Joel Nelson with a walleye he caught vertical jigging

I just got back from a tough bite on Lake Pepin where active fish were few, and passing fronts were many.  From long, soaking rains and big wind to sunburn-inducing high skies and flat water, we saw it all in the course of two days of fishing.  Still, we caught a good number of fish, and our group even put some mid-20s fish on the board; just not the way I’m used to doing it.

I’ll be the first to admit that vertical jigging isn’t my favorite way of tempting a walleye out of the depths and into a landing net, but at times, it can be one of the most effective.  I first learned this as a college kid while fishing a Vilas County, WI lake known for great populations of eater fish and some true giants as well.  I was on a group of extremely stubborn mid-lake eyes that would simply not eat anything that drifted past a deep feeding shelf at the tip of a long rock/sand point.  Trolling was illegal here, so crankbaits were out of the equation, and at that time I didn’t own any leadcore setups anyway.  I could use a trolling motor to hold the location, however, so I did just that while dancing with the foot pedal to point windward and offer just enough speed to stay completely vertical.  One by one I was able to pick off those fish until they scattered during mid-day.  What I was left with, along with some nice fillets, was a fallback confidence technique that I would employ for years to come whenever tough bites and groups of tightly schooled fish went hand-in-hand.

I get it.  You want to catch fish “your” way.  That may be long-lining weedlines at dark with cranks, or maybe it’s drifting spinner/crawler combinations on windswept sand.  No matter what our walleye-fishing background is, we all have biases.  Techniques gather support and confidence based on one metric alone, and that’s successful fishing outings.  The hard part is that we’re creatures of habit.  We fish the same lakes, during the same seasons, the same way as the year last, rarely deviating from the established norm.  We’re all guilty of it.  The best anglers in the world get stuck in a rut, repeatedly “zigging” when they should’ve “zagged” a long time ago.  Walleyes are less predictable than many species, meaning that these lessons are hard-earned, as ol’ marble eyes more than any other freshwater predator will make you pay for fishing those memories.

Just like any method of fishing, there are circumstances that dictate a good vertical bite, with lethargic fish being chief among them.  When fish are unwilling to chase, perhaps the best way to “slow it down” is to put it in their face for prolonged periods of time.  This is especially true for livebait offerings, but also for more aggressive lures like a Puppet Minnow, both of which coaxed fish this past weekend.  Fishing vertically also works best in deeper water, for a number of reasons.  Deep fish graph well, and you can get a much better feel for how concentrated they are on a piece of structure.  It’s simply a much more efficient technique to drop directly on them when there’s a pile of them down there.  Fish from the depths are also less likely to be spooky to overhead boating traffic, meaning you can glide over the top of them unnoticed.  There are also times when other stationary methods like slip-bobber don’t work as well, especially in big water with heavy swells.

Jig selection here is a function of both fish activity levels, with a little bit of personal preference mixed in.  The tried-and-true Northland Fireball jig has probably caught more walleyes than any other in its time, and it’s nice to be able to clip on a stinger hook when fish are short-striking.  Another way at the same problem, especially for bigger minnows is the Northland Long-Shank Fireball jig.  Lots of anglers prefer the direct connection to the jighead and longer shank for converting strikes.  In current situations, the Whistler is a go-to, as is the Current-Cutter.  We chose UV patterns in Electric Perch and Pink Tiger, and that paid dividends in the muddy Mississippi.

It’s also worth noting that advances in trolling motors, fishing electronics, and other equipment make this an even more dependable technique these days.  Rather than drop an anchor, pay line, and hope it holds, we lowered the bow mount and searched for fish, looking for active pods to drop on for 5 – 15 minute stretches.  When we found what we were looking for, we simply used the GPS-enabled anchor function on the trolling motor to auto-adjust for direction and speed while it glued us to the spot.  Our electronics pointed out more than fish locations too, they indicated activity level and even helped us “watch” the strikes.  We looked primarily for any signs of life, especially fish that were belly off the bottom, with our better fish being seen as high as 10 feet above deep mud in 30-plus feet of water.  While jigging directly behind the boat and below the transducer, you’d see fish rise to your bait just like while fishing on ice with a flasher.  This was critical to catching the “high-riders” and really saw times when it was the best way to get bit.  Ultra-sensitive rods, paired with a braid and a fluoro leader made aggressive bites feel like a shot in the arm, even from those depths.  All of these niceties, along with a trip down memory lane to regain some newfound confidence in the technique, helped us salvage a bite and keep catching fish no matter what weather we faced.

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