Spring Hair Jigs for Smallmouth
September 09, 2015
With no parts moving, the whole thing moves. Seems unnatural to us. But to fish living in water colder than 50°F, it's the way things get done.
Minnows move from place to place, barely seeming to bend a scale. Parsimony of movement becomes vital when metabolisms slow. Though speeding up from winter lethargy, cold-blooded creatures prefer to move ponderously until provoked in early spring. Those are good hair days for hair jigs for smallmouth.
Hair was the tactical advantage in the recent Canadian Invasion. Canadians have come into the U.S. and done very well in spring smallmouth tournaments for a decade passing. Fortunately, two of the most successful members of their ranks are talking — Dave and Norm Lindsay. Better yet, they're the ones that started the whole thing. The rest? One of the invaders said, "The Lindsays were doing it when the rest of them were in diapers," then refused to comment any further on the topic of hair.
Norm Lindsay is a guide on Lake of the Woods, and his brother, Dave, is an Ontario conservation officer and past corroborator on In-Fisherman articles on this subject. They've had some good hair days at the Sturgeon Bay Open (S.B.O.), as past champions and perennial contenders. Their tactics, adopted by other successful Canadian anglers (but strangely ignored by Americans), involves some very dull looking hair jigs. They tie their own with plain bucktail or marabou on plain heads, for the most part. "All natural," says Norm Lindsay. "Non threatening."
In spring, the Lindsays primarily fish with 1/16- to 1/8-ounce heads. "I tie them bulkier in spring," Norm notes. "And I add bulk with plastics, experimenting with everything — craws, Senkos, worms, grubs — anything to slow it down a little while creating a new look. I generally cut an inch or two off, keeping the diameter and bulk of a larger plastic while reducing the length."
A slow roll is the dreaded crux of it all. It can be difficult to master, and more difficult to detect bites, but the routine is simple: "I like casting and swimming it just off bottom," Norm says, "no more than 6 inches. You spook 'em if you rip it. It's a steady, slow retrieve."
Bloody good. Now we're getting somewhere. But so is the boat. It's trying to overtake the wanking jig, you see. Always breezy in spring, and there's the rub — boat and jig moving in opposite directions. You can cast a light hair jig anywhere you want, but it travels in the direction of the wind. And thither goes the boat, as a dog after a bone.
Tackling Boat Control
Being a simple sort, I like to anchor when pitching hair. But that old salmon master, Tim Dawidiuk (my old partner in the S.B.O.) has been watching the Invasion from his "one if by sea" perch at Howie's Tackle in Sturgeon Bay, tying hair jigs and kicking bass with boat control.
"You cast ahead of the boat and retrieve it so slow, it doesn't cover ground," Dawidiuk says. "It almost sits still. Through the slow drop and retrieve, just keep tension on the line. If the line goes slack, speed up a bit. The boat is actually covering more ground than the jig. This isn't a search tactic — it's a better bait for catching than finding. You use it when smallmouths are milling around in plain view and won't bite anything else — even livebait."
Lindsay makes a similar observation. "This works when nothing else does," he says. "When you can see bass and they won't bite anything, they bite a barely moving hair jig."
Drifting parallel to the fish's position and casting toward shore while keeping a bow out of your line is tricky. These jigs have very little weight unless you bulk them up, the way Norm Lindsay does. Dawidiuk prefers not to tip with plastics, yet both use 7- to 8-foot medium-light-power rods and 5- to 6-pound braided line.
"My favorite way of fishing hair in spring is getting the wind at my back with a sock or two down so the boat drifts slowly, perpendicular to the wind," Dawidiuk says. "I pitch a 1/16- to 3/32-ounce jig with the wind on 5-pound PowerPro or 6-pound DuraCast Tuff Line with an 8-foot St Croix Avid AVS90ML. I let the jig fall to bottom and start a very slow retrieve, using a 7-foot, 6-pound fluorocarbon leader for stealth and weight. This leader is long enough to keep you fishing all day without retying, but short enough to stay off the spool. The leader is long enough to create a 2- to 4-inch belly, the dense fluoro keeping the jig down near bottom. And the trick is to keep it off bottom while barely moving it."
Light braids cast farther than light mono, a dynamic not lost on Lindsay, who uses similar tackle. "I tie 6-pound fluoro leaders onto 5-pound braided line," he said. "That allows me to cast these light jigs well beyond the spook zone around the boat. I'm not even reeling sometimes — just keeping the line tight. Bass often pluck these jigs right off the bottom."
Another method Dawidiuk employs with hair jigs is fishing "in space," as we've covered in the past, with all manner of plastic options. "In flat calm situations, I pull it, using the bow-mount trolling motor, on a long line," he says. "Speed-over-ground should register almost nothing. Just keeping the bow pointed in the direction you want to go is all it takes, so it's not trolling. It's fishing in space, which is different even than backtrolling or drifting with a Lindy rig for walleyes.
