Over the years, I’ve shared a boat with an impressive number of talented fishermen. No one learns the craft of fishing without the help of others willing to share what they have learned through the school of hard knocks.
When it comes to jig fishing places such as the Detroit, St. Clair or Saginaw River, the lessons learned can be brutal for some. What appears to be a simple fishing presentation is anything but simple and anything but easy for the average angler to master. Jigging in rivers for walleye is just as much about “feel” and “confidence” as it is about technique.
Every spring, I marvel at how some people struggle to catch fish jigging while others can seemingly do nothing wrong. If you’ve ever spent a day in the boat where some are catching, and others are not, you will want to read on.
Don’t Read Too Much Into The Presentation
The word “jigging” is a little misleading when fishing for river walleye. While there are times when the jig is intentionally being moved or “jigged” to create action, there are others when doing absolutely nothing with the rod tip is the best approach.
Those anglers without enough experience to see both ends of the jig fishing spectrum will likely find themselves doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Early in the year, when the water temperature is still very cold, successful river jigging is all about getting the jig to the bottom and holding the rod still as the boat drifts. The natural rocking of the boat is all the action needed to trigger strikes. Imparting a “jigging motion” into the equation is often the kiss of death. In cold water, walleye are not usually looking for a fast-moving meal but rather something that is moving sluggishly and presenting an easy target.
Dead Stick Jigging
A jigging method known as “dead sticking” or “tight line” jigging involves getting the jig to the bottom and then holding it still while the boat naturally drifts with the current. When it does become necessary to lower the jig to confirm the jig is close to bottom, the jig is lowered slowly enough that the fishing line remains taut or tight, hence the name “tight line” jigging.
The second the jig hits bottom, the line will go slack for an instant, tipping off the angler it’s time to lift the jig slowly a few inches off the bottom before stopping and once again holding the rod still while the boat drifts.
While tight line jigging is super simple, teaching someone with the mindset that the jig must move up and down in the water to trigger strikes can be challenging. Making a conscious effort to slow down and concentrate on keeping that jig motionless and close to the bottom separates the men from the boys when cold water jigging.
Tight line jigging is easier to master when using a jig that is heavy enough to easily control the subtle lifts and drops required to keep the jig moving slowly and in close contact with the bottom. Trying to fish a jig that’s too light will only complicate matters and turns an easy presentation into a frustrating experience.
Slack Line Jigging
Slack line jigging is a subtle but important variation of tight line jigging. When slack line jigging, the angler gets the jig to the bottom and then lifts it a couple of inches off the bottom on a taut line. Then after allowing the boat to drift naturally with the current for a few seconds, the rod tip is suddenly dropped to allow the jig to sink quickly and crash the bottom.
When the jig hits the bottom, the line will go slack, and it’s at that moment, the angler must lift the jig back off the bottom a few inches on a taut line. Once the jig is a few inches off the bottom, the rod is held still, and the boat can drift a short way before repeating the process.
Like tight line jigging, slack line jigging is easier to master when the jig is heavy enough to easily feel hitting bottom. A common variation of slack line jigging involves dropping the rod tip so the jig can sink quickly but catching the jig with the rod tip just before it hits bottom. In this situation, once the angler catches the jig before it hits the bottom, the jig is slowly lowered to the bottom on a taut line until it hits the bottom, and the line goes slack.
While this variation of slack line jigging is subtle, it’s often just the jigging stroke it takes to get consistent bites.
As the water temperatures start to rise, more aggressive jigging strokes start to come into play. Lowering the jig until it hits the bottom, then reeling up the slack until the weight of the jig can be felt on the bottom, is the best place to start when getting more aggressive with the jigging stroke.
When the weight of the jig can be felt in the rod tip, snapping the rod tip a few inches will pop the jig up off the bottom and allow the jig to free fall back to the bottom. This jigging style hops the jig while, at the same time, the boat drifts naturally downstream. Depending on how aggressively the rod is popped, the jig might just hop off the bottom a couple of inches or a couple of feet.
Generally speaking, anglers tend to pop the rod too aggressively, causing the jig to jump off the bottom and sink back to the bottom several feet away. A jigging stroke this aggressive might literally snatch the jig away from a fish that could have otherwise sucked in the jig.
So getting more aggressive on the jigging stroke can be good and bad if the angler is too aggressive. Think about it this way, if the jig is moved too aggressively the angler is literally taking the jig out of the strike zone momentarily.
Concentrating on keeping the jig within 12 inches of the bottom at all times is what it typically takes to stay in the strike zone and be consistently successful with a jig.
Lines Suitable for River Jigging
Low stretch lines such as fused fishing lines or super braids have the sensitivity required for effective river jigging. A fused line such as Berkley Fireline features low stretch, but this line is flat in shape and doesn’t spool onto a reel evenly or tightly.
Super braid lines are created by twisting multiple fibers together under pressure to create a line with near zero stretch, but a round shape that tends to spool more evenly and tightly onto the reel spool.
Another advantage of fused and super braids is they are very thin in diameter for their pound test, making it easier to stay in contact with the bottom. Traditional lines like monofilament and co-polymers are thicker and have too much friction or resistance in the water for river jigging applications.
