Jigging for walleyes can mean many different things depending on who you talk to. There are many different presentations that we fit under this umbrella. The types of jigging I intend to cover with this article will pertain to Lake Erie. Most of the jigging is done in the Westen basin from Port Clinton to Toledo.
This type of jigging isn't the typical jigging that most anglers think of when we talk about jigging. You will be fishing deeper flats just outside spawning areas, targeting fish that are staging and waiting on the spawn to get underway. The easiest way to explain this is to imagine ice fishing from a boat. The boat will be anchored and you will drop a bait down to the fish. Usually dropping it to the bottom then lift slowly 6 to 18 in. up and slowly let it back down, never really letting the bait free fall just a slow up and down motion. Let the fish tell you what they want. Sometimes its 4-6 inches of vertical movement and other times it's 1-3 ft. Then move the bait up a few feet in the water column and repeat. They are not always on the bottom. The depth of the fish can change by the hour, usually any decent sonar can let you know once the fish start suspending.
Similar to ice fishing, jigging spoons with several shiners on the hook or a jigging rap with or without shiners are the baits of choice for this type of fishing. These fish are not usually actively feeding, but they are not going to pass up on an easy target.
Jigging the spawn
Jigging during the spawn usually takes place on the reefs and on shallow flats surrounding them. The males, like most men are anxious to get the spawn underway, and will start showing up in the shallow spawning areas usually around mid to late March they will stay there for the next 8+ weeks. The females, however, will only move in to drop their eggs and then return to deeper waters, only spending a short time in the spawning grounds. Leaving the males to fertilize the eggs and guard them against predators.
For this type of jigging the hair jig is king. 5/8ths and 3/4 ounce hair jigs with a stinger hook are hard to beat. As far as color goes, you can use any color you want as long as it's purple or black. As always, in fishing there is much debate on what lines, rods, reels, etc. are best. I like a little more of a firm rod, (6'6" medium heavy fast action) for this and braided line 10 to 15 lb. test with a mono leader.
Set up upwind of the area you want to cover and drift over it. Keep in mind the fish you're targeting are fairly shallow, therefore running the boat right over them can be counterproductive. For more info on drifting and boat control refer to our casting article. There is an entire paragraph there that is worth a read.
The actual retrieve is going to be dependent on the conditions you find yourself in. Wind and water clarity are going to decide for you how you want to work your jig.
Let's get water clarity out of the way. Remember these fish are not here to feed. They are here to fertilize and guard eggs. I like to imagine this like a birds-eye view, in cleaner water the fish tend to ease off the bottom giving them a better line of sight over a larger area. Whereas in more stained and even muddy water they need to stay tighter to the bottom to see anything at all. The hair jig is so effective for this because it resembles a small predator trying to eat the eggs they are guarding, triggering a reaction to kill the threat rather than feeding. Heavy jigs move fast and appear to be jumping down onto a nest of eggs. The fish doesn't have time to try to distinguish what it is, just that it needs to be stopped. In low visibility conditions, the fish cant locate a bait that is 2 or 3ft. over them nearly as well as a bait that is only just a few inches away. You will find staying close to the bottom tends to be more productive in stained water.
Just the opposite seems to be true in clearer water. Lifting the jig higher allows it to be spotted farther away and get more attention. It also seems a more aggressive sort of snapping action to the rod can generate more strikes in clear water, as it makes the jig move faster and give the fish less time to look leaving no choice but to attack. I think this is why adding live bait to the jigs is usually not that effective. (I said what I said.)
Wind plays a factor in how we work our jig because it directly affects the speed of the boat. With little to no wind, you really only have two choices: you can verticle jig, or u can cast and retrieve. When casting you want to make a long cast then allow the jig to hit bottom. Start working it back to the boat all the while reeling up slack fast enough to keep the line from getting too much slack, but only moving the bait with the rod itself. In a fairly quick jerking action point the rod at the jig then with a quick flick of the wrist, jerk the rod tip up. Then with the reel keep a very slight tension as you lower the tip back down to do it again. It might be necessary to go to a lighter jig so you can slow down the retrieve a bit without snagging up on every nearby rock
When the wind is moving the boat along with a little more speed it's usually not necessary to reel at all, just let enough line out to keep in contact with the bottom and pop the rod tip up. Then follow the jig back down to the bottom keeping the line tight then just repeat this as the boat keeps moving you along. This seems to be the optimal condition as it allows you to keep presenting your jig to more and more fish as you cover water. As boat speed increases you might need to go to a heavier jig to keep contact with the bottom and keep the jig from swimming along instead of jumping along.
But wait there's more. The blade bait is also a commonly used lure that can be very productive during this time of year. In the last few paragraphs, you could replace the word jig with blade bait and have similar results. They can be used just about the same way as a hair jig but they do require a bit more of a pull to get them vibrating. There are times when they just simply outperform the hair jig, the vibration they put off can be heard or felt from a very long way. Some guys will claim them to be the way to go in stained water, but I have found them to be very productive in both clear and muddy water. The moral of the story is to try them often because the fish just seem to be temperamental and you never know what's going to trigger more strike. I don't recommend using these without a leader. Using braid straight to the bait seems to cause a lot of problems as a leader of a stiffer mono or equivalent goes a long way in keeping the line from wrapping up around the bait.
With all this information you might think to your self boy there sure is a lot to having success jig fishing. In all honesty, when the bite is good you have a hard time doing it wrong. They do seem to have times when they are more aggressive. The weekends especially seem to be an early bite, and they seemingly shut down after just an hour or two into the day and then they fire back up in the last few hours of the day. I believe we can contribute this to a large number of boats out on the weekends. The noise of all the boats moving around, along with most of the aggressive fish being in coolers headed back to the dock. It doesn't take long and you will be scratching your head thinking how can they just flip "The Switch" like that?
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Thanks, Captain Tom Ullum