Catching Smallmouths With Hair Jigs
November 08, 2017
Catching smallmouths with hair jigs is a game older than spinnerbaits, older than the first soft plastics. It dates back to before our great grandfathers—before nylon polymers and graphite fibers. Old timers knew better, but in all those years since softbaits first appeared, hair jigs somehow got labeled as a tool for cold water.
Most were tied with bucktail, which is stiff and moves less than other materials. But anglers in the know have been using jigs tied with fox and coyote hair, bunny strips, marabou, synthetics, and combinations to net big smallmouths all summer long. Edwin Evers is one of them. He's qualified for the Bassmaster Classic 16 times and won it once, has 11 wins and 63 top-10 finishes. In 2015, he used a hair jig to land his three biggest smallmouths in a win on the St. Lawrence River during the first week of August.
"Evers clinched the 2015 Bassmaster Elite series tournament on the St. Lawrence with my E-Series Synthetic Hair Jig," says Andy Vollumbroso, owner of Andy's Custom Bass Lures. "I was at a sportshow in Massachusetts in 2003 and handed Evers some hair jigs. He kept them in his tackle selection for 12 years until he ran into a tough bite and finally started using my jigs. That's how he caught his three largest smallies on the final day to solidify the win."
Evers also used a 5/8-ounce homemade bucktail jig to win the BASSfest at Kentucky Lake in 2015. Kevin VanDam, also fishing a bucktail, finished second. Evers was sweeping the jig off bottom then letting it drop back—which is when most bass struck. VanDam was swimming a 1/2-ounce jig over their heads on heavy line "to slow it down," he said. Two hair styles, same day, both successful.
Hairy success stories from tournaments of late have Vollumbroso five months behind in orders. "We have too many advance orders—up to 200 per week," he says. "Most of it is for hair jigs. It's been crazy ever since Evers won the 2016 Bassmaster Classic on Grand Lake in Oklahoma by a 10-pound margin. He was casting my 5/16-ounce E-Series Finesse jig in brown/orange/natural craw with a green pumpkin Zoom Critter Craw. He was in super-clear water up the Elk River and that natural presentation made the difference, he told me."
The relatively recent spotlight on hair from Elite anglers didn't escape the notice of folks at St. Croix Rods. Last fall, they came out with the 8-foot 6-inch Legend Tournament Hair Jig/Drop-Shot Rod (LBS86MLXF). This new medium-light rod rated for 6- to 10-pound line also reflects the decision by B.A.S.S. to eliminate a 40-year-old rule limiting rod length for competitors to 8 feet. The new limit is 10 feet, which opens up new presentation tricks not only for hair jigs, but for spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and more.
It reflects how pros and guides generally prefer longer rods to present hair. "It's about time someone made these rods," Vollumbroso says. "Some hair jigs can't be thrown as far or worked as effectively with short rods." Long rods provide better opportunities for direction changes, depth control, bigger hops, and speed manipulation. That's right. Speed. Hair jigs are no longer relegated to the slow lane.
Suddenly, hair is not only back in style but among the more chic summer fashions. Speaking of style, the type and assortment of hair jigs has steadily increased over the past decade. Style is what determines how to fish a hair jig—how fast, how high, how snappy.
Work the Hair
Snapjigging with hair is something guide Tim "Hutch" Hutchinson is known for on the Mississippi River. "It works all season long," he says. "Let it hit bottom, pop it, and repeat." His Hutch's Tackle Hogg Hunter Bucktail Jigs are designed to slip through current with bullet heads and sleek ties.— The hair is streamlined to stay behind the head in current and not interfere with the drop. Hogg Hunters are offered in many patterns and 6 sizes, allowing forward and drop speed manipulation to meet the moods of the bass and the strength of the currentan example of styles matching needs.
