Photos by Bill Moulton
The wind off the beach on Long Island’s North Fork had turned my cheeks candy apple red as I swung the 10-foot rod toward a boulder 50 yards out in the surf. It was late November, just after the fall migration of striped bass had wound down. Not believing the last of the stripers had finned out of the Northeast, I was determined to pick up a straggler surf casting with the only lure I had brought with me: a white bucktail jig.
The 1-ounce jig sailed into the dark blue sky, needling into the surf like an Olympic diver with hardly a splash. Before the bait had a chance to hit bottom, I was reeling for all I was worth to pick up the slack. I did this over and over — precisely as I was told, point by point — by perhaps the greatest living authority on bucktail jigs, John Skinner, who was casting not 20 yards from me.
“I always say that anything that will hit an artificial lure will hit a bucktail,” Skinner says. “A properly presented bucktail, reeled in slow and steady in the strike zone, will catch anything willing to hit an artificial.”
Most anglers I know bring a suitcase of baits when they fish — poppers, plastics, jigs, spinnerbaits, crankbaits and flies. These baits rattle, buzz, spin, float, dive or shimmy, glide or quiver. Hey, you never know, right?
Few anglers have enough confidence in only one lure to catch fish consistently. Skinner uses other baits, to be sure, but his loyalty lies with the white bucktail. And with good reason: He is the author of three books on fishing, including one title devoted to this singular lure: Fishing the Bucktail.
A bucktail jig isn’t much to look at — a bundle of white deer hair wrapped around a lead jig head. However, it is one of the most versatile — and therefore most successful — lures in the history of fishing. The elegant simplicity of the design and the way it mimics nearly every baitfish and minnow on the planet, salt or fresh, make the bucktail jig one of the most widely used baits in the world.
The lure can be fished nearly anywhere and in any way: in the shallows, in deep water, in heavy current, in still ponds, in Nor’easter surf, trolled or jigged vertically in deep water. It will entice nearly any fish to strike. On Long Island Sound, I’ve raised big striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, fluke, black sea bass, porgies and sea robins on bucktail jigs. And in the freshwater lakes and brackish bayous of my native Louisiana, I’ve used them to catch redfish, speckled trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, white crappie, blue catfish and even sunfish. I have friends who’ve landed mahi, mackerel, kings, jacks, tarpon and barracuda on bucktails. Few lures can claim that much success.
The bucktail jig also has helped set several records. Corey Kitzmann, fishing Minnesota’s Lake Vermillion last fall, landed a state record muskie on a homemade bucktail — 57¼ inches, 47 pounds, with a girth of 25½ inches. Ronnie Talas caught a 74-pound, 8-ounce black grouper on a bucktail July 2, 2019, setting an IGFA Men’s 15-kilogram (30-pound) Line Class World Record.
But mastering the bucktail is easier said than done. With variances in weight, bulk, retrieve speed and cast placement, there’s a narrow window for working it properly. And few people can fish a bucktail better than John Skinner.
Despite his warnings that we might get skunked this late in the season, he indulged me on a trip to learn a few lessons about properly fishing a bucktail jig on this cold November morning. After our first stop on the beach, with the pink hue of the predawn light on the horizon, Skinner began walking to spots he knew held fish only weeks earlier. His instructions were simple: cast overhead for maximum rotation, then crank my big Penn reel steady enough to keep the lure just off the bottom. Let it “swim.”
There were no hits — not even a bump — midway through our walk on an endless beach of pea-sized pebbles and clear, cold water. As we clomped along in waders, I quizzed Skinner on techniques. It may be an art, but Skinner can describe the exact science behind it, not surprising given his science background. (He has a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in computer science.) He’s a likable legend among the most seasoned salts on Long Island Sound. With the soothing voice of a polite, affable college professor, he narrates his YouTube channel, John Skinner Fishing, with a mix of precise and practical advice on chasing big bass and blues, with unique high-definition underwater video of, among other things, flounder ambushing his bucktails with teasers cut from the skin of sea robins or legal fluke.
On one level, bucktail fishing is simple. Swim the bucktail in the strike zone, near the bottom, on a steady, slow to moderate retrieve. “Do that in the presence of fish that are willing to feed, and you’ll catch some,” says Skinner, 59, a retired software developer and lifelong angler who lives in Greenport on Long Island, New York. “It’s conceptually easy but challenging,” depending on conditions and whether you’re fishing from a boat, beach, inlet, pond or a pile of rocks.
But even Skinner — who has a well-earned reputation in the Northeast as a trophy catch-and-release striper fisherman — sometimes has an off day. In Fishing the Bucktail, Skinner recounts frustrating examples of getting out-fished — and out-fishing others — because of some seemingly small detail. Skinner calls them “learning opportunities.” Be observant. Try different things. Focus on moving water. Change your retrieve speed.
To determine which size bucktail to use, Skinner’s first question is about water depth and conditions. “How deep is it?” he asks. “How much movement, from either current or waves? I’m also concerned about air movement because certainly wind is going to play into that. Those three things are going to determine what weight bucktail I want to use.”
He says the biggest mistake newbie bucktailers make is going too heavy. “They cast, and it doesn’t go very far, so the next thing they do is they put a heavier one on,” Skinner says. “OK, that goes far, but now it’s dragging the bottom. An occasional bottom bump is fine, as a reassurance that you are near the bottom. If you’re bumping bottom a lot, or if you’re dragging bottom, certainly it doesn’t look very natural.”
