In simple mathematics, the sum is always greater than the parts.
In fishing, a jig is just a jig and a minnow is just a minnow when they stand alone. However, if you put them together, they make a lethal combination for springtime walleyes across the Midwest.
Like Puckett and Hrbek or Garnett and Cassell, it becomes a powerful 1-2 punch that leaves the opposition (in this case walleyes) fit to be fried.
Jigs are an awesome way to fish. First of all, it’s interactive. Without the angler to bring that piece of lead to life, it would seldom catch fish. The ways in which we can present jigs is limited only by our imagination. They can be cast to shallow water or fished vertically over deep breaklines. They can be hopped, twitched, snapped or dragged.
When walleyes are coming off their springtime spawning mission, a properly presented jig is as good a way to catch them as exists. Most of the time that includes the use of live bait such as minnows, shiners, chubs, leeches or crawlers. While jigs have stood the test of time, they have also evolved to the point where manufacturers offer specific jigs for specific uses.
With all the jig models on the market today, you could have dozens of different styles, but my experience tells me that it’s less complicated and more efficient to know how to correctly rig a half-dozen types.
My standard live-bait jig early in the season is a Northland Tackle Fire-Ball. At first glance, many anglers might look at the Fire-Ball and insist that the hook is too short to be an effective tool for walleyes. In fact, that short-shanked hook is precisely what makes the Fire-Ball so dynamite.
Post-spawn walleyes are feeding walleyes, but they have more dining options than a food court with grubs, aquatic insects, crayfish, frogs, salamanders, leeches, nightcrawlers and a variety of baitfish shaking off the effects of a long winter.
A basic Fire-Ball is an ideal way to give the fish a realistic but compact meal that appeals to the senses of sight, scent and sound. If the water is particularly murky or the fish seem to be scattered, a Rattlin’ Fire-Ball can help draw them in. If they are glued to the bottom, as is often the case during a cold front, a Stand-Up Fire-Ball is a good choice.
The key to all these presentations is how you present the bait.
If you simply hook a minnow through the lips, you may become one of those anglers who is constantly fishing in the minnow bucket rather than the lake or river.
By threading your minnow onto the hook, you can create a more effective combination that accentuates the presence of the bait morsel than the jig itself, which is primarily there to provide weight and color.
Squeeze the minnow just behind the gills with your thumb and forefinger and wait until it opens its mouth. Then slide the hook inside its mouth as far as you can and out through the top behind its head. Try to center your exit so the minnow rides in line with the hook and isn’t hanging off to one side.
When you’ve done it correctly, the minnow’s head should be pushed up against the ball of the jig to create a compact but natural look that can be used vertically or even pitched to shallow water. With the minnow so far up the hook, it’s difficult for a walleye to bite short, and the wide gap of a Fire-Ball hook leads to quick and solid hook-sets. Meanwhile, it can do what it does best – wiggle and squirm until it gets a hungry walleye’s attention.
Won’t that kill the minnow? In time, yes, but you’ll be surprised how long that critter will remain lively. When it expires, replace it.
The Fire-Ball’s compact design makes it a great leech jig, too. The key to fishing leeches is to hook them through the larger of the two suckers, which is actually the tail. That will usually encourage the leech to stretch out as it attempts to swim away.
If you hook the wrong end, leeches often ball up and you can’t do much with them. Sometimes, they roll up even when hooked correctly. When that happens, I give them the Donald Trump treatment – “You’re fired!”
If the situation calls for pitching Fire-Balls and leeches to the fish, they tend to fly off too easily if you hook them in the normal manner. It’s a good idea to double-hook them by running the hook through the large sucker, then turning it over and pushing it through the leech’s back as close to the sucker as possible. You’ll sacrifice a little action from your bait, but it will keep you in business a lot longer.
When fishing nightcrawlers, I seldom use a whole crawler with a Fire-Ball because it tends to drag along below the jig. A half-crawler that is threaded onto the hook all the way to the head has been more effective in my experience.
Stand-Up Fire-Balls are a great bait jig, as well, but require a slight adjustment. Because the hook rides at a 45-degree angle as the jig head slides across the bottom, don’t attempt to thread your minnows all the way up to the jig head. Go in through the mouth, as before, but make sure the hook exits in the front of the minnow’s head rather than the back for a slightly more horizontal presentation. Hook leeches as you would on a standard Fire-Ball and hook crawlers through the nose rather than threading them onto the hook.
Larger bait calls for longer-shanked hooks. Northland Tackle’s Eye-Ball jigs are a great choice when giant fatheads, shiners or even chubs are the bait of choice. Thread the bait onto the jig in the same manner with 4-to 5-inch baits, but if you are using larger forage, it may be wise to pass the hook through the mouth and out one of the gills before hooking it in the bait’s back. The bigger the minnow, the farther I like to locate the hook.
Longer-shanked hooks also come into play when the fish seem to want every bit of a whole, fat crawler. You can thread a couple of inches of crawler onto the hook to encourage those walleyes to suck in enough of it to wish they hadn’t.
Other live-bait options include Northland’s Whistler jigs and similar niche products. The Whistler features a tiny propeller blade behind the jig head that turns when the jig moves through the water, creating both a visual and audible attraction for walleyes. However, if you push your bait too far up the hook with a Whistler, it will impede the action of the blade. For that reason, don’t thread your minnows or crawlers too far up the hook shank.
Finally, there are situations when a piece of scented plastic or a grub tail are a productive addition to a jig-and-live bait combination, and these add-ons will affect how you hook on a minnow or crawler. Berkley’s new Gulp! line of scented soft baits are a great option because of their advanced scent release ability. Try a Gulp Minnow Grub with vibrating action tails seem to be the right call, make sure to short-hook them slightly to leave room on the hook shank for the live bait and turn the tails down so they don’t interfere with any action you get from a minnow or leech. Thread your live bait into the hook, but keep it closer to the bend of the hook rather than pushing it well up the shank where it won’t be able to ride along horizontally.
It’s a great time of year for fishing jigs. Put a little thought into how you present them on your next trip and you’ll be doing the catching, too.