September 10, 2013
If you made a list of the animal kingdom's agile swimmers, rabbits and turkeys wouldn't top the charts. But wrap a strip of rabbit hide on a hook shank, dunk it underwater, and the critter comes alive. Ribbons of bunny fur or tufts of marabou ripple and undulate sinuously. Unlike softbaits, they're tough, holding up to toothy critters.
Overlooked in the presentation aspect of these natural materials is their subtle, third dimension of movement. While softbaits, tinsel, and other synthetics can be honed to swim and pulse at attractive frequencies, only natural fibers perform independent dances; each hair and feather ebbs, flows, and quivers in different directions.
Marabou dances like willows in the wind, branched fibers quaking and pulsing in contrasting ways. Plucked from the under-tail feathers of turkeys, marabou virtually breathes. And while strands of 'bou aren't as durable as rabbit hide, most well-tied baits lose but a few fibers per fish, and can last many seasons. Some anglers believe that under water, marabou mimics the expansion and contraction of gill filaments, which might help explain its appeal.
While observing pike nosing up to natural hair and feather baits, I've wondered whether there's a scent dynamic at work, as well. Though under appreciated by most anglers, pike often rely at least partially on olfaction to locate prey — particularly when binging on summer- and winter killed baitfish. An array of furry and feathered lures are among the deadliest offerings for pike and muskies in a range of situations, particularly when fishing pressure is high.
Paul Jensen, whose hair jigs we've frequently written about, remains the top artisan in this arena. Recently, he's turned his focus toward pike and muskie baits, crafting some of the most alluring bunny options. In the marabou category, several companies offer brilliant in-line spinners tied with tufts of the stuff. These new baits cast a spell over pike, particularly options from Blue Fox, Dadson Blade Baits, and Mepps.
Bunny Lures For Pike — The Clatterbait
The beauty of getting baits from an artist like Jensen is that if you ask, he'll customize colors, jighead weights, and materials to your specifications. Word of Jensen Jigs' success has spread to anglers traveling to Canada for an early bite. In some circles, they've even displaced classic casting spoons as the top option.
Jensen's bunny baits hold up to countless gashings. This past season, one of his customers tallied over 40 Canadian pike on 1-ounce Clatterbaits before they finally surrendered to teeth and slime.
I concur on the allure and resiliency of these long, sinuous lures. When pike are pressured or prone to reject other offerings, bunny baits retain appeal. At times, when twitching and deadsticking a bunny bait, it's almost like fishing livebait. Hang one near the nose of a negative pike, and as often as not, it strikes.
Few anglers wield bunny baits with as much enthusiasm as Loren Gruber. The soon-to-be retired English professor from central Missouri spends summers guiding pike and muskies on Minnesota's Cass Lake, where his fishing logs reveal a leaning toward furry things. Over the past two seasons, the Clatterbait has accounted for 51 percent of all muskies in his boat, the remainder coming on traditional offerings. Along the way, countless pike ate the bait as well.
The first cast I ever made with Jensen's Clatterbait — a natural brown pattern with purple tinsel accents and a metallic red blade — was greeted by a 46-inch muskie, which was followed by two 40-inch-class pike within the hour. While such an event can sometimes become a curse, the Clatterbait has continued to consistently catch pike and muskies for me.
Gruber discovered the charms of Jensen's Clatterbait — a supersized variation of the original Z-Man ChatterBait — while fishing Missouri's Pomme de Terre Lake for muskies. "What led me to the Clatterbait," Gruber says, "was its deep, sonorous vibration and noise. That bait gives off more intense vibrations than traditional bladed baits, including big Cowgirls. The Clatterbait churns and boils on the surface more than most spinnerbaits, too, giving it the illusion of much larger prey." He adds that the Clatterbait's visual appeal may also be superior in profile and movement.
So it's curious that relatively few anglers use hairy chatterbait-style lures, given the bait's singular vibration, flash, and visual appeal. Jensen's Clatterbait has a 1- or 1½- ounce jighead that's powder-painted and double-baked for durability and chip-resistance. A clatterblade attaches to the jighead with a triple split ring for maximum pivot. Jensen molds his jigs onto a 5/0 saltwater hook, then adds a secondary joint, adding a 5/0 or 6/0 Lazer TroKar TK10, dressed with a long bunny strip.
A steady retrieve makes the hexagonal blade wobble like mad, shaking the jighead and making the bait roll and writhe. Gruber says that rabbit fur tends to flare and offer the illusion of bulk. When you pull it out of the water, it shrinks to a scrawny twig. Despite the blade's incredible thump, it's a comfortable bait to throw. It slices through water with minimal strain.
Gruber, who grew up wielding an old fiberglass salmon rod for muskies, says he's lost sensitivity in his hands, so he relishes the "feel factor" of a Clatterbait. He now opts for 7½- and 8-foot medium-action graphite St. Croix casting rods. And he's comfortable fishing them on 20-pound-test TUF-Line, a braid whose small diameter gets baits deeper. He ties a leader with Sufix Invisiline Fluorocarbon. Fluoro, he says, doesn't inflict nearly so much damage on fish as wire. Moreover, he relishes its subtlety in clear natural lakes.
