In the fly-fishing world, we have far more theories than absolute truths. We pass along our tacit knowledge of tactics and fish behavior to one another, to share insights, approaches, and theories as to why one method works while the other doesn’t. But since no one shares the exact set of experiences, opinions vary greatly, and the overall angling community agrees upon few concepts.
However, there is one concept that is widely accepted by almost all anglers—a fly, lure, or bait moving in a vertical plane (up and down) entices more strikes. Known as vertical jigging, a lure swimming upward or falling downward is one of the deadliest tactics for any species, and that’s true in fresh and salt water.
The word “jig” means “a lively dance,” which is fitting, since fly fishers dress up their streamer patterns and present them in a seductive and active manner. There’s something alluring to any fish species about a lure or fly moving vertically in the water column. Maybe a fly dropping represents dying prey falling to the stream bottom—perhaps an easy meal? Maybe a vertical ascent represents prey escaping, hatching, or moving to the surface to feed. Whatever the actual reason, up-and-down movement is a bite trigger.
Although the term “vertical jigging” is associated more with conventional fishing tactics and tackle, fly fishers can also mimic this lively dance with fly-fishing equipment. I use three methods to create this up-and-down presentation. Most of what I’ll discuss here is what I call Euro jigging. It’s extremely effective, and it’s easy to switch to jigging when you’re already holding Euro tackle in your hands. However, there are also times when I use sinking-tip and full-sinking lines to produce this jigging effect.
I define European nymphing as using a longer rod, a thin level fly line, thin level leader, sighter (colored monofilament used for strike detection), and level tippet with the goal of reducing drag and increasing your contact with the flies. It’s not surprising that jigging is so effective with this same tackle, because little or no fly line lies on top of the water, which creates less surface drag and results in the streamer dropping to the stream bottom faster.
Although Euro jigging is effective in all water types, I find this tactic most useful in deeper water (often slower stretches), where fish are just as likely resting or hiding as they are hunting for a meal.
When fish are holding deep like this, the Euro jigging approach puts the streamer deeper in the water column, closer to the fish’s strike zone, before the jigging occurs. You cast a heavy, thin-profile streamer upstream of the fish, allow it to sink into the zone in front of the fish, and then start jigging.
The best patterns for this technique are dense, and often tied on a pre-molded lead jig hook, or with a heavy tungsten conehead/beadhead weight. The key with these flies is keeping them simple, streamlined, and dense to increase their sink rate.
With this technique, your fly patterns should be designed to sink, not to swim. Some flies like Blane Chocklett’s Game Changer are designed to swim and imitate the shape and motion of a baitfish. Jigging flies like Clouser Minnows are designed to dive. One is not better than the other: They just serve different purposes.
Thin flies slide through the water without too much friction, and they also provide better strike detection. When you actively retrieve swimming flies with your line hand, the strikes often feel fierce due to the constant tension on the line. In contrast, jigging often results in strikes that feel much less aggressive because much of the time the fly is dropping—with no tension on the line. Sometimes a strike feels like a slight knock on the end of your line, rather than a rod-bending pull.
Bulky flies feel like you’re pulling a wet sock through the water during the retrieve, and they are built to displace water, but that quality reduces strike detection when you’re jigging a streamer. There’s a time and place for larger, bulkier patterns, but not when you’re Euro jigging.
Three of my favorite jigging patterns are the Kreelex, Bunker Buster Sculp Snack, and Sparkle Minnow jigs in a variety of color combinations. These simple patterns drop quickly, slide smoothly through the water, and have lively movement while lifting and dropping.
Losing flies while Euro jigging is common, so keep your patterns simple.
Larger fish tend to hold in ambush locations like heavily wooded logjams, so you must fish these areas aggressively and not be concerned with losing several jigging streamers per trip. You may be willing to risk a five-minute fly in order to catch a big brown from a logjam, but you may shy away from that structure if the streamer cost you an hour of tying time or $20 at the cash register.
