Vertical Jigging – It’s A Little Misleading…

I caught my first Detroit River walleye in 1984. Since that time I’ve never missed a spring visit and never quit refining the presentation that I personally feel catches the most fish. That presentation is “vertical jigging” and unfortunately not enough anglers master the art of staying vertical or the concept of why staying vertical is so important in the first place.

The term “vertical jigging” is a little misleading. To be honest, the jigging part of this vertical presentation is better kept to a minimum. Too much movement of the jig actually makes it harder for walleye to zero in on the bait. This might seem strange, but it’s a fact of river fishing.

First off, allow me to explain why retaining a vertical jig position is so important. Staying vertical is the most practical way to keep your jig in close proximity to the bottom without accidentally dragging the jig on the bottom. Dragging the jig will quickly lead to snags and frustration. Staying vertical allows the angler to position his jig just over bottom where walleye can spot it and where it is relatively free from snags. Relatively! In honesty, if you’re not snagging bottom occasionally, you’re probably not doing it right.

Suspending the jig a few inches off bottom also allows the angler to feel the bites far better. When the jig is making contact with bottom constantly, it’s easy to get confused over what you may or may not be feeling at the end of the line. When an angler concentrates and keeps the jig suspended, anything that touches the jig telegraphs an important signal to the angler. Not always, but often this signal if from Mr. Walleye himself. The idea of fishing vertical is pretty easy to master, but mastering the boat control required to achieve this presentation is something else. I watch people fish on the Detroit River every spring with interest and some amazement. One of the biggest reasons they struggle at this vertical presentation is because they don’t pay enough attention to what the boat is doing.

Vertical jigging starts at the bow of the boat with an angler pointing the bow into whatever wind might be blowing. It’s critical that the bow be pointed into the wind, because this is the foundation from which vertical jigging is built.

Anglers who try to control the boat from the back are going to struggle at vertical jigging. Sure they can enjoy some success, especially on calm days or when the fish are snapping, but in the end a guy who practices this presentation from the bow will catch more fish.

Once the boat is positioned directly into the wind, open the reel bail and let your jig free fall until it hits the bottom and stops. At this point click over the reel bail and pick up any slack line until you can feel the weight of the jig lifting up off bottom.

For the moment you’re vertical, but you won’t stay that way for long without some attention to boat control. To maintain a vertical position, the jig, boat and water must all move at exactly the same speed. Since we can’t control the water or the jig moving in the water, which leaves only the boat within our ability to control.

Thankfully a bow mounted electric motor can easily be used to position the boat over top of the jig as the boat, jig and water all drift downstream. Some anglers call this form of boat control chasing the line because the boat is used to chase over top of the jig repeatedly.

Call it vertical jigging or chasing the line, the critical aspect of this presentation remains the same. It’s vital to watch your fishing line to determine any changes in boat position in regards to the jig. When your line starts to angle under or away from the boat, this is telling the angler the boat isn’t drifting at the same speed as the current and jig.

To compensate for the line angle, simply point the bow of the boat into the wind (or at the jig if you prefer) and give the electric motor a little power. If you watch closely the boat will move in the direction of the jig and the line will return to vertical. Magic! At least if you do it right it’s almost like magic because you’re instantly going to enjoy better control of your jig and more sensitivity in terms of detecting strikes.

The biggest mistake here is many anglers drive their electric motor like an indy car. Too much power is a problem because as the boat begins moving it doesn’t want to stop when you take your foot off the power button. Slipping past vertical because the boat had too much forward momentum is very common and easily corrected. Simply set the power setting on the electric motor in the lower or middle ranges and hit the power with short bursts of forward speed so you can control how the boat moves in relationship to the drifting jig. Easy.

The second big mistake I see anglers making is trying to do too much at one time. If you’re a practiced vertical jigger, you can no doubt fish two rods, smoke a cigarette and suck down a Coke all at the same time. If you’re just learning this presentation stick to one rod and concentrate on staying vertical to the point of avoiding chit chat in the boat and focusing on the task at hand.

