Story and photos by Jeff Samsel
Catching fish on lures you create brings unique satisfaction, but the bigger advantages of tying your own jigs are practical in nature, and the skills and materials required are less specialized than you might guess.
Practical benefits aside, the author simply enjoys crafting fur and feathers into baitfish imitations.
The vice, which had been stowed in my basement for several years, came out to fulfill a specific need. I was writing an article about adding flash to lures, and I wanted a few flashy homemade jigs for a sidebar photo. I watched a few videos to remind myself about techniques, grabbed some tinsel from the Christmas decorations and created some jigs that were somewhat ugly but served the purpose.
I had fun tying my photo jigs, so I kept the vice handy and began scavenging for other tying materials. Soon I was using my Ugly Bugs (as I’ve dubbed any jig I tie) on the water and was even catching fish – and I was undeniably hooked. That was about a year ago, and now boxes of jigheads, spools of thread and every manner of fur and feathers nearly cover my desk.
I haven’t become an expert tyer and won’t attempt to teach proper technique. In truth, someone well skilled in the tying craft would likely cringe to watch me at work, and some bugs I tie are still legitimately ugly. The fish don’t seem to mind, though, and in a year I have learned quite a bit of practical stuff.
The author doesn’t claim to tie pretty jigs, but the fish seem to like them fine, and he can get exactly the coloration and characteristics he wants.
In my mind, the biggest advantage of tying your own jigs is the capability to make exactly what you want. That means you can pick colors, and virtually every crappie fisherman I’ve ever met has some favorite color scheme that is hard to find. Far beyond colors, though, once you learn the characteristic of various materials and figure out how to manipulate them, you can control each bait’s shape, buoyancy, stiffness and more, and you can handpick jigheads that have the weight, head shape, eye angle and hook that you favor.
Tying your own jigs also can save money. Don’t get me wrong, you can also spend a lot, especially if you invest in a bunch of specialized materials for patterns and only use a little of each (much like cooking). You don’t need all that stuff, though, and once you identify which materials work best for your needs, you can buy just the right stuff in bigger quantities and substantially reduce the cost of your jigs.
The final benefits, which are the ones that continue to draw me to the vice and keep me seeking fur and feathers, are far less practical. First, I simply think tying is fun. I’m creative by nature, and I enjoy selecting and shaping the materials to create a desired look (as do my children). Also, fooling fish with a lure I’ve created brings an undeniable sense of satisfaction and ownership. Even if I truthfully know a variety of lures would have done the same job, there’s just something fun about catching the fish on a jig I tied.
Tying jigs is far simpler than it’s often perceived, and baits don’t have to be perfectly crafted to catch fish.
Tools & Materials
I already owned an inexpensive tabletop vice, a few basic tying tools and handful of materials from a fly tying kit I’d bought and dabbled with several years ago. The tying bug didn’t really bite me when I tried just flies, but the few things I’d learned and the basic tools worked fine when I resurrected them.
From my perspective, a vice and some scissors are the only tools you absolutely need. Most tyers use a bobbin to control the thread spool. Also, some flies call for hackle pliers, but jig work is generally less delicate, and fingers seem to work fine for most of my wrapping and holding. A whip finish tool is nice once you learn to use it, but again it’s not necessary. The simplest vice and starter tool kit available at Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shops would more than adequately take care of your needs.
My materials come from a host of sources, the bulk of which are NOT fly shop walls. As mentioned before, I started around Christmastime, and immediately raid ornaments and wrapping and decorating materials. I’ve also learned that Michael’s has big bags of colored feathers and sheets of craft fur for far less than the cost of similar materials at a fly shop. I also regularly pull from a feathery boa from Walmart and a furry stuffed dog that was $1 at Goodwill. My thread is just cheap sewing thread.
Of course, my favorite jig material comes from Kenneth, a family dog. Kenneth sheds like crazy, so every bath gives me a huge supply of inch-long strands of mostly black hair. It’s just kinked enough to give a jig skirt a bit of body and buoyant enough to allow for slow sink rates. If you hunt, you obviously have a built-in source of deer and squirrel hair, rabbit fur, duck feathers…
As I’ve tied more, I have made a couple of Cabela’s runs and have bought some specific things, including dyed bucktail, strung marabou, some flashy dubbing and tail material, plus a tube of dubbing wax and bottle of head cement. Those purchases have been more wants than needs, though, and I waited until I’d tied a while to identify specific gaps, based on the jig types I was tying (or wanting to tie).
From my perspective, the absolute best way to learn to tie jigs is to put your hands to work. Getting started calls for very little knowledge, and there’s no great negative consequence if your early jigs aren’t very pretty.
The best place to start learning is actually in front of your computer, but keep the vice and a few materials handy, because you’ll want to jump in pretty quickly. Search phrases like “jig tying,” “fly tying instruction,” and “beginning fly tying,” and you’ll find more video instruction than you could watch in a week. Also find and watch videos about a few specific skills, such as “starting the thread” and “tying a whip finish.”
General fly tying videos are just as useful as jig tying videos, by the way. The only real difference between a jig and a fly is the lead head. As you begin looking for specific direction about creating tails and shaping the body, the best fly videos will be about streamers, which are long, narrow flies that imitate baitfish or crawfish.
I’ve actually watched quite a few step-by-step videos about flies I don’t necessarily care about making. They teach specific ways materials can be manipulated and how to get certain characteristics when I want that in a jig I’m making. Unlike most fly tyers, I don’t typically tie from “recipes.” I usually have an idea of the look I am going for, and I try to select materials and techniques that help get me to where I want to go.
Keeping Them Together
When I first realized I could catch fish with my Ugly Bugs, I was delighted, but I soon realized that it didn’t take many fish to turn a hair jig into a jighead with sparse hair hanging from the bend of the hook.
A friend pointed out the importance of under-wrapping, which refers to the initial thread wraps around the hook. I thought those only needed to secure the thread, but it turns out a good layer of under-wrapping provides important traction. Add tight wrapping, a good finish and a bit of head cement, and you’ll be impressed by the durability of a hand-tied hair jig.