Finessing Coldwater Bass

Learn how to trigger coldwater bass strikes with small deer-hair jigs

The waters were clear and still on Long Island’s Laurel Lake as I pushed off from the southern bank and eased myself toward the mouth of a large cove. Gliding to a full stop along a slope just shy of the shallows, I tossed a small black hair jig tipped with a bright red trailer as far ahead as I could and allowed it to settle softly toward the bottom. It took only a few light twitches of my rod tip before the first bigmouth of the new year came tight at the end of my line.

I love using hair jigs in cool water, especially in the early spring when largemouths have yet to shake off their winter lethargy and small lures are necessary to trigger strikes. Like most hair jig aficionados, I appreciate a small jig’s ability to drop slowly though the water column when matched with a suitable trailer. I love the hair jig’s slender profile and subtle action when worked with barely a twitch of the wrist, and its ability to interest everything from sunnies and perch to pickerel, trout, bucketmouths and bronzebacks.

Paul Mueller’s favorite hair jig/trailer combos and colors for fall bass

Paul Mueller’s favorite hair jig/trailer combos and colors for fall bass include, from left to right: ¼-ounce brown Craw Punisher hair jig with a green/pumpkin/silver Reins Ring Craw; a 3/8-ounce camo Punisher with a green/pumpkin/silver Reins Punchin’ Predator; a 3/8-ounce black/purple Punisher with a black and blue laminate Reins Punchin’ Predator; and a ¼-ounce black and blue Punisher with a black Reins Ring Craw.

Like many fellow fishermen, I also tend to put them away once the water warms up. I load them together in a single, small Plano box that eventually works its way to the deepest recess of my tackle bag until the following spring when hair jigs resurface as one of my go-to choices.

A Jig For All Seasons

“You should be using those jigs in the fall, too,” chided Paul Mueller one afternoon last winter as we chatted by phone about the prospect of coming up with an article on these productive offerings. “In fact, you should be using them all year long to some degree. They really are lures for all seasons if you consider the many different weights, styles, and sizes. In the fall, though, you’d be surprised at how big a bass they can tempt.”

Reins Punchin’ Predator

Reins Punchin’ Predator

Mueller, a 32-year old professional bass angler and Connecticut fishing guide who has finished as high as second at the Bassmaster Classic, is one guy who gives hair jigs their due throughout the year. Although he’ll toss them at any point when a slender, slow-sinking finesse presentation is necessary, he favors hair jigs in extreme water temperatures of 55 degrees or cooler during spring and fall, or 80 degrees and warmer in the heat of summer. Still, it is during late autumn when he usually sees these lures pull the largest bucketmouths and bronzebacks.

“If you aren’t tossing these lures during October, November, and December, you’re missing out,” says the man who set the Bassmaster Classic record in 2014 for a one-day, five fish limit at 32 pounds, 3 ounces. “When the water gets cold and bass move deep, a hair jig can be the best choice in your arsenal.”

No matter what time of the year you use them, hair jigs are extremely versatile. By choosing a different weight, head shape, profile, or trailer, you can adjust the drop rate or approximate just about any kind of forage on which the bass may be feeding. If you balance it out just right, you can saturate an area by fishing these lures slowly and thoroughly working each spot. On water with a hard or rocky bottom, you’ll probably want your jig and trailer to resemble a crayfish, since that’s a prime coldwater food source. On shallow, weedy lakes, however, you might want to approximate a baitfish, perch or small bluegill.

“The drop rate is very important when fishing in cold water,” explains Mueller, “Generally speaking, the colder it gets, the more inactive the fish are, so they are more likely to hold near the bottom. To tempt these fish and score with any consistency, you should use both a slow drop rate and a painfully slow retrieve. Once you get that lure down to the bottom, keep it in the strike zone by just barely giving it a twitch. Most anglers work these lures way too fast.”

Smooth Transitions

Mueller believes that fall fishing is perfectly suited to working hair jigs for several reasons. For one thing, he notes, bass moving off the shore and into deeper water love to hug the bottom and feed on crayfish, so a hair jig with a trailer matches up well. Second, he explains, the fall season sees a smoother transition as the fish move along than the spring because the weather is less chaotic.

“During the spring, you’ve got fresh fronts rolling in all the time, with a lot of wind and weather that varies greatly from day to day,” says Mueller. “In the fall, it may be growing steadily colder, but you get more stretches of consistency. There will usually be several days between fronts, which allows both largemouths and bronzebacks to hold at a particular depth or in a certain area for a while before they need to make adjustments. This behavior makes their patterns more predictable and reliable from trip to trip. The spring fish moving into the shallows are also easy to spook, while bass making their way toward deeper water in the fall tend to be less skittish as they put more water over their heads.”

Smallmouth bass are just as susceptible to a big hair jig as are largemouths.

Smallmouth bass are just as susceptible to a big hair jig as are largemouths. “Maybe even more so,” says Mueller.

When tossing hair jigs to fall bass, Mueller looks for areas of deep water that are close to shallows or sharp slopes. Such spots allow bass to easily slide inshore or offshore when there are sharp changes in water temperature, but if temps decrease at a less drastic rate they will move more gradually toward deeper water. He prefers to work hard bottom when using hair jigs, especially in waters where crayfish are available.

“I’ll use my electronics to find submerged boulders, stumps, sunken logs or other serious structure,” continues Mueller. “Then I’ll concentrate on the biggest piece I can find in any particular stretch – that’s usually the sweet patch. As rule at any time of the year, large pieces of isolated cover attract big bass. The largest pieces also seem to hold the most crayfish.”

