Follow the line with the rod, keeping it pointed to where the line goes underwater. If the line hesitates, give it a slight flick with your fingertips, not the rod. If this does not free it, use a harder flick and it will usually be free. If it is a fish, the line has an entirely different feel as it tightens. The best way I can describe it would be if you hooked into a rubber band.
The secret to “Sinkies” is that tiny piece of lead showing on the paper towel that will be held in place with Goop.
As many of my compatriots are thinking each time they look into a mirror, “How could I have gotten this old?” In an attempt to forestall aging, I spend 30 minutes a day on the elliptical trainer and work out with the weights to assure I can continue to “bull” the 18x60 Willie around on my favorite rivers. Something that allows me to successfully fish for kokanee and go back up the Wilson River is a bow-mounted, remotely controlled, 80-pound thrust electric outboard. These electrics have been around forever, but have grown in size, thrust and capability. They have become increasingly popular with guides because they allow for safe operation of a boat with four clients instead of two. Being able to “motor anchor” the laden boat on a river, quietly move around tidewater or even hover over a school of kokanee can be a real boon.
The host on Outdoor GPS occasionally has what many of you would call old-timers. In a recent December program, he had Chris Vertopoulos and Jack Glass as guests (I just booked trips with both of them). Chris was voicing how important it is to make sure that we all get along and make a little room for the other guy, even though those in the other boat might be using an entirely different angling method. Jack and Chris know which end of a bobber is up, as well as being expert spinner, spoon, and drift gear anglers. To accommodate their guests and successfully coexist with other anglers, they now largely employ techniques that have the boat moving with the current, allowing everyone a shot at the same water. With the popularity of these styles of angling on our increasingly crowded rivers, it can be problematic for fly anglers, drift fisherman and folks that like to use spinners, spoons and plugs to fish without getting in the way of others. For this reason, these formerly popular techniques get relegated to areas where there are not a lot of anglers in moving boats. That does not mean, however, that these techniques should be set aside or ignored, as they can be tremendously effective at the right time and place. In my book, Steelhead Fishing Essentials, which is distributed by Amato Publications, there are both written and video explanations of how stationary angling techniques may be very successfully employed. Much of the book’s 100-minute video was filmed at the Slaughter Hole on the Sandy River, below the now-removed Marmot Dam. Sadly, the debris washed downriver from the dam’s demise turned one of the most productive and popular holes I’ve ever come across into a rock garden. I fished this hole winter, spring and summer and perfected several techniques over almost 40 years. Let’s see if they may be described without use of the book’s video.
Low Rodding Technique
By far and away the “fish-gettingist” method was the “low rodding technique” used while drift fishing. Many anglers that take up drift fishing have set it aside because they simply can’t feel the hits. I’ll describe an easily-mastered method using slightly modified equipment.
When drifting, it is vital that weight and gear remain in close proximity to the river’s bottom. Because of this, drift fishing can be a snaggy and frustrating process, necessitating low-cost drift gear and a lot of pre-tied equipment. The axiom, “if you’re not getting snagged, you’re not drift fishing” is very true, dissuading many anglers and guides from using this particular style of angling. It can be very frustrating when you break off three leaders in three casts.
With drift fishing, you have a weight that is ticking along the bottom just above rocks, logs, and other debris. Your tight line parallels the bottom’s structure, and a large portion of your line is vulnerable to anything it can wrap around. This is also why “Bobberdoggin” has become so popular. When drift fishing, yards of line can be in the snag zone. When dogging, you are using almost the same gear as drifting, but it is suspended under a bobber. The track of the nearly vertical line under the bobber is only inches wide, and a twitch of the rod will usually lift your gear out of harm’s way. When you allow your drift gear to swing at the end of the cast, it is still in the danger zone. With a bobber, the “snaggable” equipment is riding well above the bottom, dramatically reducing the number of hang-ups , which is pleasing to anglers, clients, and guides alike. A bobber going down is also much more easily interpreted as a hit when com-pared to the gentle “rubber band tug” of a drifted Corky. So why would anyone want to deal with the frustration caused by the frequent snags endemic to drift fishing? It is a fact that if your line is not in the water, you are NOT fishing. There will be lots of time spent pre-tying gear at home and tying on new leaders while on the river. The reason drifter anglers like drifting is because “The Tug IS the Drug!”
