A Steelheader’s Time Machine - Bill Herzog
Set the dials on your “wayback machine” to 1984, hop in and re-live steelheading’s best of times with one angler’s favorite gear of yesteryear.
The out of production #30 Hot Shot works as well today as it did in 1984.
Out of all the new ways and means of the Brave New World, I think I enjoy Facebook the most. Always entertaining, it gives me an outlet to show the followers old pics and stories. Inspired by none other than Buzz Ramsey, he started this thing of ours by posting quite a few pics from back in the day. Everybody loves to look at and talk about the old stuff, right? The inspiration for this article came from a comment on one of my recent posts from STS writer and well-known salmon/steelhead guide Josiah Darr. He said, looking at all my old rods and tackle on display in the post, “Do you own any gear newer than 1984?” (laughing emoji) For the time being, under certain situations, sir…that’s a hard no.
Why the recent obsession with all the older tackle? From just a specific time period, the early ‘80s. Well, my late great Uncle Bob—you all know how much I refer to this man—told me that someday, if you want to know what it was like fishing in a given time period, use the tackle of the day. From approximately 1980 to 1987 was the most memorable steelhead fishing of my life, and probably a whole bunch of folks reading this. I knew enough to be dangerous, yet still learning with every trip on the river…and boat loads of fish. Being early to mid-twenties, well, who wouldn’t love to re-live those days?
When you step in my boat, a ridiculously bright green 12-foot two-man aluminum Willie “The Green Manalishi,” you step over a portal into 1984. As the great American philosopher Tony Soprano said, “It’s important the young guys know the history.” Here is the tackle I’ve saved, and slowly over the years re-accrued that we use whenever we want to take a trip down memory lane, with all the feels!
No jigs, they didn’t show up ‘till the ‘90s…no pink worms, ‘90s again…no bobbers…how did we catch any fish? Well, we caught one heck of a lot more than we catch today with all that Buck Rogers stuff.
Welcome…to my retro world of steel.
1984: The Rods
I have a set of high modulus graphite plug rods built by Dave Kalhoun of NW Rods that are almost too nice to use. Artistically wrapped, cork handled, nine-foot, two-piece 8 to 12s with the same color thread as my boat, they are as responsive and ideal of a plug rod as you may find today. I also have several of the finest rods you can find in the galaxy, GLoomis IMX rods designed for plugging that are ridiculously effective. But when we step into The Green Manalishi, these rods did not exist in 1984. But the 8-1/2 foot, 8 to 15#, two-piece all cork handled honey colored translucent fiberglass Lamiglas S-Glass rod did. It was state of the art in 1984 and nothing—and I mean NOTHING—moves like the slow power of real fiberglass. Graphite cannot unleash the true action of a plug like glass, allowing plugs to move, dart and dive like these. Stiff mag taper rods retard plug movement. To this day, and I will stand behind this statement forever, that the Lamiglas honey-colored S-Glass is the best plug rod ever made, even better than any $500 ultra-pimp slam-diggety pow-bang high modulus graphite of today, by any manufacturer.
Three 40 year old S-Glass rods with 38 year old Shimano Bantam reels, rigged and ready for plug pulling.
Guess which rods we use for plugging. I have three of them, none are for sale at any price.
For drift fishing and tossing spoons, we use the new stuff, GLoomis E6X 9 foot, 8- to 12-pound spinning and casting rods. Just the terminal stuff tied to the end is time machine material.
1984: The Reels
Once upon a time, the fledgling Shimano company came out with a direct drive switch on a left-hand retrieve reel, the silver Bantam 201. I used this reel almost exclusively for thirty years. I scorned the new models of every manufacturer, as this reel was the first left-handed retrieve level wind I ever saw—and used—so it stayed in the arsenal. Years and years of use saw each one I owned wear out, I am down to only four or five functional Shimano 201s, and now when I use a level wind it’s the new Shimano Bantam, an amazingly light and powerful reel. But in the wayback machine, when we backtroll plugs, on each of the Lamiglas S-Glass honeys is a wood handled, circa 1984 Shimano 201 Bantam. They no longer suffer the wear and tear of hundred-day casts, asked only to let out line and play steelhead. Sort of a retirement tour for the old silver girls. One of the reels is the same one on the same rod when I put it on back in ’84. That one goes on my side.
As I just mentioned, new Shimano Bantams and Shimano Curados are on the casting rods; new 3000 Shimano Saharas and Stradics on the spinning rods. But we keep the sacred plugging paired with the priceless rods and reels.
Part One: Plugs
First, let me say this to all the collectors out there who are snatching up all the out of production Hot Shots and putting them in drawers, never to be used…stop it. Knock it off. Now. There are some of us who will actually use the lures. Ahem. You folks are making me pay $20 for a lure that cost three dollars some years back. Quit it. Try Pokémon cards instead. You guys would marry Miss November and make her cook and clean. Anyway…
A peek into the author’s plug box, ready for Snake River duty.
