Plug fishing for steelhead

Sacramento River - CA

Sacramento River steelhead caught while back trolling a 3.0 Mag Lip diving plug. Photo by Jeff Goodwin

by Jeff Goodwin

Plug fishing for steelhead on the Sacramento River, or any river for that matter, can be both challenging at times and very rewarding.  Steelhead are aggressive by nature, especially in the upper reaches of the rivers they were born in, and will readily hit a properly presented plug under most conditions.  The information contained in this Pro tip is intended to give the reader a basic to intermediate understanding of how to successfully fish plugs for steelhead.  I have spent a lot of time on the rivers of the PNW and in California plug fishing for steelhead and hope that the information I'm about to lay out here will help you become a better plug fisherman.

Lets start by talking about the gear I use when plug fishing for steelhead.  I use G.Loomis E6X HSR 9000C hot shot rods when fishing for steelhead on the Sacramento River.  These rods are perfectly suited for steelhead fishing with plugs.  The HSR 9000C is a 7' 6" rod that has a sensitive tip, which helps the plugs swim properly, and a strong butt section which gives the rod the power to set the hook and to fight hot steelhead in heavy current.  I use a Shimano Tekota 300LC level wind line counter reel spooled with 30# Power Pro Super Slick 8 hi-vis yellow braid line.  I attach a 6' section of fluorocarbon leader to the braid using a double uni knot.  So, why use hi-vis braid you ask.  Power Pro braid has a small diameter, (30# braid = 8 lb mono), and provides virtually no stretch which is important in plug fishing.  I use hi-vis braid line so I can see where my plugs are at and it helps me manage them better when I have 3-4 plugs in the water.  Finally, it is important to be able to set your plugs back at a specified distance. This can be accomplished more easily with line counter reels.  I most often let my plugs out 50-70' behind the boat when back trolling and have found that you will get way more bites if the plugs are all swimming at the same distance behind the boat.  Presenting a wall of plugs can be most efficiently accomplished with line counter reels. 

Now that I have discussed the rod, reel, and lines I use its time to talk about the plugs I use. There are lots of plug variables depending on where and what time of the year you fish for steelhead, but for the sake of keeping it local, I will talk about what I use on the Sacramento River from Redding to Red Bluff when plug fishing.  I have used several types and sizes of plugs on the Sac River and have found the Yakima Bait Co. 3.0 Mag Lip plug to be the most effective and best suited for the flows during the steelhead season.  Mag Lip plugs have a very good diving range and can be fished in 3'-12' of water on the Sac without any modifications.  These plugs are a perfect fit because most of the best steelhead fishing on the Sac can be found in 4'-10' of water.  The Mag Lip plugs are typically ready to fish and don't usually require tuning.  Always check your plugs at the side of the boat to make sure they are diving and swimming straight.  Fishing a plug that is not running properly will result in no fish hooked!  If you have any doubt, pull your plug upstream.  If it swims to the side or surfaces when you pull against the current, it needs to be tuned before fishing it.  Tuning can be accomplished by very slightly bending the eye on the bill of the plug in the opposite direction the plug is swimming.  Once your plug is diving straight, you are ready to put it out in front of some fish.  I always add scent to my plugs before fishing them and it does make a difference.  I will apply a liberal amount of Pro-Cure Super Sauce or gel scent every time I reel in to check my plugs for debris.  One small secret I don't often talk about is the addition of a small piece of crawdad meat to my plug.  I wrap the meat onto the plug using stretchy thread.  Steelhead go nuts for these plugs wrapped with crawdad meat and the strikes you'll get are vicious.  One word of caution is to not add a very big piece of meat to the 3.0's because they won't run straight if the meat is not precisely centered under the belly hook of the plug.  Once your plugs are running straight and you have spiced them up, its time to put them out behind the boat.

Now that you have all your gear straight and your plugs tuned and scented, its time to go find some steelhead.  Reading water can be tough for the beginner so I'll make this real simple.  Fish the flows that you are able to when pulling plugs, and don't get hung up on any other part of the river. You can't fish plugs in the white water or in really fast current, and you can't fish the deep holes where your plugs can't reach bottom so eliminate that water as an option.  If you fish the current seams, (where fast water meets slower flowing water) you will find steelhead.  Early in the morning you can find these steelhead laying in 3' of water, but I usually target water in the 4'-10' range like I mentioned earlier.  If you don't see any current seams and you want to fish a nice long run, make sure its got a flat bottom, lots of rocks, and has a current flow that compares to a fast walking speed.  You will likely find steelhead laying in that section of the river.  If its too deep or the current is moving too fast, pick another spot to fish, there are plenty of them.  This is not to say that you won't find fish in other sections of the river I just told you to stay away from, but save those hard to fish areas for later in the day.  As steelhead see the light of day, deal with boat traffic and angler pressure, they will sometimes move into deeper water or a little further into the fast water where they will tuck in behind a big rock or behind a ledge that drops into a deep hole.  I typically hit all the holy water on my up or down river and then stop in the areas I just described on my way back to the launch.  Some of the best fish of the day can come from those hard to get to spots on the river.  As you get familiar with the stretch of river you are fishing you will know right where the steelhead sit and you will in most cases find success often.  One thing to pay attention to, especially on the Sacramento River, is the flows from Keswick Dam.  The steelhead will change their location in the river with flow increases and decreases.  You can fish a good looking section on the river on Monday and by Friday that section is a gravel bar or is too fast to keep a plug down.  I make a mental note or even write down what the flows were for any given day and note where I caught the most fish. 

The final consideration for a successful effort while pulling plugs for steelhead is boat handling.  You can't catch steelhead with plugs if you can't control your boat.  You absolutely must be able to keep you boat tracking straight and managing your downstream presentation.  Plug presentation is most effective when you slowly put these plugs in front of fish and evade their space.  If you sit in one spot and move all over the place, you're not likely to get these fish to react to your presentation.  If you allow your boat to drop downstream too fast, the steelhead will likely move to the side and watch the plug swim by.  Find the area you wish to fish, set your downstream line and stay on track.  I look to the shoreline as a reference to manage how fast I allow the boat to slip downstream.  A good friend and mentor, Ron Rogers, taught me that many years ago and its served me well since.

As with anything, there are some fine points I might have failed to mention but if you follow most of everything I've written in this plug fishing for steelhead Pro tip, I'm confident you will have the basic information needed to find success while pulling plugs for river run steelhead.  If you would like to learn with a more hands on approach, I would be happy to have you book a trip with me and you can get some first hand experience.  I will teach you and demonstrate what you need to know to be successful when plug fishing for steelhead.  Its a great option for accelerated success and its how I got my learning start over 30 years ago.  Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about this Pro tip subject at (707) 616-1905

Jeff Goodwin is a full time Northern California fishing guide.  He guides year round for salmon, trout, steelhead, Kokanee, and bass on Northern California rivers and lakes. He fishes many bodies of water in the Redding area, but also guides the Sacramento River and Feather River during certain times of the year. Jeff can also be found on the California coast chasing ocean fresh King salmon and steelhead each year. To learn more about the fishing trips Jeff has to offer, please visit Jeff Goodwin's Guide Service.  You can also find him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or please feel free to call him anytime at (707) 616-1905.

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