For every serious fisherperson, another story about the bucktail lure must also exist. There have been books and articles too numerous to count written about the subject.
I have read many myself, some good and some bad, but in every one that I can remember, there was always something new to be offered. Over the years, I have incorporated these little tricks and variations with my own hard earned experience. This has allowed me to develop a system and technique that works well for me in the areas that I fish. The bucktail is a very basic lure, in itself just a few hairs tied to a leadhead jig. It will no doubt catch a bluefish if thrown into a school in a feeding frenzy, but, it will do much more than that if some subtle but important variations are considered. Depth of water, current conditions, target species and their diet should all be considered in organizing a system and technique that will work the best at a given time in a given area. Probably the most important consideration in fishing a bucktail is the fact that the lure has no built in action. It will either drag across the bottom or run a straight line if retrieved. If fished this way it will catch fish but success will improve astronomically if some sort of action is added by the angler. This translates into work and constant attention to technique, fishing a bucktail is not laid back lazy fishing.
What is most amazing about a bucktail is its versatility. It will catch almost any game fish. I have used it successfully in catching everything from white perch in tidal streams to tuna in bluewater. In these instances, the only difference was the size of the lure and a different style of retrieve. I most commonly use the bucktail to catch weakfish, fluke, bass and bluefish. In choosing the correct size bucktail to use, three considerations must be taken into account: the size of the target fish, the depth of water and the amount of current. I have found bucktails to be most effective when worked on or very near the bottom as most fish are generally bottom feeders. An exception to this rule would be bluefish, but even they will move to the bottom to feed. The rule of thumb to apply is simple: use the lightest, smallest bucktail possible that will still allow the lure to remain on or very near the bottom. With deeper water and swift current, larger weight versions must be used. This becomes a limiting factor if the target specie is small. The size of the bucktail that must be used may just be too large to attract the fish you are looking to catch. Something to think about here would be line size. Lighter, small diameter line will not require as much weight as it has less of a drag coefficient in passing through the moving water. I will rarely use greater than 15 lb. test line in working bucktails and often use lighter line of 10 lb. or 12 lb. test. Bucktail head weights come in a great variety of sizes from 1/16 ounce to 6 ounce but most commonly used for inshore saltwater fishing are those from 1/4 ounce to 1 1/2 ounce.
Head shape can vary greatly, ball, bullet, flat, tapered, "smiling bill" etc.. I usually stick with the "smiling bill" or ball design. I must say that I have not really seen a great difference in productivity regarding head design other than when fishing a hard current, a more streamlined head such as the bullet design, will hold bottom more effectively. For fluke, smaller is better and I have most success with 1/4 ounce to 3/4 ounce bucktails. This is not saying that a large fluke of five pounds or more wouldn't take a 2 ounce bucktail but it would also ingest a 1/2 ounce version. It is more likely that a large fish will attack a smaller lure than a small fish attack a large lure. In addition, there are more small fish that fit in a frying pan just perfectly! This is something to consider in all bucktail fishing. Bluefish and weakfish tend to run in schools with most fish all of similar size. For either specie when under four pounds, I prefer bucktails of 1/2 ounce to 3/4 ounce. When the larger specimens of 5 to 15 pounds are around, I then switch to 1 to 1 1/2 ounce weights.
Bass can be a great challenge in that their size can vary greatly from little schoolies of 2 to 3 lbs. up to cows of 40 lbs. or more. I would bet that most bucktail caught bass would average between 5 and 15 lbs. therefore I usually start out with a 1 1/2 ounce bucktail and move up or down in weight depending upon my success or the size of any fish that I might catch. In my opinion, the most critical factor in being successful with a bucktail is the presentation or action imparted by the angler. This is such a crucial factor that it can account for anything from getting skunked to enjoying a fishing bonanza. I have seen two individuals fishing the same bucktail on the same outfit on the same boat, each with totally opposite results. The difference was all in the action imparted to the lure. My favorite method for fishing the bucktail is to bounce the lure with a twitch of the wrist, letting the lure fall back to the bottom until the "bump" signals that it has come to rest. This can be done by simply working the rod without retrieving line when there is a good drift, or taking a couple of cranks in between lifts when stationary or when tidal movement is very slow. I continue the process varying the speed and height of the lift and time on the bottom. I will try different combinations for short intervals of time. For example, a sharp lift of one foot, a slow drop back and one second at rest on the bottom. I will repeat this motion for ten or fifteen cycles. I might then alter the pattern to slow lift of one foot, followed by the same slow drop back and one second of rest on the bottom. I always vary only one factor at a time so that when I get a strike, I will know which aspect of the action in my retrieve is the most enticing. I may therefore be able to accentuate this action, knowing exactly what it is. In general, the most productive retrieve I have utilized is the fast, short twitch followed by a slow controlled drop-back with a one half to full one second rest on the bottom.
