As a rule 90% of the river you must eliminate from possible plugging water, or for any technique. Flows deeper than eight feet, boiling bottomless salmon holes, roaring rapids and any place the river is faster than a man’s walking speed, eliminate those places. The key is to break down the big water into smaller sections, and that usually begins on the edges.
Snake River "peanuts" love metallic pink/blue #30 Hot Shots.
Even though I’ve been known to flip a bobber and jig around for summer and early winter steelhead, especially under low, clear and cold conditions, there are a few techniques I would rather bust out for the day. First, and a big surprise here, is a swung spoon. It’s all about that grab, kids. Nothing like it. A swung fly grab is close, call them 1a and 1b to a spoon bite. But there is one technique I have just gushed over since I first experienced it back in the late 70s, and that would be an aggressive removal by a territorial steelhead of a back trolled wobbling, shiny plug. That grab…
Plugging is a fairly straight forward technique. Simplified version is let it out 50 feet below the boat, engage the reel, allow the plug to dive, usually 4 to 8 feet. Allow the boat to slip slowly downriver, at a crawl pace, allowing the plug to work at its optimum while slowly covering the run. Hours of watching that line wiggle, the rod tips vibrate, rhythmic dipping of the oars…paint drying, grass growing, mold forming on cheese, all the lullaby sayings. Then in a nano second, all-encompassing boredom is replaced instantly by sheer terror and blasting adrenaline as a very pissed off three feet of black and white grips your diving plug. Rod removal from holders becomes a wrestling match, reels are singing, the rower is panicking, the poor person on the now fully loaded rod is just an observer of Mother Nature’s finest matinee.
And I love it so. So much it’s my go to now whenever I make a float. That ridiculous rip down…it’s what we all need, it’s what we gotta have!
Now, small to “normal” sized rivers, plug runs are fairly defined. Find the runs with walking speed flow, 4 to 10 feet deep, even steady flows usually deep on one side tapering gradually shallowing up to gravel bar or the like on the other. Beginners Plugging 101, so to speak. Learn in the easier water, the smaller rivers where holding water is defined and your only job is to get that back-trolling speed correct.
When we go to the bigger rivers like the Cowlitz, the North Fork Lewis, lower main Umpqua, the Clearwater in Idaho and, when it’s open, the upper Columbia River immediately below Chief Joseph Dam the runs are rarely defined to the untrained eye. My favorite place to plug the last few days of October, November and even a bit (weather permitting) into December is possibly king diamond of them all, the massive Snake River, from the mouth of the Grande Ronde at Heller bar all the way to the last/first riffle in the Snake at Asotin, where the handcuffed giant begins to flow again with verve after being backed up by Little Goose Dam.
The Snake is the true definition of big water. Typical flows in the fall are 25 to 18 thousand CFS at Heller Bar. That, my fellow steelheaders, is the pure uncut definition of big water. The Snake flows through the deepest canyon in North America, scenery so spectacular it distracts from the water that features possible steelhead holding/travelling water for a quarter mile in many places. Someone who has a box of plugs and is fishing the Snake for the first time has to be just goofy-eyed at first glance, standing at the launch. In water this large, this much volume, this much oh-my-God-look-at-the-width-of-this-place, where, just where do you start?
The Snake has miles of wide, 4 to 8 foot flows just begging to be plugged.
When you begin to eat an elephant, you begin by taking tiny bites off the edges. When I guided the mighty Skagit for late winter/spring wild steelhead twenty years ago (the Skagit is another intimidating massive river, when it’s open) one of my go-to’s was plugging. When I would show our daily selection of steelhead plugs to my clients, their response was usually something like this…” This river is HUGE!!! Its so wide, there is sooooo much water, how do we fish it with plugs, or any technique? Where do the fish hold?” I would explain that we find them in the exact same water you may negotiate them in smaller rivers. Look to the river’s edges, and start from there.
