Vertical Jigging for Stripers
by Captain Rich Antonino | Black Rose Fishing Charters
There’s no disputing that wire-line jigging is a very effective way to catch striped bass. For years, when I took my customers out to catch stripers in Cape Cod Bay, we’d let out the wire line and scratch the bottom with olive, red and black bucktails, and they’d stay busy fighting fish throughout the day. Unfortunately, wire-line jigging also kept my mate and me extremely busy – too busy for my liking. Wire-line jigging might be the most tiring form of fishing on the planet…and that’s before you hook up!
I also never liked the idea of my customers sitting around watching others fish while waiting for their turn. I wanted to provide them with a fuller fishing experience, so over the past few years, I’ve switched from dragging wire to vertical jigging. With this method, I can put my customers over stripers and have them drop jigs down to the fish. Everyone is able to fish at the same time, and the lighter tackle makes every battle enjoyable.
Wire-line jigging is a popular way to fish for stripers wherever there is sandy structure, such as shoals and drop-offs, that attract stripers. At my favorite fishing location, the sandy drop-off that wraps around the tip of Cape Cod at Provincetown and down to Truro, a parade of wire-line trollers regularly work the area. They troll up and down at 2 to 3 knots, hugging the inside edge of the lobster traps in about 30 feet of water. Often the boat traffic is so heavy that when a boat hooks up, they have to keep moving or else the boat behind them will get too close. Passing boats often snag each other’s hooks, with both fishermen thinking for a moment that they have hooked the fish of a lifetime! Snagging the lobster gear is no fun either. Add in an ill-timed wire-line backlash, and you can see why I wanted an alternative to wire-line trolling.
Coming Off the Troll
Vertical jigging is a deadly way to target stripers wherever you have fish holding on structure or along a drop-off in over 30 feet of water. Because you are not covering ground the way you might while trolling, you should look for signs of action before you drop lines. I consider vertical jigging to be like sight-fishing, except you are using your electronics to augment your eyes. First, look for birds, splashing fish, current lines or slicks. If there is nothing visible on the surface, cruise along the drop-off or edge of the shoal or reef, checking out the shallower depths and then zigzagging between there and deeper water, watching your fishfinder for schools of suspended bait and bass.
Keep an idea of the depth where the fish are holding and mark those spots on your chartplotter. If you run a little while along the drop-off, even after marking some schools, you’ll give yourself an idea of where to start drifting. It takes a little discipline not to wet a line immediately, but it’s worth it to get an overview of the whole area before you begin fishing.
Ideally, you’ll be able to put the boat in neutral and drift parallel to the shore, staying in the zone where you’re marking fish. Sometimes, however, the wind and currents will alter your drift, and you’ll have to power-drift by kicking your motor in and out of gear in order to keep the boat over the fish for as long as possible. In the area I fish off the tip of Cape Cod, the best bites usually take place in 50 to 80 feet of water. Drifting across the drop-off, this depth range may only be 30 feet wide. That’s why it’s important for the driver to be the quarterback, announcing to everyone on board the depth of the water and where the fish are holding. It can be very active piloting at times, requiring the captain to reposition the boat frequently. Most times, however, the current will pull you along quite nicely and keep you fishing over a productive depth for some time. Because there will probably be other boats trolling in the area, always keep your engine running in case you need to move quickly.
Using your electronics will really help you find success vertical jigging. There are times where the fish will hold very tight to a drop-off and you’ll want to stay in one spot as much as possible. If the fish are really concentrated in small areas, you should dedicate one person to drive the boat just to keep you in the zone. To do this, point your bow into the current or wind and just keep bumping the boat in and out of gear. It’s ok to “glide” along the drop-off, as long as you’re staying at the same depth. In most instances, the fish will be sticking to a particular depth more than a discrete location, so drifting a little bit can be good and will help you find more fish. If the fish are on the move, you can often determine which direction they are traveling and stay right with them.
