In wavy seas a side-finding sonar screen circles your face. Somebody has to stare at it. No lines out. Just watching. The boat path forms sine waves over a basin flat in a search pattern taking us off structure.
No man’s land.
“There’s one,” says walleye guide Tony Roach as he seems to throw the boat into reverse and pitch back in the general direction of the mark at the same time. Fire drill. For me, standing and pitching at the same time—in waves—is hard enough. Roach is working a Northland Puppet Minnow. I have on a Rapala Jigging Rap.
As the lures hit bottom, we rip them up 2 or 3 feet, let them fall, touch, and we rip again. No bait, and it’s not a vertical presentation, which so many believe is imperative with these realistic jigging baits. But nothing happens.
“We’ll get the next one,” Roach says as he sits back down and resumes the search pattern. “Most days we hit one of every three fish we see up off bottom like that.”
A .333 batting average? For walleyes? In August? Move over, Ted Williams.
The Power Game
“It’s all about pitching and ripping,” Roach says. “Most Jigging Rap methodologists talk about fishing vertically. Same with the rattlebaits, and even the swimbaits in some cases. It differs, from source to source. Keeping a Jigging Rap down and vertical, then using the bow mount to tediously swim it along, as some suggest doing, is a slow and methodical process. Why not just pitch to the fish you can see? The ones you can see are the most likely to respond. Walleyes come up off bottom to feed. Those are the targets you want to focus on.”
He has a point. Indiscriminately and gently waving a Jigging Rap or Puppet Minnow around in the face of neutral or inactive walleyes? I hear there’s some paint drying a couple blocks from here. While I daydream, the boat rocks into reverse and Roach is setting hooks before I can stand up.
“On the other hand, power jigging works in a lot of different scenarios,” Roach says while working the fish in. “But it’s most effective when you have pods of fish scattered, off structure. Pitching jigs on top of the schools after you mark them is much more effective. Try to pick off the most aggressive biters then move to the next pod. Works any time of year when the water is open. But, as the surface temperature continues to rise, it seems to work better and better. By August, it’s not just another way to catch walleyes—it’s one of the two best methods to employ.”
The power game is a search method interspersed with furious snap-jigging episodes. It follows that, if you can’t find walleyes on structure, they must be off it somewhere.
Vertical jigging, indiscriminately pulling jigs around, or rigging with livebait out on basin flats will take you through vast belts of nothing between pods of fish, wasting time and effort. “Vertical jigging is a slow, methodical process.” Roach said. “Power jigging allows you to fish much faster, cover more water, and put more fish in the boat in a much shorter period of time.”
“When walleyes group up in pods near bottom, power jigging is the way to go,” Roach said. “If they appear all over the screen, both up and down in the water column and scattered— that’s a trolling scenario, especially during late summer. Let the fish tell you what to do based on how they’re related to the bottom or where they are in the water column.”
The Roach philosophy is clearly defined on the deck of his Lund. In late summer he has two kinds of rod strapped to the deck of his boat: Trolling rods equipped with line counters and leadcore, and power-jigging rods equipped with spinning reels, 6-pound Northland Bionic Braid, and 6-pound Bionic Fluorocarbon leaders.
“I have two primary methods at that time of year,” he said. “Leadcore trolling and power jigging. If walleyes are grouped up, I go right to pitching on them. I look for power-jigging opportunities whenever bugs are hatching in August, too. Hatches make walleyes extremely vulnerable to the power-jigging method because you can go from pod to pod through the area supporting the thickest hatch and always keep your bait in the vicinity of the fish.”
Zig-zagging across the flat, keeping one eye on his GPS trails (creating a grid) and the other eye on his sonar screen, Roach looks for telltale marks up off bottom. When he spots one, he stops the boat and casts far enough to let the bait swing down to the fish. “I like to cast beyond the fish,” he said. “The shallower you get the more important that is. Letting it drop right down on their head in clear water is not a good idea. In stained water—especially with aggressive lures like the Puppet Minnow—it’s best to cast just beyond them. Cast length is 20 to 30 yards, most of the time.
