Favorite Top-Ten Steelhead Techniques by Larry Ellis

Favorite Top-Ten Steelhead Techniques by Larry Ellis


“The Chetco record 28-pound steelhead caught by Don Hawk in 1973 was caught on a spawn sack, according to a recount given directly to me by Don himself.”

Larry Ellis

plunking for steelhead fishing bank plunk


When a river receives enough precipitation, it will increase in flow (cubic feet per second) and in river height. When your river receives a more-than-ample supply of rainfall, it will blow out.

A blown-out river is easy to identify. It has a chocolate-brown or chocolate milk-like appearance due to suspended particulate matter in the water in the form of mud and other runoff debris. This is not the time to go fishing because fish have to filter this gunk through their gills (their lifeline) and therefore they lose their sense of smell.

This is the time, however, to do something constructive such as tying Spin-N-Glo leaders, waiting for the next stage as the river starts lowering.

As a river starts to drop and lower, it also begins to clear and starts containing less suspended mud particulate matter. As it drops and clears, it starts to take on the variations of Mother Nature’s color wheel.

When the river starts attaining a slate-gray or pea-green complexion, break out your plunking box and head for the river—it’s time to plunk Spin-N-Glos.

spin glo glow fishing fish lure steelhead leader

Rigging up for plunking is easy. But first things first. You must have a very sturdy rod holder that you can hammer into the ground and will withstand the intense strikes of Mr. or Mrs. Metalhead.

Load your reel with 25-pound monofilament or 30-pound braid for your mainline and proceed to the next step.

steelhead fishing plunking big hatchery fish

From here I like to slide a plastic sliding apparatus up the mainline, such as a “Slido”. The Slido has a snap at the bottom so you can attach the sinker of your choice, which is usually between 4 and 8 ounces.

The next step is to slide a 5mm or 6mm bead up the mainline before tying the mainline to a number 5 or 7 barrel swivel.

plunking rig steelhead fishing spin glo glow

I believe it is very important to use black beads or marine-colored beads for this step. If you use bright orange or bright red beads, I believe they will garner a lot of false strikes. You want that first strike to be your last strike—the one with your hook firmly imbedded in the heavy metalhead’s mouth.

You will now need to tie a leader, usually between 18 and 24 inches. The more opaque the water is, the shorter your leader will be. The clearer the water is, the longer your leader will be.

The leader material should be made of monofilament and should be in the range between 12- and 15-pound test. On the end of your leader tie an octopus-style hook ranging from 1/0 to 3/0 using an egg loop knot.

After you’ve tied your hook onto your leader, slide down a 5mm or 6mm bead matching the color of the lure, and then slide down the Spin-N-Glo of your choice.

You can use a little roe in the egg loop if you so desire or a spawn sack.

Knowing where to cast is simple. During high-water events, cast closer to shore, where the current seem meets slacker water. Sometimes your casts will only be within 6 feet from the bank.



Drift-fishing is the cornerstone technique of the bank fisherman. But it is also a killer technique for boaters. The boater first looks for a likely place where steelhead might be holding. He then either anchors up the boat, or pulls it over to shore so that the anglers in the boat can drift-fish from the bank.

8-1/2-foot rods are the most typically-used sticks for this fishing method. You can use either a baitcasting reel or a spinning reel for this technique.

There are several very effective drift-fishing setups.


The principle behind using this rig is that there is a sliding sinker involved. The object is that the steelhead won’t feel any resistance from the sinker and will be more inclined to inhale your offering.

sliding steelhead drift fishing rig

Threading the mainline through the eye of a snap-swivel and then attaching either rubber tubing leading to pencil lead, or attaching a slinky directly to the snap are the two most commonly-used drift-fishing techniques.

Pencil lead comes in 1/4-, 3/8- and 5/16-inch sizes. You buy the rubber tubing with the inner diameter that matches your lead sizes.

Use the bigger-diameter stuff for deeper, swifter current, and use the smaller-diameter lead and tubing for shallower, less-swift current. The most common-size rubber tubing and pencil lead is 3/8 inches.

Pre-cut your rubber tubing to 1-1/2-inch pieces.

First thread your mainline through the eye of a number 10 snap swivel and then tie your mainline off to a number 7 barrel swivel. The snap on the snap-swivel should now be hanging freely.

