By Capt. Joe Richard
A long, silver jig with a single assist hook caught this amberjack. Notice how well this fish is hooked.
Many offshore anglers are heavy metal fans, whether they realize it or not. Not your typical fans of the musical variety. No, these are somewhat more normal people, whose tackle boxes carry sticks of lead or perhaps tungsten, dressed up in glitter and flash, designed to imitate baitfish as they plunge into the depths. Drop that metal deep, do the old crank-and-yank (some call it "ripping") and watch what happens.
It's vigorous work, which is why there's specialized tackle built for this very tactic, and it's a treat to watch those hefty amberjack, grouper, snapper, wahoo and tuna latch onto solid, metal baits. When they do, look out! Keep a smooth drag on that reel, and an experienced gaff man at your elbow, because you'll need him.
This newest chapter in jigging carries several names -- "butterfly," "freestyle" and "heavy metal" jigging -- and actually isn't that new, originating in other parts of the world. Now, however, we suddenly have many new fans probing the depths off the southeastern U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico.
Heavy-metal jigs are basically sticks of lead dressed in shiny attire, designed to flutter and wiggle through the depths. Lead stick lures have been around for many years, but lately they've gained great eye appeal by several companies. Eye appeal to fishermen translates into more jigs on the water and more success stories. Let's face it: Fish will hit an ugly home-made jig, often repeatedly, but marketability gets more jigs offshore in eager hands.
The first examples of lead jig sticks I ever encountered were back in 1990 while living on the Texas coast. I'd been jigging for a long time, but these were oddities -- home-made metal jigs made by a neighbor just relocated from the Pacific Northwest. They were dull, 10-inch, gray sticks of lead that were uglier than a hat-full of catfish heads. After pouring the lead, he hadn't sealed them from the air, and since lead rapidly oxidizes, they had zero eye appeal. Brand new lead is shiny as mercury but left to sit up, rapidly fades.
An assortment of metal jigs. The simple treble hook jig at top caught a nice almaco jack.
Such lead sticks were meant to fight tremendous current and tides in the Pacific, easily 20 feet and more, like we never have on the Texas coast. I couldn't see a use for them. Not in less than a hundred feet of water with gentle Gulf currents.
That was yesterday, and times have changed. Anglers fish farther and deeper, pushing new frontiers -- plumbing the depths down to 800 feet or more where the big ones bite. To reach these depths, you need specialized gear for jigging, beginning with that shiny stick of lead attached to a few feet of flurocarbon leader
. Add powerful but light rods with high-ratio reels filled with thin braid line
(which we didn't have back then) that cuts through water with minimal drag.
Anglers are left with a variety of methods for attaching hooks to these new metal jigs, which are mostly rear-weighted. These aren't your simple treble-hook rigs meant to stay in one spot. No, these "assist hooks
" are single, wide-gap hooks mounted on four-inch tethers made of Dacron, Kevlar or Technora fiber cord. That's a lot of play with a single hook, but once a fish grabs on, the hook digs deep. The metal lure hangs off to the side, out of the way, often avoiding a scratch during the fight. These single hooks are quickly re-rigged to ride on top, at the rear or occasionally amidships on the jigs.
These rigs work, too. Anglers have been dragging up snowy grouper from 800 feet down, jigging away like they're in only 50 feet. That's pretty amazing, but refinements in all aspects of this tackle make it doable. Of course, you've got to jig with authority, set the hook, and crank up the fish, and that requires energy. Pulling a fish up from such depths sounds difficult, but they do become buoyant as they rise. After all, the gas inside a fish doubles every 33 feet as it ascends to the surface.
Jigging aboard party boat caught this amberjack.
After running around offshore for 30 years, I don't have quite the energy of these younger guys, who can jig with gusto for hours on end. (Been there, done that on many trips). So, this heavy-metal jigging seems a little demanding for older anglers. I did try it aboard a Florida party boat last year, after watching the deckhand, a young fellow with boundless energy, repeatedly sweeping the rod tip up and down at least eight feet, while hooking sizeable amberjacks for the boat's customers. He would hand the bent rod off and find another client who needed a hookup. Lots of motion with the jig is required; many anglers don't realize that a slow-moving jig just won't draw the strikes that an erratic, fast-mover does. Offshore fish are quick, and I tell people on board these fish can read the label on a slow-moving jig, while declining to grab it.
Anyway, I tried the metal jigging trick while aboard the party boat. Using my older 4/0 reel with 50-pound mono line, and a six-foot grouper rod, I tried it for a little while and caught a 15-pound almaco jack, which is a tastier cousin of the amberjack. My fish was caught using a metal jig with a treble hook (the broad white jig pictured in the collection of metal on my red bait-cutting board). That fish put up a good fight, hooked 180 feet below the boat. We later had a nice little fish fry on the back porch, serving up white fish fingers coated with yellow corn meal, a real treat.
On the party boat, others were dragging up the standard 30- and 40-pound amberjacks commonly caught off the deeper wrecks found in the Gulf off Florida. Many of these fish hit the deck, and our crew soon limited out. It was so much more efficient than lowering live baits far to the bottom and waiting for a bite.
These same metal baits will draw hits from tuna and wahoo, but you have to work them with energy. Last week I fished oil rigs off Louisiana that were 180 miles offshore in waters deeper than a mile. Yellowfin tuna blasted the surface around the rigs at night, and I wished mightily for a handful of metal jigs. I was unable to jump on the boat with my own tackle, and so we were stuck with using conventional heavy trolling outfits. We still managed 12 tuna on the heavy gear by slow-trolling, but a couple of jiggers on the back deck could have way-laid the tuna on lighter gear. We'd have had a merry time with that. The tuna were chasing small squid and flying fish that night, anything small, and they would have crushed those jigs -- or tried to.
If you travel and visit these offshore spots with your own tackle, check out the lineup of freestyle jigging gear now available for heavy-metal fans. Just be sure to wrap your lead stick jigs tight against the rod when moving. After all, you don't want that metal slapping around and breaking something when the boat is rocking and rolling!
View all Heavy Metal Jigs.
Joe Richard is a writer and photographer from Gainesville, Florida, who owns Seafavorites.com, a stock photo website of outdoor photography.