October 09, 2021
This article was originally titled "Hair Jigs Again & Again" in the Oct./Nov. 2021 issue of In-Fisherman magazine.
Some hair jigs are works of art that should be mounted and framed. Paul Jensen of Jensen Jigs constantly assails my mailbox with wondrous hairy things that look like perch, shiners, rainbow trout, or nothing in particular, with wild colors and combinations of materials that scream “I’m alive!” in the water.
That’s fine for pike, muskies, and walleyes, but—try as we might—we can’t escape the fact that bass tend to prefer straightforward ties in boring colors—bucktail or marabou in brown, black, or black and purple. But, while it looks boring at first glance, a properly tied hair jig comes alive in the water just the same. The devil is in the details.
Jim DeZurik, owner of Jimmy D’s River Bugs, has lived on the Mississippi River all his life. He began creating hair jigs when he was 10, and he’s been tying and selling them ever since. “I love doing what I do and I fish with what I make,” he said. “I have customers in every state but Hawaii. I tie several styles, but the original River Bug is my backbone. It’s a favorite in fall, too. By mid-fall all our rods have been changed over to River Bugs of different sizes, but all are black.”
The River Bug is medium-density bucktail tied on a ballhead with a secret ingredient. “Two neck feathers,” DeZurik said. “That’s key. It creates a minnow profile—a feeding minnow. The light tail feathers almost move by themselves when it’s on bottom. Each time you pick it up, and pull it forward the tail feathers collapse. On the drop the head goes down and those tail feathers open really slow. To a bass it looks alive. You can literally catch everybody there. You can burn a spot. Catch 4 or 5 and move to another. You can catch up to 50 smallmouths on one River Bug. It may not look very good after 40 fish, but it has a lot of scent. Hair retains scent for a long time.”
Smallmouth guide Chris Beeksma (Get Bit Guide Service) piles accolades on DeZurik’s baby. “We did really well last fall with the River Bug,” he said. “The 1/4-ounce standard River Bug has bucktail and sometimes a little Flashabou. We always throw plain black or brown. I have pink and I’m going to try it, but I try to stay with subtle colors most of the time. With hair jigs, subtle outperforms gaudy all the time.”
While DeZurik ties jigs up to 1/2 ounce, he rarely uses them. “People order jigs that are too heavy,” he said. “Heavy jigs don’t look real in the water. They don’t glide. You just want to nick bottom, not crash into it like a kamikaze. When a minnow moves in current it’s gliding a lot. That’s what you want the jig to look like.”
Another jig DeZurik likes is his new Cubbie. “It’s a ‘spring-bear-hair’ jig,” he said. It comes with a red eye, gold eye, or no eye—buyer’s choice. “When bears come out of the den they have super-long 3- to 4-inch two-tone hairs. My boy’s a taxidermist and supplies me. I like bear hair. It’s so tough you can keep fishing it forever. The fish-shaped head pops off snags a little better. People all over the U.S. order bear-hair jigs.” The Cubbie is tied on 1/16-, 3/32-, 1/8-, and 1/4-ounce fish-head jigs.
Different Jigs for Different Anglers and Fisheries
“The lighter the better,” DeZurik said. “We use the 1/16 a lot if it’s not windy. My personal favorite is a 3/32 in most conditions. Little more control, little more distance, and it seems you can fish a lot lighter than a 1/8. We make a lot of those.”
The slower the better, too. “That’s key,” he said. “A lot of pausing when bass are looking for an easy meal. In cold water we let it hit bottom, pull it forward a foot or so, let it drop on a tight line, and inject lots of pauses. Let those tail feathers attract for up to 30 seconds. Everything is moving slow when the water drops under 50°F. Pull it 10 to 12 inches, let it drop on a tight line, and wait.”
Granted, DeZurik fishes the river, where most of the fishing is in 8 feet of water or less. Beeksma primarily fishes Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior. “We’re working 10 to 18 feet deep mostly,” he said. “We use 1/4- to 3/8-ounce versions, including the VMC Bucktail and Marabou Jigs in black. Al Lindner (of Lindner’s Angling Edge, based in Brainerd, Minnesota) speaks highly of the new VMC Moontail hair jig for walleyes in fall. He doesn’t lift them—it’s more of a horizontal snap. I’m going to pick up some bigger, heavier Moontails and try snapjigging. Our classic retrieve has been to reel hair jigs slow with an occasional pop and as little bottom contact as possible. But we need 1/4- to 3/8-ounces in fall when fishing deeper.”
DeZurik, who encourages using the bottom as much as possible, thinks guides swim jigs for economic reasons. “They reel them back steady because clients lose so many on bottom,” he said.
