Plugging for Steelhead 101

Plugging for steelies...the lost art???
Now that side-drifting’s all the rage for steelhead, pulling plugs is rapidly becoming a lost art. Not too many years ago, most steelheaders who fished from boats backtrolled wigglers like Hot Shots and Wiggle Warts. Then, side-drifting eggs got popular — thanks in part, to some schmuck who wrote an entire book on the subject — and a lot of anglers…well…pulled the plug on plug pulling.

There’s no denying that drifting eggs will almost always produce more steelhead than any other method, but pulling plugs does have its moments. They can be a real day saver in high, off-colored conditions but also often yield spectacular results when things are low and clear as well. In tight quarters, you can sometimes put a plug into a spot that no bait drifter could reach – and, generally speaking, plugs also give you your best shot at a really, really big fish. In addition, plugging is a cool way to get people who maybe can’t wade or cast all that well — kids or older folks — into some steelies.

But all of that’s really just a bonus.

Winter Chrome!
The real reason I like to backtroll is for the…sudden, heart-stopping, line-ripping, rod-bucking, row as fast as you can to catch up, cart-wheeling, leave your plug hanging from an overhanging alder branch, over in a blink of an eye, make your knees tremble…kind of takedown you get. There’s just nothing like it!

Okay, so without further adieu, let’s take a closer look at the nuts and bolts of backtrolling for steelhead.

The two most common questions I get asked about plug pulling are: What’s the best plug to use? And…How far do you run the lures ahead of the boat (or behind if you’re running a sled)? Let’s answer these and a few more and when we get done here, you should be ready to get out there and get bit.

Plug Selection

Let’s take a look at color first – then I’ll get into sizes and styles of lures. You can get really bogged down with choosing the right plug color because there are so many out there. Everybody’s got their favorites and some guys swear that subtle nuances like eye color or a random dot here or a barely-visible stripe there make all the difference. I’m more of a believer in good presentation and proper action, but agree that you have to be in the ballpark when it comes to color.

I’ve refined and edited my plug boxes over the years from having a couple of every color ever produced down to a basic lineup of proven producers. These days, I’ll start out using copper in almost every situation (except in off-color water). I can’t totally articulate why copper works so well, but it’s just a confidence thing. Over the years, it’s the color that always seems to produce. Of course, there are a million different variations of copper. Luhr Jensen’s copper is my favorite shade, though it’s tough to find Hot Shots in that color. It’s more of a light, almost silvery hue rather than the rich penny color you’ll see on other plugs.

Copper can vary in shade...I like the top version the best


In addition to copper, I’ll keep some solid gold and solid silver lures on hand – and a few variations thereof. For most situations, a silver plug with a black back and red chin dot works well and then, when things are cold and/or off-color, I like silver with a fluorescent orange stripe down the back. And for summer and fall-run fish, I’ll always have a few crawdad finishes on board.

As far as plug size goes, I always go as small as possible. It sounds a little crazy, but the original STORM Pee Wee Warts and No. 50 Hot Shots have out-produced all other lures in my box 20 to 1 (Of course, Pee Wee’s are extinct now, so I’ve replaced them with Norman Deep Tiny N’s – not as good, but still effective). As long as the water’s not too high, dirty or cold, these micro guys absolutely destroy steelhead. They’re small enough that they won’t spook skittish fish but still have enough action to make steelhead crazy.
Small bark, big bite: The #50 Hot Shot (top) and original Pee Wee Wart


When conditions are such that the little plugs won’t run, I’ll bump up to No. 40 or 35 Hot Shots, original Wiggle Warts or Tad Polly’s. In big rivers, I like Fatfish and K11 Kwikfish and, in extremely high or murky water, I’ll go with Mag Warts.

There’s also one other lure that kinda is in a category by itself – the Bagley’s Crawfish, which is one of the most deadly summer and fall-run steelhead baits on the market. They’re balsa and get chewed up pretty fast, but steelhead definitely love ‘em.
Bagleys (top) and some of his craw buddies


Rattles or not? Well, I go without in all but high/dark water. Fish can sense the vibrations of a plug with their lateral line and don’t need anything extra to perhaps spook them.
Which one would you fish? Always go with the plug with no paint on it! That means it has the right wiggle and has been eating a bunch of times!

Also, I’ve said it a thousand times before, but it’s worth repeating. Drop that lure into the water next to the boat and check the action before you put it out. It should run straight and true or needs to be tuned. It’s okay if the plug occasionally wanders to one side or the other but it should always come back “home” and stay there for a while before it makes another lateral jaunt. If you’ve got one that’s spinning like a plug-cut herring right out of the box, toss it.

Technique

So, let’s answer the other big question. What’s the best distance to run the plugs? When you’ve got less than 2 feet of visibility, you can run them close – say 25 to 30 feet. In clear water, drop them back 45 to 50 feet. Don’t go any further, however, as too much line out will start to work against you. I like a slight bow in my line just above where it enters the water. Most of the time, I’ll see that straighten out before the rod even registers a bite.

