August 13, 2023
I forgot to ask Jeff Gustafson if he’s a Kool & the Gang fan, but one thing is clear: When it comes to catching shallow smallmouth, he’s ready to Get Down on It.
Down, as in the light, fluffy poultry feathers used to create one of the deadliest of bronzeback baits—the marabou jig. Often called a “hair jig” or “fluff,” this subtle bait does a good job of imitating a wide range of forage items with fish-tempting appeal.
Gustafson, the reigning 2023 Bassmaster Classic champion does of a lot of his shallow smallmouth work with this bait, so it’s no surprise, he has a handful of firm opinions on its use.
“I get asked all the time, ‘What does the fluff look like in the water? Does it look like a leech?’” Gustafson said. “Yeah, you kind of float it through the water column like a leech but the analogy I use is it’s kind of like an after-dinner mint, whereas a spinnerbait or topwater might be a steak that they don’t feel like all the time.
“Most of the time, if the fish don’t know you’re there and you put one of these hair jigs in front of them, these smallmouth will 100% eat it. This bait can emulate any number of little bugs (and other forage) and smallmouth will eat anything they can fit in their mouth.”
Gustafson, who makes his own hair jig, keeps 1/16-, 3/32-, and 1/8-ounce hair jigs handy, but he ends up using the 3/32-ounce most often. Around shallow cabbage where smallies like to lounge, he’ll use the smallest size to keep it above the vegetation.
“To me, an 1/8-ounce hair jig feels like a rock because it sinks a lot faster and you have to move it more,” he said. “But if you’re on big water and it’s windy, or there’s current, then the 1/8-ounce is the way to go.
“Those sizes will cover you for everything you want to do. You could drop this bait down on deep water fish—I’ve caught smallmouth (this way)—but it shines in 10 feet or less.”
Bulk It Up: Prior to making a cast, Gustafson bites about an inch off of a Berkley MaxScent The General stick worm and threads it onto the jig’s hook shank.
“The (worm chunk) is mandatory in my book,” he stressed. “You can catch fish just casting and playing, but the body gives the bait a little bigger profile and it also allows you to cast these jigs literally twice as far.”
Also, adding girth to the hook shank builds a bigger profile and keeps a wet hair jig from looking too much like a drowned rat. Exuding scent doesn’t hurt either.
Color Code: Peak into Gustafson’s hair jig container and you’ll find multiple colors. Mostly, he said, this is for size reference.
“I’ve caught them on different colors, but I’ve never found a scenario where any color was better than black.”
Tackle And Presentation
Gustafson’s a firm believer in properly matched tackle, so he fishes his hair jig on a 7-foot, 6-inch medium Shimano NRX rod with a Shimano Stella reel. Spooling with 8-pound PowerPro braided mainline with an 8-pound Shimano Mastiff fluorocarbon leader.
“That long, soft rod is going to allow you to cast that jig; you’re going to need that whip to send it out there,” he said. “On the Great Lakes and a lot of the clear water fisheries where this jig shines, you’ve got to get the bait away from the boat.
“You can use 6-pound fluorocarbon, but I don’t feel like I’m getting fewer bites with 8; I just never have any issues with breaking them off. You start using 6-pound test to catch 5-pounders and you’re going to run into problems here and there.”
Once the bait hits the water, his No. 1 rule is: No bottom contact. Leave that to the dropshots and Ned rigs. The marabou jig was made for the mid-depths.
“The most important thing with the marabou jigs is you never want to let them touch the bottom,” he said. “I like to reel them halfway through the water column. That’s a good rule to live by and, as you fish with them, it becomes easy to kind of find that cadence of how long to let it sink to hit that section of the water column.”
Eyes Open: Gustafson said many of the fish caught on hair jigs are visually spotted on shallow flats. The key, he said, is a non-intrusive delivery.
“You always want to lead them,” he said. “Don’t cast it and land it right on top of them; cast past them, or in front of them.
“Smallmouth can see your bait a lot baits a lot better than you think they can (in clear water). I’ve visually seen them go 30 to 40 feet to hit one of these small finesse jigs.”