Tackle and Technique
For lures, if current is a consideration, simply go heavier and/or pitch the jig into the direction that you’re drifting to give it time to sink. I’ve fished 10-ounce jigs and I’ve fished 3-ounce jigs in the 30- to 80-foot depths off Cape Cod, but I prefer to fish 5- and 7-ounce jigs. Whenever you have more than one angler jigging, be sure to mix up the colors until you find what the fish want. I’ve had great luck using gold-colored Sting-O PBJ jigs in the morning, and then switching to silver-colored jigs by mid-morning. Both colors will work at all times, but I’ve found much better action by switching up as the sun gets higher in the sky.
Assist hooks work fine, but because the bass are often striking the jig from below, I prefer a single hook at the rear end of the jig. Also, bluefish will tear through a pile of assist hooks with their sharp teeth. I also love the single hook on the back of a lure because the lure becomes a handle with which to hold the fish. It’s very safe and easy. I have little fear when lipping a bass if it has a single hook in its mouth, but treble hooks scare me. I’ve seen a treble hook go through a finger, and I’ve learned my lesson.
There are many excellent rods specifically designed for jigging. Because my gear gets beat up by customers, I opt for e-glass rods. Graphite rods can break due to high-sticking, when the angler lifts the rod tip too high and forces the rod to bend too sharply, or because of structural failure due to small chips and dings caused by banging them against something hard. My boat is stocked with Okuma Cedros Speed Jigging rods, which are designed for this style of fishing and are quite affordable. My spinning reels are medium-sized, as are my conventionals.
This gear doesn’t have to be too heavy.
In fact, it’s more fun and challenging if the gear is on the lighter side. My spring cod-fishing gear doubles as striper conventional gear. It’s nice to have that overlap of tackle so you don’t end up with 50 fish- and technique-specific combos leaning against the wall in your garage.
Color-coded braided lines are perfect for this type of fishing. I use the Tuf Line Indicator braided line, which has a different color every 10 feet. Therefore, when I say, “The fish are holding at 40 feet,” my customers count off four colors of line. This takes the guesswork out of delivering your jig to the level of the fish.
Drop the jig below the depth where you’re marking fish and work it back through the school. The jigging motion involves lifting the rod tip and then dropping it while reeling in the slack. You’re not jigging in the classic sense, raising the rod tip high and lowering the jig back to the same depth. Instead, you’ re using a constant, upbeat jigging motion. If you almost feel like one of those wind-up monkeys that clap their cymbals together, you have it down. The action that you want on the lure is like a baitfish darting up toward the surface, in bursts of speed as you jig and then slowing or fluttering slightly as you drop the tip and reel in the slack.
A great technique made possible by color-coded line is to drop a jig below the level of the fish, reel it through the school toward the surface, then stop it before it leaves the “strike zone, and drop it back down through the school to begin the process again. Keep moving the lure through the strike zone and you’ll eventually have success. These jigging motions trigger an aggressive reaction strike from the fish, so you can get away with a short leader without worrying about line-shy bass.
I typically use a 4-foot fluorocarbon leader tied to my main braided line with an Albright knot. I like 40-pound-test leaders in most instances. In addition to being hard for the fish to see, it provides a place to grab when the fish gets close to the boat. Don’t ever grab braided line with a bare hand, as it can easily cut through skin.
What I love most about vertical jigging for stripers is that the hits are usually intense. As you’re reeling up the jig, the fish are dashing up behind it, hitting your lure from below and turning sharply back down into the school. This makes for fierce strikes and solid hook-ups.
One of the keys to success is to take notes as to the location of the fish at certain times of the tide – history does repeat itself! I take many photos and I save them according to the date of the fishing trip. By taking enough photos and video of the day, you’ll be able to remember the trip much better than just taking notes, which you should also be doing.
Another advantage of vertical jigging is that if the bass come to the surface, we can quickly reel in and give chase. I’ll keep spinning gear rigged up and ready to go for this occasion. When you have wire-line rigs deployed, it’s much harder to switch methods.
Although vertical jigging is simple, you and your crew won’t get bored. Try it, and enjoy not having to wait your turn, as with wire-line trolling. I promise that you won’t miss the tiresome jigging with heavy tackle from a moving boat, or jockeying for position in the trolling procession. Instead, you’ ll enjoy more jarring hits, more exciting battles, more relaxing drifts and more fishing time for everyone. And, I repeat, more fun for everyone on the boat.