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Pulling Plugs for Winter Steelhead by Jason Brooks

Like so many other aspects of life, it seems that some things in today’s “fishing world” are nothing but trends and styles.

From brand name and logo baseball caps, bead colors, rubber worm set-ups and such, anglers are often fishing the latest “trends.” And as my fourteen-year-old son reminds me, if something “new” comes along then obviously I know nothing about it since I am “old” at nearly fifty. But what some of the newer generation anglers don’t realize is that a few of the “new” techniques and gear are actually being resurrected from the “old school.”

steelhead plug fishing

Pulling plugs is one of those time-tested traditions that most of us “old guys” remember from our days of youth, sitting in a drift boat and watching the rod tips as our dads and grandpas pulled on the oars. Plug fishing for winter steelhead is not new, and it never will be, as long as there are those who like to watch a rod tip wiggle and the adrenaline rush of a takedown.

One thing that has changed in the plug pulling world are the plugs themselves.

Back in the day, it was either a Luhr-Jensen “Hot Shot” or a Heddon “Tadpolly”. Today we have Wigglers, Mag Lips, FatFish, KillerFish, Flatfish, Kwikfish, and the list goes on. But it is still the basic concept of putting that plug in front of the fish that creates the strike. A matching set of rods, reels, and line is the key to plug fishing. Something as little as one rod having 15-pound test and another having 12-pound test can make a big enough difference to not get strikes.

plug styles fishing

The rods are fairly short compared to the side drifting and bobber dogging styles.

A seven-foot, six-inch to an eight-foot rod with a fast-action tip and strong “backbone” or power rating with a matching level-wind reel is the basic set-up. Most major rod manufacturers make a line of rods for plug pulling, such as the Lamiglas XCC series. The reel being a level wind means that it has a strong drag system which is also consistent and now we have the added benefit of line-counter reels.

If you don’t have reels that count the line as it is let out, then there are a few things you can do to make sure you are fishing the same distance back or at least know how far off the rod tip the plug is.

steelhead plug fishing

Using braided mainline allows you to take a Sharpie marker and color an inch of the line every five or ten feet. Some will make hash marks on the line to let them know how far out the line is, such as one for ten feet, two for twenty, three for thirty and so on. But if you use braided line a “top shot” of monofilament should be tied on. This allows for some stretch in the line. Plugs are often fished in various water conditions as well, including clear water once the weather turns to freezing and the river drops. The monofilament helps in these conditions for “line shy” steelhead. Most importantly is that if you get hung up and need to break off this allows you to do so, though once you have a well-tuned and productive plug you really don’t want to lose it. A solid hang-up with a braided line can actually pull your boat out of the zone or worse, into a hazard. Monofilament has some stretch to it and some anglers want this stretch to help with fighting the fish since the rods are so short. 

To mark monofilament, or braid as well, use a bobber stop knot. Slide and secure them at known distances such as at 30 feet. You can also use “pulls” of the line from the reel to the first eye of the rod and count them to match the distance of multiple rods out fishing.

steelhead plug fishing braid

The idea of a “wall of plugs” means that if you have multiple rods out, the plugs are at the exact same distance from the boat, all diving the exact same depth. That way when a fish encounters one plug and decides to move it immediately is met with another plug in its face. The fish simply can’t get away from the plugs and strikes out of anger, excitement or curiosity. In order to do this, the rods must match, exactly. The line-counter reel is a huge benefit for the plug puller. It allows anglers to put the plugs out at the exact same distance while the rower stays on the oars. A novice can put the plugs out.

Be sure to use the same style and size of plugs when fishing multiple lures.

This way you know they are fishing the same depth. One plug might dive deeper at thirty feet of line out versus another style because of the bill angle or design. Some plugs wiggle quickly while others dart side to side. If you fish a run and don’t get bit then motor back up, and try a different style or color of plug to see if that makes a difference. If there was one other key factor to successful plug fishing it is making sure the hooks are razor sharp. Since the fish often strikes quickly, even if only to move the plug out of its way, the hook needs to be able to quickly penetrate the jaw and only super-sharp hooks can do this.

