It’s been raining like crazy up and down the West Coast and steelhead rivers are running high…which makes now the perfect time to show you how to catch fish in big water.
This is a small excerpt from my new eBook, The Ultimate Guide to Steelhead Bank Fishing, which is loaded with lots of other useful how-to stuff like this…
When rivers are coming down from a big rise, but aren’t yet low enough to be fished with drift gear, floats or hardware, it’s time to plunk. This method really shines when a river’s on the drop but still off color and pushy – when you’re still two to three days away from what you’d consider ideal conditions. The river’s velocity will still be high enough that the fish will abandon the middle of the flow, opting instead to travel upstream on the path of least resistance along the shallow margins.
Big rod? Check! Forked stick? Check! Bell? Check! Truck? Check! Beer? Check! Plunk on, my friends!
Where to Cast
Since steelhead migrate close to shore in high water, you’re going to want to be within 20 feet of the bank (sometimes as close as just a couple feet) on the shallow side of the river. Most of the time, you’ll be fishing in 2½ to 4 feet of water. Ideally, your gear will be parked in the slower current but you’ll have some heavy water just outside of you. Since the fish don’t want to swim up through the fast stuff, they’ll have to come right past you.
Once you have your gear in the water, all you have to do is put the rod in a holder or sand spike and sit back and wait for the fish to come to you. Since plunking can be such a social affair – almost like tailgating at a football game, you can get distracted by good food and conversation and forget to keep an eye on your rod. For that reason, lots of plunkers clip a catfish bell to their rod tips…that way they can hear it when a fish grabs the bait.
It’s actually pretty fun to watch a bunch of plunkers throw everything down and scramble towards their rods when a bell goes off.
There are several ways to set your gear up for plunking. Some anglers get pretty involved and, where legal, will run two to three rigs off their mainline. They’ll have a combination of baits and/or plugs and everything has to be perfect to avoid major tangles. I’m more of a keep it simple kind of guy so I keep my rigs decidedly low-tech. They work just fine, however!
Here’s the easiest way to get going:
Step 1: Start by tying a three-way swivel to the end of your mainline (I use 50-pound braided mainline).
Step 2: Attach a 10- to 18- inch leader to one of the remaining eyes on the swivel. This is the dropper line for the sinker. Make sure your lead line is 5-10 pounds lighter than your leader so that, if the sinker gets snagged, you’ll lose it instead of the whole rig.
Step 3: To the end of the dropper goes a Duolock swivel – and then your sinker snaps into that. Pyramid or teardrop sinkers (you may need anywhere between 1 to 8 ounces of lead, depending on the river and flow) seem to hold best in strong currents, though some folks use the flat “pancake” style as well.
For the leader, run a 3-foot section of 20 or 25-lb. test monofilament to the swivel. I know that sounds heavy for steelhead but we’re dealing with heavy currents here – plus, the fish aren’t leader shy in big, off-colored water. The other end of the leader should have a double hook rig with your favorite brand of octopus hooks in the 1/0 to 3/0 size range.
As far as offerings go, big, bright, spinning drift bobbers are the ticket here. The No. 2-4 fluorescent orange or chartreuse “clown” Spin-N-Glo is pretty standard but you can also go with Beau Mac Flashing & Spinning Cheaters in the same colors. These winged bobbers put off some serious vibrations when they rotate in the current – and that helps the fish hone in on them in water with limited visibility.
Plenty of people catch fish on the “naked” Spin-N-Glos and Cheaters but I think it’s more effective to add some bait to the offering. A cluster of roe is always a great bet but sand shrimp and prawn meat are also effective when fished on plunking gear.
The bites vary from fish to fish when plunking 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, 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 beach and plunking. While some folks dive wholeheartedly 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 every 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!
Due to the strong currents and big sinkers associated with plunking, this is not a finesse sport! Plunking requires stout, salmon-style gear capable of handling lead that can range up over a half pound in weight.
That being said, rods should have a bit of softness in the tip to help you detect bites. I prefer level wind reels for this style of fishing and I’ll run 50-pound braid as my main line since it is thinner than comparable mono and therefore less subject to being pushed by the current.