Skinner rarely throws a bucktail without some sort of trailer or teaser on it. He favors 4-inch Otter Tail straight strips on bucktails lighter than an ounce, and the 5-inch straight split Otter Tail on 1-ounce and heavier jigs. As for color, the expert says, “If you had nothing but white, you’d be just fine. Fluorescent green is a good one, and so is yellow at times. Black and wine-colored are for night.”
Skinner is the latest in a line of bucktail proselytizers that stretches back centuries. Some say the first bucktail-like flies date to ancient Greece in the second century; others say native Americans fashioned the first bucktails with deer hair.
Despite some uncertainty surrounding the origins of the lure, it’s well-documented that the Upperman brothers out of Atlantic City, New Jersey, were the first to mass-produce bucktail jigs. William K. Upperman applied for a patent in 1941, eventually selling thousands of jigs based on its reputation as a fish-catcher. Patent No. US2315304A, approved March 30, 1943, describes in the most minute detail everything from the angle and placement of the hook eye (top of the jig head, inline, to get rid of the bubble created by the eye moving through water) to the precise placement of the hair:
In all forms of the invention, the hairs of the bucktails are laid heavier at the top and bottom of the necks than at the sides so that they fan out principally in the vertical plane, thereby carrying through the streamlined formation and increased lateral visibility of the body, while at the same time acting somewhat as a rudder or stabilizer fin rearwardly of the body. The distribution of the weight of the lure is such that the keel is disposed substantially above the center of gravity, preferably a little forward thereof so the drag of the bucktail is sufficient to cause the lure to ride level with the bill up when drawn through the water.
William and his brother, Maury Upperman, fished for stripers in New Jersey; Maury, of Margate, New Jersey, once caught a striper weighing 62 pounds, 9 ounces, a record he held for more than a decade. The Uppermans first produced bucktail jigs with lead molds and hooks, hand-painting the jig heads and wrapping each lure with deer hair individually. “They put the word out — to taxidermists, sportsmen in the area and fellow fishermen — that they wanted deer tails,” says Larry Oliphant of Manahawkin, New Jersey, whose father and uncle fished with the Uppermans. “They liked the buoyancy of the hollow hair on the lure.”
An undated ad extolling the Upperman bucktail’s virtues for trolling, casting and jigging states: “Here is the bait you’ve been looking for.” The jigs were considered so reliable that the U.S. Navy ordered tens of thousands from the Uppermans and made them standard issue as part of its pilot survival kit during World War II. The lure could catch fish tied to a bobbing survival raft or worked on a hand line.
Today, several well-known lure companies produce bucktail jigs, and many anglers (especially those who hunt deer) make their own lures. Indeed, until a few years ago, Skinner tied his own bucktail jigs. He didn’t like the flimsy deer hair that bunched around most hooks. Looking for a lure with an “inner” body, he tied hackle feathers to the hook shank, then tied the deer hair around the neck so the hair would flair out more. Today, S&S Bucktails makes several Skinner models. “They do a much better job than I do,” Skinner says.
I noticed some dark bucktails in Skinner’s box and asked how the black and wine-colored ones worked at night. He told me his theory on big stripers and bucktails.
“In many environments, you don’t have that much visibility,” he says. “We don’t know exactly how they’re picking up that bucktail. I’m calling most of this a visual thing.” But that’s not always the case.
Skinner remembers night bucktailing in The Race — the tidal entrance of eastern Long Island Sound known for strong currents — on a new-moon tide with the bass happily banging bucktails. “One of the things I like to do when I night dive,” recalls Skinner, who enjoys scuba diving, “is turn off my light … and that is the blackest, black dark you’ve ever seen. So imagine in that darkness, 50 feet down, in a 4-knot current, that stripers can readily hit those bucktails. Obviously, they’re using their lateral line to pick those up. It’s sort of hard for us to understand because we don’t have that sense. There’s no way they’re seeing that thing. No way.”
Even in rough surf, a bucktail is easier to present more naturally than a plug, Skinner maintains. Fish sometimes will strike a bucktail just a few feet from a surf caster, in water clouded with sand and froth. “If you’re on a steeper beach, then you know what? Ten feet in front of you could be a 30-pounder,” Skinner says. “So you’re definitely going to want to work carefully up through that beach, continuing even where that last wave is. Especially behind the last wave.”
But we were having no luck this day, and I was losing patience. I noticed Skinner standing intuitively at a spot where waves broke at his knees, casting effortlessly. I was struggling with the surf. Too focused on the lure’s landing spot, I was getting knocked off balance.
The bucktail jig I was throwing — a white S&S with a 5½-inch trailer — looked alive in the water, like a miniature ballerina whose skirt flared every time I allowed slack in the line. I threw again over by the boulder. Nice and easy. Take up the slack. Keep it off the bottom. Reel in right behind the last wave.
“There’s a certain feel to bucktailing when you know you’re doing it right,” Skinner writes in his book. “It’s a feeling that’s impossible to pass along with printed words on a page. You can only get there with confidence, and that confidence can only be earned by putting your time in and building your own experiences.”
As I brought the lure in from about 15 feet out, I felt a bump, and the drag on my Penn started singing as line stripped off. I stepped back for better footing. It was a small bass, around 22 inches and with enough fight to remember why I had driven three hours on a nice fall day to meet Skinner. I looked to my tutor for recognition. He smiled and waved. I released the fish into the surf. The sun had climbed higher, and so had my spirits.
Back at the truck, Skinner smiled and wished me well. “Now you can go home and tell your friends that you out-fished John Skinner.”