It had rained hard the night before my striper trip—too hard, I worried as I drove to the river at 4 a.m. Stripers have this thing about muddy water; they avoid it like I avoided the greasy ribs in that funky restaurant in town the night before. If the river looked like a chocolate shake once I got there, my odds of tangling with a huge landlocked striper were worse than my chances of winning the lottery.
Daylight broke just as I hit the water and I could see muddy runoff spilling out of the ditches and creeks. I knew I had to fish ahead of the advancing mudline, so I pulled up to a shallow gravel bar, shut off my outboard and picked up one of my 71/2-foot saltwater rods. It had a white 1-ounce bucktail jig on the business end, tipped with a matching curlytail grub.
I made a long cast toward the shallow end of the point and began a slow swimming retrieve. Then I heard it: the distinctive dull, percussive thud of a monster striper busting gizzard shad on the surface; a sound a grizzled striper guide I know likened to a hand grenade going off in a bucket of tar. I instinctively turned and shot the bucktail toward the rolling wake that the big fish had left behind. This time I sped up my retrieve, alternately ripping the bait and letting it fall. On the third rip, the striper connected and nearly jerked the rod from my grasp when it took off for deeper water.
I’ve caught plenty of big stripers, but this one was bigger than any I’d ever tangled with. Sixty pounds? Easy. Seventy? Maybe. I slammed back the rod, repeatedly setting the hook, and each time the striper reacted with furious head-shakes and surges. Its tail broke the surface, sending gallons of water skyward. This was a big, bad dude.
After another few minutes of give and take, the striper rose to just below the surface, finning frantically and obviously tiring. Good Lord, what a fish! It was as big around as a pickle barrel, all silvery-purple in the morning sun. I kept pressure on the beast as I approached it with the trolling motor, but just as I got within two rod lengths of the fish, it rolled to one side and the jig fell out of its mouth.
The striper hung there for a moment, regaining its strength, then bolted for deep water. I just sat there for a moment, dazed, unable to process what had just happened. Finally I chugged back to the launch ramp and headed back home. That was all the action I could stand for one day.
Bucktail jigs like the one that brute hit have been responsible for some of the biggest stripers ever taken in freshwater, yet they’re often overlooked in favor of other artificials. But day in and day out, bucktails are arguably the deadliest of all lures for big stripers. And if you don’t believe me, I’ve lined up two legendary striper guides to convince you. I’ll wager what you’re about to read will have you chunking a bucktail on your next striper outing.
Simple, Yet Deadly
Bucktail jigs are among the oldest of all fishing lures—American Indians even fashioned flint jig heads to which they attached bone hooks and deer hair skirts. Today, anglers can buy bucktail jigs at just about any tackle outlet.
Popular brands include Bass Pro, Cumberland Pro, Spro and Wazp, and high-quality generic jigs are often sold in local bait shops by entrepreneurs who make them at home using a jig mold, heavy-duty hooks and deer or synthetic hair—something you can do, too, if you’re so inclined.
Tennessee striper guides Ralph Dallas, (615) 824-5792, and Fred McClintock, (931) 243-2412, have caught many monster stripers on bucktails. “I like to fish them mainly in clear, open water, when the fish are suspended around baitfish schools or feeding on the surface,” McClintock says. “But they’ll also work in stained water better than most other striper lures.”
“Bucktails have the potential to not only hook, but land a record-class striper,” Dallas says.
He credits their single-hook design for making them harder for a big fish to throw than a hard plastic or wooden plug with treble hooks. Also, since the hook and line tie are basically one unit, a big striper can’t pull a bucktail apart the way it can many hard plastic plugs. Plus, the extra-strong saltwater hooks used in high-quality jigs are nearly impossible for even a huge striper to straighten.
Perhaps more importantly, bucktails create a profile that big stripers find irresistible. “A bucktail doesn’t look like much when it’s hanging on a tackle shop rack, but when retrieved, it looks like a live baitfish,” McClintock says. “And, because it has little built-in action of its own, you can control the look of the lure with your reel or rodtip. You can make it hop, dart or swim—whatever turns the stripers on.”
Both fisherman prefer bucktails made with real hair. “Deer hair is the best,” Dallas says. “It’s light, so it doesn’t impede the action of your trailer, and it has a realistic ‘breathing’ action when wet. Jigs with synthetic hair are okay, but go with deer hair jigs if you can find ’em.”
