Hair Jigs for Walleyes
March 21, 2014
Tactics that catch both walleyes and bass can be annoying. The net is always out and before you know it the boat is surrounded. But when walleyes bite more aggressively than the bass do, you're onto something.
Pros and guides know the value of having good hair. Not haute coiffure for photo sessions (well, that too). I'm talking hair jigs for walleyes. Anglers entering the game in recent decades may stare blankly. Deploying a hair jig for walleyes, especially in still water could be considered an archaic pursuit.
Check the box of a river rat, however — no matter how old — and you won't have to dig deep to find bucktail. Rivers get cloudy. It happens at least once a year in every river where walleyes swim. River rats know hair bulks up the profile of a lure while slowing its fall, giving fish more time to see it. "When the water's high, nothing works better than a bucktail jig," says hair-jig artist and river guide Tim Hutchinson. "It glides while other jig combinations fall. Bucktail is easier for fish to see and it falls slower."
A similar dynamic exists when fishing lakes, but the tactic has slipped gradually into history. "They jokingly call hair jigs Bemidji Rigs 'round here," says guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl. "On lakes Bemidji, Winnibigoshish, and Leech, old-timers have been doing it for years. Younger anglers use plastics, but some veterans keep tipping bucktail jigs with a small fathead minnow or nothing at all. The fall is slow, giving walleyes time to see it in the evening. I've had my butt kicked by people using hair jigs when I was fishing plastics."
Bro learned to fish hair for walleyes as a youth. "We used hair jigs for walleyes all the time," he says. "Hair helps a jig float over weeds and rock spines, making it more efficient in those situations. So they're great guide baits, keeping clients fishing longer between snags and foul-ups." Walleye pro Scott Glorvigen says he and his brother Marty used hair jigs when growing up as well. "Doll flies and bucktail jigs were staples before softbaits came along," he says.
The hair jigs of Bro's youth were largely homogeneous, with a narrow choice of colors — yellow or white with an occasional red-and-white mix; sometimes black or natural brown. All were tied with bucktail. Today, hair-jig artists like Gave Hillebrand of Hill Brand Tackle, Paul Jensen of Jensen Jigs, and Andy Vallombroso of Andy's Custom Bass Lures are tying a different breed of hair jig. Some patterns take cues from fly tiers — realistic replications of sculpins, shiners, gobies, and shad. Some are tied as versions of jig-plastic combinations and swim jigs. All of them catch walleyes.
"Hair jigs represent two presentation pathways," says Glorvigen, a successful tournament veteran. "Those beautiful, lifelike ones are great for clear-water situations where fish react visually, often the case in natural lakes. You also encounter dark-water situations where you're often trying to trigger walleyes to strike. There the function of a jig is defined less by realism and more by function. In the latter case, you're trying to help them see it or give them time to feel it coming. Matching preyfish is less important. That happens a lot in rivers."
Realism paid off for me last summer in Minnesota lakes. Creations from Hillebrand, Jensen, and Vallombroso produced some awesome catches where I'd rarely had much luck with hair jigs before. Pressed for a reason, I'd suggest that blending different materials, the way these guys do, produces jigs that move in ways hair jigs never moved before. On the undulation scale, deer hair moves least and marabou moves most. Bear, fox, and bunny furs fall somewhere between. Blend any two or all of the above — maybe throw in a strand of silicone or living rubber — and you've got an awesome lifelike creation fish have never seen.
One of the least understood properties of a jigging presentation is speed. Hair modifies speed. Tied sparsely, hair allows jigs to drop fast. Dense ties yield a slow fall. Each change in density or material results in different drop speeds and horizontal speeds.
Swimming a jig often works best. Cast, then drop the rod tip toward the water, allowing the jig to drop to bottom (or count it down near bottom in snaggy areas), and start retrieving. Keep the rod tip down, so you're in position to set the hook, and reel slowly. If the jig drags on bottom, speed up slightly. If the jig never touches bottom, slow down slightly. If that doesn't work, change jig size, density, and color until walleyes respond.