Many hair jigs featured in In-Fisherman over the years are tied by Paul Jensen, owner of Jensen Jigs. He has definite ideas about style affecting presentation. "When I chase smallmouths, I use either Frank's Leech—basically a black, brown, or olive bunny strip on a ballhead jig—or a Perch Pattern," he says. "Each is fished differently. I swim Frank's Leech, sometimes letting it stop and fall to bottom. You can't pop it around with much energy or it tangles the tail on the hook. But it doesn't need much action. A real leech isn't doing a hula. Merely reel it slowly, move the rod tip up and down, and it undulates like the real thing.
"My Perch Patterns are very popular," he continues. "Someone just sent a photo of a 7-pound smallmouth, caught last summer on a Perch. This jig has rainbow Flashabou, yellow rabbit fur for the body, a touch of rabbit on the belly, some gold Flashabou on the belly, and black Flashabou along the spine. Because it's a compact design, you can do anything you want with it. Pop it 6 to 8 feet at a time, swim it slowly, dart it, rip it. It's designed so it won't hang on itself or lose its profile when jigged."
Jensen has tied other effective designs. "I let my mind expand when designing," he says. "A jig is a blank canvas. You can paint anything you want on it."
Some hair jigs are ideal for swimming or swim-jigging, some for walking bottom, some for snapping or hopping, some for ripping, and some can do it all. Their versatility and effectiveness often stems from combining hairs with other materials. Jensen and others use Flashabou and synthetics. Living rubber is a key component of Vollumbroso's combination jigs, like his Nature Jigs that contain hair and living rubber.
Ron Yurko, who claims to have won more prize money than any other amateur bass fisherman, adds silicone strands and a bug-like synthetic body to his $100,000 Finesse Hair Jig—now marketed by Venom Lures. "I've won over $1 million with the help of that jig," Yurko says. "The key is to fish it like a crawfish moves. That's what it was designed to imitate. Three short tugs and let it fall. Scoot-scoot-scoot-drop. That's how crayfish often move."
FLW pro Jeff "Gussy" Gustafson of Ontario calls hair jigs "big money baits," having had success in recent tournaments for both smallmouths and largemouths. "From my home in Ontario's Sunset Country (Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake) to the Tennessee River lakes (Kentucky Lake, Pickwick), bucktail jigs shine when bass are on a pelagic baitfish bite," Gustafson says. "We tie bucktail from deer we harvest. I mix in some Flashabou, hackle feathers, some color maybe. My friends and I make variations of bucktail jigs that work well when smallmouths feed on ciscos in northern waters or shad down south at any time of year.
It's easy to match your jig to baitfish size when tying your own. We make them as big as we can to match forage we see bass regurgitating. The advantage of hair is that it can have a big profile without being cumbersome to cast or difficult to move through the water. It's one of the best hooking lures ever devised. While it's possible to match baitfish size and color with large swimbaits, they become harder to cast and work erratically."
Gustafson fishes his 3/8- to 5/8-ounce, 6- to 8-inch bucktail jigs with a G. Loomis 7-foot 5-inch IMX-Pro (893S). "I like a Shimano Stradic CI4 reel spooled with 10-pound Power Pro braid," he says. "I tie a 10-pound Gamma Fluorocarbon leader. The best way to fish these big hair jigs is to pendulum them along. I seldom let them touch bottom. Once you catch a few you get a feel for where the jig is in the water column. I try to keep it above the fish as much as possible. I have a friend in Fort Frances, Jeff Bruyere, who makes some of the nicest hair jigs I've seen, especially for fishing the Tennessee River lakes."
Bruyere lives near Rainy Lake, where he fishes hair jigs a little differently. "I use 1/2- to 3/4-ounce jigs to fishing 20 to 30 feet deep," he says. "My jigs are a combination of Icelandic sheep hair and bucktail and I fish them the same way they fish ledges on Kentucky Lake. Using a moderately high-speed casting reel, like a 7:4, cast as far as you can and let it fall to the bottom. Turn the handle quickly three times, let it fall back, and repeat back to the boat. Smallmouths often follow and hit as the jig turns up toward the boat. I use a 7-foot 2-inch medium-heavy rod. It might not cast as—far as the 7-foot 6-inch rods many guys prefer, but it controls fish better. My favorite jig is a mix of gray and white, a good color no matter where you go. It imitates shad, ciscoes, smeltjust about any baitfish. Most guys want big jigs—8 inches long, but not super bulky. The faster you swim it, the more the profile is compressed. In shallower water, I mostly fish marabou jigs."
