Dave Pfeiffer got into surface iron for the fun and then chased rare jigs
BY RICH HOLLAND
SAN CLEMENTE – One of the world’s most extensive collections of Southern California surface iron is in a garage at Dave Pfeiffer’s home in South Carolina, transplanted along with the Pfeiffer family when Shimano moved their headquarters to that East Coast state.
Lately Pfeiffer, a longtime Shimano executive and Tuna Club of Avalon member, has been showcasing his collection on a relatively new Facebook group, Jigs Only.
“I know there are some other kinds of jigs posted, but for me it’s all about surface iron and fishing the surface iron,” said Pfeiffer. “Barry Brightenburg introduced me to surface iron fishing when we started running to San Clemente Island. The calico bass and yellowtail fishing was crazy good at the time.
“We were mainly fishing the bass, but we kept seeing spots of yellowtail popping up outside. Barry was into throwing the iron at the yellowtail and he gave me a handful of jigs and a jig stick,” he added. “It was so exciting, seeing them chase the jig.
“When the yellowtail popped up, that’s when I fell in love with surface iron.”
Dave said he started getting into the history of the lightweight jigs and that led to a shopping spree that resulted in a collection of swimming metal surface lures containing over 180 brand names.
“I started buying any surface iron I could find at flea markets and swap meets,” he admitted. “At first I was looking for jigs that seemed like they would swim great. Then I started looking at the differences besides the swimming action.
“I didn’t know a lot about the different brands or different shapes at first, but I always liked old fishing tackle,” Pfeiffer added. “Maybe the demand for surface iron was in a lull back then, I don’t know. There were a lot out of jigs out there, and not just the name brands.
“I got some great buys at the Long Beach Rod and Gun Club swap and at events like Fisherman’s Landing Tackle Day. Nichols Brothers Antique Tackle had a bunch of great old jigs at first.
Then when the swap meets started getting popular, everyone was looking for the Candy Bars and Tady 45s and would just walk by the really cool old stuff. I would buy the ones they walked right past,” Pfeiffer noted. “I only collected surface iron, that was what I was into.”
Dave discovered, as collectors do, that just the fact you are focusing on a certain item can bring gems.
“Before you know it I had people giving me odd weird jigs, and it all just came together from there.”
As noted, Pfeiffer was as interested in the history of surface iron fishing as finding unique jigs.
“I started documenting all the brand names, then all the different models by each brand name,” he said. “Then I started to talk to all the old-timers in the industry, asking questions like ‘What do you know about House of Jigs?’ I discovered a lot of jig brands were made for dealers by a few of the big manufacturers.”
Pfeiffer said he is still researching the House of Jigs, which was located somewhere in LA and made a lot of surface jigs, 10 different models of jigs including the Explorer
“From the shapes, it seems like Salas made the most. You find a lot of jigs similar to other jigs.
“Still, looking at it I have documented from 100 to 150 jig manufacturers between the 50s and 70s, most of it driven by barracuda fishing rather than yellowtail,” Pfeiffer added.
There is an entire backstory around customization, Dave noted.
“I started asking people about surface iron and found there are quite a few people who know a little bit,” he said. “There’s a lot of folklore about hitting jigs with a hammer, drilling out the ring holes, offset is better, a pointy nose for fast current, round nose for slow current, all those geeky things fishermen get into.”
The bone jig was the predecessor of the surface iron and was used by commercial barracuda trollers in the South Bay.
“The Putter jigs simply copied bone jigs in metal, for barracuda at first,” said Pfeiffer. “When whale hunting ended, there was not a lot of whale bone around. All of the surface iron is based on the bone jig design.”
Dave noted there is a common denominator among the many jigs in his collection. They have to be fished slowly to swim in a way that attracts attention and bites.
“Everybody discounts the tackle back then, they forget it simply wasn’t as easy to fish with as modern tackle,” he said. “The fiberglass rod was just coming around and the reels were slow. It was much easier to cast a jig than an anchovy.
“The Candy Bar 112, the Tady 45 and the regular Explorer were the easiest to cast. No matter the size, to get them to swim right you have to be able to slow wind, something that is harder with faster modern reels,” he added.
Pfeiffer has personally tested every jig in his collection, and remember he has a list of 180 brand names.
