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Get the Lead Out

An inside look into the world of the lead-head jig

March 23, 2013
fish caught on jig

fish caught on jig

Doug Olander

If you’ve fished saltwater for any length of time, it’s all but a given that you’ve used lead-head jigs a time or two — probably much more than that. One of the most universal and effective artificial lures of all time, jigs catch fish, period.

It’s a lead-head jig’s simplicity that makes it a winner. Comprised of nothing more than a weighted hook, usually with some natural or synthetic materials tied into the upper portion of the shank and adorned with a soft plastic, jigs are designed to simulate injured prey and can be worked at virtually any level of the water column.

But there’s more to lead-heads than meets the eye. Let’s take a closer look at these seductive lures and how they’re made.

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The Foundation

| |Lead-head jigs can be small and designed for soft plastics, like these VMC inshore models (above), or large and adorned with materials (top) for beasts such as jobfish.|

Any jig, whether designed for bonefish on the flats or giant grouper lurking around deep reefs, starts with a hook. The hook provides the spine of a finished lure, and jig hooks generally have long shanks with a distinctive bend toward the eye.

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“Strong hooks with substantial wire diameters and corrosion resistance are critical in the salt,” says Matt Gray, category manager at Eagle Claw Fishing Tackle, which makes several models of O’Shaughnessy saltwater-grade jig hooks. “But eye angle is one of the most important and ­distinguishing characteristics of jig hooks.”

This “eye angle” Gray refers to is the bend in the upper shank, usually imparted a centimeter or two below the hook eye. Sometimes the bend is severe, 90 degrees or so, but it can be as little as 25 percent. Why the variance?

“Different techniques of jigging can be more beneficial with alternate eye angles,” Gray explains. “Jigging with a direct vertical ­presentation might be better suited with a 90-degree eye, while pulling a swimming jig would be better with a more opened eye angle.”

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It’s all about angle of pull, keeping a more direct connection between rod tip and jig to create a natural presentation. If the jig is being worked in the upper portion of the water column or gliding over a shallow flat, the lesser the eye angle, the more direct that connection remains, allowing not only for better swimming action, but higher hookup percentages.

Getting It Down

Swimming action means everything when it comes to generating strikes with lead-head jigs, and while that’s controlled partially by hook-eye angle and angler skill, it also is dictated by the shape of a jig’s head.

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| |The 60-degree hook-eye angle (left) on this Eagle Claw O’Shaughnessy jig hook is ideal for use with swimming jigs, while a 90-degree version (right) is better suited for use with jigs designed for vertical use.|

But, first, what exactly is this head?

For decades, as its name applies, lead has served as the primary source of weight in lead-head jigs (not to mention sinkers of all shapes and sizes). Lead is soft and malleable, easy to melt and cast, and has served as a manufacturing material for decades.
“The lead is poured into a mold with the hook in place,” says Dan Quinn, field promotions manager at Normark, which owns the VMC hook brand and Williamson Lures

With molten lead encompassing the hook-eye angle, the hot metal then cools and hardens into place, says Quinn. Then, VMC lead-head jigs — both the inshore saltwater Flat Shad and Boxer models — are painted with a high-end metallic paint, equipped with 3-D eyes and coated with a clear epoxy for durability.

One glance at these heads, however, and you’ll notice they’re shaped differently. That’s by design to help enhance different swimming actions.

“The Flat Shad is triangle-shaped and aerodynamic, designed for swimming,” Quinn says. “The Boxer is designed more for traditional jigging.”

Hook-eye angle and jig-head shape work hand in hand to determine exactly how any given jig will react in the water. But a simple hook with a colorful lead-head won’t catch fish. Something else is needed.

The Materials

The answer lies with the third ­component of lead-head jigs, the body material, or — in some cases — the ­addition of a soft, artificial tail.

Just like a fly used by a saltwater fly-fisherman, natural (usually meaning bird feathers or animal hair) or synthetic (man-made) materials are often used to embellish action. Positioned alongside the hook’s shank, they’re tied into place with fine thread just below the lead-head.

These materials are what bring a lead-head jig to life, adding the final touch of wavering undulations that draw game-fish strikes to an otherwise unattractive piece of metal.

Materials are tied in either sparsely or densely, depending on the type of prey that’s being mimicked. A lead-head jig simulating a sand eel would be dressed sparsely with a thin profile, while one mimicking a bunker would be dressed heavily. Different-color ­materials are used; shiny synthetics such as Flashabou or Polar Flash can offer a hint of reflection. Soft plastics can be rigged onto the dressed or plain hook shank to provide action.

Of all the materials available, natural bucktail in lead-head jigs has been a favorite for years.

“Bucktail is perfect for colder water or when you’re fishing fast because it easily collapses for a sure hookup,” says Lawrence Taylor, a representative of Bomber Saltwater Grade, which makes several varieties of bucktail lead-head jigs.

Creating Your Own

The beautiful thing about lead-head jigs is that you can actually make them yourself. With the right tools, it’s possible to simply buy jig hooks, lead ingots, and various tying materials, paints and ­coatings, and craft your own lures.

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“We offer several varieties of jig hooks for salt water that guys will buy in bulk and then tinker with their own jig designs,” says Jeff Pierce, sales director at Mustad.

Pierce himself is such a tinkerer, noting that the Do-It Corporation offers dozens of different molds for the various makes and models of hooks.

“Once you get the mold — and they’re pretty inexpensive — you buy a lead pot and the lead ingots, and you melt the lead down and pour it into the mold,” he says, adding that it’s important to exercise extreme caution when working with the lead.

Pierce likes to powder-coat his heads once the lead is set, applying heat with a gun, then dipping the heads in the powder-coat and baking them for 20 minutes at 325 degrees F. He generally finishes off his creations by tying in rabbit hair, which he’s found to be durable and incredibly seductive to fish.

“The neat thing is that once you discover something that works, it’s yours,” Pierce says. “Sometimes, it’s totally unique to the fish and will generate many more strikes than anything else in your box.”
Consider it yet another terrific quality of the lead-head jig.

|||| |—|—|—| Jigging Connections |Berkley Spirit Lake, Iowa 800-237-5539 berkley-fishing.com | Do-It Molds Denver, Iowa 319-984-6055 do-itmolds.com | Normark Corporation (Williamson/VMC) Minnetonka, Minnesota 952-933-7060 rapala.com | |Bomber Lure Company Fort Smith, Arkansas 479-782-8971 bombersaltwatergrade.com| Eagle Claw Fishing Tackle Denver, Colorado 303-321-4750 eagleclaw.com| Mustad Hooks Doral, Florida 305-597-0553 mustad.no |

Lead Free Jig Heads

Lead has been used in fishing lures forever, but it is poisonous when ingested. Mortality among some water-going birds in recent decades was linked to lead ingestion, which forced a ban on lead tackle in some states, as well as a national push from ­conservation groups for an outright ban by the Environmental Protection Agency.

While ongoing and far from over, the controversy led some companies, such as Berkley, to design lead-free jigs, using either different casting ­metals or, as in Berkley’s case, composites in its jig heads.

“It’s a revolutionary new composite that allows us to control the density of the material,” Brad Danbom, Berkley’s product manager, says of the company’s Gulp! Heads!

Gulp! Heads! — pictured here — are offered in three models and won an award for Best Terminal Tackle at the 2012 ICAST fishing-tackle trade show.

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