Walleye Jigging Experiments
March 24, 2014
Jack Nethercutt has three passions — cars, USC football, and walleye fishing. The Chairman of the Board of Merle Norman Cosmetics often is in his Lund 1900 Pro V jigging for walleyes on Lake of the Woods. I had the pleasure of guiding Jack on the Woods from 2007 to 2011. I tried to tempt him into trolling, but I quickly learned he's had his fill of it during his 50-plus years of walleye fishing. So jigging it was, and I realized I had an incredible opportunity.
For years, I had been questioning many of the prevalent beliefs about walleye jigging, the first being the singular focus on jig color. When I'm guiding, any angler that begins catching more fish than everyone else in the boat is asked, "What color are you using?" to the exclusion of any other queries. I've always thought that color, while not irrelevant, should be explored after other aspects of presentation, like jigging cadence, depth, speed, and bait appearance.
The other belief about jigging that many walleye anglers hold is that you should always use the lightest jig you can get away with. When vertical jigging while guiding, I always use a lighter jig than the guests, based on the theory that if I can feel bottom with a lighter jig, they should be able to maintain bottom contact with a heavier one. At times, however, guests out-fish my lighter finesse approach with the cannonballs that I tied on their lines, making me question whether there are times when a heavier jig yields more fish.
As a guide, the problem with answering questions about jig color and size is that anglers are continually caught in a positive feedback loop. If the first three fish of the day are caught on a 1/4-ounce red jig, soon everyone in the boat has one tied on and, to no one's surprise, all the fish that day are caught on 1/4-ounce red jigs. Anglers are hardly to blame for this, as who wants to spend the day fishing with a color that may not be as effective just to conduct an experiment? Well, Jack agreed to do some experimental fishing with me on Lake of the Woods to test jig color and weight.
To test jig color and weight, the fishing day was split into morning and afternoon sessions, with about three hours of fishing before and after lunch. Only one variable (color or weight) was tested during a session. For example, during a morning session, if jig weight was being tested, all the jigs were the same color. Anglers had identical rods (6-foot 6-inch medium-light, fast-action spinning), with identical lines (8-pound superline with a 3-foot monofilament leader). One rod was equipped with a 1/8-ounce jig, one with a 1/4-ounce jig, and one with a 3/8-ounce jig. Rods were switched every 10 minutes and the number of walleyes and saugers caught on each jig recorded. Also recorded was the number of walleyes over 19 inches caught on each jig.
For the afternoon session on that day, the experiment switched to color, using whichever jig weight had caught the most fish in the morning session. Four colors were tested — white glow, chartreuse, orange, and black — each on the same type of rod and using the same 10-minute rotation. The next morning would be a color-test session, followed by a weight-test session in the afternoon, using whichever color had caught the most fish that morning.
The order of each jig color and weight also was rotated during each session to help remove bias inherent in the order of use. The first jig used each day, for example, may be at a disadvantage as the first several minutes of fishing often are spent trying to locate fish. Time spent attending to snags or retying after a broken line wasn't counted in color experiments (the stopwatch was paused), but not weight experiments, as it was felt that the size of the jig could affect the frequency of snags and thus the amount of time spent fishing.
I also made attempts early on to try different bait types, but felt that I had to focus on jig weight and color to answer those questions so only minnows were used. As with any experiment in a natural environment, many variables were out of my control, such as wind speed, wind direction, barometric pressure, cloud cover, air temperature, water temperature, and depth of the fish. I recorded these observations in my daily log.
During the 2009 to 2011 seasons, I collected data for 54 sessions (approximately 162 hours) for the weight experiment and 49 sessions (approximately 147 hours) for the color experiment.
Differences in catches were statistically compared by testing whether the frequency of outcomes (the number of fish caught) among the factor being tested (color or weight) is different than what would be expected if there was no effect. For instance, if jigs of two colors caught 125 and 175 walleyes, respectively, is that significantly different than what would be expected if there was no color effect (150 walleyes for each color)? I am indebted in this regard to In-Fisherman Managing Editor Dr. Rob Neumann, who did the statistical analyses and helped interpret the results.
For overall catch, while chartreuse caught the most walleyes and saugers (276), catches were similar to glow (271), orange (269), and black (258), and there was no statistically significant difference in catch among colors. But chartreuse caught 5 more fish than glow and 18 more than black, which may be enough to make a meaningful difference to anglers.
A stronger color effect appeared when the analysis was limited to larger walleyes. Chartreuse (16) and orange (15) caught twice as many walleyes over 19 inches long than black (8), with glow intermediate (11). Still, here, the results weren't statistically significant, but a color preference pattern seemed to emerge. Lack of a statistically significant finding could be due to several factors such as small sample size, lack of a color effect, or variability caused by other factors that can't be controlled, like weather, time of day, and amount of light.
