The Marabou Jig, according to Jeff Gustafson
January 19, 2017
The marabou jig used to play a critical role in the repertoire of Midwest finesse anglers in Missouri and Kansas. In fact, the first marabou jig was crafted by Bill Ward of Warsaw, Missouri. It occurred in 1957 when Bill was 23 years old and residing in Amsterdam, Missouri. At that time, he and his father, Virgil, were in the throes of creating the Bass Buster Lure Company. Before the creation of that first marabou jig, the Wards were manufacturing jigs with saddle feather skirts.
Bill Ward created the marabou jig at the request of his father who was going trout fishing on the White River below Bull Shoals Lake, Arkansas, with Harold Ensley of Overland Park, Kansas. Ward and Ensley were hoping to film their outing for Ensley's television show that was entitled "The Sportsman's Friend." Back in those days, Ensley's show entertained thousands of folks in eastern Kansas and western Missouri every week of the year.
Virgil told Bill that he wanted a jig that was similar to the marabou streamer that Missouri and Arkansas fly fishermen used to catch trout. So, Bill tied several 1/16-ounce white marabou jigs for his father. According to Bill, it was a Doll Fly with white marabou instead of white bear hair. On that outing with Ensley, Virgil caught an impressive array of trout, including a six-pounder, on Bill's marabou jig. And the subsequent television show was spectacular.
From that point on, the Wards made marabou jigs by the thousands, ranging in size from 1/64-ounce to 1/2-ounce. They made them in an assortment of colors: black, white, purple, yellow, red-and-white, blue-and-gray, pink, and orange.
Shortly after that outing and the airing of Ensley's television show, a group of anglers from Tulsa, Oklahoma, began manufacturing marabou jigs, and before long, variations of the Bill Ward's original marabou jig became one of the preeminent lures across the nation's Heartland for black bass, crappie, temperate bass, and walleye anglers to wield.
In the formative years of Midwest finesse fishing, anglers in Kansas and Missouri regularly used small black marabou jigs that were dressed with a small and customized black pork eel.
Ultimately, Virgil and Bill found that the 1/2-ouncer was a whale of a bait to use for catching lake trout in Canada.
In addition to the marabou jig, some of the pioneers of Midwest finesse anglers, such as Jim Rogers of Lamar, Missouri, used small aspirin-head jigs dressed with craft-fur skirts similar to the Hoss Fly that Billy Westmorland of Celina, Tennessee, created. Others used a small jig dressed with a bucktail skirt. These jigs were usually adorned with a small and customized pork eel or chunk.
Nowadays, however, the marabou jig, craft-fur jig, and bucktail jig are rarely used by Midwest finesse anglers in the Midwest. The primary exception to this trend lies in the hands of Brian Waldman of Coatesville, Indiana, and Stacey King of Reeds Spring, Missouri. Waldman employs a variety of tiny craft-fur jigs — especially when the water is cold. And during the cold-water months, King uses a small and delicate bucktail jig. King affixes a slightly customized Uncle Josh No. 101 Spinning Frog to his jig. At times, Waldman uses a hand-poured soft-plastic trailer that is similar to the No. 101 Spinning Frog, and at other times, his jig was not affixed to a trailer.
Whereas the use of the marabou, fur, and bucktail jigs have waned in the Heartland, the marabou jig is an important tool for a goodly number of anglers who pursue smallmouth bass in the Great Lakes and the waterways that stipple the northern states and some of the Canadian provinces.
We recently explored the ways that northern black bass anglers use a marabou jig with Jeff Gustafson of Kenora, Ontario, Canada, Josh Douglas of Mound, Minnesota, and Seth Feider of Bloomington, Minnesota. We garnered these anglers' insights by exchanging emails and telephone conversations. And this Midwest Finesse column will focus upon how, when, and where Gustafson uses a marabou jig.
A 1/16-ounce marabou jig is the one that Gustafson uses in Northwestern Ontario in his pursuits of smallmouth bass that abound in the Lake of the Woods, Rainey Lake, and similar waterways. He uses them around boulders, isolated logs, and patches of submergent aquatic vegetation, such as broadleaf cabbage.
Straightaway he noted that a marabou jig is extremely effective whenever smallmouth bass are abiding in shallow water. And when that occurs, one of his rods is always sporting a marabou jig, noting, for instance, that when a significant number of smallmouth bass in the Lake of the Woods are milling about in shallow water on a hot summer day, scores of anglers find that they are difficult to catch. But by employing a 1/16-ounce marabou jig, an angler can inveigle a surprising number of them.
The water clarity at the Lake of the Woods is not crystalline. But it is clear enough that Gustafson can sight fish for smallmouth bass. Because the fishing pressure is not intense and the water is not gin-clear, the smallmouth bass are not exceptionably wary, which allows him to make short and precise casts and retrieves with the 1/16-ounce marabou jig.
