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Back-bouncing and back-trolling account for much of the salmon and steelhead that recreational anglers take from Western rivers. But tweaking these techniques will ramp up your success rates. (May 2008)

Author Dave Kilhefner was back-trolling salmon eggs when this big chinook couldn't resist.
Photo courtesy of Dave Kilhefner.

Back-trolling and back-bouncing are easy techniques to get the hang of. But certain tactics, which might match the fishes' moods or water conditions, have proved far more productive than others.

Here's how to dial in these tactics for spring chinook and summer steelhead fishing.

If you can afford to buy a boat, you can afford to take a guided fishing trip. Using this logic many years ago, I booked a trip with a top local guide who could show me the ropes on the rivers I fished most.

It was a worthwhile investment that really raised my learning curve!

This time of year, sunrise comes early, so our day started at the boat ramp at 4:30 a.m. -- about 45 minutes before the first hint of daylight.

We loaded up the boat, then ran about a mile upriver in near darkness -- an exhilarating experience. But let me tell you, running a jet sled on the river in pre-dawn darkness is something for only very experienced river boatmen with an intimate knowledge of the river!

We made it to the hot fishing hole without any mishaps. I was surprised to see another boat was already there. This morning, we would begin fishing second, since river etiquette dictates that the first boat on a hole gets to start fishing first.

Successful river salmon fishing is difficult. Even the very best anglers have to work for every salmon they hook.

These fish are easiest to catch first thing in the morning, often grabbing the first bait they see. Getting to your favorite spot at first light gives you a shot at these suicidal salmon. Also, starting early gives you more time on the water.

It was still 30 minutes before legal fishing time, and that meant it was time for the pre-game ritual. We got the rods and baits ready while sipping coffee and telling jokes.

The first thing all good salmon fishermen do is to get everything squeaky clean. Our guide washed his hands with a palmful of Lemon Joy liquid soap, then donned surgical gloves. He next filled half a 5-gallon bucket with river water, put some soap on a soft brush and scrubbed all the rigging clean.

Then he finished by rinsing off the soap in the bucket of water.

Everything got a scrubbing: hooks, Spin-N-Glos, leaders, swivels and divers. Then we clipped the hooks to the reels and placed rods in the rod holders.

We took care to make sure the freshly washed tackle didn't touch the deck. Even if you've been a neat freak, the floor of a fishing boat collects the kinds of odors you don't want anywhere near your bait.

Next, he prepared baits. He dipped a clean towel in the river, wrung it out and placed it inside a shallow Rubbermaid container that sat inside a cooler. If cured salmon eggs are allowed to get warm, they get mushy and don't stay on the hook well.

The guide used scissors to cut the eggs into bite-size chunks, each a little bigger than a quarter, and laid them out on the towel.

Then we baited all the back-trolling rods and put the extra baits back in the cooler. Finally, we were ready to start fishing.

We watched the first boat make its way into the current and let out its lines. Back-trolling is a slow process, so we'd have a few more minutes to wait until they slid far enough downstream so we could begin our own pass through the hole.

Finally it was our turn. The guide started the kicker motor, and we nosed out into the current just above the deepest part of the pool.

In the early morning, salmon will spread out from the deepest water downstream towards the tail-out. The current here usually flows evenly, so back-trolling is an ideal way to target these salmon.

Back-trolling looks easy, but if you're the one operating the boat, it takes some practice to get your speed just right and keep the boat straight while slipping slowly downstream.

As our boat held steady in the current, we let out our lines: seven passes of the level wind with the two rods off the back of the boat, and five passes on the two side rods. This staggering maintains separation and avoids tangles.

Once the rods were out, he adjusted the throttle so our boat would slide downstream at a very slow pace, five to 10 feet per minute. At this speed, it usually takes 10 to 20 minutes to cover an average-size pool.

Now it was time to sit back, sip more coffee, try not to eat too many donuts and enjoy the spring morning.

