Tommy Skarlis is the kind of guy who can’t look a leadhead jig in the hook eye without seeing 10 ways to make it better, stronger, lighter, smaller, bigger, heavier or more colorful—or deciding to scrap the whole thing for a different design altogether!
“That’s the neat thing about making your own sinkers or jigs,” laughs the wire-to-wire winner of this past April’s National Guard FLW Walleye tour event on the Mississippi River out of Red Wing, Minnesota. “It allows you to solve problems or create baits to match the specific conditions you are currently faced with, and when you have the right gear you catch more fish! Besides, it’s a great way to save money.”
But stretching the value of a dollar’s worth of lead is just a small part of do-it-yourself tackle making, an art form that dates back to the first barefoot guy to fashion a fish hook from bone. Skarlis says creating hair jigs that help “match the hatch” or crafting a jig that cuts current better than the next hunk of lead to hit the river delivers personal satisfaction along with on the- water results.
“Any time you tie a jig, make your own piece of tackle and catch a fish on it, you bring out that pioneer spirit in us all—the inventor side,” he philosophizes. “You can get as crazy as you want,” he continues. “I add mylar and flashabou to my jigs. I like dyed bucktail in an assortment of colors. I use a lot of fantasy fur and even what they call ‘troll doll’ fur made out of the hair they use for troll dolls. I even know a couple of guys who slip hair from their poodles and tie jigs with dog hair! I haven’t gotten that crazy around the Skarlis family yet, but the thought has certainly crossed my mind!”
Skarlis, who makes his home near the Mississippi River in Waukon, Iowa, isn’t the only angler to take his own private home improvement show on the tournament trail. Every week during the competitive fishing season he becomes rod-waving mad-scientist trying to turn lead into some fish-catching concoction that will transform to weigh-in gold.
He carries an array of jigs of varied styles, shapes, weights and hook sizes to answer almost any situation he is likely to encounter—including a sinker selection to match. Most are products of his personal handiwork. Many are lures the 2008 FLW Walleye Tour Champion has fashioned, painted and adorned for the specific waters and tournament he will be fishing that week.
You never know when the fish or Nature will throw you a curve by calling for something you forgot, never thought of packing, or simply had never conceived. Those are times to open the tote and pull out all the creative stops.
“I think back to the first pro-am tournament I fi shed in 1996 at Lake of the Woods,” he reflects. “The fish wanted a pink head with chartreuse tail, and I built a fantasy fur jig with a stinger I tied right into the jig. I got into a ‘snaggy’ situation—an area full of fish but full of snags, too. I had to tie 20 jigs each night to get me through the next day. If I had had to buy them at $3 per jig, it would have cost me $60 per day just in jigs! But I could make them all myself for $5 to $10. And, lo and behold, I cashed my first check in that tournament!”
The Rubbermaid container—with all the tackle, tools and materials he can shoehorn within—accompanies him at every tour stop. Not to be left out of his litany are Sharpie permanent markers— “always good to have,” per Skarlis—and several new permanent markers from Do-It Molds, creators of the jig-making molds he uses along with a complete arsenal of other tackle-crafting materials.
The “WHY?” Of DIY
An angler in the hunt for tackle is at the mercy of the local dealer’s current inventory. Trying to find an arrowhead, banana head or teardrop jighead on demand is often a gamble at best.
Many walleye anglers take to tinkering out of necessity, if not natural inclination, to answer the wide range of weather, water and habitat conditions they encounter. Not to mention the finicky palates of their prey.
“We make all kinds of terminal tackle adjustments while walleye fishing,” says Skarlis. “One of the basic reasons I build my own tackle and jigs is I can make them just how I want them!”
Functionality is the first factor. Different styles of jigheads cut current differently. Some are better suited for casting—others for vertical jigging.
Color definitely matters, too. Carrying adequate color selection for numerous sizes and styles he may need over the course of a season could sink a boat.
