Is the bucktail jig the most versatile and effective lure ever invented? Many experienced saltwater fishermen would say so. A bucktail can be fished in a number of ways in varying conditions, from shore as well as from boat. It can imitate a number of prey items, including baitfish, squid and shrimp. And, it will catch a wide variety of fish. Here in southern New England, I have landed striped bass, bluefish, hickory shad, false albacore, fluke, scup, black sea bass, sea robins and white perch using bucktail jigs. I doubt any other lure can boast such a hit parade of success.
As a testament to the bucktail jig’s effectiveness, consider this fact. Back in World War II, the U.S. Navy packed a bucktail jig and handline into survival kits for sailors and pilots to catch fish in an emergency. To this day, the jig and handline is used as survival equipment by Navy Seals. Has any other lure ever gotten such an honorable endorsement?
Bucktail Jig Styles and Sizes
The serious bucktail jig fisherman carries an arsenal of jig sizes and styles that will cover a number of fishing situations and imitate a variety of prey items. Larger bucktail jigs weighing 1 to 3 ounces work well in deep water and fast-moving currents. These big jigs are great imitators of squid, a favored prey item of stripers and blues. I especially like the “Smilin’ Bill” style when using large jigs. Smaller jigs from ¼-ounce to 1 ounce are great to use in shallow water, and they imitate different types of small baitfish such as bay anchovies and peanut bunker. When using jigs in this size range, I tend to favor the flathead or “Upperman” style. Finally, I like to carry a bunch of what I call micro jigs. These are generally 1/8-ounce round-head jigs to be used on light tackle. They imitate really small stuff, such as grass shrimp and tiny baitfish. They are very effective in quiet backwaters and estuaries for smaller predators such as schoolie stripers, small blues, hickory shad and white perch.
There is one more essential component to your bucktail jig arsenal, and these are what I call “enticers.” They are very important to use, as they are like the icing on the cake in the world of bucktail jig fishing. While the deer hair on a bucktail jig undulates and moves alluringly on the retrieve, you can double the action and effectiveness of your offering by adding an enticer. These trailers are threaded onto the jig’s hook. A popular form of enticer is a plastic grub tail. I especially like the grub tails on the small jigs under 1 ounce. I favor Bass Pro “triple ripple” tails in a white color and carry bags of them that range from 1 to 4 inches in length. The 1-ounce jigs take the bigger tails, and the inch-long tails work well with the micro jigs. For my large jigs over an ounce, I often use pork rind enticers or soft-plastic stickbaits, such as the Hogy 6-inch skinny model.
Locations and Structure
There is no better place to use a jig than in deep, moving water. There are many examples of this type of place in New England. We have the breachways of Rhode Island, the Cape Cod Canal, and many inlets and river mouths from the Cape up to Maine. Large predators set up along the bottom in these flows, and a large hotlips-style bucktail jig weighing more than an ounce is just the ticket to get down where the fish lurk in wait for a meal to come their way. In these situations where the water moves, cast cross-current and let the jig settle to the bottom. After you cast, feather the line with your index finger as it comes off the reel’s spool until you feel a momentary slack in the line, letting you know the jig has hit bottom. At that point, begin a very slow retrieve by simply pulling the rod tip upwards to get a bounce on the jig. Keep bouncing the jig until the line straightens in the moving current. Once that happens, the jig has risen off the bottom and is out of the strike zone. Retrieve your offering, cast and repeat the process. If you are in a boat and drifting in deep water, lower the jig and bounce the rod tip as you move. You might want to occasionally let line out of the reel to make sure you are still on the bottom. I’ve taken countless keeper bass in both daylight and nighttime using these techniques.
A few years back, I met my son Chris at the Galilee Channel in Narragansett, Rhode Island to try our luck at fishing big jigs. It was daytime, not a particularly good time to fish this spot, and the tide was coming in, which is not the best tidal stage either. But, Chris was in-between classes at URI and this seemed to be the only time to get out this day. After some suggestions on how to fish the jig along here, he tossed it cross-current, let it sink, and began to do the “bucktail bounce.” Within a few casts, I noticed his rod in a strained arch, and he was struggling to control a large fish that was tearing off line. After a tug-of-war struggle in some fast waters, we soon had a good-sized striped bass onto the rocks, his first big one on a bucktail jig in this spot. If we can get fish that size on the wrong tide and the wrong time of the day, you can just imagine what happens at night on the outgoing tides.
Bucktail jigs also work well in shallow, rocky areas, especially in a white-water surf. This type of terrain can be found all along the New England shoreline in places like the Newport surf, the Narragansett shoreline, along the North Shore of Massachusetts and into southern Maine. In white-water conditions with an onshore wind, small baitfish are usually driven close to shore. These conditions are ideal for the float and jig. I will use a wooden egg float and attach about 3 feet of heavy monofilament onto one end of the float and a small jig (a ½-ounce flathead is good) at the terminal end. The advantage of the float in this situation is twofold. It makes for a great casting weight into the wind and it keeps the jig above the snags. After casting, simply retrieve slowly as the wind-driven surf, waves and current will impart the action. For those fishing from a boat, you can cast and retrieve as you do from shore. You might also just drift this offering with rod in a holder. This float fishing technique is deadly when small bait such as bay anchovies and peanut bunker are around and the predators are fussy.