Dallas has had excellent success with bucktails made by Brian Wilson of Cum-berland Pro Lures, (606) 561-5478; Mc-Clintock keeps his box stashed with Bass Pro Shops saltwater jigs, (800) BASS-PRO.
“Generally a bucktail with a curved or banana head is better for swimming and ripping, while round- or toe-shaped heads are better for vertical jigging and bottom crawling,” he says.
The proper head weight is critical.
“A good rule of thumb is to fish the lightest jig you can make a long cast with,” Dallas explains. “Of course, this will vary with the weight of the line and the tackle you’re fishing. My all-around favorite weight is 1/2 ounce, although I’ll fish ’em up to 2 ounces when stripers are as deep as 30 feet.”
McClintock goes to the opposite extreme. “I always fish a heavy bucktail—1 to 11/2 ounces,” he says. “I’m usually chasing stripers in rivers, so I want a lure that’ll get down around submerged wood in heavy current, even when rigged with a big, bulky trailer. A heavy jig is also easy to cast long distances in windy conditions, a common scenario in big, open slackwater reservoirs.”
Most freshwater striper hunters go with white and chartreuse. I’ve also had great luck with trout-colored jigs. Saltwater surf casters prefer black jigs at night.
Most striper anglers, our experts included, fish bucktails with some sort of trailer. Options are endless, as trailers range from soft plastic curlytails to live shad, herring or eels. Both McClintock and Dallas lean on curlytails to produce their realistic writhing actions.
“A twister on a bucktail looks lifelike whether you’re swimming, hopping, ripping or dropping the lure,” Dallas says. “It triggers an aggressive feeding response in both clear and murky water.”
Other popular bucktail trailers include soft plastic shad tails, all sizes of swimbaits, flat-tail eels, split-tail eels and grubs, and Slug-Go-style soft plastic jerkbaits.
“I like to vary the color and size of my trailer with the water temperature and clarity,” Dallas says. “In winter, when the water temps are around 48 degrees, stripers in slackwater reservoirs will be targeting baitfish as small as crappie minnows, so you don’t want to overpower them with a jig/trailer combination that’s too big.”
Dallas says he catches cold-water fish in the 20- to 30-pound class on white 1/4-ounce jigs tipped with a 3-inch white or chartreuse grub. In the spring, when river temps get into the 55- to 60-degree range, he fishes 1/2 to 1 ouncers with 5- or 6-inch grubs.
“The good thing about soft plastic trailers is you can trim ’em to the size of the baitfish,” McClintock says. “Start with a big grub like a Kalins Mogambo and trim it back to the size you need.”
Likewise, the hair on your bucktail can be coifed for a custom presentation. “If the hair is sticking out from the trailer in an unnatural way, I trim it just behind the hook,” Dallas says. “This lets the trailer swim or flap without having excess hair impede its action.”
Dallas has fished bucktails for decades in the deep, clear striper impoundments of the mid-South, including Norris, Priest and Tims Ford in Tenn-essee; Norfork in Ark-ansas and Cumberland in Kentucky. “They work especially well on long, sandy points intersected by a creek or river channel,” he says.
“Here, stripers gang up in massive numbers to intercept passing baitfish schools.”
After locating suspended stripers on his sonar, Dallas vertical-jigs a bucktail just above the school. During cold fronts, when stripers often orient tight to the bottom, 20 to 30 feet down, he’ll jig or slow-crawl a bucktail along channel drop-offs, ledges and humps.
Trolling is another option in big reservoirs. “I’ll troll three bucktails of varying weights and trailer sizes on long lines around 2 mph,” Dallas says. “The heavier jigs will run deeper. This is a good way to cover a lot of water when stripers are suspending around scattered schools of shad.”
Bucktails in current—now there’s a recipe for a giant striper—and its one McClintock exploits.
“Stripers tend to be much shallower in current than in slack water, and are highly oriented to cover including submerged trees,” he says. “Early and late in the day, they’ll move onto shallow points, gravel bars and shoals to gorge on baitfish. All of these are perfect scenarios for target-casting with a bucktail jig.”
He warns that you have to use heavy tackle in rivers, due to the amount of obstructions and the sheer size of the fish. To cope, he gears up with a medium-power 71/2-foot G. Loomis saltwater rod and a wide-spool reel like the Garcia Ambassadeur 7000 spooled with 130-pound Bass Pro Shops Magi-Braid line.
The setup lets you make accurate casts and is powerful enough to handle 50-plus stripers—beasts you need to be prepared to catch when you fine-tune your bucktail jigging tactics!