Hair Jigs For Smallmouth Bass
September 05, 2013
Bobbing and weaving slowly through the near-bottom zone comes a silhouette. It might flash momentarily, but without twirls or spins. Its carefully trimmed tail allows a blend of materials to pulse intermittently.
Hair jigs are effective, in some cases, because they don't twirl, spin, or vibrate. When fish have seen and felt all that action, they respond with a little less enthusiasm, while "something different" can trip a few more triggers, making it a big hairy deal.
The idea for swimming hair, I'm told, is relatively new. Hair jigs are viewed as bottom dwellers and drop baits — in other words, as hoppers, flippers, crawlers, and draggers. "Most largemouth pros I work with on both the FLW and B.A.S.S. side of things want hair combined with strands of silicone rubber for pitchin' and flippin' heavy cover," explains Bert Deener, owner of Bert's Jigs & Things. Deener ties custom hair jigs on almost any kind of jig. "Smallmouth fishermen from California and Up North are ordering minnow patterns for swimming. Several guys have ordered them for swimming along the edges of schools of baitfish, and they primarily want patterns that imitate shad. But the idea of swimming jigs for smallmouths in other situations is a new one on me."
Yet swimming worms, grubs, tubes, swimbaits, and more for smallmouths, is a staple ... no — an essential technique. Like flippin' for largemouths, swimming is a Top-5 tactic for smallies. Yesterday I was out swimming various 4- and 5-inch plastics from just inches to 4 feet off bottom on 1/16-ounce jigs and snapping hooks into smalljaws almost constantly — as I have been for several decades. But I was also swimming something else, with equal success: Hair jigs tied by experts like Deener, Paul Jensen, Gabe Hillebrand, Andy Volumbroso, and Tim McFarland — jigs I asked them to tie with swimming in mind.
In recent years, we've noted the success of swimming sparse, black, deer-hair patterns for prespawn smallmouths in cold water. Why not during summer? Or fall? And why not with other patterns? If swimming is an essential technique for smallmouths, as I propose, why can't we do it with hair? These custom tiers generally agree: "Anything plastic can do, hair can do better."
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The Daily Swim
In the Great Lakes and other world-class fisheries, like Mille Lacs and the Mississippi River, zebra and quagga mussels have taken command of the bottom. They cluster on every rock, log, shipwreck, and twig down there. In many waters, "mung" (various types of filamentous algae) coats the bottom, clinging to mussels, gravel, rock, and even weed stalks. Working the bottom becomes not only annoying but counterproductive.
Zebes nick and rasp leaders and lines. Lures draped with mung are worthless. Swimming is the answer. When done right, a swimming hair jig, jigworm, or jig-grub combo touches bottom rarely. Yet the technique is so simple it's complicated. Actually, swimming isn't complicated at all. It's just so simple nobody believes it can be that deadly.
You can swim a jig at any depth bass occupy. It works best over rocky structure, gravel mounds, sandbars, humps, along weedlines, and over the top of vegetation that doesn't reach the surface. It works in all kinds of environments, including rivers and streams. It works when bass suspend above or near heavy woodcover. Swimming can be accomplished with rigs — like drop-shot rigs and split-shot rigs — but the discussion here revolves around hair jigs.
Speed is critical. Success with swimming a jig requires making determinations about speed, which involves bulk, line diameter, and jig weight. In shallow water, heavier means faster. In deep water, heavier means slower while lighter means "out of the zone." With line diameter, thicker means slower and thinner means faster. (Just a couple more things to think about if you start to wonder why swimming isn't working.)
I generally swim plastics on 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jigs in water less than 10 feet deep, and I use 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jigs down to depths of 40 feet or so. But most hair jigs sink slower and rise faster when you speed the retrieve, so a slightly heavier head is required. While I sometimes swim plastics on 4-pound mono, I generally start out with 6-pound, even with lighter hair jigs. Rod action and power follow suit. While I typically use light to medium-light spinning rods with plastics, I often choose medium-light- to medium-power rods with hair.
This may sound more complicated than it is, but the technique is simple: Cast, let the jig sink to set depth, point the rod tip down, and start reeling. If the jig never touches bottom, slow down. If it's dragging on bottom, speed up. If bass fail to respond, try stopping the retrieve. Push the rod tip toward the approaching lure to create slack, allowing the jig to fall vertically. Rest it briefly on bottom where possible. If that doesn't work, try speeding up slightly.
In general, hair jigs require more of a "do something" attitude than plastics, probably due to their lack of twirl, spin, or vibration. Hair creates a unique profile, but the way hair is arranged on a jig, along with the blend of materials used, determine how much life it has. Most days, adding a twitch or a snap to the rod tip every 4 to 10 feet the lure travels triggers more strikes than it does with plastics. Pull a hair jig along at boatside and twitch it to see why. Rather than "walk" or turn side-to-side, a hair jig tends to jump and pulse. Snap a jig more frequently when fish seem active, with more subtle motions for a slow bite.
Andy Volumbroso of Andy's Custom Bass Lures in Connecticut has been tying hair jigs for bass since 1979. Though his creations have always been highly effective for bass, he's never stopped tweaking his designs. "Mike Iaconelli came by my booth at a show last year and just stared," Volumbroso says. "Then he went on stage and said I had the best hair jigs he'd ever seen. I was swamped. He ordered a bunch of small hair jigs last year. The one that's winning a lot of tournaments is my Silver Fox Jig. It's unique because it acts like marabou in the water as a result of how it's tied and the nature of fox hair, which is very fine and light compared to other animal hairs. It now accounts for almost 70 percent of my sales."
