Vertical Jigging Fundamentals for River Walleye
By: Mark Romanack
The author has observed countless anglers trying to vertical jig and doing it all wrong. This is one presentation that requires the angler to have specific rods, reels, lines and jigs to have any chance at being consistently successful.
With February upon us, it’s time to start thinking about the spring walleye run and some vertical jigging savvy. The Detroit and also the St. Clair Rivers in Southeast Michigan offer up some of the best river jig fishing found anywhere in North America. In recent years, record natural reproduction success has created what many believe is the largest push of walleye into the rivers anyone can remember. One thing is for sure, the good ole days of river jigging are here and now for those who enjoy having the rod in their hand and feeling the bite.
UNDERSTANDING THE PRESENTATION
Before an angler can clearly become proficient at vertical jigging for river walleye, he or she must first intimately understand the presentation. When vertical jigging in rivers, the boat is used to position the jig directly below the boat. While there are various ways to accomplish this rather simple goal, the most efficient way is with a bow mounted electric motor.
As the boat drifts downstream, it’s not just the current that dictates how fast the boat is drifting. The wind hitting the boat also has a significant impact on boat drifting speed.
When the wind is blowing the same direction as the current, the boat will drift faster than the current. If the wind is blowing against the direction of the current, the boat will drift slower than the current. Even a wind direction that is quartering the current will play a role in the boat’s drifting speed.
This is why when vertical jigging in rivers, it’s critically important to point the bow of the boat directly into the wind and to use the electric motor to compensate for the wind. The goal is to get the boat and the jig moving at the same speed as the current.
Only when this delicate balance has been achieved can the jig be positioned directly under the boat where the angler can keep the jig close to but not dragging on the bottom. Unfortunately, the electric motor must be used over and over again to keep the boat positioned directly over the jig. This is why some anglers refer to vertical jigging as “chasing the line” or “chasing the jig” because the boat is always trying to keep up with the jig and the current.
It takes concentration to achieve this simple goal and a fair amount of practice to develop anything resembling “skill” at this highly refined presentation. I’ve always preached that the best way to learn vertical jigging is to think of the electric motor as a tool for making small, precise and controllable adjustments to boat’s position in relationship to the jig. Staying vertical is about making short burst of power that moves the boat over top of the jig, again and again and again.
If too much power is used on the electric motor, the boat will easily over shoot the vertical position, forcing the angler to make yet another adjustment to bring the boat back into position. When the right balance of power is achieved with the electric motor, short and repeated thrusts from the electric motor keep the boat moving at exactly the same speed as the current.
The electric motor can be controlled using a key fob or a foot control. For anglers who prefer to fish with just one rod, the key fob works nicely. Anglers who want to master the art of “two rod jigging” will also need to master the art of using the electric motor’s foot control.
JIG DESIGN MATTERS
Jig design matters a great deal in vertical jigging and I’m not talking about the shape of the jig’s head. Those anglers who think head shape matters are over-thinking things. An angler who understands how to position the boat can keep any jig vertical regardless if the jig features a pancake, round, bullet or another head shape. What’s actually important is the hook style that’s used.
Jigs that feature long shank hooks and a 90 degree eye tie are much more efficient for vertical jigging than those that feature short shank hooks or other eye tie angles. Not only does a short shank hook prevent the angler from using soft plastics, these jigs tend to lip hook fish that are in turn easily lost. Long shank jigs that feature a 90 degree eye tie hang horizontal in the water and hook fish deeper in the mouth. These jigs simply do a superior job of sticking and also landing the fish that bite.
The ideal jig for vertical jigging must also be much larger than is typically found on walleye jigs. The larger hook is needed to accommodate soft plastics and also anglers who double down by using soft plastic and also a minnow to entice bites. A 3/0 or 4/0 is the ideal hook size for jigs used in vertical jigging.
Jake Romanack holds a couple nice walleye from the Detroit River. Vertical jigging is not the easiest presentation to master, but those who are good at it make catching fish truly look easy!
The rod, reel and line used for vertical jigging is also very important. Rods for vertical jigging should be rather short and extra stiff compared to the typical walleye spinning rod. A good rule of thumb is to tie on the jig you plan to fish with and take note if the weight of the jig alone is causing the rod tip to flex, the rod is not stiff enough for vertical jigging.