One edge Mueller depends on when scoping out potential hotspots is his Garmin Panoptix system, a forward-looking sonar package with the transducer mounted on the front of the trolling motor. Using it, he can move down the bank, line up a rock or other piece of hard structure with his motor shaft, and clearly see his lure fall through the water column after making a cast.

“With Panoptix,” Mueller says, “I know immediately if I’m in the right spot because I can see every detail of submerged cover, which makes me more efficient. I know exactly where the strikes come from so I can isolate prime water and quickly eliminate areas that aren’t fishy enough. Once I get that first strike at a specific depth, I can start to formulate a pattern.”

The Nitty Gritty

In the fall, Mueller is almost always looking for hard bottom. Even in grassy lakes, he’ll try to find a hard spot adjacent to deeper grass beds because these areas are healthier. Deeper grass doesn’t die off as fast as the shallow stuff, he notes, and can stay healthy all year long. For bass, hard bottom next to healthy grass is like a buffet. Crayfish love these transition areas, small baitfish hide in the blades, perch come in and out, and the weeds may even help keep the immediate waters more oxygenated.

Whether working solid structure or hard bottom bordering weeds, Mueller’s favorite fall hair piece is the original Punisher jig. He’ll toss camo (brown and green) on cloudy days and straight black on sunny days; in stained water, however, he prefers either black and blue or black and purple. Punisher hair jigs come in four sizes: 1/8, 3/16, 1/4 and 3/8 ounces. Muller favors the two larger options in the fall because he wants a little heavier and larger profile when working deeper water—with the hope of hooking a lunker. Although the Punisher will work with or without a trailer, Mueller always tips his offering.

Punisher Jig

Punisher Jig

“The Punisher is like a finesse jig with a larger-gauge hook,” explains Mueller. “One thing I really like about it is the hair, which is a synthetic acrylic that doesn’t compress in the water. The hair holds its body, but it also has a very natural flowing motion similar to what you’d find with a marabou jig. It really has that live, injured look that hawg bass love. I use the quarter-ounce size for rocky areas in eight- to fifteen-foot depths, but for deeper water, I like the three-eighths-ounce jig. If the lakes you fish are shallower than eight feet, try the one-eighth- or three-sixteenths-ounce size.”

Reins Ring Craw

Reins Ring Craw

In terms of trailer selection, Mueller usually opts for a three-inch Reins Ring Craw if working shallows. This soft plastic has bulky claws that float a bit so it slows the descent of the jig, which then stands up like a crawfish in a defensive position after it hits the bottom. It also has a very tight action and very little in the way of erratic movement, which matches up well to fish and baits in cold water.

For deeper bass, the Reins Punchin’ Predator is Mueller’s go-to hair jig trailer. This offering has a very subtle action and very thin appendages on its back. It undulates enticingly while dropping and, like the Ring Craw, the material floats so it slows the descent and then stands off the bottom. Mueller cuts off the first inch of the trailer and then pushes it tight against the jig’s head. He then secures it with a dab of Super Glue to lock it in place over multiple hook-ups. Once rigged, he’ll dip his trailer in Smelly Jelly XXX crawfish scent. Dip the trailer only and not the hair, as the latter will compress from the slime and mess up its action.

Smelly Jelly XXX crawfish scent

Coat your trailer with Smelly Jelly XXX crawfish scent, but don’t apply it to the hair jig, as it will take away from its action.

As for trailer colors, Mueller likes to match his trailer to the color of the jig he’s using. He’ll generally pair a green/pumpkin/silver trailer with a camo jig, and match a black or a black-and-blue trailer with a black jighead. He prefers black in clear water, black and blue in dingy water, or black and purple in semi-clear water on days when the sun shines bright.

Slow It Down

Some anglers favor lightweight conventional gear for its high sensitivity when fishing hair jigs, but Mueller likes spinning gear. He’ll match a 7- to 7-1/2-foot medium-heavy Dobyns Champion series 704 SF rod to a Lew’s Team Pro Speed Spin TLP 3000 spinning reel. This reel has a wide spool that helps increase casting distance when using light lures. The long rod, explains Mueller, helps take up slack line and puts a little backbone into the strike when a bass inhales a jig at a distance.

“I use braided line about ninety percent of the time when casting hair jigs,” notes Mueller. Considering the light weight of these jigs and the long casts necessary for fall bass, sensitivity can be an issue. With standard Gamma 15-pound Spectra Torque Braid and an 8-to 12-foot leader of 8- or 10-pound-test Gamma Edge fluorocarbon leader, Mueller can feel the slightest tic or pick-up. “I use a double uni-knot to connect the leader to my main line because there’s very little stretch in this arrangement, and that makes for solid hook-ups.

Listen to Mueller carefully and you’ll hear him stress again and again that once you get the drop rate right, the biggest key to success with these lures is to work them slowly.

“The whole deal is that you want to crawl and twitch these lures along the bottom, adding a lot of pauses to the retrieve,” he emphasizes. “When you pause, they’ll settle on the bottom and strike stand-up crayfish poses, which is often more than any self-respecting bass can handle. Also, it’s important to use your hair jigs around heavy structure as much as possible. They aren’t efficient for covering a lot of water, but they excel at methodically mining a known hotspot. It’s a boring type of fishing, really—until you get that first solid strike. Once it happens, note the depth, and then it’s off to the races.”

  1. peter

    really great stuff.
    you can read forever, but you have to go out on water and learn it yourself.
    have fished with Paul and he is an honest to goodness real pro fisherman.
    Great article.

    Reply

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