WHY SO SPECIAL?
First of all, let’s talk about hair and what the dressing on these jigs is actually made of. The most popular models are mostly bucktail (from a whitetail deer) and may sport a feather (hackle) tail and some flashy synthetic strands as an added attractant.
The hair jig does a better job of imitating a baitfish than just about anything else in your tackle box. They cast like a bullet, get down to productive depths quickly and they’re versatile enough that you can adapt your retrieve to just about any preference the bass might be displaying on a given day.
If you’re a frequent bass angler, jigs are certainly in your arsenal. You’ve probably got a couple boxes full of rubber- and silicone-skirted jigs and more boxes full of a wide assortment of soft-plastic trailers in every size and shape. And, if you’re looking for a jig for flipping or pitching or crawling across the bottom or swimming through shallow cover, one of those is likely to be perfect.
But if you’re looking to take your jig fishing to a new level, if you want to imitate the shad and other pelagic baitfish that bass are targeting offshore in the summer and winter, you’ll need to leave the rubber and silicone jigs with their soft-plastic trailers behind. You won’t need them.
You’ll need a hair jig.
Because you’re not going to be fishing the hair jig in the same way you’d fish a flipping or conventional rubber-skirted jig with a trailer, you shouldn’t use the same gear. You can go lighter, sometimes much lighter, than with other jig techniques.
Start with a 7- to 7 1/2-foot, medium-heavy casting rod and a high-speed casting reel (7:1 gear ratio or higher). The long rod enables longer casts, and the medium-heavy action is both sensitive and stout enough to drive home the single hook on these baits. A high-speed reel helps you catch up with any bass that grabs your jig and then moves toward you. It also allows you to gather up line quickly if you’ve made a slightly errant cast and missed a tight school of fish.
Spool the reel with a quality 12- or 14-pound-test fluorocarbon line. That would likely be a little light for conventional jig fishing, but unless you’re in heavy cover, you won’t need heavy line for the hair jig. Plus, the lighter line will aid in making long casts.
When it comes to jigs, there are a fair number of quality models on the market, and more are on the way as the gospel about the preacher jig spreads. Apart from a quality wire hook that’s at least 3/0 in size (and preferably 4/0 or even 5/0), you want bucktail or other dressing in a color pattern that emulates the most prominent open-water forage in your fishery. For some that will be shad. For others it’s smelt or something else.
The most important thing about a jig’s basic design is head weight. That will determine the lure’s rate of fall, and when it comes to winter (or even summer) offshore fishing, it’s all about the fall. That’s when the bites come. In fact, the only reason to lift a hair jig is so it can fall once again.
A selection of jigs ranging from 3/8- to 3/4-ounce should cover your bases for this technique. The heavier the jig, the faster it will fall. Other things also impact the rate of fall, including line size (lighter, thinner lines help baits fall faster) and the amount of tension or resistance you put on the line as the bait descends. Generally, you want little or no tension on the line as the lure drops.
Since rate of fall is critical to the bite, you’ll likely have to experiment with jig weight and line size until you get dialed in. Some days, a fast fall with a heavy jig and light line is best. Other days, you’ll need to slow things down with a lighter jig and heavier, thicker line.
Of course, successful bass fishing is mostly about locating your quarry. The right lure in the wrong place won’t draw a strike, while a lesser bait in the right place might load the boat.
Focus your winter bass efforts on deep-water areas within a few hundred yards of known spawning grounds. Look for steeper substrate—bluff walls, the steep sides of humps or points—and look for bass and bait on your electronics. When you find a likely-looking area (or the fish themselves), put yourself a healthy cast away and preferably in deeper water than you’ll be casting toward. Then, make a long cast and let the bait freefall to the bottom.
As the bait drops, keep a slack line, but watch it closely for signs of anything suspicious. If it moves unnaturally or stops suddenly when it should still be falling, by all means set the hook.
But if it reaches bottom without being grabbed by a fish, point your rod at the bait and take up your slack line. Then, make four or five quick turns of your reel handle to lift the bait up off the bottom and get it moving toward you. You’re doing this only to give the jig another opportunity to fall and be eaten.
After reeling a few turns, stop and let the bait drop until your line goes slack or something grabs the jig. Since the lure is falling on a slack line and the fish may be lethargic, strikes can be subtle. Watch your line for any sign of a bite. Once the jig hits the bottom, repeat the reel-and-drop process until your bait clears the area you believe holds bass.
Hooksets with the hair jig should be forceful—like a conventional jig hookset. Don’t try “sweeping" the hook here; that works better for trebled-hooked lures. Once you connect with a wintertime, deep-water bass, you can bet it’s not alone; there are likely 10, 20 or 50 more in the area. Put your fish in the boat and get another cast out there while they’re interested.
Even when it’s cold, a school of bass can still get fired up. They might even move gradually toward you as you hook one and reel it in, followed by another and another. Eventually, you can lose your concentration of bass because you’ve relocated them. This is where skill with your sonar can keep you in touch with the fish and help you keep the action going.