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It's All About The Plug

The sunshine is bouncing off the waters surface. I look out across the blue water and nothing, but wait. Could it be?  Oh, there they are!  I make my way slowly to an unaware school of yellowtail, knowing what, awaits the perfect cast that so often plays through my mind.  Leaning forward, I stretch my arms back and with all my power, I sling my magic jig with a rod nearly as long as the kayak I sit on.  I watch with anticipation as the jig flies through the air and so perfectly lands in front of my quarry.  Shifting the reel into gear, I turn the handle watching the surface iron kicking hypnotically.  My heart pounds, my mouth is dry, "Here we go!" I scream to myself as the entire school changes pace and turns in the direction of my jig, and then it happens.  A massive explosion on the water's surface followed by the sudden tightening of the line, it cannot be helped that I shout out of sheer excitement.  What greater rush is there?

In the growing sport of kayak fishing there are several techniques that will catch the fisherman's targeted species.  However in, my opinion, there is no technique that stirs the excitement that sight fishing does and in particular targeting yellowtail with a surface iron.  Though not a new technique, it is just beginning to turn heads in the kayak community and it is time to break down surface iron fishing.

Surface iron fishing is one of the most unique and specialized techniques in existence.  The vast amounts of options in gear, along with trial and error, have placed surface iron fishing off a kayak into a different category.  This is a guide to fashioning a setup for your own personal use, so that you too can start experiencing the rush.

The Rod

When thinking about buying gear for your dedicated surface iron setup, the first and most important step is to find the perfect rod for your application.  Now you might ask, "Why is the rod first"?  Here's why:
The rod performs the two most important functions that are critical to becoming an effective surface iron fisherman. 

  1. Casting- The fisherman must be able make both accurate casts and long distance casts, which may reach as far as 100 yards.
  2. Lifting- When fighting your quarry, the rod's ability to lift and turn the fish will make or break the landing.

Casting is not just a matter of being able to toss a jig as far as you can.  The accuracy of that cast will dictate whether or not a fish will be convinced enough into striking a plug.  The best example would be a breezing school of yellowtail moving at a brisk 5 mph.  If  this school is moving from right to left, the best presentation made will be making a cast 20 yards in front of the school and 10 yards past the school.  This will allow the jig to intersect the school and give the school an opportunity to respond to the seemingly unaware prey while also giving the angler room for error if a cast becomes fouled up.  If a cast can be presented with this accuracy, an angler's hookup ratio will skyrocket.

The rod's ability to lift the fish will become critical in following situation: Fishing in areas with obstructions such as kelp stringers or the even more treacherous lobster pot.  The angler must be able to hold their own against a fish that is desperate for escape.  Fish that hit surface irons, aka yellowtail, will seek out these obstructions when hooked and it will be up to the angler and their gear to lift a trophy out of these dangers.

Rod length is a factor that is 40% dependant on the situation the rod will be put through.  Shorter rods will allow the angler too gain more leverage on the fish, which is key in places with many snags or larger fish are consistently caught.  Longer rods allow the angler to make long distance casts as well as accurate casts.  The disadvantage to using longer rods is the difficulty of casting with a rod that weighs more and takes more effort to cast.  The personal preference and angler ability is the other 60% of the deciding factor for a jig rod's length.  Most anglers that use 10' rods are experienced.  The rods that are 9' and shorter are much more user friendly because they weigh less and have much less drag on them during the cast.

A rod that effectively satisfies all the requirements for an all around good jig stick has a moderately soft action in the first 3 feet of the tip of the rod, which transitions into sturdy backbone throughout the rest of the rod blank.  A perfect example of a standard jig stick is the Calstar West Coast 90J.  This rod will cast lighter jigs such as the Tady C and heavier jigs such as the Salas 7X, but also has a very strong backbone able to turn even the angriest of fish.

For more specialized situations there are a few particular rods that have done extremely well over the years for me.  The Seeker LB100 cut 6 off the tip is in my opinion the best rod for throwing "light" iron such as a Tady A1 or Tady C.  The Seeker SJ100 is one of my favorites for tossing a Tady 45.  These 2 rods are strictly used when the fish are far enough off obstructions that the angler does not have to be concerned about getting stuck on them.  The Super Seeker Ulua 93H is the best for throwing bigger jigs such as a Candybar 112 or a Salas 7X.  This rod is very good at pulling out fish deep in cover.  Each one of these rods is my personal favorites in the situation they have been dedicated too.

There are several options for a jig stick with each jig stick having its own time and place where it will be most effective.  Some jig slingers like their rods a bit shorter than 9', while some like rods no shorter than 9'.  Finding each angler's personal preference is critical, and the simplest way to find one's own preference is to go out to your local tackle shop and find the rod that's right for you and your fishing situation.

