If your grandpa was in World War II, chances are he carried a bucktail jig in his supplies. The idea was to equip the troops with everything they needed to survive in case they were stranded somewhere. The rumor is that pilots and life rafts had them too. If the stories are true, it’s a very good testament to the reliability of a jig when it comes to catching fish.
Bucktail jigs have a well-earned reputation of versatility, able to bring in all kinds of fish in all types of conditions. Indeed, the variety of jig styles, the endless dressing possibilities, and their effectiveness means that most established anglers have at least one jig in their arsenal. Having one and knowing the right way to use it, however, are two different things.
In this article, we’ll start with a brief history of the bucktail jig. Then, we’ll cover some of the most popular styles for different types of fish. We’ll show you where and when to use a jig and wind up with some tips and tricks you can use to put that jig to work. Even if you’ve never fished a jig before, by the time you’re done reading, you’ll be jigging to fill the boat in no time.
For fishermen interested in maximizing their success with the bucktail jig, be sure to read our article highlighting the best bucktail jigs.
What is a Bucktail Jig?
A jig is a fishing hook with a head molded onto it, usually made of painted lead. The heads can be several shapes, but the most well-known are the “boxing glove” shape and the spade or arrowhead shape. The shape of the head and where the eyelet is positioned on it can vary and affects the way the lure moves in the water. We’ll get into detail on that in the sizes and styles section below.
Bucktail jigs are so-called because they have a bit of fur wrapped just behind the head, which conceals the hook and adds allure. Traditionally, these skirts were made from deer fur, although they’re more frequently synthetic materials these days. They may look fluffy and cute outside of the water, but the hairs swimming together under the surface make very convincing fins. They move fluidly, just like a small fish would. It’s a good idea to rinse these off when you’re done for the day, especially if you’ve been fishing in saltwater. Just imagine going home after swimming and not washing your hair. Natural jigs are just like your own hair. While you don’t have to style and condition your jig, a good rinse in clean water will keep it in a fishable condition for longer.
People have been fishing with jigs since the good ol’ days. There’s no telling how many bass, grouper, fluke, scup, and even trout have fallen prey to a well-dressed jig. Some jigs have feather skirts, some have flash, and some have a combination of materials. Some glow in the dark, some are printed with camouflage, and others have glitter. You can fish a jig with or without a skirt and you can add something enticing to the hook. Most people tend to go with soft lures, although squid strips and pork rinds are popular too. The most recent addition to the design is a weed guard, keeping strands of vegetation away from the hook. A lot of anglers prefer to tie their own bucktails, just like fly fishermen.
The very first commercially-produced lure of its type was the Upperman Bucktail Jig. Patented in the early ’40s, it was hand-tied and painted. Interestingly, William K. Upperman’s objection to other lures at the time was the bubble created by the air in the eye of the hook. In his patent application, Upperman wrote, “These bubbles are objectionable because the fish will often strike at the bubble and miss the hook entirely.” He wanted to provide a light lure that was more realistic in the water than the competition. Although he didn’t intend for it to be paired with other bait, they certainly can carry a strip of squid or the like to entice a strike.
Maybe you’re starting to understand why jigs are known for being so versatile. They’re easy to customize and quick to switch out when what you’re presenting isn’t working. It’s easy to match colors or mix them, add scents, and move up and down in size. As we all know, what the fish like one day could be completely different from the next. Jigs help you change quickly to adapt to conditions out on the water. So don’t get frustrated, get jigging!
Styles and Sizes of Bucktails
No matter the size of the fish you’re after, you’ll need to pick up a jig to match. They start at the small end of the size scale with what’re called micro jigs. These tiny lures mimic fruit flies, water fleas, and midge larvae. They’re good for catching trout, panfish, and other species that feed primarily on insects. The largest jigs are upwards of eight ounces and are generally for catching heavy saltwater fish like grouper and tuna. Bucktail jigs come in every size in between, so get a good idea of what your target fish is eating before you go jig shopping.
As we mentioned briefly in the last section, the line attachment can be in different spots on the head of the lure. Where the eyelet is positioned on the lure will make a difference in how the lure moves in the water. If the line ties to the lure at the tip of the nose, the lure is going to pull laterally through the water. If the line ties to the top of the lure, it pulls vertically through the water. In shallow water mackerel fishing, the latter style works the best. It’s great if you’re going to start on the bottom and work your way up. If you want to fish along the surface, or drag the bait on the bottom, use a jig with the line eye in the nose.