A line that’s 10-pound test is the ideal choice for most river jigging situations. This line is tough enough to handle any fish that may be hooked yet thin enough to make staying in contact with the bottom easy.
While many anglers tie their jig directly to the fused or super braid line, that situation creates a major problem. For one, super lines do not have great knot strength, and only select knots will work when fishing super lines.
Secondly, super lines are very visible in the water, making them a poor choice at the terminal end. The best approach is a compromise that uses the low stretch features of super line combined with the invisible properties of fluorocarbon leader material.
Using a double uni knot, tying in a 36-inch shock leader of 12 to 15-pound test fluorocarbon presents the jig on an invisible line, providing the sensitivity needed to feel bottom and subtle strikes. Using a clinch or Berkley Trilene knot to tie on the jig makes it possible to break off the jig without losing the shock leader.
Rod Stiffness Matters
One of the biggest mistakes anglers make when setting up a jigging rod for river walleye fishing is going with a rod that has an action that is too soft. A typical medium-action spinning rod will bend from just the weight of the 1/2-ounce jig. When the rod tip bends, feel, or sensitivity is sacrificed, and the rod becomes a shock absorber instead of a device for detecting strikes.
Going with a stiffer rod makes the jigging setup much more sensitive and, at the same time, makes it possible to feel fish others will never detect. Because walleye will bite the jig when it’s suspended off the bottom, dropping to the bottom or even resting on the bottom, the strike will be felt in different ways.
When the jig is suspended from the bottom as the strike occurs, a distinctive tick will be felt through the line and into the rod. This strike is easy to detect.
If the jig gets bit as the jig is sinking, the strike will feel like a more subdued tick in the line. This strike is much harder to detect, especially for anglers who are not completely focused on the jigging presentation.
When a fish hits a jig resting on the bottom, normally, the angler will not feel anything because the fish is sucking up the jig and creating slack in the line. This bite is typically detected when the angler goes to lift the jig off the bottom and feels a sensation of weight in the line.
Inexperienced anglers will feel the weight or resistance in the line and hesitate as they are trying to determine if the jig is snagged or if a fish has been hooked. This hesitation is typically the kiss of death because as soon as the fish feels resistance, it will drop the jig as fast as it picked it up.
Experienced jiggers feel the resistance and set the hook instantly before the fish can react and drop the jig. It takes lightning-fast reflexes to stick more fish than you miss, and beginning anglers will struggle with the confidence it takes to turn these bites into hooked fish.
A stiff fishing rod makes all the difference in feeling that often subtle sensation of weight. The problem is not many manufacturers produce jigging rods with the right stiffness for river jigging. The Daiwa RG series of spinning rods are available in a six-foot medium/heavy action and a five-foot-six inch medium heavy action that’s ideal for river jigging walleye.
Reels are Less Important
The reel used on a walleye jigging outfit is less important than the line used or the rod action. The reel should be small enough to be lightweight. A size 20 or 25 spinning reel has enough line capacity and is about the perfect weight to balance with a six-foot jigging rod.
Super-expensive spinning reels are ultra smooth, but most anglers can’t tell the difference between a $70 reel and one that costs $200. In this situation, the money is better spent on the rod and line than on the reel.
Practice Makes Perfect
The art of river jigging is something that anyone can master, but not without considerable practice. The more a person practices this craft, the more the process becomes fluid and second nature.
It’s frankly pretty hard for a novice to hone their jigging skill when that person is only likely to get a few bites on any given day. I recommend that new anglers treat themselves to some time fishing places where they will get a ton of bites on any given day. The late fall, winter and early spring are excellent times to travel to the Saginaw River.
The deeper holes in the Saginaw River often concentrate huge numbers of walleye ranging in size from 12 to 16 inches. It’s not uncommon to hook over 100 fish a day when the conditions are right on the Saginaw River. It could take days or weeks to hook that many fish in other places.
The Illinois River is another destination where anglers can expect to catch large numbers of small to medium-sized sauger in a day of fishing. Since sauger and walleye are closely related, they are taken using similar jigging strategies.
The stretch of the Illinois River just above and just below the Starved Rock Dam are popular places to find lots of sauger in the late fall, winter and early spring.
Details to Avoid
This article has intentionally avoided discussing details that bog down an angler and prevent them from focusing on the fundamentals. Jighead shapes, colors, soft plastic styles and colors, etc., are the kind of baggage that routinely prevents anglers from staying focused when river jigging.
Using the right rod/reel/line combination and focusing on mastering “tight line” and “slack line” jigging techniques is far more important than fretting over what jig or soft plastic another angler is using. Jig fishing in rivers is a reactionary strike. The fish are likely to hit a wide variety of jigs and plastics if the jig is presented properly in the first place. Keeping that in mind and staying focused on jigging is way more important than getting bogged down in details that don’t matter.
Staying observant is another key element of river jigging. If you notice one particular angler is doing better than others, watch closely to determine if that angler is “tight line” or “slack line” jigging and do your best to duplicate that presentation. Often, very subtle differences in the jigging technique make all the difference in getting bites.
Stay focused, master the fundamentals and in time, river jigging success will come. Like everything else in life, nothing worthwhile comes without effort and persistence.