At first glance, the diamond jig looks like blunt-force weaponry — a sinker-hook clodhopper of a lure, practically indestructible. It’s what you attach to the village simpleton’s barn-aged, all-glass rod, then point at the jig’s mirrored-chrome finish and tell him he can see himself in there. He grins mightily, and as you walk away he might raise the metallic slab to his ear, jaw hanging slack as he strains to hear the faint sound of the ocean emanating from its lead core.
The googan portion of our crew manifest makes no attempt to mask its scorn for the unfamiliar lure and its conspicuous lack of design flair or brightwork — no stunning scale pattern or uncanny pink-blue-silver airbrushed flank that screams sea herring. It doesn’t really look like anything, proof that the mates have snubbed them. The one mate who’s trying to pawn this metal thing off on us — he’s hiding the good bait where only the crew and those guys who come every weekend know about. A lure that just sits there, doesn’t do anything. Hell, it doesn’t even look like an eel.
The mate hunches down to light a smoke, a quick pause to squelch sharp words rising in his throat. It’s not as if these bass are gorging on a thick mass of American eels, he explains, so it’s not really that kind of linear, match-the-hatch scenario. Hearing none of this, spokesgoogan’s moon face draws up into a toothy eureka! grin that announces he’s about to outsmart the crew in a big way: He’ll use their stupid metal thing, but first he’ll haul it through the bucket of live eels. The scent’s what they want — the monster bass do. He’ll get the scent out!
On a Wreck
For 20 minutes we’ve been nosing around a small search grid, trying to zero in on a little-known wreck the captain got years back as a “position approximate” set of TDs from the lobsterman who’d recorded them before he and his deckhand donned survival suits and climbed into the life raft. Nearer to tuna grounds than midrange cod or pollock spots, it’s a place off on its own, 10 miles past the spots that were already too far afield. It’s gonna be one or the other, he notes: polluted with big pollock or deader than disco.
From the GPS/plotter to the Loran display to the faded logbook to the watery fore and over to the fishfinder screen, the captain’s gaze never sticks — a case study in situational awareness. I, a knuckle- dragger, watch the sounder screen only, the virtual seabed rolling left and off-screen, the right margin a wellspring of jittery hope from which I expect the profile of the sunken hulk to emerge in four-color splendor, wearing a 40-foot steeple of bait and 40-pound pollock.
When the bottom finally juts up in the shape of a 50-foot steel hull lying right-side-up and intact, I blurt out an involuntary holy shit! The halo of life enshrouding the vessel — a crimson blob extending 15 feet off the peak, then another 20 feet of tightly grouped scratches and blobs — sends me lurching out of the wheelhouse toward the ladder aft. My boots land on deck inside 30 seconds, and I scramble toward the cabin to assemble a war party.
Five minutes later, eight of us man claims spaced out along 80 feet of port-side rail. One muffled click of the loud hailer is our cue. I point my 8-foot stick at the ground floor, knock the 4/0 Newell into wide-open free-spool and watch the 12-ounce diamond whoosh into the rippling dark. Almost a minute later, sensing that touchdown is imminent, I feather the spool to slow the jig’s descent. A sharp clank confirms the landing. I slap the reel in gear and crank for all I’m worth. Wrecks eat jigs, and some are hungrier than others. You learn quickly not to waste time when your chrome’s in the danger zone.
I count 25 quick turns of the handle, pause for several seconds, then drop it again, starting a new count in one-thousands — a frame of reference to place the jig in the water column. I’ve just mumbled seven-one-thousand when the jig stops dead. I crank tight, register a faint tap and set. The rod surges straight down, and the drag hums. I lean back on the rod, fearing this fish will drag me into the hang. Mercifully, the first run slows, and the fish thumps violently. My shoulders strain against their sockets. I coax the fish’s head up and get 10 turns of line back on the spool before the second run.