“Clients did really well last year with hair jigs,” Beeksma said. “It’s not a steep learning curve—people pick it up right away. I think swimming the jig slow is the most effective method.” Certainly the most efficient when fishing over snaggy rocks. “Swimming a bit longer hair jig works really well on top of the rockpiles. Mepps came out with new Bucktail Jigs this year. They have really long hair. I think its a good thing because baitfish are bigger in fall.”
DeZurik’s description seems to match the guide mentality, though. Famous smallmouth guide Bret Alexander (Alexander’s Sport Fishing Guide Service) on Green Bay swims hair jigs in fall. “It’s basically a slow straight retrieve with a little twitch here and there,” he said. “Maybe 3 or 4 quick snaps of an inch or two during the course of reeling it in. I use both marabou and bucktail in fall—pretty much all 1/8-ounce. If I want to fish slower, I throw bucktail. Basically I only use black, black with purple, or dark brown.”
Alexander, like DeZurik, believes the lighter the better, using 1/8-ounce jigs on both sides of the Door County Peninsula, which separates Lake Michigan from Green Bay. It also separates two populations of smallmouths that position quite differently.
“They’re always really shallow on the Lake side,” he said. “All spring, summer, and fall we find them in 2 to 6 feet of water. On the Bay side, I fish 15 to 25 feet in fall with 6- to 8-pound Sufix 832 and a 6-pound fluorocarbon leader. Braid provides more distance. In this clear water you want to get as far away from the boat as you can. I feel the fish out each day. The bucktail has a slower drop, marabou quicker. I start out with one guy on bucktail the other on marabou until we figure it out.” (Bucktail, being hollow, slows the pace of both drop speed and, thereby, forward speed.)
“Marabou is what it is,” Beeksma says. “I use it in fall, but bucktail tends to get bit more often for us. You can’t find really long-strand marabou.”
Beeksma wants to imitate those bigger baitfish, but get this: Alexander uses hair and marabou jigs less than two inches long. “One of the guys that works for me ties them with store-bought heads,” he said. “I like to keep the profile on the small side, even in fall. The whole jig, hair and all, will be only an inch and a quarter long. Bigger ones never seem to outperform the smaller ties. We like a medium density. Thicker ones don’t swim as well.”
Bassmaster Elite Series pro Jeff Gustafson, who lives near Kenora, Ontario, and Lake of the Woods, fishes marabou throughout most of the open-water season. “A light marabou jig is the number-one smallmouth bait when bass are in shallow water,” he said. “In fall, when our fish up north are mostly deeper, I use bucktail jigs that imitate ciscoes and, in some waters, shad. For whatever reason, the straight action of a bucktail jig doesn’t work great for smallmouths in warmer water. I’ve tried it a bunch but once it gets below 50°F, it’s time to pull it out and it works right up until freeze-up.”
Gustafson, like Beeksma, prefers a slightly longer profile. “I tie mine on a life-like minnow-imitating head like the Smeltinator Jig, sold by Lake of the Woods Sports Headquarters in Kenora,” he said. “The ideal size is 3.5 to 4.5 inches—smaller than jigs the guys use on the Tennessee River, but still fairly large. In really cold water I downsize the profile some. We’re typically fishing a 3/8-ounce jig—usually white with some hints of color tied in—chartreuse, gray, or red. I want it to look like a big baitfish. It’s a great hooking bait because they are pretty much just biting a hook with no plastic to cover the hook point.
“I like a longer rod to help with the pendulum action that these jigs have,” he said. “I cast over the structure that I’m fishing, let it fall, pull it off bottom, and let it slide back toward me, like a pendulum. Continue that back to the boat, keeping in contact with the bottom.”
Gustafson ties his own, but Jensen ties the most beautiful imitations of baitfish anybody can acquire—ciscoes, shiners, alewives, smelt, and others. In fact, he can imitate any baitfish you ask him to, on any size head. Where smallmouths key on big baitfish late in fall, his minnow-head minnow-imitating hair jigs are deadly.
Rod Length Matters
The late Billy Westmorland, author of Them Ol’ Brown Fish and conqueror of more 10-pound smallmouths than anyone in history, used a 5-foot rod to fish hair jigs. In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde, namesake of the Ned Rig, and longtime hair-jig enthusiast, just sent me a long, adoring description of a 5-foot 10-inch Mud Hole blank (MHX NEPS78LMF).
Mine’s bigger. In fact, everyone else I talked to for this piece fishes hair with spinning rods from 6-foot 10-inches to 7-foot 9-inches. “Rod length makes a difference,” Alexander said. “I fish hair with a 7-foot 6-inch medium-light Mags Custom Rod. It has a whippy tip that provides extra distance, and the length allows it to blend into a sturdy hook-setting machine. When smallmouths hit a hair jig in fall, they crack it hard. No need for extra sensitivity.”