My boxes feature the #30 Luhr Jensen or the older Eddie Pope Hot Shot, which is the original before it was sold to Luhr Jensen. Rapala bought Luhr Jensen, made Hot Shots for a minute and discontinued them. The size #30 were the OGs, the first and most popular size made. It was the Hot Shot #30 we first used for plugging when Van Halen made their debut. For this reason alone, the only plug we use in the wayback machine is the size 30. This size and style of plug takes steelhead in every water condition, from every size river.
These plugs must meet criteria. The metallic greens were always top of the choice for morning starting lineup. They must be late ‘70s/early ‘80s metallic green, as this run had a slight blue off tint to the green in sunlight; they were the low, clear water killers. The red/green metallic Pirates had to have a silver belly, not gold. These versions were only made by Eddie Pope. This color was responsible for the most killer plug I’ve ever owned, nicknamed “Magic,” it was responsible for over 100 steelhead. When a large steelhead took it into a log jam in the Skagit in 1997, I felt like I lost a close relative.
The murderers in clear flows of summer, the “prism” sided ones, are worth the most and collectors have snatched these up rapidly, to the point if you want a black bill/clear prism bodied #30 expect to dole out thirty or more ducats for one. Of course, they work best in low, clear flows. Pokémon cards, you guys…
Danny Bravo holds a typical "peanut" Snake River hatchery steelhead caught on a pink/blue #30 Hot Shot.
We run them back 55 feet, using 30-pound bright yellow V2 Slick Power Pro with 20 feet of 14-pound clear Stren or 15-pound Maxima Ultragreeen to the duo-lock snap. Bright yellow is easy to follow, you may track the exact placement of the plugs and even watch their vibrations without squinting. The twenty feet of mono attached to the braid sinks, allowing the plugs to dive easier, away from the floating braid.
I do retrofit my #30s as such: One #4 split ring; a #7 black swivel; a #3 split ring off the swivel and to that a #4 Gamakatsu black nickel EWG treble, where legal. Single hook only regs replace the treble with an open-eye #2/0 Gamakatsu Big River siwash on the #3 split ring. When I run them, I do what the great plug master, guide Bob Toman preached, that is use two duo-lock snaps instead of just the one on the plug lip. Doing this opens up the animation of the plug by a large degree.
The fight from any steelhead is just a bit sweeter on a fiberglass rod.
The “working stiffs” in the boxes range from fluorescent red and glow for limited visibility all the way to the aforementioned prisms in the low, clear. Yes, I use them to lose them…I can’t take them with me to the afterlife. And guess what…these old soldiers still put the wood to steelhead, summer and winter. So, my beautiful boxes full of deadly 3.0 and 3.5 Yakima Bait Mag Lips must stay home in the fishing room.
Part Two: Spoons
All those plastic boxes stuffed with the greatest steelhead/salmon spoon ever made, the BC Steel, they have to stay in the fishing room and keep my Mag Lip plugs company. They didn’t exist in 1984. Thankfully, the spoon and design that birthed the BC Steel, the one we used 90% of the time is easily found today, plus I had several dozen I’ve had since Day One: the 2/5ths and 2/3rd ounce nickel and brass real “naked lady” oval style Little Cleo.
Real "naked lady" Little Cleo oval style spoons have been in the author’s spoon box since 1980.
We first saw the Cleo on the sublime Babine River in BC in 1980. Back when you could harvest one wild fish per year, one of the gents in camp had a 31-pound massive buck he killed to have mounted. When we asked open-mouthed and bug eyed what it struck, he produced a nickel/blue stripe Cleo with the trademark topless dancer on the concave side. He said, “Big bucks love (blankies)!!!” Who were we to argue? The naked lady Little Cleo from then on was a permanent addition to the lure box.
Due to a Karen finding that bent metal piece of horrifying pornography tied to her young son’s fishing pole in the ‘90s, Acme Tackle no longer puts the trademark topless dancer on their spoon. Pretty sure the boy would have turned into a serial killer if they left it alone…
Second, but first in our hearts, was the ½-ounce red/white, nickel, brass or metallic green oval Stee-Lee. The red/white Stee-Lee was standard issue for us all over the Northwest in the early ‘80s, we bought them by the card (12 at a time) for 45 cents each from Pay Less. Caught a zillion steelhead with them and other colors. Stee-Lees shared tackle box space with Little Cleos for many years until the BC Steel came out. They, along with the Wob-L-Rite (another teardrop shaped spoon from Acme) were the first steelhead spoons used in the Northwest.
These spoons are again retro fitted for today’s use. Each features a #5 split ring and #5 swivel on the head, each tail has a #5 split ring, a #5 swivel and an open-eye siwash hook. A #1/0 Gamakatsu Big River siwash. A chosen few still have the original old school long-tined Mustad siwash on them I crimped on the spoons over 30 years ago.
