by Capt. Bert Deener
Pitching jigs in swift water to shoreline current breaks for stripers… dragging across a blowdown tree for largemouth bass… trolling deep in an upland reservoir for stripers… casting to eddies in mid-Atlantic rivers for smallmouths… and casting to busting stripers in the Chesapeake Bay.
This varied list of fishing applications were all fulfilled by an often forgotten material—deer hair, usually referred to as “bucktail.” If you have that deer-in-the-headlights look, just ask your grandpa about bucktails. Two generations ago, before the proliferation of plastic lures, bucktail jigs were a staple, especially for saltwater species. While most of the pegs in your favorite tackle shop are laden with soft and hard plastic baits, there are likely a few pegs with the blah-looking hunk of lead and plain-looking hair. Once you understand just how adaptable these hair-bodied lures are, you will linger longer in that section when selecting fishing lures in the future.
Bucktails are so versatile that there are hundreds of applications for them. Two of the more effective presentations with bucktail jigs are for smallmouths in rivers and for striped bass in saltwater and reservoirs, and these are the two I will focus upon.
Three decades ago, bucktail jigs were a staple in any river smallmouth angler’s tackle box. They were small, bulky ties intended to imitate a crayfish rather than baitfish. An Uncle Josh #101 pork frog was the usual trailer, but small plastic crayfish trailers were starting to be accepted. These miniscule offerings were (and still are) incredibly effective when cast to edges between still and moving water or dragged through slack water created behind boulders. When a smallmouth inhales the jig, you feel a tell-tale “tick,” and slam the hook home. The sizes I most often use are 1/8- and 1/4-oz., and crayfish colors usually work best. Olives, blacks, and browns get the nod most of the time when chasing smallmouths.
Striped bass aficionados are the most likely to use a bucktail jig today. Coastal tackle shops in the mid-Atlantic striper areas typically have many pegs filled with a variety of the natural hair jigs. Bucktail jigs have no fancy wobble like a swimbait or plastic crankbait. But, what they lack in show, they make up in effectiveness. The long, hollow hair catches water and sways enticingly like a baitfish just kind of “hanging out.”. That is what triggers the predatory instincts in the linesides.
My favorite way to present a bucktail is to cast to current breaks, such as bridge or dock pilings. Stripers will hold in the current breaks and wait for baitfish to wash by them. Figure out the correct angle of presentation, and you will score. Most anglers fish the back eddie, working the bucktail through the swirling current. This can be very effective, but on the Savannah River in Georgia, I have had the best fortune by fishing the bulge of water immediately upstream of the piling. The hydraulics of the piling create a small area where a striper can sit and wait for a meal. I approach the piling upcurrent and plunk a heavy bucktail upstream of the piling. I let the jig freefall until it hits bottom and then methodically work it into position until it is near the piling. It is tricky getting just the right depth and angle, but the effort is rewarded with a hard-charging striper ripping through pilings. For this presentation, leave the light equipment at home. Heavy-action rods in the 7-foot range and 50-lb. test braided line are the norm. Braid cuts through the current better than mono, and gives you a better feel on the take. For heavy current, 2-oz. jigs are not out of the question, but I love it when the flow lets me get away with a 3/4- to 1-oz. version. Lots of colors have fooled stripers, but it is hard to go wrong with either white or chartreuse bucktail jigs. I often use white in clear to slightly stained water, and chartreuse when the water is dingy.
Trolling is another popular approach in the mid-Atlantic striper fisheries. Fancy umbrella rig spreads including big plastic shads are very popular during winter and early spring when the giant “rockfish” are around, but a smaller boat can score by trolling single bucktails. Find a productive area, such as a feeding flat or point, and pull several bucktails until you figure out what size, depth, and speed you need to get bit. To keep your baits shallower, you can use a smaller head, increase your trolling speed, or add a trailer to your jig (for example, a plastic eel or shad). To deepen your presentation, just do the reverse. With trolling, you can use lighter tackle than pitching to cover, as the fish are typically fought in open water.
Landlocked striped bass can also be fooled with a well-placed bucktail, whether trolled or cast. I have had great success on Clarks Hill Reservoir in Georgia by trolling a spread with a variety of sizes of bucktails to cover the water column. I constantly watch my depthfinder and GPS speed to try to figure out how to effectively present the baits to feeding fish. Dial in the perfect speed and jig size, and the rods will stay bent.
Next time you are chasing striped bass or smallmouths, give the oft-forgotten natural bucktail jig a try.