Vertical Jigging for Rambunctious Walleyes
By Bruce Litton
Every September walleyes begin to orient to proper habitats after summer suspension—deep, rocky drop-offs, points, and humps frequented by schools of alewives. Lakes such as Big Swartswood, Canistear Reservoir, Monksville Reservoir, and Greenwood Lake may not be so limited by oxygen depletion during summer as Lake Hopatcong--all of these lakes and reservoirs in New Jersey. But everywhere walleyes are on the fall feed and vulnerable to a method which at first glance may seem counterintuitive.
Rapala ice fishing jigs are—supposedly—for ice fishing. Likewise, Gotcha jiggers have for many years been the staple lure for fishing a range of species, especially Spanish mackerel, from North Carolina Outer Banks piers. The line ties on top of the plug-like jigs--Rapala ice fishing jigs are constructed with line ties on top also--allows for effective retrieves from high up on the rails. The Gotchas sold at Dows Bait and Tackle have packaging that features an artist's depiction of a Spanish mackerel, not a walleye. But both lures are long standing for open water walleyes in New Jersey, and Al Linder has written about the open water use of Rapala ice fishing jigs in Minnesota.
The description “vertical jigging” may be slightly misleading since most fall days are visited by brisk breezes. Drifting with graph recorder doing its magic, darkness at the depth registered, and the Rapala or Gotcha striking rocks as it touches down after the rod is snapped up, drag on the line demands that more be let out to retain bottom contact. Water temperatures above the lower 50’s means line out in shallower depths of about 20 feet can be advantageous, though fish may be deeper. (We've marked fish at 33 feet on an October first with Lake Hopatcong not fully turned over.) Walleyes respond well to Raps or Gotchas whisked off bottom by long rod sweeps, then allowed to plummet back—hits usually come just after contact with bottom, so be ready. Most jiggers, however, prefer to fish as close to directly under the boat as possible. Walleyes are active in fall water temperatures chasing alewives, and turn on jigs with ferocity in any case. Through ice fishing season, vertical is all that a walleye can get if you are fortunate to drop a jig down near it.
Heavy wind happens. Some wind is too strong to drift, so anchor and jig the area the boat swings around, then re-anchor downwind. If you were to double anchor to hold the boat in place, you would defeat the purpose of covering water by a relatively slow curve. I fished with vertical jigging veteran Joe Landolfi a couple of years ago as we do each fall. I left my tackle box at home and just brought along a clear plastic tackle tote filled with Gotcha’s and some Rapala jigs—and a few 2 ½ ounce, quality saltwater bucktails tossed in for curiosity sake. Early in the day the boat got chugged by strong wind. Joe caught sight of my bucktails. “Hey, I bet those would work!”
“No doubt they will get down faster and keep the line vertical longer,” I said.
We didn’t hook any fish on them, but they looked real good in the water. We had no doubt they would work. The Rapala’s and Gotcha’s are 3/4th to 1 ¼ ounce, about three to four inches long, and get carried back by line drag much easier than heavy bucktails. But instead of worsening, as I had feared, the wind lessened and it felt right to return to using Gotcha’s.
This fishing is not a boring ordeal of sitting in place and moving a rod up and down for hours on end. If the lake is dead calm, the use of an electric motor moves the event along. Vertical jigging is an efficient way of covering a lot of territory, of finding walleyes which respond fiercely as predators. All of our walleye lakes feature multiple structures. Joe showed me places on Hopatcong where he had caught walleyes in the past as well as during our outing, which I had overlooked before. All of the lakes have obvious points and drop-offs that garner most of the attention. But any rocky region with 30 feet of water or more nearby, whether a drop-off, ledge, hump, or point, are surely visited by both herring and walleyes, walleyes that boost their health on this Omega oil-rich forage. Most of the fishing after mid-October is in water 25 to 40 feet deep. Walleyes are caught any time during the day, even under sunny skies. You can be sure they will be deep because the herring are too, and the walleye’s retinal eye structure, the tapetum lucidum, advantages predation in darkness. These tissues behind the retina reflect light back out through the eyes so that walleyes can actually see much more in darkness than other gamefish—and forage—can.
A graph recorder is typically helpful in unforeseen ways, but insisting on fishing only where it marks herring schools may not only mean missed opportunities for walleyes sovereign enough not to follow little baitfish around, it also means that you kill the element of surprise, of drifting into fish. It’s more important to fish the jigs than it is to chart a graph.
You need a medium power rod. We found that the heavy saltwater jigs did not overload such rods—they would have if casted, but not dropped straight down. My only apprehension was with the size and thickness of the hooks on them, of driving one of those into a hard jaw. But Joe checked the sharpness, and sure enough, I think setting those hooks would not be a problem, especially if Power Pro braid is used. Perhaps the heavy weight of the jig would allow it to shake free, but walleyes don’t shake their heads as furiously as bass do, nor do they leap.
Seven foot length is ideal for range of jigging motion, particularly if shallower 16-20 foot depths are fished early in the game by those sweeping motions. During ice fishing season we use two foot jigging rods to hop jigs, rather than snap them.
Fall walleyes are not a game limited to boat owners. Dow’s Boat Rentals offers great hours, lots of boats available into November, and affordable prices. The marina is situated perfectly at the mouth of Great Cove, just around the corner from Nolan’s Point. Just do the boat safety certificate course and get verification posted on your driver’s license. Then jig hard for walleyes with a 15 pound fluorocarbon leader—you never know if a ticked off musky won’t swipe at your lure.