When most anglers think of fishing for salmon and trout on the Great Lakes, the vision of large capacity line counter reels, downriggers, and a myriad of spoons and flies come to mind.
Most anglers resort to trolling the depths in search of the inhabitants of these lakes. However, there are other ways to target these fish that are often overlooked.
As with any particular presentation there is always a place and a time that they are all effective, and the same holds true for jigging for big salmon and trout. This technique will often work throughout the year, but the late summer through spring months tend to offer the best opportunity for the angler to take advantage of this great bite.
The late summer into to the fall can offer a challenging, yet rewarding salmon bite. The fish are starting to stage for their spawning run and will often follow the cold water chasing the baitfish that are schooling in these areas. The fish are feeding heavily in preparation for the spawn.
Late fall though the early spring can offer some excellent opportunities to employ this technique for catching brown, rainbow, and lake trout. The technique of jigging is a chance to present an easy meal to one of these willing creatures of the cold.
The targeted species are feeding heavily on baitfish schooling up in and around the structure of the local harbors, reefs and breakwalls. Gorging themselves on the bait, these fish can become easy targets for those willing to brave the colder weather and put in some time on the water.
In the case of lake trout these fish are moving up onto the rock reefs to spawn and are ready and willing to take a variety of jigged offerings. Many areas of the great lakes have natural or man-made reefs that these fish will relate to and with a little research these areas can easily be located.
Jigging is a broad term that could mean a variety of things.
To be more clear and concise, let’s refer to the use of lead head jigs and other jigging-style baits in a more vertical presentation to trigger these fish to bite.
The areas that are often being targeted are deeper rocky reefs that don’t lend themselves to the standard casting techniques. Often times this ends up in snagged gear and less time fishing. A vertical presentation allows direct contact with the bait and the bottom.
The first piece to the jigging puzzle is locating the correct structure and determining if the fish are holding on the structure. Without the structure or baitfish you can often waste time on non-productive areas when you could be catching fish. Take time to do your research on areas that you intend to fish.
Spend some time looking at lake maps as well as talking to local bait and tackle shops to get some of the “insider” information.
This won’t put fish in the boat, but it will offer you an opportunity to reduce the time you spend search for fish and increase the time you are able to fish.
Structure is not necessarily a word that you often relate to fishing for Salmon or trout, however when jigging for these fish the ability to locate any type of structure can increase your odds of finding fish. The structure is drawing in the baitfish or it is being used as a spawning habitat
Having a good set of electronics on the boat to locate the areas that will be holding fish is very important.
The use of the Humminbird side and down imaging is what I use to allow me to find the schools of baitfish that the fish are feeding on. I am able to slowly motor around an area and look at what is below me, as well as what is far out on either side of the boat. This is a very beneficial tool when looking to locate baitfish or structure. Once you have located the bait you can set waypoints on your GPS to help you keep the boat in the area where the bait is found.
With today’s advancing sonar technology it is possible to Ethernet link your helm and bow graphs in order to share GPS waypoints. This allows you to motor around with your helm graph and mark the spots you want to key in on. When you are ready to fish you can use the bow graph to hold onto your spots that you have marked as GPS waypoints.
Gearing up is not a complicated issue, but it helps to match your equipment with the baits and techniques that you are using. A good seven- to eight-foot, medium-action spinning rod with a fast tip and a reel spooled with a good low stretch co-polymer or braided line has proven the best choice for a vertical presentation.
The rod should have enough backbone to offer a good hook-set, yet be soft enough to allow the use of the low-stretch lines without pulling the hooks out of the fish when they take a run. Lines like Power Pro or McCoy Mean Green are my lines of choice. The McCoy has been treated with a silicone-based process that tends to shed water to reduce the amount of freezing that you tend to get on your guides in the colder winter weather.
As far as bait choices go...
