PLUGGING! I can hear a collective groan from the non-pluggers and a sigh of “Yeah…I know” from the pluggers out there. When you see a grown man, veins popping on his forehead, spittle coming out of his mouth roaring “FIIIISHHHH!” as he looks past you at the rod buried to the cork with a donkey of a steelhead doing its best impression of a dolphin heading for the salt…it changes you.
If you haven’t been in the boat with a semi-knowledgeable plugger then when I say “Lets plug!” you immediately get sleepy or whisper criticism under your breath like “again? Come on man.” Or you get a case of the heavy sighs reserved for when rookies catch ONE fish and want to tell you how to fish for the next 4 hours. Plugging has its places, weird places too. We will get to that. The first thing I want to say about plugging is, just do it. Seriously. Just take the time and do it. You need that skill. I know, it sucks at first. It is slow, and boring most of the time when you are a non plugger. You question everything you are doing all the time. You look at your plug box (with 3 plugs in it, one you actually found on the river) scratching your head. But you just need to GET OUT AND DO IT. Take a day and just plug all day. I promise you it isn't a waste. I row driftboats most of the time so I will talk about it from that point of view, but if you have a sled this still applies.
When you start off it doesn’t matter. I started with two different bait casters, two different size rods. “you need the same size! ……” ydda yadda yadda. Yes. It helps, it WILL make you more successful for sure, but if you don’t have it just try to get two rods roughly the same size and two bait casters.
I caught a TON of fish before I had “plug rods” Start with two rods until you can control your boat to a degree that you feel comfortable adding a third or you will HATE life when you get a goat rope of a tangled mess in the best part of the hole. When plug rods tangle I can lay the bushes FLAT with my cursing. As a rower, that’s game over.
Make sure to put braid on your plug rods. Use an FG knot or applicable knot to tie a monofilament ‘bumper’ of 20-25lbs test. I like to tie in 6-8’ of ‘bumper’. the bumper is your shock absorber. Braid does not stretch. Mono does. Let us just say when that 20lbs steelhead turns on a dime and does a run that you want a little “give” in your line instead of “give” in your hook as it becomes the shock absorber.
If you have some extra coin, go out and pick up some plug rods and bait casters with LINE counters. Invaluable. Keeps everything exact. Especially since you have to have clients/friends put out the plugs.
Here we go…….PLUGS
101% of Winter Steelhead plugging in the Pacific Northwest can be accomplished with YakimaBait’s 3.5” Mag-Lips. Coincidentally, my favorite plug manufacturer out there. I also catch LOTS of Coho’s on them as well.
Doctor Death is probably the most famous plug for steelhead of all time. For good reason. IT WORKS. The general rule of thumb is the clearer the water the less color I use. So if its low and clear I will run an all metallic with a blue/pink/black herringbone stripes...something of the like, or copper and black. When the visibility starts to drop I start dropping big bright colors and colors with bright colored metallic finishes in. bright orange, pink, blue….it all works. But to simplify, if you only bought two Doctor Deaths, two Blue Pirates, two Street Walkers, two Misty Rivers (Yakima Bait products) you could catch all the steelhead.
Why two? You never EVER buy one plug in one finish. Some plugs are ‘runners’.
For whatever reason you can buy five of the same exact plug and three will just cream ‘em. One will fish okay and one just won’t catch anything. It’s like putting your waders on and IMMEDIATELY having to go to the bathroom despite having just gone, there is no scientific reason why. Plus what happens when you back your BEST plug into a hidden tree, or break it off? Cursing, heavy cursing, that’s what.
ALWAYS fish two different finishes on opposing rods.
I swap out the belly hook for a 3-4 ball bead chain swivel on a split ring with a 3/0 siwash hook off of the bead chain. I just take the back hook off. I hooked too many wild steelhead (where legal to fish 2 hooks) and had that second hook just sink into their faces causing damage. It’s just not needed. I rarely lose plug fish on this setup due to gear. You can fish em right out of the box if you want, I have before.
Always test your plug after you tie it on, just next to the boat. Pull harder and harder and make sure it dives true. Use needle nose pliers to turn the eyelet in the plug located at the tie on point. Start tweaking it until you can get it to run straight and true. The clips that come with the plugs work great or tie a “Lefty’s Loop” knot directly to the eyelet...it allows the plug 100% freedom of movement.
