Articulated hair jigs & flies.
For decades, hair jigs have danced on the periphery of our collective angling consciousness. For bass, walleyes, and trout, jigs tied with marabou, bucktail, and bunny fur typically emerge from our boxes when the water's cold. We could debate the validity of that concept all day. Consider instead a new lure category that might change your thinking.
Like most interesting ideas in fishing, by the time you try adding articulation to a hair jig, someone else has usually already been working at it. Nonetheless, I was surprised to learn I wasn't alone when I started dabbling with articulated hair jigs in the winter of 2012. My first renditions, based loosely on Blane Chocklett's Game Changer, a popular "swimfly," failed miserably.
When I finally got one right, I had bass, walleyes, and trout desperately wanting to eat it. After months at the vise, considerable expense and plenty of test fishing, I had my first swimming hair jig, the Articulated Android.
Digging farther, I discovered that in fly-fishing, two masterful tiers--Staton Klein and Kelly Galloup--had been tying swimming flies with a single joint or point of articulation for years. Galloup, a veteran fishing guide and media personality, operates the Slide Inn, a must-stop spot alongside Montana's Madison River. Particularly refreshing is that although he's a gifted fly angler, he acknowledges the merits of wielding leadhead jigs with a spinning rod, as well as numerous other non-fly techniques. It's his open-mindedness, in part, that's allowed him to excel as one of fishing's innovators.
The light bulb also ignited for Michigan jig tier Gabe Hillebrand. Something about articulated flies resonated, like a surrealistic version of a Jointed Rapala--the lure Galloup says inspired him to dive into articulated tying. "If you're starving to death and you tie on a Jointed Rap," Galloup says, "your fortunes are about to change."
Hillebrand says on a trip for steelhead to Michigan's Manistee River, he entered a fly shop and dropped a hundred bucks on jointed streamers. "The patterns by Galloup, Kevin Feenstra, and Mike and Ray Schmidt were fascinating; they got me thinking about the prospects of an articulated jig you could cast on spinning tackle," he says.
"I went to the vise and tied my first patterns, which included the Swamp Donkey. Caught my biggest steelhead at the time. The movement these patterns exhibited in the water blew me away. Everything in the river seemed to come after them."
Hillebrand then made a critical connection. "I realized that a 90-degree jighead added dynamic motion to many materials, particularly marabou and rabbit-strip tails. So while guys fishing articulated streamers on flyrods were achieving faint tail movements, the 90-degree jighead versions I tied were producing radically accentuated action, effects that even produced bites in warm water.
"I wondered why no one else was doing these patterns on jigheads. Anglers who swim plastics on 90-degree heads have long realized that this angle between line tie he and hook shank acts as a fulcrum. It creates a distinct rocking motion that activates hair and feathers, particularly when there's a hinge and trailing hook. The jighead also generates an up and down pivoting action that's not possible with unweighted streamer flies."
You can tie almost any streamer pattern on a jighook, but that doesn't mean you should. More important questions are, why articulate? And what do you want the jig to do in the water? The earliest jointed streamers, says Galloup, were designed by steelhead anglers desiring a larger fly pattern and a stinger hook. "At first, guys simply snelled a trailer hook off the back of the fly and added materials to it. Those were trolling flies, but most of them didn't move much under water. The other intent was to shorten the front hook shank to hook fish that bit the head of the fly.
"I considered the Jointed Rapala and its magic. I wanted to create a fly that swam like a baitfish and that also hooked fish well. Studying fish anatomy, I learned that most small fish swim in S-curves, while larger predators move through water in "C" shapes. I wanted to approximate a baitfish in distress."
Perhaps the first true articulated swimfly, Galloup's Bunker, had several key features. "In order to achieve maximum motion, I want to build friction into the head to create a stalling effect. The rear part, in contrast, ought to be slick. When the head slows, the rear end moves faster, keeps moving forward, creating articulation and a natural swimming movement."
Galloup explains that by adding weight, such as lead dumbbell eyes and densely tied deer hair or ram's wool, to the head and slick marabou or rabbit strips to the tail, you begin to achieve articulation, even before you add a wire joint. He also says that using a lighter hook in the back augments faster swimming movements. Moreover, building the head with materials like deer hair can provide a measure of buoyancy, which I discuss momentarily.
