So there we were…light rod light line and a tiny trout plug…and then this happened!
So there we were…light rod light line and a tiny trout plug…and then this happened!
Fall is here and that means it’s time for one of my all-time favorite activities: Plugging for king salmon!
If your plug game needs a little tuneup, check out my eBook Plug Fishing for River Salmon which contains everything you need to know to become a proficient wiggler angler.
It’s a quick read full of diagrams, photos and how-to goodies. And at $ 2.99, it costs less than a single lure!
Here’s a quick glance at what’s inside:
Just click the link above and it will take you to Amazon or google my name and the title of the book and you’ll find it.
So just what is it about steelhead trout that makes people nutty…and do crazy things?
I was once doing a phone interview with a writer from a big East Coast magazine. From his cozy office in New York City, he asked me that very question.
It was hard for me to answer. I mean, with steelhead…you either get it or you don’t.
There are so many deep-seeded feelings and emotions for me that are tied to these fish that it’s almost impossible to articulate in a way that somebody on the outside can understand.
So, I spat out the first thing to come to mind:
“I fish for steelhead so I can see them up close…”
And then, I just got on a roll and rattled off a total unabated stream of consciousness…
I fish for steelhead because I want to get as close to them as I can. I feel that they are like fine art, each one to be viewed quietly, taken in and remembered.
I told him that I have never felt more alive and in touch with the world – and myself – as when I’m standing in a misty canyon, with a ribbon of emerald flowing in front of me.
Steelhead haunt my dreams and run through my veins.
They have taken me to the top of the mountain and they have broken my heart. I’ve bled for them; I’ve frozen for them and I’ve driven, flown, hiked and floated thousands and thousands of miles for them…and there’s not a single day of the year that I don’t think about them.
Steelhead make me straight up crazy. Even on dry land, I can close my eyes and literally feel what that moment of first contact is like, that initial tight line surge. And I can make my heart rate jump by simply imagining a float going under or a plug rod going off. Oh man…the plug takedown of a steelhead…wow…if that doesn’t get your juices flowing, you’d better check your pulse because you’re probably dead.
Steelhead make me want to follow every single anadramous river from the mouth to the source – and then float back down them again. They make me think irrational thoughts like maybe I should just sell the house and get a toy hauler that fits a drift boat and hit the open road…and never come back!
They drive me to drink; they drive me to the limits –mentally, physically, emotionally. Steelhead make me wear the numbers off my credit cards and sometimes pull the hairs off my head.
They give me this insatiable desire to fix all the damage that has been done to the rivers they call home. They drive me to pick up trash, fight for flows, plant trees and dump spawning gravel by the truckload into the water.
Steelhead are the fish I’d miss Christmas for and the reason I got married during the offseason. They give me sweaty palms and weak knees. Though I’ve probably shaved at least a year off my life expectancy due to all the junk food consumed on steelie road trips, I also believe that every day you fish for steelhead is one you get to tack onto the end.
And speaking of the end, if I had a choice, I’d go steelhead fishing on my last day on the planet. I’ve informed my family what to do when my time is about up: Take me to the top of some whitewater gorge with a drift boat and a couple rods. No need for a life jacket or a shuttle…it will be my last ride. Hopefully, there will be a couple biters along the way!
Steelhead are responsible for all the drift and float and plug and fly and center pin rods…the jigs and stacks of Pip’s and boxes of plugs; the BC Steels and the spinner boxes; the Slinkies and pink worms; the two deflated pontoon boats; the Fish Pills all over the floor; the nets and waders and boots and pink stained fridge – that all make my garage useless to terrestrial vehicles.
They’ve also ruined many a potentially productive day in the office…all it takes is a photo or a text from somebody on the river and I’m worthless the rest of the afternoon.
Steelhead are why my favorite color is green — because it reminds me of the perfect hue of a river just coming into shape and the giant redwoods that stand on its banks. And because of the dorsal color of one of those awesome looking bucks that’s transitioning from ocean chrome to river camo – olive back and a faint pink cheek and stripe peeking out from silver flanks.
In short, steelhead are epic, nearly indescribable critters that make me tick and dream and feel alive. I’m not at all sure the interviewer ever really got the message but I bet you all do…
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!
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.