How to Boat Plunk for High Water Steelhead

With all the crazy rain we’ve had up and down the West Coast lately, I figured it is probably time to talk plunking.

But plunking for steelhead is basically a glorified form of catfishing, right?

Big rod? Check! Forked stick? Check! Bell? Check! Truck? Check! Beer? Check!

Okay, so plunking may not be as technically demanding as casting a dry line 100 feet or deciphering the subtle differences between a rock tap and a bite while side-drifting, but make no mistake about it, this is one deadly technique – particularly in high water.

And again, with plenty of high watwr to go around at the moment, let’s take a closer look at the nuts and bolts of plunking – only this time, from a slightly different angle. While the majority of plunking takes place from shore, there are some merits to doing it from a boat (“blunking?”…Sorry!).


The Gist

First off, you have the ability to fish water that may be inaccessible to the guys on the bank. In a boat, you can move around from spot to spot easier and also get your gear more precisely where you want it Boat plunking also allows you to get away with using less weight than your shore-bound compatriots.

Finally, fishing from a boat gives you the chance to follow a hot fish downriver – a luxury not afforded to traditional plunkers due to streamside willows, rock walls, blackberry brambles, no trespassing signs, mean-looking dogs and other impassable barriers.

Plunk Time!

Before we get too far along here, let’s first consider what constitutes ideal plunking water. This method really shines when a river’s on the drop but still off color and pushy. In other words, you’re still two to three days away from what you’d consider ideal conditions.

Under these conditions, the river’s velocity will still be high enough that the fish will abandon the middle of the stream, opting instead to travel upstream on the path of least resistance along the shallow margins. This is go time if you’re a plunker!

It’s where you drop the pick

“The key to success to plunking out of the drift boat is really all about where you drop the anchor,” says longtime Smith River guide John Klar (

“In most cases, you’re going to want to be within 20 feet of the bank on the shallow side of the river.”

Klar seeks out the soft water near the banks and does most of his plunking in 2½ to 4 feet of water.

“Ideally, you’ll be parked in the slower stuff but have some heavy water just outside of you,” he says. “Since the fish don’t want to swim up through the fast stuff, they’ll have to come right past you.”

The Rig

Now that you’ve got the pick set, it’s time to rig up. Basically, what you’re building here is a back-bouncing rig. Start by sliding a Roscoe barrel swivel up your main line and then tie another swivel to the end of the line. Attach a 10-inch weight dropper onto the slider (with 1 to 4 ounces of lead) and then a 3-foot section of 20 or 25-lb. test leader to the main swivel.

The other end of the leader should have a double hook rig with your favorite brand of octopus hooks in the 1/0 to 2/0 size range.

As far as offerings go, big, bright, spinning drift bobbers are the ticket here. The No. 0 or No. 2 fluorescent orange Spin-N-Glo is pretty standard but you can also go with Beau Mac Flashing & Spinning Cheaters in the same size/color. Be sure to run a couple beads between the eye of the hook and the bottom of the bobber to act as bearings.

“The two hook setup makes a big difference,” says Klar. “Mainly, I think, because the second hook is back away from the Spin-N-Glo where it has a better chance of sticking. And be sure to use as heavy a leader as you can get away with – the stiffer the line, the less likely you are to have line twist issues caused by the Spin-N-Glo.”

At this point, you can just call it good and start fishing – plunkers have taken countless steelies over the years on straight Spin-N-Glos. But Klar likes to sweeten his offerings with some fresh roe.

“I’m not sure the eggs make a huge difference when that fish comes bombing up the river and runs into my Spin-N-Glo,” he says. “But, on the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to have a little scent on there, either.”

The Bite

When you’re rigged and ready, lob your gear straight downstream of your position. In off-colored water, you can keep your rigs close to the boat, which should help with setting the hook when you get bit.

“The bites vary from fish to fish when plunking,” says Klar. “And there’s no real rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes you get a series of taps on the tip that kinda look like a trout bite. I think what’s happening there is a fish came up and grabbed your gear and just kept swimming upriver. The taps you feel are actually rapid head shakes as the fish tries to figure out what’s going on.”

In that case, Klar says to wait the taps out and then set the hook when you feel the rod tip load up. Of course, there’s also the “hit and run” style bite, during which your only job is to keep the rod from getting yanked into the drink.

Believe it or not, if you get on the right line and there’s a bunch of fish moving through, you can post some pretty impressive scores just sitting on the pick and plunking. While some folks dive whole-heartedly into relaxation mode while on the plunk, it’s the observant and active angler who gets bit more.

After a good rain, there’s often a lot of junk in the water that can foul your gear. By reeling up and checking your rig ever 10 minutes or so, you increase you chances of catching fish. Also, pay close attention to what’s going on around you. If you see fish rolling below you, take note of which line they seem to be traveling and adjust accordingly. A slight change in position can make all the difference in this game!

So, there you have it – the basics of plunking from a boat. Not the sexiest of techniques, I know, but it is one of those methods you really should keep in your bag of tricks for those days when the river’s still a little too high for more…shall we say… ambitious methods.


  1. Steve says

    I have used rapalas successfully using this method, I start with the ones without rattles because in the shallows is going to raise enough ruckus as is. I use rattles if the water is off color. The key is to stick it in the water where there’s a seam. The current will cause the plug to slide into the fast water, back into the slow water, thus changing whether it will dig closer to the ground or float higher in the water column. When it slows down, it drifts a foot or two downstream like it’s dying, before speeding back up again, which seems to drive the steelies nuts. Sit back with your beverage of choice and enjoy the show.

    However, I will concede that Spin and Glo’s souped up with some roe or a sand shrimp (or both) is a dang hard method to beat.

    Tight lines!

  2. tom says

    Great column today….My late grandfather and I experienced one of those impressive number days you refer to, plunking with the late, great Gary Lindstrom at Ruby Park on the Smith……after beating other guides to the launch, pushing the boat off of the trailer in the dark, we were the first boat on the water. We made our first casts at sunrise, and fishing until 11:00 or so, we put 12 steelies on the hook, keeping 4, going 10lbs., 13lbs., 17 1/2 lbs. and my grandfathers trophy 20 3/4 lb chrome buck….there were two other boats that caught fish as well, as did 4 bankies that were plunking nearby. The interesting thing was that we were fishing in realtively shallow water that was only 2-3 feet deep….. the next day, Gary pointed out where were fishing the previous day and the spot was high and dry..

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