Steelhead Side-Drifting Strategies by Scott Haugen

Steelhead Side-Drifting Strategies by Scott Haugen

There’s no question side drifting has revolutionized winter steelheading, but are you really covering all the water possible?

My wife, Tiffany, and I had recently returned from a stint of teaching school overseas, and I was itching for some winter steelhead action. During our summer months spent at home in Oregon, I’d heard a lot about the new side drifting fad, but had yet to try it.

That winter found me on Oregon’s Wilson River, fishing with good friends and living legends, Buzz Ramsey and Nick Amato. It was the first time I’d been exposed to side drifting for winter steelhead, and with these two as my mentors, the learning curve was short.

big k wilson river

Both were patient, concise and very directive in their approach.

In other words, there was no wasted time, no guessing; they knew what they were doing. The setups were simple and made sense. The approach was clear and the fact we landed multiple steelhead had me convinced that side drifting was more than just a passing fad.

Since that day on the river with Buzz and Nick, I’ve been fortunate to side drift many types of rivers in multiple states with many knowledgeable anglers. I’ve also had people side drifting in my boat, novices who got the hang of it and found instant success.

Hung-up on Setups

One thing I’ve learned in my brief 12 years of side drifting is to not get hung-up on the setup. I’ve seen guides and outstanding fellow anglers say their setup is the best and only way, and while it works for them, they’d cringe if they knew what someone’s else’s secret setup looked like.

side drifting fishing rags

Caption: Various sorts of terminal gear can be sidedrifted, from small eggs on a size 2 hook, to eggs on a double hook setup, to pink worms, Glo Bugs, rags and more.

I’ve had success in tiny coastal streams using 15-pound leader and a quarter-sized cluster of eggs cinched on a 2/0 hook, topped with a size 10 Lil’ Corky. This is a terminal gear rigging few side drifters would even try, but the buddy I fished with that day lives and dies by that setup...and we nailed the fish.

I’ve also fished big rivers where you’d think bigger presentations would prevail. But the guys I fished with there at times used nothing larger than a size 2 hook with only a few cured eggs secured in the bait loop. No yarn, no drift bobbers, nothing but a tiny bit of eggs on a small hook...and it worked!

Over the years I’ve experimented on my own, too. Trying different sized baits on different sized hooks in different sized rivers. While success has been surprisingly consistent, the common theme to success has come down to having all anglers in the boat using the same size terminal gear setup.

side drifting eggs fishing

More than size and color of the presentation, I think the most important element to the success of side drifting winter steelhead comes down to terminal gear position and the rate of presentation.

In other words, if the lines aren’t in prime water, and if the boat’s not controlled with precision, you won’t catch nearly as many fish. However, put the presentation where it needs to be and control the drift, and it doesn’t often matter whether you’re running a big bait on a 2/0 hook with a Spin-N-Glo or a tiny cluster of eggs on a bare, minuscule size 2 hook, you’re going to catch fish.

Prime Water

On my last big river side drifting excursion I was with noted Umpqua River guide, Todd Harrington. Harrington is a full-time fishing guide, spending most of his time on the Umpqua River, near his Elkton, Oregon home. As the Big K Outfitter’s head fishing guide, Todd spends many days a year on this river and knows how to fish it, and others in the area, exceptionally well.

My dad and I were fishing with Todd and we had the river to ourselves. A storm had come through a few days prior, and though the water was high and murky, it was dropping. The first riffle we drifted through, we ran rags right down the throat of a chute.

Dad hooked up before we even made it to the sweet spot.

Releasing that fish, Todd motored back upstream and we hit the riffle again, this time with our terminal gear positioned along the edge of the outside seam. Bingo! I was soon releasing a 14-pound chrome steelhead.

On the next pass I hit another steelhead, this one coming from the lower, outside edge of the riffle. Our fourth pass yielded nothing, so we pushed downstream. Before it was over, we landed and released seven fish on what Todd considered a very slow day.

scott haugen side drifting fishing steelhead

Of course, the more anglers in the boat, the easier it is to cover water.

While fishing Idaho’s big Clearwater River one season, we had five anglers sidedrifting from the boat, one man on the motor. Even then we had to make multiple passes through some sections in order to cover all the potential holding water.

If fishing one angler in the boat, it may take several passes to cover all the prime water. This was one of the first lessons I learned that day when fishing with Buzz and Nick. Since the path of the terminal gear is established the moment it hits the water, its route of travel becomes very defined by river currents.

Rather than risk pulling the presentation from its path of travel and ruining it’s natural rate of travel, it’s best to let it drift its course, then motor or row back upstream and run it again, putting the terminal gear in another spot. Of course, if it’s a fast moving section of water and you can’t make it back upstream, then everyone better be on the same page and hit the sweet spot the first time through; in these scenarios you only get one shot.

