Of Jigs and Muskies
Nov 10th, 2005 by OutdoorsFIRST
Modified May 23rd, 2019 at 10:07 PM
Soft Plastics are gaining new popularity as many innovations and new styles have entered the market over the last few years. The story behind the FIRST soft plastic revolution that took place in the 1960’s when there were no jigs or soft plastics designed for Muskies is pretty much a compilation of who’s who of the top angler names form the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and was created by that ‘brain trust’ in the Chicago suburbs to Rockford area in Illinois.
The muskie soft plastic revolution came from my father’s kitchen table in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Jim Cairnes, a family friend and one of the best sticks I have had the pleasure to meet, and my Dad fished together for bass a lot, and used the only soft plastic/jig combination available at the time, a Squirm’n Jig. It was pretty rough by today’s standards, sporting a soft hooked bullet jig and a really rough copy of a nightcrawler, but MAN it caught bass and muskies. Another family friend, Tony Portincaso, was involved in helping make the plaster of Paris molds for the jigs in the kitchen; I still remember what the smells and sounds were as that work was underway. To an impressionable fish crazy kid, this was pretty cool stuff.
One could get as many as 50 jigs out of a mold if it was prepared properly. My Dad took a ball jig and filed the bottom flat, then filed the sides into a nearly triangular design with a wider bottom that top, changing the balance and the hook position in an attempt to create a jig more fishable in the weeds and one that hooked-up better. The first stand up jig was born, appropriately called a ‘diamond head’. That design has seen many copies and improvements on the market since, but the first stand up swimmer heads and diamond heads were made by Jim, Tony, and my Dad.
A gentleman named Paul Repka eventually made a series of production molds and supplied us with beautifully crafted and painted jigs for many years. Larry Latino, another top stick from that era, and Tony Portincaso eventually took that idea to Mar Lynn Tackle, and between Larry and Tony, the Pow’r Head stand up jig hit the market. Jim Cairnes’ and my Father’s original swimmer head is still the best 1 to 1.5-ounce swimmer out there. Herbie did a good job designing the Cobra, and Jack’s Jigs had several good ones.
In the early 1960’s my father took a bass fishing trip to Arkansas where my grandparents lived at the time, meeting Harold Ensley there. Harold had just done very well in a bass tournament with his new lure, a soft plastic leech like 5″ tail now known as the Reaper. They were one color, brown. The plastisol was bubbly and hard, and the mold pretty rough, but the lure combined with my Dad’s standup jigs and Jim’s swimmers was destined to make Muskie History.My father brought a huge bag of those Reapers back to Illinois and distributed them to the group he fished with, including a bass fisherman named Buel Coley. They caught fish, and A LOT of them. Equipment of the day was a 7′ fiberglass medium heavy rod and a Mitchell or Abu spinning reel spooled with 10# line for bass, and for the historic muskie trips to the Bone Lake area by ‘the crew’ soon to include folks like Tony Portincaso, Frank Rondone, Jim Cairnes, Spence Petros, Larry Latino, Don and Steve Worrall, Betty Worrall, Shelly Cairnes, the McBride brothers, and many other crazy muskie fishermen, the weapon of choice was the same rig spooled with 17# line and armed with a 60# seven strand leader.
I caught my first muskie, a big girl, on a jig my Dad made and a plastic worm on Bone Lake. The crew had already created quite a reputation for themselves as Muskie and Bass anglers, and most of those fish were caught tossing a jig. As years passed and innovations by Jim and Paul Repka continued to refine the jig designs, bass anglers were demanding better soft plastics. Mar Lyn ended up marketing the Reaper. I had found a company in Texas selling a large lizard called Stembridge Products, and over a couple years talked Mary Stembridge into doing some mold work for us. We used a weird paddle tail called a Ding A Ling on the Lizard bodies as well. I really liked that lure, but it never went into production. My second largest Wisconsin Muskie from Pelican Lake came on that combo.