In the biggest rivers, know that water flows the same if it’s a trickle up to the Amazon. Like I told my clients, as a rule 90% of the river you must eliminate from possible plugging water, or for any technique. Flows deeper than eight feet, boiling bottomless salmon holes, roaring rapids and any place the river is faster than a man’s walking speed, eliminate those places. The key is to break down the big water into smaller sections, and that usually begins on the edges. Like smaller rivers, most feature one side of slower flows gradually moving out to faster flowing deep water. Look closely, and you will see familiar water, sections that flow four to eight feet deep, walking speed. In the giant Snake, this is normally right off the bank. Like in the smaller water, look for “flats” where the river slows and does not slope downwards. Eliminate most of the river, the places more likely to find a 10-foot sturgeon than a six-pound steelhead.
Sliding tailouts, tapered edges and even flows make up standard issue plug water on the Snake River.
Now that you have found your slower edge, and it could be 20 feet (not likely, but there are a few, look hard) or most likely 100 yards to a quarter mile long. When you see the water you want, now look for structure. Steelhead won’t hold on pea gravel and sand. Look for rocks, big rocks, from softball to watermelon to beach ball, structure that breaks up flows, creates some surface disturbance and hides bodies. You are standing next to the big river, and now you see it…the long, even flows all along the river’s edge. That is your target water. Leave the middle of the river to the big boys and guides in the jumbo jet boats, chances are they will not be pulling plugs, anyway, more than likely side drifting the long runs. Your plug water and their side drifting water rarely overlaps, the only problem you will have from the larger power boats will be wakes when they juice up or down the river.
Any worry about your drift boat not being able to hang with the big waters on the Snake, no worries. Like fishing, stay to the edges, stay out of the middle of the river where maelstroms like Captain John and Sam’s Rapids could eat an ocean liner. I take the Green Manalishi, my 12-foot (!!!!) aluminum Willie down from Heller Bar on miles of float daily, never a sweat. Last year, right after my partner and I landed a plug caught steelhead, a large inboard sled powered over to us and someone yelled, “Is that a 12-foot Willie boat??? HERE!!?” Why yes, my good man, you are quite observant, it is a 12-footer, it would be the boat that has been hooking all those summer runs this morning.
Once you’ve found your holding/travelling water—and you will, there is far more of it than you could fish in a week—you can prepare to pull plugs for the Snake’s summer steelhead. One would assume, if you didn’t know, that a river the size of the Snake would produce big steelhead, you know, twelve pounds on up on a regular basis. Weirdly, the opposite is true. A typical Snake summer steelhead, either hatchery or wild, is 4 to 6 pounds. We lovingly call them “peanuts.” It is possible for a Clearwater steelhead, more known for really large steelhead, to stray up the river some miles. A few are taken/hooked every fall but expect something on the smallish side to destroy your plug. Most of them are headed to the Grande Ronde, Imnaha or upper Snake and those fish are genetically smaller. And genetically speaking, these steelhead travel several months hundreds of miles from the ocean, they are full of fat and bright orange flesh. So, when you get a hatchery fish, know that it may begin to have its rainbow trout coloration, but eating quality…dude. Perfection.
Rods, Reels, Lines and Plug Choices for Snake River Summer Steelhead
Let me share with the hundreds of thousands of STS readers my favorite plug fishing outfits, and a short list of colors/sizes/styles of plugs we have our best results on the edges of the Snake. First the rods. Know that nothing out there works as well as old school fiberglass for a plug rod. The way it slowly dips, wobbles up and down the entire blank opens up the imparted action of any lure, especially diving plugs. High modulus graphite is the norm out there, but know a fast-reacting stiff rod seriously retards the action of a plug, not al-lowing it the same range of motion as glass provides. The dips, the side-to-side range. More action to the lure, more strikes…simple math. My choices are rods that have not seen sporting goods racks in 40 years, the O.G. translucent, honey-colored S-Glass made decades ago by Lamiglas. Sadly, these styles of rods are no longer made by anyone, and I cherish mine. They are 8-1/2 foot, rated for 8-to-15-pound line. A similar rod in length and rating will serve you well when plugging, not just the Snake. Avoid a heavy blank, think 8 to 12 or 8 to 15 for plugging.
