A bucktail jig is such a simple thing — just a bit of hair tied to a hook with a scrap of lead molded onto it. But it’s proof that a lure doesn’t need to be complex, or imitate anything in particular, to catch the heck out of some fish.
Hair-dressed jigs were one of the first lures to be mass-produced, right after spoons. Their versatility is amazing — you can catch almost any predatory fish almost anywhere in the world, as proved by the fact that they were included in military-issue survival kits for many years (though not today — the current version has spoons but no bucktails). They come in various sizes and can be fished in deep or shallow water. If it swims, there’s probably a bucktail to catch it.
Bucktail jigs are rarely made with actual bucktail anymore, though a few higher-end manufacturers still use real deer hair. The vast majority are made using feathers or nylon filaments.
Hair and feathers both have a pulsing action in the water. As you pull the lure toward you, the material straightens. Pause it, even for an instant, and the fibers spread back out. This action looks like something alive, though it’s hard to say what the fish think it is. The only thing that moves anything like that is a squid. I think it’s just the general “life-like” quality that makes fish grab it.
Nylon really is a poor substitute for deer hair; it’s much more rigid. However, when you’re fishing on a grassy flat, that can be good — it acts like a weed guard, helping keep the vegetation off your hook. It’s also much more durable than feathers and lasts longer than deer hair. When you’re catching Spanish mackerel or other toothy customers, nylon will last longer.
The bucktail jig is to saltwater fishing what the soft plastic worm is to bassing. With an artificial worm, you can catch bass in any habitat and at any time of year.
With a bucktail, you can catch trout, redfish, pompano, flounder, grouper and a laundry list of other species. You may find you have to play around with colors and sizes to get bit, but at least you know you’re experimenting with a lure that’s as close to a sure thing as exists in the world of hook-and-line fishing.
There are several different ways you can fish with a bucktail. They are surprisingly good trolling lures, both inshore and offshore. You can cast one out and just reel it back in at a pretty good clip; this gives the same action as trolling and is a good method to use on aggressive fish.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you can drag the lure slowly across the bottom with occasional small hops. Pompano, flounder, redfish and other bottom feeders like a bait fished this way. You can also fish it with broad sweeps or short hops though the middle of the water column; this appeals to trout and especially ladyfish. Snook specialists sometimes walk along a pier or bridge with a white bucktail dangling in the water below.
To add to the bucktail’s versatility, you can pair it with any of the virtually unlimited soft plastics on the market today. A soft plastic bait can do several things: It can make the bait more buoyant, which means it stays in the strike zone longer when you’re targeting suspended fish. It can add more motion to the bait, since most soft plastics are designed to swim or ripple through the water.
If you use a scented soft plastic, that adds a whole new dimension of appeal to another of your target’s prey-hunting senses. For that matter, you can also use a chunk of cut shrimp or even a whole small baitfish.
Bucktails come in pretty much any color you can think of, but I’ll give you the following advice: Mustard yellow should always be in your box. That’s not to say other colors aren’t great — white, white with red and white with green are excellent basics, and pink is sort of standard for pompano and flounder. But chartreuse is undoubtedly the one you should always have with you, no matter what you’re planning to target.
As with other lures, there’s a lot of competition between bucktail makers and that has resulted in some innovations, such as patterns that are designed to imitate greenbacks, mullet and other baitfish. Fish them if you think they’ll catch fish, and they probably will.
The pompano jig is a specialized type of bucktail that has a much shorter skirt, ending at or just past the bend of the hook. Some pompano jigs have extra-heavy heads as well. Both are changes to help you catch more fish. The head keeps the lure on the bottom in the surf, where pompano look for food, and also produces a puff of sand every time it hits the bottom, bringing curious pomps over to investigate. The short skirt helps you hook notoriously short-striking pompano.
There’s a significant price range on bucktails, more than on many other lures. Heavier jigs have more materials (especially lead), and that’s not cheap. A jig made with higher quality materials naturally costs more, and it makes sense to buy one with a decent hook and well-tied skirt. Deer hair models also cost more, because that material is less abundant than nylon.
Some of the more expensive bucktails also have extra detailing, such as scaled bodies, lifelike eyes and more intricate color patterns. Again, if you think this will help you catch more fish, go for it — you might be right. I prefer to spend money on quality construction rather than flash.
In the fishing tackle world, a lot of the focus is on lures that look as similar to real baitfish as the manufacturers can make them. But to a fish, if it looks like it’s alive and trying to get away, that’s something worth trying to eat. That’s why there will always be a spot in my tackle bag for an assortment of bucktail jigs. They just plain catch fish, and they always will.
Robert Lugiewicz is the longtime manager of Fishin’ Frank’s (4200 Tamiami Trail Unit P, Charlotte Harbor) and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Contact him at 941-625-3888.