As we fished Muskies with the Reaper, the hook shaft area of the soft plastic would get torn up to the point where the Reaper was useless. Using the Stembridge Products Lizard (Fliptail brand) the tail which was like a sectioned worm tail, would get nipped off, rendering that lure body useless as well. One hot early 1970’s afternoon on Enterprise Lake in Langlade County, Wisconsin, Shelly Carines had a few of those ruined tails sitting on Jim’s back deck. She looked them over, and said aloud, “I wonder if this stuff melts?” She took her butane lighter out of her pocket, trimmed a Reaper and a Lizard by cutting the ruined head off the Reaper and the tail off the Lizard, and melted the plastic of both while Jim held them, welding them together. It WORKED!! We now had a larger lure and were able to use our old junk tails to create whatever style tail we could.
Not too long after, I was fishing the Embarrass River for smallmouth out of my Tuffy 154 with Steve Quandt, owner of Glasway, Tuffy Boat’s parent company. I pulled out a couple of my creations and handed them to him. He looked at those ugly tails and asked, “What kind of creature are these?” That did it; from that time forward the lures were known as ‘creatures’. I was known by many during the 70’s and 80’s as ‘The Creature Man’. Jim Cairnes and I followed with several production creatures, which I marketed through a tackle company long sold to Dick Moore.
Creatures on the Weeds
The original Diamond Head jigs were designed to be 1/4 ounce with a 3/0 hook, 1/3 ounce with a 4/0 hook, or 5/8 ounce with a 5/0 hook. All were designed for use in the weeds. The Diamond Head shape works fine on the rocks too, but has more of a propensity to get hung in the rocks than the swimmer heads. I designed a 1/8 ounce model for the Fliptail Baby Creature, which was primarily a walleye and bass lure. The ounce jig matched up exactly with the reaper, an excellent weed line tail. Most of the crew attached the reaper on the jig with a sideways profile, trying to get as much contrast as possible from the side and back. The 1/3-ounce jig was the standard for the Fliptail creature or the Lizard/reaper homemade combo, and the 5/8 ounce for the Super Creature or large shad and twister bodies. The plastic is adhered to the jig with a drop of superglue, which holds the lure together through multiple fish and keeps it from getting destroyed by the hook shank. All of the above rigs were designed to fall at a drop rate of about 1′ per second, and that by serious design. More on that in a bit.
The best all-around outfit for Creature fishing is an IM6 or 8 graphite spinning rod with high quality guides, medium heavy to heavy action with a fast taper and fast tip for popping the jig through the weeds. The reel needs to be large spooled, and balance with the rod exactly for comfort when ‘popping’ the weeds and setting the hook. The big spool allows for the line to be picked up very fast with minimum turns of the reel handle, important when using the lures as they were intended to be used. Casting tackle works but is VERY hard on the wrist and arms when popping weeds, something I sometimes do all day.
Speed and comfort are why my creature rods are spinning outfits. The line needs to be monofilament. I know some folks recommend superlines, but there is a problem using the superlines with a real ‘creature only’ setup. Superlines allow for absolutely no stretch, so when a muskie hits that jig the line is immediately tight, and it’s very hard to get a snap hookset because there is zero slack. I also find myself setting the hook way too soon with the superlines, missing most of the hits from muskies, pike, and especially walleyes. I like 17# mono, but 14# will do for some folks. If you are just slow rolling the jig, Superlines will work well, but I still prefer the forgiving properties of Mono. My first half dozen muskies over 50″ came on mono, so I don’t believe one actually needs the superline hook set to put the steel to a fish using a properly designed jig head.
I use a seven-strand leader, usually about a foot long in 60# test, with a 100# swivel and a good snap. I have yet to have a failure with my leaders and have been using that setup for over 30 years. Watch them for kinks and wear and replace when the leader begins to look beat up. A solid wire leader will not allow the jig to sink properly in the weeds and will cause you no end of grief trying to keep it clear in heavy cabbage.
The jig design is very important. In order to cut weeds the jig should not be rounded from the eye back, like many of the bass jigs adapted for Muskies. The weeds are pushed out by that jig design and end up on the leader. That design also rolls upon contact with heavy weeds, which is why they usually come with a Mylar weed guard. The hook needs to be nearly vertical when the jig is at rest on the bottom, so when weeds do get wrapped on the hook shank a quick hookset will cut them away. The upright hook profile also provides for an excellent ‘bite’ in the fish’s mouth corners. Two quick pops of the rod usually buries a 5/0 all the way through the corner of the mouth.
