Here’s a fun trick to help you catch more steelhead in small waters: Pulling plugs on foot!
I know it sounds kind funny at first, but this little trick I call “Back-Footin” is deadly effective – and highly addictive – on small streams that are tough to float and fish with traditional methods due to size and/or lots of overhanging wood and brush.
I first started fishing this way during my college years at Humboldt State University, which is a short cast from the banks of the Mad River. I didn’t have a boat in those days, but I couldn’t help but notice how the drifters working the stretch below the Blue Lake bridge with plugs boats absolutely molly-hocked those hatchery stleeies.
So, one winter when the Mad dropped out and got extremely low, I decided to wade out into a run that looked fishy (and shallow enough) and backed a lure through it, just as I’d seen the guys in the boats do. Fish on! In fact, I nailed 8 chrome hatchery brats that day and was an instant convert. I started messing around with the technique a lot after that and found it to be even more effective on really small creeks.
As with anything, the more you do something the better at it you get. I’ve learned a lot about back-footin’ since those early days, particularly from fellow guide, river rat and buddy, Fred Contaoi, who’s also long been an aficionado of the method. Together, we’ve had some awesome days fishing this way and now I’m going to share with you the basic nuts and bolts so you can get out and try it.
Back-footin’ is pretty simple. Find a good-looking piece of steelhead holding water and get into position as far upstream of it as you can. Try to stay in a crouch to avoid spooking the fish and be careful not to dislodge any silt that will cloud up the hole.
When you’re above the spot, drop your plug into the current. Put the reel into free-spool and work the lure slowly downriver by putting pressure on the spool with your thumb. Hold the lure in place occasionally and even give the reel a forward half-crank every now and then to get the plug to slightly dart upstream.
When you get the plug all the way to the tailout, you can slowly crank it back through the run again – its amazing how many fish will ignore the plug the first time but hit it as it works back upstream. After a pass down and back, reel up and try a different line down through the hole. Don’t spend a ton of time at each spot – when your lure wobbles into a small pool, you’ll know pretty quickly whether or not there’s a steelie in there.
Be advised – when you get a screaming takedown, you’ll need to clamp down on the spool with your thumb. With the reel in freespool, the spool is going to spin out of control when a fish starts running and a very ugly bird’s nest is the likely result. When you get a chance, click the reel into gear so you can fight the fish with the drag instead of burning flesh!
Lures and Baits
Okay, one of the greatest aspects of fishing this way is you don’t need a whole lot of gear. Pop a few plugs, snaps and leader material into small box and you’re in business. And you don’t have to get too crazy about your lure selection, either. Most tiny streams harbor only wild, non-discriminating steelhead and in close quarters, they’re pretty territorial. Simply put, get something in front of them and they’re likely to try to blast into shrapnel.
I carry a selection of Yakima Bait Co. MagLips in the 2.5 and 3.0 sizes, some No. 50 Hot Shots, and a few Brad’s Wee Wigglers and that’s it. I replace all the stock trebles with upgraded hooks, but with small plugs you have an inherent quandary: Too much hook will overwhelm the lure and kill the action but small hooks will often get destroyed by big fish, so you have to experiment and find the happy medium for the particular lures you are using.
As far as lure colors go, pinks, chrome, gold, blue pirate and copper will cover you in just about any situation.
If you really want to get fancy (and I rarely do when back-footin’ – keep it simple, you know?) you can also run a diver/bait rig. There are times when a pink plastic worm fished behind a No. 10 Jet Diver works better than anything on the planet, but a complex rig like that can also be a major pain in tight quarters.
Since you’re likely to hook some extremely hot fish in tight quarters, you’ll need a reel that can put the brakes on a fish that’s speeding towards a root wad, a rapid or tree limb. So with that in mind, don’t try this with cheesy reels. The are lots of quality reels out there — you don’t have to spend a million bucks but make sure you get one thats going to hold up to the stress you’re likely to put it through. The Daiwa Fuego is a nice mid-priced reel that will get the job done. If you want to a higher-end model, check out the Luna.
As far as rods go, you’ll need something with a soft tip to allow those small plugs to work properly but it also will need enough power to muscle fish out of the brush. My go-to stick is the Douglas Outdoors DXC 9642MF.
As far as line goes, you can go straight mono (15-pound) or 30-pound braid with a 10-foot topshot of 15-pound mono. Mono is good because it has some stretch — which comes in handy when a steelhead decides to try to rip the rod right out of your hands. However, braid is very tough and can stand up to the abuse that a big steelhead in confined quarters can dish out. It’s kind of a case-by-case judgement call for me, depending on the individual stream I’m fishing.
When fishing small streams, you’re usually walking in the water all day long, so always, always, always wear a wading belt and felt soles on your boots. Even small streams have deep spots that can get you into trouble, so move slowly and, when in doubt, use the tip of that long rod to check the depth before you pass though a spot you’re unsure about. Also, it’s a really good idea to wear an inflatable life jacket… just in case!
As I stated earlier, the best back-footin’ waters are usually small creeks that hold modest runs of wild steelhead. Streams like these can’t handle much pressure and every single fish you keep accounts for a decent percentage of the population. So, killing a fish you catch with this method is really not an option — unless, of course, you’re fishing a hatchery stream there are plenty of ad-clipped fish around.
Also, as you walk downstream, pay close attention to anything that looks like a spawning area and give it a wide berth. An ill-placed footstep in the middle of a redd can wipe out a whole bunch of steelhead or salmon before they ever get a chance to grow up and smack your plug and leave it hanging from the trees…
If you want to learn more techniques, check out my book, the Ultimate Guide to Steelhead Bank Fishing.
You mention using Brad;d Wee Wiggler. Want to ask if you identified the correct model or whether you meant to say you use the Lil Wiggler (the Wee Wiggler has a rattle, the Lil Wiggler does not have a rattle and is smaller)
Good catch, Phill! I mean Lil Wiggler. Thanks
Tom Shine says
My old Bear Valley silver spinners work well, just keep them out of the snags.
Tory Shannon says
If that guy in the straw had can catch one doing that then anyone should be able to do it. :)
Great write up JD. Had success on the Trinity doing this for salmon years ago when there were actually fish around! Haven’t tried it for steelhead but I have a great coastal creek in mind now! Hope you are doing well.
Thanks, Matt. Small coastal streams are awesome for this!!!
What is the blue with chartreuse bill plug that you have pictured with the rod? Looks fishy
An old Rapala that they don’t make anymore! :(