Let's Get Vertical
In the Great Lakes region and beyond vertical jigging for river run walleye is a spring tradition. Just a few of the places I have employed the tactics of vertical jig fishing include the Niagara River, Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, St. Croix, Fox, Wolf, Saginaw, Tittabawassee, Detroit and St. Clair Rivers. The art of fishing a jig directly below the boat is a lesson in boat control. To accomplish this seemingly simple presentation requires that the boat, current and jig all be moving at the same speed.
The Detroit River is one of dozens of destinations where walleye fishermen can find great spring and fall success using a presentation known as Vertical Jigging. No matter the river, vertical jigging works everywhere walleye are found.
Anglers approach the presentation of vertical jigging in different ways, but to my way of thinking the only methodology worth investing in involves using a bow mounted electric trolling motor to control the boat. While some might argue that vertical jigging can be accomplished using a gasoline kicker motor or even a transom mounted electric motor, I find the boat easier to control up front near the “pointy” end.
Basic physics is why I recommend that anglers learn to vertical jig from the bow of the boat. It’s simply easier to move the pointed bow of the boat against current or wind drift than it is to accomplish the same thing with the blunt transom of a fishing boat.
In respect to our many friends who live and die in their tiller controlled fishing boats, the bow is the better place to be when fishing jigs vertical in just about any river fishing situation. Not only is it easier to control the boat from the bow, but using a foot controlled electric motor frees up both hands so an angler can jig with two rods where legal.
A traditional foot controlled cable steer style electric motor is how I learned to vertical jig. Thankfully, this timeless piece of fishing gear is still as useful today as they were 40 years ago. Cable steering electric motors allow the operator to rotate the power head on the electric motor quickly and intuitively using just one foot. It takes a little practice to get good at this, but once it becomes “habit” keeping the jig directly below the boat is second nature.
Wireless electric motors are also useful for vertical jigging. Many of these wireless models feature a key fob for controlling the motor and also a foot pedal control. When using a wireless motor like the MotorGuide Xi5, I use the foot control because I generally jig using two rods. When fishing in Minnesota, Ontario or other places that only one rod can be used per angler, the key fob is a handy way to control the boat.
Crowds of boats are a common sight on the most popular walleye destinations. Much can be learned by pulling into one of these packs and watching how skillful anglers go about vertical jigging.
POSITIONING THE BOAT
Vertical jigging isn’t about positioning the jig below the boat, it’s about positioning the boat to keep pace with the jig as it drifts downstream in the current. To stay vertical the boat, jig and current must all be moving at the same speed.
Using the electric motor with short bursts of power, the boat can easily be moved over top of the jig by simply watching the angle at which the line enters the water. Vertical jigging requires constant attention to detail. Over and over again the angler moves the boat to keep pace with the drifting jig, compensating in the process for the boat experiencing wind drift.
On a calm day keeping the boat positioned over top of the jig is fairly simple. When the wind picks up and boat drift intensifies the chore of staying vertical becomes much more complex. Again, practice is the best way to get good at vertical jigging.
LET’S TALK JIGS
Jigs that are ideally suited to vertical jigging must hang horizontal in the water. Because the use of soft plastics is so important in many vertical jigging situations, a functional jig also needs to be equipped with a long shank hook equipped with barbs to hold plastic in place.
Short shank or “live bait” style jigs are a poor choice for vertical jgging because it’s tough or impossible to use them in combination with soft plastics. The shape of the jig head is often said to make a difference in vertical jigging. Actually walleye don’t care if the head shape is round, bullet shaped or any other shape for that matter.
Stand-up style jigs like the iconic Bait Rigs Odd’ Ball are useful for vertical jigging because they position the hook upright and ready for action even when resting momentarily on the bottom. Traditional ball shaped jigs simply flop over when they crash the bottom.
The hook used in a jig is way more important than the shape of the jig head. Not only does the hook need to be a long shank model, it should be of adequate size to allow the angler to fish a wide variety of plastics and live baits. For the typical walleye jig the hook should be at least 2/0 in size and larger 3/0 and 4/0 hooks are even better.
