Sadly, we can’t always have perfect “steelie green” water conditions on the river. There are times when the water is still way up high and a few days away from ideal…but you just have to fish anyway. What to do?
Go Plunking, that’s what!
Plunking is a lot like glorified catfishing: You toss your gear out and put your rod in a holder or against a forked stick and wait for a bite. Not exactly what you imagine when you think about steelhead fishing, but it can actually be pretty fun…and productive!
Each river has its own schedule for dropping and clearing, but the best time to plunk is usually 1 to 5 days after the high water has peaked. You definitely want to fish when the water is on the drop (steelies don’t usually bite very well on a rising river) and you need the river to have more green than brown color to it. It will still probably be up in the trees and you’ll often be dealing with only a foot of visibility or so, but that’s ok.
Most plunking is done on the lower sections of rivers, where the chance at fresh migrating steelhead is best. In high water, steelhead will avoid the main channel and instead migrate up the soft edges on the shallow side of the river. Inside bends are best and you usually don’t have to cast more than about 20 feet out. In some cases, the fish will be right at your feet, so avoid the urge to cast long distances. High water looks intimidating, but in reality, you can eliminate 99 percent of the river and just concentrate your efforts on the near-shore areas that feature less current.
Tackle & Technique
The idea here is to find a nice travel lane and anchor your gear right in the middle of it so migrating fish have no choice but to see your offering. Unlike traditional steelhead fishing, in which we normally want our gear drifting along the bottom, plunking calls for keeping your bait in one spot. In high water, that means using big sinkers — sometimes up to 10 ounces, depending on the spot. You’ll need much heavier gear than you are used to for this technique, so using a standard 8- to 17-pound rated outfit for plunking is like taking a butter knife to a sword fight.
Straight Spin-N-Glos or Spinning/Flashing Cheaters are good offerings for this technique, but I love to put some bait on the hook to sweeten the deal — either roe or sand shrimp work well. Once you are rigged and have found a nice soft water edge, toss the rig out and make sure it stays anchored to the bottom. If not, add more weight or cast closer to shore. Then, use a stick or sand spike style holder for the rod. Some people like to put a bell on the rod to alert them when a fish bites. Plunking is a pretty social scene in a lot of places, so folks often get busy shooting the bull, listening to ball games and barbecuing — and forget to watch their rod tips!
Since by design, you will be fishing shortly after a high water event, be sure to check your rig frequently. There will still be a lot of junk coming down the river that can foul your gear.
By the way, if you’d like to see how all this is done in detail, along with everything you could ever want to know about catching steelies from shore, check out my 6+ hour long video course, The Ultimate Guide to Steelhead Bank Fishing!