Three times we repeat the routine before I manage to steer the fish my way, 30 turns. At 40 cranks, the depth change takes its toll. The fish yields. Two minutes later I have color, and then a bruiser of a pollock rolls over on the surface. I rack the rod, grab a gaff and put the hook in its cheek.
Unidentified Wobbling Object
That’s the textbook diamond jig moment and one of many, a point lost on the younger guys who have the same hyper-realistic, better-graphics, higher-resolution hang-up on the fishing grounds as they do on the Xbox.
This is what happens when you build your house 100 miles from the visceral urgency of the living food chain, when most of your fleeting interactions with untamed nature are through the celluloid looking glass. Four hundred nature documentaries later, every aspiring angler fancies himself a famed field biologist, asking questions that sound scientific: What forage fish is this jig supposed to imitate?
Stand in front of a tackle shop pegboard and survey the array of holographic-finish stickbaits and soft plastics and powder-coated Butterfly jigs and mackerel-pattern slab jigs. You’ll see why everyone under the age of 50 has this hard-wired match-the-hatch reflex.
What does a diamond jig represent? Food. Something I can catch. Something I might not catch. A small twinkle or flash in the depths. Every baitfish of its approximate size. Movement. A UWO — an unidentified wobbling object. An attack-response stimulator.
Your inner field biologist will want to check the stomach contents of the first fish you jig up to find out what they’re eating. Might as well humor him. While you’re at it, get to know your inner Swamp Yankee, the guy who has an equally relevant question and, ironically enough, might well be the better scientist: Why you gonna make all that mess, waste all that tide, when you already know the freaking fish are eating jigs? Ergo, who cares what the jig is supposedly imitating?
Better yet, if you’re going to be a great angler-scientist, take a long, hard look at real scientific method. If you’re playing match-the-hatch, you’re already assuming a causal relationship — the fish eats the jig because the jig represents baitfish X — that might not hold up.
Remember that real science begins with an open mind and a sharp eye, with observation. When you’re bending experiences into the service of a pet theory, that’s rhetoric.
Art of Jigging
Although I’ve caught fish on chrome since my earliest years on deck, I only began to understand the diamond’s full power when I started fishing with deckhand counterparts from points north — the Gulf of Maine and the northern edge of Georges Bank, ground zero for groundfish and school and small giant bluefin tuna. It’s also a piece of water that breeds a disproportional amount of chrome-slinging talent. In part, this relates to the incredible abundance of key forage — great shoals of spike mackerel, Atlantic sea herring, sand eels, summer squid, halfbeaks — that concentrate the top-tier predators and fuel the spectacular feeding events where heavy metal shines brightest.
Jigmen make lousy company on deck. Unlike plugging, where your lure spends most of its soak time in the top third of the water column, diamond jigging at the highest level probes the entire water column. It requires that you maintain a reasonably accurate idea of the lure’s running depth at all times so you can zero in once you discover the right combination of retrieve action and running depth.
Look for the guy who’s hunched slightly forward and appears to be whispering the Gettysburg Address at auctioneer speed, counting and cranking and pausing and lifting and dropping and cocking his head to the side as he attempts to read the intel crackling through the mono and braid into his fingers. Up until his rod bends down hard and for one merciful moment the counting stops, his retrieve changes — reel speed, rod action, pausing, free-spooling, ripping the jig home topside.
Sounds easy enough, until the first hour melts away, then the second. The counting — one-two-three-four-ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! — wears you down, your brain distended with flashing, spinning digits. Your lower back starts to make its presence known. Arms, long since numb, keep swinging, hauling, tensing, releasing. You’ll pay the interest tomorrow morning, when you labor to get your coffee cup airborne and back to its holder.
By noon, the term punchy can’t touch what your mental state has collapsed into while you’ve pummeled your body almost boneless. The fish is good, though, all the better for the honest day’s work that dragged it from the brine, the time soaking up sea and sky, catching up with friends the way men do, all standing in one place doing something you’ll all remember five years hence.