Plugging Slow & Shallow for Steelies

Plugging Slow & Shallow for Steelies

Originally Featured in Dec. 2011 STS


When it comes to plugging for winter steelhead, don’t let your vision be limited to main currents.  Here’s what to look for when targeting fish in slow, shallow water situations.

steelhead plug fishing

Breaking the ice from the guides on my rod, I felt a sense of relief as Dad started moving the boat toward shore.  “Let’s reel ‘em up,” Dad instructed.

“Maybe we’ll get to build a fire,” I thought to myself as our homemade McKenzie River drift boat slipped closer to land.  My hands were so numb I couldn’t feel my fingers.

The metal bucket of briquettes felt good, but a big fire would surely feel better.  Every time ice formed in the eyes of our rods, I’d dip them in the water, only to have them ice-over again. 

Hells Canyon Steelhead

There was no avoiding getting my hands wet and cold.

As Dad’s left oar tip nearly touched shore, he barked, “Let ‘em out.”  In reflex action I grabbed my rod, dipped the plug into the water and let current strip off line.  Just as my silver plug reached the brushline, Dad remarked, “That’s good.”

It was December, the late 1960s, and Dad and I were fishing one of our favorite winter steelhead streams, Oregon’s Alsea River.  Though it was more than 40 years ago, I vividly recall how the morning played-out.

scott haugen steelhead fishing

We’d just incurred a rain storm, so the river was high and muddy, just beginning to drop.  There were few boats on the river that Saturday morning.  At one point, while anchored and drift fishing a riffle, Dad pointed out a couple boats that plugged through in front of us.  The lesson went something like this:

“See where they’re going?” he quizzed.  “With the water this high they’re fishing in the wrong spot.  They should be closer to shore.”

Dad patiently sat, letting four or five boats plug through the section of water in front of and downstream from us.  When the last boat drifted out of sight, Dad suggested we change out our Okie Drifters for plugs.  We didn’t have multiple rods back then.

No sooner had my line drawn tight when a chrome steelhead hammered it. 

Instantly the fish was airborne, twisting and turning mere inches from the overhanging brush line.  On our second pass, we pulled another fresh fish from the same spot.  Warmed from the excitement, building a fire was the farthest thing from my mind.

steelhead plug fishing

Two points became etched in my memory that morning.  One, how close to shore boaters can be and still catch fish.  And two, how slow the water can be moving and still hold fish.

Bank anglers know how effective plunking for high water winter steelhead can be, and how effective it is in slack waters close to shore.  Last winter I got to relive another slack water plugging experience, this time with good friends and guides, Todd Harrington and Jody Smith.

Todd is a full-time guide, spending most of his days on Oregon’s Umpqua River.  Harrington is currently the head fishing guide for the Big K Guest Ranch, in Elkton, Oregon, and dedicates many days to chasing winter steelhead on this big, challenging river.

Because the mainstem Umpqua is so big, and often running high, if you don’t master those close-to-shore, slack water opportunities, it will make for long days.  Here’s what Harrington goes through when it comes to honing in on slack water plugging opportunities.

steelhead river fishing plugs

Identify The Water

The most important step is figuring out what constitutes slow water that’s fishable. 

You can spend all day fishing slack water spots, but if they don’t hold fish, it’s a waste of time.

“Ultimately, you’d like to know what the bottom looks like,” offers Harrington.  “It’s best to have fishedr the area when it’s low and clear, to really see what it looks like.  Passing over the spot with a depth finder, to locate consistent depths with no obstructions, is what I look for and is a good way to learn a spot.”

Over the years I’ve learned a lot about the holes I fish by exploring streams in summer, when water levels are low and clear.  Sometimes the slots being fished close to shore, in high water, are totally exposed in late summer.

plug fishing steelhead river

“When fishing slow water, even when the water is slow, you need enough current to make the plug move,” continues Harrington. 

Keep in mind that the plug on the inside rod (the rod closest to shore), even if it pops to the surface once in a while, it will still catch fish.”

In my experiences I’ve found that fishing two to three days after high levels begin to drop is prime time to be on the water.  Of course, this can vary from stream to stream.  Many anglers wait five to six days, which can still be good, but not as good since fish do the majority of their moving in the higher water conditions.  Harrington believes the same.

“Whether fish are holding in these slow, almost slack water slots or moving through them depends on the conditions,” Todd notes.  “If the water is high and dirty, fish are moving through, fast.  If the water is low and somewhat clear, fish are likely holding in these areas.”

Even on those days when the water is chocolate brown, fish can be caught.  Some of Harrington’s best days have come when most folks consider the conditions unfishable.  “Look at when hatcheries get their highest returns, it’s usually right after the highest water days,” Harrington points out. 

How Slow Is Too Slow?

With the first slow water steelhead I caught on a plug, I was amazed at how slow the water was actually moving.  I thought steelhead fishing only took place in fast moving water.  Harrington hears the same from his clients every day he plugs in slack water.

“The water has got to be flowing just fast enough to move the plug,” shares Harrington.  “We catch a lot of fish in two to three feet of water.  You can fish shallow because the plug doesn’t have to run deep, just deep enough to where the fish are.”