You can keep tabs on how much line you have out by counting passes of the levelwind eye as it travels back and forth across the spool of your reel (some reels don’t have this feature) or placing fluorescent bobber stops on your line at a pre-measured spot. Unfortunately, most linecounter reels made today are too big for the majority of steelhead plugging applications, though you may take a look at Shimano’s Tekota 300LC.

It’s important to know exactly how much line you have out so you can tell right where your lures are. When running two plugs, I like to keep them the same distance from the boat. With three, I will run the “triangle offense” with the middle line a few feet further downstream than the two flanking ones. With four anglers on board, I’ll typically run the two middle lines at 50 feet and the two outside ones at 47 feet. By staggering the lines, you’re less likely to spend a bunch of time untangling gear.

Once you have the plugs in the water is the point at which old school and new school crash head long into one another. Conventional wisdom says that you should work down a run with a slow side-to-side sweeping motion. In other words, say you start backtrolling at the top of a run against the right bank. You’d slowly slip downstream – and towards the left-hand shore – at the same time. You’d continue that right-to-left tack until you got to the left bank and then you’d slowly work your way back to the right side again. And so on until you get to the bottom of the drift.

I’m here to tell you, however, that a straight path downstream through a run is the ticket. You’ll catch a lot more fish this way – trust me. I tried it the other way when I first started plugging and the results were lackluster at best. The catch rates when up dramatically when I started working in a straight line.

The rate which you move downstream while plugging will typically be less than half the current’s speed. In fast water, I want my lures digging the bottom (because that’s where the fish will be holding) so I’ll hold back a little more on the oars or kicker motor. On slower flats, I will allow the boat to slip downhill a little more quickly so that the lures run a little up off the bottom.

The Grab

As I noted earlier, the bite is what it’s all about in this game. To be a successful plugger, you really need to be patient and let a fish run with the lure before you set up on him. The best bet is to put the rods in the holders and wait until line’s burning off the reel before you pick it up. It’s almost impossible to wait long enough when you’re holding the rod in your hand – the bites are just so savage that instinct takes over and you’ll want to jerk too early.

Tackle

The right gear makes plug pulling that much more effective. Of course, a quality levelwind reel with a smooth drag is a must. You can run braided line (and it has lots of advantages) but mono is more forgiving when a steelhead decides it wants to try to atomize your lure. In most cases, 10- to 12-pound test is the way to go – any heavier and you start to inhibit the action of the lure.

In the rod department, a soft tip and stout lower section is what you need. With a slow tip section, the lure will run better and fish will hang onto the plug longer. My favorite for this has always been glass rods, but the old school models were always clunky and heavy. Luckily, rod companies have come out with new glass rods that are a lot lighter than the old versions. Check out Lamiglas’ XCF 802 (or in big water with huge fish, go with the XCF 803).

Final Thoughts

Plugging is one of those techniques that can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. With these basic tips, you should be well on the road to getting into some fish this winter. In the early stages, try not to over-think it. Start out with a lure that runs well and fish it straight. Keep the faith and don’t set that hook too soon!

Oh yea, one last tip. If you notice that most of the boats are drifting bait on a given day, you may want to hold off on the plug pulling. Clogging up a run that everybody else is side-drifting is a sure-fire way to become the least popular guy on the river.

17 thoughts on “Plugging for Steelhead 101”

  1. Great article! I’m doing some more research on pulling plugs today as I’m heading out tomorrow. I have more confidence with fishing plugs from a boat when the river is higher. When the river is lower I have more confidence in my bobber and jig approach from the bank. Hoping to try this “Wall of death” approach I’ve been hearing about. I fish from a prop boat and have mostly trolled slowly with staggered lines.

  2. I went plugging about 2 weeks before we recieved all this rain on the Smith another boat and myself teamed up and plugged from the houchi bridge down to the saxtons a takeout below the 101 bridge we never threw 1 bait had 5 plugs all out the same distants and push down slowly we could see pods of fish trying to get around us we would scoll over and they would go out in front again until we got to where the slow and the fast water meet and it was on we both hooked 5 fish not another boat in site we team up the whole time and hit every plug spot was very cool Jim

  3. Great article! Is there some sort of MOJO that goes along with plug pulling beacause I have spent many hours pulling plugs with only a klamath river half pounder to show.

  4. “also often yield spectacular results when things are low and clear as well. In tight quarters, you can sometimes put a plug into a spot that no bait drifter could reach – and, generally speaking, plugs also give you your best shot at a really, really big fish. ”

    January 8, 2011. Tenth boat down. Freezing cold low water. In a spot no bait drifter could reach. Thirty six inches of hatchery chrome. I’ll email a pic.

    Ray

  5. Loved the article and I love back trolling. Another aspect of back trolling I like is the time spent with friends and the discussion that go on between fish. Priceless!

  6. I love to read about plugs! You just made my day! Now I’m gonna to have to go float the Nestucca for a rod bending fix! P.S. whats up with the Willy’s Worm? Do you still fish them or own any?

  7. Good article, well thought out and balanced, positively best I’ve read! Better than a tackle box full of “junk” that would only waste precious time and effort and “fuel” to find a bite!

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