Pressured Water

When side drifting pressured water, pay attention to the exact drifts boats ahead of you are making. On a recent trip we watched as four boats worked their way through ideal side drifting water ahead of us. All four of them side drifted—none pulled plugs or worked jigs. We noticed the final three boats ran their terminal gear right through the center of the riffle, not hooking a fish.

My buddy and I figured either there were no fish around, or the boating pressure had pushed them to the side of the main current. We side drifted through the same water, but worked our gear a good 10 feet on the other side of where the previous three boats passed. As soon as we hit the hotspot, we hooked up. With one fish in the box, we ran through the same place again and bonked another metalhead.

side drifting steelhead fishing

Caption: The author’s father, Jerry Haugen, with a Clearwater River winter steelhead taken by sidedrifting a seam close to shore.

While our terminal gear might have been different than those of the anglers in front of us, position is what made the difference in this situation. Don’t get caught going through the motions, doing what everyone else is doing. Instead, anticipate where fish might be and hit that water. If no strikes come, re-run the water with the terminal gear in a different place. That’s how to learn where fish hold.

Another overlooked side drifting sweet-spot is pocket water. Not many side drifters think pocket water can be side drifted, but it can. Though you may not achieve the long, picture-perfect drift found on many steelhead streams, it doesn’t mean the approach is any less effective in smaller sections of water.

Even on big rivers, sidedrifting pocket water can be highly productive. The key to effectively fishing pocket water is being ready with the precise amount of weight and making precise casts. Because pocket water often exists amid fast-flowing currents, you only get one shot at running a bait through.

When fishing pocket water, have the anglers stand in casting position with bails flipped, ready to cast. The instant the oarsman gives the word, make simultaneous casts. Prior to making these casts it should be clearly communicated who is casting short, who is going long. Remember, pocket water may only be a few feet wide and 10 feet long, so the casts have to be spot-on.

steelhead fishing driftboat

Caption: Noted Umpqua River guide, Todd Harrington, prepares to release a steelhead picked up while sidedrifting. The Umpqua is one of the West’s largest rivers, yet prime sidedrifting water can be found amid long runs and surprisingly small pocket water.

Another point to keep in mind when side drifting pocket water is that the presentation often has to be pulled out prior to reaching the end of the drift. This is because the water is moving fast and rocks are often present at the bottom of these pockets—get hung up here and you may miss the chance of hitting subsequent slots. Should you break off, grab another rod. The rule here is to have multiple rods set up, baited and ready to go with the right amount of weight.

side drifting pencil lead and slinkys weights

It takes some preparation time, but can end up making the difference between catching or not catching fish. Having two identical rods set up, per angler, is a minimum for many people, with three or four rods each not being an overkill.

Another area I’ve seen many side drifters overlook are freshets—places where creeks enter into rivers. These habitats often run tight to shore, so many anglers don’t think they can be side drifted. Lighten up the weight and maybe downsize the terminal gear and you’ll be surprised at the results.

Not long ago a buddy and I were fishing a small, southern Oregon coastal river. Everyone ahead of us was pulling plugs, working jigs and side drifting the middle of the river. We had two fish to go before limiting and were getting discouraged with all the boat traffic on the water. Rather than follow everyone else, we changed our terminal gear and worked where a little creek fed in, tight to shore, a place everyone else had just passed. I hooked a dandy buck right away, and my buddy nailed a fat hen below the alluvial fan. Just like that we were tagged out and we did it in water everyone else had passed by.

steelhead rag yarnie fishing

Where incoming streams enter a river, they kick rocks and debris loose.

This debris piles up below the incoming stream, in its main current line, and is called an alluvial fan. Fish usually gather above and below these alluvial fans, and while many angles know to fish above them, they often overlook the lower portion, where the water gets deeper. Steelhead will often hold in these deeper, relaxed waters.

As for gearing up, I, like many avid side drifters appreciate the ease and efficiency of having identical setups ready to roll. Preparing the same setups on multiple rods ensures consistent presentations and precise handling. For reference purposes, I like a 9’ 6” G. Loomis with a slow action and a spinning reel spooled with 10-pound test PLine CXX Extra strong, I’m ready to roll. Experiment with setups and find what works best for you.

If you’re one who likes counting on one method to catch fish, the beauty of side drifting is it’s level of flexibility and the amount of water it allows to be covered. As long as you’re prepared ahead of time, the rest comes down to putting the terminal gear where it needs to be and controlling the speed of the delivery.

Put all the pieces of the puzzle together, and no doubt, catch rates will rise.


- Written by Scott Haugen



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