by Capt. Dom Petrarca
In just a few short years, the light tackle jigging and popping game has seen a major improvement in the available gear that this specialized sport has to choose from. By minimizing the bulk and mass of the rods and reels, jigging and popping has allowed anglers to fight the fish comfortably and effectively without fighting the gear itself. Both the rods as well as the reels were developed to handle heavier drag systems, incredibly strong low-stretch braided lines, and heavier artificial lures while tangling with what some considered too big of a fish for such light gear on a regular basis. The pressures that can be placed on terminal tackle and the associated connections is extreme, and new systems had to be developed for not only withstanding the bigger fish and stronger runs, but also streamlined enough to fit easily and smoothly through the guides of the rod while casting or jigging all day. Even the lures are sporting heavy-duty 500 plus pound strength through wire and seriously upgraded hooks. After much trial and error over the past 4 seasons, I have adopted what I feel to be the very best system for just about any skill level of angler that may climb aboard my boat. There is no question that the gear itself has to be up to the task, as any inferior products or those not designed for the extreme nature of this genre of fishing will quickly be destroyed during battle, be retired after a brief tenure due to fatal problems caused by repeated use, quickly put up for sale, or left in the corner to collect dust with all the other bad purchases made in haste by an excited angler.Before You Buy
The first piece of advice I have for anyone who has been bitten by the jig and pop bug, but has yet to dive headlong into the purchase phase is to wait! There really isn't any "starter" outfits or cheap, entry level gear that I have seen that is worth getting into as of yet, it just isn't up to the task and certainly isn't able to handle large tuna or similar fish on a regular basis. The amount of gear now claiming to be worthy yet not up to the task is staggering, as is the amount with actual merit that will suit an angler well as they get into the more advanced stages of the disease without becoming just more piled up useless gear in the garage. Just like the more traditional methods of chasing large pelagic fish offshore, the gear must be up to the task due to the sheer size and power of these fish. The price point on these specialty reels is inherently more, however these same pieces of equipment are built to last; there are thousands of Penn and Shimano 50-130 class gold reels with 20 or more years of hard use on them that are still getting it done like the day they were first spooled with line, and still hold value if looking to resell. The proper jigging and popping rods and reels are also extremely well made, and hold their resale value just as good, if not better due to the limited numbers available units out there. Don't scrimp, it isn't good on you or that fish of a lifetime lost because you came under gunned or with inferior tools.A trophy bluefin is always possible on every cast, be sure your gear is ready.
The easiest way to play with a bunch of great gear is to find a qualified jig and pop captain who has the gear available for you, that way you can test out some quality gear without having to buy while in real world fishing situations. By heading to a shop with a good selection you can physically inspect, touch, and even bend rods, examine reels, lures, etc. There are so few specialty shops that have the complete understanding and product inventory to accommodate this highly specialized method of targeting large pelagic fish, it is very much like trying to get a good selection and quality of fly fishing gear at your average corner bait shop in most circumstances. Other than a few of the larger tackle houses like TFT, Edge Angling and Tackle Direct here in the northeast which have a decent selection you will generally not find much what you will need at most stores. I suggest to most of my clients that they get in touch with and Sami and Paul at Saltywater Tackle, who have everything under one roof, and will be in tune with the current technology and hottest equipment on the market. The winter fishing shows are another great time to check out these products, as most of the manufacturers in the game today are on display, and have knowledgeable reps that can talk to you about the features of each while allowing you to do same day comparisons. There are volumes of threads online with reviews and opinions, and one should research as much as possible before making the investment. Popping Rods
The gear manufacturers have really stepped up to the plate and pretty much industry-wide have come out with some incredible rods. In the popping world the trend has turned to fast action, seven to eight foot rods that are well balanced and amazingly light-weight with some impressive materials and tapers. Everything from stock rods to custom rods with several offerings from many of the industry players mostly in two-piece models that join at the butt section are available for just about any tastes and style. These rods can handle some incredible loads, all while being long and tapered well to allow for long casts and proper action for working a variety of different weight lures. The minute differences from one rod to the next is nothing short of amazing as builders constantly tweak the guide trains, ferrule sizes, and grips to cater to the many different sizes, shapes, and fighting styles of today's modern angler. Blanks can be sourced quite readily these days, so many opt for building a custom rod that is exactly to their specifications for around the same money a stock rod would run . I favor several different lengths from 7'4" to 8'1" from Spinal Rods aboard my Dusky, as well as the full line of Race Point Rods from Saltywater Tackle. I have Travis at Spinal build my popping rods as one piece models, with the heavy version at 7'4", the medium heavy version at 7'6", and my light set up at 7'10" which with his aggressive tapers makes for extremely light and powerful sticks that shut-off around the midsection but not bending into the fore-grip area, which has very thin EVA lathed down to provide the utmost contact and sensitivity to the rod. Any longer than 8'2" it becomes too difficult to fight larger fish, and anything under 7'0" will cut down dramatically on casting distance. With the myriad of choices out there, this again stresses the need to research and also to hold and bend as many of them as possible.Spinal custom 7'4" taking a severe angle in stride, with a Van Staal 275Jigging Rods