The Magic Jig

As important it is to have a setup for surface irons no one will deny that in order to fish with irons an angler has to have at least one in their arsenal.  This is the most difficult part of the technique.  Anglers have several choices to pick from with over 9 different surface iron brands out there.  So the question is where to start?

Let's make this clear before we get too far into this part of the discussion; every single jig is different.  Even if an angler picks 2 of the exact same model of surface irons they will not swim the same.  Finding one of these magic jigs is not as hard as it seems though.  There are a few characteristics in a "good" swimmer which will save time, money and a lot of unused jigs.

The Tady 45 and Salas 7X are undeniably the most used surface irons on the market.  While the use of one particular jig may catch fish repeatedly, an effective angler will know when to use one jig over the rest.  For example, the Tady 45 will swim much higher in the water column than a Salas 7X.  In a situation where the fish are really high in the water column the 45 will get much more attention than a 7X.  However, when the wind is picking up or the fish are actively feeding, a 7X will be the go to.  Since these irons are the most popular out there, the discussion will be focused on them. 

Tady 45's can be very tricky when you first try to find good swimmers.  Many will spin when retrieved to fast or some will skip on the top of the water or perhaps a combination of both.  This list of characteristics will prevent you from buying such jigs.  Look for these traits:

  1. Hips- This is the widest part of the jig.  Good swimmers have wide hips with sharp obtuse angles that are slightly off center.
  2. Nose- This is the front of the jig.  The nose should be rounded and pointed.
  3. Edges- The edges of the jig need to be sharp and crisp.
  4. Eyes- There is two eyes on a jig where the rings pass through.  The front eye should be cocked to the opposite side of the forward most hip.  The rear should be on the opposite side of the front eye.  Wider eyes will also give jigs a better action.

Salas 7X's are very user and easy to find a great swimmer.  Still, there are definitely bad swimmers amongst the magic lures.  These jigs are heavier and therefore will not skip on the surface.  The have a very tight kick and are retrieved quicker to keep them from sinking below the school.  Good swimming traits include:

  1. Hips- Pick the widest hips and slightly off center.
  2. Nose- Jigs with a 45 degree angle on the nose will create more violent kicks.
  3. Edges- Need to be sharp and crisp.  Look for wide eyes.

Each jig has a time and place for their use.  The match the hatch method is a very good way to find out where to start, but conditions will dictate whether or not your choice will be the best one for the task at hand.  On windy days the use of a small light jig can be near impossible to pull off.  Wind swells will pull the line and vary the speeds at which the jig swims and sometimes will make it skip across the surface.  During windy days the use of a jig that has a thinner profile and weighs more will enable the angler to present the lure and possibly elicit a strike.  Deciding which jig to use is a matter of instinct which comes with time on the water, but by paying attention to the surroundings nature gives angler a point in the general direction.

Be choosy when picking a jig!  When an angler becomes well acquainted fishing with surface irons, they may only use one jig of each model.  This is what is known as the "magic" jig that will consistently provoke strikes when used, and leaves others in your tackle box looking brand new.  It may take a few dozens attempts to find this jig, but once you get a hang of picking them out it will do numbers for your confidence.

The Reel

The reel choice is much less important than the rod and lure choice.  Keeping this part of the equation simple will benefit those in pursuit of having a dedicated surface iron rod.  Personal preference plays a large role in the final decision made, as well as how much an angler is willing to spend.  However, no matter how many reels are bought, in the end the factors are very simple as to why a person buys one reel over another.

There are two critical qualities that the reel needs to satisfy in order to make its way on a jig rod.  The first is the free spool and second is the drag.  The free spool will decide how much line the angler is able to effectively roll off the reel.  The drag is going to become essential once the angler's battle with the beast has begun, and needs to be as refined as possible.  After all, enough stress will be placed on the rod!

The free spool of reel should be as "free" as possible when unrestrained by braking mechanisms.  Though, if left unrestrained, the result may end in a large backlash that will certainly frustrate the avid jig slinger.  So why take the risk and get such a "free" spool?  Well, if the angler wishes to at a later point cast farther and feels comfortable thumbing the spool, then they can do so without buying another reel with the sufficient quality.

Drags in reels have become much smoother and stronger than the predecessors of our modern marvels.  Sticking with a reel with a drag that can withstand 18 lbs of pull or more will make lifting a fish on a long rod much more efficient.  The importance of a strong drag is key to having a good hook set.  A drag cannot buckle on an angler when a fish decides to strike or the hooks may be shaken before the fish gets to see the boat.

