OTW general manager Neal Larsson, cameraman Richard Murphy and I left Cape Cod in the early morning to make the 6-hour trek to Oswego, New York on the shores of Lake Ontario. The plan was a strange one: Leave Cape Cod during peak saltwater fishing season to see if a technique commonly used for striped bass and tuna – vertical jigging with Butterfly jigs – would work on the freshwater fish in Lake Ontario.
Vertical jigging with metal jigs for Great Lakes trout and salmon is far from mainstream, and we were sure to get some strange looks on the waters where downriggers rule. However, at On The Water we are always up for trying something new.
Captain Chris Gatley has pioneered this method and has been jigging-up freshwater giants for years. After listening to Chris elaborate, I learned it’s about much more than just dropping a jig down to the bottom. Chris uses his electronics to study bathymetric charts and find structure and depth changes, to read water temperatures, to find fish and bait, and then to actually track his jig as it drops through bait and actively feeding fish. Fishing in depths of 100-plus feet of water can actually be a very visual experience, explained Chris.
Chris picked us up at K&G Lodge at 5:30 a.m. and we made a quick run to his slip on Lake Ontario. Soon we were bombing across the open waters of the mammoth lake. Conditions were flat-calm and we made the 12-mile run to Chris’s lake trout spot quickly. Right away Chris had big marks at 80 feet with thick red streaks slashing through balling bait.
“Drop your jigs!” yelled Chris, and Neal did just that while I got the camera ready. Chris uses 55 gram and 75 gram Shimano Butterfly jigs and similar-sized Stingo jigs with Shimano rod and reel combos – the rods are actually built to give the jigs a perfect action. We used braided line with a 40-foot fluorocarbon leader for the line-shy fish in the incredibly clear lake water.
Despite the perfect marks on the fish finder, we could not seem to interest the fish. There’s no doubt that they were seeing the jigs, Chris pointed out, as the fishfinder was marking the V-shaped track of our jig as it plunged down through the fish and back up towards the surface. Although we weren’t attracting bites, other anglers trolling in our area were fascinated and mostly confused with what we were doing.
Chris lifted the drift anchor and we made a slow run east, watching the finder for depth changes, bait, and fish. Chris located a drastic depth change and zoomed out on the chartplotter to uncover a large finger-shaped contour line where the depth jumped from 120 to 90 feet. Moments later we started marking fish. Again, we watched the screen as our jigs fluttered through feeding fish and returned back to the surface unscathed. Neal’s jig cut through bait at 80 feet on the way to the bottom and again while retrieving the jig toward the surface. Just as the fluorocarbon leader came back on the reel, a fish smacked the jig and Neal was on!
The fish stripped out line, making a run under the boat. Chris grabbed the net as Neal worked the fish back up. We could see brown and gold coloration 20 feet down in crystal-clear lake water. Moments later Chris leaned over to net the fish and swung a fat, healthy, 8-pound brown trout over the gunnel.
Chris looked back at the screen and we could actually see how the fish followed the jig from 80 up to 20 feet. “That was a great way to catch a trout like that,” said Chris. “Unlike trolling, you get to feel the fish hit the jig. Also there’s a lot less hassle and equipment to deal with, no wire line or complicated trolling spreads. With jigging you can cover the entire water column.”
Neal and I looked on as Chris doubled back on the boat’s tracklines. We reset our drift to target the same exact spot and marked fish again. This time we paid closer attention to the screen and watched fish follow our jigs up toward the surface. We saw this dozens of times on the screen and with our own eyes, as big, dark shadows swam up behind the jig just a few feet from the boat. Neal actually had one brown trout slam a jig right on the surface!
Chris uses braid with color bands every 20 feet so you know your depth. While dropping his jig, the line went slack well before the bottom. Chris quickly set the hook. He explained that half of the hits come while the jig is descending. Chris’s rod was doubled over and Neal got the net ready. Another nice brown trout was landed.
We ended the day with four healthy browns. Over some beers and a meal at the steakhouse back at the lodge, we plotted our course of action for Day 2. We decided to it was best to get on the water before first light for a full day of fishing. It was an awesome feeling to be trying something that really is a cutting-edge technique and having it actually work.
Make sure to check out the show, airing in winter 2012, to see what happens on day two.
A special thanks goes out to those who helped make this incredible trip possible:
Captain Chris Gatley: www.ardentangler.org
K&G Lodge: www.kglodge.com
Good Times Sport fishing: good-times-sportfishing.com