Here are some things that will simplify drift angling and make it much more productive:
The Low Rodding Technique: Nearly all drift anglers will cast their line, close the reel, take up the slack then watch the rod tip for a hit. In the good ol’ days, there were a lot more hits than now. To be successful with a standard drifting setup, you must set the hook on almost every little pause or tug, just in case it is a fish.
If you hook a piece of wood or your weight lands in a rock crevice, you stand only a slim chance of getting it all back. Another three minutes is spent tying on a new leader, and a half buck’s worth of gear is gone (if you managed to retain the lead). This is where the low rodding comes into play. If your hookset hadn’t driven the hook into the wood, it would likely have slid around the twig and proceeded on its course downstream. By using the low rodding technique, the number of leaders lost drops dramatically, as neither the lead nor the leader is driven into debris with every tug. With just a twitch of your fingers, your gear will usually just slide off most snags. Often it just wiggles its way past the obstruction because the gentle pull of the water requires no action on your part.
I prefer to use a 10.5- to 12-foot noodle rod, but you can practically use a broom stick with this method and still catch fish. The rod is used more for casting and fighting the fish than detecting a bite. Here’s how it works: Make the cast, mend the line, and reel up the slack keeping the rod pointed right where the line goes into the water after the mend. The rod is not used to detect a hit. With your non-rod hand, place four fingers over the top of the line just above the reel and drape the remaining line under your thumb with a slight tension on the line. Follow the line with the rod, keeping it pointed to where the line goes underwater. If the line hesitates, give it a slight flick with your fingertips, not the rod. If this does not free it, use a harder flick and it will usually be free. If it is a fish, the line has an entirely different feel as it tightens. The best way I can describe it would be if you hooked into a rubber band. When that feeling presents itself, drop the line, and using that hand to help with the hookset, lift the rod hard! With very long rods, it is necessary to lay the wood to them to get the hook buried. Using this method, the hookset happens much quicker than by watching the rod tip. When there’s a bite, there’s no need to reel the line tight; it already is. Due to the length of the rod, the upward sweep of the rod moves a great deal more line... The longer arc created with the rod having started much lower and parallel to the water surface moves almost twenty feet of line. If the rod is pointed at the fish instead of the sky, the line becomes tight instantly, and with a lot more force. When you have to watch your rod, the bite is more like a tap-tap-tug and the rod is still held high with no hook set yet. You have to reel down, pick up the slack line and then set the hook.
Another analogy describes what a fish feels when holding the rod high with you awaiting a bite. You see the bite on the rod’s tip. You drop the rod lower, reel up the slack and then set the hook. All the while the fish is feeling movement in its mouth from your rod’s movement and you reeling. If you take a bite out of a tasty hamburger and the meat begins to wiggle, what would you do? The fish with a mouth full of foreign matter will do the same thing! With the low rodding technique, the bite has been detected without any movement on your part. The rod is pointing directly at the fish. With no movement, you drop the line in your hand and instantly use it to sweep up and set the hook hard. Very quickly, when using this technique, the rod hand goes on full auto with no thought involved, much like when you touch a hot stove. That extra half-second in your favor makes a huge difference in the number of successful hookups. If you are fishing in wind, there is much less line being affected by the blow, and the bites are much more easily detected. If it is really windy, just lowering your rod tip a little puts nearly all your line in the water and out of the wind while still keeping a tight line. Just lifting the rod two feet will give you a quick and effective mend.
