The craze of blackfish jigs is reaching its peak. For more than half a century, anglers used the traditional two-hook with terminal sinker rig to successfully catch plenty of blackfish. Now, anglers up and down the coast are using jigs to fill their limit. The question is why?
Here is my take. I started blackfishing in the early ‘90s with captain and son, Joe and Michael Yocco of the New Jersey based MJ’S. We’d obtain bait ourselves, anchoring up a few miles offshore and harvesting all the rock crabs and calicos one could ever need. Back then, there was little concern about competing for a spot, so leaving the dock at 5 a.m. to get a prime spot on the reef was not necessary. In fact, it wasn’t unusual to not see a boat all day.
By 2015, a good fishing friend of mine named Bob Misak began asking us to build some tog jigs for the jetty. At that time, the only jigs that I knew of were made by Tidal Tail on Long Island. Our first jig-making attempt was based off of the banana head style, but as I and so many other builders do, we personally tested this jig thoroughly prior to its potential market debut. It was opening day of the 2016 season when I fished with Capt. George Cox of the Black Marlin that I realized there was something special about the jig. Fishing was slowly progressing throughout the day, until I dropped down a 1-1/2-ounce jighead and proceeded to catch five blackfish on five drops! Realizing the jig’s potential, I just had to master its use and design.
At some point though, I realized I was losing more bait than I liked. So after close examination, the first and most obvious feature that could use modification was the shank length. It could be made longer for the bait to be more stable and naturally presented. The next day in the shop I modified the jig by cutting off the collar and exposing more hook shank. While using this new prototype on the following trip, I quickly saw an improvement; but I also noticed another couple of jig features that might be modified to increase productivity – color and the jig’s bottom surface.
The colorless change of the jig was easy enough to address. However, I speculated about how the jig’s rounder bottom was affecting the bait’s presentation to the fish. This likely creeped into my mind from many prior conversations I had with another hardcore angler, Dave Rooney, who had done a lot of diving and witnessed up close how blackfish actively feed. Rooney noted how blackfish seem to feed on a slight downward motion, and grab then shake the crab. It was a light bulb moment of sorts, showcasing the need for a mold of the collarless jig with a flat bottom. The flat bottom would allow the hook to sit on a slight upward angle, so the fish could feed without initially feeling the jig’s weight.
As I fish many places, for various species, and with many different people, I have witnessed multiple styles of jigging. All styles of blackfishing share the intention of quickly putting the heat to the fish, and keeping its head turned up and out of structure. Similar to many types of trophy striped bass fishing, I tend to use what would be considered very heavy tackle, especially in the blackfish jigging community. Specifically, I like to fish a 7-1/2- to 8-foot blank from the likes of Jigging World, Black Hole and CTS. The longer rod provides better hook setting power and more leverage on the fish. Keeping the tip high with this on a hookset can provide those precious extra moments needed to pull the fish out from a wreck or rock. Additionally, it seems that there’s a short time frame between when one sets the hook and when the blackfish actually realizes it’s been hooked. Exploiting this narrow window to get the blackfish a few extra feet away from structure is crucial.
I primarily fish two reels, a Daiwa BG 3500-4000 and an IRT 3000. Both are loaded with 30-pound Cortland Master braid. This line is a little thicker than others, but is as strong as anything on the market. I always use a 50- to 60-pound fluorocarbon leader. About 90 percent of the time I fish a 2-ounce tog jig in 50 to 120 feet of water. I am currently in the midst of optimizing the use of even heavier jigs in the same context. The 2-ounce however seems to nicely match the way I fish. In shallower water it gets down a little quicker than say a 1- to 1-1/2-ounce that most anglers would use, but the 2-ounce is an adequate adjustment for my uniquely heavy gear.
I lock my drag down and give zero line after the hook set. This puts the tackle to the ultimate test; the rod, reel, line, and leader all have to be perfect! So, it is vital to be sure one’s knots are strong and the line/leader is continuously examined for frays. Again, the primary purpose for using this gear and technique is to keep the fish out from the bottom structure and breaking me off. I am currently in the process of coming out with a 7-1/2-foot Magictail Tog rod with sensitive tip and strong backbone tailored for landing trophy-size large fish, but there are plenty of solid rod options on the market to choose from.