The most popular back-trolling setup, for good reason, is a two-piece, 8 1/2-foot long casting rod rated for 10- to 20-pound lines. Because back-trolling rods sit in the rod holder most of the time, they needn't be fancy.

I purchased mine used at the Lamiglas factory outlet. After years of use, the handle gets stained with egg dye, and at least half the guides are slightly bent, but the rod blank is in good shape. It's a fish catcher!

David uses G-Loomis HSR981-C fast-action rods rated for 10- to 20-pound lines. Whatever rod you choose, if it's rated for 10- to 20-pound lines, it will probably work well.

Completing the setup is a level-wind casting reel filled with 25-pound-test monofilament line. The Ambassadeur 6000 series are perfect.

For back-trolling, monofilament line is preferable to braided Spectra lines. That mono's stretchiness helps convert more bites into solid hookups because it gives a little, allowing a fish to take it in its mouth for a moment or two longer before the line goes tight. Also, if you're running more than one rod behind the boat and your lines tangle up, monofilament is much easier to untangle.

Your diver can be rigged either "solid" or "sliding," but most anglers would agree that sliding is better. Here's how to do it. Start by threading a p

lastic slider on your mainline. Next, thread on an 8 mm plastic bead, then a 1/2-inch length of plastic spinner tubing, which seats itself against the swivel and protects the knot. Cinch-knot a bead-chain swivel to the end of the main line.

Now it's time to tie up a leader. Start with a 6-foot length of 25-pound monofilament. Using an egg loop knot, tie on a 3/0 octopus hook. After the hook knot is done, slide on a small red Corky as a bearing, then a No. 8 Spin-N-Glo winged bobber.

The color of the Spin-N-Glo you choose is not critical for success. But to keep the odds stacked in your favor, it's a good idea to check your local tackle shop for the hot colors.

Tie the leader to the bead-chain swivel, which should end up about five feet long.

The rod is now rigged and ready to store in your boat. On the water, clip a jet diver to the plastic slider, and you're ready to fish.

Depending on the water you're fishing, the jet diver will be rigged on a dropper from 4 to 12 inches long.

When fishing rocky-bottomed rivers, use a size 30 jet diver on a short 4-inch dropper. When fishing big waters with sand or silt bottoms, use a size 40 jet diver on a longer 12-inch dropper.

As we slipped down the river, we saw sudden excitement in the boat downstream from us. A "salmon fire drill" was in full bore: Rods were cleared, and a big net came out.

About five minutes later, they boated a bright, thrashing salmon. It was encouraging to see.

Salmon usually prefer the deeper water. As an added bonus at this time of year, summer steelhead are in the river. These anadromous trout like to station themselves downstream of the salmon in the shallow tail-out slicks.

It's easy to target shallow-holding steelhead: Just slip farther downstream. The guide explained that with back-trolling, the first thing a salmon or steelhead sees is the bait. That's good because you could use a heavy 25-pound-test leader, even in clear water.

When fishing is slow, one common mistake is assuming that a change to a long, light leader will tempt strikes from finicky fish. Unfortunately, a light leader doesn't increase success, it increases break-offs. Also, too long a leader makes it difficult to net a hard-fighting salmon or steelhead that's next to the boat.

Soon, one of our rods started bucking.

"Don't touch the rod!" said the guide. "Let him eat the bait."

If you're new to back-trolling, remember that you need to let the fish mouth the bait, then turn and hook itself. An early hookset usually ends in a missed opportunity.

Once that rod flexed so that its tip was almost down in the water, the guide finally relented and let an angler take the rod out of the holder and begin fighting that game fish. After a short battle during which the fish made several high leaps, a 10-pound summer steelhead was in the net.

Then it was time to motor back upstream and see if we could get lucky again.

The first boat through usually gets a fish. And as you've just read, being the first boat on the water is easier said than done. You've got to learn the water so that you can run in darkness. It also doesn't hurt to have everything packed the night before -- and set two alarm clocks.