When we’re talking about the shape of the lure, it’s usually the form of the jighead that’s being referred to. Since these are usually made of lead, the bigger they get, the heavier they get. So keep that in mind when making your selection of both the lure and your line. The “boxing glove” shaped heads are best for bottom jigging, moving over stones and shells with ease. The spade-shaped heads are better at staying upright than round jigs. They work great when you want the lure to move naturally with the flow of water. Some come with a weed guard tied to the head so you can fish them in weedy conditions without the snag.
There are also heads shaped like bullets. These work for deep channels with fast-moving water. Some have ball-shaped heads. Use these if you’re fishing around tree stumps, pilings, and oysters. Football-shaped heads are another very popular style. When you’re in slow-moving, cold water with sand or mud at the bottom, the football shape is a great go-to. Skimmer jigs are more stealthy and streamlined. They’re a good offshore choice if you’re going after stripers.
You can certainly fish a bucktail jig as-is, but some anglers like to go with a little dressing for an even more eye-catching presentation. Since most of the action in a bucktail jig comes from the jerks and pulls you provide yourself when you’re working the lure, it helps to add a softbait lure to the hook if you want a little more wiggle action. If you’re using a straight strip of squid or pork rind, they add very little movement, but plenty of scent. Otter tail trailers last longer than the natural materials and the twists and turns molded into the bait cause a lot of action as you pull it through the water.
For more about head design, check out this Saltwater Sportsman article.
Location, Location, Location
For as many variations there are on a bucktail jig, there are an equal number of places to fish them. They are such a great all-around lure that they can be used practically anywhere. However, different designs are better suited to certain conditions than others. In much the same way as a fish evolves to meet the conditions of its environment, lure designs evolve to hit their particular targets. In this section, we’ll look at varying fishing conditions and match them up with the most successful lures for each.
In a body of water, a point refers to a shallow spot surrounded by deeper water. It’s like an underwater peak of sand. You can sometimes tell right away where the point is because that’s where most of the fishing boats have congregated. The currents of the water cause this formation by pushing around sand and sediment. The fish like these areas because the sloped bottom allows them to fish at different levels in the water column. In this kind of area, the best bucktail jig is usually either the football shape or the bullet shape. Because the currents around points are faster than in open areas, you can get away with a little heavier lure by a half-ounce or so.
A flat is a shallow area with a gentle slope to it. A lot of different fish spawn in the flats, which makes them an invaluable spot for anglers to know. Since the waters of flats are shallow, you don’t need a heavy lure to reach the bottom. An ounce and a half is probably the heaviest lure you want to cast in the flats. The best shapes here are the lures that pull laterally, like the spade shapes and the skimmers.
When a glacier moves through an area, it tears up the landscape. It’s sometimes hard to think of water being a destructive force on land, but it’s responsible for a lot of earth carving. Of course, this process happens over long periods. Glaciers aren’t known for their swift pace. But, during this slow progression down the slope, the ice crushes rock and breaks up boulders into jagged rocks. When the glacier melts, it fills in the grooves it created. So, you end up with a rocky, craggy bottom. A lot of areas in the Rocky Mountains were formed this way. If you find yourself in the Andes, you’ll see similar formations. The best jigs in these rocky spaces are the ball and the boxing glove shapes. The round features help them hop over obstructions.
If you want specific brand recommendations for saltwater jigs, The Saltwater Edge has a good article here.
Tips & Tricks for Using Bucktail Jigs
In addition to the softbaits and skirts that lend different qualities of movement to a bucktail jig, there are other more DIY modifications you can make. If you’ve decided to equip yours with a softbait, you can go one step further and add a rattle. D.O.A. Lures makes insertable rattles that are essentially small glass capsules with buckshot inside. You can glue them in or shove them into a hold made with a toothpick. The rattles add yet another dimension to the lure, appealing to the fish’s hearing as well as sight and smell. They’re not necessary but could help the fish locate the lure in murky water conditions.
For a little more flexibility in the water, DIY bucktail jig makers will use a swing hook on the lure. In this case, the jighead and the hook are not one continuous piece. The two are linked through a pair of eyelets or a swivel. You’d tie the skirt onto the neck just like you would a straight jighead. Then, you can dress the hook anyway you like. The only real difference here is flexibility.
They can also be paired with spinners. A pair of Colorado blades tied on the line before the jighead will create a lot of flash and motion, which is especially good for drawing in the muskies.
That should be enough to get you started with bucktails. They’re so versatile that you could probably fish bucktails exclusively and still catch plenty of fish. So, add a few bucks to your arsenal and see what happens!
Learn more about How to Fish a Jerkbait.