A modern hair jig isn’t much different from those used by the ancestors of the Shawnee. It consists of deer, rabbit or synthetic craft hair tied onto the hook shank of a lead-head jig.
“Hair looks more natural in cold water,” said Benjy Kinman, deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “It flows and looks more like a baitfish or a crayfish.”
That flowing quality is what makes bass chomp hair jigs in water colder than 60 degrees. Hair jigs also possess a smaller profile than silicone-skirted jigs and generally weigh less. These qualities make hair jigs excellent for fooling lethargic, early spring bass.
Hair jigs work in water as cold as 38 degrees. With water temperatures in Kentucky reservoirs and streams currently ranging from the mid to high 40s, a hair jig will catch more smallmouth, spotted and largemouth bass now than anything you can throw.
Fish a 1/8- to 5/16-ounce hair jig on channel drops, flats and points in clearer water reservoirs such as Green River, Cave Run, Nolin River, Barren River, Lake Cumberland, Laurel River, Paintsville Lake and Dale Hollow. Shades of brown, olive, green and black make the best hair jig colors for these lakes, but purple and white work well on bright days.
A hair jig slowly crawled down main lake points imitates emerging crayfish, a prime food for early season fish. Use the lightest hair jig possible, but one heavy enough to maintain regular contact with the bottom.
If the hair jig falls down a drop-off, let it sink to the bottom and leave it motionless for several minutes while you keep your fishing line tight.
Jigs tied with synthetic craft hair or rabbit fur really shine for this dead-sticking presentation. The material appears to breath with the slightest water movement – creating motion that a smallmouth or a spotted bass can’t resist.
The pull-and-drop presentation works great on points as well. Stay well off the point and cast onto it. Let the hair jig sink to the bottom. Reel up the slack and gently lift the rod tip to the 11 o’clock position. Intently watch the line as the jig falls back to the bottom. If the line jumps, goes slack, or does anything unnatural, set the hook. Smallmouth bass often inhale the jig on the drop.
A hair jig worked along channel drops in creek arms is a highly productive way to intercept bass moving from their deep water winter lairs to spawning flats in the creeks. Submerged channels serve as their migration routes. Work the hair jig along the channel’s edge or use the pull-and-drop technique to work the lure down the drop-off.
When the water warms a little more, swim the hair jig just above bottom on the flats or gently sloping banks adjacent to the submerged channel. Cast the hair jig onto the flat or gently sloping bank and let it hit bottom. Reel quickly to get the lure moving above the bottom and turn the handle in a steady rhythm to keep it there. The hair jig should touch the bottom occasionally. This presentation resembles a fleeing crayfish or an unaware baitfish.
A 6- to 7-foot medium to medium-heavy spinning rod spooled with 6- to 8-pound line works best for fishing a hair jig in deeper, rocky lakes relatively free of snags.
These jigs are not just lures for clear, rocky lakes, however. A hair jig cast into shallow wood cover in lakes such as Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley and Cedar Creek Lake in early spring will often out-fish a soft plastic lure or traditional jig. Your jig must have a brush guard for fishing around woody cover, or the lure will snag and you could lose it.
When fishing around heavy cover such as submerged trees and brush, it’s best to switch to a stiff medium-heavy spinning or medium action baitcasting with the reel spooled with 8- to -10-pound line. A heavier hair jig – up to 3/8 ounce –works well for coaxing wood-bound largemouth bass in early spring. Jigs are most effective when the water clears while remaining slightly high.
A 1/8-ounce hair jig fished in the smallmouth bass-rich streams of Kentucky will get crushed right now. Fish it slowly on the bottom in deep pockets near flowing water, but not in the flow itself. The largest smallmouth bass in the stream, most of them big females, are putting on the feedbag in these first few warm days of the year.
Try a purple hair jig made of craft hair, or a rabbit fur jig colored black or black and brown for early spring stream smallies. Bring several jigs, as they tend to hang up in water deeper than you can wade into and retrieve. Jig trailers – usually plastic grubs or pork rinds stuck onto the hook – create an unnecessary drag in current that looks unnatural to a smallmouth. Leave them at home if you’re fishing a stream or river. This is one of the most reliable patterns for trophy stream smallmouth.
However, for lakes, small and subtle jig trailers do work well. A small strip of black pork rind, a small black or brown grub or the last inch or two of a black finesse worm make great trailers for hair jigs. Avoid the gaudy, newer style of crawfish trailers with large flapping claws. A subdued presentation is the reason you fish a hair jig.
Several manufacturers in Kentucky and Tennessee produce some of the best hair jigs in the world. Be on the prowl for them at local tackle shops. You might discover some locally produced jigs in proven colors for the nearby lake.
Try fishing a hair jig in the next six weeks or so. You just might catch the same kind of large bass as your ancestors.
— Author Lee McClellan is an award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.