...this is something that everyone has their own favorites to use. However, there are two that are tied up on my rigs for this vertical presentation. The vibrating blade bait and a lead-style jig head with a plastic shad body are the tools of the trade. The blade baits offer flash and sound to attract the attention of the fish, and the lead head jig offers a subtle rise and fall, imitating a wounded minnow.
The blade baits are easy to work and they are deadly on slower moving fish. Their erratic movements and vibrations bring fish in to investigate, and their uneven fall pattern will often trigger fish to strike hard as the bait falls through the water column. Bright colors in white and pink or yellows are good patterns in deeper water, however the metallic colors will work very well on sunny days when the light penetration causes them to offer not only vibration, but flash to their action.
The blade baits other companion is the lead head jig and body. Lead head jigs that tend to work best are a darter-style head in a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce size. This size allows for a good feel of the bait in the deeper depths, and the darter-style head gives the bait a darting action when jigged vertically.
As far as a body goes, there are several good options, but one aspect of the bait that helps is if it has scent or flavor. The Gulp! four- or five-inch jerk shads are ideal for this. White, silver or shad colors tend to work best; however don’t forget to carry some in chartreuse as well. The slender body and the darter head give a good dying minnow action to this presentation.
Tip: Use scent on your baits to increase your strike percentage as well as the ability to bring fish into your baits. Kishel’s scents are a fish oil base scent that holds well on a bait and disperses a trail in the water that will trigger fish to strike.
With either bait style you can use very similar techniques that will produce aggressive strikes.
A slow upward sweep of the rod will bring the bait darting or vibrating upwards at an angle, and then as you drop the bait, keep a slightly tight line to feel for an aggressive strike as the bait falls helplessly back to the bottom.
After a slight pause, repeat the sweep and drop. Vary the sweep up with the occasional quick snap jerk. Allow the bait to come to a rest on the bottom on occasion and kick up some of the silt and sand to attract the fish to your presentation.
Other baits that can really put some big fish in the boat would include jigging spoons like Kastmasters or jigging minnows like the Rapala Jigging Raps. Some lipless crankbaits like the Spro Aruku shad also work well as they have offer a slower fall with the addition of the rattle that will bring in fish from a long distance.
Again look at natural colors as well as some of your very bright colors that offer some great attraction to your presentation.
Good bow-mounted electronics are certainly advantageous in this technique as they will allow you to watch your bait in the water column. They also will allow you know at what depths the fish are holding. You can use your trolling motor to keep you positioned above the fish and the bait. If your graph has a flasher function, this can be quite the advantage
Most ice fisherman use a flasher to locate and catch fish. This technology is highly effective on open water when employing a vertical jigging technique. Vexilar is the leader in flasher technology and offers a trolling motor mount to allow you to use the flasher on any boat. The Vexilar Flasher can be a huge advantage as they are designed especially for this type of fishing.
Let the graph tell you how your presentation is working, and change up your jigging to match what the fish are looking for. Again, this is quite similar to the way you would use your electronics while ice fishing.
Line watching as well as keeping constant contact with your bait will improve your hook-up ratio, as most fish will take the bait as it falls.
Watching for a subtle tick in the line as the bait falls or seeing that the bait stopped short of the bottom are instant signs a fish has taken your presentation.
It is important to pay attention to the action of the bait as the fish will often hit the bait and then drop it before you have a chance to react. Putting on a small stinger hook on your plastics can add to your hook-up ratio, as the fish will sometimes strike short on a jig.
This vertical jig bite can be a great adventure and is one that you don’t want to miss out on. Vertical jigging allows you to present your bait to the fish in a more natural way and allows you to impart a lifelike action to your presentation.
On those warmer winter days don’t hesitate to uncover the boat, charge up the batteries and hook it up to the truck.
The fish are out there, and with a little searching and some simple jigging baits you will be in for a great time. The battles from these fish will certainly take your mind off the sting of the cold as it numbs your fingers. Just use common sense, stay warm and dry, and you are in for a great cool weather treat.
Jigging on the Great Lakes, the Alternative to Trolling
Written by Cory Yarmuth