“For me, power jigging works two ways,” he said. “One: You’re pinpointing fish with electronics and always keeping the bait on a catchable fish; Two: You’re using the tactic as a search pattern, power-jigging quickly to find the most active fish in shallower water, where it becomes a search tool in itself.”
Power jigging can be a mop-up tool with electronics.
“You can go back through a good pod of fish after trolling through them a few times when they stop biting,” Roach said. And power jigging becomes a “search tool in itself” when he employs it to find fish without taking the boat over their heads in shallow situations—like reefs and weedlines in less than 15 feet of water. “I stay off weedlines with the boat, pitch just beyond the weed edge and walk the lure down the break from 15 to 25 yards away,” he said. “Whenever the lure touches anything— a weed or bottom—I rip the rod tip up 2 to 4 feet. It’s a weed-free method because every time you lift you’re ripping weeds off the line.”
He works the bait to a vertical position right below the boat and snaps it again, in depths that might be anywhere from 12 to 25 feet. “When you’re power fishing and using it as a search tool, pitch shallow and work deep,” Roach said. “Don’t assume walleyes will be anywhere in particular. You’re searching because you don’t know where the fish are, right? So cast in all directions and cover all the depths around you.”
In spring and early in the season, Roach uses a jig head baited with live bait or plastic to do the same thing. “A baited jig definitely works better in cooler water,” he said. “The Jigging Rap thing works best in warmer water. But even in spring you’re working the baits back faster than the typical jigging methods, covering water quick. It finds more aggressive fish faster throughout the course of the day.”
Studio Photo: POWER Jigs Top to Bottom: Rapala Jigging Rap, Northland Puppet Minnow, Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnow
Roach uses (what else?) a 6-foot, 8-inch Tony Roach Signature Power Jigging Walleye spinning rod from Wright McGill that he designed. The medium-light power and fast action provide perfect balance for casting jigs this size, ripping them with authority, and setting hooks. “It’s the only rod out there designed specifically for power jigging,” Roach said.
“Braided lines are best,” he added. “When casting and ripping jigs back to the boat, braid won’t slow you down with stretch like mono does. For that reason, braid allows a jig to come out of the weeds clean with a snap of the wrist. I spool up with 6-pound Bionic Braid, tie it to a barrel swivel and I add a couple feet of 6-pound fluorocarbon leader below that, tying directly to the jig.”
Roach doesn’t use fluorocarbon so much for stealth as for its low stretch. “Mono works, but fluorocarbon’s a little stiffer,” he said. “You’re ripping these baits up. Braid is so limp it allows the lure to flip, roll over and tangle on itself. Fluorocarbon won’t let that happen as often, and it is stealthier. Obviously, it provides some separation between the opaque braid and the lure.” A jigging lure maintains a horizontal posture longer with a stiffer leader when it’s being snapped, too, which probably looks more natural. But the lure is going to spin and roll sometimes. The swivel eliminates line twist.
“The faster I start fishing, the more I upsize the fluorocarbon,” Roach said.
“I’ll bulk up to 8-pound in the warmest water. When you’re really moving and snapping the bait, I don’t think walleyes are seeing the line. That’s not the problem. The problem is strength. Ripping jigs can stress that lighter line, and the warmer it gets, the faster I rip the bait.”
The idea is to begin to anticipate the jig hitting bottom, as you get a feel for the timing. Lift, fall, thunk in June with a baited jig becomes lift, fall, kiss-and-fly in August with a baitless jigging lure. “Artificials outproduce livebait in the hot summer months without any doubt whatsoever,” Roach emphasized. “In May and June, when walleyes are really actively feeding, livebait is great. In July, August, and September, it gets grueling out there with livebait. I don’t even buy livebait during those months anymore.”
Softbaits And Summer Heat
August is like a prism for walleyes. So many forage options, so little time. Power jigging works wherever they go—with a few modifications. “Walleyes shift back into the rocks when the crayfish moult,” Roach said.