LET OUT THE WIGGLERS!!!
My method to letting plugs out is to tell people ‘line pulls’: “All right guys keep your thumb on the spool and pull with your other hand approximately one foot off line off the reel 40 times.”
If you have line counters: “keep your thumb on the spool and slowly let out to forty-five feet on the counter. Either way make sure your guys/gals are keeping the rod out the side of the boat to avoid that goat rope I was talking about earlier. I like to glance at where the line enters the water on both rods to see if they are darn near identical which is what you want after they have been let completely out. This is where equal length rods DOES come in handy, it keeps everything the same. If one line enters the water further down the river, chances are Uncle Jimmy’s idea of a “foot” was different than yours. See where line counters come in handy? Have him reel in a touch to match the other rod. I run plugs 35-45 feet out behind the boat. It all depends on control and depth. You will start to see in tight spots having the plugs closer to the boat gives you A LOT more control of where they go in dynamic water. In slower water/deeper water I will run them out farther so the plugs can get down.
IN THE WATER...
The type of plugging water you are looking for is the same you look for in any steelhead fishing. Brisk walking pace, chattered, nervous water 2-6 feet deep. Below or above heavy rapids is money, tailouts. If you can find a bottleneck, a place where you look around and go “Well….there is only ONE spot/slot for these fish to swim up river with any amount of cover” PAYDIRT.
Start plugging tailouts and seams where 'way too fast' water meets really slow water and make that ‘perfect’ steelhead seam. Heck start plugging everything. Honestly just take a day and a few good friends and plug all day. Try to plug everything and you will start to see what water is conducive to plugging and what isn't. Especially after a rain and the water is that emerald green color. When your chances of success are HIGH.
Remember that your plugs are 35-45 feet behind the boat. I like to drop in the plugs WAAAAYYYY early. Usually means I have to row my butt off to keep the boat from going down river but that’s fine. The biggest mistake I see new pluggers do is let their plugs out late and waste most of the run. Its okay if they are chattering bottom early and digging in the rocks. Row hard or gas the motor up a bit and hold until plugs are in and rods are in the holders. Then start your approach.
You want a decent bump, bump, bump on your rod tip. Rods needs to be at a 45 degree angle out of the rod holder, vertically. This is where actual plug rods come in handy. They are built to flex on the bumping of the rod tip and impart more action on the plug through the flex in the rod. BUT, I’ve still caught lots of fish before I had “plug rods”. You will start to see what’s really fast, what’s too slow and what’s just right. Those ‘just right’ holes will probably be where you hook fish most consistently. That also changes with water levels FYI. Don’t be afraid to plug other spots though too. I’ve caught fish with the plug barely waggling and when it’s diving for all its worth rod bent over like it has a fish on. When the water gets low I plug those previously “way to fast” parts and really do well.
What you are trying to do is get your plugs in the water way ahead of the fish, work ‘em down to the fish and PUSH them out of their hole, down river. This is why it’s important to try and find bottlenecks and why it's important to have your gear out at the same lengths. Where the fish can’t go AROUND your plugs to escape them up river. I have caught TONS of fish in spots where they had plenty of room to go around my plugs too so don’t pass up water just based on that criteria.
TARGETING FISH ON PLUGS
Fish are territorial. Plugs are bright and loud. When you can work a plug down into a fishes face they bite. HARD. Or they get irritated and cycle downstream a bit to escape. You keep working them down into their face again. And again as they cycle down a few feet at a time. ALWAYS fish plugs as far as you can into the shallow tailout. A lot of times those fish will back down nice and slow with the plugs until you FORCE them to make a decision. They either have to go downriver to the next hole for cover or whack the offensive plug. Which is why it’s super important to control your boat and therefore plugs. Look at the water. Visualize where your plugs are in the hole below you. Do you need to crank the rod angle out to get more of a spread or narrow the rods closer together because the hole is smaller? Do you just try to fish one plug super tight to wall where you think fish are and then let the other one just go where it pleases stopping the fish from going around? Also are you fishing two of your “runners”? Is one plug your ‘runner’ and the other unproven? Put the ‘runner’ where you think the fish are. Period. Adjust your horizontal rod angle (straight out from the boat or pointing more downstream from the boat) for every hole.
