitions of this, your lure will be off the bottom. At this point, open the bail and gently thumb the jig back to the bottom. You’ll feel a distinctive thud, then repeat the process a few times before reeling all the way in and starting over. Don’t be surprised if a tuna, mahi-mahi, or other hungry critter grabs your jig during the speedy retrieve to the boat.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT ROD FOR THE JOB
“A good jig rod has what we call a parabolic bend, meaning it will flex from the tip all the way to the butt,” explained Chris Doyle. “We don’t pump and reel, we just apply steady pressure on the fish as we bring it up so the rod doesn’t do a lot of work during the battle. Basically, match the rod size and strength to the lure you are jigging. “The rod should load when you jig up to give you the best vertical thrust. A rod that is too flimsy won’t straighten at the end of the jigging motion, reducing your action. Too much rod power ends up decreasing the action as well. If you are balanced, you can be successful with either a spinner or conventional rod.”
Technical jigging rods may have spiral-wrapped guides— the guide closest to the (conventional) reel is on top, and the guides are offset along the blank until the very last one is hanging under the rod like a spinning rod.
Not totally necessary for those wanting to get started with slow-pitch jigging, but it does have one huge advantage. Often when the jig is fluttering down during between jigging strokes, the braid can flip over the rod tip. If your last guide is on top (as in typical conventional), the braid will get hung up on the last guide. With the last guides on the bottom, the line can slide off the tip before you start the next stroke.