Slinkie vs. Sinkie
There is another piece of equipment I use when drift fishing that saves me from a lot of hang-ups. Most folks will agree that a slinkie eliminates far more snags than a piece of pencil lead due to its soft, pliable, non-rigid nature. To see exactly how to build your own slinkies, take a glance at YouTube. They are usually built by heating the bottom of a section of parachute shroud until liquified, then compressing it shut with a gentle crimp supplied by needle nosed pliers. Lead shot of various sizes roughly the size of the shroud is then placed inside the tube, heated at the end, and crimped shut. It’s necessary to leave some slack in the shot as the tube must be limp, not rigid. By using different sizes of shot and different diameters of shroud, slinkies of most any size and weight may be created.
Just that tiny protrusion (bottom right) tells you when you’re in the Bottom Zone when using a Sinkie.
One of the greatest complaints with slinkies is the loss of ability to feel the bottom of the river, so easily done with a piece of solid lead. You really do need to know when you are ticking the bottom to drift fish properly. A simple way to eliminate this problem is to make a small but vital change to the slinkie by adding a ¾” piece of hollow core, 3/16” lead to the bottom end of the slinkie. Hollow core lead is necessary because it will allow you to easily bend a chunk off with your pliers, leaving no sharp parts as would exist from cutting the lead. Before you actually form the slinkie, the pencil lead may be adhered to the shroud end by using Goop or Shoe Goo. Bend off a bunch of the lead pieces and set them aside. Cut a half dozen pieces of shroud about two feet in length. Open the adhesive and poke the lead halfway into the tube then work it into the shroud leaving half the lead exposed. Roll it tight with your fingers and set it aside to dry on a piece of wax paper. When you’ve made a few of these and placed the shot, you can use the edge of a candle flame to heat the raw end of the shroud to a liquid and then crimp it shut with the needle nosed pliers. Do not ever have the candle going while in the regional vicinity of an open tube of Shoe Goo! If it catches alight, it becomes a flame thrower.
The best way I have found to attach a “sinkie” (that’s what I call the ones with the pencil lead) is to use a black snap swivel. Tie your main line to the portion of the swivel hooked to the snap. Your leader may then be tied to the end loop on the snap swivel which will allow the swivel to remain active and viable. The opened snap may then be hooked to the “Sinkie” by running it around the thicker crimped part of the shroud.
I have always been a proponent of scents applied to drift rigs. An excellent way to stink up a good drift rig is to apply scent to the yarn or to the hole of a floating drifter such as a Corky. If you consider the surface area of the shroud fabric on a slinkie or sinkie, it proves to be an excellent place to apply either water soluble or oil-based scents, and they will last a very long time.
An interesting thing about drift fishing: while using scents and the low rodding technique, over two thirds of my fish are hooked inside the mouth but on the wrong side. Since I don’t use a leader longer than three feet and since they are hooked on the inside, my best guess is they were going downstream when they picked up the drifter. The turn they make after catching up with the bait is what causes the feel of a rubber band as the line comes tight. As further evidence of this, I have watched hundreds of steelies do exactly this on the very clear upper Clackamas at the Three Lynx Power Plant. This was decades ago when Doctor Juice first came out. When it was permitted, I would go up on the rock opposite the plant and watch the fish (in large numbers) react to my drifted Corky. During mid-day, the fish were highly visible but not particularly intrigued by my offering. When I applied the Doctor Juice, their demeanor changed immediately after only a cast or two. With the scent on both the lure and the shroud, there was plenty of smell to catch their interest. The first pass would elicit a quick look as they sniffed a preview of coming attractions. The second pass caused a lot more side-to-side movement and searching activity. The next pass or two caused a chase where they would catch up to the drifter and grab it going downstream. This was followed by a quick U-turn, resulting in a hook up. At first, I didn’t notice they were hooked on the wrong side of the mouth as it was a lot of work for me to get off the rock alive and land the fish on the tiny beach below. Something looked different when I pulled one of the fish up on the sand to release it as it was laying on the wrong side. The light came on! They were grabbing it going downstream and that was why there was frequently no yank but just a slow, smooth tug as they turned toward me, and the cur-rent tightened the line.
