Much has been written about pulling plugs for salmon and steelhead, but what about taking this extremely effective method any applying it to stream trout? Well, the bottom line is “mini steelheading” as I call it, is a super deadly way to hook lots of river trout – and, oh yea, it’s a total gas!
What’s really cool about pulling plugs for trout is you can do it on all sorts of streams. It’s highly productive on larger rivers out of a driftboat or even a sled, but you can also access smaller creeks with a pontoon boat, pram or Tote-N-Float type of vessel. And, there’s a pretty good bet that wherever you do it, the trout haven’t seen the lures you’re presenting to them!
On anadramous waterways, trout plugging gets even more interesting when the occasional spring Chinook, summer steelie, dolly or sea-run cutt latches onto your offering.
Pulling wigglers for trout is a lot like fishing for steelies, with a few subtle tweaks. As with backtrolling for larger species, you want to run the lures the same distance behind the boat – generally 30 to 60 feet, depending on the size of the stream and water clarity. 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 or by placing fluorescent bobber stops on your line at a pre-measured spot.
Once the lures are in the drink and swimming properly, work them slowly downstream at about half the speed of the current. What’s really nice about this technique is that it allows you to back your bugs into those hard to reach places under cutbanks and overhanging wood and into the heart of boulder gardens – areas that don’t get touched by other anglers.
Again, we’re talking basic backtrolling here – but there is one variation on the theme that seems to work wonders for trout. When you’ve fished your lures to the downstream edges of a particular spot, don’t immediately reel up and move on. Instead, pull on the oars a little harder to get the plugs to start working back upstream. There are days when this subtle tactical adjustment will blow your mind!
Since pulling plugs for trout isn’t super popular, nobody really makes a technique-specific lure for it. So, you’re going to have to troll the aisles of your local tackle shop for inspiration. And, honestly, this may be the part of pulling plugs for trout that I like best. I’m always on the lookout for some tiny crappie crankbait or sexy finesse bass plug that looks like it might make a good trout lure. To that end, I’ve got boxes full of a thousands different “impulse buys” from my travels – some of them work great, others, of course, were duds. To get you started, you can’t go too wrong with Size 50 Hot Shots, old school Pee Wee Warts (if you can find ‘em), Norman Deep Tiny N’s, Yakima Bait MapgLip 3.0, Wally Marshall Crappie Cranks, Matrix Flea Bittys from Shasta Tackle and Strike King’s Mini 3.
As far as colors go, you’ll often find that the plugs designed for warm water species don’t have all the cool metallic finishes that we in the cold water arena are so fond of, such as Dr. Death and the various Pirates, etc. But, if you look around, you’ll find some trouty-looking colors. I’m always a believer in silver, gold and copper, but trout also seem to really like craw and frog finishes as well. As with plug fishing for salmon and steelhead, always attach your line to the lure via a plug snap.
There are some days that the fish will crush your lures with reckless abandon and others when they seem a bit more tentative. On the tougher days, a little scent oftentimes will help motivate the trout into biting. A small dab of Atlas-Mike’s Shrimp Lunker Lotion under the bill will often do the trick.
Trout Plugging Tackle
Back in the day, it used to be hard to find a rod that was really well suited to backtrolling for trout. But then the whole kokanee craze hit…problem solved! Kokanee rods are light, with soft tips and make pretty good plugging sticks. There’s a hundred different koke models out there from every manufacturer under the sun, but the one that I really like is the 7’GLoomis MF65436 – the tip is plenty soft enough to allow the plugs to work properly and let fish pull it down without feeling a lot of resistance, but the rod’s also got a surprising amount of power in the lower end. I’ve caught wild rainbows and browns to 5 plus pounds on that stick and it handles them fine. If you’re looking for something a little less expensive, check out the Okuma SST-C-702L.
In the reel department, you don’t have to get too fancy…after all, we’re not talking 20 pound steelhead, here. Still, you’re going to want something with a smooth drag because you’ll be using light line and occasionally dealing with big fish. I’ve always used a 100 series Shimano Calcutta or Curado, but any small baitacster of reasonable quality will suffice.
You’ll notice that all the gear listed so far has been conventional style. I just like fishing with –and fighting fish on – baitcasters more than spinning tackle. However, if you’re going to be doing a little solo plugging out of a pontoon boat or pram, you may want to switch to spinning. Light plugs don’t cast well on levelwinds and it can be a pain to get them back behind the boat when you’ve got both hands on the oars. With a spinning rod, you can cast the lure straight downstream, close the bail and be fishing in about 3 seconds flat.
When it comes to line, there are a couple trains of thought: braid and mono. I’ve used both and kinda go back and forth. Generally speaking, mono is the better choice for plug fishing because it has some stretch that acts like a shock absorber when a fish mollyhocks your lure. The give in the line helps keep fish buttoned much better than no-stretch braid, but there are some downfalls as well.
Tiny plugs are pretty temperamental little buggers and you really need to run a light line to get them to dive down in fast water. Four-pound test is about ideal. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of room for error with line that light if you happen to hook a wayward springer or summer steelie. Additionally, little plugs will kick to the surface when they pick up even a slight bit of moss or weeds. If a plug spins, unnoticed, on the surface for more than a few seconds, you’re going to have some seriously twisted mono.
Braid solves those problems – it is very resistant to twisting and enables you to use a heavier-rated line in a thin diameter. I’ve had great success with Pline braid in 10-pound (it has a the diameter of 2-pound mono). It’s expensive and breaks down fairly quickly, but it’s also durable and very supple. With any braid, just remember to run a 5- to 10-foot section of mono or fluorocarbon between the lure and the end of the braided stuff. As I mentioned earlier, however, you’re going miss more grabs due to braid’s lack of “bungeeness.” A soft rod really helps combat this issue and the other thing you can do is run a super light drag until you’ve got a positive hookup.
Well, there you have it – the basic concepts of trout plugging. All that’s left now is to get out there and give it a whirl. But before I turn you loose on the trout in your neighborhood, here’s one last thing to consider: It’s not a bad idea to swap out the stock trebles on your plugs with barbless siwashes. Trebles can really tear up a trout’s small mouth and there’s no sense leaving a trail of carnage in your wake.