After several decades of studying hundreds of fancy tackle refinements, we reverted to old-fashioned bait fishing when the chips were down. But it was bait fishing with a few special twists. I call it "drift jigging," and it's a super-deadly technique for all of Idaho's big warmwater reservoirs!
The main requirement for drift-jigging is a boat, any old boat, maybe even a float tube. Secondly, you need a slight breeze parallel to shore, or maybe an electric trolling motor if the water is completely calm. Thirdly, you should have common spinning tackle with 6 to 12 pound test line. A sonar is nice to track bottom contours and locate suspended fish, but you can get along OK without one.
Terminal tackle can vary, but the simplest setup is a common leadhead jig tied at line-end, with or without a body of plastic, hair, or marbou. For bait, old fashioned worms will tempt every gamefish in Idaho. If you want to catch others, pick liver for catfish, salmon eggs for trout, cutbait for crappie, and so on. Worms, though, will catch them all while insuring non-stop fishing action!
Once you have all this stuff, just move offshore a few yards, bait up, lower your bait to the bottom, and use the wind or troll motor to move slowly parallel to shore. Constantly "hop" your bait a foot or two off bottom as you move along. I'm convinced the added movement attracts more predatory fish like bass and crappie, while it doesn't bother bottom-feeders like catfish.
Even without a sonar you'll soon discover the depth at which most fish are holding, usually where the water temperature and dissolved oxygen are about right. You can mount simple line-counters right on your rod to determine best depth, or you can count out several arm-lengths of line to return to the level producing most fish. Then as you drift along, move your boat away from or toward shore to keep your bait on bottom at about the right depth.
All this needn't be super-precise, but without a rough effort of this kind you can waste a lot of time fishing at 75 feet or 15 feet when most fish are holding at 30 feet.
I think the biggest advantage in drift-jigging over regular bait angling is that you're constantly "prospecting" for fish rather than waiting for them to come your way. This is especially important for residential species such as bass and crappie, less vital for travelers such as trout and catfish. Once you hit fish, you can tie up, anchor just upwind, or motor back for repeated drifts over that hotspot.
Another advantage to this method is that your bait remains constantly in the water at fish-producing depths rather than being unproductively retrieved and casted to "guesswork" depths all the time. Yet another good point is that you're holding your rod with a tight line directly below the boat where the slightest tap will alert you to set the hook.
An alternative terminal rig to a worm-loaded jighead is a heavy sinker at line-end with one or two dropper hooks (or small jigs) at one-foot intervals above. This classic old rig allows you to use heavy sinkers to get to the bottom fast and stay there during fast drifts. At the same time, you can vary dropper hook size and baits to fit whatever species you're after. This commonplace idea is more important than it seems. Staying on bottom during fast drifts is vital, yet a jighead large enough to keep you there may be too big for crappie, trout, or other small-mouthed fish. A large sinker above your jig or bait reduces strike sensitivity while also dropping to bottom and dragging trailing baits in the mud where they're less easily seen by fish.
Drift-jigging with does have a few disadvantages. One is that it works poorly in shallow water where an overhead boat spooks gamefish. Another is that fish tend to swallow natural baits, making it tough to release them unharmed. I handle the first problem by tying on a bobber and trailing my bait far behind the boat where gamefish will have forgotten my presence when they see the bait. I address bait-swallowing problems by striking faster, before my victim can gulp down the bait. I also use long-shank books and needle-nose pliers to retrieve hooks with minimal damage. When drift-jigging with bait I'm usually after eating flilets anyway, so fish release is rarely my goal.
Drift-fishing with bait may be an old idea to many anglers who never got bit by today's artificial-lure madness. Others like myself may have entered that complex trinket-and-treblehook swamp years ago. Along the way we somehow forgot that cheap, simple, plain-ol'-worms bounced along bottom work better than the most scented-up five-buck lure ever invented!
Originally published in Idaho Outdoor Digest.