The Hair Jig is the Bucktail Bass

Hair jigs, aka bucktails, are simple, yet deadly lures that once graced nearly every angler's tacklebox. Today, unless you're a hard-core smallmouth fisherman, chances are you've never fished one. If not, it's high time you did, and I've lined up just the guy to show you how: veteran Pickwick Lake, Ala., guide Steve Hacker (www.smallmouth.com). Hacker is a master at catching lunker bass, especially smallmouth, on hair jigs, and in this Bassmaster exclusive, he shares with readers his in-depth knowledge of this much-ignored lure.

Background On Bucktails

A bucktail jig doesn't look like much when you hold it in your hand, but as it falls, darts and pulses through the water, it's a remarkably convincing mimic of a live or dying baitfish. The hair on a bucktail "breathes" when wet and looks like a live shad working its gills. This subtle action draws vicious strikes from sluggish bass, even in cold water. Unlike spinnerbaits and wobbling crankbaits, bucktails, like Texas rigged plastic worms and rubber-legged jigs, depend on skillful rod manipulation rather than built-in action for their fish appeal.

Bucktails are big-bass lures. I've personally caught smallmouth just under 8 pounds and largemouth in the 7-pound range on them. But you never really know what's going to hit your bucktail — these are among the most generic of all artificials, meaning that just about everything that swims will eat them. Some of my most memorable "miscellaneous" bucktail catches include a 38-pound striper, 35-pound flathead catfish and 69 1/2-pound blue cat, all taken while bass fishing, most on spinning gear.

On river-run Pickwick Reservoir where I guide, current is the main factor dictating bass activity. The best fishing invariably occurs during a healthy current flow. Current moves baitfish around, concentrates bass on key structures, increases dissolved oxygen and (in hot weather) cools the water. Bucktail jigs are awesome in current because they have little drag and sink into the strike zone quickly.

HOPPING RETRIEVE.

I use this presentation during the daytime around big rocks and boulders, and at night on gravel bars and humps.

Here, the bucktail probably looks more like a crawfish than a minnow.

(A) Cast the jig to your target and let it sink to the bottom on a tight line

(B) Lift your rod to 11 o'clock and watch your line as the jig settles back to the bottom.

(C) Lower the rod to 9 o'clock, reel up the slack and lift it again to 11 o'clock. Repeat back to the boat. If you feel a tap or see the line hop, set the hook.

CHOOSING BUCKTAIL

When you stock up on bucktails, be sure to get a variety of weights and colors. It's best to buy 'em by the card — bucktails are normally fished on light line, so breakoffs are inevitable when fishing around rockpiles, stumps and sunken trees. They're inexpensive lures — you can score a ton of hair jigs for what you'd spend on a couple of premium crankbaits, and probably catch a lot more fish while you're at it. I use bucktails tied by Tom Smith of Florence, Ala. (256-766-8036). Smith custom-makes premium hair jigs with your choice of hooks (my favorite is the 2/0 or 3/0 VMC Barbarian).

Using the proper weight for the conditions at hand is a major key to success with these baits. Slackwater reservoir fishermen have a different perspective on bucktail weight than do river rats like me — they like to use the lightest possible jigs because they want them to settle slowly and enticingly from one ledge or depth contour to the next. But in current, most of the bass will be holding tight to the bottom or hunkering behind a stump or boulder, so the object is to get the jig down to the bottom more quickly. To handle all depth and flow conditions, I keep a supply of bucktails in 1/8-, 3/16-, 1/4-, 5/16- and 3/8-ounce weights in my boat at all times.

Most reservoir anglers trim the hair on their jigs back to just behind the hook, then tip the lure with a pork or plastic trailer. But for daytime river fishing, I usually don't use a trailer because it creates too much drag in current. Instead, I leave the jig's hair long and untrimmed so my presentation has the slender look of a minnow.

Longer hair breathes better, too. I want the jig to be 3 1/2 to 4 inches long, which matches the size of the baitfish that smallmouth usually target. At night, and when the water is murky after a hard rain, I'll add a trailer (either a Larew Long John or a plastic chunk) to make my jig more visible.

Color choice depends mostly on water clarity. In clean water, I like natural colors, including solid white, white with a gray streak and solid black. In stained water, contrast becomes more important than realism; my go-to color in murky conditions is white hair with a little silver tinsel and a chartreuse head tied with red thread. This combination is contrasting without being too overpowering. In muddy water, black and chartreuse will usually score strikes. At Pickwick, I use chartreuse only as a secondary color, because I always end up catching a lot of white bass, drum and other stuff I'm not fishing for on a solid chartreuse bucktail.