A few minor jig reel qualities include the size of the reel's frame, the gear ratio and the star drag feature.  The size of the reel is dependant on the angler's comfort level when the reel is set on the rod.  A reel too large will make casting difficult, and with an unbalanced small reel reeling in jigs will be awkward.  Gear ratios should not go over 6.4:1 or lower than 4.9:1; staying within these two ratios will allow the jigs to be retrieved with the right amount of speed to make them kick and the angler will have enough torque to bring in a hot fish.  Fishing surface irons with star drag reels is essential because these reels have set drags when engaged for the retrieve, making quick fishing situations such as casting into boiling fish more productive.

Among the list of choices the angler has, here is one reel that has proven itself in the field.  The Daiwa Saltist in sizes 40 and 35, offers both a super free spool (with brake options) and it has carbon drags providing super smooth and super strong drag power.  Reels that will also be a good choice include Shimano's Trinidad 20 and 16, Newell's 338 and 332.  Testing out all of the options on the market is the best method to finding your preferred reel, but by searching for reels with these qualities will quickly narrow your search.

The Line

Though line is thought to be the most basic component to fishing with surface irons, it can be for the first time buyer a headache finding the one type that works best.  Whether using braided line or monofilament the answer can be summed up into one word, limp.  The line has to be limp (soft as some may say) in order to get the longest cast possible.  This character prevents line from backlashing and line easily pulls away from the spool.
Finding a limp line is very simple to find on the shelf.  When going through the aisle, pull from the shelf a likely candidate and stretch out a 1.5' long piece and let it hang.  If the line has multiple coils, put it back on the shelf.  Line that coils up tight will be very strong; however these lines will have a lot of memory which is the number one cause of backlash.  Finding line that has little memory will resist backlashing, but these lines sometimes lose strength.  It is important to find a line that is both limp and strong.

One monofilament brand that has become the standard for jig fisherman is Izorline First String.  This line is the limpest monofilament but very strong as well.  In order to maximize the limpness of the line, buy the widest spools so the coils coming off the spool are very wide.  Pulling spools off the walls that are 1 lb or larger has been a long held secret for dedicated jig fisherman.  The other great option is to have the local tackle shop fill up your reel on the winding machine.  This puts the line on the reel without the line coming off the line spool in coils, and it places the line on the spool evenly and tight.

Alright, now we come to the debate of whether to use braided line or monofilament which has become the dividing line among jig fisherman.  There are benefits to both of these lines and each one has its place in any fisherman's arsenal, but deciding when is the right time to use either one sets apart efficient fisherman.   To completely convert to one style of line will restrict the angler from benefiting from certain situations where the benefit of one type will outweigh the characteristics of the other.

Braid has a couple of important features that monofilament lacks.  Braided line can cut through vegetation such as kelp and gives the angler confidence to pull a fish out of the thickest of cover.  Mono cannot do this and pulling fish out takes much more effort.  Braid has an excellent hook up ratio which is derived from its lack of stretch causing hooks to be driven deeper and quicker.  But it is the thinness of the line that is the most significant detail of braid.  The thinness of the line makes surface irons swim like crazy (in a great way)!  With these factors in mind, let's create a situation where braid will be the best option to use.

The best times to use braid is when fish are feeding on top of kelp or are anywhere they have quick access to obstructions.  By using braided line the angler can place a jig among active fish and elicit a strike, but more importantly that fisherman can cut through the kelp and land the fish.  With monofilament an angler in this position might have a 50% chance of successfully bringing that fish out of the "jungle".

Don't count out monofilament though, it still has its place in the jig fisherman's arsenal.  Monofilament, in my opinion, is much easier to cast than braid.  Braid will sometimes get ahead of itself during the cast, while mono will come off the spool at the same rate the spool is spinning.  During a cast with braid, every now and then the jig will stop in mid-air almost like a backlash, but this is not a backlash.  This is simply the line on the spool being thrown under the line coming off the spool and getting caught up.

It may be obvious when the use of monofilament is important, but here's a good example of when to pull out the mono setup.  In times where the fish are in open water, away from obstructions, the fish are much easier to bring up.  In this situation, it is critical that when the opportunity presents itself nothing goes wrong.  The more consistent casts that monofilament provides, will help eliminate the possibility of a short cast.  The best way to become better at restricting problems like backlashing is to practice with each set up and feel comfortable to the point where a problem will not occur.

In the end, after hours spent practicing the cast and a college fund's amount of money spent in surface iron gear, nothing beats experience on the water.  Being properly equipped is the first key to success when it comes to surface iron fishing.  When the proper casts can be made, fish will be more convinced to strike.  Finding your personal niche is the fun part about this technique because each person may have a different variation in their equipment.  The result is always the same; you are left breathless at the end of the battle, with images of fish exploding on jigs imprinted in your mind for the rest of your life.