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Flight of the Night Hawks

Winging through the decades with a jig built to snook specifications.

Ties that bind: Fort Pierce luremaker Tom Lewis casts a jig derived from a style popularized

by the late Clayton Williams. One of Williams' sons, David, and two of his jigs, are pictured at left.


Exactly what the fish think it is, no one's sure. I've heard a dozen theories from a dozen anglers: a big shrimp; a sideways-swimming crab; a bottom-hugging mullet; an eel.

For fun I'll throw in my own two cents: a snook. Those long, contrasting fibers extending beyond the skirt of a redtail hawk jig? The ones that make the lure look like a fish with a long, dark, lateral line? That big snook prey on little snook is a fact well-documented by a three-year research effort overseen by Florida's foremost snook experts. From 2006 to 2009, biologists electro-fished four Southeast Florida rivers, all famous for linesider populations: The South and North Forks of the St. Lucie; the Loxahatchee; and the Sebastian. Temporarily stunned fish were subject to a gentle stomach-pump procedure, then returned to the watershed with a dart tag.

Of individual prey items, mullet made up the greatest proportion of snook diet by weight. By number, swimming crabs were the most common. But all kinds of weird stuff showed up: armored catfish, sleeper gobies, freshwater prawns, left-eyed flounder. Many of these critters are demersal by nature, living close to or even in the bottom—a point to which I'll return in a moment. And, of course, snook bellies contained snook.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) scientists worked in daylight hours, and noted—with minor irritation—that much of the stomach contents were difficult to recognize, in late stages of digestion. They were cognizant of another well-established fact: Snook foraging activity

peaks between dusk and dawn.

These fish feed predominantly in the dark, on a variety of prey, including line-striped Centropomus

of roughly the size and profile of a 1 ½-ounce redtail hawk jig.



I surmise Lt. Col. Clayton Williams would've found these reports mildly interesting, but not surprising. He may have also found it amusing that, 50 years later, fishermen are still trying to figure out the “magic” in his lure design.

Williams, who passed away in 2001, is widely credited as the inventor of the redtail hawk jig style, though he pointed out in a 1999 Ft. Pierce Tribune interview that he didn't name it as such.

His widow, Lanell, told me recently Williams regarded the characteristic tail, or runner, mostly as an attractor. “He would've thought redtail hawk was a silly name,” she said, smiling. “He had a very creative mind; if he needed something, he'd make it, and if it worked, well. . . other people would notice!”

Williams developed the pattern while fishing on the south jetty of Fort Pierce Inlet in 1960. A native of north Georgia, and a decorated WWII and Korean War veteran, Williams was resourceful and systematic.

Most of snook bites would occur right on the bottom on a strong tide; to reach those fish consistently, Williams built his own mold to pour bullet-shaped leadheads weighing 1 ½ ounces—heavier than what was available in those days. One of his two sons, David Williams, remembers bins of deer tails arriving at their home in Fort Pierce from parts unknown, and later, reams of nylon. Lanell said jig-making was an ongoing passion. “We'd be on vacation, and there he'd be, tying up jigs,” she recalled.

Lure companies—beginning with Nickelure in the 1970s—took notice, and today jigs similar to Williams' original design are built by a half-dozen makers, under different names and in wide color and size variations. Thus some redtail hawks have blue tails, while others are light enough in weight to skim across a shallow sandbar, where snook are equally apt to snatch them up. Flare hawk is another common name, for the action of the winging fibers.

A Jig With Staying Power

By whatever its moniker, the redtail hawk flew into my attention recently when Florida Sportsman Art Director Drew Wickstrom began showing photos of huge fish from our home waters of Stuart. At the same time, cans of Diet Coke began piling up in the trash bins. I recognized the pattern. This guy was bitten by the snook bug!

Fishing late night tides with an overcaffeinated crew—including Capt. Andy Tasker—Drew developed a keen and useful mental picture of how snook relate to bridge structure—and why those big jigs are still an ideal tool to reach them.

“The bigger snook are always on the bottom, and usually in front of, or to the side of, the structure,” he explained. “I think, too, the biggest fish work their way to the front of the chain, so they can be first to pick off whatever's passing in the current.”



As to the casting approach, Drew outlined a system very similar to that espoused by Williams on the Ft. Pierce jetty.

“You sort of have to feel it out—find the biggest structure in the deepest water. Come up from downcurrent, then cast way upcurrent. Let the jig hit bottom—you should feel the thump—then reel it just fast enough so that it doesn't stay on the bottom and snag. It's kind of like grouper fishing— you want to be right above the reef.

“We use fenders a lot on the boat, to put the boat right against a bridge piling; turn the trolling motor in that direction to sort of lock us in place. You want to cast the jig as close to structure as possible, without having to keep repositioning the boat. Then when you hook a big fish, you can use the motor to steer it away.

