When it comes to steelhead, there is just nothing like the arm-wrenching strike produced when one hits a plug. The rod-bending strikes, most believe, are due to steelhead treating plugs as invaders to their territory. One thing for sure, no other technique makes steelhead as bad-tempered. I’ve had them pull rod and reel from my boat in an effort to kill my vibrating plug.
Just as the technique implies, the goal of back-trolling plugs for steelhead is to slowly back them down the river from a boat moving slower than the current. Begin by positioning your boat upstream from the area you wish to fish by holding your craft (drift boat or jet sled) steady in the current by rowing or with the aid of a trolling motor. Then, free spool your diving plug out, downstream behind your boat 40-to-50 feet.
When you stop letting out line, the current will cause your plug to dive near bottom. Now, while holding back in the current, allow your craft to slowly slip downstream so that your plug(s) will dive near bottom while marching downriver at a steady slow pace. This is the basic premise of back-trolling plugs for steelhead. Using this technique allows the plugs to dive and work near bottom through the entire drift.
The first step is to anchor up and check to make sure all your plugs are “tuned”; that is, running straight in the current and not rolling or running off to one side or the other. Most anglers check plug action by pulling their lures next to the boat. It’s easy: with six feet of line extending from your rod tip simply pull your plug briskly through the water and observe its action. It should dive down and wiggle without broaching to one side. This is an important first step; after all, if your lures are going to perform well they need to run straight in order to dive near the bottom where steelheads are most often found.
Should you discover an out-of-tune plug you can easily adjust it by bending the pull-point eyelet (with the diving lip or bill facing you) the opposite direction the plug is running. A small pair of needle-nose pliers works best for this fine alteration. You should realize, only a small amount of adjustment is normally all that’s needed to make your plug swim correctly. Plugs like the Mag Lip or X Series Kwikfish have fixed eyelets while some plugs, like most FlatFish and Hot Shots, are equipped with screw eyes that can be adjusted by turning, rather than bending, their pull-point eyelet the opposite way it’s running.
Once your plugs are all running properly, it’s time to fish. Start back-trolling by holding your boat at the upper end of the run or drift you intend to fish. This means you’ll be holding steady in one place as line is paid out from your reel. As mentioned above you’ll want to run your lures 40-to-50 feet behind your boat. In shallow water or short runs you may want to fish your plugs only 30 feet back, to facilitate a deep dive or when fish might be spooked due to clear water and/or heavy pressure try fishing them 50-to-70 foot out.
An important element in back-trolling plugs for steelhead is to be sure all your plugs are running the same distance from the boat which, as the theory goes; will intimidate territorial fish into striking. With a bait-cast reel style, you can determine distance by counting the passes of the level-wind bar across the face of the reel; for example, an Abu Garcia 5500 reel will pay out seven feet of line with each pass of the line guide — so seven single passes of the line guide will be the right amount of let out for most conditions. While you can count line guide passes to determine distance, the easiest and most accurate way of gauging the distance is to use reels equipped with line counters.