How to Use Jigs and Spoons for Vertical Fishing

Big Game fishing pole
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Jigging vertically is useful when fishing on or near the bottom in deep water and when angling for suspended fish in open water. It is more or less a necessity in ice fishing, and a choice when fishing in open water. It’s especially useful when game fish are bunched up or in schools. This is common with pure-strain and hybrid stripers, white bass, crappies, largemouth and spotted bass, and other species.

Leadheads and Spoons

Jigging vertically can be accomplished by using leadhead jigs and metal spoons. The former may have bodies or hook shanks that are dressed with hair (particularly bucktail or marabou) or with some form of soft plastic, or with a combination of both, such as a bucktail jig plus a curl-tail plastic. 

One caveat in using soft-plastic bodies is that their tail shape must be active when the lure is moved up and down, which is not the case for many, as they only look right when retrieved horizontally. Another caveat is that they must avoid tangling onto the hook point, head or shank of the jig itself; some styles or lengths of soft plastics foul too frequently for vertical use.

Metal spoons for jigging are greatly different from spoons used for trolling or for cast-and-retrieve fishing. They are rather slab-sided, compact and cylindrical. They’re heavy, sink quickly and are almost useless for cast-and-retrieve or trolling purposes. As a category, such lures are called jigging spoons. Many people, myself included, who do a lot of vertical fishing prefer jigging spoons over lead heads.

When using both, you either fish close to the bottom or at a particular depth. Keeping the lure as close as possible to directly below will help in strike detection and hook setting, and it helps avoid hangups.

Using Sonar

It is almost essential, and at the very least extremely beneficial, to use a sonar device while vertical jigging. If you have it properly adjusted, you can see the fish below and see your lure (or at least whoever’s lure is in the cone of the sonar transducer). You can see when you’re directly over fish, and when you’ve drifted past them. Using your sonar in conjunction with an electric motor (especially a sonar with a GPS-enabled spot-anchoring function) means that you can keep your boat and your lure directly over the fish.

Determining How Deep Your Lure Is

If you know what depth to fish, you can let the desired length of line out and commence jigging, never reeling in any line and paying out line only if you begin to drift. Here’s one way to know how much line you’re letting out: reel the jig up to the rod tip, stick the rod tip on the surface, let go of the jig, and raise your rod tip to eye level; then stop the fall of the jig. If eye level is six feet above the surface, your jig will now be six feet deep. Lower the rod tip to the surface and do this again. Now you’ve let out 12 feet of line. Continue until the desired length is out.

With a level wind reel having a freely revolving line guide, you can measure the amount of line that is let out with each side-to-side movement of the line guide; multiply this amount by the number of times the guide travels back and forth. If you use a reel that doesn’t have such a guide, you can strip line off the spool in one-foot (or 18-inch) increments until the desired length is out. Another method is to count down the lure’s decent.

Vertical Jigging Technique

For some vertical jigging, you may need to let your lure fall to the bottom and then jig it up toward the surface a foot or two at a time. Bring the lure off the bottom and reel in the slack. Then jig it there three or four times before retrieving another few feet of line and jigging the lure again. Repeat this until the lure is near the surface. The only problem here is that you don’t usually know exactly how deep a fish is when you do catch one, and you can’t just strip out the appropriate length of line and be at the proper level again.

Sometimes the best tactic is to drop the lure to the bottom, jig it there a time or two, then quickly reel it up two or three turns of the handle and drop it right back to the bottom. Other times you can try jigging a time or two near the bottom, reel up a few feet and jig again a couple of times, then reel up a few feet more and repeat, eventually dropping the lure to the bottom and repeating this. Experiment until you see what works, but realize that virtually all strikes occur when the lure drops back after you’ve jigged it upward (a few occur when you reel the lure straight up).

Whenever the angle of your fishing line in the water departs from a vertical position, reel up and drop it down again. You may need to use a heavier lure to achieve that vertical position, although it’s generally best to use the lightest weight lure that will get the job done. A thin-diameter, low-stretch, low-visibility line or leader is also advantageous for this fishing. Microfilament line is especially good because of its thin nature and sensitivity, though you’ll need a low-vis leader attached to the lure.