Jig experts show how to catch on trout

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Mike Davis
March 2008

While jigging on the lakes for large rainbows may not appeal to the died-in-the-wool flyfishermen, in the hands of an expert the jigging outfit produces more hookups than any other style of trout fishing.

While in my late teens I became a self confessed flyfishing junkie, and once I had begun to learn the finer points of flyfishing it was always pretty hard to get very enthused about any other form of fishing for trout.  

Initially I was introduced to fresh water fishing through harling at a young age and once past that and into flyfishing I thought I would never fish for trout without a fly rod again. That was until work had taken me back to retail once again at Rotorua Hunting and Fishing where I soon began to realise the importance to the fishing industry and the popularity of the public when it comes to fishing from a boat for trout, whether it be harling, trolling or jigging.

In the shop I was soon being asked many questions on jigging as its popularity was increasing due to the large numbers of trout and the awesome size of the fish that were being caught on the lakes like Rotoiti and Okataina, which was nothing short of amazing. The only way that I could truly help the customers was to throw away my flyfishing cap for a while and learn how to jig for trout. To help bypass the apprentice stage as quickly as possible I was lucky enough to hook up the services of fly-tying great Pat Swift, who only jigs these days, and the local lake guru Glenn Skinner from the Trout Connection.  

Watching these guys work the reef structures of the lake was fantastic as they were very methodical in their approach and they always had total belief in their set-ups.  There is certainly no fluking fish with these guys and when the fishing is good they can be landing a dozen fish an hour, and will regularly be getting double hook ups on their rig of three flies.  

The successful flies match the size and colour of the smelt.

Cool Water

Jigging can be successful throughout the season but tends to work best when the lake surface temperatures warm up in the summer months and the deep lakes stratify into well defined layers. The upper level is warm water and where it meets the cold lower layer a narrow band called the thermocline is created. This can move up and down in the water column depending on air temperatures (it rises at night) and wind.

So as the lake water warms up in the summer small baitfish like smelt are forced down into the thermocline and naturally the trout soon follow them and gorge themselves as the smelt congregate in large numbers.  

When fishermen can locate these concentrations of food and trout they can fish them with such precision that they catch large numbers of fish.

It all depends on the weather. In a cold, windy summer the lakes may not stratify; while a hot, dry summer like this year will produce ideal conditions for jigging.

The deep lakes will ‘turn over’ in autumn and winter, with the water being mixed throughout the lake and the thermocline is not so well defined.

In the “good old days” when the only option was to troll or harl, fishing in the middle of summer was always pretty difficult unless the anglers resorted to methods such as deep trolling with copper or wire lines or up to 200 metres of lead-core line.  

As you can imagine playing a trout with that sort of weight out the back of the boat was not very inspiring to anyone wanting to try their hand at trout fishing, as once a fish was hooked it was like pulling up a sack of spuds from the bottom.   Consequently when the pioneering jig fishermen were catching lots of trout, many others, especially the fly fishermen, threw a lot of flack their way as the jigging crews were landing many fish that were traditionally not available to standard trolling rigs.  The depth at which the jig fishermen are pulling fish out of can vary from 20m right down to 40m in some cases.

The great thing about jig fishing is that any one can learn to do it fairly quickly and the gear is light, making the playing of fish a lot of fun and great sport.

When it comes to family fun with fishing, trout jigging would be hard to beat and just this summer even my three and a half year old boy, Matthew, landed his first trout jigging, pretty much all by himself that tipped the scales at five 2.5kg. Hopefully I now have a young boy who will be hooked on fishing for life. It would have been impossible to do this with a fly fishing outfit at that age.

The single most important thing that any boat can have when jigging is a fish finder.

The Techniques

Jigging is best done from a drifting boat in a light breeze with the help of a drogue or sea anchor. The sea anchor is set out to the side of the boat to slow down its speed during the drift, and it also helps to stabilise the craft in the wind.  

The sea anchor is a heavy, tapered, canvas windsock that catches water as the boat moves; slowing down the speed of the drift and allowing water to be covered more thoroughly. They also come in a parachute style that slows the drift even more than the traditional windsock style, but they are more expensive. The drogue is an essential item for larger boats with canopies because the canopy can almost work like a kite and catch the wind.  

Most of the jigging is done around headlands and underwater reef structures that start shallow and drop away into the depths of the lake. These are naturally rich areas of food for trout as they interrupt wind-borne currents.

If the conditions are too windy to drift at a comfortable speed to fish, you may then need to drop the anchor and by giving the anchor plenty of rope the boat can then swing a little with the wind - allowing different depths of the reef structure to be fished as the boat swings.  

The only problem with anchoring the boat is that you need to wait for the fish to come to the boat as they move through the reef following the smelt. Sometimes they will move through very quickly, making it frustrating because you can’t follow them because of the wind.

The single most important thing that any boat can have when jigging is a fish finder.  The fish finder becomes the eyes of the anglers as they drift and once the angler is experienced with the gear ratio of the reel and knows how much line is retrieved during each wind of the handle individual fish can actually be targeted on the sounder.  

Normally fish will be seen in schools on the sounder and the best scenario that you can find is when the fish are stacked vertically opposed to being spread out across the sounder horizontally. When the trout are vertical through the water column they tend to be feeding hard on smelt and the action is usually pretty intense. Once the fish have been located on the sounder in this way the motor of the boat can actually be revved to maintain the position over the school and so increasing your fishing time.

Alternatively you can continue the drift and once the drift is completed then motor back and drift back down through the school of fish once again.  

