Bass Fishing, Bass Lures, Bass Boats, Russ Bassdozer

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Bucktail Hair & Feather Jigs

By Russ Bassdozer

In the beginning. I look back at the origins of my bass fishing life, and I see myself as a young boy not even a teenager, but filled with the same drive to excel at fishing which still permeates my being to this very day. I remember reading many monthly outdoor magazine subscriptions that my parents signed me up for as birthday and holiday gifts. The magazines dazzled me with fantastic-looking (realistic for their day) lures - fat, brightly-painted wooden crankbaits and poppers, flashy metal spoons, skinny balsa minnow plugs, and in-line spinners. I remember spending long hours in local tackle shops deciding which glamorous-looking lure I would spend my carefully saved and counted coins on this time.

Then it happened. By a stroke of luck. I stumbled across the secret fishing grounds of a loosely knit, tight-lipped crew of commercial fishermen. At first, they callously disregarded the young boy who couldn't cast and who tangled them as they drifted their jig-laden lines out into the never-ending flow. But I returned time and again as young boys are sometimes destined to be part of a secret of fish and men that few others would ever know. I took my place with them and drifted my jig-laden line out besides theirs into the never-ending flow...in time becoming one of them.

I looked upon my discovered mentors as the epic "old timers", even though they were no doubt younger in age than I am today. There were no sleek and flashy metal lures that they used, no brightly-painted crankbaits, no poppers or minnow plugs like I had studied in the magazines and plunked down my coins to buy in the stores. Buzzbaits, spinnerbaits, weedless rubber-skirted jigs, and soft plastics had yet to be invented. The old timers simply had a baby food jar full of freshly-scraped and salted pork rind strips plus a dozen newly-wrapped bucktail jigs pressed into a chunk block of styrofoam in the bottom of their fishing bags. The styrofoam block was to keep their handicrafts in perfect shape so as not to flatten out the fluffy hair dressings. I credit the old timers for shaping my fishing life and for pinning my lifelong success very much solely on the single upright hook of a leadhead bucktail jig and pork rind strip. Since those early days, I have caught more saltwater stripers and freshwater smallies and largemouth on hair jigs and pork rind strips than any other lure I have ever fished in my life.

Fast forward to today, and most of the time I fish with modern baits. But is there is such a thing as tradition in today's world of soft plastic bodies, silicone skirts and trailers? Yes, I think that there is. I'd like to tell you about it in this article. Not just for nostalgia's sake, but because I firmly believe that the leadhead bucktail jig with pork rind strip can be an unbeatable combination in the hands of someone who knows - or who learns - how to use it. In this article, I will try to pass along some of what I know about this forgotten lure - so that you may learn to use this old time killer magic. I hope you enjoy reading about it.

Pork rind. Some modern jig fishermen MAY use pork frog chunks, but most use plastic chunks. A very few may even use twin tail pork eels. But pork rind strips are forgotten lures. Many years ago, people used pork rinds religiously as jig trailers before rubber skirts, silicone and soft plastics were invented for fishing. You would use deer tail hair as a skirt, and a pork rind strip as a trailer. You would often shoot your own deer, or get tails from someone who did, and use the belly or back skin of a nice, fat pig to make pork rind. A special razor was needed to remove the hair and any crust on the top side of the skin, as well as all the fat on the other side under the skin. Then you would nail a sheet of skin to a plank, and scrap both sides like crazy to achieve the desired thin diameter. It was pretty hard work! If the skin was still too thick, you'd sandwich it between too plywood planks and flatten it but good with a sledgehammer! You would cut the pork rind into pennant-shaped strips. Bleach them in vinegar for a day, and sometimes clorox for stubborn back skin. Then cure and store them in a big jar of heavy brine solution. Once toughened in brine, you would use a hammer/nail or ice pick to punch a hook hole and scissors to trim the final shape. Then, you would add oily fish skins with a little dark meat still on them, from thick-skinned fish like carp, eels and mullet, into the brine solution in the storage jar for some taste.

