April 12, 2012
Big hair is back. Remember the mullet? It's that funky hairstyle made popular by 80s punk rockers like the Ramones and Flock of Seagulls. Even pitching ace Randy Johnson sported a pretty gaudy rendition.
The same could be said of jigs tied with natural feathers and fur: Outdated. Funky. Anglers may have turned to more modern baits, but these classics still work their magic on bass.
Feather and hair jig tiers are artists. Consider the creations that rise from the tying vises of masters such as Paul Jensen, Phil Shafer, and Bert Deener. But they're not merely for display. These dapper ties fool heavyweights on some of the busiest bass waters. Perhaps it's appropriate that lures that move and breathe almost like living creatures are crafted with nature's own materials.
In several major smallmouth tournaments in northern waters — Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship, Kenora Bass International, and Sturgeon Bay Open, several recent top finishers have relied on a 1/16- to 1/4-ounce black or brown marabou jig to catch fish when other anglers were striking out. But this news has been hushed up as much as its practitioners can manage. Only when I began researching this story did I realize how much reluctance to talk I'd encounter from these anglers.
The Fuzzball Factor
One reason for the appeal of fur and feathers is the natural flutter and flow of these materials. They undulate, puff, and quiver like no softbait can. Today, however, few companies offer top-quality, bass-sized marabou jigs. Models from David Hawkins' Aero Jigs, VMC's Marabou Jig, and the Bug-A-Boo Jig from Northland Fishing Tackle are fine exceptions. That's why many top hair and feather jig fishermen tie their own or go to a custom shop.
Keeping these jigs in prime shape takes care as well. "Natural fibers retain water and if you don't dry them out, your hooks rust," cautions Jensen. "You can't fish one, then toss it in your box like a crankbait. If the jig's tied on a bronze hook, it starts to rust fast. I clear-coat the shank of every jig I make, so it gets an extra layer of protection against rust. Before I even start tying in fibers, I also powder-paint the jighead and bake it in the oven for two hours at 400°F. This rust-proofs the hook, and the paint on the jighead becomes nearly chip-proof."
Storing fiber jigs is a bit like air-drying your laundry. Remove your duds from the washer and fold them in your drawer wet and they get dank, wrinkled, and stinky. Same with hair jigs for bass. Don't store them in semi air-tight, compartmentalized boxes. Rather, stick them on soft foam rows inside large streamer fly boxes, such as those by Morell, Scientific Anglers, or C&F Design.
Most of Jensen's creations are tied on hand-poured aspirin or darter heads with nickel Gamakatsu or Mustad Needle Point hooks. He prefers the slender profiles of these heads for their fluid swimming motion and weight-forward design that couple beautifully with marabou, fox, and rabbit.
Before he ties, Jensen selects each piece of material. "Only a small percentage of commercially available marabou qualifies," he says. "I use only the most supple marabou and tie with individual fibers only, not with marabou feathers that have a spine." The resulting jigs have fine breathing action.
Technically, marabou, which originally came from a species of African stork, now is taken from the under-tail feathers of a turkey or chicken. The original stuff sported long wispy fibers that made soft-flowing streamers and jigs. Modern "marabou," in contrast, has feathers with denser, shorter fibers that work best for small jigs.
For this reason, Phil Shafer, who once tied long, flowing marabou jigs, has gone mostly to rabbit strips. Beyond the absence of true marabou in fly-tying catalogs, most modern marabou is now used to fashion women's costume garments. The result has been a shortage of select marabou for jig tiers.
One source for prime marabou and other materials is Hareline Dubbin, Inc. (hareline.com). Otherwise, tiers like Jensen compensate by tying two layers of 'bou — one set of strands near the bend of the hook for an extended tail effect and another cluster around the jig collar. I tie an extended body pattern called the "Whiptail Scorpion," which uses dual layering to produce a leech-like swimming motion. I tie the Whiptail sparsely for a streamlined flowing action under water. Nothing else swims like a sparsely tied, long marabou jig.
Like marabou, fox and rabbit fur produce similar, though distinctive, actions. Thin rabbit strips offer undulation and durability, though they don't breathe quite like 'bou. Arctic fox hair is almost otherworldly in its underwater personality. On the pull, it straightens, then condenses into a thin strip. When it contacts bottom and stops, fox hair explodes like a puffball. Jensen, as well as Bert Deener of Georgia, use Arctic fox to make fine jigs of various shapes.
Among rabbit fur patterns, Jensen makes one he calls Frank's Leech, a model of elegant simplicity. The Leech is a 5-inch section of fine black rabbit strip finished with uniform tufts of velvety fur around a 1/0 Mustad Needle Point jighead hook. The 1/16- and 1/8-ouncers, worked gingerly on 7-foot spinning rods and 6-pound test monofilament, resemble a ribbon leech swimming along. This is Jensen's top seller.