The first time that I saw this happen I was gob-smacked as trout I chase in the back country environment usually flee at any strange noise or on seeing a strange object; but not so their lake-dwelling cousins.

Fly tying guru Pat Swift shows how it is done on Lake Rotoiti.

The Tackle

The best all-round rods for jigging are light graphite rods in the 4-8kg class and ideally somewhere between 6’6” and 8’ in length.  The extra length of the rod helps clear other gear and the likes of the motor when playing fish near the boat.  

Graphite rods are superior to glass rods for jigging as they are lighter in weight and more sensitive because they bend differently through the tip of the rod. Graphite rods are stiffer in action which allows the angler to set the hook into a fish, and also have better bite detection especially when fishing in deep water over 20m.

The most common reels used are small bantam style baitcasting reels like those seen on US bass fishing television programs. Bantam reels are very smooth and light, allowing them to fit well into any sized hand. The small bantam reels also have very good drag systems and are easy to use as they sit on the top of the rod facing the angler. The free-spool bar on the reel is always in reach of the angler’s thumb and some reels come with an additional flipper control that allows the angler complete control over their rig at all times when the flies are descending.  

At any time the reel can be put in gear just by taking the thumb off the free-spool bar when the gear is being dropped to the bottom.  

This can be a huge advantage when you know exactly how much line has been let out and the fish are not down on the lake bed but have been located at mid depth on the sounder.  

In shallow water down to 20m of depth mono line can be used but more commonly soft, supple braids are used for their low stretch and ultra thin diameter. The thin diameter and non stretch features of braid in turn helps to gain the ultimate in bite detection. This also allows you to feel for the bottom when the flies are on the descent. There are many different varieties of braid on the market but the colour coded braid is by far the most useful as it comes in ten-metre, colour-coded increments. This coding is priceless when the fish are up off the bottom, especially when fishing out in deep water. It saves a lot of time in not having to let the rig hit the bottom of the lake and then wind back up to the fish, and also means that you are spending more time fishing in the correct zones.

Most of the fishing is done in under 35m of water so only 50 metres of coloured braid with some mono backing to pack out the reel is needed for a very effective fishing rig. This makes the rig very cost effective also.    

Mike Davis found a mix of flies worked best.


Serious jig fishermen use fluorocarbon mono and the most common length of leader for jigging is three metres, but a further  seven metres of regular mono is added above the leader to make up the first 10-metre section. This extra mono also adds just a little stretch to the overall set up to help reduce bust-offs.

In the Rotorua region the common rig has a swivel teardrop sinker on the bottom with one metre of sacrificial 3.5kg trace that has a small swivel above it. That way if the sinker gets snagged on the bottom we only lose our last metre of trace and not the whole rig.

From the first swivel a metre of 4.5kg fluorocarbon is attached to another swivel followed by the final metre of 4.5kg fluorocarbon that is tied to the top swivel that in turn joins the 7m section up to the braid. Fluorocarbon is used because it has better abrasion resistance than monofilament and is stiff, making tangles basically non-existent.

The dropper traces for the flies are connected to the top eye on the three swivels. These are from 10cm to 20cm long, and it is important that 6kg fluorocarbon is used to tie the flies to the leader because it is stiff and holds the flies out straight in the water.

A different rig is more commonly used in the Taupo region, with a metal jig on the bottom and two flies on droppers.  At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter as long as you don’t exceed the legal limit of three hooks of whatever combination. Another option is to use a hookless jig for the weight which also acts as an attractor, with three flies above it.

The Flies

With jigging for trout becoming so popular, fly sales in small smelt patterns have escalated over the last couple of seasons.  While traditional harling flies have always been fairly large, from size 2 through to size 6, by contrast jigging flies in the Rotorua region are comparatively small. The most common sized fly sold is a size 10, and during the early season people will trial three different flies such as a Green Orbit on the bottom, a Jack Spratt in the middle with a Grey Ghost on the top; and from there change to other various patterns until they find the one that is working best.

The smelt patterns for jigging are smaller than flies used for trolling.

Different flies will perform better at different times and under differing light conditions other patterns may stand out. For example the lime-bodied Grey Ghost is a fantastic performer in dim light, but in the bright sunshine the pearl-bodied Grey Ghost has few equals. This year the Jack Spratt has been a very consistent fly, but the neat thing about fishing is that it can all change pretty quickly leaving you pondering over what the fish have changed to.

The Action

For the angler the actual jig movement is not at all like that of the saltwater fisherman but is a very subtle jiggle, with just the flick of the wrist needed to impart the correct action. When Glenn Skinner is jigging he is always in touch with the bottom and will keep in touch with it by bouncing the sinker off it every 30 seconds or so. Glenn also uses a longer leader than most, with the swivels being one and half metres apart. This allows him to cover a greater spread of depth with his rig, but it is also harder to handle when playing fish.

With many trout being found fairly close to the lake bed and then at other times a school of fish may come through several metres above the bottom, the continual use of the fish finder makes jigging an interactive sport; almost a little like some of the playstation games. Once the fish are seen at a certain depth, the angler can then target those fish on the fish finder, and this is where confidence in your sounder is so important. While the flies are fished at different depths the fisherman must be prepared to lose some gear on the bottom, especially when the boat is drifting.

Like all things, change in an industry can be a good thing and with people becoming more informed about different successful techniques in fishing and with the increases in petrol prices people are becoming more inclined to turn their motors off out on the lake and drift for a while. Jigging can be a great way to spend a morning or afternoon relaxing and it is something that the whole family can enjoy.

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