“They go to rip-rap in extremely shallow water. They go to weedlines, mud flats, and points. They’re all over the map in August, and this works everywhere. And because it’s such a great search tool, you’ll start finding walleyes in places where you never expected them to be. I never would have believed walleyes would inhabit 2 feet of water at 80°F in the middle of the day, but they do.”
Visiting Rathburn Reservoir in Iowa last year during August, Roach found lots of walleyes in water 2-feet deep. The surface temperature was 85°F. “That’s where the gizzard shad were, and shad are the primary forage option on Rathburn,” Roach said. “I found them because I’ve learned to look where I don’t expect them to be. They can be all over the place no matter where you go.
“As the water warms, I fish faster so they can’t get a good look at it,” Roach added. “Livebait slides down the shank or gets foul hooked when you fish really fast and hard. The faster you rip the jig, the more erratic the action becomes. Soft plastics start to greatly outproduce livebait jigging presentations because you can fish much faster, and you get the desired action out of the artificial.”
Livebait on a jig, by contrast, goes all akimbo, the hook reentering the flesh of the bait to create a corkscrewing, odd-looking mess. “And if I’m ripping through weeds like cabbage, as soon as livebait hits the weeds you get a twirling effect, as opposed to the desired effect with soft plastic,” Roach said. With the bait doing stunts at speed, a symmetrical package with a tail that follows the head in a straight line tends to look more natural. And appealing.
Paddle-tail grubs, augering grubs, ring worms, and shad bodies were some of the shapes mentioned. “I fish Northland Tackle jigs like the ¼-ounce Gumball or 3/8-ounce Slurpie Swimhead with plastics,” he said. “If they want a smaller package I downsize to a 1/8-ounce FireBall—getting better hookups that way with the shorter 2-to 3-inch plastics. The Impulse Paddle Minnow is great for that. I shy away from the slippery, new-wave, non plastics that slide on the hook.”
Softbait colors provide an intriguing dimension to the game, allowing you to mimic the predominant forage or go entirely with bright colors for attraction. “It all depends on the body of water,” Roach said. “The more stained the water, the more I go with bright whites, fluorescent chartreuse, or glow orange because I want fish to see it when I’m fishing fast. In clear water I fish extremely fast and barely let it hit bottom before ripping it again, so I go with white, silver, gold, gold-perch—natural batifish colors. I let the bait sit on the bottom more in rivers or in stained water. But in clear water, I never let it pause. Don’t want them to get a really good look at it in clear water. Not allowing fish time to analyze it. In rivers I pause-rip, pause-rip—not constantly moving the bait so much. There’s a big difference, but it may not look like it to the casual observer. Jigging Raps and Puppet Minnows give you almost identical action, but they have totally different color schemes, which is great. Color isn’t the most important thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.”
“Walleyes buried in the weeds won’t come out for much of anything,” Roach said. “But drop and rip plastics through the zone they’re in and you wake ‘em up. The Jigging Rap is more like a crankbait. It wakes them up out on the flats. I doubt they’re actively feeding in water that warm at midday, but they will follow and crush Jigging Raps in those conditions. It’s like an alarm clock to these fish.”
So. You want walleyes?
Make them act like you in the morning, reflexively swatting at the snooze button.
-written by Matt Straw
The Ripping Motion
Ripping action applied to a jig when power jigging, Tony-Roach style, is provided by a hook-setting motion. “You’re really setting the hook,” Roach said. “Every time you move the jig, just set the hook. Watch the line as it’s going down, too. Most strikes come on the fall, but walleyes sometimes nail it right as it hits bottom. Watching the line won’t help, there. After the first couple rips it’s all about timing. You don’t even have to watch the line anymore. You know when it’s about to hit bottom and if it stops early—set. I’m dropping the rod tip down low and ripping it up 2 to 4 feet. It’s a timing deal and a hook-set motion. Sometimes you never feel anything until you start to move the jig and there they are. In spring it’s more of a pop-drag, pop- drag. In summer I’m ripping it straight up and letting it fall.”