One of the virtues of the 1/16-ounce jig and short casts is that it is relatively easy for Gustafson to retrieve it above the bottom and not becoming entangled with the piles of boulders that litter the shallow-water haunts of the Lake of the Woods' smallmouth bass.
When Gustafson ventures to the Great Lakes and chases smallmouth bass at the Sturgeon Bay Open Bass Tournament during the middle of May, he prefers to use a 3/32-ounce marabou jig. The reason why he uses a 3/32-ouncer is to cast farther, cover more water, and fish slightly deeper than he does in Ontario. At Sturgeon Bay, he spends a lot of time casting and retrieving a 3/32-ounce marabou jig in six to 10 feet of water.
He will occasionally be relegated to wielding a 3/32-ounce marabou jig at the Lake of the Woods when it is windy or when he is confronted with a cold-front scenario that relegates him to plying somewhat deeper lairs.
And when it is windy on the Great Lakes or when he is fishing large waterways, such as Lake Champlain along the borders of New York, Vermont, and Quebec, Canada, he uses a 1/8-ounce marabou jig. The 1/8-ouncer allows him to cope with the wind and dissect vast areas more quickly.
He does not spend a lot of time fishing rivers. So, he cannot speak definitively about the effectiveness of a marabou jig in current situations. But he has drifted a marabou jig next to boulders that are laced with current and caught a few smallmouth bass.
Day in, day out, Gustafson prefers to use the lightest marabou jig possible, and most of the time, the size of the jig is determined by the weather. What's more, it is a spring and summer bait, noting that it is a stellar option to employ during the mayfly hatch.
He does not use a small marabou jig in the fall in Northwestern Ontario. The reason why is because the smallmouth bass are abiding in deep water and forging upon smelt and other small fishes, and to catch them, he uses jerkbaits and soft-plastic fluke-style baits.
To wield a marabou jig, Gustafson uses a seven-foot, six-inch G. Loomis NRX 901 spinning rod. It is a fast-power and medium-light action rod. His spinning reel is a Shimano Stradic CI4+ 2500, and it is spooled with eight-pound-test PowerPro Braided Spectra Fiber Line Hi-Vis Yellow. An eight-pound-test fluorocarbon leader is affixed to the braided line on one end and on the other end, the jig is affixed. The leader is attached to the braided line with a Albright knot, and the jig is affixed to the leader with a palomar knot. The leader is six to eight feet long, and it is short enough that the Albright knot is never on the spool of his spinning reel. By keeping the spool knot-free, he facilitates his casting accuracy and distance.
He says his state-of-the-art rod is a critical component to executing long casts with a lightweight marabou jig. The highly-visible braided line is another critical component. It allows him to easily see the line faintly flex when a smallmouth bass subtly engulfs a marabou jig.
When he is fishing at crystal-clear waterways, he has found that his boat will often cause the smallmouth bass to become apprehensive and reluctant to engulf even the most alluring marabou jig. Therefore, it is essential for him to make extremely long casts that reach the length of 100 feet.
But at the Lake of the Woods, when he is sight fishing, he makes relatively short pitches and casts, ranging in length from 20 to 30 feet, to specific targets that he can see. When he is probing patches of submergent aquatic vegetation, such as broadleaf cabbage, he likes to have a mild-mannered breeze move the boat, and as the boat moves, he adroitly and accurately executes short pitches and casts with the marabou jig to clumps of submergent aquatic vegetation that lie in front of the boat. Besides pitching to clumps of vegetation, he will also make short pitches in front of the boat to boulders and other underwater objects that smallmouth bass mosey around.
In Gustafson's eyes, pitching a marabou jig around clumps of submergent aquatic vegetation is a delightful and fruitful tactic. When he is doing it, he often sees a smallmouth bass suspended adjacent to a clump of vegetation. To catch that smallmouth bass, he makes a delicate and stealthy cast that lands a few feet past the clump, and then he retrieves the marabou jig so that it glides furtively as close as possible to the smallmouth bass. And as long as the smallmouth bass is not spooked by the casts and approaching boat and marabou jig, it usually engulfs the jig. Gustafson says he has "caught hundreds of big smallmouth bass doing this." What's more, when the weather is balmy and hot, vast numbers of smallmouth bass will inhabit patches of broadleaf cabbage, and often they are relatively easy to inveigle with a skillfully pitched and retrieved marabou jig.
