Vertical Jigging Strategies for White Bass
August 17, 2015
I find the annual spawn-time window all too short and largely weather-dependent. As a professional white bass guide, I'd rather rely on deep techniques like vertical-jigging. For the last 10 years, I've avoided the tributary crowd by using the techniques described here. Instead of shifting to feeder creeks, I've stayed in main-lake areas and consistently boated loads of white bass throughout the year.
Vertical Jigging Basics
Successful vertical jigging hinges on the ability to read your lure on the sonar screen nearly all the time. You need a top-quality sonar unit, along with a trolling motor capable of holding the boat on a spot in windy conditions. The transducer should be mounted perfectly plumb on the motor's lower unit for best viewing. By hovering over fish-holding structure, you'll be able to sight-fish with your electronics much like an ice fisherman, although trading a solid slab of ice for a moving boat as a platform.
In the past, I relied on a foot-controlled, bowmounted trolling motor — Minn Kota's Maxxum, with its infinitely variable speed control. Its precision allows me to fine-tune the amount of thrust required to hover. A foot control allows me to keep both hands free — one to hold my rod, and the other to maintain contact with the line.
A shortcut to boat control is Minn Kota's iPilot, which blends GPS and trolling motor technology to allow you to hover on a desired location regardless of wind and current. I liken it to an electronic anchor, but without the hassles. Moreover, as a guide, I have both hands and both feet free to help clients.
For sonar I rig a Lowrance X-510C on the trolling motor and their HDS-12 Gen3 Touch model with StructureScan on the console. These units offer extreme sensitivity. Colored traditional screens set to Color Palette #13 are most effective in identifying "bottom huggers." The StructureScan feature used in down-viewing mode eliminates a lot of misinterpretation, compared to traditional sonar.
Tips for Hovering
With this setup, I'm confident I can keep my presentation (often as small as a 1/8-ounce, 1¼-inch spoon) on my sonar in any fishable conditions and at depths of more than 50 feet. To gain confidence in fishing this way, I recommend spending time on the water and practicing to keep your lure on the screen while the trolling motor maintains position. To reduce the steepness of your learning curve:
'¢ Begin with a large jigging spoon (1 ounce or more).
'¢ Look for bottom in 20 to 25 feet of water, no shallower, no deeper.
'¢ Choose an area with a clean, flat bottom.
'¢ Pick a spot that's protected from wind but not flat calm. You want enough breeze to practice pushing against it with the trolling motor to establish a hover.
'¢ Check your hover posture by looking at the angle of your line relative to the trolling motor shaft — they should be parallel.
'¢ Use the sonar's flasher mode (if it has one), and adjust sensitivity to 72 percent or higher.
'¢ Adjust the trolling motor's variable speed low enough so the momentary switch is almost always on, avoiding short bursts forward.
'¢ Drop the spoon to bottom and reel up about 2 feet so that as you lift and drop, it never touches bottom. Now, lift and drop the spoon repeatedly while watching sonar.
'¢ Practice hovering until you can consistently work the trolling motor and jigging spoon simultaneously, while keeping the lure in the sonar beam.
You should be able to identify your lure on screen quickly, and eventually see every lift, drop, pause, and jiggle you impart. This at first may feel awkward, but with practice becomes second nature. By keeping your electronic "eyes" on the presentation, you not only control fishing depth precisely, but also gauge fish response.
The Basic Jigging Stroke
Although the way you move the lure varies from season to season and with weather changes, you should establish a baseline from which to pivot. For white bass, most of your fishing is on or near bottom. The baseline jigging stroke starts there, too.
To begin the jigging stroke, establish a single start-stop point for your rod tip, relative to the surface. This should be within a foot of the water's surface and ergonomically comfortable. Burn this position into your muscle memory to start and stop at that exact point every time. Eventually this becomes second nature.
While hovering and watching sonar, hold the rod tip 3 to 4 inches lower than that start-stop point. Let the lure fall to bottom, then carefully take up all slack without lifting it off bottom. (Note that most reels retrieve 18 to 27 inches of line per handle turn, so just a fraction of a turn tightens your line.) Now, with line barely taut, raise the rod tip back up to the accustomed start-stop point. Your lure should now hang like a plumb-bob — directly beneath the rod tip, 3 to 4 inches off bottom, and visible on sonar.
Now, with a sharp upward stroke generated from the wrist and elbow (not the shoulder), raise the lure 18 to 22 inches upward and immediately return the rod tip to its starting-stopping point. This motion causes the lure to flutter as it falls. It comes to the end of its tether abruptly, transmitting a thud to your rod hand, signaling that it's at a known location 3 to 4 inches off bottom.
After this thud, pause for one second. Now, repeat the process: Jerk it up, let it fall (thud), and pause; jerk it up, let it fall (thud), and pause; and so on. Now you have the rhythm. Don't err by simply lowering your lure on a tight line — let it freefall.
If the rhythm is broken, a fish has sucked in the lure; or the depth has changed and you're hitting bottom; or the lure has tangled — all things you must be aware of. I can't overemphasize the importance of establishing a rhythm so you can identify any rhythm-breaking event. With this method, most white bass strike as the lure reaches the end of its tether after freefalling, immediately after you feel the thud. A bite may feel like multiple soft thuds. A quick upward hookset should close the deal.
This basic jigging stroke is effective year 'round in all weather conditions, for active and sluggish fish. Under certain conditions, slight variations can be even more effective.