Back east, Vallombroso of Connecticut follows a similar approach. Though he loves bass, "I fish for walleyes with hair jigs quite a bit," he says. "I use a 7-foot, medium-action spinning rod with 8-pound mono. I fish my Sculpin Head Swim Jig by swimming it just off bottom. Sometimes, where substrates allow, I drag it slowly. I let the fish tell me how fast they want it."
I fish 3/32-, 1/8-, and 1/4-ounce hair jigs with 4- to 6-pound mono on fast, 7- to 8-foot, light to medium-light rods from St. Croix and G. Loomis. Hillebrand asked me to help design a walleye jig and the result was Matt's Fox-Z Twitch, one of the more effective patterns I used all summer. "No one's ever asked me to design a jig for walleyes," Hillebrand says. "Most of my patterns are designed for several species. My best designs for walleyes have been the Roo-Too, Double Bunny, and the Wooly Jig. The Wooly Jig looks like anything that swims and I left room for tipping with a minnow, leech, or nightcrawler. The Double Bunny has two strips of rabbit that move through the water like a plastic worm or paddletail grub."
Another effective pattern has been Jensen's Bunny Worm, a 5-inch bunny strip with a close-cropped collar of flashy synthetics. Swimming this jig with an occasional twitch or pop of the rod tip didn't catch as many fish as ring worms, but it fooled some of the biggest walleyes we caught all year. "I fish these jigs for walleye with the same gear I use for bass, pike, and muskies," Jensen says. "The rod is a fast, 6.5-foot one-piece Shimano Sensilite. I use a Shakespeare Axiom reel filled with 20-pound Sufix 832 braid in high-vis green. My leader is 20-pound Berkley Vanish. I've taken muskies up to 48 inches with this rig, swimming and popping the hair jigs we use for walleyes."
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Hair On The River
"Number one, there's a lot of bait in a river," says Hutchinson, proprietor of Hutch's Tackle,"lots of fuzzy creatures — invertebrates with appendages. I haven't tipped with minnows in years. I don't even allow them in my boat. Some people say bucktail makes noise going through the water, but I don't place too much credit there. I think bucktail frees you to match everything colorwise. It gives you the ability to combine an unlimited number of colors through dying. I think black-green-chartreuse imitates a willowcat very well. Willowcats have a grungy yellow or rusty white belly, and an olive-brownish-greenish back. We make a jig in that coloration that walleye pro Tommy Skarlis likes when willowcats become a primary forage for walleyes."
Glorvigen was reintroduced to the effectiveness of hair on rivers by an old friend. "Jerrie Eckholdt, an old river rat down at Red Wing on the Mississippi River, was a hair-jig wizard," Glorvigen says. "When we started having tournaments there, he fished hair jigs exclusively, with nothing on them.
"When we were kids, we always tipped them with crawlers or minnows. Jerrie never did. He fished 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jigs exclusively and used a little more hair than typical. He pitched them on shallow shelves in 2 to 3 feet of water and slowly inched the lure over the first drop. I likened it to a badminton birdie because the hair holds it up in the water column, giving fish the opportunity to eat it.
"I was amazed how many walleyes were that shallow in the river and how well they reacted to those light bucktail jigs. Eckholdt always used monotone jigs. If the head was purple, the hair was purple. He used brown, orange, or black — whatever color he thought walleyes could see best in the river conditions."
Hutchinson, who ties a lot of two- and three-tone jigs, thinks color is critical. "Different areas of the river call for different colors at different times of year," he says. "We make a jig that looks like a baby bluegill. Eight months of the year it's worthless. But when baby bluegills are present in early summer, it's deadly. Then willowcat patterns take over. Matching the hatch can be important for river walleyes."
