Photo by Richard T. Grost
Winter steelhead are just that: winter fish. Our rivers are already prone to assault by high, murky water as winter rains pound our shores, and now that March is upon us these waters are even more susceptible to flood conditions as spring temperatures begin to melt the snowpack. This influx of high, cold, discolored water is sure to make steelheading more difficult — as if it weren’t hard enough already! — and anglers need to find the right presentation that will put an irritating and/or irresistible offering right in front of the biggest fish of the season.
The high and, consequently, off-color water common in coastal rivers throughout early spring creates the need for fishermen to get into a steelhead’s head. Experienced anglers will study the water of each bend and pool along the way and feel for the comfort zone of the fish. Where would you be if you were one? After deciphering these questions, fish those waters slowly and thoroughly.
Back-trolling is your best bet for covering this type of water and is accomplished by slowly rowing your drift boat (or using a small “kicker” outboard on a jet sled) upstream into the current, which in effect slows the boat just enough to create tension on your fishing line. The idea is to put your lure or bait in the deepest holes, and therefore the most productive water, for as long as possible during one or more swings through a drift.
There are several variations of back-trolling now practiced across the West. The first is traditional back-trolling with a diving plug as described above. Then there is back-bouncing, which involves bouncing a bobber and/or bait across the bottom as the boater moves, or “slips,” slowly downstream. Finally, there is side-planing, which is becoming a popular way for shorebound anglers to work plugs or bait through deep pockets and pools much like their boating brothers.
The big advantage of using a non-weighted plug for back-trolling is that the lure will naturally follow the river currents, guiding it around snags and rocks while still maintaining a position near the bottom. The list of makes and models is vast and varied, and it is usually most effective to ask around at local bait and tackle shops to find out what is working locally.
Bobbers and bait (roe, sand shrimp, etc.) have become the offerings of choice amongst back-bouncers, although the method originated with plug-anglers; again, you’ll find a large array of offerings that often fill an entire aisle in the tackle shop. Half-and-half color patterns, spotted patterns and rainbow blends are typically good producers of winter steelhead. Most steelheaders fish Corkys with a strand or two of soft yarn in the leader’s bumper or egg loop.
Regardless of your exact tactics, there are several things to consider when targeting these big fish. I asked steelhead fishing guide Dan “Rooster” Leavens for his Top 10 list of advice. Here are his recommendations for those who would troll using plugs:
No. 1 – Tune your plugs. Manufacturers usually print on the carton how to get your new plug to swim in fast current. A straight-running plug will dive deeper and have a consistent irritating wobble that steelies hate. (“hate” being a good term).
As a general rule, if your plug is rolling to the right, you torque the eye to the right. I always say that if you feel the eye move, you have moved it too far. Keep a pair of small needle-nosed pliers in your plug box; the worst thing you can try is to bend the line eye with your teeth.
No. 2 – Learn how to read the water. Each river will have certain slots where steelies consistently lie. A trip with a guide is the fastest way to learn these haunts, and if you don’t have the opportunity to float a river two or three times in a season (different water levels change these haunts drastically), a person should really consider a guided trip.
Not only will you learn the river and its secrets, but you will also discover, as I have found, that each river favors one plug or another. One may not work on your home waters but may do very well down the way, and vice versa. Guides are in tune with the types and colors that have been taking fish on a regular basis. As a general rule, metalheads like to hold in tailouts, especially in the early morning hours, when they are still traveling. Don’t forget about rocks and concentrating on the upstream side of big boulders. Don’t get too upset when your plugs won’t hang in the boil on the downstream side; try it anyway.
No. 3 – Have two (or three) rods rigged. Pre-rigged rods, some with plugs, others with drift gear, will cut down on the time spent changing gear. On the same note, a good combination of plug-pulling line and a limber, slow-action plug rod is not your ideal setup for tossing bait.
Last year I started running new Spectra line, and I am real happy with the results; although it’s less forgiving on strikes – which can be a good thing at times — the smaller diameter lets my plugs dive deeper. Having pre-rigged rods lets you be ready to put out a different offering on a moment’s notice. How many times have you drifted through an OK spot with roe and the guy behind you nails a fish on a plug?
No. 4 – Check your plug’s distance in front of the boat. You can bring this topic up with any steelheader and talk till you are both blue in the face. As a general rule, 50 feet is a good starting point, but so many factors contribute to a winning combo, it’s tough to say what is perfect.
As a general guideline, you’ll need to shorten your lead for shallow, fast tail-outs. For deep, slow runs along cut banks and riprap, get your plugs out 50 to 60 feet. Leavens constantly adjusts lengths while his plugs are doing their thing. You want your plug to run from 6 to 12 inches above the bottom as much of the time as possible, but the only way to know you’re there for sure is to let it hit the gravel every now and then. The bottom line is to experiment; don’t be afraid to try unorthodox things.
No. 5 – Pick a color. Here’s another topic for lung-clearing conversation! At least there are some general guidelines: In clear waters, stick with neutral colors like darker shades of blue, green and pink. Metallic schemes are my favorite but you may need to experiment with black and other dark shades, which can be real sleepers. In dirty water, get out the biggest, nastiest plugs in your box. Leavens starts with bright orange, red and all white.
No. 6 – Boat handling. Just putting out the plugs and backpedaling only make up about 10 percent of what you need to know and do for success. Remember what I sa
id about the guide? Some slots are conducive to sweeping side to side, and others are best run as straight as possible. Every hole is a bit different.
Rowing techniques vary from person to person. You can stagger your strokes, which will in turn stagger the digging/diving action of each plug, or you can simultaneously stroke both paddles evenly to keep them the plugs working the same. Again, you’ll need to experiment to find what works.
No. 7 – Scents. Depending on the river and the current regulations, you may be able to use manufactured scent. I do. I like shrimp-based scents and will fall back on the old standby anise oil when fishing is really slow. There are about a million different types of scent out there. What you use and how often is entirely of personal preference.
No. 8 – Sharpen your hooks. I don’t care if you like trebles or single Siwash hooks. If the points on your hooks aren’t razor sharp, you are going to lose fish. Leavens sharpens his hooks every time I put it out. No. 9 – Rod position. You are trying to get that plug down to the bottom, right? Do the same thing with your rod holders: Keep them at the angle necessary (dictated by water conditions) to achieve this.
No. 10 – Watch your buddies. If your fishing partner says, “Well, this is what I do. . . .” then try that too, if he’s catching fish. All bets are off when you are trying to put fish in the boat.
For more information or to talk to the Rooster Leavens, give him a call at Three Forks Outfitters, (206) 200-1162.
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