Open the snap.

Insert the pointed end of the snap as far as it will into the hole of the tubing. Now pierce the tubing with the pointed end of the snap so that the point of the snap goes through the outside of the tubing.

Close the snap and then insert the pencil lead through the end of the rubber tubing.

Slinkies are another commonly-used sinker when drift-fishing. They are made from various-size pieces of parachute cord with either steel or tungsten shot filled inside the cord.

If you are using a slinky, you do not need to use rubber tubing at all. Simply open up the snap of your snap-swivel and insert the pointed end of the snap through the pre-made hole in the slinky or just pierce the end of the slinky with the pointed snap.

Close the snap and you’re good to go.

You will want to now tie a monofilament leader to a number 2 or 4 hook (the most common sizes for drift-fishing) using an egg-loop knot. The leader will vary between 20 inches and 36 inches. Clear water = longer leaders. Colored water = shorter leaders.

Slide down your favorite drift bobber onto the hook and then tie the leader to the end of your barrel swivel.

Cast upstream at a 45-degree angle. You will want to feel your sinker bouncing the bottom every 2 or 3 seconds. If it is bouncing more often than 2 seconds, either snip off a piece of your pencil lead or use a lighter slinky until you achieve the perfect bottom-bouncing cadence.


Another excellent drift-fishing method, which is Buzz Ramsey’s favorite way of rigging up for drift-fishing, is to tie your mainline directly to one end of a number 5 or 7 barrel swivel, but tie it so that there is a 3-inch tag piece of line. The tag end of your line will be your lead line. Rigging up so that your lead line is on the upstream side of the swivel is for using baitcasting reels.

drift fishing rig steelhead leader mainline pencil lead sliky

Using hollow-core lead, slide the tag end of your mainline through the hole in the pencil lead and then clamp the lead shut onto your line with a small pair of vice grips.

Now tie a leader as previously described to the opposite end of the barrel swivel.

Adjust the length of your pencil lead so that you are feeling the bottom every 2 or 3 seconds.

If you are using a spinning reel, rig up so that your lead line will be on the downstream side of the swivel, the leader end.

You can use so many different types of lures on the end of your drift-fishing leader it will make your head spin. Glo Bugs, Lil’ Corkies, Okie Drifters, Cheaters, Gooey Bobs, Puff Balls and yarn balls, not to mention just plain old roe-and-yarn—they all work.


Probably the most popular boating technique for steelhead, side-drifting is a deadly-effective way for hooking up steelhead.

7 1/2- to 9 1/2-foot rods and spinning reels are used for this killer technique. But whatever rod and reel combo you choose to use, just make sure that everyone on board uses exactly the same thing. Use the same rod, reel, line test, line type, line brand, swivel size, leader diameter, leader length, weight type, weight size, hook size, hook type and lure.

If the song playing in your head is “Send in the Clones” then your rig is properly outfitted for side-drifting.

When using the same outfits, the oarsman can now be in complete control. He uses the boat as if it was another rod. He must be able to see all the rod tips, so make sure to hold them at the exact position he specifies.

The oarsman makes sure that the speed of the boat matches the speed of the current, and when everything is in synch, all the lines will be moving at the same speed as well.

The most-common way of rigging up is to use the sliding sinker method described in drift-fishing. Up to 4-foot leaders are often deployed, with longer leaders used in clear-water conditions.

The best places to side-drift are along current seams that straddle deeper water. If the aforementioned places happen to hug a willow line, so much the better!

The most commonly-used baits are a Puff Ball followed by a dime-size cluster of roe which is held onto a number 4 hook by the egg loop knot. Spawn sacks are also deadly effective when side-drifting, as are yarn balls. In fact, the biggest steelhead I ever hooked in my life was on a yarn ball.

yarnie yarn ball steelhead side drifting hook fish fishing


Take a large diving, floating bass plug. Now take off all the hooks and paint it black. Attach your mainline to the eye of the plug and tie a 36-inch piece of 12-pound monofilament leader to the back eye. Finally, tie a number 1 hook to the end of the leader. You now have one of the most popular, not to mention one of the most effective steelhead-catching appliances ever dreamed up by mankind.