There is an alternative blackfish jigging style that’s likely the more popular method, and while I’ve yet to personally master it, I plan on doing so next fall. In contrast to my approach, this style entails the use of light rods, smaller reels, and lighter line. The smaller jigs (3/4- to 1-1/2-ounce) used here get down fast in 60 to 120 feet due to the use of thinner-diameter braid (10- to 20-pound test). The drags and leader are lighter too, with fluorocarbon of 20- to 40-pound test the maximum. On a few occasions this past season, I witnessed anglers like Chris Gamichie and the BNR boys out of New Jersey get more bites than me with such a style. However, past experience has taught me the tradeoff theme I touched on earlier.
With any fishing of light tackle, thinner line, smaller leader, and smaller class hooks/jigs, one will always get more bites. This is partly due to better sensitivity, and also the lack thereof on the fish’s part. More fish will eat the offering, and just swim farther/faster away with it as compared to heavier gear. My fear though is that inherent tradeoff of allowing the fish to get where it’s intending to go, as described earlier. Still, both Chris and Jeff have caught some very big blackfish on the light gear, so I guess the take away message here exemplifies the old saying “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Just because I like one way, and it works for me, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. So try various styles in order to determine which approach you are most comfortable with.
I have spoken with a few of the area’s top captains and shops about their take on tog jigs, including Ray Kerico of Grumpy’s Tackle who says his theory on jigs over rigs is pretty simple. “Blackfish are the pickiest fish in our local waters. When a blackfish approaches a jig and starts to chew it doesn’t feel the tension of the sinker. The tog thinks the jig is part of the whole crab so that’s why you get that swimming away with your jig bite.”
“Jigs work wonders and are slowly taking over the tog world,” Kerico said, adding “More bites and bigger fish have made me a believer.” One of the original guys fishing the jig the past few seasons, Ray has done very well, landing multiple double digit tog in the process.
I also spoke to Capt. Tommy Daffin of Fishin Fever out of Cape May, NJ who has found a niche in catching very large blackfish during winter and spring seasons scoring a Garden State record of 25.37 pounds four years ago this month. “It’s all about bait presentation, and the most popular crabs we use are green and white crabs,” Daffin said, who added “These crabs don’t swim and only crawl along the ocean floor.”
“When using a conventional set up with a sinker and hook your bait might not be in total contact with the bottom, unlike a jig where it places the bait in the most natural position directly on the bottom,” Daffin added. Last fall I did some fishing with my friend Jared Schukias of Water Proof charters. Both he and Captain Mark are both very big on the jig fishing. “Jigging has changed the game of blackfishing for many reasons,” said Schukias. “Whatever you first learned about blackfishing you can throw out the window when it comes to jig fishing.” As Schukias said in conversation, it’s not about fishing a stiff rod and 50- to 60-pound mono with 10 to 12 ounces of lead. With jigging, you’re looking for the lightest possible set up to get your 1-1/2-ounce tog jig down with lighter line, and 30- to 50-pound fluoro for added stealth and abrasion resistance.
“I believe jigs often out-fish traditional rig fishing because they allow you to cover more ground, you’re able to pitch a jig and work it slowly back allowing the blackfish to pick up and go without any restriction,” Schukias added. He also believes that jig fishing has its advantages when hooking big fish at times.
“Most of the time when you hook a big fish on the jig it wants to swim around the wreck, whereas a rig seems to always go straight down,” adding “I have also seen people lose big fish to the jig because of the lighter tackle, and it hurt the bite.” He summed it up with “There’s a time and place for everything.”
Anyone who enjoys fishing for tog should at least try this method. I can promise that whether you are fishing from land or boat, you will have certain days where you catch more/bigger fish than with any other method. The more strategies one is experienced with, the greater their toolbox for adapting to different fishing conditions/circumstances.
Tackle shops from Virginia to Massachusetts are carrying plenty of tog jigs from many different manufacturers. Many companies produce them, and most with their own twists. Some work differently than others, but it’s both the angler’s responsibility and privilege to determine what works best for them.
Any questions about my jigs, rods, or blackfish jigging please don’t hesitate to ask. I’m never too busy to help out fellow anglers. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and you will get an answer within 24 hours.