It’s okay to row back up and give it another go after you wait a few minutes to let the hole rest. Walk or row the boat back up the shallow side and try again. Just make sure you do something different the next time around. Switch up plugs, change your line of attack ( boat position as you back down the river) or use “The Spear” (explained below) Now with all of that said, I have caught fish letting plugs out, I have caught fish reeling in plugs in a 1 foot tailout after backing down a hole for 30 minutes, I have caught fish with my plug caught over in some slow water on the surface. Plug fishing can get WEIRD. I’ve caught steelhead on K-15 salmon plugs when I left my steelhead plug box at home one time. I’ve caught MANY fish on a plug I still have, that I found on the river a dozen years ago...so have faith!
ADVANCED EQUIPMENT UNLOCKED! “The Spear of Destiny”
You have caught a few fish plugging eh? Okay. Here is a trick I learned from Jared Cady of GetMDry Guide Service I have used over the years. I call it “The Spear”. You run your normal two rods out to 35-45 feet. You run a bait diver with a 5 foot leader off the back with a #2 Gamakatsu tied in. I slide a small Corkie down the leader and hook a coon shrimp on the hook. There are tons of ways to hook a coon shrimp up just make sure it doesn’t spin in the water. You want it to be static as it backs down. Use a small spin and glow if you want. I normally splay out the two outside rods and run it right up the gut middle 5 feet further out than whatever you have your outside rods at. Our theory is reluctant fish on the plugs will take aggression out on that coon every time.
Solid technique if you have the skill to run 3 rods. If you don’t have a 3rd rod holder and even if you do I usually have a guy hold the diver rod. When a bite is felt (more often I see the bite and they have no idea what’s going on) they need to do a quick “Lift” of the rod. DON’T SET THE HOOK. Firm lifting is how I explain it.
Plugging is a step towards guiding. You run the boat and they have to do everything with the rods. It will GREATLY reduce yelling, strained friendships, fist fights and lost girlfriends or boyfriends, if you go OVER everything from letting them out to what to do when you actually get a bite, to proper procedures in pulling the rod out of the rod holder. Watching your girlfriend rip the rod out of the rod holder and set the hook like a Bass fishing Pro on the last minute of a tournament can give you heart palpitations. Smacking your friend on the head and saying “what were you thinking stupid?” after he loses the fish by reeling the plug to the tip of the rod doesn’t bode well for future outings.
TIPS FROM THIS IDIOT
I always use words like “lift”. Lifting the rod isn't setting the hook. Using the right words will make your life much easier. Beau if you are reading this, yes I remember getting excited and setting the hook. It was once. Let’s let by-gones be by-gones.
I TURN on my clicker setting on the reel and set my drags to 80% of what I think I need and adjust accordingly after the fish is on and the angler gets settled. Unless I got Pro’s in my boat. Why? Well, I have found it easiest on all parties involved to let all the chaos happen during the bite and give everyone involved a buffer of error. When a steelhead rips a plug it's already down there shaking its head, HOOKED. The rod does all the work. The fish is freaking out by the time the angler gets to the rod and that’s if he is fast. Aunt Jody is slower than a 7 year itch getting to the rod and the steelhead is making its first run when she pulls the rod out of the rod holder and lifts the tip way up. You see where I am going with this right? Even your best buddy can get excited (I KNOW BEAU!!! LET IT GO!) and set the hook when he rips the rod out of the rod holder. It is still enough drag that if the the fish turns back toward the boat and I say “REEL LIKE YOUR MEDICARE DEPENDS ON IT JODY!” they can gain line on the reel. Then after the first run and everyone gets settled in for the fight I will see about reaching over and just “click, click” on the drag if I deem necessary. The clicker allows me to hear if they are actually GAINING line when they are reeling in and not just reeling “drag”. I lost a lot of fish in my boat from over enthusiastic people and rookies. I found this technique keeps friends happily in the boat and not walking home after losing the “Last BLEEPING FISH IN MY BOAT JIMMY!” Remember I’m pulling for ya. We are all in this together.
- Written by Jerid Doering