One of the original divers-and-baits was popularized on the Umpqua when a few fellows bought some Fred Arbogast Mud Bugs (originally marketed as bass plugs) and did that exact same thing, but I have no doubt that the old deep-diving Bomber Waterdogs and Hellbenders would achieve precisely the same result.

The object of pulling a diver-and-bait setup is to get your bait (usually roe or a sand shrimp) down deep to where the fish are resting, and to get it down there fast. You specifically want to target places that have deep water leading into a tail-out.

Often you will only have one shot at getting your bait down to the fish, and a diver-and-bait setup is the perfect fishing method to achieve this.

Running your diver-and-bait setups along a straight, steep wall will also produce strikes.

Divers now come specifically made for this purpose. One prime example is the Brad’s Mud Dog Diver.


Pulling plugs are a very effective technique in getting finicky steelhead to bite. Also known as back-trolling plugs, the oarsman slowly inches the boat back into a tail-out where steelhead are known to rest after going through a rapid.

With three anglers in the boat, plugs such as K14 Kwikfish, Mag Lip 3.0 and 3.5, and Hot Shots are slowly inched downriver under the control of the oarsman.

The lures are set out at exactly the same distance, creating a wall of fear which incites wary steelhead to enter into the attack mode.

Favor the deeper side of the tail-out first, but if one side doesn’t produce a strike, try sweeping the boat to the other side of the tail-out.


Anchoring up your boat and setting out plugs are one of my favorite steelhead techniques, especially in upper tidewater and the mouths of rivers—any place where there is current. You can also deploy this technique when the river is high enough for plunkers.

Ideally, you want to look for places that have an inside turn containing willows. The perfect depth is between 3 and 5 feet of water.

Position your boat so that your plugs will be about a foot or so above the bottom, touching the bottom every now and then. And again, you will want your plugs to create that wall of fear approximately 30- to 40-feet away from the boat.

Once your plugs are working the bottom correctly, put your rod in a rod holder and wait for a savage take-down, and steelhead will attack these plugs with a vengeance.

8-foot sticks with a soft tip and a medium action work the best for this type of fishing, and I prefer to use 15- to 18-pound monofilament loaded on a baitcasting reel with a good drag.

I have caught most of my steelhead on a variety of plugs. If you can get them, antique Wiggle Warts and Wee Warts work great. Brad’s Wigglers and Wee Wigglers also are premier lures as are Mag Lip 3.0 and 3.5. I haven’t used the new 2.5-inch Mag Lip, but I’m betting that these lures will take the river by storm.

Set out your Wee Warts and Wee Wigglers in 3- to 4-foot water, and put out your Wiggle Warts, Wigglers and Mag Lip 3.0 and 3.5 in 5-foot water. It’s ok if the 3.5 incher bumps the bottom more than the other lures. It is still deadly effective even though it may be bottoming out.

Good coastal river colors are gold with a black back or gold with a red back. Crawdad colors also work excellently as well as green pirate.

plug steelhead fishing crankbait plugs


Planer boards, also known as side planers are great appliances for shore fishermen who want to use plugs from the bank. In this case, the planer board takes the place of the boat.

Side planers work by the bend of its fins, which pulls the planer board away from shore and holds it in one position. A great side planer is the SideWinder. A Luhr Jensen Hot Shot Side Planer is a popular choice too.

I know for a fact that the SideWinder can pull a K14 Kwikfish (and catch salmon!) without knocking the side planer out of position, so the Mag Lip 3.0 and 2.5 ought to work just beautifully. Also, don’t discount the number 40 cop car-colored or green pirate-colored Hot Shot!

Most of the time, by the time your side planer has reached its correct distance from the bank, it has drifted considerably downriver, which means that you should be using these things in the bottom of the lineup, downstream from other bankies.

However this can be used to your advantage!

Let’s say that there are some willow bushes clumped together running a 15-foot line, where nobody in their right mind would dare drift-fish. This is a perfect example where a side-planer can be positioned so that it is fishing along the current seam that straddles the willow line in 3- to 5-feet of water.

Once you hook a steelhead under these conditions, make sure to steer it away from the willows by pointing your rod upstream with the rod tip about a foot above the water.


Both shore anglers and boat fishermen should always carry some type of spinner in their tackle boxes, and they don’t have to be the most expensive spinners either.

