April 03, 2020
By Pete Anderson
Once winter’s icy grip breaks in spring, bass anglers hit the water, picking up where they left off late the previous fall. Travis Manson will be one of them. And he’ll be rigged and ready with the same lure—a hair jig.
Manson, a Wisconsin native who now calls southeastern Pennsylvania home, sees plenty of cold water, whether early season on the upper Chesapeake Bay, where he guides, or during his regular runs to the St. Lawrence River. And each time, he calls on hair jigs. They’re compact, presenting a lifelike profile and movement that bulkier skirted bass jigs can’t duplicate. That makes them irresistible to largemouth and smallmouth, especially those slowed by cold water.
Long considered a bass fishing standard, hair jigs are anything but stock. Materials, head design and retrieves mean there’s one that will meet whatever weather spring throws at you while keeping up with bass moving from deep winter slumber to shallow spawning beds. Unlocking their potential requires an understanding of how hair jigs work, and springtime bass behave.
Finding the bass
Whether living in lakes, reservoirs or rivers, most smallmouth and largemouth school in “over-wintering holes,” said Ed Machowski, a warm-water biologist with Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s fisheries division. Some river smallmouth, for example, travel long distances to reach them.
Exactly why and how cold-blooded bass choose wintering spots, which typically are deeper than surrounding water and have little to no current, isn’t clear. Machowski believes they provide bass a thermal refuge, like springs and the thermocline do for trout in summer’s heat. But even in these slightly warmer waters, their metabolism creeps along. They feed in spurts—maybe an hour each day—and conserve energy the rest of the time.
Machowski said once the water temperature hits the mid-40s in lakes (and slightly warmer temperatures in rivers), smallmouth feed more often and move toward shallow water. Largemouth do the same between 50 and 55 degrees. Where they go depends on their situation. He said where baitfish are abundant, bass become pelagic, following their food here, there and everywhere. The rest take to available structure and cover, especially those that warm the surrounding water.
Shallow bays and coves with dark-colored bottoms warm quickly, Machowski said. Spots with rocks will, too, he said, if covered with clear water or partially exposed to air such as a riprap bank. Most bass anglers know to fish rocks in cold water, and science supports them. One night late last fall, while conducting an electroshocking survey in water that was early spring cold, his team only found bass along a rocky point that was bathed in afternoon sun. “And they were there by the dozens,” he said.
Machowski said hunger, not warmth, may actually draw cold-water bass to rocks. Its crevices hold plenty of forage, especially crawfish, which are a big portion of what bass eat in spring. That may explain why crawfish-pattern lures work well early in the year, he said.
Selecting a hair jig
Manson isn’t sure what a hair jig represents to a bass. Its slender profile and slight wiggle could be a leech, but that reasoning may be tied to his first color choice—black. He’s caught on white, green pumpkin and brown hair jigs, too, though not nearly as often. “Eighty percent of the time [I’m fishing a hair jig that’s] straight black in color,” he said.
Color is one variable that allows hair jigs to resemble any part of a bass’s menu. Each charade is completed with different retrieves, head design and material. Some of Manson’s hair jigs are tied with dense bear hair, but most sport fluffy marabou—turkey down feathers. “It flows the most natural in the water,” he said.
And while some anglers believe stubby squirrel tail hair has more action, and synthetic options abound, traditional bucktail remains the most popular material for hair jigs. Like all of a deer’s hair, it’s hollow, which helps insulate them from the cold. When tied to a jig, the hair compresses and flares when moved through the water.
The best bucktails only sport the tips of the hair tied sparsely in reverse. That involves first attaching the bucktail facing forward then folding it over itself before final wraps are applied. That forms the hair into a conical shape, amplifying its natural action.
Pick jigs that have light-wire hooks. You’ll want more variety when it comes to styles of head. There are the all-around ball and erratic swimming darters. Aspirin-shaped heads roll and glide as your jig sinks, imitating a dying baitfish. And if you’re fishing steep breaks or bluff walls, where your jig needs to beeline to the bottom, try a teardrop, which concentrates its weight forward of the line tie.
