Jigging For Spring Walleyes
Author: Mike Gnatkowski
There's really only one lure for spring walleyes- a jig, especially in moving water. A lead-head jig shines for spring walleyes because it does a good job of imitating things walleyes eat at that time of year. Things that scurry, dart, scoot and live near the bottom. Walleyes live on the bottom most of the time too and a jig keeps your offering in the strike zone and in front of hungry walleyes.
Jigs are versatile. You can cast, drag, hop, skip, rip, yo-yo, snap, do nothing or just about anything with a jig. One of those presentations is bound to interest any walleyes that are present. Jigs excel at presenting live bait and when walleyes are aggressive, you can slip some plastic on and cover water. They are without a doubt the most versatile, all-round and productive walleye lures in your tackle box in moving water.
Jigs come in all shapes and sizes, but for the majority of your fishing a standard round, ball-head jig will suffice. "I prefer a round ball-head jigs for the majority of my jig fishing," said tournament walleye pro Bill St. Peter. "It can get confusing with all the jig styles and shapes, but 90% of the time you can use a regular round, ball-head jig and do just fine." There are some exceptions. "In rivers there are times when I prefer a cone-shaped head like the one on Northland Tackle's Whistler jig," said St. Peter. "The cone shaped head seems to cut the water a little better so you can stay vertical. The propeller blade on the Whistler jig puts off a vibration that can help walleyes home in on your jig too if the river's strained or off-color. Most of the time though a round, ball-head jig will work just fine."
St. Peter said that jigging techniques on the lake are pretty simple. Usually he's either snapping or dragging jigs when fishing still water. In moving water, the presentation is more varied. "Fishing rivers is a little more sophisticated," said St. Peter. "Sometimes you're using an aggressive jigging technique. Other times you might be just lifting and holding the jig or dragging it or ripping it. It all depends on the conditions and the attitude of the fish." Whatever technique you use it's important that you keep your line vertical when fishing in rivers. To accomplish that, anglers slip-the-current using a bow-mounted trolling motors and practice what is called chasing-the-line, which means using the motor to keep your line straight up and down.
Early in the season when the water is cold and off-colored a more subtle jigging technique is probably going to work best. A simple lift and hold or gentile pumping motion that keeps the jig in the strike zone close to bottom and gives walleyes plenty of time to see and eat the jig is going to work best. Experiment though if the tried-and-true techniques aren't producing. Sometimes bulking up the jig with plastic and/or live bait can help walleyes find your bait.
St. Peter recounted a spring tournament on the Detroit River that he fished a few years ago where the most productive technique did a total flip-flop in a matter of days. During pre-fishing, St. Peter was boating some respectable walleyes using the standard lift and hold technique, but a stretch of warm, sunny weather caused the river temperature to warm and clear. The walleyes got much more aggressive. St. Peter found that by switching to a Whistler jig and plastics he could fish more aggressively and cover more water. He was contacting more fish than by using the basic, round ball-head jig and a minnow that most other competitors were using. St. Peter said that by rip-jigging he was handling upwards of 50 walleyes a day and came darn close to winning the tournament.
You need to make note of the attitude of the walleyes and conditions and change your jigging technique accordingly. St. Peter said you can tell just by the way walleyes are striking the jig how aggressive they are. If bites are very subtle or you just feel weight or the fish is just suddenly there, you'd do best by moving the jig very little. If the walleyes are thumping the jig on the fall you can fish more aggressively.
Jigs are an ideal way to present live bait, but with today's scent-enhanced plastics live bait often isn't necessary to catch a stringer of walleyes in rivers. "I use Berkley Glup! almost exclusively when I'm jigging," said St. Peter. "There are some situations where it's as good as live bait. Granted, day in and day out live bait is going to be superior, but a lot of times what it comes down to is keeping your bait in the water. You can do that a lot easier with artificials." Walleyes in rivers also don't have as much time to inspect your bait as they do in lakes or reservoirs. In a river, if they can see it and it looks good they need to make up their mind right now to eat it or let it go by.
Artificials also offer the option of different silhouettes and colors, which sometimes are key triggering mechanisms depending on visibility and the type of forage the walleyes are keying on.
Jig fishing is all about feel. Many times a walleye will just ease up behind a jig and suck it in or just open his mouth and inhale the jig as it drifts by. If you're not paying attention or don't have the proper equipment, you'll never know you had a bite. Concentration is a key component to successful jig fishing. You need to pay attention to feeling the jig lift and settle and detect and changes that might indicate that a walleye has inhaled your bait. Sometime it's only a tick. If you're not paying attention you're going to miss a large percentage of the strikes. Many times you won't even know you missed a fish.
Having the right equipment will help you detect light-biting walleyes when using jigs. "I use 6- or 8-pound Berkley Fireline in the flame green color almost exclusively when I'm jigging," said St. Peter. "About the only time I use monofilament is when I'm dragging jigs. You want to use a little more subtle approach then. Otherwise, the Fireline has little stretch, which helps your reaction time and the bright green line is easy to see. Sometimes all you'll see is your line kink or go slack for a split second. With the bright line you can see that."
St. Peter said that a stiff, high-quality graphite rod is ideal for jigging because they're sensitive and allow for a quick reaction. "An ideal jigging rod for me is Fenwick's Techna AV. The rods are super-sensitive and have amazing feel. I use a 6-foot medium-fast action most of the time, but if I'm fishing deeper water I might go to a 6-foot medium-heavy rod that is stiffer yet and has a little more backbone." Reels need to have a super-smooth drag to prevent pulling hooks out of walleyes who are lightly hooked.
Jig color is largely a matter of personal preference. "Basically you can use any color jig you want as long as it's chartreuse," said St. Peter. Chartreuse combined with orange; pink or green seems to be a consistent walleye catcher in rivers or for that matter, anywhere. There are exceptions. St. Peter said that when fishing some tournaments out west white was a hot color when the walleyes were feeding on shad. "Northland Tackle makes a gumball jig that is chartreuse/orange/pink that's one of my favorites," said St. Peter.
Jig weight depends on water depth and current speed. The jig must be heavy enough that it stays close to bottom, yet light enough that you're not getting snagged. "I usually find myself using somewhere between a 3/8 oz. and a 5/8 oz. jig when I'm fishing rivers" said St. Peter. "Usually 1/2 oz." St. Peter said that too light a jig and the lure isn't in the strike zone; too heavy and you're getting snagged all of the time. The lighter the jig you can get away with the easier it is for a walleye to suck in your jig too. St. Peter said he can usually get away with fishing a little lighter jig because the rod he uses is so sensitive. He can feel every rock, boulder and hump before his jig is hung up. Lighter jigs are less likely to lodge between rocks and other structure too.
Walleyes will use current breaks, jetties, eddies, rock piles, humps and other structure to break the current when residing in rivers. Walleyes don't like fighting the current. Find the edges between the swifter current and the slack water to find concentrations of walleyes. Walleyes in the spring will run up to dams and other barriers, but then drop back down to take up residence in slack water areas adjacent to the current or behind obstructions that break the current. Your jig must follow those same contours to interest hungry walleyes.