By William D. Anderson

Winter Vertical Jigging!

By William D. Anderson

I remember my first season of vertical jigging for Walleye and Sauger as a new experience and a totally different type of fishing than what I had been used to. I spent a lot of time reflecting on the trips I made. I thought about what I had done and what I would do differently in the future to put more fish in the boat. This article will summarize a few of the steps I took to get from not having the first clue about vertical jigging, to being able to catch fish every trip.

During my first few vertical jigging trips I was lucky enough to see several fish caught and that gave me the confidence I needed. Because I saw fish caught, and I wasn't catching very many, I knew I was doing something wrong. The task was to identify what I was doing wrong, and figure out what I had to do to correct it. That wasn't as easy as I thought.

The first thing I realized was that I'd have to adjust my jigging technique if I wanted to catch fish. Because I saw fish caught by others in nearby boats, and because I knew they were fishing the same jig heads, stinger hooks, and fatheads, I knew that the bait wasn't the problem. That left the jigging technique and boat control as potential items to work on. I was already using very light line tied directly to the jig head and a very sensitive rod, but I found that I wasn't using them correctly. I could see the fish down there on my locator but they weren't touching my offerings. I decided that on one of my trips I would experiment with different jigging techniques. I found that a very subtle lift with a natural drop was what was required. Previously I was jerking the jig up off the bottom and letting it fall and I believe it was rising too high and too fast. By keeping the lift to minimum of a couple inches and keeping the slack out of the line on the drop, I was able to feel the bite every time. Try to picture a dead minnow drifting down the river on the bottom. He will not rise any more than an inch or two as he travels with the current. I found that by trying to imitate that minnow traveling with the current I was able to get many more hits.

Boat control was very important too. The line had to be 100% vertical. It could not go off to one side or the other or the chances of having a fish bite were greatly reduced. I don't fully understand why the line has to be vertical but success seems to depend on it. This can be very difficult on windy days and is probably why I caught fewer fish on windy days. To keep the boat steady I use a bow mount trolling motor to drift with the current. This takes practice but it can be learned very easily. I also use a transom mount trolling motor and the outboard as a rudder on windy days. The goal is to move at the same speed as the current while keeping your line vertical and the bait on the bottom. As you drift with the current you adjust the motor as required to keep your line vertical while jigging at the same time. You should be able to lower the jig straight down with having the line move ahead or behind the boat.

Most of the time the bite would come as the jig was falling. Being able to feel the tap and set the hook right away was very important. Most of the time the fish were biting very lightly so having the right combination of line, a sensitive rod, and a good reel was crucial to being able to detect a light bite. If there was slack as the jig was falling, feeling the bite was next to impossible. A stinger hook was also important because the jig alone was often not enough to hook them. On days when the current was swifter, a heavier jig was required to fish vertically although it's generally best to try to keep the jig head as light as possible.

Once a fish is hooked it's a simple matter of standing up, reeling in the fish, and then netting him. It's very important to keep the net handy because you don't want to be fumbling for it while the mouthful of teeth at the other end of your light line is trying to free himself. Because you are using lighter line than you normally would, using a net is a good idea to prevent the bigger fish from breaking off as you lift them into the boat. A final reason to use a net is that the water temperature is often not much above the freezing mark.

During my first trip I was lucky enough to have someone show me the area where I could expect to find fish. I later found this area was much larger than I originally though after surveying it with my electronics. For the most part the fish stuck to the deepest water although they moved to different depths on different days. I simply had to spend some time making several passes over the area at different angles to learn the bottom contours. By learning where the areas of deeper water were located, I was able to find fish every trip. They were not always in the same place, but by knowing a little about the area I was able to quickly jump from spot to spot until I found the location where they were holding. The other thing I did was keep an eye on where the other boaters were catching fish. This helped me to identify a few spots I might not have found otherwise.

The only time I was not able to catch fish in these spots was after a sudden snow melt or rain. This would cause the river to rise, become muddy, and also cause the current to move a lot faster. On those days I was lucky to find fish because they were not where I thought they'd be. One two occasions I found them in current breaks near the shoreline and on another occasion they were deep but at the head of the deeper water packed in very tight. The locator showed them as an extension of the bottom but I knew from previous runs over the area that the drop was much sharper.

I learned very quickly that many layers of light clothes were better than a few heavy layers. Since you're not constantly casting you don't need the freedom of movement that you'd normally require. Also, because you're sitting still, you want clothes that will keep the wind off of you. Keeping the wind at bay is the secret to staying warm. Wearing layers allows you to remove clothes as it gets warmer during the day. Some people will use chemical heaters or even bring portable gas heaters into their boats to keep warm. No matter what, your hands are going to get wet. You have to handle live minnows and if you're lucky, some fish as well. A few dry rags to wipe your hands will go a long way towards helping you keep warm. Also, having a spare pair of gloves can be a big help. It's very tough to put a minnow on a jig in 20 degree weather when your hands are cold and wet so keeping them warm and dry is very important.

The last thing I've found is that wearing your life jacket helps keep you that much warmer. As I said above, you don't need the same level of comfort when vertical jigging so why not wear it. If you do fall in wearing a lot of clothes you will not be able to swim so having that PFD on may not save you from the cold, but it may save your life by keeping you at the surface long enough for a nearby boat to rescue you.

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