Jigging isn't really all that new, many anglers all over the world have been dropping hammered diamond jigs and buck-tails for a long time with deadly results. However modern jigging has evolved to incorporate a few different techniques, namely speed jigging. This new style was developed in Japan, and quickly caught on here in the US and abroad, featuring dropping flutter and knife style jigs weighted to match the rods' tip action to a desired depth and quickly working the jig through the water column with rhythmic pumping of the rod in varying cadences. Anglers can rapidly work the water column with this style, preying on the reactionary strikes that many gamefish exhibit, and also focus properly on the depth where fish are holding and feeding. Speed jigging uses short rods of 4'8" to 5'6" with extra-fast tapers and incredibly sensitive tip sections, these rods also have the stopping power by creating a very efficient lever, while constantly working the fish's head upwards and towards the boat throughout the water with ease. The same holds true of the jig rod choices as with the popping rods in that there are so many choices out there more than capable of handling very large tuna or other pelagic gamefish. I use 5'4" to 5'6" Spinal 400-500g rods, as well as my "monster hunter" OBX 500g which was developed to handle the larger winter tuna encountered off North Carolina in the winter, a size that we also regularly see up here in southern New England. Once bluefin reach 300 pounds or better they are much more likely to hit a jig than a topwater plug, so I make sure that the rods are capable of stopping the larger models.Spinning Reels
I use spinning reels for popping but not for jigging, and the choices for capable models unlike the rods are extremely limited. I have seen too many failures and witnessed to many common problems in most of the spinning reels that made their way into my rotation to bother with anything other than offerings from Van Staal or Shimano. Most of my reels are VS 275 and VS250 both with and without bails. They are bullet proof, lightweight, and hold plenty of drag and line capacity to stop a big, angry bluefin under most situations, especially in a center console like mine where the fish can be chased down until enough line gets back on the spool to stand and fight. They have waterproof drag systems and very few moving parts which makes for little to no maintenance. The Shimano Stellas are also built "tuna" tough, and because of their popularity amongst my anglers are up in the T-top each time I leave the dock. I just haven't had any other brand or model reel win me over as of yet, so these are the only two choices I can recommend thus far, although I understand a few of the players have redesigned and reworked their offerings for 2013, so I am excited to get my hands on a few and see if they can be added to the bullpen for this season and beyond.Shimano Stella 18000 and 20000 SW modelsConventional Reels
The choices in the overhead reel world are vastly greater when it comes to small, powerful, and light-weight and comfortable to jig with. Many different manufacturers have both star-drag and lever-drag models that are more than capable of packing enough line and power, and because of the wide array most jiggers although moderately pricey will not break the bank. Again it boils down to personal preference and budget, as long as the reel is comfortable and up to the task at hand. I use both single and two speed reels aboard my boat from several different manufacturers. Jigging Master PE-8, Okuma Makaira 15 and Cedros 15, as well as Shimano Talica 16 and Trinidad 40 saw action last year, and all handled the fish with relative ease and few if any issues(which were minor anyway) on numerous tuna throughout the year. I do not like to use spinning reels as many anglers miss the bite on the drop, and it can be dangerous in the heat of the moment to try and get a bail shut if a big fish hooks himself and takes off at mach one...not a good idea to get fingers near sizzling braid! With a conventional set-up the angler can stay in contact with the jig throughout the drop, feeling the hit and also engaging the drag instantly by hammering the strike lever, something not easy to feel or react to with an open bail on a spinner. The fight is also much more enjoyable and less work on the angler overall as the spinner leaves the pick up at 90 degrees to the water while the overhead is naturally in-line with the entire lever action of the rod.Saltywater Tackle OBX 500 with a JM PE-8Line and Leader
This is where most anglers run into trouble, figuring out the line and leader connections with thin diameter braid and heavier monofilament or fluorocarbon. I spool both my spinning and conventional reels with Jerry Brown Hollow Core. The first 300 yards on my spinners get 60# colored line spliced to white 100# to the top. The jigging reels get a top-shot of JB decade metered line, so that my anglers can tell what depth they are at by watching the colors come off the reel. I fashion a loop in the end of the mainline, and use a single cat's-paw loop-to-loop connection with a pre made wind-on leader. I started out making my own when none were readily available but now source mine from Basil at BHP Tackle in both casting and jigging styles. I use 60# to 130# fluorocarbon for my jigging purposes, and 100# to 130# monofilament for my popping outfits. Unless the lure is subsurface, I typically do not feel fluorocarbon makes that much difference, and the softer, more supple mono many times gives the lures better action. Anything over 130# strength and I feel that the action on your offerings begins to suffer, especially with lighter plugs. Just about every knot or other leader system I have worked with makes the join getting in and out of the guides a nightmare, casting difficult, and the constant slapping against the guides each and every cast weakens most others substantially. If my water was a bit deeper and had lots of current, I would most likely switch over to solid braid as hollow core will flatten underwater and provide resistance, slowing you down and imparting incorrect action to the jig. When using solid braid I use a 50 turn bimini in the braid to join the leader in a loop-to-loop connection. 100# Jerry Brown Decade hollow core line and a BHP #100 fluorocarbon wind-on
Next installment will cover the terminal tackle, lures, jigs, how to set them up, and tips on hooking and landing big fish on light tackle. I will be at the RISSA Saltwater Expo at the RI Convention Center this weekend March 8-10th in the Pt. Jude booth 1011-1012. Stop by and say hi if you happen to be at the show! Once again I thank you for checking out my content, and hope that you tune in soon for the final, and most important part of this series.