March 11, 2021
By Pete M. Anderson
There's no denying that technology has revolutionized bass fishing in recent years.
Today's electronics provide incredibly precise underwater views. Materials and engineering of rods and reels make them exponentially more efficient and effective than tackle introduced just a decade ago.
Lures are made to cast farther and more accurately than ever before and feature actions and finishes that make them virtually indiscernible from the living creatures they are meant to mimic. But not all productive baits are newfangled contrivances; sometimes the key to success these days comes from the distant past.
Comprising natural or manmade materials tied around a weighted hook, hair jigs are one of the original artificial fishing lures. Their lifelike movements and silhouette can resemble almost anything in a bass diet, but especially darting baitfish and crawling crayfish. That makes them irresistible to bass, even those numbed by excessive fishing pressure. But their simplicity belies their adaptability to varying fishing conditions across the seasons.
Today's versions aren't your father's hair jigs. Even their name has become a bit of a misnomer. With an array of jig-head sizes and shapes and natural feathers and hair, along with manmade fibers offered in a rainbow of colors, they can be tied in endless variations that allow them to be fine-tuned to any situation.
Most hair jigs are simple affairs: A ball-shaped lead head, a small hook and a body made from hair from a deer's tail. But these "bucktails," as some anglers call them, are only one form that hair jigs can take. Visit a tackle shop and you'll be overwhelmed by the different types of material that can be incorporated into hair jigs. Beyond deer, there's squirrel tail and marabou, which originally came from an African marabou stork, but is now more commonly composed of the downy feathers of domesticated turkeys. Then there are manmade materials, many of which bring plenty of flash.
Tying materials can be used alone or in combination to create a hair jig. Combining a few colors of bucktail and strands of flash, for example, can allow you to customize a hair jig to match your local lake’s baitfish. But their effects go beyond color. Natural fibers, for example, are bulky and slow the rate of sink. That creates a jig that can tease strikes from pressured bass or swim among suspended or schooling fish.
Action is created by the hair jig's head. Almost any of those used for soft-plastic lures, like grubs, can be repurposed for hair jigs. Want yours to stand up on the bottom? Try a Ned rig head. Darter-style heads create a random swimming action. Teardrop heads, whose weight is concentrated at the front, fall straight, making it easier to fish down sharp drops. And don't neglect the time-tested ball head, which works well anywhere.
Most of these jigs sport thin-wire hooks of size 2/0 or smaller. They set easy and hold strong with light line, and there is just enough gap to keep even the biggest bass hooked without overpowering the jig's action.
Consider a jig head's collar—or lack of one—too. Typically molded with the head or added as a short piece of bent wire, a collar keeps soft-plastic bodies in place. When tied to jig heads with collars, natural materials tend to flare. If a slim profile is your goal, try manmade fibers, which tend to collapse on themselves when in the water.
FISH THEM EVERYWHERE
With the range of materials and configurations of hair jigs, they are easily the most versatile lures in your tackle box. Fish them at any depth, around any cover or structure, and at any speed. That’s true of jigs dressed with silicone skirts or soft-plastic lures, and it certainly applies to those tied with hair or feathers. In fact, hair jigs are effective year-round across the West, where local conditions can differ vastly within the same season. Their only requirement is that the water isn't muddy.
Mention hair jigs and most anglers immediately think of cold water. Maybe it's their small size and subtle action that reinforces the stereotype. Or it could be their longtime association with walleyes and smallmouths. Regardless, whether fishing a sharp drop off, creek channel bottom or depression in a large flat, an 1/8- or 1/4-ounce hair jig will catch bass from any wintering spot.
As the calendar flips into spring, take your hair jigs to rocky banks where bass hunt crayfish in steadily warming waters. They'll catch pre-spawn bass staging along an aquatic-grass edge or point, too.
Hair jigs also produce in the warmest water. Southern anglers have proven that heavy ones will catch bass schooling on structure in deep water. And light-weight ones can be used to target bass busting baitfish pinned against a windblown shoreline or corralled over deep water, offering an enticing finesse alternative to topwaters, spinnerbaits and jigging spoons.
EXPERIMENT WITH RETRIEVES
The traditional "go-to" method of fishing hair jigs is pretty simple. Cast your jig and let it sink to the bottom. Give your rod tip a quick upward snap, relax and stay in touch with the jig as it falls back through the water. Once your jig finds its way to the bottom, repeat the process until it's back to the boat. This time-tested retrieve won't fail you, but it's not the only way to fish a hair jig.
One variation has to do with working your jig along the bottom a bit more actively. Tie a hair jig on a football head weighing 1/4 or 3/8 ounces and drag it across rocks or isolated pieces of structure or around cover.
Be sure your retrieve includes regular pauses, which provide an opportunity for the jig's hair or feathers to flare. That extra movement can be enough to trigger strikes from sluggish or pressured bass. Hair jigs may not look like crawdads to people, but this dart-and-pause movement from rock to rock by a small, crawdad-colored object is enough to ring the dinner bell for any bass that eats these freshwater crustaceans. (Spoiler alert: All bass eat crawdads.)
Swimming retrieves work, too. When bass are feeding on schooling baitfish, cast a hair jig into them. Start your retrieve as soon as it hits the water, steadily twitching your rod's tip while slowly reeling. The object is to keep your hair jig moving, imitating a disoriented baitfish that's trying to flee.
You also can omit the twitches, as many smallmouth anglers in the northern U.S. have discovered. They catch giant bronzebacks by straight-reeling a lightweight iig—1/16 ounce is the most popular size—tied with black or brown marabou. While it won't look like much to you, the flowing feathers are irresistible to bass.
SELECT YOUR GEAR
Getting the most out of a hair jig starts with your rod, and you want one that's 7- to 7 ½-feet long. The relatively long length extends your casting range and picks up more line when you set the hook.
Be particular about your rod's action and power. You want a fast action that bends only at the tip and will quickly transmit movement to the jig. That creates the action you want and makes casting a breeze, two features that would be lost to a slow-action rod that flexes from tip to handle. Make sure your fast-action rod has a medium power, which will provide enough backbone to quickly drive home a hook.
Going lighter is always the right direction when choosing a line for hair jigs. But in addition to watching the pound-test rating, pay attention to the line's diameter. While two lines, each from a different manufacturer, can have the same pound test, their diameters may be different. Many western bass lakes and rivers are very clear most of the year, and the fact that hair jigs match best with light line makes them extremely effective under these conditions.
Thinner lines also increase casting distance—a big advantage when you’re fishing with lightly weighted hair jigs—and help lures settle to the bottom faster. They also won’t encumber a lure’s action. You’ll find that braided lines provide this type of performance best, especially in 6- to 20-pound tests. Adding a fluorocarbon leader is up to you, but it definitely won’t hurt when fishing in clear water.
Load your line onto a spinning reel that features a large-diameter spool. While the extra capacity won’t be of much use (you can fill it with backing before adding braid) the larger wraps will reduce tangling and allow line to flow off freely, thereby improving casting distance.
This year, before you hit rivers and lakes for bass, plan to make hair jigs part of your arsenal. Though they were invented well before modern bass-fishing techniques came to the West, they are the ideal lure for the water and bass that live here.