The Doublecross Updated
A weapon that has worked very well for me over a lot of years is the Doublecross. The place I always use it is the hole right at the bottom of the Mine Field on the Wilson River where the drifter accounted for its first steelhead. There can be an infinite number of variations for this drifter, as it is a combination of most anything in which you can make a hole that will allow yarn to be drawn through. The Rag was a piece of foam tubing with yarn pulled through it that was popular in B.C. My original combination was a rocket red Corky with fluorescent white yarn. I used a 5/64” drill bit in a variable speed hand drill to carefully make a hole perpendicular to the factory hole where the leader goes. This whole process works much better if the hole is drilled, the leader installed, and then the yarn pulled through and cut to length. Once the lead-er is in place, I use about eight inches of 10-pound test mono that is crimped in the middle to facilitate pushing it through the drilled hole. This forms a loop run-ning through the drifter, perpendicular to the factory hole. Run your yarn of choice through the formed mono loop and pull the yarn through the drifter. Leave about half an inch of yarn sticking out, remove the mono and cut the end off of the yarn loop. Decide how long you want the “sideburns” to be on the Doublecross and cut the yarn on the other side. With a lot of work, a leader can be drawn through the factory hole, but life is a lot easier if the leader is in place before the yarn sideburns are installed. If you think about how a fish approaches this lure, it will be from behind. The yarn can be left quite long to imitate egg skein or shorter so that it flounces in the current, giving an imitation of moving fins, gills, or even legs. If yarn is added below a drifter, it will always hide the attractive round shape that salmonids like so well. With a Doublecross, they simultaneously see that big, beautiful egg shape from behind and the wiggling yarn. I don’t know what attracts fish to this combination, only that it does. For the bodies, I would often use Oakie Drifters, Cheaters and even Birdie Drifters which have hard wings. For kokanee, I make almost the same lash up with very small Spin Glows and a tiny amount of Flashabou pulled through a smaller hole. This hole is drilled offset, so it does not interfere with the leader in the factory hole. This is also necessary with the Birdie Drifters. A small drop of super glue on the flashy stuff will serve to keep the mylar strands in place very nicely.
To make either a hard or soft “Doublecross” drill the hole for the yarn, install the leader, pull the yarn through and cut the yarn to length.
This may seem like a lot of work and minutia but give this some consideration: When the fish is going in for the kill, its eye is within an inch of the Doublecross and they get a very good look at that lure. The purpose of the yarn is to provide a visual stimulus. But just like the Sinkie, it also provides an excellent scent dispersal medium that comes within half an inch of one of the best sniffers in the world.
If you have fished with soft beads much, you know exactly how picky trout or steelhead can be in what they want to grab. Some of the beads are now made with a porosity, which seems like a very good idea when loading them up with scent. Something that can be done with soft beads is to use a very large darning needle or bent paper clip to draw yarn through the bead’s body to make something like a Doublecross. The variations of bead and yarn combinations are endless. Using this method, the highly attractive round nature of the bead when seen from behind remains intact. The addition of the yarn can be made to look like skein without hiding the bead, and the yarn can be added from several angles and even using multiple colors. Pulling a little black yarn fully into the bead makes a nice eye spot. Care must be taken, however, not to fracture the body of the bead with the needle. Be gentle.
The yarn on the Corky or bead is like a negligée with a dab of lovely perfume behind the ear. It works the same way on steelhead! All the senses are alerted.
When I first began steelheading, it was on the Puyallup River outside Tacoma, Washington. This area was anything but the rugged outdoors down on the industrialized Hylebos Waterway. We got to enjoy the famous aroma of Tacoma issuing from either the nearby pulp mill or the Asarco smelter. But the steelies were there, and they seemed to love the Cherrybobbers we plunked from our car parked on the dike road just above the river. If available, we might throw a bit of egg onto the treble hook of those lures, whose body was made from balsa wood painted red. Just ahead of the body was a number four brass or chrome spinner blade. Held in place on the bottom with a three-or four-ounce bank sinker, the floating lure worked its rod vibrating magic after it was carefully placed in the two rod holders bolted on the front bumper of our Nash Ambassador. To properly enjoy the sport, I now find it necessary to do it from a sixty-thousand-dollar jet boat towed by an equally pricey pick-up, using a rod that cost more than my first car. Times have changed!