You could also use these fish skins as jig trailers, and some people even stitched mullet skins into a tube to slide over fish-shaped wood dowels or store-bought plugs (like Creek Chub Pikies) after the skins cured in the salt. Looked just like a mullet, and the tail action was mesmerizing and snake-like! Same thing with the eel skins, except you didn't have to stitch them, they were tubular already. Just slip them on and tie them at the front. The last 6-8 inches of the tail skins of smaller eel skins were tied onto lighter tin jig heads having coin-shaped "shoulders" molded sideways behind the jig eye. You would drill two holes through the coin on either side of the eye to let water flow through and blow up the eel skin like a rippling ballon as you retrieved it. You would tie it on inside out so the neon powder blue and white color inside the skin was on the outside. Very much the color of a soft shell crayfish. Still quite deadly today! It's a lost art and a lost secret.

Fast forward to today. Unfortunately the correct size strips for bass jigs are not available commercially. What you can do is buy a jar of Uncle Josh Big Boys, which are large pork rind pennants you troll for marlin and tuna. Obviously, you must cut the Big Boys into smaller strips for hair jigs. Three Big Boys come in a jar, and that's enough to cut 30 plus pork strips for freshwater hair jigs.

It really is best if you can see the strips in the jar before you buy them! Why? Because some Big Boys are thicker-skinned than others. Basically, if you want to use pork, you've got to avoid the jars that have thick, stiff skins. When they are stiff like that, they do not produce the desired fluid action. Obviously you are looking for a jar that has wafer thin skins. Of course, if you are "land-locked", then your local tackle shop probably doesn't carry Offshore Big Boys. You can also trim down the Uncle Josh Bass Strip. However, you will not get as many pieces...so it's less economical. You can save a little money with the Big Boys.

The very best, thinnest pork has a supple movement and exudes a concentrated scent and saltiness fresh out of the jar. This life-like movement and scent is no illusion to the fish - pork was alive at one time! Plastic can only imitate these life-like properties of pork. On a final note, some pork can regrettably be too stiff right out of the jar. To soften them, you can put a few drops of glycerin into the jar a few days prior to use. But you must then use them soon, because this softening process also shortens the storage life of the pork.

Pennant shapes. Either with Big Boys or Bass Strips, you are going to cut them into wafer thin, narrow pennant shapes. For bass fishing, it's typically 2 to 4 inches long and 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide at the head, tapering to a thin pointy tail. Just remember, for whatever length and width strips match up to the size of your hair jig, you always want that highly-desirable pennant shape. The head should not be cut squared-off but be tapered in at the head. Trim the front edges like an "opened diamond" cut at the head. If you envision that you are fashioning a pennant-shaped strip that looks exactly like a skinny minnow silhouette - tapering widely at the head and tapering thinly at the tail...that's the ticket!

Exercise caution while cutting. As you know, pork rind is stubborn stuff...and slippery! Not the best thing for scissors and fingers to be struggling over in close proximity to each other. Be careful!

Advantages. On the back of a leadhead jig with a bucktail body, the thin pork rind pennant creates an undulating tail action that is mesmerizing and sinuous! Advantages are porks durability and a fluid, rippling motion and vibration (especially in current flows) that can't be duplicated with soft plastics. In rivers, tidal waters, streams, and areas of current flow, pork strips produce a heavy rippling vibration that attracts gamefish in flowing water. Pork is more fluid and "acts" more nimble than plastic. Most of the delicate, thin-tailed curly worms and grubs on the market today just cannot produce the strong vibrations that stimulate fish to strike like the pork does in current flows.

Pork also is tougher than plastic, which means it will stay on the hook longer - all day or all week - plus the longer you use it, the more fluid and supple it becomes! Another plus is that you won't lose your tail to short-striking fish or to grabby snags that tear the tails off soft plastics.

