Anyone can fish walleye in a river system, but only a select group of anglers are routinely successful in flowing water. Rivers comes with a complete set of fishing issues. Namely, maintaining boat control in moving water comes with some challenges.
In part, boat control when fishing in rivers is challenging because the variables are constantly changing. In the early morning typically the winds are light and keeping a boat working in synch with the anglers aboard is fairly straight forward. As the sun comes up, so does the wind and suddenly a boat that was easy to control is now cascading downstream like a runaway kite
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Because the wind can come from any direction, boat control becomes a constantly changing chore. Boat control is complicated by how the wind drift on the boat interacts with the direction and also power of the current. In short, several forces are causing the boat to move and the angler is tasked with keeping this boat movement stable and predictable.
The best way to control a boat for vertical jigging involves getting the boat, current and jig to all be moving at the same speed. Since we can’t control the speed of the current or the speed of the jig moving in the current, we are forced to match the boat drifting speed to exactly the same speed as the current is moving.
The chore of mastering boat control on rivers is in my opinion a job best handled with a wireless electric motor. Wireless motors are typically controlled with a “key fob” and also a remote “foot pedal” that allows an angler to take the hands free approach or to use a less traditional fob option. Both methods do an excellent job of moving the boat in the hands of an angler who understands the dynamics of fishing in flowing water.
Wireless motors like the MotorGuide Xi5 or Xi3 have an advantage over traditional push-pull cable-driven electric motors. With cable-driven motors, a foot control is the only option for making directional and speed changes. The position of the pedal dictates which way the boat is going to move and this positioning is not intuitive. Fishermen get good at operating a cable driven electric motor through years of experience.
A foot-controlled cable-driven electric motor also requires the operator to keep his foot on the electric motor pedal constantly to keep the power head from flopping and also to make small adjustments to boat position.
Meanwhile, a wireless motor doesn’t suffer from power head flop. The power head remains stable until the angler moves it with either the foot pedal or key fob controls. Once the power head is moved, it once again remains stable in that position.
A wireless motor also has the advantage of allowing the operator to control the boat from anywhere in the boat. With a push-pull style cable motor, the operator must remain glued to the bow of the boat. In calm weather fishing from the bow is a no worries task, but when the wind picks up and wave action starts tossing the boat around, fishing from the bow becomes a tricky situation at best.
STEADY AS WE GO
Using too much power or thrust is the biggest mistake I see anglers making when using an electric motor to control a boat for river fishing. If the thrust used on the electric motor is too high, the boat will move too quickly. Secondly, things in motion tend to stay in motion, so overdoing it with the thrust control makes it double tough to keep the boat under control.
I like to keep the power settings on the low to mid-range levels and use short bursts of power to move the boat. It’s better to use a series of two or three small bursts of power to keep the boat on track than to use one larger burst of power.
HIGH VISIBILITY LINE HELPS
In vertical jigging thin, low stretch and ultra-sensitive lines such as super braids are a huge asset. Not only do these lines make it easier to stay vertical, they make it easier to detect strikes.
Also, it’s the telltale angle of the fishing line as it pertains to the jig on bottom that gives us the cues we need for keeping the boat moving at the same speed of the current. As the line starts to show an obvious angle, the boat is either moving faster or slower than the current. Using the electric motor it’s a small task to move the boat over top of the jig, bringing that line vertical in the process.
Super lines that feature a natural color are difficult to see against the water, making it tougher to conduct boat control chores necessary for vertical jigging. Brightly colored super lines makes this process easier, but I’m not comfortable tying my jigs directly to fluorescent fishing lines.
Instead, I use a clear fluorocarbon leader about 24 inches long at the terminal end. The fluorocarbon leader is attached to the braided main line using a double uni knot. The jig is in turn tied to the end of the fluorocarbon line using a clinch knot.
The beauty of this set up is two-fold. If the jig becomes snagged on bottom, the clinch knot will fail before the double uni knot making it easy to simply break off the jig, tie on a new jig and continue fishing. Secondly, the invisible leader connection between the jig and main line helps in triggering strikes when dealing with fish in clear water environments.
STIFF RODS ARE A MUST
The average angler who is vertical jigging in rives is using a rod that is too soft for this presentation. A short and rather stiff action rod does a much better job of telegraphing subtle strikes. Often when vertical jigging the only thing the angler feels is a sensation of “weight” on the end of the line. This occurs when a fish bites on slack line and isn’t detected until the angler tries to lift the jig and the line suddenly feels heavy.