The perfect rod for vertical jigging is going to be 5’-9” to 6’-6” in length and should feature a medium-heavy action. Because not all rod manufacturers agree on what constitutes a medium-heavy action, it’s wise to shop around.
Another option is to pick a rod that 6’-6” long and cut a few inches off the tip to stiffen the rod then replace the tip top guide. Any pro shop that sells hunting arrows can make this adjustment to a fishing rod for a few bucks.
Only a handful of rod manufacturers offer factory made rods suitable for vertical jigging. The Daiwa RG 5’-9” MH and also the 6’-0” MH are good choices. Also the new Daiwa Kage 6’-6” MH is another excellent choice for vertical jigging.
Reels suitable for vertical jigging need to be small and lightweight. Because that rod and reel will be in your hands all day long, the lighter the overall package, the more comfortable the combo will be to fish. Fatigue is a real problem when vertical jigging and generally the culprit is the reel. A size 2000 or 2500 is plenty large for vertical jigging applications.
Spooled on a jigging reel anglers really only have one good choice. A 10 pound test, high visibility, eight strand super braids is the best possible choice for vertical jigging. These lines are twisted under pressure, creating a line with zero stretch and a round shape that spools on a spinning reel similar to monofilament. The high visibility feature makes it much easier to see the line against the water and makes boat control that much easier to master.
Tying the jig directly to the braid is not an option however. The problem with tying directly to the braid is the line is very visible to the fish and eventually that jig is going to snag bottom and it’s very difficult to break super braid lines. Instead, adding a two or three foot long shock leader of 12-15 pound test fluorocarbon line solves several problems.
The fluorocarbon is attached to the braid using a double uni knot that easily passes through the rod guides. The fluorocarbon also creates an invisible connection between the jig and the main line. When an improved clinch knot is used to attach the jig to the fluorocarbon leader, the jig can easily be broken off when a snag occurs without fear of losing the jig and leader. This allows the angler to quickly retie on a new jig and get back to fishing.
The reason most anglers struggle with the vertical jigging presentation is because they try to use a jig that is too light for the application. It’s better to use a jig that is too heavy than it is to use a jig that is too light when it comes to vertical jigging.
The most common sizes of jigs used for vertical jigging include 3/8, 1/2, 5/8, 3/4 and one ounce. An angler will need a good selection of all these sizes. If you’re struggling to feel bottom, tie on larger and larger jig until you can easily feel the jig hitting the bottom.
The cadence or motion in which the jig is moved makes a huge difference in how many strikes an angler is likely to get. Unfortunately, the cadence that the walleye prefer typically changes day in and day out.
In cold water it’s typically best to raise and lower the jig slow enough that the line is always taunt. Commonly called “tight line” jigging, this slow up and slow down cadence is typically the most effective because it makes it easier to detect subtle strikes.
A slightly modified version of “tight line” jigging involves lowering the jig slowly until it hits the bottom, then raising the jig a couple inches off bottom and holding it still for a few seconds. This essentially swims the jig just off bottom and presents an easy target for any nearby fish.
When more aggressive jigging cadences are used, the jig is often falling on a slack line. Should a bite occur when the jig is falling on slack, it will be almost impossible to detect that initial strike. Typically the angler doesn’t know a fish has the bait until the up stroke when the line suddenly feels heavy.
Standing or using a raised seat base pedestal is the most practical way to vertical jig. This makes it easy to position the rod tip in a downward position near the water. When a fish bites, the angler has lots of room to set the hook with authority and let the rod do the work it was designed to do.
Sitting in a normal boat seat makes it very difficult to position the rod tip in a downward position. That in turn, makes for an awkward hook set when a fish bites and typically yields more missed fish than hooked fish.
Many anglers ask, do I need to use a stinger hook? The author believes that on any given day, 30 to 50 percent of the bites will yield fish hooked only on the stinger hook. If you don’t mind missing potentially half the fish that bite, then not using a stinger hook makes sense.
A stinger hook improves any vertical jigging presentation. Depending on the day and the mood of the fish, a stinger hook is going to account for 30 to 50 percent of the hooked and landed fish. If you don’t use a stinger hook, you are potentially missing half of the fish that bite! It’s that simple.
SUMMING IT UP
If you haven’t mastered the art of vertical jigging, there has never been a better time to learn. The walleye runs on the Detroit and also St. Clair Rivers are exceptional. The fun begins in early April and anglers can expect great river jig fishing action right through June.