Disadvantages. Pork occasionally folds over the hook point when a bass inhales it - it is impossible to drive a hook through the folded pork and you lose the bass. However, in recalling many tens of thousands of ocean striped bass, largemouth and smallmouth I have landed on open hook jigs and pork rind strips, I cannot think of more than a handful that I lost in this way. It is far more common to lose them in this way with the bulkier pork frogs.

Fishing tactics. I tend to use hair jigs as lures that imitate preyfish - any kind of preyfish. I fish them horizontally, often casting far and swimming them back steadily like I have some kind of live baitfish out there on the end of my line. The tapered shape of the hair body flows into the tapered shape of the pork pennant. It's got the silhouette of a baitfish, and simply by drifting it along the bottom with a strong flow or reeling it in steadily through quieter water, it's got the glide-along motion of a smoothly swimming baitfish in addition to the shape. That's often all the recognition a bass neeeds to trip the alarm that it's a live preyfish. Most preyfish are only a few inches long, skinny, and essentially "do nothing" most of the day but float and slowly move along rather uneventfully. They just glide along on hardly-noticeable flicks of their tails that propel them forward in a rather straight direction. Those "hardly noticable tail flicks" are exactly what the pork strip sends out visibly and audibly to the bass.

Drifting. Deadstick it without any rod motion. Just cast upcurrent, let it hit bottom, and take in a turn or two so it sweeps downstream barely above bottom. Expect to get hit as it passes 12 o'clock - the lure will do an about face in the current. If you know what you are feeling for, you will feel a tick in the line as the lure does a 180 and starts to stem against the flow. It begins to rise off bottom and sway in the bottom-swirling current - it acts kind of like a cranky kite that doesn't really want to get airborne, but does a lot of side-to-side shearing and waffling before it gets up there. Just hold it there for a while motionless in the current. At times, you will be surprised how long you can just wait for a bite. After that, if you can keep it down near the bottom, then retrieve it against the flow all the way back in. If it's too difficult to keep it near bottom, just reel in, make another cast, and let it swing down, turn and rise up again.

Use the correct weight jigheads to float properly in the flow at hand. Once you feel you have the correct weight, then micro-tune your presentation by trying different head shapes until you find one that let's the lure rise, fall, swirl, and veer off erratically as it swings down and is buffeted by the bottom-bouncing currents.

Keep in mind that a hair jig has less body size, less water displacement, and less buoyancy than a jig with a soft plastic body. The hair jig sinks faster, tends to stay deeper, and gets pushed around a little more sharply by a current.

Swimming. You still need to drift your bait down when faced with lazier currents, but you sometimes cannot deadstick effectively without getting hung up or dragging the bottom - so you need to retrieve line that keeps the bait barely sweeping and waffling up off bottom at the correct slow retrieve speed that matches the lazy current sweep. It's still a lot like the deadstick method described above, with emphasis on getting hit as the jig does the about face at 12 o'clock.

Jigging. A jigging motion can be an effective trigger in areas that have no current to give life to the lure. Keep the rod tip at ten o'clock and reel in slow and straight. Just swim the jig straight back in. Flick the wrist to produce an alluring dart and hesitation every so often. The upstroke of the flick is to lift the lure into position for the downstroke. As you drop the rod tip on the downstroke, it mends the slightest slack into the line so the jig hesitates and flutters downward for just an instant. This is when to expect to get bit!

Colors. Pork rind comes in a few colors - bright green, chartreuse, red, black strips on the top side - all white on the underside. As for jigs, I just stick to white thread, white hair and white pork rind most of the time. A second pattern is to use chartreuse thread to wrap some natural brown hair above the white as if it's a darker dorsal color on a minnow's back. A third pattern (smallies often have a sweet tooth for this) is red thread, chartreuse back/white belly, with a chartreuse/white pork pennant. I don't use dark-colored hair jigs. With dark colored jigs, I believe I am imitating crayfish or bottom-skulking baitfish and I will use black/brown/green soft plastic bodies, not hair jigs.