As you might guess from this discussion, the manner in which the lure is worked on the retrieve is what catches the fish. Each different specie of fish and set of conditions will generally require a slight variation in the action to be most productive. It is most
important to experiment in order to find the most enticing action and then to duplicate that exact action on every cast and retrieve. Invariably the strike will come at the end of the drop back or as the lure sits on the bottom. The angler must be ready to set the hook with a sharp lift as soon as the strike is felt. An artificial lure will be spit out as quickly as it was hit and therefore speed is of the essence. For this reason, the slow controlled drop-back is most productive. In lowering the tip of the rod slowly, no slack is produced in the line and even the slightest strike will be felt. In addition, it will allow the "bump" of the jig on the bottom to be felt and prevent any delay in setting the hook.
Graphite rods with their great sensitivity and strength are exceptional for fishing bucktails. My favorites are the Penn Power Stick bait-casting outfits matched to the size of the lure. For 3/4 ounce or less I use the PBC-60M rod with Penn 1000 or Penn 920 reel and 10 lb. test Ande line. For 1 ounce and heavier lures I use the Penn PPG-4971 rod with Penn 930 reel and 15 lb. Ande line. I keep all my bucktail hooks needle sharp so as to insure deep penetration and firm hook setting. As you can tell, conventional revolving spool reels are my favorite for this type of fishing. However, when jigging also requires a fast retrieve, I will shift to spinning gear which generally has a faster retrieve ratio. My favorite for this situation for all lures up to 1 1/2 ounce is the Penn PSG-4871 rod with 4400 SS reel spooled with 10 lb. test Ande "Classic" line which is very soft and well suited to spinning gear.
Another consideration when using bucktails is line twist that is produced by the jigging action. In working the lure as I have described, occasionally the bucktail will make a complete roll of 360 degrees. This will put a turn in your line and eventually produce problems with the line twisting around the tip of the rod and casting difficulties. To prevent this from happening, I pre-rig all my bucktails with a small barrel swivel at the end of a short trace of leader material that is appropriate to the size of the lure. I generally use about one foot of 20 lb. test mono and a barrel swivel rated at 50 to 75 lb. test. To prevent "chopoffs" when bluefish are my primary target, I substitute plastic coated multi-strand wire as my leader material. The actual appearance of the bucktail in addition to the way it is worked is what determines its overall effectiveness. Considerations in this regard would include jig color, length of hair and whether or not it is "tipped off" with some kind of additional attractant. Most bucktails commercially produced are of fairly good quality. When purchasing bucktails, the most important consideration in addition to color or head shape, is quality construction. Make sure the winding that holds the hair in place is well tied and coated to prevent abrasion damage and that the hook is of good quality. A visual inspection to details will usually suffice but actual use will be the true test of quality. I have recently been using the "Fin Strike" bucktail and it has proven to be excellent in both quality and effectiveness.
The most common bucktail colors available are white, red/white and yellow. I use white most often with excellent results. Yellow has been very productive for me in years when blowfish are abundant. I believe the yellow bucktail can be taken for a small blowfish on the run, and many gamefish will feed upon these tasty morsels. A good habit to get in to is to check the stomach contents of any fish that are kept and cleaned. It will allow you to determine what they are feeding upon and therefore you can "match the hatch" the next time out. This past year, bright green bucktails appeared in the tackle shops. I gave them a try and they have worked well. I have had good catches of small weakfish and fluke using the bright green version in 1/2 ounce size. "Tipping off" the bucktail jig with a piece of squid, pork rind or even a small jelly worm, greatly enhances its effectiveness. I find the pork rind to be the most convenient since it does not have to be maintained as does fresh bait, is always available in my tackle box, and is so tough that one piece will last all day. I always trim the size of the pork rind to match the size of the bucktail. In addition, I split the tail to give it a greater fluttering action. Most varieties of pork rinds available in tackle shops will not be the exact size or shape for your needs but a sharp knife will produce just what is required. For this reason I purchase the largest rinds, the "striper/muskie" strips, and cut them down to size. Remember to punch a hook hole in the leading end with the tip of the knife.
One last little trick worth mentioning concerns short hitting fish. On a number of occasions for reasons I have yet to figure out, the fish seem to not really mouth the lure firmly when they strike. The result is many hits but few hookups. When this occurs I have improved my results by trimming back the hairs on the lure. I will thin out the hair by cutting some away right up front where they are tied to the lead head and additionally cut and taper the ends of the hair so they end right at the bend in the hook. This effectively moves the hook back into the strike zone of these short hitting fish and will produce more hookups. Hopefully you will find more good than bad in what I have written regarding the bucktail. At least it may provide some food for thought and give you something to add to your bag of tricks.