Back in the day, panfish fanatics relied on livebait to make the most of their trophy fishing, and to put fillets in the freezer. In the South, it was crickets, in the North, leeches. Elsewhere, baits of choice ranged from garden worms to maggots to waxworms.
But use of panfish hair jigs for big bluegills and crappies certainly isn't new, and marabou jigs are classic lures for crappies. Novel ties in tiny sizes — replicates of panfish prey in amazingly small leadhead jigs tied with hair and synthetic fibers — are today's news. High-tech panfishers now wield rods that can cast 1/80-ounce jigs to precise spots 50 feet away. And new 1- and 2-pound lines enable deliveries and deepwater success that weren't possible before. As situations become tougher or fishing pressure puts big pans on edge, these specialized jigs can save the day.
In southern California, a small group of bluegill anglers has been refining jigs and tactics for several years. They machine their own molds, custom paint the heads, and experiment to find the best options for the huge coppernose 'gills that inhabit lakes Perris, Barrett, and Skinner. They manipulate colors and various synthetic and natural hair options. They fish deep, often below 20 feet, sometimes tipping with bait, and fishing with high-end 2-pound monos.
One of that crew is Sonny de la Torre, an expert jig-maker from Riverside. He began making micro jigs to save money. He also couldn't find jigs he wanted; available ones were too big, wrong color, or didn't have the action he was looking for. His efforts yielded a number of my favorites that aren't available from mainstream jig companies. His current crop of "belly-spinners" and "chub-head" models are unfamiliar to pressured fish. His 1/48-ouncers excel throughout much of the season.
Top-quality hooks are key to de la Torre's jigs. He likes VMC round bend or Matzuo sickle-style hooks from #12 to #6. Needle-sharp, they set easily in deep water with wispy monofilament. For his smallest jigs, 1/100- and 1/80-ounce, he uses #12 hooks. For his swim jigs, chub, and football styles in 1/48- and 1/24-ounce, he uses #6 and #8 hooks. Many of his jigs are ''thread-bodied" — tied with 3/0 thread. Natural patterns are tied with peacock herl. His favorite material is marabou fluff with crystal flash or fluorescent red floss in the tail.
Jim Simkins of Chino is another SoCal bluegill fanatic. He and de la Torre are partners, often engaged in deep water 'gilling at Lake Perris. Simkins has caught 10 bluegills over 2¼ pounds from Perris, with a 2-pound 12-ounce fish in October 2010, his biggest to date. He favors 2-pound mono and hair jigs, and finds trophy fish around sunken rockpiles from 15 to 25 feet deep.
"The biggest mistake people make when fishing these jigs is not paying attention to the bite," Simkins says. "In almost every case, if you're not closely watching your line, you never know you had a bite."
Deep, clear water and heavy angling pressure complicate the bite at Perris. Fish go deep and exacting tactics are needed to catch them, particularly trophy specimens. Effective colors include black and silver, as well as natural browns and greens. Tipping jigs with a cricket or mealworm can be the trick when fish get fussy.
California anglers fish much of the same structures as western bass specialists — channels, points, and rockpiles. Vertical jigging or swimming jigs through fish marked on sonar can yield exceptional catches, and in these lakes there's always potential for a 2-pounder.
Belly Spinner (1/32-ounce)
Chub Head Minnow of Calf Tail (1/32-ounce)
Freshwater Shrimp (1/64-ounce)
Round Head of Calf Tail (1/100-ounce)
Saltwater Shrimp (1/64-ounce)
Spoonbill Jig (1/32-ounce)
Pennsylvanian Greg Zeigler has been pouring, painting, and tying for years. He excels in delicate presentations to untapped panfish populations in Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River and regional lakes. He often examines stomach contents of bluegills and crappies, to duplicate natural prey with hair jigs. He once marketed a line of custom-made micro jigs. Overwhelmed by the volume of orders, he had to cut back production. He considers hair jigs a must for serious panfish anglers.
Although he carries a variety of sizes, he typically starts with a 1/64-ounce calf-tail jig. He finds that the items bluegills eat most, even big ones, are tiny in comparison to what crappies and perch eat. He likes ballhead jigs, and ties a dark top and lighter bottom combination for a minnow-like look. Black and white and pink and chartreuse are his favorite combos, in jigs as small as 1/100-ounce.
I fished with Zeigler in February 2010, in a warmwater discharge on the Susquehanna River. He quickly put us on untapped panfish. Using jigs of 1/64-ounce and less, we caught a variety of species, including bluegill, redbreast sunfish, crappie, rock bass, green sunfish, and bass. When water levels are right, he reaps the river's abundance of panfish with micro hair and plastic offerings.
In most situations, he jigs vertically or suspends jigs below a slipfloat. "When fishing rockpiles or wood, I vertically jig with 12- to 20-foot ultralight rods," he says. "If fish are in vegetation, I rig a hair jig under a float, set just above the weedtops. I rely on a slipfloat for fishing more that 5 feet deep, due to the ease of casting. I like 2-pound Sufix mono for all panfishing situations.
"Typically, I fish hair jigs without bait, relying on rod tip movement to make a jig come to life. At times, I add Berkley Crappie Nibbles as an attractant." For livebait, he switches to a round ballhead of 1/64-ounce or less and tips with a waxie, garden worm, or maggots.