No matter how fast the current, how deep the water or how bad the wind blows these basic principles of vertical jigging never change. Once you master the concepts of boat control, learning to bring the jig to life comes into play.

The majority of anglers work the jig too aggressively in an abrupt up and down motion. This simply lifts the jig up and out of the strike zone, then dumps it back into the fish’s face. Keeping the jig positioned near bottom and simply swimming or yo-yoing the jig with small movements of the wrist imparts movement, without taking the jig up and out of the primary strike zone.

Allowing the jig to fall on a slack line is another common mistake. When the jig is falling on slack line, it’s impossible to feel bites because the fish isn’t pulling against the rod, but rather the slack in the system. Dropping the jig on a taunt line greatly increases the chances of feeling the bite and helps to reduce the chances of dropping the jig to bottom and snagging.

Don’t jig using your arms and shoulders, but let your wrist and hand do the work. When a strike occurs, you need your fast wrist reactions to set the hook before the fish can realize it’s a mistake. The arm isn’t fast enough to do a good job of setting the hook, but your wrist is quick like lightning. Once the fish is hooked, you can use your arms to fight it.

Equipment is always important with fishing, but never more so than with vertical jigging. Stiff rods, lightweight and sensitive rods, low stretch lines, long shank jigs and stinger hooks are all critical pieces of the successful vertical jigging presentation.

Rods should be spinning, high modulus graphite and from six to six and a half feet long. The rod needs to be stiff enough so when you’re lifting the jig, the rod tip doesn’t bend under the weight. If the rod bends, it’s acting as a shock absorber, not a strike indicating tool.

The reel needs also be small so as not to add unnecessary weight to the rod/reel combination. Load the reel with low stretch super braid in the six to 10 pound test range. These ultra thin lines make it easier to remain vertical in swift current or deep water. The low stretch helps in detecting subtle strikes and improves hook setting speed.

Long shank jigs are without question the most efficient jig type for vertical jigging. The added space between the eye tie and the hook point helps to insure the business end of the jig is positioned as deep as possible in the walleye’s mouth. Other jig types are a poor second choice.

Jig size is another consideration. Choose a jig that’s easy to detect hitting bottom. If you’re struggling to detect bottom, the jig should be heavier. For the Detroit River 3/8 ounce jigs are considered light. In most cases a 1/2 or 5/8 ounce model is better. Even 3/4 ounce jigs have a place in the deep water areas of the Detroit River.

Stinger hooks are also an important accessory. Without stinger hooks, you’re going to miss 1/3 of the fish that bite on most days. The stinger should be made from monofilament line, a No. 10 treble hook and made long enough to reach to the minnow’s tail.

The best minnows are without question the emerald shiner. These native minnows are a walleye favorite, but they are hard to keep on the hook. Try hooking the minnow through both lips, and then place a small chunk of plastic from a twister tail over top of the hook point and barb. This works like a washer to keep the minnow from falling off the hook.

Remember the minnow must move freely on the hook to trigger strikes, so avoid the temptation to hook the minnow through the top of the head. This rarely works as well as lip hooking the minnow.

Soft plastics are also effective, but generally produce better in water 50 degrees or above. At these somewhat warmer water temperatures, walleye become more active and willing to chase anything that looks like a meal.

In conclusion, I might also add that holding too much allegiance to one area of the river is a mistake. Walleye move up and down the river constantly. The best way to insure success is to set up a milk run of sorts and try different spots until you find a good concentration of fish.

If you make a drift in an area and don’t catch a fish or see others catching fish, move to the next spot. The river is full of good fishing holes and none of them are secrets. Any place you see boats, you’re likely to find fish. Pull in and give it a try. If the spot pays off great. If the spot doesn’t pay off, simply keep moving until you find them. Waiting in a spot for a bite to occur is wasting time.

Our beloved Detroit River has seen some slower years recently, but compared to other rivers in the region she still shines bright among walleye anglers. The anglers who learn to refine the art of vertical jigging will find this presentation serves them well. Taking a more haphazard approach is a good way to litter the bottom with otherwise useful jigs.