Manson’s favorite head is on Outkast Tackle’s Feider Fly. It’s pyramidal, making it track straight when retrieved. He uses three sizes, 1/16, 3/32 and 1/8 ounce, starting with the lightest and only moving heavier when the wind strengthens, or water deepens. You may need a 1/4-ounce one, for example, if bass are milling around wintering holes. While heavy jigs draw reaction strikes, using the lightest one for the conditions will create the finesse presentation that cold-water and pressured bass want.
Don’t worry about a trailer. While some anglers add a tiny soft-plastic craw, and many more fished Fly-n-Rind with the no longer made Uncle Josh 101 Spin Pork Frog many moons ago, that extra bulk isn’t needed to generate bites. If you feel your jig needs more action, buy or build one with a couple hackle feathers tied inside the bucktail.
Fishing a hair jig
Manson, a regular in the Costa FLW Series’ Northern Division, finishing eighth in his respective angler of the year race and fifth at the Series’ national championship in 2019, prefers fishing hair jigs in clear water, which spring rains and runoff can limit. But a little water color isn’t a game-ender. Hair jigs saved one day on New York’s shallow Oneida Lake, which clouds with just a little wind. “We could see fish down there every once in a while,” he said. “Little else worked that day.”
Hair jigs can be fished at any depth. Manson feels most comfortable using them in 20 feet or shallower, with 8 to 12 feet the sweet spot. Where he fishes in that range depends on where he believes bass are swimming, which isn’t always on the bottom. He puts his jig there by counting it down. If it sinks 1 foot every 2 seconds and the bass are 10 feet deep, for example, he counts to 20 and starts a straight retrieve.
Manson slowly swims his hair jigs over hard bottom and rocks, but it’s not the only way he fishes them. He also casts ahead of smallmouth cruising shallow flats, letting his jig lie motionless on bottom. Sometimes he’ll twitch it to catch a bass’s attention.
Most hair jigs are fished on bottom. There it mimics crawfish or baitfish, depending on how you move your rod’s tip. Small hops or pulls keep it close to bottom, skirting around rocks like a crawfish. As the water warms and bass get more active, use hops 1 to 2 feet high to imitate baitfish.
Casting distance is key
Some bucktails, such as those weighing up to 1 ounce and tied with long white feathers to imitate large shad in summer, require heavy baitcasting gear. But the light-weight hair jigs fished in early spring do better on spinning gear.
Long casts let hair jigs work to their potential. “The longer the bait is down there, that’s all you can ask for,” Manson said. Launching it the proverbial country mile starts with his line, 5- or 6-pound test braid with a few feet of 6- or 8-pound test fluorocarbon leader.
Almost spider-web thin, these sized lines cause pause in anyone who has battled bloated prespawn largemouth or rabid smallmouth. But there’s no need for worry; the braid is stronger than similar pound test monofilament or fluorocarbon lines.
"You’re not breaking it by wrapping it around your fingers and pulling," Manson said. It lasts all season, he said, with the only issue an occasional wind knot, which is nothing unusual for regular users of spinning gear, regardless of line type or size.
Manson adds casting distance with his reel. While 2500 series spinning reels are the most popular, his is a bigger 3000 or 3500 model. Their larger diameter spools store line in bigger coils, reducing friction as it’s cast. He uses a rod at least 7 feet long. Its medium-light power loads easily with featherweight hair jigs. If you’re working a hair jig along bottom, stick with a similar length rod but in a faster action, which transfers more of your movements to the jig.
Manson also threads a 1/4-inch long piece of whichever soft-plastic bait is lying around his boat on his jig’s hook. The extra bulk adds casting weight and slows the sink of heavier jigs. Its color doesn’t matter, he said, as it’s hidden beneath the marabou.