After you make the cast, keep your rod tip high, and hold the line and leader off the water. Allow the streamer to drop rapidly toward the stream bottom before using the rod tip to lift and drop the fly, creating that jigging motion. I believe one key to managing overall control is holding the rod tip at approximately a 45-degree angle—just high enough to keep line and leader off the water, while relying on the line hand to aid in slack management and in retrieving the jig. If you hold the rod tip too high—90 degrees or straight up—you won’t have any space to make a proper hook-set.
The key to any Euro jigging approach is to make sure the fly is down in the strike zone before moving the fly. This means a longer pause in deeper water, but an almost immediate start to jigging in shallow water.
Using a countdown is helpful, especially in deep pools or in lakes. It’s so easy to become impatient and begin actively retrieving your pattern too soon. This is likely my number one nemesis, especially while fishing lakes—my own lack of patience and retrieving too soon. If you’re not catching fish, focus on giving the fly more time to sink. I look at jigging a streamer the same way as fishing a nymph. When action slows down, the key to success is often a depth change, not a fly change.
What makes this Euro approach so deadly is your contact with the jig as it drops toward the stream bottom. As the fly drops and drifts downstream, use your line hand to slowly strip in slack at the same speed as the descending jig. Maintain a high rod-tip angle, keeping the sighter off the water and in view. As the jig drops, there should be as little slack in the sighter as possible.
A limp sighter indicates too much slack—in that case, use your line hand to strip in line faster. Watch for the sighter to jump, stop, or twitch, and set the hook instantly. You’ll be surprised how often fish strike while the jig is falling, so focus on the sighter during the drop. “Fishing the drop” is a tactic bass anglers know extremely well.
Once the jig reaches the correct depth, your forearm (not your wrist) smoothly lifts the rod tip up to pull the jig off the bottom. Once your forearm extends upward, hold it for a second and vibrate the rod tip to provide additional action. Then slowly use your forearm to lower the rod tip, dropping the jig at a controlled rate.
I believe your forearm does a better job of lifting the jig up and down without introducing excessive slack. A “wristy” up-and-down movement often puts too much slack into the leader, and may reduce strike detection. A forearm lift maintains a tight connection during the entire up-and-down movement.
The activity level of the fish determines the speed and height of the lift. If the water is cold, or the fish are lazy and resting on the bottom, use a shorter lift to keep the fly closer to the fish and make it easier to grab. If the fish are actively feeding, a bigger lift can attract attention, imitate the movement of emerging insects, or get strikes from fish that may be situated higher in the water column.
Although the sighter is most often thought of as a visual strike aid, while jigging I use it a depth gauge tool. The sighter tells me how deep my streamer is. If I’m constantly hanging up on the bottom, I hold the sighter higher off the water. If I’m not occasionally hitting bottom, I lower the sighter during the presentation. Getting the correct depth is the single most important factor when fishing deeper water.
I prefer a Euro-style fly line over straight monofilament, as it gives me better line control for jigging. Although the rod tip provides the up-and-down jigging movement, your line hand retrieves line throughout the presentation.
Stripping line or using a hand-twist retrieve with monofilament requires more dexterity, especially during the colder months when your hands are cold and the monofilament develops more memory. Also, to set the hook, your line hand grips and even strips line while your rod hand lifts to set the hook. My line hand has slipped too many times while using monofilament, so I stick to the more tactile Euro fly lines out there.
Euro Jigging with Traditional Fly lines
The key to creating jigging action with a regular fly line is getting the line to pull the fly either downward or upward. One of my recent streamer lessons came from watching Josh Greenberg (owner of Gates Lodge) vertically jig a weighted streamer using a sinking-tip line on Michigan’s Au Sable River. Attention to detail separates the mediocre from the good. On this day, Greenberg ended up teaching me a lesson on how to achieve depth quickly with a sink tip.
