I am frequently telling my customers to put out their plugs when I am going through the tailout of the previous hole I fished. That way, as soon as you can dig in your oars after passing through the shallow water, your plugs are fishing.


In today’s side-drifting and bobber dogging strategies, don’t overlook the effectiveness of plugs. 


With the onset of the side-drifting and bobber-dogging fleet, backtrolling plugs has become somewhat of a lost art it would be foolish not have this strategy as a viable option on today’s rivers.

There’s been more than one time in recent history when our crew did a late start, well behind a fleet of side-drifters and bobber doggers, only to catch more fish than they, because it’s a technique that the fish aren’t accustomed to for much of the day, or over the course of the season for that matter.





Trolling plugs for salmon and steelhead is a very versatile technique that can be employed in many different situations. Back-trolling and forward trolling plugs in Oregon’s rivers and estuaries remains a productive tactic wherever salmon and steelhead can be encountered.


Rods, Reels and Line

Rods are particularly important when fishing plugs. A fast-action tip on a lighter rod enables the plug to work more freely when attempting to attract fish to your lure. This type of rod also enables an angler to detect when the plug is properly working. The rod the serious plug angler should seek should be 7½ to 8½ foot in length with a quick tapering tip. The rod should be rated for line in the range of 10- to 20-pound test. Lure weight should be 3/8 – 2 ounces. The rod of choice for me is an 8’2”, 2-piece model. It doubles as a perfect rod for spinner trolling. I know some fishing guides that are adamant about their fiberglass rods, believing that they outperform graphite. Some rods now have a mix of both composites giving you the best of both worlds. Fiber-glass does seem to have the great quality of a “softer” tip enabling the plug to work more freely. The “softer” the tip, the faster the action will be on your selected plug.

The reels I use for plug pulling are typically of the line counter variety. I am adamant about using line counter reels to help ensure my customers deploy an equal amount of line from each rod. I think it’s important that you create a “wall of death” by deploying the same amount of line on both rods, effectively surrounding the waiting fish, often inducing them to strike with more aggression.






After 30 years of guiding, my personal preference has finally landed on green braided line. Many anglers agree that when plug fishing, line size and color don’t have a significant role in success. These fish seem so focused on the plug, that line color and diameter don’t seem to matter. I’ve settled on the 80-pound braid for its durability as well as its value. The best part of using a heavy-duty braid line is that when your plug gets stuck in a tree limb or rock, you really don’t have too much trouble yarding it out and getting your prized piece of proven equipment back to your boat. Assuming you’re using the standard size 2 bronze treble on your plugs, those are not hard hooks to straighten out when snagged on wood debris. The braid is nearly abrasion resistant so it’s quite common to be able to retrieve your gear from some nasty places, and that emboldens me to fish those nasty places, where fish are resting in what they consider a defensive posture.

When fishing for salmon or steel-head in a typical Northwest stream, the bite usually takes place in relatively slow water—especially for salmon. When a fish hits a plug in slow water, they generally stay in the same spot where they bit the plug, and shake their head from side to side trying to spit the foreign object out of their mouth. This is when the hook is most likely to penetrate the corner of the mouth, allowing you to land the fish. With braided lines, when the fish first begins to shake its head, there is very little stretch in the line. Ideally, the give in the rod is enough to keep the fish from pulling away from the plug, a key reason why hooks need to be razor sharp. With the mouth of the head-shaking fish pointed directly upstream towards your boat, the plug will commonly come straight out of the fishes mouth and you will have a lost opportunity. However, this is not true in fast water where salmon and steelhead are likely to turn immediately after the strike and get hooked whether you are using mono or braided lines.







When rigging plugs to fish for salmon and steelhead, you are not in for a challenge. It is quite possibly the easiest technique to rig for. The only factor that you have to account for is the depth you desire the plug to fish. For most areas you will target fish, a “flat-line” approach is adequate.

Flatlining is simply attaching the plug directly to the mainline. I use this rigging exclusively when fishing for steelhead. It is really rare when you will need to use additional gear (divers, dropper with lead) to get your plug to fish deeper then the plug alone will fish. That is not always true for salmon. You will encounter most productive steelhead water between 3 to 6 feet deep. The plugs I use for steelhead can all dive that deep on their own. So, flatlining is simply attaching a plug snap to the mainline and fishing your desired plug. Make sure to use a high quality stainless steel snap to ensure maximum efficiency.


Author Bob Rees and Chris Sessions with a plug-caught Wilson River steelhead. 



We all have our favorite plugs because they are the ones that have produced for us in the past. I will outline plugs that have worked well for me, but I caution anglers not to limit themselves to my personal selections. Ironically, colors that work well for my guide buddies don’t seem to pan out well for me and vice versa. Fish with the gear you have confidence in. I personally believe I can catch fish on any color plug as long as it is tuned properly but there are certain colors I use in certain conditions.


Here is a brief list of them for steelhead:

First and most importantly when selecting a steelhead plug is that you choose a plug that will not fish too deep. This is a common problem for plug pullers. I never realized it could be a problem until a fellow guide pointed out why smaller is better. Smaller dives shallower. I know this is obvious, but the importance will hit you in the face if you don’t know already. If you choose to fish a plug that dives deep you will find your strike-to-hook ratio to be a bit frustrating. When I finally went to a shallower diving plug, my strike to hook ratio increased by over 30 percent. This is because when fish approach the plug to hit it, the hook is more exposed for penetration on a shallower diving plug. If your plug is not diving into the bottom, neither is your hook. For steelhead, I most often use a size #30 Hot Shot. Fish small—your strike to hook results will be better.






