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The jig is up

9/12/2009

KEY WEST, Fla. — There are a number of BASS Elite Series pros who excel at catching fish on jigs, but when it comes to catching fish on jigs in saltwater flats tournaments, Mitch Howell is in a class by himself.

Most flats anglers catch bonefish and permit on live bait such as shrimp and crabs. Some catch bonefish on fly and the really good fly-rodders catch permit on fly. Few, aside from Howell, even attempt to use jigs.

According to Howell, they're missing out.

"In a tournament, you cast that jig all day, you'll catch a couple of fish," Howell said.

Howell, of Plantation, Fla., has won a number of Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series events, which raise money for cystic fibrosis research. Many of those victories came about because of fish caught on jigs, which are worth more points than fish caught on bait.

Although he's never won the Mercury Southernmost Light-Tackle Anglers Masters (SLAM) Tournament, Howell is in good position to add that to his list of tournament titles after catching a slam — a tarpon, a permit and a bonefish — to take the lead on the first day Saturday fishing with Capt. Tim Carlile. The permit and the bonefish were caught on eighth-ounce wiggle jigs that Howell has customized by tier Chris Dean.

The tarpon came first, on a live bait, under rainy, overcast skies. Howell later caught a couple of 17-inch bonefish (the tournament minimum size is 18 inches) on bait.

"When it stopped raining, we were able to see and Tim started poling," Howell said. "I caught a bonefish on a jig. Then we went to a permit spot and drifted crabs but couldn't get one.

"We went bonefishing for the last hour and two permit came by. I threw the jig in front of them and managed to get one to eat."

That 31-inch permit, which weighed about 23 pounds and was caught on 8-pound line, gave Howell his slam and top angler honors for Saturday.

What's his secret?

"The idea with the jig is bonefish and permit are essentially bottom feeders for the most part," Howell said, referring to how the fish root in the bottom for crabs and other crustaceans. "The thing I love about the jig is when it hits the water, it immediately plunges to the bottom. When the fish start tracking it, you can actually slow it down and jig it in place. They love it."

A key part of Howell's success is reading the fish, which gives him an idea of where they are headed and where he needs to cast the jig.

With a bonefish, Howell casts the jig "way out in front" of the fish and then brings it back into the fish's field of vision.

"Usually the minute they see it, they come over to it," Howell said. "I stop and let the jig fall. That's what they're expecting their prey to do."

With permit, Howell likes to swim the jig on the surface. He likened it to a ballyhoo trolled on the surface for dolphin or marlin.

"The permit will follow it on the surface," Howell said. "When they're right behind it, just stop it and let it go down. Usually they'll eat it."

Steve Waters is the outdoors writer for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. Read more of his stories at sunsentinel.com/outdoors