Open Water Jigging Tactics
The mid-summer morning started much like the day before – dead calm with high pressure. Fog that briefly clothed had already completely dissipated, and the hoped-for surfacing of smallmouth bass and muskies that is associated with an early feeding window seemed nonexistent.
For our second pass through a historically-productive stretch, my father and I stepped out into deeper water and ran Mag Dawgs with a slow pull-pause retrieve over the drop-off. This method yielded two missed opportunities the day before, so I was optimistic one of us would be given another chance to seal the deal. Such was not the case. Neither of us moved a fish, though a big piece of the puzzle was put together. As we worked through the area we noted several arches on the Lowrance’s screen. Prior encounters had taught that these arches were usually of the musky variety.
With two fruitless hours already under our belts and the ominous signs of a post-frontal day ahead of us, we were forced to change our strategy. Not wanting to leave fish to find fish, I snapped on a Bondy Bait and went to work. I free-spooled my Calcutta 400TE and watched the red streak of the bait descending on the screen. By paying attention to the fishes’ location and position within the water column during the previous pass, I isolated a particular area along the drop-off and keep my bait at the appropriate depth.
We began to follow the contour line as it crept closer to the shoreline, all the while watching the blue wave our baits were displaying on the graph. It wasn’t long before a huge a reddish-yellow mass appeared behind my bait – the telltale sign of a musky following. As we neared the deep weed edge, I experienced a hard strike and my rod instantly doubled over. The fight that transpired was a blur and the 48½-incher was in the bottom of the net almost instantaneously.
Unfavorable conditions are an inevitable aspect of fishing. Whether you’re a guide, tournament angler, or “Weekend Warrior,” there will be times this season when conditions aren’t on your side. Post-frontal, “bluebird” days are associated with high barometric pressure and little to no wind,
and result in a hot, unpleasant day on the water. On such days, muskies become lethargic, their strike zones decrease, and they become more challenging to catch.
Most anglers combat these conditions by slowing down and methodically picking apart various forms of shallow weed cover or rock structures. As the sport evolves, however, it is increasingly important to add new tools to one’s repertoire. This is especially true as musky angler numbers grow. One way of doing such is through vertical jigging in open water.
Vertical jigging for muskies has been around for years, yet it remains widely overlooked. Perhaps it is the intimidation of open water or targeting suspended fish. It could be a lack of confidence in the technique outside of river situations, or when not used in conjunction with live bait. Or maybe it’s the fast-paced mentality of most musky anglers. Whatever the case may be, the inability to differ from that mindset limits the vast majority from exhibiting confidence require to stick with this method. In this sense, vertical jigging is somewhat new for most anglers, and something which muskies have yet not become conditioned.
Its practicality also makes it effective under unfavorable conditions. The deep-water necessity allows the angler to target suspended muskies with a slow, in-your-face presentation. Vertical jigging has proven to be more effective than traditional casting applications or via trolling, because the lure spends an extended period in a musky’s strike zone.
Where to Fish
I primarily jig manmade impoundments, so I fish fairly obvious structural areas like points, humps, islands, deep weed edges, creek channels, and drop-offs. My most productive areas group a combination of these elements in a small section – generally the more complex the better.
I search for irregularities along the structure. When fishing a drop-off, for example, I pay particular attention to areas that dip in closer to, or jut out from, the shoreline, which often signify eddies or slack water. These irregularities may be subtle but create a spot-on-the-spot. In some cases, trolling applications cannot effectively contact these areas.
Sonar units with GPS and chart-plotting functions, down imaging and side imaging, can make a world of difference in learning an area. Mapping features aid in the ability to precisely follow a contour line, weed edge, or rock reef. By marking fish with icons, anglers can narrow down large stretches and focus on small spots prone to hold fish. They are also instrumental in detecting the presence and depth of baitfish and/or muskies.
I credit the principle mechanics of vertical jigging to Bondy Bait creator, Detroit River guide, and vertical jigging guru Jon Bondy. Bondy has perfected the technique through trial and error, and I see little need to deviate from his system. The minute changes I make are merely to crossover to non-current situations.
Bondy’s technique consists of a raise-and-lower method at a steady, moderate speed. The key is lowering the bait with your rod, rather than dropping the rod tip and letting the lure fall on slack line. Going too fast, ripping the bait in an attempt to trigger strikes, or letting the lure fall on slack all decrease the ability for a musky to track the bait. This is best explained by envisioning a wave. You want the wave to be long and drawn out, not choppy. For this reason, it is best to momentarily pause on the high-point of the upstroke (crest) and the low-point of the down stroke (trough) to elongate the wave.
Electronics are advantageous in the jigging application, as well. As I eluded to at the beginning of this article, you can see your lure while jigging, provided it runs within the cone of the transducer. The cone widens with increased depth and shrinks when the boat approaches shallower water.
I am constantly watching the sonar unit while jigging, which assists in making a proper wave. It also simplifies identifying baitfish and musky location to ensure I am contacting fish. Finally, it lets me see the fish follow, allowing me to prepare for the hookset. Keep in mind, however, there could be interested muskies swimming outside the transducer cone, which never appear on the graph’s screen.
If I see a fish trailing my bait on the graph, I stay consistent with the raise-and-lower method. I’m not trying to trigger reaction strikes with speed, direction changes, or erratic movements. These are lethargic fish that are not moving to eat horizontally-presented baits. With the steady method, in-your-face approach I’m effectively feeding the lure to the fish.
In non-current situations, nose the boat into the wind and use the trolling motor to navigate along a specific contour line, structural element or cover type. Under the flat calm conditions that often accompany these weather patterns the trolling motor must be used as the main propulsion, done so by giving large bursts. Bursts work best when no wind is present because you are able to keep your bait vertical. Keeping your trolling motor on constant without current or wind will cause the bait to be pulled behind the boat, at which point it essentially becomes trolling with a jigging motion.
Choose a rod look that is stiff enough to absorb the weight of the bait when raised on the upstroke and lowered on the down stroke; a rod that is too soft will cause the angler to fight the rod, ultimately leading to fatigue. Typically, this will be a heavy or extra heavy action, and will vary with the rod’s manufacturer.
Long rods are still effective while vertical jigging. Eight- to 9-foot rods allow you to get your bait away from the boat (which can be important when jigging shallower water), pick up more line when a strike occurs, and are more forgiving in terms of shock absorption. Since a figure 8 is not necessary, 8-foot and 8-foot-6 rods will be lighter and less tiring.
Most baitcasting reels currently marketed for muskies will suffice. It is advisable to choose a reel that offers some power when fighting a fish. I don’t mind large low-profile reels, but don’t attempt to target these fish with a reel designed for bass. Select a reel with moderate to fast line pick-up. Lastly, choose a reel that is comfortable to hold for long periods of time. I spool with 80-pound test braid and finish the set-up with a 150-pound test fluorocarbon leader from Stealth Tackle.
Vertical baits come in a rainbow of colors and selecting “the one” is no different than every bait in your box. I have been most successful with variations of black and white.
Be sure to check the regulations in your state or province prior to attempting these methods. Trolling is not permitted throughout the entire musky range. This could lead to much debate over the legality of vertical jigging while using your trolling motor as your main propulsion.
Vertical jigging is an effective tool for pursuing listless, open water muskies under less-than-ideal conditions. When faced with high pressure, bluebird days this year, give this tactic a legitimate chance. Setting aside favorite lures may be challenging at first, but it won’t be long before you’ve been convinced that there is room in your boat for new tactics. You may even catch a fish or two in the process.
"Open Water Jigging Tactics" was featured in the June/July 2014 issue of Musky Hunter magazine