Over the last two years I have really started to appreciate the difference that fishing a bait in the mid-layers during winter can make to your catch results.
In the past I have mucked about with zig rigs and, occasionally, I have boosted an otherwise slow session with a bonus fish or two, but I realise now that I have only ever scratched the surface of the true potential of this method.
I have wasted entire winters sitting on big, deep pits waiting for bites that never came, looking back now, with the gift of hindsight; I could kick myself for not at least trying to fish zigs for a few hours each day. After all, what have you got to lose if you are not receiving any bites on the bottom or, if you are waiting for a specific bite time that occurs once a day, what about the rest of the time, what are the fish doing then?
The truth of the matter is that the fish spend massive proportions of the time somewhere in the mid to upper layers of the lake and are perfectly catchable with the right approach. Personally I think that they are only physically comfortable on the bottom for short periods of time in the winter, hence the short and exact feeding times. There is no set depth (or height) at which a zig is ultimately successful and a bait fished at the wrong depth will produce as little results as one fished on the bottom, basically you have to hit the right level and be prepared to change it when the bites stop. On waters where you are only expecting the odd take, even with the zigs, it can be a leap of faith to change something only a short while after catching on it, changing the depth of a zig can, in the right conditions, bring instant results but, if you go the wrong way, it can guarantee no more action.
The obvious solution to the problem of finding the right depth is to fish all three fishing rods on zigs set at different depths and this, nowadays, is how I generally fish throughout the colder months, at least during the hours of daylight anyway.
I usually fish bottom baits at night, and up until about ten o’clock in the morning, as there is always a good chance of action on the bottom at these times and then wind all three rods in and attach zigs. Nothing else in the set-up need change, it is a simple case of cutting the rigs off and attaching the zigs, even the same areas can be fished and often, if you have being getting any action on the bottom, this is the best plan.
So, what depths are best and when, it’ll vary from lake to lake I’m sure but, in my experience, a good starting point is always mid water.
I find that on lakes with depths of only five or six feet, zigs are not anywhere near as effective, the deeper pits of over ten feet are much better. I just plumb the depth in front of me and start of with one in the middle, and one higher and the other on lower, for example in sixteen feet I would start with zigs set at six, eight and ten feet from the bottom. If I had a bite at eight feet I would then swap one of the other rods to eight feet as well but leave the other to see if the bite depth changed.
Quite why fish take zigs I have no idea, and the strangest thing is that an actual edible bait seems to be the worst thing you can use, plastic, cork, and foam will out-fish a real bait every time!
Tying zig rigs couldn’t be easier really, at the end of the day it’s just a very long hooklink with a simple no-knot arrangement on one end and a swivel on the other, the more important aspect is to pick the correct material to tie it from.
For a hooklink you need something extremely supple, nylon is the beast and as light as you can get away with, a heavy link will drag the bait down and sag in the water, also it obviously more visible. Avoid fluorocarbons as they have a higher density rating in water and are more prone to sinking, low visibility soft monofilaments are the best.
For hooks I still use the old ‘Super Specialist’ because they are fairly fine wire and have the correct specs for zig work; you need a straight (or reversed eye) and a straight point, this gives you a better hooking arrangement.
Rather than mess around with adjustable zigs (similar to a plumbing rod set up) that are prone to tangle, I simply tie up a few different hooklinks and nick the hooks in the top of the bivvy, on the pole sleeve, leaving the links draped over the bivvy, this way I can pick any length I have and attach it quickly with a tucked blood knot to the swivel.
Bait choice is easy, coloured foam works as well as anything I’ve tried and my own personal favourite is black and yellow mixed, although different colours seem to work better at different times. I would always start with black and yellow and maybe experiment if I thought I wasn’t getting the results I expected.
Plain black is also a very popular and effective bait, strangely enough it is also very good at night, quite how that works I don’t know, a non flavoured, non coloured bait dangling in mid water in the pitch black, but it does!
Small baits seem to be the most effective, really just enough to float the hook is all I use, a small piece of foam can last you the whole winter so it’s very cost effective as well.
A common problem with zigs is tangling due to the long hooklinks, that and catching the trees and bushes on the cast, not to mention your jacket, unhooking mat, bivvy or anything else that gets in the way, the solution is simple, a tea mug!
I just position a tea mug about ten feet behind my casting position and drop the hookbait inside, this stops the zig blowing about behind you before the cast and ensures it doesn’t snag up on anything. The bait always leaves the cup perfectly as the cast is made. I tend to cast a bit higher than normal with a zig, using a bigger arc on the cast stops the hooklink wrapping around the mainline and it is imperative to trap the line before the lead hits the water. Trapping the lead a few feet above the water will allow the hookbait to travel onwards, separating it form the lead and cutting down on the chance of it wrapping during the descent, a good zig cast should leave two splashes on the surface, a big one from the lead and a further, smaller one from the bait, and this second splash should be farther out than the lead, indicating that you hooklink has straightened out on impact.
Lead arrangement is also crucial, a big lead will tend to tangle more but, if you properly control the cast by feathering and trapping the lead, then the bigger weight will help to ensure that the lead is ejected from the lead release clip as soon as the fish hook’s itself and moves off. A release clip is essential as the effect of having a lead swing around up to ten feet or more from the fish can cause the hook to bounce out again, not to mention problems with weed and snags. I trim the clip right back and set it on the softest setting to make sure it always falls off when a fish is hooked.
The longer the hooklink you use, the more problems you are likely to encounter during the fight, particularly when netting a fish. Basically any hook-length over twelve feet long will probably need another angler to man the net as there just isn’t enough pull left to get the fish over the cord when the lead clip is against the tip ring, even ten feet can be tricky so be prepared. For serious zig angling an extended net handle is an ideal addition to your fishing tackle, and will be well worth the investment.
Finally, bite indication can be a bit strange with zigs, if you imagine what is actually happening as a fish takes a bait six or ten feet above the lead, the lead can just swing back towards you, be dragged about on a slack line or, hopefully, be taken away from you as in a normal take. To cover all eventualities I fish with the bobbin halfway up to show both drop-backs and forward takes although sometimes you just get a gentle bouncing of the bobbin. Generally if you get any sort of erratic indication that last more than a couple of bleeps there is a good chance a fish is on the end, so be prepared to strike some bizarre takes and indications.