February is a relatively quiet month for Long Island anglers. Sure, you can sail somewhere (usually back west or out to Montauk) and find some ling or occasional cod, but the most reliable fishing offshore is probably a month away. Still, what better time is there to read a book or two and contemplate the spring season openers for favorite species — stripers, fluke, and others?
A month ago an outdoor writer and friend, John Skinner of Wading River, sent a copy of his latest soft cover book, “Fishing the Bucktail: Mastering Bucktails from Surf and Boat” (printed and distributed by Surfcasting LLC, P.O. Box 10665, Westbury, N.Y. 11790). This book is fun to read and, no matter what skill level you have as a fisher, particularly if you like the surf and near inshore, you’ll learn a few things and perhaps change your approach next season.
If you had only one type of lure to fish any of the world’s oceans, that lure would probably be the “bucktail [jig]” a lead head on a single hook, dressed with some sort of fiber (traditionally deer hair) and tipped with a piece of bait, often in the form of a strip. Modern variants include soft plastic trailers that vary from short grubs to long, sloppy eel-like critters (“Gulp Baits”), but the common tip in local waters is a strip of pork rind, white, red or yellow. The beauty of this lure is its infinite adaptation to fishing techniques. With the proper weight of leadhead, an angler can fish at any level of the water column. With the proper length of trailing tip, an angler can mimic bait profiles for selective feeders like striped bass. Finally, with the proper retrieve, an angler can simulate attractive forage or arouse the strike instinct of lethargic predators.
The only drawback to the bucktail, as Skinner and many others point out, is the totally blank slate it presents to the inexperienced angler. It sinks until you retrieve it, often hanging up if it sinks too fast, seems to do nothing by itself on a retrieve (you can’t see the undulating strips or hair) and provides little feedback if it’s not provoking strikes. That’s why beginners to the surf game, for example, often start their careers with swimming plugs that wobble or surface lures they can actually see gurgling or popping or lurching along the top. The bucktail doesn’t “talk” to you much; you have to let your imagination work and think about what the fish see.
The very first experiences I had with bucktails occurred not in the northeast at all, but down in Florida. We used tiny (quarter-ounce or smaller) white bucktails to catch “speckled sea trout” (spotted weakfish) on the flats and bars of west coast bays. By retrieving fairly rapidly and “hopping” the “jigs” (as the natives called them) we caught trout that probably were looking for shrimp dinners. When I graduated to bigger game and went out on party boats from the east coast, south of Miami, the jigs were heavier 5/8-ounce or 3/4-ounce versions tied on hooks sized 5/0 or larger, and carried long tips of white pork rind or strips of cut mullet. We let the bucktails sink down to the coral reefs, then jigged or swept them up through the water column. The usual quarry was the abundant king mackerel, but we caught plenty of mutton snapper and grouper as well when we weren’t losing fish and jigs in the coral forests.
By the time we moved out to the Peconics just in time for the great 1970s run of weakfish, we realized the same bucktails that were so popular in Florida were equally effective for Yankee sea trout, provided you trimmed the hair and tipped the jig with either a plastic worm or a strip of squid. Ironically, the last application of bucktails for us was the great striper game described in Skinner’s book. As strange as it seemed, the trick of simply swimming the bucktail with occasional pauses and letting the hair and the trailing tip do the work for you eluded me for a while, until a couple of mentors took me aside and watched my retrieves. Just as Skinner says, when you get “the game” the fish will tell you when you’ve got it — the right lure profile at the right depth moving at the right speed. Bang! Strikes serve as positive reinforcement.
New applications for bucktails keep coming. No one goes fluke fishing anymore without an array of bucktails and appropriate tips. In shallow waters, enterprising anglers recently began tipping leadheads with crab baits to catch more tautog. And maybe, down the line, somebody will put a big strip of herring on a heavyweight bucktail and see how the local cod off the South Shore respond.
Once you add bucktails to your arsenal, you’ll find the possibilities are endless. Moreover, you’ll catch better, too.