By Mark Fong
September 15, 2011
One of the most effective yet simplistic offerings for catching pressured bass is the jig head worm. Anglers of all skill levels, from National Touring Pros to weekend warriors, turn to jig head worms to put fish in the boat under the most difficult conditions. In addition to its effectiveness, the draw of the jig head worm lies in its simplicity of form and ease of use. A jig head worm in its most basic form is nothing more than a lead jig head with a plastic worm or other soft plastic trailer.
Across the country, aficionados of the jig head worm have adapted this simple bait to suit their own particular needs. As a result, the jig head worm has taken on strong regional flavors. Northern bass anglers have long favored the worm nose jig head. Before it became a national phenomenon, the shakey head was largely known only in the South East. Another member of the jig head worm family and well known in Western circles, the darter head remains a mystery to a great majority of anglers across the country.
Developed and refined on the highly pressured deep clear water fisheries of the West, the darter head technique is a full blown throw back finesse system that utilizes: spinning tackle, light line, miniscule lead heads, needle sharp hooks, and subtle plastics. The darter head is a valuable weapon in the arsenal of any angler that regularly pursues their quarry on clear water impoundments, regardless of where they may reside across the country.
The darter head jig features a narrow pointed bullet or arrow shaped head that causes it to dart or to move erratically in a side to side fashion when it is shaken on a semi slack line. The eye of the hook has a 90 degree bend and is constructed of light wire. Popular sizes include 1/16, 1/8, 3/16, and ¼ oz. While individual preferences vary, perhaps the most common configuration is a 1/8oz head combined with a 2/0 exposed hook. A good rule of thumb is to start off with the lightest weight jig head possible for the given conditions. When bass are extremely finicky, don't overlook the tantalizing slow fall that a 1/16 oz darter head produces.
Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits produces a wide variety of soft plastic baits that work well when paired with a darter head jig. When the bass are suspended in the water column, or keyed in on bait, a Shad Shaped Worm in Natural Shad (306) or a 4.5 inch Kut Tail Worm in Blue Pearl (021) are great options. In addition I like a Thin Senko in Fading Watermelon (042J) or a 4 inch Single Tail Grub in Cinnamon (176) when the fish are relating to bottom structure. Don't feel limited to these bait styles and colors. Historically these choices have been among the most productive colors and styles in my repertoire. If the bass are not responding positively to my baits, I am quick to experiment with other styles and colors and you should too.
As previously mentioned, the darter head technique is more than just a jig head and soft plastic trailer. A synergy exists amongst all of its components. In order to maximize the darter head's effectiveness, it is important to choose a rod and reel combination that allows the angler to properly present such a subtle offering. A good darter head rod should have a light tip yet still provide a nice blend of finesse and power throughout its length. Proper tip action is important for a number of reasons. First, a light tip allows the angler to easily cast and properly present the darter head effectively. Also a light tip serves to protect gossamer weight line and light wire hooks from hard fighting bass. I have found good success with a fast action 7' St. Croix Legend Xtreme medium light spinning rod. A 2500 series wide arbor spinning reel provides good balance and helps to tame the line management issues that can occur with spinning tackle. As for line, fluorocarbon offers the best blend of sensitivity, low stretch, stealth and abrasion resistance. Most darter head anglers opt for 6lb to 8lb test. I am a firm believer that lighter line gets more bites and therefore I favor 5lb fluorocarbon.
The darter head can be fished both vertically and horizontally in the water column. Before the drop shot became the first choice for anglers vertically targeting deep water bass, Western anglers relied heavily on the darter head to fill this role. Any time that I can position my boat over the fish without spooking them, I will opt for a vertical presentation. Simply drop on the fish, paying close attention to your line as the bait falls as many strikes occur on the initial fall. Electronics are an important component of the system. Without good graphs, locating structure, bait, and bass is akin to the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack.
Personally this is one of my favorite ways to fish. I am careful to keep my bait within the cone angle of my front graph. Watching the fish on the graph and seeing them react to my presentation before they bite is exciting. If the bass are suspended, I will use my graph to drop my bait thru the fish. After stopping the bait, I will use my reel to slowly raise the bait above the fish. Many times this will trigger the fish to bite. If they do not bite on the initial fall, I will shake the bait with my rod tip, experimenting with cadence and tempo. If the fish are relating to the bottom I will let the darter head sink all the way to the bottom and then begin my retrieve, again searching for the proper trigger. Sometimes the fish bite best on a dead stick retrieve at other times they may react better to the darter head when it is shaken. Just as with proper bait selection, pay close attention to the clues that fish are divulging and you will soon be on your way to putting the pieces of the puzzle together.
When a vertical approach is not effective, I will back off and cast to the fish. When bass are suspended, I will make a long cast and let the bait sink until it reaches the depth of the activity zone as revealed by my electronics. The basic retrieve can be either a steady swim or a combination swim with an intermittent shake. When bass want a subtle swimming bait, the single tail grub can be the winning choice. For bass that are relating to bottom structure, a drag and shake approach with intermittent dead sticking can be a good starting point. Again experiment with retrieve and cadence.
If you fish clear water for pressured bass and have never tried the darter head technique, take a page from the book of anglers on the Left coast and you too can unlock the mystery of the darter head.