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How to Backtroll Plugs for Steelhead

After all these years of technological development, improved techniques and continued development of the latest in steelhead catching trends, I’ll admit it, I still really enjoy back trolling plugs.  “Pulling plugs”, as it’s called in the Northwest is the most fundamental steelhead boat technique there is.  But like most forms of fishing success, it is about the details.

How to Backtroll Plugs for Steelhead

Backtrolling plugs is a technique where plugs are strung out behind the boat into the current.  The length of line that you would release would depend upon the type of plug you’re fishing, the depth and of course the clarity of the water.  The oarsman would then back the plugs down the river at a snail’s pace.  Boat control and this snail pace are of utmost importance.  The pace is especially important in colder water temperatures.

Most veteran plug pullers prefer the “wall of death” method in which all the plugs are let out at equal lengths.  The result is a wall of plugs backing down the river and in theory, backing the steelhead down the river as well.  Although a steelhead may take a plug at any time, many of the strikes occur in the back quarter of the drift.   At this point I think the fish simply gets tired of being pushed around and to our delight, the gloves come off.

An easy way to make sure your lines are out an equal distance is to mark the line with a bobber knot.  Simply slide the knot up to the point on the line in which you’ll do most of your fishing.  For instance, on the North Coast of Oregon, fishing out of my drift boat, most of my fishing is done with sixty to seventy feet of line out.  I put a bobber knot at 60 feet and then have my clients adjust from there.  I may have them let the knot out to the first guide, the tip, or even a specified length from the tip depending on the variables I mentioned earlier.

I fish a variety of different styles of plugs.  T-4 and U-20 Flat Fish are my favorites in a variety of colors.  These plugs are great divers if you know how to tune them.  The “how to” is a completely different subject as many of you that have tried to dive these plugs into fast water have found out.  I’ll have more on that subject to come.  I use Hot Shots and Tadpollys in water depths of four to eight feet and often times prefer the plugs without the rattle to the plugs with.  I figure there is plenty of rattling going on down there as it is and I’m not sure the rattle is always the answer.

So let’s get to the nuts and bolts of my system.  And I can’t emphasize this next point enough.  It is a system, if you change any aspect of the system, something else in the system is going to be effected and it’s not going to be the effect that you desire.

With this system, you must:

  • Fish a soft rod.
  • Fish ten to twelve pound main line.
  • Twentyfive pound, five foot bumper.
  • Soft drags.
  • Change all your hooks out to #4 Mustad Ultra Point Triple Grips.

One of the first things that you will notice about these five points is that everything is on the light side and there is one reason that this is the case.  You don’t lose fish.  Losing fish is one of the main complaints of plug fishermen and when you investigate further, it’s pretty clear why.

When a steelhead grabs a plug initially they’re looking to crush and kill this little annoyance that’s made them snap.  For fishermen that fish the heavier type steelhead rods, the following description will be very real.  The rod goes down and bounces up and down violently.  The angler picks up the rod, tightens everything and POP, “he’s
gone”.  The steelhead grabbed, crushed, felt that something wasn’t right (a stiff drag and rod) and immediately got rid of the plug.  In the system that I’ve described, the rod will lay down and if it is light enough, will hardly bounce.  The fish will crush, shake it’s head and because it hasn’t felt anything (remember:  light rod, drag, mono), decides it’s going to swim off with it’s little prize.  At this moment, the points of the fine wire Ultra Point Triple Grip bury deep into the maxillary and this fish, outside of cutting you off, is simply not going to get away.  Anyone who’s ever tried to pull a hook out of this little piece of face armor knows what I’m talking about.  Take a moment and play this scenario through and then look at a Ultra Point Triple Grip.  Hopefully, the lights are going on for you much like they did for me a number of years ago.

Patience is the key and typically by the time I have one of my clients pick the rod up, there’s ten to twenty feet of line that has peeled off the reel.  Often times I will then adjust my clients drag (light tackle lever drag anybody?) and from there it’s simply about enjoying one of the great sport fishing species in the world.

In the coming weeks I’ll elaborate further on a few of the specifics in this article. Custom colors, setting up and tuning a plug and further elaborating on some of the techniques.

Lance Fisher is a professional Salmon, steelhead and sturgeon guide and radio host in Portland, Oregon.  Lance guides for steelhead on the waters of the Wilson, Nestucca, Clackamas and Cowlitz Rivers.

For any questions you might have, or to simply book a trip, contact me.