Smaller, "normal" sized plugs, like these #30 Hot Shots and 3.0 Mag Lips, work best for long distance summer steelhead.
Reels? Now, here is the fun part. When I use the old school rods, sometimes I slap on a reel from the same era, a circa 1983 Shimano Bantam, the same reels I used when the rods (and I) were fairly new. Most of the time I go modern. Two Shimano Tekota 301HG-LC line counters with sahhh-mooooth drags, filled with 30# bright yellow “Moonshine” V2 Slick Power Pro, 15 feet of 12# Maxima Ultragreen uni-knotted to the braid for a “bumper.” The thin mono lets the plugs dive deeper easier, plus 12# Maxima breaks at, I think, closer to 18-pound test. Plenty heavy for the Snake steelhead and to absorb a ripping plug grab.
Now for the good stuff…the plugs.
Big water, big plugs, right? (Loud buzzer) Ooooh, no, thanks for playing though. Remember, the slower, shallower edges where Snake summer steelhead lay? Old school Hot Shots and Mag Lips rule the land. I have too many Eddie Pope and Luhr Jensen #30 Hot Shots, more than any person should legally own. I have a problem, yes, I love old plugs. Not for collecting, for using, the damned things are just flat steelhead killers. Have been for 50 plus years, steelhead haven’t changed, just the anglers. The #30 medium diving (4 to 10 feet) Hot Shot is my first choice on the Snake. Trebles are legal, as long as they are barbless, and I prefer those to singles only because they balance the plug better. Off the belly eye screw, I rig them with a #4 split ring off the eye, then a #5 black swivel, then a #3 small split ring to the treble. This drops the hook back away from the body, better “access” to the hook and thwarts short strikers. The 3.5 Yakima Bait Mag Lip is choice B, and often I just run those all day because they run true right out of the package, I don’t have to fiddle around with pliers trying to get them in perfect tune like Hot Shots. I leave the #4 belly split ring on for balance, then adda #5 black swivel to the #4 split ring on the tail, then crimp on an open-eye 2/0 siwash to the swivel. And they are fish killers.
Yes, there are several other styles of plugs that work on the Snake. These, however, have produced so well the last decade or so I ain’t changing…
Colors, finishes. Know that Snake River summer steelhead have a real jones for pink. Metallic pink in particular. The majority of either Hot Shots or Mag Lips in my Snake River plug box are all metallic pink, from dark, bright intense pink to very light. All pink; metallic blue/pink; all metallic green; hot red body/black bill; all black and all metallic blue. Find a player, they all have their times when those colors work well.
No big plugs. No #25 Hot Shots, no 4.5 Mag Lips. Certainly, they will work, but know the water is fairly clear (usually) on the Snake and smaller plugs will get bit far better than larger. Plus, the smaller plugs work best in the “classic” flows.
Danny Bravo holds an average Snake River hatchery steelhead.
How do we plug the Snake? Just like you would on a smaller river. You are fishing basically the same style/flows/depths. On the line counter we set out each plug at 45 to 50 feet. This length out allows the plug to dive/work at optimum depth without water pushing up on the mainline, plus it gets the plugs just far enough away from the boat. I set my drags so the fish can take a bit of line on the grab, just enough to set the hook without fear of a violent break off. Yeah, I leave the clicker on…It’s almost sexual when the rasp goes bonkers!
Don’t be hesitant to trailer your drift boat over this fall. Yes, the big Snake is the bastion of the jet boat, it’s occupants usually dressing in some sort of camo from head to toe. One never knows when you might have to go hunting, right now, so camo…yeah. You will see drift boats, a few each day, and bets are each one is working the slower, shallower edges of the clear monster, usually flipping bobbers and baits and such. Some, like me, are slowly working those spots with plugs, waiting for the grab.