The marabou jig is also a good follow-up bait, which Gustafson uses when a smallmouth bass or several smallmouth bass follow a hooked smallmouth bass during a donnybrook around the boat. To catch one of those followers, he merely pitches the marabou jig into the water around them. It is also a dandy way to catch a smallmouth bass that makes a pass at a topwater bait, but it fails to become hooked, and when that occurs, Gustafson quickly casts the marabou jig at the spot where the smallmouth bass made the incomplete pass, and often the marabou jig is engulfed on the initial drop. (It is interesting to note that a topwater bait and a black marabou jig are what Jim Flack of Shawnee, Kansas, and Andy Flack of Lake Waukomis, Missouri, used to garner the second-place trophy at Kenora Bass International tournament at the Lake of the Woods back in August of 2001.)
Gustafson employs two styles of retrieves with the marabou jig. One he calls the glide or pendulum presentation. The second one is the stroll. He never shakes the jig during the retrieve, and he does not want it to touch the bottom. But he did confess that there are rare occasions when he has allowed the jig to fall to the bottom; such as allowing it to land and lie on top of a boulder, and when he has done that, he has watched a smallmouth bass approach the boulder and jig; then in a wink, that smallmouth bass engulfed the marabou jig like a vacuum cleaner would.
One of the reasons why Gustafson rarely allows a marabou jig to touch the bottom is that it takes him about 15 minutes to make a perfect one, and when the jig ricochets off the granite boulders, it damages the point of the hook, and the boulders are also an easy place for a jig to become snagged and lose the jig. He has developed an intuitive feel for how far above the bottom that the jig is traveling during the gliding presentation of the retrieve. But he has fished with anglers who do not possess that instinct. Thus, they allow the jig to sink too far and are not able to glide it back to the boat. Consequentially, they get it hung in the rocks and boulders incessantly and it is a frustrating ordeal.
Here is Gustafson's description of how he feels what a marabou jig is doing during the retrieve: "I'm fishing these jigs shallow, say ten feet or less so it's all about just feeling for the right speed to where your jig is getting down in the water column but not hitting the bottom all the time. As you fish with these jigs you will get the feel for this, but it's hard to explain, I don't have any count that I do or anything like that, it's just all natural. I might let the jig sink what I feel is half way to the bottom, then I start my retrieve - and glide the jig 'pendulum-like' back to the boat."
When Gustafson executes one of his 100-foot casts, he will employ the gliding retrieve for 60 to 75 feet. Then once it has traveled that 60 to 75-foot span, he will quickly reel it in and make another 100-foot cast and 60- to 75-foot retrieve.
There are times when he generates a strike on the initial drop of the marabou jig. This phenomenon occurs with some frequency when he is chasing smallmouth bass at Sturgeon Bay in the middle of May, and when he has found a locale, such as a sand spot, that is brimming with smallmouth bass. Upon finding one of these nirvanas, he has caught smallmouth bass after smallmouth bass on consecutive casts, and many of them were caught on the initial drop of the marabou jig. There are also times when he is making short casts and pitches with a marabou jig around the patches of broadleaf cabbage that he will catch a smallmouth bass on the initial drop. When this occurs at a sand spot at Sturgeon Bay or around submergent aquatic vegetation at the Lake of the Woods, he finds that his PowerPro Braided Spectra Fiber Line Hi-Vis Yellow line is a great asset into alerting him that a smallmouth bass has engulfed the jig.
His strolling presentation allows him to efficiently dissect massive and rather featureless areas in crystalline waterways. To execute it, he makes a 100-foot cast that is perpendicular to the boat. Then he uses his bow mounted trolling motor to propel his boat at 1 to 1.2 mph. When the boat is moving, he allows several more feet of line to peel off the spool of his spinning reel, and this allows the jig to be more than a 100 feet from the boat. As the boat follows a designated contour and depth, such as in 10 feet of water, the jig gradually swings 90 degrees until it is directly behind the boat. In extremely clear water, he suspects the boat and trolling motor will cause the smallmouth bass to become leery and difficult to catch. Thus, when the jig's 90-degree swing has been completed, Gustafson quickly reels it in and makes another 100-foot cast perpendicular to the boat. Throughout this entire strolling procedure, the marabou jig is traveling above the bottom. From his vast experiences, it is a piscatorial sin to allow it to touch the bottom. Shaking and twitching the marabou jig are not part of his gliding and pendulum presentation, he does at times execute a pop or jerk to the marabou jig during the strolling presentation.
When he is strolling at the Lake of the Woods, the marabou jig is closer to the boat than it is when he is fishing gin-clear waterways. When he is strolling across patches of aquatic vegetation, this shorter-line stroll allows him to keep the marabou jig from becoming entangled with the vegetation. And his seven-foot, six-inch rod helps him to maneuver the line and the jig around some clumps of vegetation and various kinds of objects in the water.
