Like most anglers, I am always looking for ways to increase the quality and quantity of the fish I catch—a better hook, a new location, a spot within a spot or, in most cases, a new lure. Lures that revolutionize fishing are relatively rare. A few minutes on the internet produced the Original Creme Wiggler, Floating Rapala, Lunker City Slug-Go, Buel Spoon, Senko, Mepps Aglia, Rapala Jigging Rap, and Ned Rig as game-changers, but I don’t think I would get many arguments about adding hair jigs to that illustrious list. Like many from the inventory above, traditional hair jigs, while innovative, are certainly not new.
The initial marabou jig was created by Bill Ward in 1957, and the first commercially produced bucktail jigs caught fish so well they were standard issue in U.S. Navy pilots’ survival kits during World War II.
Hair Jig Background Information
While using hair jigs for panfish is also not new, it has certainly risen in popularity with ice anglers over the last decade. But, like so many ice-fishing-related innovations, it feels like most Northeast anglers are about 10 years behind their Midwest counterparts (think electronics, cordless drill augers, jigging instead of setting tip-ups, etc.).
Entrenched in my mind is a well-worn InFisherman article from years ago that discussed the benefits of using hair jigs while fishing for Midwestern panfish through the ice. The article showcased a Daphnia (a large and common type of zooplankton) imitation from Jeff’s Jigs and Flies called the Zoo Bug. Today, similar hair jigs are available from a number of small and large manufacturers.
What Panfish Eat in the Winter
- Aquatic Insects
While panfish certainly feed on minnows, many studies I read indicated the majority of their diets consist of zooplankton and aquatic insects. One study looking at crappies showed that their food intake during winter consisted of up to 95 percent Daphnia zooplankton. So, why wouldn’t a small fly meant to imitate these prey sources work?
Last fall, I started my research, first online and then on the ice, using only hair jigs on every panfish trip. While I went down a few rabbit holes, the end results were satisfying, to say the least.
Ice Fishing Gear (Rods & Reels)
I used spinning reels only when fishing hair jigs, but straight-line reels also work very well. To alleviate line twists, which will give the jig an unnatural look and turn fish off, I used soft superlines, a small Spro barrel swivel, and a few feet of quality fluorocarbon leader. I had good success with Power Pro Ice Tec and Berkley Fireline Micro Ice Crystal superlines in 2- to 5-pound test, and I used fluorocarbon leaders that were 4-pound test or less. It helps to stretch out your leader if you start getting twists.
When I started looking for jig rods, I wanted a short, light one with fast action and a very soft tip that still had enough backbone for good hookups and fighting bigger crappies. I found 24- and 26- inch ultralight Sienna and Convergence jig rods paired with size 500 Sienna and Sahara spinning reels to be the perfect combos for fishing these jigs. A similar Jason Mitchell Meat Stick from Clam also worked well, although I swapped out the reel that came with it for a lighter model.
Hair Jig Options
When it comes to the actual hair jigs, there are lots of options, and one of the fun things is that you, or someone you know who ties flies, can make jigs to meet your preference or the forage in the waters you fish. But, let’s start with what is available from stores and online.
While there are a number of choices, I used jigs from two companies:
- Custom Jigs & Spins JaJe Bug Tungsten Ice Fly 1/32-, 3/64-, and 5/64-ounce sizes.
For most of my fishing in less than 20 feet of water, I relied on 1/32-ounce and smaller jigs. I know this seems really small, but most zooplankton are microscopic, and aquatic insects are small as well. The VMCs come with 90-degree hook eyes while the JaJe hooks ride at a 30-degree angle.
How to Tie a Hair Jig
I was lucky last fall to have a new co-worker, Nick Popoff, who is an experienced fly tyer. When I showed him some hair jigs I had ordered, he said, “I can make something like that. Just let me know what patterns and colors you want.”
My text to him that night was relatively simple. Based on my research and knowledge of area waters, I figured four basic patterns should cover any given day on the ice.