One of my best outings using the float and jig occurred at Point Judith, Rhode Island, in a stiff northeast wind that was blowing right into my face. This was a day in which a 15- to 20-yard cast was an accomplishment. However, most fish seemed to be right at my feet at the high tide. One cast after another with the float and jig produced schoolie after schoolie. However, I suddenly hooked up with a big fish that began tearing line from my Van Staal reel and it had my St. Croix Mojo surf rod bent in half. I figured it was a big striper upwards of 25 pounds, however when I got it close to shore, I discovered it had blue sides rather than stripes. It was a big blue, at least in the low teens. As luck would have it, the small jig was barely stuck to its lip away from its sharp teeth. It would turn out to be the biggest blue I would catch that season.
There are many times when I will go with just a small jig of ¼-ounce to 1 ounce with no float. Usually calmer conditions or a wind at my back dictate this use. In most cases I am using the flathead jig with a 3- or 4-inch curly tail as an enticer. I will usually fish this along moderately deep rocky shores or sandy beaches. Jigs in this size range are great imitators of small baitfish such as bay anchovies or peanut bunker that we find around in the fall. When fishing with only the jig at the end of your line, you want to reel it in slowly with an occasional bounce of the rod tip. That sets up a quick up-and-down darting motion to your offering that predators seem to enjoy attacking.
One of the best examples of this type of fishing occurred two falls ago along the rocky shores of Narragansett, Rhode Island. I was fishing with my third son, Ben. The baitfish, bay anchovies, were stacked up against rocks along Hazard Avenue and looked like a ribbon of black in the water. Fish were whirling and lazily slurping up all the bait they wanted, so they were tough to fool. Those fishermen using large plugs could catch nothing. So, we began to fish small, ¼-ounce flathead jigs under the schools of bait. This small jig was the perfect size and had the movement (with the 3-inch curly tails) to lure the fish into hitting. Ben and I started to catch one fish after another, but rarely were two fish in a row the same species. We ended up catching blues, stripers, and even some large scup. It was a perfect example of the jig’s effectiveness for multiple species of fish.
Playing it really light is another way to fish the bucktail jig. I like to hit the quiet, backwater estuaries using 1/8-ounce micro jigs. These small jigs are especially effective at catching small schoolies and hickory shad in the backwater spots along Rhode Island’s south shore. In order to cast these light offerings, you will need to use very light tackle. In my truck, I keep a small twig of a rod, a freshwater 5-footer that is more suited for trout. It sports a small reel with just 4-pound-test line. It’s a very light setup, but it works well for fish under 24 inches.
A few years ago, I got a major shock late in the season when fishing one of the backwater ponds with this setup. I was actually fishing for hickory shad. I figured I would finish the night off there before heading home, and I was hoping to catch a few shad using a white, 1/8-ounce round-head bucktail jig that had a 1-inch curly tail. It was late in the year, just prior to Thanksgiving, yet there were still a few shad around as I saw a fish whirling along the surface. I actually caught a few. Then, I had a hit and hooked a fish that tore line from the reel as it bolted along the bottom. I could only hope the 4-pound-test would hold. This was no shad. I knew I had a striper, and a good one at that. The fish proved to be over 30 inches and would be my last keeper of that year along the oceanfront.
There are many different manufacturers of bucktail jigs in an array of styles and sizes. Still, many fishermen like to make their own bucktail jigs, homemade creations that offer a sense of personal accomplishment when you catch a fish on a lure you made. Some, like myself, go through the whole process of pouring lead into molds, painting, and tying on bucktail. Others buy the blanks and simply paint and tie.
Classic bucktail jigs might be an “old school” offering, but don’t be fooled into thinking that today’s plastic lures can take their place. There are many molded-plastic jigs on tackle shop shelves, and some realistic-looking soft-plastic baits that can be threaded onto jigheads, that can most certainly compete with bucktail jigs as effective fish catchers in many fishing situations. Yet the bucktail jig remains a unique lure worthy of several spots in your lure bag for a number of reasons.
One reason is that the bucktail jig is far more durable than most soft-plastic jigs. They can stand up to the bite of bluefish, although you may have to replace your-soft-plastic trailer. These toothy critters will eventually destroy the hair on your bucktail jig after a few fish, but you can simply take it home and retie. Also, the bucktail jig has a unique way of hugging the bottom in deep, moving water. Plastics tend to be more buoyant than a bucktail jig, and they tend to ride up in a current, making it difficult to maintain contact with the bottom. This is why the bucktail jig is the more effective lure in a deep water channel or outflow when the fish are holding near the bottom.
Bucktail jigs are time-tested lures that remain one of the most effective fish catchers you can snap or tie onto your line. They can be fished in a number of ways in varying locations from shore and boat, and they will catch just about anything that swims in the ocean. For these reasons, fall is prime time to fish the bucktail jig. During the fall run, schools of bass and bluefish mix together and patterns and conditions are constantly changing because these fish are on the move. Therefore, if you want to be prepared for whatever opportunities the fall run offers, it pays to have a few versatile bucktail jigs as part of your arsenal of artificials.
This article was originally published online in September 2014.