“Lots of guys say reel slow, then slow it down even more. I try to match the pace of the current. Also, fan-cast the area—don't use the same pattern every time. Standing in one spot, you might hit 10 different angles.”

The drill is essentially the same as may be used on a bridge or fishing pier, over deep, current-swept waters. To land fish from high points on shore, bring a wide-mouth bridge net with a long rope.

Double header on a "hot" color pattern for 2011.

Tide is important, and each location has its own window of opportunity. Some of Drew's favorite bridges fish best just after incoming tide begins, and again toward the end of the tide. In coastal areas where the inlet may be miles from a bridge, the arrival of the tide may be delayed by a few hours, something to take into account. Also rough water: “Something about the agitated water brings ‘em out,” Drew said.

Fellow nighthawk Andy Tasker acquired a feel for the jigs while fishing from Stuart and Jensen Beach bridges.

“The nastier the weather, the better for snook fishing,” Tasker said of his shore-based forays during the past 11 years. “After a cold front, strong north wind pushes the shrimp down toward the Indian River causeways. The snook are sitting there, waiting on the bottom for stuff to come through.

“The biggest concern is always to have the lure on the bottom. You can cast at 45-degree angles, and on shadow lines, you might cast right along the line and slow down the retrieve. It's all about the ambush—in fast current, the fish don't have time to come up and smell the jig. They have to make a quick decision, whether to eat, or not.”



About those shadow lines: It's common to see snook lingering near the surface around dock lights or the bright lights thrown by bridges. On nights with heavy bait runs (mullet, menhaden and the like),

surface feeding may be apparent—and intuitive casts with topwater plugs or flies well-rewarded.

At the same time, Drew and Andy find big fish down deep, even around bait schools, and often in areas with little or no artificial light. Often as not, those lurkers are well over the 32-inch maximum size for the Atlantic coast. Not since 1999 have anglers been permitted to retain oversize snook. Still, a timeless fascination with monster fish keeps guys up all night, slinging the big jigs.

 

Jig Design and Tactics

Frank Neff of Jensen Beach, FL, obtained a trademark on the Redtail Hawk label (redtailhawklures.com), but contrasting fiber jigs with similar names are today made by a half-dozen or more different companies. Among them, First Light Tackle of Ft. Pierce.

One of the owners of First Light, Tom Lewis is a lifelong snook addict who got hooked while fishing the old South Bridge in Fort Pierce, back in the 1970s.

In his estimation, the hook is the most important part of the lure—the point must resist bending on brief hangups, and the hook must be sturdy enough to avoid straightening or breaking under the pressure of very large fish in strong current. Snook in the 15-pound range—par for the course in Fort Pierce, said Lewis—are powerful fighters.

Jigs should also have the right amount of flare—the angle and volume at which the nylon, bucktail or feather winging materials diverge from the hook shank. Lewis molds his jigs such that the fibers,

when tied down, will flare away at about a 45-degree angle.

“The hair folds in, then flares back out on the retrieve,” he said. “I like to ‘drop-jig' mine: Where some guys just reel in, I drop the rodtip and twitch the jig back 4 to 6 inches—about the same motion as with a

crappie or trout jig. Ninety percent of my hits occur on the drop of the twitch.”

First Light produces Flare Hawk snook jigs in several weights. As to weight selection, Lewis said there are three variables: Depth, current and wind.

“If you can't feel the jig, you can't catch fish,” he said. “I figure snook give you less than a second to set the hook before they spit the lure. And if you can't control the jig—as in casting a strong wind—you

can't reach the fish.”

Tackle-wise Drew, Andy and Tom are in the same boat (some nights literally!). All three prefer heavy spinning tackle with braided line. Drew uses 8-foot Crowder rods rated for 15- to 30-pound line — “a stout rod, with extra length for long casts”—with Penn Battle reels spooled with 20- to 30-pound-test braid. Leaders range from 50- to 80-pound-test. And all the guys prefer using loop knots to the jigs, to allow for optimal action.

On that score, Lewis brought up another interesting point concerning jig design: balance, otherwise known as “hang.”



Over a table at lunch, Lewis put a pencil tip through the eye of one of his jigs. “See where the eye is on this jig, a little bit back from the tip? On the retrieve, this lets the jig come up, then turn and dive nose-first, at a 45- to 60-degree angle.”

Even after a full-night's rest, Lewis has that mad-scientist look in his eyes. He fishes for eatin'-size snook in season, yet doesn't think twice about staying out for a 2 a.m. tide to chip away at his personal

best: 48 ½ inches.

Hawks began flying off the bridges and jetties of the Treasure Coast right about the year Tom Lewis was born. They've been flying ever since, and something tells me they'll be around for more generations of

anglers.

I doubt we'll ever decide once and for all what the lure represents. Could it be, as Andy Tasker suggested recently, the violet goby, a nightmarish-looking but otherwise innocent fish native to the St. Lucie watershed?

Here's to the mystery, and the magic, of Florida snook fishing. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman March 2012

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