“Some I haven’t learned how to swim, there are a lot of really odd shapes, like the Black Robins,” he said. “There is one brand that is all just numbers: the 224 and 227 are really cool jigs. They also made a 7, a 229, and a 2L and those I couldn’t get to swim.
“Some are easy to swim but they don’t do anything erratic to attract a bite, they don’t kick. I still don’t know what the truly monster-size jigs were for, again I think has to do with the early gear – maybe they were just easier to cast.”
Pfeiffer has played a big role in tackle development at Shimano, and addressed the surface iron casting question with a wide range of rods, before settling on a modest selection.
“We still carry a few excellent surface iron rods. The problem with making jig sticks is every fisherman is different – I like a lighter rod, for example, I’m not going to cast a 10-foot Ulua all day – and you need different lengths for the sportboats and private boats,” he said. “From early on Sabre, Har-Nel, TruLine and the rest made blanks with a wide range of sizes and actions and the tackle stores customized them even more. Getting the right rod is very important.”
Dave also pointed out that throwing the surface iron is not something you can just pick up a rod – even the perfect rod – and do.
“I’m always fishing with a lot of people and most can’t cast the surface iron, that’s how we ended up developing the Waxwing system,” he explained. “Anybody can cast the Waxwing and it swims great when you wind it at higher speeds. It’s better for bass than for yellowtail, but it catches both. Still it works best with the rods designed for the lure.”
What definitely caught on was the Trinidad reel for surface iron.
“Of course Trinidad reels became the favorites of many jig fishermen, both the Trinidad and the Trinidad DC,” Pfeiffer said. “The Tranx 500 is becoming a staple of jig fishermen. I fish it with 65-pound straight braid, the 65 is bulky enough and strong enough to handle most fish.
“Fishing bluefin on the surface iron is a whole other deal, Rick Maxa can cast the iron on a Talica, but I’m not that good,” admitted Pfeiffer.
As noted at the beginning of the story, it was yellowtail fishing that got Pfeiffer into surface iron fishing and the search for rare jigs. He was asked what some of his rarest finds are.
“It’s hard to say now with so many people posting their collections on the Jigs Only page and jigs I thought were rare don’t seem to be,” Dave noted. “I have two Candy Bars that are just stamped Candy Bar, with no StarMan or anything. The Putters not as rare as I thought, they sold a lot of jigs. I haven’t seen an Ajax on the site, and I have two of those. I thought Deckhand jigs were rare, but a lot of those are popping up. Now the Floozie jigs, I have just one and it’s the only one I have ever seen.
“Whenever I found one that was really unique, after I tested it out I didn’t fish it anymore.”
What kept Pfeiffer fascinated with surface iron are not just unique examples of jigs. The overall uniqueness of the technique and tackle is a major draw.
“Surface iron fishing is a really cool part of California history, that style of fishing didn’t exist anywhere else,” he pointed out.
Working for Shimano, Dave has made many trips to Japan, where fishing with jigs is an integral part of fishing. As a direct result, the Butterfly jig system, the Colt Sniper and the Flat-Fall jigs all were brought over to the U.S.
“The Butterfly jig is a vertical jig, it doesn’t stay in the water column long enough for species like tuna feeding higher up,” said Pfeiffer. “We wanted something that sank slower and moved sideways. There was already some version of the Flat-Fall in Japan, but Ted Sakai, our engineer out here, put together the actual Flat-Fall we use. You can thank him for that.”
It almost goes without saying that yellowtail are even more prized in Japan than here in California and sportfishing for yellowtail is as highly competitive as jackpot fishing is on many SoCal boats.
Before Pfeiffer ever played a hand in bringing Japan’s techniques across the Pacific, he first exported his favorite California tackle.
“I was already fishing surface iron when I went to Japan,” told Pfeiffer. “I shipped a jig stick and three jigs and went out on the closest thing to a yellowtail trip they have. These guys had racks and racks of gear, and there was this one guy on board who was supposed to be a legendary yellowtail fisherman.
“Using the surface iron I outfished everybody on that boat, it was cool as hell. I outfished the legendary guy 3 to 1. On the way back he bought me a beer, I guess that was the jackpot.
“A yellowtail is a yellowtail in any ocean. Yellowtail are made to eat the surface iron!”