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Plug Away at Spring Chinook Salmon, Summer Steelhead

Though they'd fallen out of favor in recent years, plugs remain a potent option and should be in your tackle box from here on out.

Plug Away at Spring Chinook Salmon, Summer Steelhead

Plugs can be fished in a variety of ways. This versatility makes them a favorite choice among anglers throughout the region. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

After back-bouncing eggs through prime spring chinook water without a bite, I rowed the drift boat upstream and let out the plugs. As soon as the inside rod hit the main seam, the rod tip buried. My son was soon locked in battle with a hard-fighting, acrobatic summer steelhead. After boating that fish we ran through the hole again, this time picking up a springer at the lower end. Both fish came on back-trolled K15 Kwikfish, confirming that plugs can outperform eggs and that they still have a place in every salmon and steelhead angler’s bag of tricks, whether fishing from a boat or shore.

Plug fishing for salmon and steelhead peaked in the early 1970s, when casting and retrieving was a popular approach. By the early 1980s, plug fishing was almost exclusively a back-trolling show. By the turn of the century, though, plug fishing greatly declined.

Today, plug fishing is making a resurgence, thanks to new, innovative designs that offer unmatched versatility in how they can be fished. The plugs I fished with years ago still work. Kwikfish, Hot Shots and FlatFish are still great, as are Wiggle Warts and Tad Pollys. However, it’s some of the newer plugs that are credited with turning the spotlight back on the world of plug fishing, and we have Brad’s Super Bait, along with the latest plug superstar to hit the river, the Mag Lip, to thank.

Scott Haugen Fishing
The author, a proponent of plugs since the late 1960s, caught this summer steelhead on a 3.0 Mag Lip. (Photo by Scott Haugen)


There are three effective ways to fish plugs from shore. First is plunking, and for this approach to be successful the angler must find the perfect rate of flow to complement the brand of plug being fished. A sensitive plug, like a FlatFish or Tad Polly, requires little current to work. Plugs like the Mag Lip and Kwikfish run well in faster water, but not so fast that it pushes them to the surface. A popular plunking setup on the Columbia River involves running a sinker at the bottom of the line, with the plug above.

“On [the Columbia] and its tributaries, folks thread a bead onto their main line, then tie a swivel to the end of the line,” says Jarod Higginbotham of Yakima Bait Company. “On the other end of the swivel, tie a 3- to 5-foot dropper with a plunking sinker, then cast it out and let it set up. Next, using a dual-lock snap swivel, clip a 3.5 Mag Lip on about a 4-foot leader to the main line. The current will carry the plug down the main line, and once it reaches the bead it stops. Then it’s just a waiting game.”

Casting plugs for salmon and steelhead is another approach that all but vanished over the years. The resurgence of casting plugs began in Alaska more than a decade ago, then carried south into the Pacific Northwest. The 4.5 and 3.5 Mag Lips, with their in-line balance and skip-beat action, are what I’ve heard of most salmon and steelhead being caught on. Brad’s Wiggler and Super Bait also produce fish when cast and retrieved.

The key with casting plugs is managing the rate of retrieval to match the depth and current flow. If fishing from shore and casting into deep water, chances are the water gets shallower the closer the plug gets to you. In this case, reel quickly as soon as the plug hits the water so it will dive deep, then slow the retrieve as the plug gets closer to shore so it won’t dig into the bottom. The opposite would be true if fishing from a boat or a place on the bank where you’re casting from deep water into shallow water. In those cases, start with a slow retrieve that speeds up as you get into deeper water.

Side planers are a third approach many bank anglers love. Side planers allow you to fish places you otherwise could not reach from shore since they’re pulled by the current out into the river. When the target water is reached, close the bail and let the plug do its work. It’s like plunking, but no terminal gear sits on the bottom. There are a number of side planers on market. Simply follow packaging instructions for how to use them.