We were fishing identical fly lines with similarly weighted articulated streamers, but Greenberg moved fish all day while I rarely saw a flash. It was sunny, and the river was very clear. We both saw that his streamer was riding several feet deeper in the water, and moving with a prominent jigging action. At first, this didn’t make sense, as our rigs and casting distance were nearly identical. But Josh reduced tension during his presentation by lifting the floating line section off the water and pausing before beginning the retrieve, and that allowed the streamer to drop several feet deeper.
Using this upward lift, Josh was able to draw 10 to 15 feet of floating line off the water. On the other hand, I kept that same length of floating line on the water, causing surface drag on the line, and keeping my weighted streamer closer to the surface.
Every short strip Josh made lifted his fly up toward the surface, creating a tantalizing up-and-down movement. On the flip side, my partially sunken streamer moved horizontally as it followed my fly line. Greenberg’s tactics prevailed that day, as he was able to drift deeper and then produce and up-and-down movement. Just lifting the floating portion of your sinking-tip line during every retrieve can create a vertical presentation. Any medium to heavily weighted streamer pattern works well with this approach.
Another way to produce up-and-down movement is with a full-sinking line and a buoyant streamer. The goal is to have the sinking line pull the streamer downward on the retrieve. Then, a pause and a little slack allow the buoyant streamer to rise up toward the surface.
Unlike sinking tips—where you can lift the floating section off the water to reduce tension—sinking lines cannot be repositioned once they start sinking, so you need another method to create slack. After making a good cast, the line and leader lie out nice and straight. Although this straight line provides direct contact with the fly, it also creates tension, and will result in a slower sinking rate due to tension. One simple solution is to drift the rod tip toward the sinking line after the initial cast. This is an old steelhead technique. Reaching the rod tip toward the sinking line (and in the same direction) reduces tension, allowing the sinking line to sink without the hindrance of you and the fly rod pulling at it.
Once the line reaches the correct fishing depth, use a short powerful strip to pull the buoyant streamer down toward the fly line. Tension between the fly and the line is the greatest at this stage. The next step is to introduce slack back between line and fly, which allows the buoyant streamer to rise toward the surface.
The key is to create enough slack to allow the upward movement, but not so much slack that you miss strikes during this phase. Reduce the line tension using a smooth and controlled rod tip “push” toward the sinking line—not a quick and erratic stabbing motion. Feed some slack into the system carefully. A smooth and controlled decrease in line tension allows the streamer to rise in the water column, and predators love to attack prey they see fleeing toward the surface.
Repeat the process through the entire swing until the line is hanging directly below you. Buoyant patterns like the Zoo Cougar and Drunk & Disorderly perform brilliantly with this tactic.
Parting Thoughts on Euro Jigging
No matter what type of fly line you’re using, variables like fish activity, water temperature, and water clarity should determine how fast and how far you move your fly.
There is no “best season” for jigging streamers—it works all year. In extremely cold water temperatures, it’s often best to stall the jig close to the bottom, while giving it only a little motion—think ice-fishing tactics.
The same is true with dirty water during spring runoff or after a hard rain. Stalling the jig provides more time for the fish to locate the pattern. Fish rarely chase a fly in dirty water, so if water clarity is poor, you don’t want to move the jig too far from where you think the fish are, which is usually close to the bottom.
If the water is clear and the fish are feeding hard, they are more likely to chase the fly. An exaggerated jigging motion can draw their attention away from the many other food sources in the water. It’s often something they cannot resist.
Finally, be sure to keep your hook points sharp. In Euro jigging the rod tip often sets the hook instead of straight pull with your line hand. If you are using a Euro rod, the tip is soft and it’s difficult to deliver energy to that hook point. Your hooks should be razor sharp so they sink in easily without much pressure.
George Daniel is the author of Nymph Fishing: New Angles, Tactics, and Techniques (Stackpole, 2018). He is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor and owner of Livin’ on the Fly, an educational/guide company in Pennsylvania. He was a coach for both the U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team and Fly Fishing Team USA and now teaches fly fishing at Penn State University, following in the footsteps of his predecessors Joe Humphreys and George Harvey.