The weather was perfect, seas calm, kings were rolling on the surface of Betsie Bay by the truckloads, but I couldn’t buy a bite trolling spoons, attractor flies, meat rigs or plugs. Meanwhile, jiggers nearby were having a heyday, fighting and landing monster salmon. “That’s It!” I told myself as I cut the Yamaha motor, dropped the bow-mounted Minn Kota motor, tied on a green/silver jig and dropped the offering near the bottom. One quick glance at the Lowrance electronics showed the bottom was covered with salmon. Huge arches filled the screen as I dropped the offering to the bottom, reeled up slack line and began jigging with my Shakespeare Ugly Stix trolling rod.
WHAM! There was a sudden jerk on the line and I was fast into a big chinook. The golden prize stripped line off the reel, then zoomed for the surface and cartwheeled out of the water like a tarpon gone berserk, tossing a halo of water in the air and crashing back into the lake with a resounding kersplush. That’s when the king sulked, violently shook its head and the hook came unzipped.
Shaking with excitement, I dropped the jig back into the strike zone. POW! I got slammed again, and this time I set the hook with a double jerk. This fish was different, more powerful and he melted 50 yards of line off the Daiwa drag with ease. This brute fought like a junkyard dog, making powerful runs, violent head shakes and bulldogging to shake the hook. But after a relatively quick battle, the beast came to the surface, stuck its dorsal fin out of the water like a Great White shark as he circled the boat. My heart skipped a beat at the sight of the behemoth up close in crystal clear water. He looked like the 30 pounder I’d been chasing all year and when he came close enough to gill, I gave out a loud war whoop as I raised the huge fish in celebration. Immediately I got a standing ovation from nearby anglers. I rushed to pin the brute on the Berkley digital scale and watched the numbers zoom to 28 pounds 8 ounces. I snapped result photos and quickly got back to jigging, fighting and landing a box full of huge salmon using the fastest growing tactic used by Michigan salmon slayers, jigging.
I must admit that years ago when I first photographed anglers jigging and catching salmon in Muskegon Lake near the pier heads, the sport looked like fun. With this tactic, you feel the powerful strike of salmon and fight them on light spinning gear. Most ardent salmon trollers view jigging with disdain and automatically scuff the tactic as snagging. Not so! After photographing fishermen and taking up jigging, I’ve discovered it’s one of the hottest tactics ever developed to fool salmon into striking. There’s a whole new breed of Michigan fishermen using walleye jigging tricks to catch limits of salmon. I’m not certain who started the craze, but there is a fast-growing army of Michigan fishermen joining the growing legion of salmon jiggers simply because the tactic produces impressive results.
Today’s jigging nation mimics a page from Romanack’s walleye jigging bible, and they use powerful bow-mounted electric motors to find active schools and stay on fish. Savvy anglers by the droves are using walleye boats rigged with silent electric motors featuring Spot Lock. When they see fish on electronics, they hit Spot Lock and the boat stays over schools of salmon and allows jiggers to keep jigs in the strike zone. Another advantage of this system is when you see fish on your electronics, you can move the jig into the strike zone. Some days they are hugging the bottom, like walleyes, but frequently active salmon roam about 10 feet off the bottom. At times the trick to easy catches hinges on reading your electrons and precisely placing your offering at fish-eye level or slightly above schools. But masses of newcomers simply anchor and blindly jig a couple of feet off bottom. Also, I’ve noticed successful salmon jiggers have no interest in dropping an anchor that spooks wary salmon in clear water. In addition, anchor lines scare big lake wary fish. Salmon fishermen hate anchor lines that are the kiss of death for catching fish because hard-fighting fish frequently wrap line around the rope and break free.