Jigheads. There are two parts to any jig - a solid head and a flexible tail.  It's a yin/yang relationship where the head imparts action and the limber hair and fluid pork receive that action.

As far as the color of a jighead, it's really not too important. I fish all jigheads unpainted. THE FISH THAT I CATCH COULD CARE LESS. If you make them yourself, as I do, then you know the painting process is the most laborious step in making jigs. Just skip it. It took me years of inhaling paint fumes to learn this one simple truth: jigheads are just molded hunks of metal. Believe me, I used to make some real art museum pieces with up to 7 colors and eleven coats of paint, eyes, sparkles in the clear coat - the works. Unfortunatley, the jighead is not the attraction, the jighead is merely the tool that delivers the skirt/trailer (bucktail hair with porkrind).It is the skirt/trailer that provides the allure, the attraction, the seductive come-hither.

The jighead shape and weight are far more important than its color. The shape of the jighead must be properly designed in order to present your skirt/trailer to fish at the most receptive angle, depth, fall rate, and ANGLER-IMPARTED SPEED & MOTION. This shape needs to react to currents, snake through weeds, bang through rocks, bounce through brush and wood, stay upright off the bottom, and through it all, AVOID SNAGGING OR FOULING WITH DEBRIS. Additionally, the jighead solidly positions how a hook is presented to the fish, and determines how the hook bites and holds a fish. So those are the desirable qualities to look for in a jighead - bait and hook presentation.

The tying collar. An important criteria for selecting the right kinds of jig heads is selecting those that have the right style of lead collar for tying. Overall, there are  three styles of lead collars: for using soft plastics, for using rubber or silicone skirts, and for tying hair and other materials. Click here to read more about How to Find the Right Jig Collar for each of these three different purposes.

The hook itself. The most desirable hook style for the lure we are talking about is an O'Shaughnessy hook. Because many people use pork frogs or plastic chunks, most jig manufacturers today use a wide-gap, round bend hook . The wide, round bend seats the frogs and chunks better than any other hook style. But the round bend is not good for a hair jig and rind. Why? The round bend seats the head of the pork strip down into the fibers of the hair. To the contrary, the O'Shaughnessy hook flies the pork pennant like a flag ABOVE the hairs where the pork will never interfere with the hairs. This allows the hairs themselves to exhibit their full natural movement caused by an unimpeded flow of water around the hairs. It also allows the pork rind itself to develop its full movement due to the independent flow of water rushing over and past it. So the O'Shaughnessy hook separates each component of the lure, and allows each to develop its own unobstructed action and water flow.

This concept of water flow bringing out action from the hair fibers is significant. Proper water flow holds each fiber separate so they do not touch each other. The result is that each hollow hair vibrates and develops resonance when it is held in a flow apart from the other hairs. This "separateness" also allows for a certain degree of see-through or translucence. As each fiber is held apart, you can see between the hairs. This imitates the translucent nature of many preyfish. It also allows for the jig to blend in better with its surroundings, making it appear more natural.

Soft plastics. For the reasons in the above paragraphs, I would never thread a soft plastic trailer up the shank of the hook underneath the fibers or in any other way allow any soft plastic to impede the natural flow of water over the fibers.

Trimming hair. Because of the concepts of flow and vibration within the hollow hairs, I would never trim excess hair off a bushy hair jig by cutting the fibers in half. To do so is to lose the flexible tapered tips of the fibers where most of the action and attraction comes from. You ruin the quivering, breathing action that the hollow hair fiber develops on the retrieve, especially in flowing water! If you must trim an overly brushy jig, it is best to cut the UNDER hairs by snipping them where they are tied on underneath closest to the hook.

To trim an overly long jig, grab the very longest hairs by their tips. Then you pull and separate them all the way out to the sides. While still holding the long tips, you ferret out where they are wrapped, and snip them right where they come out from under the threads. This is very tedious to do, you have to use a very finepoint scissirs, and you almost have to thin the long hairs out one-by-one.