The plugs being used also factor in to how slow moving the water can be and still be fishable, as some plugs work better in slower moving situations.  Many folks like FlatFish in softer water, as they’re movement has proven appealing in slow moving water.  Others have great luck with Wiggle Warts, and wherever you can use one of these plugs, a FatFish is also a solid choice.

jody smith scott haugen fishing steelhead

A note of interest, the folks at Yakima Bait Company are looking to release a new Mag Lip style plug early in 2012.  This Mag Lip, a scaled down, 3.5-inch version of their popular salmon Mag Lip, is designed specifically for steelhead.  “This new plug works well and has great wiggle and side-to-side darting action, which makes it appealing,” shares Buzz Ramsey.

Many anglers, top guides included, also love the Tadpolly for it’s ability to run true, right out of the package, and in slow water.  “I love this plug in shallow to medium speed, medium depth situations,” Harrington explains.  “I don’t use this plug in deep water, but use it constantly where I’m fishing in seven feet of water or less.”

underwater tad polly steelhead plug

Having a shallow running plug allows water to be fished that other anglers pass over.  Harrington also likes a Tadpolly when backing his way down through a shallow slot, as the plug will keep working right up to the end.

As a rule of thumb, if a plug totally quits working, the current flow is too slow for that plug.  If the plug rises to the surface once in a while, but still dives, that’s okay when fishing shallow water.

Gear Tips

When asked about the influence other gear has on his slow, shallow water plugging approach, Harrington offers this.  “Whether it’s salmon or steelhead, I try and put my most limber rod in the most shallow water as this allows the plug to work better and doesn’t hold the plug back from performing to its full capacity.  Limber rods are also easier to read, so you know when a subtle hit comes or when grass gets on the line.”

Personally, when plugging slow water, I like the G. Loomis STR-1024C.  This rod is 8’6”, rated 8-12 pound test line with a 3/8-3/4 lure weight.  This rod, or one with similar specs is a sort of do-everything setup.  If targeting bigger fish, the G. Loomis STR-1045C (8’8”, 8-17 lb., 3/8-1 oz.) or even the STR-1086C (9’, 10-20 lb., 3/8-1 1/2 oz.), or similar spec rods, are good choices.

gloomis steelhead plug rod

Whatever rod selected, keep the tip limber so you can read what’s happening.  Steelhead in softer water seem to hit more lethargically than those in fast water.  It’s often a slow headshake or little tug that gives away a hit, and often times these strikes go undetected on larger, stiffer poles.

As for line, Harrington sticks with 10-pound mainline, but may step up to 15-pound PLine fluorocarbon if big fish are moving through.  He points out that the lighter line sinks better and offers less resistance on the plugs, while a heavier line will help prevent fish from cutting it with their teeth.

It’s interesting to point out that over the years most of the big fish Harrington has got for his clients have come off the inside rod, or the one fished closest to shore.  “I’m not sure if this is because the bigger fish are looking to rest more in this slack, shallower water or not, but there’s no question our biggest fish consistently come from the inside rod,” he smiles.

The Situations

When asked about fishing slack water when the river is high, low or at prime levels, Harrington had this to say. 

“You can have the occasional good day when the river is on the rise, but the best results come when the river is dropping, no question.  Even it it’s rising in the morning, and the fishing slow, and starts dropping in the afternoon, the fishing can turn on.  I have specific markers on the bank for each spot I like to fish.  As soon as the river hits that level, I’m fishing it, I don’t care what color it is.”

Harrington points out that for his clients who aren’t keen on plugging, or who lack confidence in his slack, shallow water plugging approach, he’ll pull a fast one. 

“Many times when we’re having lunch on a side-drifting trip, we’ll anchor, let out the plugs (in slow, shallow water) and eat lunch.  Almost always we’ll catch fish, even in low, clear water.  This (anchoring in shallows and working water below) can be a great way to catch fish, and big ones.”

steelhead tadpolly plug fishing

One thing Harrington has been noticing is that the bigger plugs are catching bigger fish. “When targeting early springers, we’ve caught numerous big steelhead on wrapped K16s.”

On my short morning outing with Todd and Jody, we hit it on the third day of the river dropping.  Visibility was barely more than a foot, and we intentionally fished only slow, shallow water.  In just a few hours we hooked eight fish, landing and releasing six.  Every fish was hooked on a Tadpolly and five of those fish came off the inside rod, in less than four feet of water.

Last winter Harrington got his clients on three winter steelhead over 20 pounds, an accomplishment to be proud of when talking big waters of the mainstem Umpqua.  They took a handful of others in the 17-18 pound class.  One woman landed a whopper 22 pounder in her first ever hour of steelhead fishing.  Her husband later landed a 15 pounder and was bummed about how small it was.

This winter don’t overlook slow moving plugging water that you may have been passing by.  While many anglers prefer drift fishing or plunking such water, with the right setup and knowing what constitutes fishable water, you’re on the way to expanding your horizons and catching more fish.

- written by Scott Haugen

Editor's Note:  For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s popular book, 300 Tips To More Salmon & Steelhead, visit



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