By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson
When it comes to catching walleye, trolling is an extremely effective method. By spreading your lines out and away from the boat with Off Shore trolling boards, you can sift through large areas of water quickly. But, trolling is not always the answer. There are times when the situation calls for a presentation that lends itself to pinpoint accuracy. That’s when it’s time to turn to a jig.
The decision on which presentation to choose—jigging vs. trolling—is dictated by how the walleye are relating to structure on any given day. Using your electronics will tell you all you need to know before you ever wet a line. Just ask yourself one question as you watch the fish marks move across the sonar screen. Are walleye dispersed over huge areas or are they tightly schooled and holding close to reefs, points, rock piles or weeds? Then picture which method, trolling or jigging, will keep your bait in front of the most fish for the longest period of time.
Using this simple analysis, it becomes clear that trolling does the trick for walleye that are scattered or suspended. This is normally true in the warm, summer months when walleye are on the move in search of suspended baitfish.
Experience has taught us that walleye will often hold tight to the bottom in small groups on most bodies of water. Rock piles, humps and reefs act like magnets in spring and fall or when cold fronts strike. At other times, walleye will hold in dense cover, like weed beds. In all of these cases, trolling would put baits in the fish zone for only brief moments. You’d spend more time turning the boat around to make another trolling pass than you would actually fishing. On the other hand, specific spots can be worked precisely with a jig. Your bait will stay in front of a walleye for longer periods of time.
Doing your homework before you launch is an important ingredient to success on any fishing trip. Information gathering is absolutely critical. There’s just too much water to have to search by yourself when armed only with sonar and a rod and reel. Ask clerks at bait shops what areas and tactics are producing. Have them mark your maps. Get the scoop on where the largest concentrations of fish are and get GPS coordinates if possible.
Once on the water, run from spot to spot, then cruise each location slowly. Watch your sonar carefully to see how fish are relating to the available structure and cover. Note the depth when you find a concentration of walleye. If they are suspended three to five feet or more off the bottom, break out the trolling gear. If you are marking fish tight to structure, you’ll be using a jig and live bait.
When jigging, I like to use a 6-1/2 foot medium spinning rod with a fast tip like St. Croix’s LES66MLF. Your reel should be spooled with 10-pound TUF Line XP.
Mark the locations where you see fish on your GPS so you can return easily. Check out the rest of the area and zig-zag slowly along structure contours and weed edges at the depth where you first noticed fish. You might discover the spot-on-a-spot that holds an even larger school. When you do find that spot, mark the spot on your GPS.
Successful jigging often demands a precise presentation well below the surface. Your ability to accomplish that task depends on the conditions you face above. Are the waves small or large? Can you hold your boat still with an electric trolling motor? If so, you can literally drop a jig on a walleye’s nose. A transducer on your trolling motor enables you to work your boat with precision on the edges of the structure.
Golden Rule of Jigging
Here’s the number one Golden Rule of Jigging—your jig must always be on or near the bottom for it to be effective. You aren’t fishing high percentage, structure-oriented walleye unless it is.
Common sense dictates that the shallower the fish or the slower the wind or current, the lighter the jig can be. A 1/8- or 1/4-ounce Fuzz-E-Grub jig can be cast to the top of a reef or hump topping out in a foot or two of water and retrieved slowly along the bottom back to the boat. For more finicky fish, dangle a smaller jig below a Thill Float so it rides just off the bottom. Let the waves impart the action. Jigs of 3/8, 1/2 or 3/4 ounce handle medium depths.
If the waves make it too rough to control the boat with an electric motor, toss out an anchor or drift with the wind to cover large areas. Control boat speed with a drift sock, if needed.
Minnows are great a bait for spring or fall. Ask at the bait shops for what’s hot. Don’t be afraid to experiment, though. Nightcrawlers and leeches work well as the water warms up.
Sharpen hooks and bend out the hook gaps slightly to improve hook-sets. Use stinger hooks if you are getting short strikes.
Match the action of a jig to fit the mood of the walleye. The most common presentation is lift-drop, lift-drop. But try dragging it, popping it and letting it fall or holding it still just off the bottom. When casting to shallow points or rock piles, let the jig drop until you feel the bottom or see slack in the line. Then slowly lift your rod tip two or three inches. Pause, drop your rod tip, reel up slack and let the jig touch bottom again. Repeat. Concentrate and remember what action you were giving the jig when you got your first strike. A common mistake by most jiggers is that they over jig. Use very subtle actions the majority of the time.
Color can make a difference. As a general rule of thumb, brighter colors like chartreuse, lime-green or orange, are good in dirty or stained water. Try subtle, more natural colors like white, black, blue or purple for clearer water. Change up often until you find the color that the walleye want.
Aggressive walleye will really “thunk” a jig. If so, set the hook right away. But sometimes they will gently suck the bait in their mouth and just swim away. Get in the habit of watching your line. A few missed fish will alert you about whether you should “feed” them the jig and pause a little longer before driving the hook home.
When walleye are concentrated and relating to structure, it’s time to jig with precision.