There are also three proven tactics when it comes to fishing plugs from a boat. The most popular—and most effective—approach is back-trolling. The success of back-trolling plugs comes down to the boat operator, as he or she is the one putting the plugs where the fish are while regulating delivery speeds and direction.

If plugging a river where you work from side to side, the boat should move downstream at a rate slightly less than that of the water being fished. Years ago, this was exclusively done by pumping on the oars (which I’m still a fan of), but most back-trolling today is done by running a kicker motor off the back of the boat—especially drift boats. Excessive pressure will force the plugs too deep, and you’ll notice this by the rod tip digging hard. A lack of pressure results in plugs running too shallow, which is evident by minimal rod-tip action. A steady vibration of the rod tip is the goal.

Plugs for Trout and Salmon
Guide Curt Curry uses a motor on his drift boat to back-troll plugs through prime water, an approach that’s very effective for salmon and steelhead. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Back-bouncing bait has been around for more than half a century, but back-bouncing plugs is an overlooked approach. Rig the sinker on a slider with a 6-inch dropper above a barrel swivel that’s tied to the main line, then tie the plug to 3 to 5 feet of leader on the other end of the swivel.

The shorter the leader, the closer to bottom the plug will run; the longer the leader the higher it will ride. If searching for fish that might be suspended, a longer leader is best. For traveling fish moving close to the bottom, a short leader will put the plug in the strike zone.


Back-bouncing plugs, no matter the brand, style or size, can be done from an anchored or moving position. If letting the boat slip downstream, keep the plug running ahead of the boat. You can spool out line to regulate distance and depth.

Trolling plugs is the third option. Flatlined trolling is where no weights, flashers or divers are used to take down the plugs. The speed of the motor moving the boat is what determines how deep the plugs run. Tolling can be done in still water, as well as sections with minimal current. As with back-trolling, gauge your speed by the vibration of the rod tip. You want a steady rhythm that’s not too fast or too slow.


As for plug colors, silver tipped with chartreuse is a combination hard to beat for spring chinooks. Silver and red, blue or green is great for summer steelhead. Dark blue and black plugs are productive on cloudy days, while shiny plugs are good bets on sunny days. Changing plug colors to find what works is wise, as it can shift from season to season, day to day, even hour to hour.

Using stretchy thread to wrap bait onto big plugs like 3.5 and 4.5 Mag Lips and K14 to K16 Kwikfish is a great way to introduce scent, which salmon and steelhead key on. Whether you opt for tuna chunks, sardine fillets or even eggs, be sure the bait is wrapped tightly to the belly of the plug, centered and trimmed so it doesn’t inhibit the plug’s action.

“I like wrapping tuna balls and running those on plugs,” says Oregon salmon and steelhead guide Jody Smith. “Just thread them onto the center of the trailing treble hook and get to fishing. You can do the same with shrimp and crawdad tails.”

Plugging Away Steelhead Chinook
Wrapping plugs with cut bait is a great way to introduce scent to attract the attention of salmon and steelhead. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Austin Moser guides in the Northwest and Alaska, and he’s a fan of adding skirts to plugs.

“Remove the trailing hook of the plug, insert a barrel swivel or O-ring, slide a 2 1/2-inch pink P-Line Sunrise Squid over that, or directly on to a Siwash hook, replace the hooks and you’re set,” says Moser. I’ve had good success with this rig on springers as well as fall chinooks and cohos.

Plugging options are good for not only spring chinooks and summer steelhead; they’re also effective for fall chinooks, silver salmon and winter steelhead. The beauty of plugging is you get few hang-ups and it allows you to cover a good amount of water.

Tailouts, slicks, seams dividing fast- and slow-moving water, boulder patches, the head end of holes, cut banks, ledges, shallow riffles and deep troughs can be great for plug fishing. Deep holes, eddies and boils, along with fast water where it’s difficult to hold a boat, are not good plugging options; save those for other approaches.

If looking to expand your spring fishing arsenal, turn—or return—to plugs. What you’ll discover is a very effective approach. The more you use it, the more proficient you’ll become and the more fish you’ll catch.

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