For main lines we use twenty-pound thin diameter Crystal (dull white) Fireline, easy to follow and its inherent slight stiffness prevents tip wrap common with too limp super lines. Nine to ten feet of 14-pound clear Stren or 12 to 15-pound Maxima Ultragreen “shock-tippet” is uni-knotted to the Fireline.
We have to limit the use of the old spoons to four feet or more of visibility, due to brass and nickel only reflecting 60% of light, not like our new finishes of real gold and silver plate that pop 90% of light. Any less visibility and steelhead have a difficult time finding the spoon with lower attraction radius.
Part Three: Drift Gear
You won’t find one standard issue piece of tackle in the wayback machine that I promise not one single gear angler of today would not have. A float of any style. Even the old school Canadian closed cell foam dink float is absent, they didn’t show up this side of the border until the early ‘90s. I promise had we had them back then, we sure as heck would have used them. But no floats in 1984, no floats in the boat. Everyone threw drift gear, so drift gear it is.
The greatest steelhead lure of all time, the "nail polish" original translucent #3 Okie Drifter and 1/8th stick leads for drift fishing.
Now, I believe that ’84 was the year Slinkies burst onto the drift fishing scene, but just to be sure we are “authentic” we only use pencil lead. I kind of cheat by only using ultra-thin 1/8th inch diameter virtually snagless “stick” leads that I came up with a decade ago, but it’s still lead so it counts!
It was all about drift bobbers back then, still is today. Our starting quarterback is the Joe Montana of drift bobbers, the GOAT: the #3 Sunrise color, “nail polish” light shiny pink over translucent plastic hollow-bodied Okie Drifter, the original made by Maxwell Manufacturing of Vancouver, WA., during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Bead fishermen…you people (did he just call us, “you people”?) are 50 years behind the curve. The original “bead” was the translucent Okie, it allowed light to pass through to appear like a real egg, just as the new beads that every single steelheader and their dog uses now. That’s why they work better than any solid, opaque drift bobber. In this angler’s eyes, the #3 Sunrise Okie is the best steelhead lure ever made. Fished on top, narrow end down of a #1/0 octopus style hook, a single 3mm red bead between the hook eye and the lure. No yarn. The GOAT don’t need no help.
We have taken a leaf from the bead angler’s book. We peg our Okies two inches above the hook with a tiny rubber bobber stop. Better hookup percentage per bite, plus steelhead never take them deep.
Yakima Bait’s original cork-bodied, plastic coated Corkies (not the expanded polystyrene ones), those are the other drift bobbers in heavy rotation. Pretty much the #10 pink/pearl and rocket red Corkie above a #1 hook is all we take into the time machine.
The 1/2 ounce Stee-Lee teardrop spoon has caught 100s of steelhead for the author.
For leader material, no fair using fluorocarbon. Didn’t exist in 1984. So we use what I still use, Maxima Ultragreen. Not any sort of self-punishment using the finest leader material ever made. Most times, no matter the water condition, if the water is “dialed” we use 20 to 26” of leader. I do make concessions for hooks, however, on drift leaders, spoons and plugs I put the finest hooks by Gamakatsu on all of them. I’m a stickler for authenticity, but not that dense. I do like to actually land the steelhead we hook.
I have made some other “futuristic” exceptions to the 1984 rule. First, no 600-lb., loud, cold rubber waders or first-run leaky-ass sweat like crazy while your feet freeze neoprenes. Regular, George Jetson breathable boot-foot waders from the year 2022. Mainlines are not 14-pound Stren, but the “shock tippet” on all my spoon rods and plug rods is the same. Eight feet of 14-pound Stren uni-knotted to 30-pound “Moonshine” (bright chartreuse) V2 Slick Power Pro for casting lured/drift gear and twenty feet of 14# uni-knotted for plugging. Perhaps a new, state-of-the-art rain jacket rather than my 1984 heavy, rubber, ill-fitting freezing cold horrifying attempt at a serviceable raincoat. And new Scotty rod holders, no more pinning the rod butt into the gunnel rail.
My partners and I do use the latest and greatest most of the time, buuuut…there are times of year and stretches of certain rivers that hold some pretty incredible recollections. During these times and places, we choose to do it as we did long ago in a galaxy far away.
The Snake River features miles of plug-friendly runs.
My Uncle, as usual, was right on the money about returning to Paradise with the tackle of the day. For just those few minutes, and let me say that during those chunks of time when casting, plugging, or fighting a steelhead you are truly transformed, body and soul, to your former self. This is as close to any real time machine we are probably going to experience for a while.
A note to Josiah and all the other young steelheaders—bless you all—your favorite tackle of today, hang onto it, the good stuff. Keep detailed journal notes. It’s the gear that will take you on this fantastic voyage back, some day in a future that will sneak up on you faster than you had planned. When you catch a steelhead on the old gear, you get an overwhelming sense of satisfaction not possible any other way. The first-generation beads and style of floats, the Mag Lips plugs, jigs, the rods and reels, the BC Steel spoons, this stuff will be your “future retro!”