I ran separate tests to try to remove variability introduced by several other factors: barometric pressure, weather system, time of day, and depth. Surprisingly, there wasn't any statistically significant effect of color in any of these tests, but several patterns are worth discussing. For instance, while chartreuse caught the most fish overall, it was only the case under certain conditions. Sometimes, chartreuse caught the fewest fish.
When the barometric pressure was dropping, most fish were caught on chartreuse, followed by glow, black, and orange. When the pressure was stable or increasing, however, most fish were caught on orange. Under high-pressure systems, chartreuse caught the most fish, while most were caught on orange and black under low pressure skies.
On overcast days, orange caught the most walleyes, black the fewest. Under sunny skies, orange caught the fewest. Orange caught most in the morning, but catches were almost identical among all the colors. In the afternoon, chartreuse scored highest.
Analysis by depth zone revealed the only time black caught the most fish — in depths of 20 to 29 feet. In depths of less than 20 feet, chartreuse caught most of the fish while walleyes bit mostly orange in depths of 30 feet or more.
Overall, walleye catches were significantly different among the three different jig weights, with the 1/4-ounce catching more fish (437) than the 1/8- (362) and 3/8-ounce (320). For walleyes over 19 inches, the 1/4-ounce again led the way with 24 fish, followed by the 3/8- (21) and 1/8-ounce (19).
When analyzed separately under different fishing conditions, catches among jig weights were statistically different during decreasing barometric pressure, under high-pressure skies, sunny skies, in the afternoon, in water from 20 to 29 feet deep, and in depths of 30 feet or greater. The 1/8- and 1/4-ounce jig performed better in water less than 20 feet deep. In 20 to 29 feet, the 1/4-ounce jig caught the most fish, followed by the 1/8- and 3/8-ounce. In depths of 30 feet and greater, the 1/4-ounce caught the most followed by the 3/8-ounce, while the 1/8-ounce became more ineffective. Overall, in deeper water, heavier jigs caught more walleyes.
It's impossible to conclude that each of these significant factors acts on catches separately, because several or most of the factors are correlated, or interrelated. For example, under high pressure or decreasing pressure on sunny afternoons, you might expect walleyes to be deeper. So, because the 1/4- and 3/8-ounce jig caught more walleyes on sunny days, it may not mean that fish prefer heavier jigs on sunny days, but that sunny days may bring walleyes deeper and that heavier jigs are more effective in deeper water.
Based on the results of these experiments, the 1/4-ounce appears to be an ideal weight for vertical jigging where I fish on Lake of the Woods. The 1/4-ounce jig caught the most walleyes and saugers in most comparisons, although 1/8- and 3/8-ounce jigs also became important in certain situations. For example, the 1/8-ounce performed well in water less than 20 feet, while the 3/8-ounce became more effective in deeper water.
Jigs lighter or heavier than 1/4-ounce may excel in presentations other than vertical jigging. If casting for walleyes in shallow water, for example, the 1/8-ounce jig may have had been better overall. Also, remember these results are based on conditions I fish on Lake of the Woods. In other waters, the ideal weight for vertical jigging may be lighter or heavier.
With only a few exceptions, chartreuse and orange caught the most walleyes and saugers. This is consistent with the science that walleyes see in the red-orange-green portions of the color spectrum, being most sensitive to orange-red. I tended to notice that chartreuse was better for brighter conditions and orange for low-light conditions. Chartreuse caught more fish in every instance where higher levels of light could be found. Conversely, orange jigs caught more fish in lower light conditions. The role of color and what walleyes see is complex and affected by many factors.
Never during my three years conducting this experiment was I in the middle of a hot walleye bite and had the bite turn off because I switched color or weight of the jig. I did, however, have fish turn active once I had changed my jigging action or location on a reef. So, if you're vertical jigging using a reasonable jig weight, and the angler in the boat 50 yards away is catching many more fish, your jig box may not be the first place to turn. Other facets of your presentation are important. In this case, being at the right spot.
Also consider your jigging cadence, or working action. There are times when any movement of the jig spooks fish, and strolling — holding the bait steady a foot or so off the bottom while the boat slowly moves around the structure — is needed to tempt finicky fish. At times, an aggressive approach, like snapjigging, triggers fish. Experiment with your presentation.
I'm grateful to Jack for the opportunity to conduct these experiments and for his patience in having his peaceful days on the water disrupted by a beeping stopwatch every 10 minutes. While I don't share his love of cars, we agree there's no better way to spend a summer day than chasing walleyes on Lake of the Woods.
*Ryan Haines, Kenora, Ontario, is an astute angler and a fishery scientist who serves as a consultant on fishery projects.