Some anglers cling to the notion that hair jigs aren't ideal when the water's warm. Nothing could be farther from the truth. On Mille Lacs in central Minnesota, as well as Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake, and smaller smallmouth waters, jigs of natural fibers have proved rather immune to the effects of fishing pressure. Through summer, I've stayed on hot bites by using Jensen's Frank's Leech or one of my black, brown, or purple marabou Whiptail Scorpions.
Fishing patterns vary. Some fish, particularly smallmouth bass, suspend over 15- to 25-foot flats; others position within feet of bottom near rock. For suspended fish, we make longs casts with a 1/16-ounce jig, then slowly swim and almost hover it over open water. Bass rise to slurp it in. With an exposed needle-point hook, hook-sets are a slow sweep of the wrist.
Use the wind or a controlled drift with the trolling motor to slowly cover limited stretches of open water, generally near a fast-sloping edge. This pattern has been used by tournament winning anglers on Canadian border waters and the Great Lakes.
When bass move onto 6- to 12-foot rock points or islands near deeper water, we pepper the cover and adjacent edges with hair jigs. In shallow water, a slow-sinking leech excels, while a 1/4-ounce head is ideal on deeper breaks.
Another warmwater pattern revolves around spawning shiners. In May and June in the Upper Midwest, spottail and emerald shiners move into beds of milfoil and shallow coontail. Two years ago, I started fishing 1/16-ounce black marabou jigs along the fringes of vegetation and they outfished other lures in many cases, frequently luring big smallmouths.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde has experienced tremendous marabou success on Osage Lake, Kansas. "We fish a silver marabou jig called the Leroy's," Kehde says, "in memory of our friend Leroy Spellman, who first tied these great little lures. On Osage, we use 1/32- and 1/16-ounce Leroy's to fish patches of bushy pondweed and coontail that grow in three to five feet of water.
"We make long casts and retrieve slowly and steadily, with the rod at the 5-o'clock position, occasionally pausing to let the jig glide down. At times, we subtly shake the rod tip. Bass sometimes prefer a do-nothing retrieve, other times they want a shake or a pause. The Leroy's has taken countless bass, and it's the greatest crappie and white bass jig I've ever used."
After years of fishing them, I still can't say why feathers and fur are so deadly for educated bass. Perhaps it's that they look and swim like a lot of things in nature, but don't mimic anything precisely. But why bass bite them is beside the point. Anglers who learn how to fish them continue to outfish their rivals for largemouth and smallmouth bass in a variety of situations.
Deer Hair Applications
A handful of top anglers, including Guido Hibdon and Joe Balog, have never stopped tying or using bucktail jigs as minnow imitators, even through the softbait revolution. The word "bucktail," however, is misleading.
Even though most commercially available deer hair jigs are tied with tail hair of whitetail deer, the best fibers are from the hind portion of the animal's body. Deer flank hair is softer than tail hair, giving jigs a more fluid baitfish-like action. Black bear hair also produces excellent flow in a baitfish-imitating jig, though it's more difficult to obtain.
Balog fishes home-made deer hair jigs on lakes Erie and St. Clair from spring through fall. He starts with a 3/0 or 4/0 Gamakatsu long-shank, round-bend jig hook and sparsely ties the fibers. The jig's body is tied with dull whitish hair that's accentuated with a bit of gray around the edges, yielding an emerald shiner pattern. He uses 1/4- and 3/8-ounce football or pill heads.
"Jig hooks with a 90-degree bend are key," he says. "As you drag on bottom, the head tips the hair up, so the hook is in position for a set."
At Lake Erie on December 20, 2006, fishing in 30 feet of water, Balog caught his biggest smallmouth ever, an ounce over 7 pounds, on one of his deer hair creations. His next cast produced a 61â'„4-pounder. "I almost never drift when I use a hair jig," he says. "Rather, it's a prime tool for probing specific structures. I hold the boat stationary and cast to a ledge or rock in 12 to 35 feet of water. I generally drag the jig along bottom through the key area."
He uses a 7-foot 3-inch Team Daiwa Fuego spinning rod with parabolic action and 6-pound Sufix Fluorocarbon to make long casts. Though Balog primarily uses hair jigs in cold water (mid-30°F to mid-40°F range) from late fall into early spring, he also fishes bear hair jigs in summer at times. For flippin' largemouths in heavily pressured lakes in his native Ohio, he favors lures like the B&C Bear Hair Jig.
"We'll probably never truly appreciate or fully understand how bass view hair jigs, or why they find them so appetizing," he concludes. "But there's no doubt that their undulations appeal to larger and more selective bass."
*Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an In-Fisherman field editor and frequent contributor to our annual guides.