“The rod for me for a long time was the 7-foot 4-inch G. Loomis Bronzeback (882), which isn’t manufactured anymore,” Gustafson said. “But there’s a 7-foot 4-inch Ned Rig specific rod (which Ned would never use) in the IMX PRO lineup that is very similar. That’s what I’m using now with a Shimano Exsence 3000 reel, 10-pound Power Pro braid, and a 10-pound Seaguar Gold Label fluorocarbon leader.”
Beeksma, also tossing heavier jigs, goes with a 7-foot 6-inch medium-power Elliott Rods ES76M-F. “I throw hair with 8-pound Sufix Advanced Fluorocarbon,” he said.
DeZurik likes long rods, too. “Longer rods make manipulation of a hair jig in current easier,” he said. “A 6-foot 10-inch to 7-foot medium-power rod is optimum. There’s a learning curve to getting the most out of a rod. I fish the Cubbie the same way I fish the River Bug, with braided line, but when the water’s clear I use 5- to 8-pound fluorocarbon leaders.”
Not by Beeksma or Alexander standards, but light marabou jigs have largely been adopted in spring, then ignored in fall by cold-water bass enthusiasts. “Marabou is gaining in popularity every year,” DeZurik says.
For light marabou jigs in thin water (like the Lake Michigan side of Door County), I prefer a long light-power rod like the Elliott Rods 7-foot 9-inch ES79L-F with 4-pound mono. Mono keeps the jig up so I can slow way down. My new favorite marabou jig for that exercise is tied by Chad Griep (pronounced “grip”), from his home in De Witt, Iowa. His 3/32 “worm-nose jighead” (basically a mushroom) is the perfect size for swimming slow and barely ticking bottom.
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange, also a hair jig maestro of longstanding, began comparing notes with Griep several years ago and has extensive experience fishing with various renditions of his marabou and bucktail ties on waters from South Dakota to Mille Lacs and Green Bay. “Most of my biggest smallmouths the last years have been on his marabou ties,” Stange said. “Then last year I fell in love with a tie I call Pinkie Bluetail.
“Many anglers will remember my longstanding admiration for the original Cap Kennedy bucktail jigs marketed by Cap in the 1960s and ‘70s from his home and baitshop in the Iowa Great Lakes Region, near where I grew up. Griep has spent time recreating many of Cap’s old patterns, and, indeed, modifying some of them.
“Pinkie Bluetail is an offshoot of Cap’s famous Bluetail pattern. Cap usually wanted fish be able to see a jig’s chenille body. So he typically had slightly thicker hair top and bottom, with hair tied thinner along the sides. He was the first so far as I know to use fluorescent chenelle. The original Bluetail has a white chenille body. Pinkie has a pink body. I’ve always loved a bit of pink or orange in many of the hair ties I fish for smallmouths. They see those colors well as part of a tie that still plays most heavily on brown or other dull colors.
”Griep is always experimenting with head designs and hooks as well as just how he ties his jig. He’s not tying commercially, so he’s not trying to recreate one specific pattern to market. Like so many great tiers, he’s a master craftsman—an artist in action.”
Football Jigheads in the Fall
I’m surprised that no one mentioned dragging football and Arkie-style heads adorned with hair dos. It imitates craws, reveals bottom types, makes noise on rock, and leaves a cloudy little trail of sediment. For many years my go-to jig in fall was a brown-orange 1/4-ounce Bert Deener Fox-Hair Jig on an Arkie-style brushguard head tipped with a small Berkley PowerBait Craw. Neither largemouths nor smallies could leave it alone. It’s the kind of jig you drag, pause, and hop on bottom, making constant contact.
Something interesting happened with Mississippi-River craws over the years. Smallmouths began demanding lures and jigs with olive or green-pumpkin backs over classic brown-orange. I convinced Deener to tie some olive versions of his classic Jigs & Things brush-guard jig and the only bottom-dragging hair jig that rivals it for me, today, is Jensen’s Olive Craw. Both are tied with fox hair.
Even with football heads, the right jig glides when pulled, then skids along horizontally, just nicking bottom, as opposed to crashing into bottom vertically. Fishing the Mississippi River, I prefer 1/4-ounce heads over heavier versions for that reason. In lakes during fall, I fish 1/8- to 1/4-ounce football heads down to 20 feet deep on 8-pound fluorocarbon or 10-pound mono with a G. Loomis NRX 902S JWR—a 7.5-foot medium-power stick rated for 6- to 12-pound line. I couple it with a Shimano Stradic 2500HG7.
So many experts prefer a boring black or brown hair jig in fall—primarily bucktail. It might look boring at first, but even a dull-looking tie transforms into something beautiful when it kicks bass—like an ugly duckling becoming a swan.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is a smallmouth aficionado, decades-long writer for In-Fisherman publications, and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Famer.