Jim DeZurik, owner of Jimmy D's River Bugs, started tying hair jigs 62 years ago when he was 12. "The River Bug, designed for smallmouths, is the backbone of my business," DeZurik says. "We used to fish them only in cold-water situations, putting them away when the water warmed. But— now we fish them all summer, working them faster than in spring, when we fish them with longer pauses. You can fish River Bugs more like crankbaitsnot necessarily fast, but keep them moving."
The River Bug evolved over time. DeZurik added and subtracted feathers, hair, and flash until the jig performed wonderfully. "I want them to pose tail-up on bottom, like a feeding minnow," he says. "I started tying them in my teens, living on the Mississippi River, where a captive audience of smallmouths critiqued my work. They're my favorite fish, fun to look at, fun to catch. Sometimes they bite so light and other times they rip the rod out of your hands. They usually don't require expert presentation. Most of the time I reel it slowly near bottom."
Wisconsin smallmouth Guide Chris Beeksma of Get Bit Guide Service, says Jimmy D's creations are favorites of his clients. "I fish River Bugs a lot," Beeksma says, "but I like his other jigs, too—including the Spring Bear, Goby Getter, and Bass Marabou. The standard River Bug, in 1/8- and 3/32-ounce versions, in black or chartreuse/orange is deadly all summer up here. I like the Spring Bear early when it's cold because it has less movement. I slow it down and walk it on bottom, usually in 10 feet of water or less. I use the 1/4-ouncer in 10 feet or more."
Beeksma casts hair jigs with an 8-foot St. Croix Legend Tournament Drift & Float rod (LTWS80 MLF2) with 12-pound Sufix Nano Braid and a 6-pound Sufix Fluorocarbon leader. "The Goby Getter is a good summer jig for swimming. Cast it out and reel it in. Smallmouths see it as an easy meal. The Bass Marabou is another good summer jig, but I give it a twitch once in a while. It's best in shallow water with no vegetation, particularly around wood. In muddy water, hair jigs don't produce enough vibration for bass to find them. We start with aggressive tactics, then adjust according to how bass respond."
I live on the Mississippi River and often use football heads with plastic craws or twin-tail grubs. DeZurik's newest creation, the Mississippi Missile, is a fine design with a great name for smallmouth junkies. Heads are custom painted with two eyes on top and a bait keeper on the collar under a choice of sparsely tied coyote or fox hair. At rest, it adds subtle, gill-like movement around a plastic trailer, which river bass nuts. I fish the 3/8-ounce version with a Yamamoto Fat Baby Craw on 10-pound Maxima Ultragreen or Sufix Siege.
The Mississippi Missile, in 1/8- and 1/4-ounce sizes, is reminiscent of Vollumbroso's Coyote Ugly and Baby Craw, which have no need of a trailer. Strands of orange deer hair or silicone, tied along the shank of the hook, are longer than the rest of these ties and composed of fox and coyote blends. The sinuous movement is deadly for smallmouths, but the lighter versions of these jigs require different tackle. I think the ideal fall rate for a 1/8-ounce or lighter hair jig is achieved with 4-pound mono or 4-pound Berkley FireLine with a 6-pound fluorocarbon leader. I cast them with a fast, 8-foot, light-power St. Croix Avid Series rod. Longer rods with lighter power and thin line increase casting distance and lure control.
It can be difficult to feel a light hair jig like Vollumbroso's Coyote Ugly (available in 1/8- and 1/4-ounce sizes only)—to understand where it is and what it encounters as it falls. A long sensitive rod not only enhances feel, but absorbs enough shock to bring a big smallmouth to the boat on light line. Just a few new wrinkles in a game that's older than spinnerbaits, older than soft plastics—and older than you.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid smallmouth bass angler who's always looking for tricks new and old to turn more bites.