Salmon anglers often wrap their plugs, but I know of only a few steelhead anglers that do this. Steelhead are sight orientated and like colors such as orange, red, blue, and pink but they are actively feeding so don’t be afraid to add scents or baits to your plugs.

plug fishing steelhead salmon sand shrimp

Yakima Bait Company makes a Mag Lip that is the color of a sand shrimp and since the plug is designed to be wrapped anglers can add a sand shrimp tail to add scent and authenticity to the plug. Other baits to wrap on plugs are a small skein of eggs, tuna bellies, and even night crawlers. Adding scent such as anise, bloody tuna, salmon egg, or shrimp not only covers any human scent but it also helps draw fish over to the plug. Pro-Cure makes a “Super Sauce” as well as a Super Gel that is sticky and stays on plastic and metal and slowly washes off. Putting some Super Sauce or Gel on the bill of the plug means as the plug wiggles it is putting out a cloud of scent that is carried downstream. As a fish approaches the plug the scent hits them in the face and causes a reactive strike. 

pro cure fishing scents

At the end of the day a good plug angler will take any bait wraps off and soak their plugs in a tub of warm water and liquid degreasing soap. This takes any scents off of the plug. If fishing straight monofilament, it’s a good idea to cut the last ten to fifteen feet off as pulling plugs often causes this part of the line to scrape against logs, rocks, and other sunken debris. If using braid and a top shot of monofilament it is a good idea to cut off the top shot and replace it so the next time you go out, you are ready to go.

Pulling plugs is an art form and there are some anglers who are really good at it.

The only way to get to that level of plug pulling is to do it a lot. Working the oars or kicker motor to keep the plugs where the fish are takes practice and time. Setting up the boat is one of the most important parts of successful plug pulling, starting with the rod holders. Be sure they are set up to allows the rod to work properly, which is about a thirty-degree angle from the water and should be only slightly offset.

plug fishing steelhead

One of the biggest oversights is to have too much of the rod “loaded” or bent over either from sticking up too high or out to the side too much. The idea is to use the fast-action tip to see if the plug is working, or wiggling, thumping, etc. and then when a fish hits the plug it will be able to grab it and slightly pull it.

Then the stiff power of the lower section of the rod stops the rod from bending and the sharp hooks set into the jaw of the fish. If you have the rod over-loaded or bent too much, then when the fish grabs the plug it is stiff and the fish will immediately let go before grabbing the hooks. The rod tip won’t wiggle as much on an over-loaded rod making it hard to read.

Having the rod holders ready also means you can put out one rod, and then the rest in sequence and have the plugs separated the correct distance. When fishing along a cut bank or a seam you need to have the plugs at the right distance apart, again making that “wall of plugs.”

plug fishing steelhead net

If you have one rod further back on the boat gunnel than the other but put them out the same distance the plug will be that much further back than the other as they are starting at a different distance. It’s the “little things” like this that good plug pullers have learned. 

Reading water is a must when it comes to pulling plugs.

Knowing what is going on under the water is more important than seeing what is happening on the surface. Hidden boulders, root wads, and the substrate, and knowing where steelhead will be holding is key to successful plug pulling.

steelhead drift boat plug fishing

Tailouts are the easiest to read, but one of the hardest to fish in a drift boat. When a fish comes up a rapid or run to a tailout they often sit right at the edge, using the fast running water to get oxygen and recover from the energy used to get up the river. Being cold-blooded, once they get their energy back they become aggressive.

Backing plugs down to a tailout causes a fish to move sideways because they don’t want to go back down into the run or rapids. As it turns it will be met with another plug in its face and aggressively strike it. The danger is getting close to the tailout with a drift boat. Be ready on the oars to pull back and into soft water when you hook a fish or to get the plugs out of the water. Also, be ready to row down the rapids if the fish takes you that way.

Cut banks and seams are areas where fish will slowly travel upriver or use as cover when resting and feeding. When you see a boulder or a root wad in a seam or along a cut bank then get the plug rods out. Slowly work your way to the obstruction where the fish are holding.

Pulling plugs is just that, pulling them, and you need to work slowly down a river. The slower the better as the plug is doing the fishing work while you do the rowing or holding work. This is why it is one of the best methods for new anglers. There is no casting and reeling, feeling the bite, or setting the hook. Other than the person controlling the boat, other anglers just sit back and wait for the fish to get hooked. 

When a take-down occurs be sure to keep your hands in your pockets.

One of the biggest mistakes is to grab the rod and yank back. The rod and plug most often will set the super sharp hooks for you. With the water resistance pushing the plug and the rod’s design the fish will bury the hooks into its jaw by grabbing the plug. If you grab the rod and “set the hook” all you are doing is pulling the hooks out of its jaw. Instead, when a rod tip buries, watch it for a few seconds to make sure the hooks are set. Then lift if from the rod holder and reel a few cranks as this assures the hooks get buried.

steelhead plug fishing mag lip

Once the fish is well hooked it’s just you and the fish with a short length rod. It is a lot of fun and a great way to catch winter steelhead. Instead of fishing the latest trend, or wearing the coolest style gear, put on a wool shirt, rain gear, and grab the tackle box of “old school” plugs and go teach some of those younger generation anglers how to catch winter steelhead.

- written by Jason Brooks


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