The 3 Best Sinkers for Drift Fishing

Okay, so what do Jessica Alba and a driftboat on B.C.’s Kitimat River have in common? Well, aside from a nice fantasy I just had…nothing. It’s just that we’re going to talk about sinkers for drift fishing this time around and I knew I had to get you sucked in somehow! Sinkers aren’t exactly the most exciting topic on the planet, but there’s a lot you really need to know.

So, my cheap advertising campaign aside, let’s get down to it. A lot of getting a proper presentation when drift fishing stems from your sinker selection, so you really need to pick the right stuff. In the old days, choosing which sinker to use was simple – there was pencil lead and, well, pencil lead and that was it. Now, we’ve got quite a few options to choose from. Let’s take a look at the three I use and the pros and cons of each.


When they first burst upon the drift fishing scene some 20 years ago, Slinkies were about the single greatest invention steelheaders had seen since the introduction of the graphite rod. In case you’ve been vacationing in Katmandu for the past couple decades, Slinkies are made from buckshot stuffed, single file, into parachute cord. The end result is a sinker that is flexible and extremely snag-resistant. As a testament to their effectiveness, Slinkies remain extremely popular today.

Because of their ability to fend off snags, Slinkies are staples on rocky rivers with nasty, uneven bottoms but they work just fine on smooth cobble riverbeds as well. They don’t get down as quickly as pencil lead, but they tend to slide along – rather than pound – the bottom, which gives your bait a nice “just drifting along with the current” presentation.

As a Slinky taps along the bottom, the feeling you get at the rod tip is quite a bit softer than if you were using lead. For that reason, inexperienced steelheaders sometimes find them difficult to use because the distinction between a bottom bounce and a bit isn’t as clear. But, it gets easier with time. Stick with it and you’ll quickly become a believer.

Slinkies work great for bank fishing, free-drifting, side-gliding and boondogging in most spots – except situations in which you need to get down immediately or in heavily wooded streams. I like long, slim Slinkies made from .210 gauge shot when I’m fishing waters with grabby bottoms and magnum .250 shot when I’m working big, heavy water.

Pencil Lead

While it seems like pencil lead has been left in the dust by the popularity of sinkers like Slinkies, this oldie but goodie still has its use.

The greatest attribute of pencil lead is its ability to get down to the bottom in a hurry. This makes it the ideal choice when you’re fishing in very swift and/or deep water and it’s also great for pounding short, deep slots that require immediate bottom contact. Pencil lead transmits a very distinct “tap-tap-tap” to the rod tip when it’s bouncing along the bottom, so it allows you to very easily tell if your offerings are getting down or not. It works well when you’re drifting fishing off the bank or boondogging free-drifting from a sled.

The downside to straight lead is it is extremely grabby and “sticks” to rocks. You’ll get snagged up more often with pencil lead than any other type of weight. Also, as it pounds the bottom, it can impart a bit of a herky-jerky action to your bait, which sometimes turns steelhead off. Because of it stickiness, lead also drifts slower than other sinkers – which is an advantage in cold, off-colored water and negative factor when you’re fishing warmer flows.

Pencil lead seems to snag less than do Slinkies in woody areas and is also a good choice in heavily-fished areas like Blue Creek on the Cowlitz. . In areas of heavy fishing pressure where anglers lose lots of gear, pencil lead works best because hooks caught in the rocks can easily impale Slinkies. Catch your Slinky on a derelict hook anchored to the bottom and you’re probably going to lose your entire rig.

In summary, I mainly use pencil lead – usually solid core 3/16 size – when getting a deep, slow presentation is my main goal. I can get away with it, I prefer Slinkies or Sploosh Balls because I feel I get a more natural drift with them.

Sploosh Balls

Sploosh what?? These things have taken the Nor Cal coast by storm…they’re black plastic balls with a barrel swivel embedded in the top. Sploosh Balls are virtually snag free, glide beautifully along the bottom and are particularly useful in long, slow runs and shallow tailouts where other sinkers would lose momentum and hang up. The wide profile and relatively light body weight of a sploosh ball allows it to go where other sinkers can’t. I absolutely love them for side-gliding and have gone an entire winter season without losing more than a dozen of the things!

You can drift Sploosh Balls very swiftly, so they’re a good choice when you’re fishing low water conditions and trying to stay ahead of the pack of boats – or when the water temps are up and the fish are active.

But there are a few inherent problems with Splooshers, too. First of all, they’re too wide and light to effectively be fished from shore in most cases. It takes some practice to get the feel for the way they drift, and you should know that when fished on a sliding rig, they have a tendency to “roll” up the line towards the boat. And since they’re plastic, it also takes longer for these sinkers to get down near the bottom so you need to set up for a drift a little earlier than you normally would.

In instances where the sploosh rig just isn’t getting down, I’ll do a little aftermarket upgrading by adding some lead to them. The best method involves drilling out the bottom of the ball with a 3/16-inch bit and inserting a section of 3/16 pencil lead into the hole (just be sure all you lead pieces are the same length). Or instead of pencil lead, you can add 2 to 4 buckshot to the hole. With a “lead butt” model, you can cover lots of different situations and be pretty assured you won’t burn through a lot of sinkers.

Final Thought

Okay, so enough about sinkers already! Let’s end on a high note and get back to Jessica and the driftboat. Upon further reflection, I’m thinking we ought to switch the B.C. driftboat to a flats boat in the Bahamas…


  1. jameskramer says

    when drifting with a bead on the american river what line and hook size do you recommend for the salmon.

  2. KW says

    I am curious about using pencil lead inside the parachute cord instead of shot. My thought is first, I have a lot of coils of lead that can be used up, can go with larger diameter so it can be shorter. Second you eliminate the ticking sound that may spook fish and reduce the rate of snags, any help and thoughts would be appreciated.

  3. BB says

    what about using drop shot weights made of tungsten? u can get them in round or cylindrical shape. being tungsten they r very dense so u should have good feel but b/c of the density will they make to much sound bouncing off the bottom? i’m a novice and would appreciate and insight/help. thanks

    • says

      Interesting idea, but in drift fishing, you’re going to lose lots of gear, so tungsten would get pretty expensive. Plus, the round or pear shape of dropshot sinkers isn’t really what you’re looking for in a drift weight. For back-bouncing not super snaggy waters, they’d probably be great.

  4. geno says

    Great info there JD.
    My GF and I are planning a trip this Thanksgiving form San Diego up to the Trinity river. Where could I get some of them slinkies? Or do you have to make them yourself?
    Where new at this and are trying to gather the best terminal tackle for a good shot at some steelies and/or salmon. Thanks for the tips.


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