The Jig Man of Arkansas
Ultralight spinning for heavyweight trout.
Pete Cobb split the afternoon between catching lots of trout and telling me stories about his Uncle Junior. Pete himself is from over in Yellville, a small tuck-away in the northern Arkansas Ozarks, but said he was mostly raised by Uncle Junior, near the White River where we were fishing.
As a group, the Cobbs go almost as far back here as the limestone bluffs that surround the river. Some ran old-time river ferries; others were fishing guides, catching smallmouth bass in the days before the big dams were built and turned the upper river into a trout tailwater. The genealogy is important. When you’re in the country, it pays to know the territory.
“Uncle Junior, now,” Pete explained, “was a heck of a woodcarver. He could take an ordinary jackknife and carve one of those big, wooden kitchen matches into an actual link chain. And the links could actually move.”
As I later found out, Junior Cobb has national fame as a carver, ranging from a folk-art feature in National Geographic to appearances on the Beverly Hillbillies and The Tonight Show, not to mention having his work shown at the Smithsonian. Although he can neither read nor write, he has an incredible sixth sense that gives his wooden caricatures an almost mystical aura of life.
His nephew Pete, meanwhile, clearly has a similar sixth sense when it comes to trout fishing. He’s known locally as the master of taking trout on small marabou jigs and light spinning tackle, a skill made obvious as I watched him catch trout virtually at will all afternoon.
“Mostly I’m using 1/16-ounce jigs,” he explained between fish. “Marabou jigs rather than plastic, because the marabou works and glides better in the water, like an insect or small shad. Sometimes I use a 3/32- or 1/8-ounce depending on the water level. You don’t want to use too heavy a jig, though, or you’ll get hung up on the bottom all the time.”
Pete’s jigs are largely plain, without hackle or other adornment. “I don’t think those painted jigheads make much difference. In fact, sometimes I’ll take a knife and scrape the paint off a jig’s head, making the head nice and shiny. That can help attract the trout.” Basic overall colors are brown, olive green, white, or sometimes black.
“Mostly I’m using 4-pound-test monofilament. Some people use 2-pound-I’ve caught trout up to 8 pounds on 2-pound-but you’ll break a lot more of ’em off that way. For a rod, I like a medium-stiff model. When a trout takes, you’ve only got one chance to set the hook, and a little stiffer rod will give you a better hookset”-compensating, in part, for the considerable stretch of light mono.
Pete’s jigging technique seems almost violent. He casts, waits, and then jerks the rod hard. “When I’m jigging, I toss it out there and let it settle toward the bottom. Then I pop the rod just as if I were setting the hook. Then I let it settle again, reel up the slack, and pop it hard again. The trout are actually hitting the jig as it falls near the bottom. When you pop the rod, there he is. You’ll know when you have a hit, no doubt about it.”
The jigging demonstration concluded as Pete caught three wildly thrashing rainbows in a row from a deep side pocket near a fast riffle. And I quickly became a believer, wondering at the same time why I’d never thought of this. The reason, I later decided, was because it’s so simple, the kind of thing that we modern anglers tend to dismiss in favor of complicated strategies that sometimes don’t work half as well.