"Next, you have to decide if you want something that moves with a vertical serpentine motion or a fly that swims side-to-side. From there, you build a footprint and start assembling parts. Add weight or wool up front for a head-down jig effect. Or go weightless with buoyant deer hair.
"Once the pattern is done, don't just put it in a bathtub and swim it around. Fish it. See how it responds to varying retrieve speeds and how it works with or against current. In the end, if it doesn't swim, doesn't 'hunt,' the fly is little more than a Christmas tree ornament.
"I tell buddies, 80 percent of the flies I've prototyped wouldn't catch a starving fish in a trout pond. It takes time and a solid plan to carry a concept to a successful conclusion--that's especially true when you add articulation to a streamer or a jig."
Hillebrand adds that beyond the range of wickedly seductive swimming effects that are possible with an articulated hair jig, the other advantage of a hinge is creating a larger profile. "One of the main reasons most anglers view hair jigs as coldwater lures is that most of them are compact and subtle.
"We tie in one or more joints to not only create lively action, but also to provide a connection point for a second hook. It's like two bodies with a joint in the middle--more water displacement, more intense distress signals at the top and bottom of the wavelength. Ultimately, we use it to fool more big selective fish."
Dancing the 'Droid
With a standard marabou jig, you have a puffball of a package that stretches to 2 or 3 inches max. An articulated jig such as Hillebrand's Swamp Donkey unfurls to 4 to 5 inches and has an unobtrusive stinger hook. Tying with Fish Skull Articulated Shanks, I've created minnow-imitating swim jigs 5 to 7 inches long. You can move jigs like Hillebrand's Swamp Donkey or Sculptor slowly or retrieve them like a swimbait. The beauty of it is that in warmer months, bass, walleyes, and trout respond favorably to these jigs--both because of their larger profile and their accentuated movements with a more aggressive presentation.
Although Galloup mostly casts lightly weighted articulated streamers with a flyrod--as opposed to jigs and spinning rods--his methods offer insights into productive presentations. "Most of my best retrieves mimic a jerkbait. I watched Larry Nixon 'walk the dog' and started using the fast tip of my St. Croix Bank Robber streamer rod to pull off a similar retrieve. Right away, I had a 27-inch steelhead eat a Wooly Sculpin on Michigan's Boardman River."
For Galloup, two retrieves produce both big trout and bass. "I try not to strip streamers with line. Instead, I use the rod tip, moving the fly in three quick 4-inch movements per foot. Jerk, jerk, jerk. Pause. It's much better to do these short quick twitches than one or two longer movements for each foot of real estate."
His second retrieve gets to the heart of an articulated lure's magic. "For slower more meticulous work, I use the rod tip to impart quick little tail kicks, then let it drop. The beauty of a fly or hair jig is that when you retrieve it, it goes tubular--appendages and fibers fold back and go flat. But when you stop it, or when it contacts an object, the materials flare; the fibers quake and pulse."
While both presentations work well in river current or still water, Hillebrand notes that he often uses water movement to activate his jigs. "When we're fishing steelhead in rivers during spring and fall, we do the classic swing. Cast slightly downstream and across the river. Reeling very slowly and holding the rod tip high to control depth, let the jig work downstream and then swing across current as it moves well below your position. As the current plays against the jig's body, you get a 'whooshing' effect that causes it to undulate. It doesn't take much water movement to get the tail kicking.
"Other times, you just flip the jig into a small spot and hold it there. I go a little heavier in rivers like the Pierre Marquette than I would in a lake. A 1/4-ounce is great for current, whereas a 1/8-ouncer can be ideal in lakes for bass, walleyes, and brown trout."
To create most articulated retrieves, Hillebrand uses a moderately fast 71A-foot rod, such as a St. Croix Avid (AVS76MLXF). For drifting rivers, he often uses a 9%-foot rod, such as a St. Croix Legend Elite steelhead rod or a G. Loomis IMX Twitching Jig Rod (IMX-9000S TWCHR). He spools with Power Pro 20/6 braid, terminated with a 2-foot section of 6-pound fluorocarbon.
