Backtrolling plastic worms behind divers is a deadly steelhead technique — yet not many folks fish them this way.
Of course, the fact that steelhead like plastic worms is about as revolutionary these days as saying Jimi Hendrix was an amazing guitarist. Or that Jennifer Lawrence is hot. Not exactly big news, right? But, the use of plastic “garden hackle” is most often associated with float or drift fishing.
This time around, I’m going to (re)introduce you to an old classic that is a genuine steelhead smoker!
What makes the diver & worm rig so effective is you can put your plastic bait, with pinpoint accuracy, into runs that would be hard to reach otherwise. Also, the bait stays right down in the zone the whole time so the fish have a good chance to see it. At first, you may think that a worm traveling downstream, tail first, at a slow rate of speed, wouldn’t have much meal appeal to a steelhead, but it actually has a nice subtle action that the fish seem to really like.
Running the diver and worm show is a lot like pulling plugs. I’ll have the clients run them back about 40 to 60 feet behind the boat and then I’ll slowly back down a fishy-looking run. While some pluggers slowly sweep side-to-side as they backtroll, I like to keep the worms moving in a straight line down river. I’ll let the boat slip downstream at about half the speed of the current.
Rather than hand-holding them, it’s best if you put the rods into holders to keep you from reacting too quickly when you get a strike. Speaking of bites, there are three main styles you may get while fishing plastic in this fashion. The first is a peck-peck-peck style of grab, which can be a smolt, cutthroat or other small fish…BUT…I’ve had plenty of big fish take a worm that way too. So, don’t take any bites for granted!
The second (and more common) type of grab you’re likely to get goes like this: One solid thump…a pause…and then the rod doubles over. And then there’s the third (my personal favorite): the suicidal steelhead slam. Out of nowhere, the rod tip slams down hard and pumps wildly as a steelhead makes for the horizon.
I like to run a threaded worm on a 4- to 5-foot leader made from 12-to 15-pound mono. Now, you can go with a three way swivel between the mainline and the leader, with a dropper line for your diver off the other eye — or run a sliding dropper rig. One reason to go with the 3-way instead of a sliding dropper is because worms can get snagged when you’re backtrolling them. If your diver’s on a slider, the worm can be snagged but the diver will keep working downstream and you may not notice it until the lure is somewhere way upstream of you. The downside to a fixed dropper is that you can sometimes get the diver caught up in the net — when this happens, the fish usually uses that leverage to break free.
In either case, I usually tie a 6- to 18-inch dropper for the diver (go longer in slower water and shorter when fishing the fast stuff) and finish it off with a duo lock plug snap.
Speaking of divers, I like the clear/black bill or flat black Brad’s Bait Divers.
There are countless worm varieties out there and all of them will catch steelhead. My favorites are Mad River Manufacturing’s Steelhead Worms but the BnR Tackle Holey Worms are cool too. The amount of colors and sizes of worms out there is pretty mind boggling. To keep it simple, start with this basic rule of thumb: Smaller and darker worms tend to work best in low, clear water and larger, more poppy colors are best in big, off-color water. There are tons of exceptions to that concept, but it’s a good place to begin. One thing I will say is big, wild bucks will often crush a hot pink 6-inch worm in any water condition!
Octopus style hooks work well with worms fished behind divers. The size varies, depending on the worm but I generally go with No. 2 to 2/0. I’ve also experimented quite a bit with light wire circle hooks with this method. They really hold fish — provided you can fight the temptation to set the hook when you git bit, A circle hook needs a little time to work its magic — when the rod tip is in the water and line is screaming off the reel, go ahead and pick up the rod. At that point, the fish should be solidly hooked and you can start cranking. Once these hooks hit paydirt, you’ll almost always have the fish hooked deep in the corner of the jaw. And another bonus is steelhead rarely swallow circle hooks, so it’s easy to release them.
Regardless of the hook style you use, run a small bead or sequin between the bait and the eye of the hook to keep it from getting sucked into the worm.
When running the diver and pink worm rig, I like a drift bobber ahead of the worm to keep it up off the bottom. A simple round Corkie, Hard Fish Pill or Cheater will work fine, and when I need a little more movement, Wobble Glos can be the ticket. The best-ever bobber, however, is the Big Poly Stik Minnow, which looks kinda like a long, stretched out Spin-N-Glo. Stik Minnows fit the profile of the worm, yet give it some sweet action. They’re deadly — and, unfortunately, difficult to find these days.
Rods & Reels
Rods for this technique need to have a soft tip but plenty of power in the lower half. The flexibility in the tip allows the fish to take the bait without feeling much resistance and the bottom end punch will help you stop a rampaging steelhead that’s hell bent on going back to the sea. Conventional reels with solid drag systems are a must and you can fill them with mono or braid — that’s mostly a matter of personal preference.