Skirt dressing. Primarily I use bucktail (deer) hair jigs. Either tied on straight or with "spun" collars. You do not want the hair to extend much farther than the bend of the hook. You want a very short, very sparse, and slightly flared bucktail.

Be selective when buying bucktails. The flag, or tail, of deer are of two basic types. One type of flag has coarse, straight, bright white hairs that crush and kink easily. The second type of flag is silkier, more limber and resilient. It has a natural crinkled appearance along the length of the fibers instead of being straight and straw-like. It is not a bright white, but has a milky white lustrous sheen to it. Look for a flag with the needle tips of the fibers ending at varying lengths. In order to build the best bait possible, you do not want fibers that are all an equal length. Finally, even on the desirable second type of flags, there will be some coarse hair near the base of the tail that we do not want to use because it will flare too far under pressure, forming an overall umbrella pattern on the jig. Hair cut from the tip of the tail is the correct choice. It will only flare moderately at the mid-section and then come back together to form a natural streamlined tip - just like the tip on an artist's paintbrush.

So, use the soft, supple, thin hairs with natural glisten and "crinkles" throughout their length. Avoid the straight, straw-like, bright white hollow hairs that bend in half when you flex them in your fingers.

The concept I strive for in the hair is an abstract one. I look for only enough hair to barely cover the hook, and to imitate a baitfish head, a bait's gills breathing, a bloated swaybelly, and to give the illusion of a semi-translucent underbody mid-section - but not the baitfish's entire body. It is the very last few longer tapering tips of the hairs plus the rippling pork pennant that I use to complete the illusion of the upper rear half of the baitfish's body and its tail section.

The jig can be tied sparse, and it's always surprising as to how few hair fibers make the most effective lures. Better too sparse than too thick. Look for hair fibers that are thin and silky as opposed to the coarse, hollow hairs. Look for the needle tips of the fibers to end at varying lenghts - not all the hairs tapering to points at exactly the same spot.

In wrapping the hairs down, you do not want the thread wrapped with a lot of tension, but you do want the fibers to flare out a bit...to greate a bulge right behind where they are wrapped...but you only want the "shoulder" to flare out. You do not want the entire length of the fibers to flare out widely...especially not the tips. You want the very tips to naturally come to a point like an artist's paint brush. The overall effect of the hair tips and body shape is that the fibers should have a nicely puffed out appearance right behind where they are wrapped, and it should bulge out to its widest point about mid-way down the overall length of the dressing, Beyond mid-way, you should notice that many of the needle tips of the hairs should be sticking out from the body section...that is, many of the needle tips were too short to make it all the way to the end, and some of them start fading out of the picture even before reaching the hook bend...THAT IS JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED! In fact, not a whole lot of the tips should have made it too far. If only less than half of the fibers are long enough for their tips to extend about 1/2 to 1 inch past the hook (this distance varies in proper proportion to the hook size and total body length). The overall effect forms what I will refer to as a "thin, elongated football" shape. You will be able to see through this shape, as will a fish. This gives the hair body a certain measure of living translucence.

Thread wraps. It is important to only use the very thinnest, strongest diameter of thread possible. Wrap only enough of a thread layer to cover the cut ends of the fibers. Now use a thin covering solution to seal the threads and to wick into the cut ends of each and every hollow fiber. It is very important to seal the cut fiber ends, thereby making them waterproof and trapping the air filled inside them. It is this air filling that allows the fibers to develop breathing action on the retrieve. Just use the slighest amount of sealant to do the job. Do not build up a bulky thread head, Do not use a glob of epoxy to build a "head n' shoulders". The only thing a big head does is obstruct the direct water flow and dampen out the desirable movement that water flow gives as it hits the hair body the way I recommend you tie it. Remember, a sparse hair body and less thread is often better than overdoing it.