Which jig is best? I get asked this question all the time and the answer is simple. First, savvy jiggers are not using traditional walleye round ball jigs tipped with bait. Instead, they use a diamond-shaped spoon with a violent, whip-like, darting action that drives salmon bonkers. When you pull up on the jigging spoon, it swims upward like an alewife dodging salmon slashing at a school. Then, when you drop the rod tip and let it fall, it flutters, dances, whips through the water and salmon pound the jiggling spoon on the fall. After field-testing several lures, I settled on the erratic action of the P-Line Laser Minnow 2 ounce with irresistible holographic laser tape shimmering metallic green or blue top and silver shimmering metallic with black dots on the bottom. Some jiggers prefer the Cabela’s Real Image or Point Wilson Dart Anchovy. When I was jigging PM Lake near the Spartan hole, I noticed a boat next to me was hammering fish. I asked which jig was working and he said, made in Michigan by EJ Jigs, Vertical Jigging Spoon, Traverse City. So, I bought some and found the green/silver and blue/silver outproduced the P-Line Laser Minnow.
Get this, I’m trolling just outside Grand Haven’s pier head using my traditional J-plugs when a small pram with a guy and a gal moved past me. POW! They hooked a big king and when they landed the fish, I noticed they were trolling the EJ Jig. They would cast a long distance, troll into the current while holding their rods. WHAM! They caught another and soon they had six whopper kings in the small pram at lightning speed. Something tells me there’s more to this story than simply vertical jigging. So, I set a blue/silver 2 ounce EJ’s behind my ball and WHAM! Fish on. My recommendation is you place a jig in the water while trolling and check out the action. I guarantee you will be surprised by the erratic action.
The trick to success hinges on the jigging technique. This is no lazy anglers sport, but the key to success hinges on your rod control and jigging style. Those who don’t jerk the lure and slowly pump the jig will get zero strikes. On the other hand, if you give the jig a solid jerk upward and let it fall two-six feet, the lure flips on its side, flutters toward bottom with an added zip to the side that salmon can’t ignore. Some say the fast-fluttering action mimics wounded baitfish. Others contend the fast-moving lure sends out sound vibrations attracting predator fish. Savvy anglers drop the lure to the bottom, reel up six-12 inches and jig upward four-six feet. Oh ya, this tactic works for steelhead, brown trout, lake trout, northern pike and more.
Now, here’s the kicker, I was convinced jigging would only produce strikes in drowned river mouth lakes like Muskegon Lake, Betsie Bay, Pere Marquette, Manistee Lake and more. However, I’ll never forget Aaron Johnson, who followed my recommendation to try the Manistee Harbor outlet. When he moved offshore, he caught three kings in Lake Michigan. Bingo! Imagine the angling opportunities on the big lake and connecting waterways that are yet to be explored by modern jiggers.
I interviewed a happy fisherman at the Platte River fish cleaning station with a limit of chrome coho salmon he caught in East Platte Bay 80 feet down, using EJ’s vertical jigging spoons. He explained, “In 2020, we were trolling for coho with no luck, but guys jigging were catching limits. So, I went to The Tackle Box in Frankfort and purchased some locally made jigs and went back out and hammered fish. Now, I leave my downriggers, planer boards and trolling lures at home and use a handful of jigs with spinning gear and a bow-mounted electric motor to stay on fish, and we have a riot catching salmon in 30-100 feet of water.
My point is; jiggers are testing the technique far and wide with excellent results. Can you imagine hundreds of jiggers drifting over those massive schools of coho in East Platte Bay come fall? And will jiggers eventually move to traditional offshore salmon hot spots and catch fish all summer? One thing, when the good fishing word gets out, the jiggers arrive at lightning speed in mass numbers. Obviously, the jigging nation is well connected by modern cell phones, and when the fishing is hot, videos, photos and up-to-the-minute reports are viewed instantaneously by thousands of anglers. Think I’m kidding about the fast-growing army of jiggers? Just take a peek at Pere Marquette Lake in late summer and see hundreds of boats jigging. At lightning speed, the jiggers far outnumber traditional trollers. The tactic is so productive that savvy big water trollers are even shutting down, lowering jigs and enjoying the excitement of feeling the strike and catching fish. Go Michigan jiggers! In less than two years there are now jiggers throughout Michigan and I predict the tactic will catch on like wildfire in other states and salmon hot spots around the Great Lakes.