POPPING RETRIEVE.

This is a deadly presentation tht triggers arm-wrenching reaction strikes from bass that are either holding tight to current-breaking objects, or suspending just off the bottom.

(A) CAST to your target and let the jig settle to the bottom on a tight line.

(B) WHEN the jig hits the bottom, immediately stroke the rod upward to 12 o'clock.

(C) LOWER your rod to 10 o'clock so your line has a bit of slack in it. When the jig hits the bottom reel up slack and stroke the rod tip upward. Watch your line carefully — if itjumps, set the hook!

GEARING UP

I use both spinning and baitcasting gear with bucktails, depending on what weight I'm throwing. For 1/8- and 1/4-ounce jigs, I highly recommend a high modulus graphite spinning rod with a fast tip between 6 and 7 feet in length — not an ultralight rod! You need plenty of backbone to set the hook into the steely jaws of a big ol' bronzeback. I use G.Loomis rods exclusively; my favorites for lighter bucktails are the SJR783 GLX or their new Bronzeback Series SMR753S-SP, which I helped design. I pair these rods with Shimano Sustain SA2500FD and Stradic ST2500FH spinning reels spooled with 6- or 8-pound fluorocarbon or monofilament line. If you use fluorocarbon on a spinning reel, make sure you don't fill your spool all the way or it'll pop off like a Slinky when you cast! I fish bucktails over 1/4 ounce on baitcasting gear, again with a 6- to 7-foot fast-tip rod. The G.Loomis MBR783C GLX and BCR853 are my two favorites. I prefer Shimano Chronarch and Calcutta TE baitcasting reels spooled with 12-pound fluorocarbon or mono line. Stay away from braided line with bucktails — it floats, which is a negative in current, and it has zero shock-absorbing stretch, which is something you definitely want when you hang a big fish in fast water on a lure with a light wire hook.

WHEN AND WHERE

Anglers in deep, clear reservoirs catch bass on bucktails in water as cold as 38 degrees, but during winter and early spring, Pickwick is normally murky to muddy, and I haven't had much luck on hair jigs until the water warms up to around 48 degrees. I'll fish them until the water hits the mid-60s, when smallmouth go onto their beds, at which time I do better with lizards and tube baits. I go back to bucktails after the spawn during the day until it gets too hot, then switch over to night fishing. These baits are awesome from September through December, as well.

When gunning for a big river smallie, I like to fish bucktails around offshore structure and current-breaking objects. Rockpiles, humps, channel dropoffs, ledges, tributary points swept by current and gravel bars with scattered stumps are all prime bucktail targets. Bass will be anywhere from 3 to 18 feet deep or so, depending on where and when I'm fishing.

SWIMMING RETRIEVE. This works best when current is sweeping across shallow points and gravel bars, and in deeper water anytime current is light to slack.

(A) CAST to your target and let the jig hit bottom.

(B) RAISE the rod to 10 o'clock and begin reeling steadily, just fast enough to keep the bucktail from dragging bottom. If you're hitting bottom, speed up; if you haven't felt bottom, slow down.

(C) BASS often will suck in a swimming jig; if you feel weight on the line, set the hook.

CREWS ON BUCKTAILS

Virginia Elite Series pro John Crews often turns to bucktail jigs in summer, when bass relate to offshore structure. "Bucktails are great tournament lures because they sink quickly and trigger both feeding and reaction strikes," he told Bassmaster.

Stained water, absence of snaggy cover and current are three conditions Crews deems perfect for bucktails.

"They're awesome when bass are holding around long points, humps, sand and gravel bars. Cast to the structure, let the jig sink to the bottom, then snap the rod back so the bucktail hops up suddenly, then glides back down.

They'll hit it as it's falling, so be ready to set the hook!"

For structure fishing, Crews favors the Spro Mud Kicker jig: "It has a flat belly, so it settles back to the bottom with the hook remaining upright instead of rolling over to one side. It also has a realistic head with oversized eyes, so it looks like a live shad. They designed it for fishing saltwater flats but it works great for bass, especially when there's a bunch of big shad in the area."

Crews fishes bucktails on a 7-2 medium-heavy Fenwick Elite Tech Strokin' rod with a 7:1 Abu Garcia Revo reel and 12-pound Trilene fluorocarbon. "The fast-retrieve reel is an absolute must," he said. "You need to pick up slack line in a hurry after you hop the bait or you won't feel the strike."

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