He's found a great panfishing weapon in a custom-made 7-foot spinning rod made from a 2-weight flyrod blank, similar to Bill Bottger's "Stradivarius" design from the Rodmaker's Shop. I found it to be the smoothest, easiest casting, and most sensitive ultralight I've ever held. A 12-ounce bluegill feels like a runaway locomotive, and a 16-inch smallie on it is astounding. Teamed with 2-pound mono, it's a deadly and fun panfishing tool.
Down in Dixie
In the Southeast, many public and private waters produce huge bluegills and shellcrackers, and crappie opportunities are endless. But throughout this region of warmer waters and large manmade lakes, livebait is standard. Once water temperature dips below 60°F in fall, "brim" fishing comes to a halt, and anglers switch to crappie or other species and await the next spring's spawn. But there are coolwater opportunities that get overlooked.
In the South, winters vary greatly in severity and duration. During the winter of 2009-2010, some of the region saw the heaviest snowfalls on record. But in a normal winter, hair jigs shine for trophy bluegills and crappies. I've had my best results with hair jigs during late fall to early spring, with water temperature from 40°F to 55°F.
In November 2010, my son Matthew and I fished North Carolina's famed Richmond Mill Lake (kingfishersociety.com) in quest of giant bluegills. We were met with cold-front conditions, and lake-owner Jim Morgan questioned our timing as bluegill fishing had slowed considerably. We'd stocked up on 1/32- to 1/64-ounce hair jigs that I tied for the trip. I tied patterns to duplicate the lake's abundant freshwater shrimp, using beige and brown craft hair and light brown sparkle braid to replicate their translucent bodies. Our first morning on the water, air temperatures were in the upper-30°F range and near freezing on the morning of our second day. Water temperatures were in the mid-50°F range.
This was far from ideal brim fishing weather. But we quickly found that by bottom-bouncing jigs near channel areas adjacent to flats, out-size sunnies would hit with the slightest tap, then power away as our ultralights screamed. A slow lift-drop retrieve was the ticket, and when fish were fussy, we tipped jigs with a small piece of nightcrawler. Most fish bit within 18 inches of the bottom in 5 to 8 feet of water.
Minute hair jigs are generally ignored but deadly when winter comes to Dixie, especially for bluegills and shellcrackers. Back home in Maryland, we routinely catch bluegills and crappies on hair jigs during January and February in mild winters, with water temperatures in the upper-30°F to low-40°F range. Match slow, precise presentations with sensitive slipfloats, like the Thill Bodied Waggler or Mini Stealth, that can detect the soft take of a 'gill. Some strikes cause quick dips below the surface, but more often, the float slowly sinks from sight and a gentle rod-sweep sets the hook. To sweeten jigs, we favor maggots, waxworms, or Berkley Gulp! Red Worms or Earth Worms.
At Richmond Mill, in addition to big 'gills, we also catch crappies to 2 pounds. Most anglers target prespawn crappies with hair jigs as the fish move shallower, or else focus on suspended fish using slipfloats. Try jig sizes a bit larger than for bluegill, 1/32- to 1/16-ounce. When crappies are around snaggy cover, however, less expensive and more expendable plastic options often work fine. Crappies typically favor gaudier patterns, with pinks, chartreuse, and fluorescents leading the way.
Certain fibers, both natural and synthetic, give mini hair jigs enticing patterns while adding action and slowing the fall rate. This last factor can be critical when fish are in a neutral or negative feeding mood. Typically, bull bluegills respond best to a lure that descends slowly, like many of their prey. A slower fall looks natural and gives fish a better chance to see the jig. A 1/64-ounce jig sinks slower on 4-pound line than on 2-pound, staying in the water column longer and getting more looks from panfish. But on 2-pound mono, the same jig casts farther and can be manipulated more precisely with the rod than it can on thicker line.
Bulkier jigs sink slower and this dawdling action can entice panfish. But a sparsely tied jig, with more movement of its fibers, offers extra appeal, so there are trade-offs. Fine bucktail slows the fall, due to its buoyancy, making it a good coldwater material. Marabou fluffs and offers great movement and appeal, a good choice for fussy fish. Craft hair, long the winter favorite of Midsouth smallmouth anglers, offers good action in cold water and can be tied in endless combinations to imitate minnows and invertebrates.
In recent years, I've created jig patterns with combinations of craft hair, marabou, and sea hair, which is commonly used for saltwater flies. It's coarser than other synthetics, which slows the fall rate of tiny jigs. Calf tail remains a versatile favorite among tiers nationwide. Accents of flashabou, crystal flash, sparkle braids, and others, create hair jigs that can duplicate almost any critter that swims.
The hair revolution hasn't overtaken panfishing like it has in the bass world or in marine venues. Perhaps that's because most expert tiers like de la Torre and Zeigler want to remain low-key, tying dynamite panfish jigs for themselves and friends. You may see samples in local shops here and there across panfish country, but hair's too good to be kept secret.
Hair Jig Connections
Jigcraft.com offers tutorials, photos, and instruction on making and fishing miniscule hair igs. The forum has excellent advice.
Bigbluegill.com is the premier sunfish site on the Web today, also with talk on crappies and perch. Lots of how-to information on jigs from anglers across the nation.
Greg Zeigler doesn't hawk his product, but offers information on where and when to cash in on the best panfish bites in his region, zigsjigs.com.
The Rod Makers Shop, 20884 Royalton Road, Strongsville, OH, 440/572-0400, specializes in custom panfish rods, including the Stradivarius II.