To do a quick test to see if the hook is properly placed with the lead head, place the eye of the hook against your palm and the hook point against your palm at the same time. Try to pull the hook point across your palm; if it doesn’t hook skin immediately, get rid of the jig and go get one that will.
The technique has been way over thought recently, trying to make a ‘jump lure’ be a crankbait, glider, and twitch bait all in one. The design of the jig and creature is opposed to those techniques; one might as well be throwing a crank bait if one is just cranking the jig in hopping it along with the rod. Cast the jig and creature out to the weed line and count it down. Now you know why I like the jig to sink at 1 foot per second, I have excellent presentation control.
Count it down to the bottom, point the rod directly at the jig, and turn the reel handle FAST two to three times, depending how high in the water column you wish the jig to climb. I like to hop the jig about 3 to 4′ vertically, which requires about three full reel handle revolutions. Stop reeling, and watch the line, again counting the lure down. Watch the line until it suddenly ‘bows’ or goes slack, then simply repeat. Don’t move the rod tip around, that just puts you out of a good hook set position. If you know the last two hops were 4 count, and you count to 2 and the line goes slack, either a fish has your creature, or you are in the weeds, either way, set the hook, and if it’s a fish, the game is on. If it’s a weed, you will clean off the jig and continue the retrieve.
Most strikes from muskies are almost like an electric shock in the rod handle, sort of a sharp ‘click’. Bass just thump the thing, walleyes create a sudden ‘light’ feeling that is just as suddenly heavy, and Pike are totally unpredictable.
The countdown feature of the presentation also REALLY puts you in touch with the structure. You will know from the drop time if you came upon an outside turn (longer drop time because it’s getting deeper) or an inside turn (shorter drop time because it’s getting shallower), allowing you to learn the water better than you ever imagined once you master the technique. If you want to just crank soft plastic, you are not jigging or Creature fishing, you are cranking a soft plastic lure. That’s what Bulldawgs and like designs are for. That style lure is a soft plastic bait, but that is where the similarity ends.
Creatures on the Stones
I love my Dads’ swimmer jigs for this application. A 1 Ounce jig with a 5/0 hook and slightly larger creature is perfect. The fact the swimmer jig design glides more and sinks slower as a result will give you the desired approximate 1 foot per second drop rate. Any good quality swimmer jig will do the job, just make sure you aren’t using one that really falls slowly, or you will be fishing too slowly and not covering the water as well as you could be. The swimmer jig hook almost parallels the flat surface of the jig but will still pass the hook in the palm test.
When the jig hits bottom the flatter profile of that design resists getting fouled up in the rocks, but you will occasionally get hung up. Point the rod at the rock you have managed to get behind, and slack line to sudden ‘pop’ set the hook, returning to immediate slack line. That many times will pop the jig free. If all else fails, take the boat to the back side of the obstruction and pull the jig free.
NEVER cast shallow to deep, those rocks lay that way down there and you will spend the entire day getting hung up. Parallel the edge to hitting it at about a 30 degree angle fanning the edge and break line out to whatever the break offers. Always cast with the wind, otherwise the boat movement will tighten up your line and make the entire process a lot harder to read. If you wish to vertical jig buy a Fuzzy Duzzit or similar lure. Creatures and jigs do OK under that application, but not nearly as well as the lures designed for that purpose. Big lake trout jigs are made for that, and work really well, too.
Don’t over think the process or give it too little time; creature fishing is fast, action packed, and will catch almost any game fish you encounter. Practice your hookset, be sure you are fishing with the wind, and the lure and technique will force a level of boat control you never thought possible. Jig fishermen are traditionally the best boat control experts I fish with, and it’s the technique that taught them how to make that boat dance. By the way, really big muskies like jigs and creatures a lot. My largest and second largest Wisconsin fish both came on Creatures. Try the technique, you won’t be disappointed, and that ‘click’ when a Muskie hits does get sorta addicting.