That's fowl. Many people are familiar with marabou (turkey) feather jigs, but few jig fishermen have ever seen a saddle hackle (chicken) jig. These are the same long thin delicate feathers that are all the rage for everyone to use on the back of their topwater poppers nowadays.

The very best feathers are "strung saddle hackles" of the highest QUALITY grade (so important!). What that means is that the feather merchant sets aside the softest, longest, supplest feathers, which are then strung onto a long line by a laborer using needle and thread. You want the grade of strung hackles which are 5 to 6 inches long. You really only will be able to make jigs that max out with about 3 to 4 inches of dressing. This is because you will clip off and discard the fuzzy part, called the "hurl," which covers about one-third the length down near the butt end of the "quill." You will be tying only the neat, gauze-like webby filaments that cover two-thirds the length of the feathers towards the tip.

Only problem is that high quality "strung" feathers this long are darn hard to find. You will probably have to buy bulk if you can even find it - and it is expensive. You will probably want to go down and hand-pick the strings (which are rolled up into coils) that you will buy. But if you are a jig fishin' nut, it's definitely worth your while to find these good "strung" hackles. These high quality feathers plump up in the water like ballpark franks on a grill! The lure flattens into a streamlined shape as it shoots forward , then swells up as though breathing when stopped. They exhibit what I can only describe as a living, supple, fleshy kind of appearance and action when wet.

If you decide to take the easy way out and settle for the "loose" stuff that you usually see jumbled into plastic bags at flyfishing stores, you will still be able to wrap and catch fish with this stuff, but the "loose" feathers get rough, dull and brittle, and tend to lose desirable qualities (suppleness, fleshiness, sheen, glossy webbing, etc.).

To wrap, snip the center stem of about 6 to 8 hackles with a very pointy scissors. Snip right where the fuzzy marabou-like part of the feather gives way to the webbed filaments. You do not want to tie using any of the fuzzy, frizzy part at all...so use your fingers to strip any last fuzzy piece and/or strip a few webbed filaments off the stem, just enough to give you a bare stub of stem to wrap under the thread, okay? Now, start wrapping the longest feathers first. Right side, left side, right, left, right, left... for 6 to 8 feathers...wrap the longest ones first and the shortest ones last. Never wrap on the top or bottom of the hook..only the left and right sides. It is perfect if there a gap from top to bottom between the two halves - it creates water flow, enhanced movement and vibration. Overall, you are looking to wrap a pennant-shaped dressing.

What more do you need to know? Well, it would have been pretty sneaky of me not to say that the "inside" of the feather MUST BE WRAPPED FACING THE INSIDE of the jig. The final effect is called the "praying hands" method of feather-tying.

Colors are basically white. As far as the color of a feather jig, itís really not too important relative to the other desirable qualities - action, shape, movement, water displacement, breathing. Usually, the color is neither the attraction nor the trigger, It is the material and tying technique that provides the allure, the attraction, the seductive come-hither.

At times I will wrap 2 or 3 pink or chartreuse feathers onto the jig first, then wrap over them with 4 or 5 longer white hackles. Just put the pink or chartreuse on first so that the whites kind of overshadow it. As with bucktail tying, a sparse dressing and less thread is always better than overdoing it with too many fathers.

Finished wrapping all the feathers? Now just put the slighest amount of sealant solution on the thread wraps closest to the hook eye. The sealant will wick back into the rear-most threads just fine. But be very careful it doesn't wick up into the feathers. That's all there is to tying a feather teaser. Use an O'Shaughnessy hook in the jig. Use a thin lace of pork strip flying above the feathers.

Well, there's even more to it, but that's all that I have time for now. Thank you if you have read this far! I did not mean to imply that hair and feather jigs are any better - or worse - than the soft plastic and silicone creations of today. All jigs, and the memories that they make for us, are only as good as the hands that drift their jig-laden lines out into the never-ending flow.

 
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