Unfortunately, the Michigan DNR seems shell-shocked by the full boat launches and hordes of anglers jigging for salmon. To make matters worse, they are not planning for future generations of jiggers that will swarm hot spots like Pere Marquette Lake in search of salmon action. You see, the Pere Marquette is perfect for jigging. It has calm water, deep water that is 30-45 feet deep, is a huge body of water with a protected harbor and numerous boat launches, fish cleaning stations, hidden bays and flow from the PM River. But the DNR did not stock the Pere Marquette and 2021 will go down in Michigan fishing annals as a year of the poorest king salmon run on the Pere Marquette ever due to no stocking since 2016. Unfortunately, many new jiggers caught no fish on PM Lake after hours of hard fishing. My point is, the MDNR Fisheries Division needs to reevaluate salmon stocking locations to better meet the needs of the fast-growing audience of jiggers. Streams with drowned river mouth lakes need to be heavily stocked, including Boardman River mouth, Manistee, Ludington, Muskegon, White Lake, Holland, Saugatuck, St. Joseph, etc. Michigan sportsmen are not getting much bang for their buck when it comes to managing the salmon fishery to help anglers catch more fish in the future. Recently the DNR announced cutting chinook stocking again in 2022 to around 650,000. Meanwhile, sportsmen want more salmon and dream of a balanced fishery rich with salmon, steelhead and browns.
Jigging is fast growing in Michigan and part of the reason is it’s a simple fishing tactic. All you need is the average spinning, baitcasting rod and reel rigged with 10-pound clear fluorocarbon leader attached to your favorite micro diameter braided line. Try a Blackbird itsy barrel swivel used to attach a leader to braid or main line, which helps to reduce line tangle caused by dancing fast action lures. Some folks just use mono line, but the heavier braid guarantees you land more fish and the braid is super sensitive to feel lure action and strikes in deep water conditions. Hey, sometimes I shut down trolling and simply use my Daiwa line counter reels on a Shakespeare Ugly Stix rod. My favorite jigging outfit is a 7-foot medium spinning rod and Daiwa open bail spinning reel. But just about any bass or walleye rod will be ideal for jigging salmon. Hordes of river fishermen are taking up jigging and they prefer to use long steelhead rods with a sensitive tip to help detect strikes. Traditional bobber rods rigged with center pin reels make jigging more sportsman-like, challenging and productive. My custom 11-foot Grand River steelie stick helps get better lure action and set the hook. Plenty of jiggers want to hook up on light tackle and long rods. The late Dick Swan, legendary long rod/light line promoter, would smile from ear to ear if he could see the number of jiggers fighting fish with long roads bent double in a big C.
Last summer, salmon were stacked in east and west Grand Traverse Bays. I hit the mouth of the Boardman and pulled J-plugs through schools in 60-111 feet of water and only caught one fish. After hours of wasting gas, the bright sun became hot, the wind disappeared, and other boats in the honey hole headed for shore. I noticed a large school on the Lowrance, dropped down my favorite green/silver jig and began working the lure. The first strike was a small coho, the next was a 10-pound male coho with hooked jaw. Then, all hell broke loose when I slammed a 25-pound king that circled the boat several times. It was a perfect day to be on the water, flat-calm. I watched hundreds of cars zoom past on Highway 31 as the silvery prize circled the boat in the gin-clear water. The distant hum of the city and sirens wailing quickly diminished to nothingness as the speckled monster slipped into the landing net.
I’ve been slammin’ salmon since the day they were stocked in the Great Lakes in the ’60s and used a variety of casting, trolling and bait fishing tactics, but few can compare with the bone-jarring strike and heavy-duty fight when a salmon smacks a vertical jigging spoon. More importantly, this deadly strategy is simple to learn, requires very little tackle and can be used from a pram, canoe, johnboat, or large trolling vessel. I get a kick watching kayakers jig, hook and land big salmon that tow their tiny craft around like Capt. Ahab being pulled through the water by Moby Dick.
You can bet there will be more jiggers in 2022 than ever before in Michigan’s salmon fishing history. The jigging nation is quickly gaining new members. Sure, they will be smacking Great Lakes trout and salmon close to shore and in drowned river-mouth lakes and it is my bet this year you can expect them to expand to Great Lakes traditional salmon trolling grounds. Are you ready to pick up rod and reel, learn productive jigging technique and get your butt kicked by monster kings?