Brosdahl likes Northland's Buck-A-Roo jigs for the same reason. "The colors are great," he says. "It helps to have several patterns to choose from. When there's a shiner bite and I can't find shiners, hair jigs fill the void.
"The Buck-A-Roo falls slowly and pulses. Pitch, lift, and let it puff out. It contracts as it falls. In rivers I like pitching them upstream and working them down. The moment the jig touches bottom, I hop it, let it fall, and repeat. Usually, short sweeps work best, though sometimes a sharp twitch is better. You don't need to work it as hard as a jig-plastic combo. Barely any movement often is best."
Brosdahl uses 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs about 90 percent of the time when fishing hair. "I cast them on 15-pound braid, with an 8-pound fluorocarbon leader," he says. "I like the Buck-A-Roo in rivers. Its hair spreads and adds bulk. It pulsates when you make subtle moves. You don't have to rip 'em. But the key thing about hair is this: Walleyes seem to know it's real, not synthetic."
"I also troll hair jigs with safety-pin spinners," Brosdahl says. "When water temperatures peak in July and August, walleyes can be anywhere. We clip Northland Rainbow Jig Spinners to Rock-A-Roos or Marabou Finesse Jigs and troll them along weedlines or breaks on the edges of rock reefs. Tipping with a small minnow creates an umbrella effect, spreading the hair, pushing more water, and creating a larger target. When you pump it, marabou collapses and allows it to fall faster. Old-timers use hair and marabou with no bait."
In the summer of 2012, we found lots of walleyes shallow right through mid-July in Minnesota lakes. They were following subtle hard-bottom fingers from the deeper portions of flats (15 to 20 feet) up into their primary feeding zones in depths of 6 to 10 feet. We caught them during daylight by pitching and swimming hair jigs and plastics on light jigs with 4- to 6-pound Maxima Ultragreen mono. When the bite slowed on a spot, we were within a few hundred feet to a few hundred yards of the next hard-bottom finger or shallow reef. We pitched Bunny Worms or Fox-E-Twitches behind the boat and slowly trolled. It was an eye-opening endeavor.
With 1/8-ounce jigs, we trolled at .6 to 1 mph and occasionally touched bottom in depths of 6 to 12 feet. With a 1/4-ounce jig, we could troll at the same speeds and stay near bottom in 12 to 17 feet, or we could speed up and stay shallow, moving at 1.5 to 2 mph, always with 80 to 100 feet of line out. We could speed up a bit when using 4-pound mono.
Walleyes don't peck at hair jigs. When they come to the net, the jig often can't be seen. We usually find it between their dentures or pinned to the soft pallet near the throat. No safety-pin spinner required, especially in clear water.
We often troll between spots. Trolling hair is a great way to find fish, but I'd rather catch walleyes by casting jigs than with any other method. Hair jigs of mixed materials are the most exciting new tactical advantage available. Bunny strips and fox hair trigger strikes with a lifelike, breathing action nothing else offers. Based on trips the past few summers, I'd say those actions show walleyes stuff they see nowhere else.
Old Is New Again
Before plastics, I fished bucktail jigs exclusively because they outfished any other lure. I've tied my own since age-11. Back then, I needed only three patterns: red head/white bucktail; red head/yellow bucktail; and solid black. I'd take a hank of hair and cull out all the short hairs to create an elongated jig. A 1/16-ounce jig with lots of long hair was murder on pike and walleyes. They could be worked super slowly in winter or early spring for pike. I fished below dams where it was shallow with fast current. The red-white Bucky stacked with hair offers a large profile and stayed just a few inches below the surface. I have a red-white Bucky that I retired in the early 1970s after it banked 50 big walleyes. Anglers with no bucktail jigs in their box are missing a deadly tactic in shallow water. If I had to fish the rest of my life with one lure, it would be have to be a red-white Bucky. Other colors seldom outproduce that combination, even today. - Paul Jensen
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler who regularly contributes to Walleye Guide.