Pausing: Simply put, pausing is using the basic jigging stroke with a longer pause. I typically employ this when sluggish fish show on sonar but don't respond to the basic stroke. Pausing is especially effective in cold weather, and also after fish have fed heavily and begun to settle down. The extended pause should last about 3 seconds, so the rhythm changes to: Jerk it up, let it fall (thud), pause, pause, pause. Jerk it up, let it fall (thud), pause, pause, pause;
and so on.
Easing: This is lifting your rod tip high to lure more active fish out of a less-active school. Easing is typically most effective when white bass are schooled on bottom, either ramping up to feed or ramping down after a big meal.
Easing is executed at the end of the basic jigging stroke and consists of simply raising the rod tip at a moderate speed from near the water's surface to a height of about 8 feet by raising your arm at the shoulder. Speed of execution is the key. This 8-foot span should be covered in precisely 2 seconds. As you perform an easing stroke, watch sonar intently. If individual fish follow your lure closely as it lifts off bottom, easing will work.
Also, if you're catching fish using the basic jigging stroke and see schoolmates follow a hooked fish up from bottom nearly to the surface, it's likely that easing can increase your catch rate. When you hook a fish with rod overhead, be sure to keep the tip high, maintaining tension on the line until you can reel down to normal fighting position. Dropping the rod tip to a fighting position without maintaining constant tension allows slack line that a fish can use to
Smoking: "Smoking" is reeling your lure very fast through a suspended school of fish seen on sonar. Suspended white bass are active fish and they're accustomed to running down fleeing shad, so a fast retrieve is appropriate.
Try this move when you see suspended fish on sonar. While holding the rod tip low and rock-steady, crank your reel handle at a rate of two revolutions per second, assuming a moderate gear ratio (in the range of 4:1 to 5:1). The ideal smoking retrieve brings the lure up quickly and steadily, hence the importance of a steady rod tip. A steady retrieve provides an easily intercepted target for whites to
Hooking tip: When you feel a fish overtake your lure, the rod tip slowly loads. As it starts to load, keep reeling without setting the hook. As the fish turns back to bottom (which white bass do nearly every time after swiping at a bait), it sets the hook into itself and the fight is on. Setting the hook at the first indication of a strike often pulls it out of the fish's mouth. The stiffer the rod, the more likely this unfortunate outcome.
Attaching a second, lightweight "teaser" lure, streamer, or jig to your mainline above the spoon enables you to catch two fish at a time. My favorite tandem addition is the Hazy Eye Shad from HTL Company (available on my website) because of the quick and sure way it attaches to the mainline and the fact that it's sized for white bass, not hybrids or stripers. When using this tandem setup, fish just as you would with a single lure until you hook
White bass typically strike the slab spoon first, since it's nearest bottom where most of them are holding. Once one bites, resist the urge to reel in the hooked fish (this takes willpower at first), but instead keep your line taut. This keeps the white bass struggling near bottom where its activity stirs silt and creates vibration, attracting schoolmates to the commotion. As fish approach, they spot, chase, and engulf the Hazy Eye Shad rigged above. At this point, you feel additional heaviness in your rod and know you have a "double."
Tackle and Tips
I've settled on a set of five lures to match spoon size with forage. The 1/4-ounce Rattle Snakie from Bass'N Bait and the 3/4-ounce Redneck Fish'n' Jigs Model 180 Slab do 85 percent of the work. I doctor slabs so I have all-white baits with a black "false eye," along with a hand-honed #6 Gamakatsu treble hook. Although I've experimented with heavier lures, they're generally excessive, given that I fish from a hover position and don't use line heavier than 20-pound-test braid.
I keep two sets of equipment in my boat at all times for vertical-jigging: a light set and a heavy one. For spoons from 1/8 to 1/4 ounce, I favor a 7-foot light-action spinning rod such as Berkley's Inshore BSINS701ML-F, matched with a Penn Battle 2000. I spool it with 20-pound-test Sufix 832 yellow or chartreuse braid with a 17-pound Berkley Vanish fluoro leader. For lures to 3/4 ounce, I switch to a medium-light 7-footer like St. Croix's Premier model PS70MLF or Lamiglas XPS 703, with the same reel and line.
Keeping the Momentum
Often the toughest fish to catch is the first one. Once it's boated, catching more is simpler, since you begin to understand what's happening and why. White bass struggle wildly when hooked, stirring silt, creating vibration and flash in the area.
Hooked white bass often regurgitate stomach contents, defecate, or both. On sonar, you often see schoolmates swim up with a hooked fish, attracted by such snacks. Savvy anglers immediately drop a lure back down to catch more.
Capitalize on their competitive nature to catch more white bass before feeding activity declines. Each fish you catch adds to the frenzy, drawing more. If you stop to take pictures or fiddle with tackle, the bite cools and you must start the process over.
These techniques allow you to stay in contact with white bass all year. In summer, fall, and winter I often find myself alone on classic deepwater structures. The aesthetic value of each trip increases as pressure from other anglers decreases.
Try electronic sight-fishing and you'll open up a new chapter on a species once relegated primarily to the hustle and bustle of the spring spawning run. Moreover, try this structured approach when jigging for other species, as well. â–
*Bob Maindelle, Salado, Texas, guides between Austin and Waco, specializing in white bass, holdingthelineguideservice.com, 254/368-7411.