He adds that unlike tinsel, flashabou, and other sparkling synthetics, natural hair never seems to turn off pressured pike. Gruber does, however, prefer a bait with sparse strands of flashy fibers under clear bright skies, for increasing reflection and visibility. On dark days, black or mottled brown strips are best. The optimal presentation is a slow steady retrieve. To tempt a following fish, he may speed the retrieve or even give a few subtle twitches to close the deal.
These baits shine for casting over shallow reefs and weedflats. With a single or tandem hook arrangement, it slides through vegetation cleanly. He also trolls the Clatterbait to cover water along lengthy edges, and even uses leadcore to get baits deeper.
On deep structure, Gruber often switches to a lift-fall retrieve. Let the bait fall to the bottom, following its descent with your rod tip. Rest it momentarily, then sweep the rod forward and retrieve several feet of line before once again killing it. Pike often maul the bait on the bottom.
Bunny Baits — The Enthraller
Jensen's Surgical Enthraller is a 1/2- to 1-ounce weedless bass-style jig poured on a 5/0 Lazer TroKar hook and adorned with a rabbit strip and a few strands of flashabou. You'd be hard pressed to find a better choice than this subtle yet sinuous morsel. While the Enthraller works well on a straight retrieve, it excels when worked along deep vegetation, rock, or weededges that drop into 20 or more feet of water. You can also work it like a jerkbait, pointing the rod tip down, jarring the bait with frequent pops, while alternately reeling and pausing. In shallower water, rapid start and stop cadences can be wickedly effective.
Perhaps most impressive is the Enthraller's ability to trigger big shallow pike early in the season. From prespawn to postspawn, when gators patrol the back of bays, marshes, and creek arms, sight-fishing with this leech-like hair jig offers unmatched appeal. In many Canadian lakes, following decades of catch-and-release fishing in the same shallow bays, pike often refuse spoons, spinnerbaits, or minnowbaits. But they find bunny flies and jigs irrefutable.
I first fly-fished Zonker streamers in the mid-1980s, while wading shorelines in western reservoirs. No other lure before or since has so consistently spellbound shallow pike. While casting fuzzy flies remains a pastime of many pike fishers, I eventually learned to tie my own versions. I'd strip 1/2- to 1-ounce banana-shaped striper jigs of bucktail, then tie in a ribbon of rabbit, yielding a lure usable with baitcasting tackle.
Fly-fishing requires a cadence and precision, but it simply doesn't allow for the same versatility of retrieves, nor as much control over hooked pike in tight quarters. Further, with the right equipment, you can cast weightless bunny lures on casting tackle, once the hair becomes saturated. The neutral buoyancy of weightless lures and flies can be an advantage and a trigger. Yet when dealing with log-still pike that show no interest in anything else, a heavy bunny bait pinned to the bottom, gently shaking in place, usually gets eaten.
The Magic of Marabou
Although I've focused on bunny baits, lures tied with tufts of billowy marabou can be as effective. Decades ago, some safety-pin spinnerbaits were dressed with marabou and hackle. And classic in-line spinners, such as Windel's Harasser and Hirsch's Ghosttails, used bucktail to create a bulky profile.
When vinyl and silicone became available, natural fibers faded from the market, replaced by these more resplendent and less expensive materials. Lately though, several in-line spinners dressed with marabou have brought my most productive pike fishing.
Blue Fox has a new bait called the Super Bou, crafted with Blue Fox's bell clacker and either double #8 or #10 blades. It's a smooth operator and a deadly fish catcher. Mepps offers the Musky Marabou, with a single #7 Colorado blade, and smaller Mepps Marabou, with a #5. Mepps spokesman Jim Martinsen notes that the company has a long history of dying animal fibers, and has developed a unique process that holds bright colors fast to marabou.
Georgian Bay, Ontario, guide Johnny Dadson ties and sells some of the finest marabou spinners. His little Boo Dadley Slider is a gem, a compact yet heavy in-line with double #8 Colorado blades revolving around a 5½-inch shaft, weighted with a 3/4-ounce lead, and dressed with tufts of hackle and marabou. Dadson, a marabou expert, extols its virtues.
"I've been working with and fishing marabou since 2007," he says. "There's nothing like it. Anglers who haven't thrown it don't realize how durable baits are when tied properly with epoxy. The feathers come alive in water with a breathing and pulsing action activated by the double blades. The current they produce displaces the marabou and makes the lure appear frantic and vulnerable."
Dadson also likes marabou's water absorbing properties. "Marabou absorbs a lot of water, and the additional weight enables long casts, even in high wind," he says.
Georgian Bay is ultraclear, further necessitating naturalistic presentations. "I use these baits all season, even into late fall. They've been responsible for most of my largest pike and muskies. Marabou moves and acts differently than other materials. Fish continue reacting to it after they've turned shy to shiny tinsel and silicone."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid muskie and pike angler.