I often am asked why gear anglers catch so many more fish than fly fishers, and my answer is always the same: They don’t. Really good gear anglers catch a lot of fish, but so do really good fly fishers. Becoming really good, even in fishing, comes with a price, however: You have to be willing to learn and try new things, and you have to practice your craft. And if you’re looking to try something different this summer, first on your list should be using the vertical-jig retrieve.
Truthfully, I probably jig my fly at least half the time I’m fishing. But I don’t see many other people doing it. In fact, I’m always amazed by how many fly fishers seem content to just huck their flies on the water and pull in the line with a standard strip retrieve. Those who do will never be better than average. This is where the gear anglers excel. Those guys understand that every lure requires a different style of retrieve. The same goes for flies, but only the great fly fishers understand this idea and implement it on the water. In fact, the great fly fishers change their retrieves depending on a variety of factors, including water temperature, water clarity, the season, light conditions and so on. And I believe that the ability to control the movement of a fly with the rod—not the stripping hand—is the key to these super-successful retrieves.
Employing the vertical jig can be as easy as lifting the rod tip and letting it back down in a controlled manner. To start the vertical jig, cast your fly up and across stream at a 45-degree angle to the current, and finish the cast with your rod low. After the fly has sunk to the desired depth—generally one to three feet—smoothly lift the rod tip one to two feet. Do not snap the rod, as that will cause a slack line below the tip. Instead smoothly lift the rod, and then drop the tip back toward the water just fast enough to allow the fly to sink while watching the nearly tight line for a slight movement, which indicates that a fish just grabbed your fly. While dropping the rod tip, strip in excess line. You’re trying to “feel” the fly at all times during the drop. Most hits come on the drop and are not always easy to feel.
When you are comfortable with the retrieve, you can vary the lifts, making two or three movements, getting the fly to swim in a kind of serpentine movement. When you watch your retrieve, you will see most of what you have built into the fly (rubber legs, marabou, hackle, flashabou and so on) laying down on the hook in a tubular fashion. When the fly pauses, the materials flare out, and the fly’s true soul appears. Fish hit the fly to eat it, so takes can be deliberate but not hard.
The vertical-jig retrieve is effective in most situations, but especially when fishing cooler water where crayfish are present. Crayfish can molt more than a dozen times a year, but the primary molt, which is the most relevant to anglers, happens in late June as water temperatures hit about 65 degrees. This coincides with the peak movement temperature for large trout, making it a prime time to hone your vertical-jig technique.
Depending on where you live, crayfish may vary in color from almost white to dark olive, blue, orange or a combination of all. When fishing crayfish patterns, I carry rust, orange, tan and olive. My favorite crayfish pattern is the Nancy P, which has accounted for some of my best days and biggest fish. Don’t hesitate to throw that fly wherever crayfish and trout are found.