Vertical and Diagonal Jigging for Hybrid Striped Bass and Walleye
Octobers have become a habit. Eight years ago, I first sampled the walleye action on Lake Hopatcong during the month’s third Saturday with my son. Every year thereafter, we’ve been back for more, having added hybrid striped bass to the pursuit. A number of friends and I fish together throughout the month, catching walleye up to six pounds, hybrids to just over five. We always tell the difference as soon as the fish is hooked. I would never say a walleye doesn’t fight, but hybrids are fantastic. Perhaps this year we’ll catch larger, as walleye and hybrids get caught in New Jersey every fall in the seven to 10 pound class.
Besides the big lake, Greenwood Lake, Swartswood Lake, Monksville Reservoir, and Canistear Reservoir have walleye vulnerable to vertical and diagonal jigging from October on into winter. However, the method is equally effective for hybrid stripers at Spruce Run and Manasquan reservoirs.
Traditionally, Rapala ice jigs and Sea Striker jigs catch fish during fall. Both resemble plugs with tie loops on top. The Rapala Jigging Rap, classically an ice fishing jig, comes in five sizes from 1 ¼ inch to 3 ½ inches, the tie loops near the centers, treble hooks directly underneath, each with a single shank hook with the bend turned upward from the rear, and a single shank upward from the head. Sea Striker Got-Cha jigs come in 10 series from 1 ¾ inches to four inches with tie loops on top of lead heads, the rest of the bodies hard plastic or chrome metal tubing, with either a forward and rear treble, or a forward treble with rear single shank hook and bucktail. For walleye and hybrids, the larger sizes are preferred.
These two types of lures have a proven track record of effectiveness by dropping them over the gunnel, allowing descent to 15 to 50-foot depths, and jigging straight down. The idea is to drift with the breeze, compensating with an electric outboard to maintain desired direction, or if the lake or reservoir is calm, using the electric at slow speed to cover range. Line drag slowly carries the jig from straight down on bottom, to a position slightly off bottom as line moves towards a diagonal position, and rather than constantly reeling the lure to surface and dropping it again, a little line is let out so the jig makes bottom contact once more. When the angle of the line becomes too steep, the jig is reeled in and the process repeated, jigging motions generally conducted by quick snaps of the rod, keeping line taut as the jig drops back. Often, a hit comes as the jig falls, and then you often must detect the subtlest of unusual motion or a tap.
Another option is to continue to jig at these more or less diagonal angles that develop without reeling back so soon to start over, and I have caught fish on the Got-Cha and Jigging Rap this way, saving myself the effort of keeping the lure straight down. Eventually, I discovered the Binsky bladebait, which I find more effective for diagonal rather than vertical jigging. I soon found I like bladebaits better than the two classic vertical jigs, though I’ve yet to catch many fish on them, since they’re still new to me. The vibrating action of any bladebait brand not only attracts walleye and hybrid bass; it imparts a tantalizing feel through 15-pound test Power Pro or other quality braid line to a graphite or lithium rod. I keep my index finger on the rod just above the reel seat. If I feel vibration cease, I set the hook. Sometimes the hit is a slam, other times it’s barely felt.
Bladebaits seem most effective retrieved, ideally by casting ahead of the boat on calm water or when the boat is propelled by a very light breeze at most. If a fairly heavy breeze guides the craft, it makes sense to jig from behind with the boat positioned for you to fish off a side while drifting, although you will have to repeatedly let line out to maintain bottom contact. The other option in windy conditions is to anchor and cast, never staying very long in a single position, just enough to fish a range of drop-off thoroughly.
Whether you prefer the traditional jigs or bladebaits, fish them on sharp drop-offs, particularly with rocks or other structure. Main lake points, ledges, humps—wherever drop-offs fall into at least 30 feet of water—serve possibilities. It’s possible to distinguish rocks or soft bottom by the way the lure makes contact—hard or soft. Take note of what you find, because rocks in one spot usually mean more in proximity, and the area should be fished thoroughly. Casts or drifts should run as parallel to drop-offs as possible. In early October, we’ve caught walleye as shallow as 15-feet among rocks on the Got-Cha; they go deeper as the month progresses with action in the 25 to 50-foot range for both species.
I especially try to fish on or near a drop-off’s bottom edge, not always achieving the target, but no matter if the bladebait shakes along the slope. Not only do walleye and hybrids move up and down drop-offs; a lake or reservoir’s deepest drop-offs may not necessarily be the best. Lake Hopatcong has a couple that drop to 50 feet, but my favorite isn’t quite 35 feet where bottom evens out. I know of another more than a quarter mile long, most of it panning out at about 45 feet, some of it at 50 feet—43 feet or so the deepest I’ve hooked a walleye.
Bladebaits can involve casting as far as possible, which is a long cast, and yet the line angles more or less diagonally as the lure is retrieved back to the boat, since water is deep and line angles downward. Simply hopping the lure upward, feeling that tantalizing vibration, and letting it fall back to bottom is all the action needed. Hybrids especially, compared to walleye, swim through differing levels of the water column, often suspending off bottom, but the best opportunity for a strike is among rocks where predators station as if to wait in ambush.
Bladebaits no weightier than a silver dollar invite you to take a bet on every cast. Know the structure of the water you fish by use of both a topographic map and fish finder, but depend ultimately on nothing but your own mind. The feel in your hand keeps you directly connected.
Maintain that feel of the lure, whether casting or drifting bladebaits or traditional jigs. A matter of persistent concentration, the challenge is to fish a deep structure thoroughly and keep fishing more, if none produce, until contact with fish is made. And then action can be surprisingly quick. However, many days are very tough, but we find no matter how severe a cold front shuts down hope, it’s always possible to avoid getting skunked.