Spoons and Spinners
These are time proven killers. Sharp hooks and a quality snap up front (no swivel) will do the job on a spoon.
After my five years in the Navy during the Vietnam war, I came back to Portland and used the GI Bill to get another degree at Portland State. I had lots of free time during the day. If properly scheduled, my classes permitted early morning trips. A friend helped me discover the Sandy River flowing off Mt. Hood. We would use a four-man rubber duck raft purchased at the Wigwam Store, carry it down the road to below Marmot Dam and paddle across the river to the far bank of the Slaughter Hole. I was a spoon fisherman, and the tail out of that hole was ideal for swinging a lure that had to be cast almost fifty yards to the other bank where the fish lay in the slot. A 5/8 oz. chartreuse with red dot Wonder Lure was my weapon of choice until the nice lady at Wigwam introduced me to Steelies. At 49 cents I had to be careful not to get them hung up, but that hole’s tail out had mostly nice round forgiving boulders. She showed me the Luhr Jensen Duo Lock snaps, which her husband swore added a lot more action to the lures; they were right! We did our first trip across in the raft on the morning of Thanksgiving. For Christmas, I had asked for a Quick 220N spinning reel and, after tuition and books were paid, I had enough left to buy a 9.6’ tubular glass rod with oversized guides. Those big guides did not restrict the lengthy casts needed at the tail out. My wife let me use the Christmas gift reel early and it was quite properly broken in that lovely morning. I was having trouble with the brand-new mono line due to the upriver wind, and my friend said I needed to get the line broken in. He carefully took the spoon in hand and walked upriver. When he was about fifty yards away, he had me hold the spool and walked about ten feet more, slowly pulling the line tight. I reeled it back in, smoothly laying it on the spool. The first cast to the far bank landed in just the right area I was trying to reach. I let it sink to the count of five, gave it a twitch, turned the handle twice. Game On! That early season fish was chrome and a hatchery specimen as well. I had seen him roll several times and the weapon to harvest him (and many others) was perfected. He was invited home to dinner and three more followed us back across the river that day. My boat mate suggested that I keep a detailed log of all my trips, and I have done so ever since. For winter steelhead on any Oregon river, I have not found a spoon that will beat a half ounce brass Steelie with the orange stripe. These days, they now cost about ten times as much, but are still always paired with the Duo Lock snap.
A long-time friend that even has a few years on me lives just outside the town of Siletz. He owns a hand built fifteen-foot drift boat that was obviously a labor of his love for woodworking. Over half a century, he has learned every inch of the river which is famous for its ledge rock bottom. The indigenous stone is moderately soft and will not give up a hook. You have to get on the other side of the rock, snap the rod hard and, maybe, you’ll get it back. He is long retired, can visit the river at the drop of a hat and only fishes it when conditions are exactly to his liking for casting homemade brass spinners. When we are together, I will alternate between spinners and small quarter-ounce spoons. As we proceed down river, my casts will be critiqued if they are more than two feet off the mark. His gentle guidance is received well because he knows EXACTLY where they like to hang out and how to avoid most snags. He always rows and gets to cast first, because God help me if I put a scratch in the boat’s paint. With the skill of a topflight bass fisherman, his spinner goes to exactly the spot intended. A gentle twitch sets the blade in motion. I love to watch this part for the white mouth of a steelie making its bid for the lure, or that beautiful flash in the water when they connect followed by a chrome explosion. If the fish misses its shot at the spinner, I waste no time getting my lure in place to provide it another opportunity. Hey, if he’s going to point ‘em out and get ‘em all lathered up, the least I can do is help the poor fish get its intended meal.
Having read this, I hope your mind can envision what these days long past were like. The pictures will give you some ideas on how to modify existing equipment to present something to the fish that they have likely not seen before. The low rodding method will provide a lot more hookups, and the Sinkies will help you sharpen your drifting skills. Much like a fine wine, drift fishing is an acquired taste. Enjoy!
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