The way a jig is tied is important. Varying the lengths of materials enhances movement. Blending materials adds complexity to the movement. Fox hair and most synthetics, which move freely, can be contrasted with deer or bear hair, which are stiffer. Color and density contrast, too. And balance is the final key. An unbalanced jig doesn't fall or move right.
Volumbroso's famous Nature Jigs combine rubber and hair in creations bass seldom see. "I use flat living rubber," he reports. "I stockpiled it because there's only one source left for flat living rubber. I used it to revamp the Nature Jig, which is tied like a Muddler Minnow fly. The bonnet looks like the thorax of a crawfish. Deer hair is hollow and floats, so it slows the fall, and rather than use a run-of-the-mill jig I make my own heads. It's a bulky, big-fish jig that combines slow fall and mass to create my best crawfish imitation. It requires no plastic trailer. I also revamped the Coyote Ugly, which has been a staple for me over the last decade, and came out with a new brown bear jig called the Grizzly. All these jigs have Rattling Hair Jig versions with a glass rattle in surgical tubing cut back to an inch. The way the hair is wrapped you rarely see the rattle. When fish grab it, they can't feel it."
Though he didn't design the Grizzly or Coyote Ugly specifically for swimming, that's how I use them in rivers and lakes. Most of Volumbroso's jigs move in current, and are tied in the 1/8- to 3/8-ounce range, ideal for swimming. "I designed a jig called the Slim Jig for a customer who slides hair jigs along weed breaks for smallmouth, and it's become a popular pattern," he says.
Paul Jensen of Wisconsin never lets a pattern rest on past laurels, either. I've been swimming his Fat Five bunny-strip and fox-hair craw jigs for years. "I started tying in the 1960s, but never used a vice or tied with bunny strips until talking to Phil Shafer, who ties world-class jigs," Jensen admits. "After a decade of tying bunny strips, I've developed a high-quality, long-lived jig with some subtle nuances." He neglected to tell me his real secrets, but those "nuances" allow his jigs to undulate in deadly fashion on the swim, and he can add new UV-reflective fibers to some patterns on request.
That's one of the great things about hair jigs: Tiers often are willing to customize an order. Gabe Hillebrand, president of Hill Brand Tackle in Michigan, asked me what I'd like to see in a hair jig. I said olive or army green patterns with a little white and maybe a strand or two of flashabou or something similar. Everything eats green- or blue-and-cream because almost all baitfish have those colors or take them on in greenish water. The result was Matt's Fox-Z Twitch. I've been swimming it with great success for largemouths, smallmouths, and walleyes.
Hillebrand's Scoby, Swamp Donkey, and other creations are works of art. "Most of my ideas start as a general shape and style," he says. "My bass jigs are designed to appeal to the bass's facial lateral lines and secondly their eyes. Bass are very sensitive and can feel the slightest movements, especially at close range, so the jig must 'feel' like real food. For instance, the Scoby has a wide profile deer-hair head, which bluntly forces water to the sides creating turbulence. That turbulent water ripples through the flash, marabou, and rabbit strip. The moving parts appeal to their lateral-line system and eyes.
"One thing that makes Hill Brand jigs unique is the jointed patterns with lead eyes like the Sculptor," he says. "We use tying techniques and materials, like ram's wool, genetically-engineered rooster feathers, dubbing loops, and spinning deer hair. These techniques and materials make it possible to create a fuller-bodied hair jig that's effective in warm or cold water."
Hair Trigger Tackle
In spring and summer, I tend to match light tackle to light hair jigs. During prespawn, when weedlines have yet to mature, I often use an 8-foot, St. Croix Avid AVS80MLM2 — a light-power rod that can toss light, wind-resistant hair jigs a fair distance. I spool with 4-pound-test Maxima Ultragreen, which matches best with 1/16-, 3/32-, and 1/8-ounce creations with light-wire hooks.
Most hair jigs are tied with heavier hooks, in which case I like the G. Loomis Bronzeback Series SMR822S GLX-SP — fast, medium-power, 6-foot 10-inch stick that can launch 1/8- to 1/4-ounce hair jigs on 6-pound Ultragreen. The 7-foot St. Croix Avid AVS70MF is another great option
During late summer and fall, I turn to heavier jigs and tackle. Vegetation is maxed out in lakes, and smallmouths tend to use more woodcover, especially when migrating to wintering areas. Swimming 1/4- to 3/8-ounce hair jigs over, through, and around fallen trees and logjams calls for 10- to 15-pound line and I jump up to the St. Croix Avid AVS70MHF or G. Loomis Bronzeback Series SMR753C, rated for 8- to 14-pound lines and with fast action.
Fast-action graphite rods transmit more of the energy of a flick or snap to the jig, since I don't use braided line for this technique. Superlines are applicable, but I prefer mono for several reasons. The concept of swimming is predicated on staying off bottom most of the time. Braided lines are thinner, allowing jigs to drop faster, which forces faster retrieve speeds to keep jigs from dragging. I prefer to control speed with the weight of the head or the bulk of the jig in most instances, since it's far easier to change jigs than to change lines.
Braids don't stand up to mussels well, one reason I started swimming jigs. Staying off bottom keeps you fishing longer. And swimming a hair jig often beats plastic because the fish haven't seen it — especially if you were the one who designed it. And that makes it a big hair deal.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, spends lots of time fine-tuning smallmouth bass presentations in waters across the Midwest and beyond.