By Casey R. Smartt
Jig hooks have been around for a very long time. Some of the earliest lures were built on jig hooks and many-a-fisherman began his/her career either tossing jigs at bluegills or bouncing them up and down in front of crappie. I can remember whipping a lot of fish with a Zebco 202 and a “speck rig.” They were deadly, and still are. But in spite of their popularity among conventional fishermen, jig hooks have been slow to catch on in the fly fishing world.
I don’t know why, but few flies have traditionally been tied on jig hooks even though the design is really ideal for many different patterns. For example, look at the Clouser Minnow. The Clouser Minnow is one of the most popular and effective flies of all time. It is fundamentally a jig. But, the Clouser Minnow has not typically been tied on a jig hook. Why? I don’t know.
But in recent years, a number of fresh and salt water fly tyers have taken a closer look at jig hooks. They are rediscovering the jig hook’s merits and cranking out some really good flies tied on them. Let’s take a closer look at the jig hook design and how/when jig hooks can be used in fly tying.
Jig Hook Design
Jig hooks differ from conventional hooks in that the forward portion of the shank is bent at either a 60 degree or a 90 degree angle toward the point of the hook, forming an elbow in the shank. This elbow moves the plane of the eye of the hook closer to the plane of the hook point. The position of the hook eye causes the hook to rotate to an inverted (hook point on top) position when it is retrieved using a standard mono leader. In essence, it makes the hook weedless. A second but less obvious benefit to this design is that because the plane of the hook point is closely in line with the plane of the eye/leader, the hook tends to penetrate smoothly without twisting or levering at an angle. The net effect is hook sets are very efficient.
Hooks with a 90 degree bend are often used to build what we recognize as classic vertical “jigs.” These lures usually have dense molded lead heads and are intended to be dropped straight over the side of the boat and bounced up and down over deep structure or trolled. Alternately, hooks with a 60 degree bend are designed to be cast out and retrieved in a conventional manner, bouncing across the bottom. The slightly upturned nose of the 60 degree is good at sliding over structure, somewhat like a ski.
For most fly tying applications, the 60 degree jig hook is more versatile and practical than the 90 degree jig hook, and a good fit for a variety of subsurface fly patterns.
Choosing the Hook
When you start looking for jig hooks, the first thing you’ll discover is that most hooks are either too small and flimsy for saltwater work (think, “crappie jigs”), or way too big and bulky for most standard-caliber flies (think, “bass jigs”). The exception is the Eagle Claw 413. The Eagle Claw 413’s are decent hooks. I say, “decent” because they are reasonably priced, acceptable in quality/strength, and available in sizes down to #2. The 413, though not stainless, is plated and fairly resistant to the rigors of saltwater. Although, don’t expect it to last long if you close it up wet in a salty fly box. I learned that lesson the hard way.
If you need to go smaller than #2, take a look at the Targus 9413 jig hook. The 9413 is a knock-off of the Eagle Claw 413, but it is available down to #4. Gamakatsu also makes jig hooks, including one called the “Jig 60.” As you might expect, the Jig 60’s are just plain scary, sticky, prickly pear sharp. But unfortunately they are designed for bass fishermen slinging soft plastics and are available only in very large sizes. From the standpoint of price, availability, and size, the Eagle Claw 413 is your best bet. A good source for them (and just about all your fly tying supplies) is www.saltwaterflies.com .
Tying Flies on Jig Hooks
If you step back and look at which flies could honestly be improved with jig hooks, there are two patterns that immediately come to mind- the Clouser Minnow and the Bendback. These are staple flies that are effective in a variety of applications. One of the key features of both patterns is they were designed to ride with the hook in the upright position. This makes them perfect candidates for a jig hook.
By most standards the Clouser Minnow is nearly a perfect fly. Anyone would be hard-pressed to improve upon its simple design. But, when you tie a Clouser Minnow on a jig hook, several improvements are made. First, the nose of the fly is slightly upturned, making it less prone to plow into shell, rocks, and weeds. The second improvement is that Clouser Minnows tied on jig hooks will almost never, and I mean never, twist or turn upside down during the retrieve. The combination of an offset shank and weighted eyes makes the fly run true every time.
Besides the Clouser Minnow, the Bendback is a fly that most saltwater fly fishermen have in their box. The Bendback is light, weedless, and easy to tie. But it has one minor flaw- the bend itself. When tying a Bendback, the very first step is to make a subtle bend in the shank. This bend, along with correct placement of material on the shank, causes the hook to rotate to the point-up position. But the problem is that when the shank is bent, the plane of the hook point is no longer in line with the plane of the eye of the hook. The hook points slightly “upward.” So, when you set the hook using a Bendback, the hook point enters at a slight angle. If it’s not needle sharp, the hook sometimes scrapes across its target rather than sticking in it. The more bend you place in the hook, the greater the problem. But, if you tie a Bendback on a jig hook, this problem is eliminated because the plane of the hook point is closely in line with the plane of the eye/leader.
The Clouser Minnow and Bendback are just two examples of flies that can be tied on jig hooks. There are many others, including Popovic’s Jiggy’s, Whistlers, and swimming shrimp patterns. If you would like to get some jig hooks and see for yourself if they are worthwhile, my suggestion is to buy a pack of #2 Eagle Claw 413’s and get after it. With a little practice tying and a good opportunity to try out your creations, I think you will be pleased.