The only knock on braid is that it can be too responsive; you need to slow your hook-sets or risk missing fish. And you need to scale back your rod tip moves to match conditions. I prefer mono's stretch and smoothness for hair jig fishing. Sunline Super Natural and Ande Premium in 4-, 6-, or 8-pound test offer the perfect blends of shock absorption and stretch and come in low-vis green or brown hues that aid dear-water presentations for picky fish.
As water warms, Hillebrand gets more aggressive, adding frequent rod tip twitches to his drifts. In the Mississippi and tributaries, I've done well on smallmouth bass with aggressive upstream jerkbait retrieves. Execute this upstream swim alongside wood or other shallow cover, and you can expect big fish to attack the jig as it approaches their hideouts. Similar presentations shine for big brown trout as well as walleyes.
In lakes, one exceptional method for suspended bass or trout is to make a long cast and then slowly reel the jig along. You want it to almost hover, anywhere from a foot to 5 or more feet above bottom. Inject periodic rod tip twitches for added effect.
For fish feeding on sculpin, crayfish, or bottom-bound perch, Hillebrand's Sculptor is a great mimic. "When you let the jig sit on bottom, motionless, the articulation folds to the side," he says. "The rubber legs swing back into place and the hair fibers quake."
The subtle tail-kicking motions that occur when you pop the Swamp Donkey in place generate a perch-like "poking along bottom" effect, the likes of which I've never seen in another lure--hair or soft plastic. Drop one into shallow water, mosey it around along a rocky bottom, and you see what I mean.
Galloup reports two other solid presentations devised by bass anglers: "Often, I fish streamers on a sinking line, so when I pause, the fly rises and hovers in place, just above bottom. Likewise, one of my customers uses a Barely Legal streamer as the lure in a Carolina Rig. The deer hair is buoyant so it rises above bottom on the pause. When it's moved forward, the fly swims. When you stop, the fibers continue pulsing and shimmering--unlike a plastic worm that more or less dies on the pause.
"You can do the same thing with a Texas Rig--put a bullet sinker above one of these patterns and show fish in cover something different. Consider minnows, crayfish, or invertebrates. Even when totally at rest, some parts of their anatomy continue to move--fins ripple, antennae rise, eyeballs twitch."
Worth noting again is that because of the volume of the materials used on many patterns, even a weightless streamer can be heavy enough to cast with spinning tackle once the lure becomes waterlogged. Some patterns also sport lead dumbbell eyes, such as Galloup's Boogieman, or Nancy P, adding to their castable weight. Consider, however, that most streamers ride hook down, while adding a 90-degree jighead reverses the hook to an up-facing orientation. Generally, castable swimflies shine in shallow, coverless water, while "hook-up" articulated jigs work anywhere.
One presentation I stumbled upon last year relies on a lightly weighted articulated swimfly fished ultra-shallow. Wrapped with less than 1/16 ounce of lead wire and tied with CCT Body Fur, the front hook and lure was easy to cast with 6-pound-test spinning gear, yet achieved near neutral buoyancy in the water.
Pop it sharply with the rod tip and the lure darts, flashes, and swims in a subtle S-curve. Stop reeling and it shimmies sharply to the side before nearly hovering in place--like a neutrally buoyant soft jerkbait. Fished alongside both hard and soft jerkbaits, the lure has often produced many more bites from largemouth and smallmouth bass. And you can swim and hover it over vegetation in a foot of water without snagging.
It's all about pushing the envelope of what's possible with a lure. The finest fish-catching materials often are found in nature rather than a high-tech laboratory.
Flies, Jigs, Materials
Flymen Fishing Company, flymenfishingcompany.com: Creator of the Fish Skull Articulated Shank, a turnkey solution for creating articulated flies and jigs.
Galloup's Fly Shop, slideinn.com: Online store offering the top articulated swimflies available.
Hareline Dubbin, hareline.com: Top online retailer of fly-tying materials.
Hillbrand Tackle, hillbrandtackle.com: Features Gabe Hillebrand's articulated Swamp Donkey, Sculptor, and other top hair jigs.
J Stockard Fly Fishing, jsflyfishing.com: Another great source for tying materials. Ervig's Outfitters, ervigsoutfitters.com: Articulated steelhead jigs.
Rainy's Premium Flies, rainysflies.com: Offering of articulated flies and jigs
* In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler and accomplished fly tier who has worked with In-Fisherman for more than two decades.