Vertical Jigging – A How-To Guide

The only limit on how you present a lure to a fish is your imagination. From the traditional Texas or Carolina Rig, to the venerable dry-dropper-dropper for fly anglers, if you can dream of a way to entice fish onto your line, there’s a rig to match your idea. 

One of the best methods for catching fish, though, is vertical jigging. Whether you’re using conventional tackle, or chasing fish on the fly, vertical jigging is a deadly tactic that puts big fish in the net. Today, we’ll take a look at what vertical jigging is, as well as how you can use it with various types of tackle. 

What Is Vertical Jigging?

Simply put, vertical jigging is the act of bouncing a fly or lure vertically in the water. Often, the lures used are made to resemble baitfish, and the up-and-down movement of the lure or fly in the water usually imitates a wounded fish of some kind. 

Vertical jigging works so well because it attracts fish from various points in the water column. If a fish is hanging low, but sees a high-calorie meal fluttering a few feet above its head, that fish will usually move to eat – especially on stillwater. In rivers, you can – and should – vertical jig, but that looks a bit different. We’ll cover that topic later on in this post. 

This is a tactic that works well for bass and for ice fishing, although it’s also effective on trout. One of the best ways to pick up big lake trout here in the Rocky Mountains, where I live, is by vertically jigging big lures in 80-100 feet of water. And vertical jigging is what yielded me my biggest halibut a few years back when I was fishing in the Gulf of Alaska. 

So, it’s an all-around effective tactic that you can use just about anywhere. I’ll even go so far as to say that vertical jigging is a must-have tool in the arsenal for any serious angler. 

When, Where, and How to use Vertical Jigging

Vertical jigging ice fishing

It’s great to know what vertical jigging is, but it’s another thing entirely to know how, when, and where to use this tactic. Just like any other fishing tactic, you can’t rely solely on vertical jigging to put fish in the net. Yes, it’s a great tactic, but fishing isn’t a one-dimensional activity. You absolutely need more than one trick up your sleeve. 

With that said, let’s look at a few examples of when, where, and how to use vertical jigging to your advantage. 

Where: I most often like to use vertical jigging to pull fish up from deeper water. It’s a great tactic to entice big fish out from beneath cover. On the big reservoirs here in the Rockies – which are almost all full of trout – I’ll use my sonar to locate big sunken trees, rocks, or ledges. Vertical jigging right off those features is one of the best ways to ensure you’re getting into fish. 

Lakes and ponds aren’t the only places to use this, either. When I’m fishing rivers, I like to pick out the deep pools and eddies. These places provides tons of opportunity for vertical jigging, and I’ve found that it’s not a tactic that gets used often on rivers. When big trout see a lure presented that way in a river, they tend to throw themselves at it with reckless abandon. 

In short, you want to look for structure when vertical jigging in stillwater, and then look for deeper eddies and slow pools when vertical jigging on rivers. This ensures that you’re getting your lure in front of fish. 

When: There’s not really a “right” or “wrong” time to use this tactic. However, I’ve found that it works best when there’s not much else going on in terms of fish activity. If they’re not feeding on top, or you don’t see them cruising in the middle of the water column snacking on insects and other baitfish, then choosing to lure them from their hidey-holes with jigging is a great decision. 

I have found, however, that when the water gets really cold, fish are less likely to move as much for a jigged lure or fly. This is especially true for trout. That’s not to say that they won’t hit lures – after all, most of ice fishing is just vertical jigging – but you have to be a lot more precise in both your placement of your fly or lure, and that fly or lure choice. 

Early fall and spring are great seasons to try vertical jigging. Early in the fall, before a lot of fish spawn, they’re looking to pack on some extra pounds to get them through the strenuous activity of propagating their species. They’ll smack just about any big lure, and vertical jigging is a great way to find the pre-spawn giants. 

In the spring, fish are happy – or at least as happy as they can be, I reckon – to finally have more sunshine in the day, more bugs in the water, and higher water temps to speed up their metabolism. After a long winter, they’re eager to regain lost weight and they’ll suck down piles of food if it’s presented properly. One of the biggest cutthroat trout I’ve ever caught was in early spring, vertically jigging a wooly bugger on my fly rod. 

How: There’s not a right or wrong way to jig, and how you do it depends largely on the tackle you choose to use. I primarily fly fish because it’s what I enjoy the most, and there are plenty of different ways to create a vertical jigging motion with a fly rod that looks almost like what you’ll see from conventional gear. We’ll touch more on that in a bit. 

But overall, you want to use subtle movements. Often, I see people trying to jig by lifting their rods a few feet up and down. This doesn’t really accomplish much, because the lure is moving so quickly that it’s become un-lifelike. If anything a lure being jigged that much is a recipe to turn fish off from eating it. 

Instead, focus on moving your rod with sharp, but subtle and short, jerks of the rod tip. Envision the lure bouncing along a few inches at a time, as opposed to a few feet at a time. This ensures that you’re able to create the most lifelike presentation possible. 

Vertical Jigging with Conventional Tackle

jig heads and soft plastics

A vertical jigging rig with conventional tackle – meaning a spin or baitcasting rod – is pretty straightforward. You either buy a lure that’s already built to work as a jig, or you use bare jig heads and soft plastics. 

The latter is my preferred method, especially when chasing bass. Soft plastics wear out, yes, but they give me the best presentation and control over other jigs I’ve used before. 

We touched on this a bit earlier, but the method of jigging with conventional tackle is simple. You want your lure to move in a precise, but realistic way. I’ve found it really helps to visualize what’s going on under water. Even though you can’t see the lure, picturing it in your head helps you move your rod to better mimic what presentation you’re chasing after. 

Another great way to present lures with this tactic is to use a dropshot rig. 

The only downside is that the weight of the split shot sinkers can sometimes take away from the sensitivity you need to feel subtle strikes – like when you’re fishing for largemouth bass. I don’t know how many largemouth I’ve missed because the strikes were too subtle for me to feel – probably more than I’d ever like to admit. 

Vertical Jigging With a Fly Rod

jig nymph

Fly fishing is often associated with dry flies and fly casting, but that’s not all fly rods and tackle are good for. They’re versatile tools, and in the right hands, they’re perhaps even better in some situations for vertical jigging than conventional rods. 

The trick when jigging with a fly rod is to use a long monofilament leader, paired with a sink-tip or full-sink fly line. The longer monofilament leader you use, the better you’ll be able to feel strikes on your fly. In addition, thin monofilament sinks much faster than fly line – even the full-sink lines. 

You also need to make sure you’re not moving the rod too much. Fly rods are incredibly sensitive, and even the smallest jig can produce a solid, lifelike movement from your fly. Make sure you’re even more precise with your jigging action on a fly rod, and you’ll be into plenty of fish in no time. 

Vertical jigging is one of the most effective ways to put fish in the net. Regardless of the species you’re chasing, or the tackle you decide to use, you can always count on vertical jigging to work for you. Take these tips into account the next time you’re on the water, and you just might surprise yourself.