When I first lit upon the steelhead scene some 35 years ago, most tackle shops in the area always carried Bud’s Spinners on their counters that went for a whopping 99 cents. I figured that for the price they couldn’t work all that great— you know, the more you pay, the more it’s worth kind of reasoning.

Very illogical thinking.

One friend of mine always bragged about catching steelhead on the Smith on these affordable pieces of metal, and he caught them all from shore.

Spinners work great from boats that can access large rocks that steelhead tend to hide near, especially rocks that are adjacent to current breaks. They also tend to hang out around overhanging brush.

They won’t travel very far to nail a spinner, so you have to work the spinner so that it thumps alongside the rock and near the bottom where steelhead have access to these flashy pieces of metal. Keep the spinner as close to the bottom as you can without hanging up. Sometimes you’ll have to mend your line to work every inch of the boulder.

You will grow to know every particular rock and where its worse snags are. As you bounce your spinner by moving it up and down alongside a boulder, lift up on occasion to get the blade spinning, and then let it move back to the bottom. Don’t be misled into thinking that steelhead won’t attack these things on-the-sink. As the lure is sinking, the blade is also turning and often steelhead will attack these things as they are tumbling end-over-end on-the-drop.

Try to keep your spinner as close to the bottom as possible.

Other great spinners are Mepps, Little Cleos and Blue Foxes.


Marabou jigs used under a bobber drifting downriver is a great technique to pick up steelhead.

From shore, be sure to work the closest current seam first, then if you don’t catch anything work your way toward steep rocky ledges. The biggest mistake that bank anglers make is wading out in the water first. Once your legs spook the innermost steelhead, they won’t be back until you leave—but be back they will.

If you’re in a boat, never pass up steep, rocky walls where you can get extended straight drifts for long periods of times. These places are steelhead magnets.


I saved the best for last. Not really a technique per se, but individual eggs held tightly inside a bag of netting are a great way for substituting single eggs for egg clusters.

When made properly, you cannot tell the difference between spawn sacks and the real deal. This is a perfect technique when you catch a hen that is a few days from spawning and whose skeins are starting to break apart.

This is a technique that utilizes more time on the water than any other fishing method. Percentage wise, you are spending more time fishing on the water than not fishing at all, therefore the theory is that you catch more fish.

And it’s a deadly-effective technique. The Chetco record 28-pound steelhead caught by Don Hawk in 1973 was caught on a spawn sack, according to a recount given directly to me by Don himself. At last sight, the mounted steelhead was still being displayed at Black Bird Sporting Goods in Medford, Oregon.

spawn sack roe steelhead eggs fishing beads yarn

When you get a very loose skein of eggs, one that will tend to pop more loose eggs than those connected to a skein, the first step is to stream harden the eggs. This is done by turning one of the skeins inside out and running ice cold stream water through it inside a gallon-size plastic bag for about 10 minutes.

Sometimes you will have to use a plastic spoon (never metal) to scrape the individual eggs from the skein before putting them into a gallon-size plastic bag and then stream hardening the eggs.

If you do not have access to a stream, then ice cold water from the fridge will do the same thing. After about 10 minutes, drain off the white froth at the surface and put your eggs in a colander. You will see that the eggs have taken on a more hardy and lively appearance and will withstand being crimped by the Spawnee tool without the eggs bursting.

The next step, and I have altered it somewhat, is to add 3/4 cup of salt and 1/4 cup of Borax to a bowl full of ice cold water. Stir the mixture frequently. The eggs will immediately rise to the surface.

After about 40 minutes, rinse off the eggs in a colander and fill the bowl full of ice-cold water. Insert the eggs to wash off all the residue and stop the curing process. Do this for about 15 minutes.

What you have left now are perfectly-hardened individual eggs that will withstand the squeezing of the spawn sack.

spawn sack roe steelhead eggs fishing beads yarn

Put a Puff Ball and 2 or 3 eggs in a piece of spawn netting and then tie it off with Spider Thread. You now have multiple individual spawn sacks about the size of a penny that look like the real deal. When done right, the egg cluster doesn’t look like it has netting around it at all.

You can use these spawn sacks when drift-fishing, side-drifting or you can use them on the back of a plunked Spin-N-Glo for added scent. These are absolutely awesome eggs that can be used for any number of techniques, and they will freeze for several years in small glass containers.

 - written by Larry Ellis

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.