Try out this hot jig and let the snook fall where they may.
Standing on the Ernest Lyons Bridge in Stuart, I watched the 12th snook of the evening hit the pavement. As I walked over to examine the fish–a 28-pounder–two things became apparent: chartreuse red-tail hawk jigs had accounted for nine of the dozen legal fish taken that night by the gathered anglers–the other three fell for live shrimp; furthermore, better than two-thirds of the anglers on the structure were tossing chartreuse red-tail hawk jigs. Here’s your primer on snook fishing with jigs at night.
Pitching such jigs in the darkness is not new, but their success seems unabated. Interestingly, many other areas of the state I have fished, they’re not used as much. Even so, the Florida record–a 44-pound, 3-ounce snook–was taken on a red-tail hawk jig out of Fort Myers.
Arguments abound as to the exact baitfish the jigs are meant to resemble, but most feel that the lure reflects a variety of species, depending on jig color, shape, retrieve, and the time of year they’re fished. The best guess is that snook are probably striking out at the silhouette of a large baitfish instead of one species in particular.
Four basic components form the tangle of hooks and hair to compose this snook-fooling lure: the head, body, runner and hook. Of the four, head shape and weight are the most important factors, since they more readily influence the action.
The poured leadhead comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, from 1/4 to three ounces. Bulletheads are meant to dive straight for the bottom. When retrieved with a whipping motion and a slow crank of the reel, bulletheads run the water column from top to bottom. Designed for short casts in tight quarters, bulletheads are tops when fishing between bridge pilings or off small Intracoastal bridges with shallow water, sandy bottom and slight dropoffs.
Rounded heads are bulky and create a large outline. Perhaps they resemble a finger mullet seeking cover along the bottom. This jig is best fished off large bridges spanning deep water, where strong currents sweep unsuspecting baitfish into the mouths of huge linesiders.
The most popular head style resembles a mashed .44 Magnum slug with eyes. Big and bulky, with a flatter lid and bottom, this jig is made to swing in the currents as it moves through the water column. Reeling at a slow, steady pace will allow the jig to run deep, much like a mullet lumbering above the sand. A slight jigging action simulates a bunker or menhaden.
I’ve seen a variety of materials used to tie the body of a red-tail hawk, from pointed, white chicken feathers to nylon and shrimp hair. All seem to work well, with the underlying factor that the hair should undulate and pulse when jigged. The contracting and expanding of the hair gives the lure its action, creating the illusion of a baitfish kicking into gear for an extra burst of speed.
The body of a red-tail hawk can be tied with a set of wraps that push the hair down along the hook, forming a tight merger with the shaft. It can also be wrapped on a leadhead poured with a tight collar and stud to create a flare in the hair, pushing it out and away from the hook where it forms a bulkier and more fish-shaped body. Either style works well, but the flair hawks have accumulated a large following of jig fishermen when the mullet are running in the spring and fall.
Hook size and strength are personal preferences, with most larger jigs using a 6/0 or 7/0 stainless or cadmium hook. Anglers targeting lunker snook have been known to use an 8/0 or 9/0 4X-strong hook to keep the shaft from straightening out on 25-pound tackle.
It’s important to take the time to sharpen the hook on your jig, since they’re thicker than the normal wire hook and it takes a little more power to drive the point through the jaw of a large snook. Sharpening the hook will increase the odds of a solid hookup if a strike catches you off guard, limiting the hookset to a short pump of the rod.
The long trailer hanging several inches past the feather section provides the image of a tail, and can be made of nylon, plastic or pork. This is often called a runner, and it’s designed to add extra action, wiggle and flash as the jig moves horizontally through the water. The runner is an intricate part of the standard red-tail hawk jig. The color of the runner is also important, with red and dark blue the most popular.
The first thing a jig fishermen does after arriving at his fishing spot is study water to determine the color jig for the evening. Dirty water calls for chartreuse hawks that reflect the pale green of a baitfish’s back under the moon or artificial lights. Water that has been muddied for several days by rain and wind require more color or a mixture of colors. In really dirty water, use chartreuse and experiment with head colors, starting with a white head, then fluorescent orange or glitter silver, to offset the chartreuse feathered body.
Clean, clear water calls for a white red-tail hawk. It’s a good idea to switch out color schemes throughout the night until you find the exact color that appeals to the fish. It’s not uncommon to switch out eight or nine color combinations in the course of an evening.
For some reason, the red-tail hawk doesn’t seem to work as well on calm, windless nights as it does when the breezes are really honking. Strong wind, a fast current and a big jig often translate into big snook, and many of the best nights to fish it are the worst weather fronts of the year. On these occasions, it’s the 2-ounce red-tail hawks that come out of the bag and get pitched into the wind and retrieved back to the bridge in the swift currents.
The vote is split on whether to reel the lure straight back with no action whatsoever, or to add a slow, jigging motion, pausing to allow the jig to drop back to the bottom. Supporters of the straight retrieve feel a fish will track the lure and strike the bait at any time, increasing the opportunity for a hookup, while a jigging motion limits the strike to when the jig is falling. However, giving the jig some motion forces the hair to flare and pulsate like a swimming baitfish. Both options work extremely well, and as with any lure, it’s probably a good idea to mix it up until you find a pattern the fish prefer at the moment.
The red-tail hawk jig is a great lure if the fish are eating large baits, but they’re not very effective when snook are popping small shrimp or glass minnows. Keep in mind that the methodology of fishing these jigs requires they be bounced over bottom structure, so plan on losing a few jigs in the process. Most jiggers carry a dozen or more lures in a variety of colors, and count on sacrificing a few when fishing around rocky bottom like inlets and passes.
Put some red-tail hawk jigs in your tackle box and use them when the conditions are right. After a big snook or two, you’ll be reaching into the box for these jigs all the time. FS
First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, June, 1997.