A stiff rod will telegraph these subtle takes far better than a rod that has too soft a tip. My rule of thumb is to make sure the weight of the jig doesn’t cause the tip of the rod to flex. If the jig itself is heavy enough to cause the rod tip to flex, the rod becomes a shock-absorbing element instead of a strike detection tool.
Very few manufacturers make walleye jigging rods stiff enough for the purpose of vertical jigging. As a result I make my own by cutting a few inches from the tip section of spinning rods and replacing the tip top to make them the right length and action I’m looking for. The ideal rod would be in or around six feet in length and featuring a medium/heavy action.
HEAVY JIGS WORK BEST
For most vertical jigging situations a heavier jig is going to be a better option. The rule of thumb is that in vertical jigging it should be easy to detect the bottom. If you can’t detect the bottom easily, bump up to a larger jig size. In most rivers the best jig sizes for vertical jigging are going to be 3/8, 1/2, 5/8, 3/4 and one-ounce models.
These jigs also need to feature a long shank hook with adequate hook gap so they can be married up with soft plastics. I’ve been working with Yakima Bait to design what I consider to be the ultimate jig for river walleye fishing. Called the Hammer Time Walleye Jig, this jig features a stand-up style head that keeps the hook up off the bottom and away from snags, the hook is ultra-sharp and has an extra large hook gap to allow the use of larger soft plastics. The Hammer Time Jig will be available soon in 1/2, 3/4 and 1 ounce sizes ideal for serious river jig fishing situations.
How the jig is moved or “jigged” can and does make a huge difference in the success an angler is likely to enjoy. In general, anglers move the jig too aggressively, lifting the jig too far off the bottom in the process. Ideally, the jig should remain within a foot of bottom all the time and hover or swim along just over bottom. Moving the jig up and down to often creates a moving target that is harder for walleye to zero in on. Instead lowering the jig to bottom and then lifting it slightly on a tight line, then pausing to let the boat drift a few yards creates a situation where the jig is near bottom and undulating, but not hopping around like a ping pong ball in a hail storm.
This simple presentation is what I call “tight line jigging” and it produces best in cold water conditions when walleye are lethargic. The second jigging cadence I use a lot involves lowering the jig to bottom, then popping the rod tip to jump the jig up about a foot off bottom and then to allow the jig to sink on a slack line. I try to catch the jig with the rod tip just before it crashes to bottom and then hold the jig still for a few seconds as the boat drifts downstream.
This somewhat more aggressive jigging cadence works best when the water is a little warmer and fish are a lot more active. I call this method “slack line jigging” as most of the bites come when the jig is falling on a slack line.
Tight line jigging works best when using minnows or split tail plastics that have a subtle action. Slack line jigging works best when using paddle tails that have more action and require more movement to bring out this acton.
Historically speaking most walleye anglers who vertical jig used live minnows as bait. With live minnows the angler is enjoying not only a natural presentation, but a natural scent stream in the water that helps to trigger strikes.
In recent years, soft plastics have replaced a great deal of the live bait jigging applications. Because of this the natural scent stream is also eliminated. Some soft plastics have scent impregnated into them, but not necessarily natural scents. I like to use natural scent products made from real bait fish when jigging with soft plastics. The leader in this category is Pro Cure Bait Scents who produce the popular Super Gel series of fishing scents. A drop or two of Super Gel is all it takes to create a natural scent stream in the water for about 30 minutes.
My favorite Super Gel formulas for walleye jigging include, gizzard shad, emerald shiner, smelt and alewife. All of these scents represent natural forage types walleye encounter regularly.
Some select Z-Man plastics come with Super Gel already added. My favorite models include the PaddlerZ and Jerk ShadZ. The PaddlerZ works great for active fish and the Jerk ShadZ is a good choice when walleye are inactive.
Of course, Pro Cure can be added to any soft plastic baits, making them more attractive to walleye in the process.
WRAPPING IT UP
Vertical jigging for walleye in rivers is one of the more complex presentations an angler will face, but once mastered nothing catches more walleye in rivers. Feel the bite, set the hook and enjoy that head shake. Vertical jigging is among the most satisfying ways of catching a walleye dinner.