Outdoor News: Drift boating for steelhead

I traded the old drift boat for a new one last fall; my new one is an 18 foot wide-bottom Willie drifter complete with a UHMW (synthetic) bottom. Yes, it’s big, but this boat’s plastic bottom makes the craft row easily, not stick on rocks, and its size means it’s in no way tippy and allows me to haul gear and people safely over shallow river bottoms.

Owning a drift boat (or jet boat for that matter) opens up a whole new world of fishing as compared to not having one. Not only can you access miles of water on your favorite steelhead stream, but that of dozens of rivers within driving distance from your home. Adding a warm coat, rain gear and a boat heater can make a winter trip mostly comfortable for a female companion or young angler.

And while you might start off catching fish the same way you did from shore, by float or drift fishing, having a drift boat will allow you to employ new fishing methods — all fun to learn and effective at catching fish. Some boating methods you might learn from a friend, by booking a trip with a guide, or by reading the balance of my column.

Back-Trolling Plugs

Holding your boat steady in the river current while letting a diving plug out, downstream from your craft 40 to 50 feet might sound like a mindless fishing method, but believe me when I say, doing this effectively is harder than you might think and will absolutely make you a better oarsman. After all, with all you gear and friends, your job will be to maneuver a 1,200-pound boat in a way that positions a quarter-ounce plug(s) where you want it.

Keep in mind, this fishing method works best when river levels are medium to low in height, meaning the color of the river should range from steelhead green (3-4 feet visibility) to gin clear.

The idea is to hold your boat steady in the river current, at the head end of a hole or drift, let your plugs float out downstream from your boat, engage your reel (this will cause your plugs to dive) and then row just enough so your boat will slowly drop downstream while allowing the river current to keep your plugs diving near bottom. Under most conditions you’ll want to run your lures 40 to 50 feet behind your boat.

The strike of a steelhead hitting a plug is likely the hardest one you will ever feel. It’s important to wait until the rod bottoms out before setting the hook and to have your thumb firmly planted on the reel spool when doing so. You don’t want to set with a quick snap, but rather pull the hooks into the fish with a strong and firm upward motion.

Side Drifting

Similar to when back-trolling plugs, the way you maneuver your boat will have everything to do with your success, meaning: your boat is more than simply a casting platform, since to do this correctly, its operator (you) must keep the boat moving downstream at or slightly slower than the river current.

Once again, you will be starting at the head end of a hole or drift and begin moving downstream with the current, at which time you will need your friends to parallel cast out, across and upstream from your craft. It will then be your job to keep your boat moving ahead of or even with your lines as they drift along in the current.

Because your boat is moving at the same speed as your outfits, little or no line belly develops, meaning very little weight is needed to keep your offerings close to the bottom. Unlike when drift fishing from shore, you’re not looking for a steady tapping of the river bottom here — within a foot or so of the bottom with an occasional tap is plenty good. Some anglers, depending on river height, will use a single split shot. Most employ a short slinky-type sinker consisting of three to six shot, which is the correct amount of weight for this fishing method.

And while rivers like the Hood and White Salmon are not normally fished from a boat, there are nearby rivers like the Sandy, Clackamas, Washougal and Kalama where boat fishing is often done. Booking a trip with a guide is what many anglers do to participate in this popular sport.

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