Once the sun comes out, it's common for salmon and steelhead in smaller freestone rivers to nose up into the choppy, frothy water right in the throat of the pools. Currents here are powerful and often deep. You need to get down fast to fish these waters effectively.

In big waters, the midday sunshine can move salmon off the shallower lies only 10 to 20 feet deep, into waters too deep to reach with divers.

In both the above scenarios, the best way to present your bait is by back-bouncing.

Back-bouncing is a very active technique. With the boat positioned above the holding lie, the weight is allowed to free-spool to the bottom. Once you feel the bottom, clamp your thumb down on the reel spool. Lift the rod tip a foot or two, then free spool more line until you feel bottom again, slowly walking the bait downstream.

When the angle of the line flattens out more than about 45 degrees, reel in and start over.

I feel that my "sweet spot" is between 50 and 60 feet behind the boat.

Tackle for back-bouncing is specialized. Rods are in the 8-foot range with a powerful tip. The guide prefers the G-loomis HSR983-C. It's 8 feet, 2 inches long with a magnum action rated for 12- to 25-pound-test lines.

Because you'll be lifting and dropping heavy sinkers, a rod of good quality makes back-bouncing much more pleasant. Whatever rod you choose, make sure it's shorter than 8 feet, 6 inches long, has a heavy-duty tip and feels light in your hand.

Completing the setup is a level-wind casting reel filled with 65-pound-test braided line. I like the smaller Ambassadeur 5000 reel because it fits comfortably in my hand.

For back-bouncing, braided line is preferred over monofilament for several reasons, the most practical of which is to break off snagged sinkers and leaders quickly and easily, so that you can get back to fishing.

Your weight can be rigged either "solid" or "sliding." For back-bouncing, I like the simplicity of a solid-rigged weight.

Here's how to do it:

Start by tying a large 3-way swivel to the braided line, using either a Palomar or Uni Knot. Use the same exact leader you would for back-trolling, only tie it a little shorter, between four and five feet long.

To the remaining swivel, attach an 18-inch dropper of 10-pound-test monofilament. Tie a Duolock snap on the end of the dropper for quick weight changes, and the rod is rigged.

It's a good idea to have several leaders and extra droppers pre-tied. Wrap extra leaders around pipe-insulation foam. Store extra droppers in a Pip's hook and leader dispenser.

While other sinker styles will work, round cannonball sinkers are preferred because they don't hang up as much. A selection of sinkers from 2 to 10 ounces is needed to cover most water conditions.

Down in the rocks, sinkers get beat up pretty fast, and their size markings are gone in no time. Many anglers color-code their sinkers. My favorite method is to twist a little piece of color-coded wire around the eye.

Sprinkler cable, available at most hardware stores, has five color-coded strands inside its casing. I like to keep things simple and color-code the five sizes I use the most, such as 4-, 5-, 6-, 8- and 10-ounce sinkers.

Being lighter, the smaller 1-, 2- and 3-ounce sizes don't get beat up as fast and are easy to tell apart, so I don't bother color-coding them.

While it's possible to back-bounce almost any kind of water, this technique really shines at the top end of deep holes. In freestone tributary streams, it's usually possible to pull the front of your boat up on the beach and drop the anchor on dry land. Then, standing at the stern of the boat, with the fast water at your feet, back-bounce the current seam.

In bigger water, you'll want to follow the "When in Rome . . ." rule and do what the other boats around you are doing. If they're anchored, you should anchor too. If they're working the water, using their kicker motors to hold position or slowly slip downstream, follow their lead.

Probably the best thing about back-bouncing is you're holding the rod when the fish bites. There's nothing quite like it! When you get a bite, just freeze. This is really hard to do when you've been fishing for five hours without a bump, but it's exactly what you need to do to convert bites into solid hookups. I swear, the biggest salmon I've caught back-bouncing took almost a full minute to get a good grip on my bait. Never set the hook -- let the fish do it!

If you take the time and effort to master these techniques, you'll put more fish in the boat.

Good fishing!

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