- Zooplankton with eyes, tungsten bead, rubber tail
- Nymph with eyes, tungsten bead, no hackle, rubber tail
- Nymph with Tftungsten bead, soft hackle behind bead, rubber tail
A fun and exciting part of making your own jigs (or having them made for you by a friend) is that over the course of a winter, fishing at different depths, for different species, and under different weather conditions, you can fine-tune the colors, styles, and sizes that work best.
Hair Jig Variations
Here is a list of some basic fly-tying items to create many variations of your own hair jigs, along with some basic tips.
- Thread: 6/0 or 3/0 of the preferred color
- Micro silicone legs for rubber tails & head
- Calf tail for tail and head on certain jigs
- Ice dubbing for behind beads
- Mono eyes or small plastic bead chain eyes
- Hareline Countersunk, Plummeting, or Mottled Tactical Slotted tungsten beads (I fished 7/32 inch size, but experiment with different sizes)
- Ahrex Fw550 Mini Jig Barbed hook, Kona USP Scud/Shrimp/Pupa hook, Ahrex Fw540
- Curved nymph hook barbed (I fished size 14, but experiment with other sizes)
- Partridge for hackle head behind bead. Use bottom of the feather to get the marabou effect and do 1 to 2 wraps of it
- For bloodworms, use “squiggly worm/ blood worm rubber” threaded through the bead which requires some patience, or Hareline Frizzle Chenille
- Always put a couple of drops of head cement to lock beads and eyes in place
- I ordered the tungsten beads, hooks, and chenille from Trident Fly Fishing of Windham, Maine
Tipping a Hair Jig with Soft Plastics
Over past years of panfishing, I have tried to move away from using spikes/maggots on my tungsten jigs to tipping them with plastics only. However, more often than not, I found myself relying on that live bait when the bite was slow or the fish were finicky. This all changed when using only hair jigs last winter. While I did sometimes tip mine with plastic, I did not use spikes/maggots a single time, yet I easily caught as many fish as my partners.
If you do choose to tip your hair jig with plastics, some great choices include J and S Ice Mite Junior and Jr’s Jig Tails, Clam’s Maki Plastics Spiki and Polli, Little Atom Wedgees, Custom Jigs and Spins Wedgie, Northlands Impulse Bloodworms and Water Fleas, and Trigger X Mustache Worms (if you can find them).
Hair Jig Techniques
- Subtle twitches
- Slow sink or rise, and another pause
- Random jigs movements make your jig behave like an aquatic insect
Hair jigs fish lightly and drop slowly, which is part of what makes them so deadly on panfish. Besides closely imitating prey, their slow fall is the opposite of what most panfish see these days, given the popularity of tungsten jigs. This attribute makes them great for picking off big panfish in shallow water and can be the key to catching finicky or heavily pressured fish. However, this also means you should carefully assemble your tackle to accommodate the slow drop, be patient when letting out line, and rethink your jigging technique.
The best tackle, line, and hair jigs won’t do much good if you are fishing them wrong, like I did so many years ago. Remember, you are trying to replicate the movements of tiny plankton and insects. Get the standard jig-jig-jig-pause or constant rod tip movement out of your head because zooplankton don’t continuously swim. Think subtle twitches, no movement, a slow sink or rise, and another pause. Random jig movements and pauses will make your jig behave like an aquatic insect. I highly recommend watching videos online to see zooplankton and aquatic insects in action.
Hair Jig Tips
If you don’t see fish on your finder, pound the bottom with a heavy jig to stir up the sediment and then follow up with a hair jig. Try varying depths, and when you see fish on your finder, keep the jig above them and make them commit. Often, once a fish rises up to inspect your jig, others will follow, and their competitive nature will get the better of them.
The natural materials on a hair jig minimize the need for angler-induced movements. Deadstick from time to time and let the fly’s natural materials do the work. Any slight bit of current, wind on your rod tip, or tremble of your hand will make the jig work its magic and entice panfish to bite.
Finally, do not lie your hair jig down because the material will quickly stick to ice and snow, destroying it.
Tie your own or buy some, but either way, give hair jigs a try this winter on your favorite panfish water. The chances are good that you will increase your catch rates and the quality of the fish you ice.
This article was originally published online in February 2021.