Gustafson, who is 34 years old, says he has tied several thousand marabou jigs since he was a teenager. He likes to tie them so there is an even amount of marabou around the circumference of the jig. He has found that if it has too much marabou, it sinks too slowly, and if there is not enough marabou, it will sink too quickly. What's more, if there is too much or too little marabou, the balance can be adversely affected, and it will not glide in a straight line when he employs his gliding and strolling presentations.
When he is fishing a marabou jig, he always affixes a small segment from a soft-plastic stickbait onto the shank of the hook, and it is totally hidden under the jig's marabou skirt. The tiny piece of a stickbait is impregnated with salt and scent. This tactic allows him to cast it farther, and it "keeps the jig from looking like a drowned rat in the water."
Across the years, Gustafson has noticed that once a jig catches a few smallmouth bass, that peculiar jig seems to get more and more alluring. He thinks the marabou "gets broken in and has a little better flow." Furthermore, once he catches a few smallmouth bass on it, he develops a feel with what is going on with that particular jig, which allows him to retrieve at the correct depth and speed.
He has tied marabou onto mushroom-style jigs, darter-style heads, football-style heads, and ball-style heads. And he has come to the conclusion that the head style does not matter. But he says that he is "picky about the hook," and he uses only a black, 90-degree, round-bend 1/0 Gamakatsu jig hook. He has never had one break or bend.
He has tied and caught smallmouth bass on black, brown, chartreuse, olive, and white marabou jigs. One would think that olive would be an ideal color to match the mayfly hatch, and Gustafson has caught smallmouth bass on an olive marabou jig during the hatch, but he has found that a black one is as effective as an olive one. And no matter where he has fished, black has always been his most effective hue. But when he ties his black jig, he always embellishes it with a tiny segment of purple marabou. From the tip of jig's lead head to the end of its marabou tail, it is two to 2 1/2-inches long.
After he rendered his many insights about the manifold virtues of a black marabou jig, he said that he is hoping to find a way to use it at some of the waterways he fishes while competing on the 2017 Walmart FLW Tour.
He concluded by saying: "I really just keep things pretty simple," and using a marabou jig is a simple and effective tactic indeed.
(1) For more information about Bill and Virgil Ward, please see the Midwest Finesse column at this link: https://www.in-fisherman.com/midwest-finesse/legends-of-the-heartland/#ixzz4Vg25qZTR.
(2) For more information about how and where Brian Waldman uses a hair jig in Indiana, see the Midwest Finesse column at this link: https://www.in-fisherman.com/midwest-finesse/the-manifold-virtues-of-the-small-hair-jig-according-to-brian-waldman/#ixzz4VksiApxI.
(3) For more information about Jeff Gustafson, see this Midwest Finesse column at these two links: https://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/jeff-gustafsons-introduction-to-midwest-finesse/; https://www.in-fisherman.com/bass/z-man-goes-to-canada-an-update/.
(4) Although the marabou jig seldom adorns the repertoire on the vast majority of Midwest finesse anglers in Missouri and Kansas, it is still an effective way to catch rainbow trout at Lake Taneycomo, Missouri, and at the tailrace below Bull Shoals in Arkansas where Virgil Ward used the world's first marabou jig. Here is a link to Phil Lilley's video about using a marabou jig at Taneycomo to catch trout: http://www.lilleyslanding.com/medai/videos/jig-fishing-lake-taneycomo.
(5) In 1997 Matt Straw of Brainerd, Minnesota, who is the preeminent In-Fisherman field editor, penned the classic treatise about the way smallmouth bass anglers in the north employ a small marabou jig. The title of his article is "Smalltime Jigs, Big-Time Smallmouths," and it appeared in the March 1998 issue of In-Fisherman magazine. It featured how, when, and where Norm Lindsay of Sioux Narrows, Ontario, and Dave Lindsay of Kenora, Ontario, used 1/32-, 1/16-, and 1/8-ounce marabou jigs. When the smallmouth bass were focusing on crayfish, the Lindsays used either brown or black marabou jigs that were highlighted with a touch of green or orange. When the smallmouth bass were foraging on shiners, the Lindsays used white marabou jigs. The Lindsays told Straw: "Our fallback method with small marabou jigs works when all else fails."
Gustafson wrote in an email: "The Lindsay brothers along with a couple of other Lake of the Woods guides - Joe Pritchett and Hiram Archibald were the guys that really started the whole deal up with those hair jigs up here in the mid- to late 90's. They won a lot of tournaments with these jigs, then the Lindsay's were the ones that used it for years at Sturgeon Bay, finishing in the top 5 in the Sturgeon Bay Open nearly every year with it. They kept it a secret there for many years. '¦ it was shown to me 20 years ago when I was a kid by these guys, Norm Lindsay in particular."