“I carry an onboard supply of powder paint from CS Coatings so I can quickly paint or re-paint a jighead,” he says. “Though it is better to bake the paint on, I can have the colors I need almost immediately. To seal the recently applied paint, I like to dip, paint or spray a jig with a vinyl coating, which prevents the finish from chipping, even if you hit it with a hammer,” he proclaims. “These paints are incredible!”
Size matters, too—in hooks, jig weight, sinker weight, or wire gauge. He cites a recent conversation with a fellow pro about the need for bigger jigs to accommodate bigger minnows like creek chubs.
“You could probably find a saltwater or bass jig that might accommodate a bigger bait, but then you’ll likely have the wrong style head, the wrong colors and the wrong hook!” he explains. “However with a do-it-yourself walleye approach, you can make whatever you want to the specs you want.”
And speaking of finding the right jig for larger minnows, Do-It’s Wire Keeper for live bait and artificial minnow bait presentations is ideal for maximizing the amount of time you keep your bait wet.
Jig hooks alone often make the difference— lighter hooks for “snaggy” situations, hooks to match minnow sizes, light heads with big hooks, heavy heads with lighter hooks—the list goes on.
Any time you go over a ½-ounce jig size, it’s hard to find a walleye-size hook,” he explains. “But you also need bigger hooks for bigger plastics. I use a lot of big shapes like the Berkley Ripple Shad. The five-inch swimbait requires a really big hook that you won’t find on a standard jig.”
“I prefer a premium hook, as sharp as I can get it, and a hook that will retain its sharpness,” Skarlis continues. “On the road, you can never find a custom-poured jig with a hook like that because the masses of anglers won’t pay over a dollar for a jig. But on the jigs I use, the hook alone may cost 50 cents or more.”
Premium hooks can be not only overkill but counterproductive at times.
Jig molds often specify hooks to assure the shank fits the head. And jigs designed for dragging through wood and snaginfested waters might be best if poured an economical light wire hook that can be straightened when hung and re-shaped for the next cast.
“I use a tremendous number of ¾- to 1-ounce jigs. Many factor into three-way applications,” he says. “We can hardly ever fi nd them, and when you do, they almost always have the wrong hook style or size for the application I am fishing.”
New molds from Do-It Molds allow him to add “keeper” barbs to roundhead and teardrop jigs to hold plastics, live minnows, leeches or worms in place more effectively. Here, Skarlis demonstrates soft bait rigging with a teardrop jig and wire keeper.
Tailor To Technique
Roundhead jigs are versatile, but many custom jig designs stand up better to specific conditions or applications.
“When I’m vertically jigging, I’d rather not continually make sure the knot is located at the back of the jig eye, which is required when using a round ball jig,” he says. “I like the jig to be balanced, so I use a teardrop-style head. And I still find applications where I prefer vertically jigging with banana jigs, which I grew up fishing. Both styles ride more horizontally.”
He also uses mushroom-head jigs, originally designed for bass fishing. And for a different application like slip bobber fishing, he prefers a darter- style head.
“As the waves bounce the float, a darter head glides,” he explains. “And that’s a pretty irresistible action that all species will find hard to turn down.”
Beyond The Basics
Workshop innovation needn’t end with tools and materials at hand either. Skarlis and angling buddies have made molds for jigs and sinkers with no existing precedent.
“We’ve made custom sinkers–6-ounce, 8-ounce and even 1-pound sinkers,” he says. “It's better to have something and not always need it than to need it and not have it!”
The modification of jighead molds that he and others introduced to accommodate bait “keeper” barbs inspired his Do-It Molds to add new molds to their line-up. Every innovation the DIY guy can add to a bait or terminal rig adds to his fish-catching potential. But it doesn’t stop there.
“Everyone wants to create, to invent something,” he reflects. “And to put food on the table with tackle you built yourself, that’s incredibly exciting and very rewarding!"