As for colors, I have always gone by the much-advertised theory of bright colors on bright days and dark colors on dark days. I have one exception to that theory though. I have had great success on a small black/gold pirate Hot Shot (#30) on any type of conditions and metallic green is a consistent producer for me in many types of conditions. Other colors I will use on “dark days”: black back/silver side, black or red billed mother of pearl, and black billed white body (cop car). On bright days: metallic greens/chromes, metallic red, copper is good, metallic blue pirates and green pirates, all silver, gold/black back and metallic pink are all good colors. Ever since Rapala acquired Luhr Jensen, the color selection for Hot Shots had diminished significantly.

Many plug pulling steelheaders have gone to Yakima products for their plugs, and that is a good choice. The crew at Yakima have designed the Map Lip series for fishermen. It’s been a popular choice for anglers in both salmon and steelhead sizes. The preferred size for steelhead is the 3.0 and the 3.5. The bill of the plug, designed for getting this plug to dig deep is excellent, and requires no tuning in most situations.






Yakima has stayed true to the needs of NW anglers, providing an array of colors to choose from for different conditions for the NW salmon and steelhead angler.


The Technique

As mentioned in the rigging section, plugs are likely the easiest to rig for. Plug pulling is also one of the easiest techniques to master. There are just a few things that I will point out in this section that decades of plug pulling has taught me, making me more effective every year I guide.


Know When to Deploy

The best feature about plug pulling is that you can virtually fish any depth of water. This is possible because plugs float (if they are made properly). This enables anglers to fish extremely shallow water if they desire without the worry of snagging up in most situations. For this reason, especially when pursuing steelhead, you can, and should fish in many different water conditions. I frequently catch steelhead in 3 feet of water using plugs. You should leave no water untouched and when you do that, you can call yourself an effective steelheader. When it comes to deploying plugs for steelhead, I make it a point to deploy too early. I am frequently telling my customers to put out their plugs when I am going through the tailout of the previous hole I fished. That way, as soon as you can dig in your oars after passing through the shallow water, your plugs are fishing. This is something you will become more effective at when you begin to learn a river.


Randy Woolsey holds a plug-caught hatchery winter steelhead caught in Oregon’s Wilson River.


Know Where to Fish

As mentioned before, I fish steelhead in 3 to 6 feet of water preferably with a broken surface. In my most productive river heights, steelhead will lie in this depth of water in longer runs and stretches, at the heads of shallow holes, in tailouts, and occasionally behind boulders in pockets. That about covers the whole river. As stated before, leave no water untouched.


Know Your Water Depth

I have a much better grip on this now that I have run several holes with a portable depth finder. I learned a lot after doing that. I don’t use one anymore because I feel like I can accurately predict a hole’s depth with the experience I have. I recommend starting out with one as I did, I think you will be surprised at some of the depths you are fishing. After you know this, you can decide which size plug you will use and whether you will need a diver or not. I typically depend on lure size to effectively fish water depth but when pulling plugs for salmon or steelhead, I will typically deploy 45 to 70 foot of line with the use of my line counter reels.






The Water

As stated before, there is “classic” water where you are more likely to find the species you are targeting in certain water conditions. For steelhead on an averaged sized North Oregon river, I would place most of my emphasis on this broken-surfaced 3 to 5 foot of water. This type of water is going to be experienced in long runs of low-gradient riverbed. On a typical river, this may make up between 25 and 40 percent of the fishable water. This is hands down, my favorite water to fish plugs. I would even encourage anglers to fish 2 foot of water as long as it has that broken-surfaced effect. Steelhead are brave in this water as they feel secure with the surface displacement.

My second favorite water would be cut-banks. Again, a small percentage of the fishable water but very productive. This water would be characterized by a sharp drop-off on one side of the river. Hopefully it is relatively shallow as the cut banks with water depths exceeding 5 feet are typically not productive steelhead hang-outs, with the exception of a few large bucks that seem to prefer this type of water. Fish will be lying fairly close to the bank, making plugs more effective than bank fishing as these fish are easily spooked by passing bank anglers. Other places where you will find occasional steelhead are going to be ahead of big boulders, along rip-rapped banks, in pockets and at the heads of holes and tailouts. Make these lower priority efforts as they are effectively fished pitching a bait cluster or making a quick pass with the plugs. These fish are HOT on plugs, you can tell that by the way they hit. You don’t need to spend a long time in one spot to find the aggressive one.





In conclusion, plug pulling is one of my most favorite ways to catch salmon and steelhead. The bite is like no other! I still lose my breath when a fish hits as hard as they do on a plug. Nothing substitutes the rush! As mentioned before, the technique of plug pulling is one of the easiest to learn. Like all fishing, be patient and fish ALL of the water! Encourage your fellow anglers to not anchor in the holes as this takes away opportunities for other anglers. There is nothing quite so frustrating as putting your boat in the water and nowhere to fish! Don’t give up on this technique, it is worth mastering, especially if you are a newcomer to drift boat fishing in a river! Good luck!

Bob Rees is the co-founder of The Guide’s Forecast, a resource for NW anglers looking for detailed information on how to catch more fish. Check out our series of technical reports, webinars, tackle and weekly fishing newsletter at www. TheGuidesForecast.com.




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