Smallmouth fishing can be super easy, at times. These bass are notoriously aggressive and will swap zip codes just to try to knock the paint off a bait when they’re feeling frisky. But there are times as well when these can be some of the moodiest and finickiest fish out there.
Smallmouth also have extremely good eyesight, so when they are moody, it can be really hard to trick them. That’s when a marabou hair jig is hard to beat according to MONSTERBASS Ambassador Ben Nowak.
“The marabou jig is so unobtrusive,” said Nowak. “So when they get up there and they want to be finicky in that clear water, it’s just something they don’t get spooked by and they’ll come up and eat.”
Nowak will throw a hair jig year-round for smallmouth, but he admits the real sweet spot on the calendar for this presentation starts as the water temps creep into the mid 50s and the bass move up to spawn.
"A lot of guys put it down though after the post spawn,” said Nowak. “But you can do it all year, and for me it plays anytime the fish are in less than about 12- foot of water.”
Nowak lives in Midland, Michigan, where a lot of the water is clear and teeming with giant smallmouth.
“If you can find some clean water where you can start to see fish up there roaming and they won’t touch anything else, then the marabou jig is a pretty deadly bait.”
When the fish are up shallow working their way through the spawning process, Nowak can simply cast his jig to shallow cover where he believes a fish may be staging. He doesn’t actually have to see the fish to target them. But, Nowak admits the marabou jig also works well for sight fishing smallmouth.
“Most of the time I’m looking for isolated pieces of cover. Or I’m using it to fish that first break or second break outside of a spawning flat.”
The bass are currently on the tail end of the spawn in Nowak’s neck of the woods, but that means there’s a big mayfly hatch starting soon. And the mayfly hatch presents another great window to target smallmouth bass with the hair jig. Whatever the season, the color selections are pretty standard for Nowak.
“I use basically a black or a brown. I mix in a couple other colors occasionally. But I would say I use black about 80% of the time and then I use brown mainly around the mayfly hatch.”
Nowak explained that this technique is a “visual deal for these fish” and black “silhouettes really well”, meaning it blocks out the sun and creates a defined profile, where colors on the lighter end of the spectrum might be a little fainter and harder for the fish to make out.
“Whether you’re in off color water or clean water, black is just a super natural presentation. It looks like a leech. It looks like an insect. It looks like, just a dying bug.”
Nowak makes his own 3/32- ounce jigs using a Do-it Molds Midwest Finesse Mold and a 1/0 hook with a marabou feather on the back, though he does recommend the Outkast Feider Fly if an angler wanted to try out this technique.
Once the jig is out of the mold and the fly is tied, there’s still one finishing touch Nowak will add out on the water before making his first cast.
“I take about a half an inch of Maxscent Hit Worm and put it on the shank of the hook so I have a little bit of extra weight to cast that bait out. But it doesn’t cause the bait to sink very quickly.”
In addition to increasing the jig’s castability, the added chunk of Berkley Maxscent also adds scent to Nowak’s presentation, an important element when fishing for smallmouth. But the color of the worm doesn’t matter all that much.
“Typically it’s a green or black on the back of a black and purple jig. You don’t really see it. It’s pretty much covered by the feathers.”
And don’t let this little bait fool you. Even though this is very much a finesse technique, a marabou jig has a big presence in the water, in a sense.
“Even though it’s a really small bait, it’s similar to a big glide bait in its drawing power.”
Nowak explained how the fish will come a long way to eat this jig, similarly to how a glide bait has the ability to call a fish in from a long ways off.
“They’ll track it and follow it back to the boat.”
This can be a little nerve-racking for an angler that isn’t used to seeing big smallmouth submarines cruising along behind a bait. The natural tendency most anglers have is to pop the bait, stop it or somehow otherwise add some action. And while this may be the right move when fishing a spinnerbait for instance, it’s the opposite of what you want to do with the hair jig.
“You don’t change your cadence at all. It’s a very simple approach. But you have to understand, you have to reel very slow. Like as slow as you can possibly turn that reel handle.”
A slow and steady retrieve works best with the hair jig, even if you spot a fish trailing the bait. Worst case scenario, the fish doesn’t bite on that cast and you can typically get it to bite on the next. But if you change your cadence, it’s over.
“If you change the cadence, they’ll spook and they won’t bite even if you cast back towards them. It’s really weird but it’s a great way to catch them in that shallow water.”The gear needed to effectively fish this technique is very specific. From the rod, to the braided and fluorocarbon line sizes, all the way down to the length of the leader, there’s a reason for every part of Nowak’s setup.
“I use a 7-foot, 6-inch Temple Fork Outfitters Tactical Elite. It’s a medium-light, moderate-fast and that moderate is pretty important.”
Nowak explained that the fish just “take the water off of it” when they come up behind the bait. And if you set the hook too fast, there’s a tendency to pull the bait away from the bass and you don’t get a very good hookset. His rod selection helps prevent that.
“It’s a very soft rod. But you also need that to cast that bait a long ways.”
Typically those long casts are between 30- to 40- yards, which is a considerable distance considering the jig only ways 3/32nds of an ounce. The rod size isn’t the only piece of gear to attribute to those longs casts though, the line size playing a big factor as well.
“I start with 8-pound braid to 6- pound fluoro, with a really long leader. I’m probably using a 30- to 40- foot leader.”
Nowak uses this abnormally long leader for a couple of reasons. Remember, this is a visual presentation, so the stealth the long leader adds is important. But fluorocarbon also sinks where braid floats. So the longer leader helps keep the bait down at the desired depth, another critical part of this technique.
“There’s nothing to lift the bait, so it tracks really, really true at whatever depth you get it to. Let’s say I want to fish it in 10-foot of water. As long as I count it down to 10, it’ll stay pretty close to 8- to 10-foot of water til the last third of my retrieve.”
Keeping the bait down at the right depth, making sure you have all the components in place to make the longest casts possible and being sure to maintain a slow and steady retrieve no matter what are all keys to finding success fishing a marabou jig.
This is an extremely effective technique to employ anytime smallmouth are shallow and especially when they’re finicky. So if you find yourself faced with smallmouth you can see cruising around but can’t catch, give the hair jig a try and odds are you’ll be able to trick them into biting in no time.