"Whether casting or pulling, it's a very subtle bite, so you need feel," Dawidiuk adds. "The low stretch of braid helps, but you have to maintain tension without moving the jig much at all. The line typically goes slack when they bite, and the hook will be lodged in the top of the mouth, right in that hard plate on their lip, or in the soft tissue above it, every single time." That is, if the jig itself is designed correctly.
Hair and Retrieve
"These jigs are not things of beauty," Dawidiuk admits. He ties and sells his own using Gopher Tackle Pro Series Mushroom Heads with 2/0 and 3/0 Gamakatsu hooks. "The size and style of the head and hook are critical," he says. "The profile, from head into body, is seamless. The Mushroom Head falls slightly head first, but that big body of hollow deer hair holds it up. It's got so much buoyancy, it tries to maintain a horizontal profile, and its slightly head-down attitude suggests a distracted minnow or leech. The hook has to be big enough or you just drag it on their teeth when they bite short."
Lindsay ties a bulky jig with lots of deer hair in spring. "It barely pulsates," he says. "But on bottom, especially when using a piece of a plastic craw for a trailer, it looks like a crayfish trying to protect itself. Sometimes the key is just letting it sit to do its thing."
Northland Tackle (with the help of an invader that isn't talking) created two jigs to fit this dynamic technique — the Buck-A-Roo, tied with deer hair, and the Bug-A-Boo, tied with marabou. Lindsay also uses marabou, but mostly in summer. "These simple, dull, natural-looking jigs catch smallmouths all year, but we fish them a little faster in summer," he reveals. "Marabou falls faster and has to be fished faster to stay off bottom. But even with deer hair, we use slightly heavier heads in summer and early fall. Whenever visible bass won't bite, this tactic is universal. It works everywhere, all year long."
In spring, speed kills your chances. "Everybody that hears about this thinks classic hair jigs in 1/4- to 3/8-ounce sizes," Dawidiuk says. "Won't work. Too heavy, too fast. Getting the right jighead is critical. It's a 'need for no speed' presentation that demands a small head with a big, premium hook. It can be any color as long as it's black."
Everybody knows black is beautiful, and so are Paul Jensen's Boo Bucky and Deer Hare Jigs. He combines marabou, deer hair, and rabbit fur — all of which can be right for triggering strikes at varying points of the season. These Jensen Jigs are very light and easy to keep off bottom. Having rabbit fur or marabou on the hook shank — both of which absorb water — makes it easier to cast for distance. Jensen calls them "aerodynamic hair designs" and they perform as advertised.
"I began fishing hair jigs in the early 1960s," Jensen reports. "There were no plastics. All we had was hair and it was very effective, much the same as it is now — bucktails in early spring, marabou and bucktail as the season warmed."
Speed is critical. It's controlled first by the weight of the jighead. The material on the jig also affects speed, as well as thickness of line. Finally, consider the amount of coffee you drink. Suspending lead is almost possible when the weight, materials, line, patience, and retrieve speed come together in a zen-like enterprise.
The best way to learn how slow a hair jig can move without touching bottom is to anchor and watch in clear water. Make short pitches and count the jig down to bottom, so you know how fast it falls. Point the rod tip down and retrieve it steadily, as slow as you can stand. Keep trying until you can see it coming in, almost not moving at all, but 6 inches off bottom. It seems like torture.
"It's not the fact that it's a hair jig," Dawidiuk says. "It's how you fish the bait. You and I have been doing the same thing with plastics, slowing the speed to almost nothing, but the right hair jig can be kept up at half the speed of a grub. You've got to know how to fish it. Once you learn how, you can go into an area that's getting hammered, boats all around, and catch bass that have seen every other bait. It seems to be as effective, if not more effective than livebait. I've fished it beside guys fishing live suckers and the jig caught way more.
"It's so natural," he emphasizes. "I don't know what bass think it is. A leech, a minnow — whatever it is they see, they think it's an easy meal. That's the key, but doing it right is hard. The best method is almost deadsticking. It's tedious, but if you jig, snap, twitch, or speed up, it won't work."
Hair jigs like this have been around forever. Nothing new there. The technique has been around, too, but primarily in the playbooks of Canadian anglers. "That's the thing," Dawidiuk says. "It's been out and winning tournaments for 10 years and who knows how to do it? A small minority. Meanwhile, bass get more conditioned to classic spring presentations, like jerkbaits, tubes, and grubs. I don't think they can get conditioned to this. It's just too natural. Hanging near bottom, swimming so slowly, bland-as-toast hair jigs won't cease tricking bass into biting."
Is it torture? Yes, excruciating. But when prespawn smallmouths are milling around in plain view and won't touch anything else, properly presented hair jigs trigger a primal predatory response. Do you want to catch them or not?
In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, has been working closely with In-Fisherman editors for more than two decades.