Of course a jig hook needs to be razor sharp because jig fishermen are using light action lines and rods that simply can’t drive heavy hooks into the mouth of a walleye.
Jake Romanack, Dale Voice and Rob Jones, aka the Deacon Smash Master are hamming it up after putting the smack down on some great walleye using vertical jigging tactics. Vertical jigging is technically one of the most difficult presentations to master, but those who are good at it are treated to river fishing success at a level many will never experience.
Vertical jigging is the ultimate contact sport and this presentation is best achieved using rods that are rather short in length and stiffer than most anglers realize. Stiffer rods do a much better job of telegraphing subtle bites.
Rod stiffness is relative to jig size and unfortunately no two rod manufacturers use the same stiffness or power ratings for their products. Ideally a rod used for vertical jigging should be less than 6’-6” long and stiff enough that the weight of the jig doesn’t cause the rod tip to flex. Over the years I’ve struggled to find commercially available rods that are stiff enough for vertical jigging. Therefore I’ve adapted by cutting a few inches off select rods and replacing the tip top in an effort to get the “just right” rod stiffness.
The lines used for vertical jigging need to have near zero stretch and they also must be exceptionally thin in diameter. When Berkley’s Fireline first hit the market some years ago, it quickly became a favorite among those who vertical jig.
These days a lot of guys have migrated to a different class of “super lines” such as Berkley Nanofil which features a silky smooth exterior that slides through the rod guides like velvet and lays on the spool of a spinning reel as nicely as monofilament line. Other good vertical jigging line options include Berkley’s Professional Grade Trilene Braid.
The best line sizes for vertical jigging walleye are either eight or 10 pound test. Many anglers tie their jigs directly to these super lines, but I find that using a 24 inch leader of 15 pound test fluorocarbon line as a leader gives me an edge. Not only is fluorocarbon invisible in the water, it is much easier to use in terms of tying knots compared to low stretch braids and fused fishing lines.
When I learned how to vertical jig over 30 years ago, most walleye anglers were still using live minnows as bait. These days minnows are still an option, but just about every noteworthy angler I know also depends heavily on soft plastics when vertical jigging for walleye. The types of soft plastics employed varies widely but the most popular choices include finesse worms, paddle tails, twister tails and split tail minnows.
Plastics in the three to five inch size range generally work the best for walleye jigging. In clear water natural colors and the smaller sizes are preferred and in dirty or heavily stained water the larger and more colorful options rule on the river.
River jigging is most commonly practiced early and late in the year when water temperatures are cold and fish tend to be more lethargic. Adding fishing scent to jigs and plastics is a good way of creating a natural scent stream in the water to further entice fish into biting.
The problem with most fishing scents is they are water soluble and literally wash off as quickly as they are applied. Oil based scent products like Pro Cure’s Super Gel are a better option because the scent is both natural and sticks to jigs and plastics like glue.
One tiny drop of Pro Cure about the size of a pencil eraser puts out a pungent scent stream for 30 to 40 minutes, making it an ideal option for anglers who are feel it’s important to use scent as an enticement. The most popular Pro Cure formulas for walleye include Gizzard Shad, Emerald Shiner, Smelt and Trophy Walleye.
Some plastics come factory treated with fishing scent. Z-Man Plastics use Pro Cure on their twister tail and paddle tail plastics making them ideal for walleye jigging.
Because Z-Man Plastics are oil based, the Pro Cure soaks right into them creating a long lasting scent stream in the water.
When it comes to river jigging for walleye, good spots tend to attract fish day in and day out, year after year. Sometimes these spots are simply ideal for spawning such as bottoms featuring a lot of pebble to fist sized rocks, other spots are current breaks that allow fish to rest on the bottom without having to fight the full force of the current.
The best river fishermen have lots of spots to try and on any given day set up a milk run to check these spots to see which are holding fish at the moment. When jigging in rivers if I make a pass over a good spot and don’t catch anything or see other boats catching fish, I’m moving on to another spot.
Location is critical and no one can catch walleye that aren’t in attendance. The best strategy is to move and keep moving until fish are located.