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Plug fishing river steelhead


November 01, 2017
Fall steelhead can be caught on a lot of different presentations, but when these fish show up in Michigan's many spawning streams wobbling plugs are in a class all by themselves. For reasons only steelhead seem to understand, a wobbling plug incites an angry and almost always savage strike. Compared to the subtle take of fishing a bead rig, a spawn bag or jig below a bobber, steelhead literally crush plugs, pinning the rod tip to the water in the process!

Pick of the Litter

A number of wobbling plugs routinely produce great action on fall steelhead. Historically the baits of choice included the Luhr Jensen Kwik Fish and Hot Shot, Storm's Wiggle Wart and Hot-N-Tot, plus the Yakima Flat Fish. These days some newcomers are making a serious name for themselves including the Yakima Mag Lip series and Fat Wiggler, Brad's Wiggler and the Cotton Cordell Wiggle-O.

All of these lures have in common a compact shape, pronounced diving lip and wide side-to-side wobbling action. When it comes to steelhead, there is something about crankbaits with a wide wiggle that trips their trigger. Other crankbait styles and actions catch steelhead on occasion, but nothing out-produces the wide wobbling action on fall steelhead.

Skip Beat Action

Lures that have a wide wiggle are at the top of the list among serious plug fishermen. Lures that also feature a "hunting" action are even more productive on river steelhead.

Plug.fishing.river.stee
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The author (left) and Josh Crabtree caught and released this impressive hen steelhead while filming an episode of Fishing 411 TV on the Kalamazoo River.
The Yakima Mag Lip heads the pack in terms of baits that "hunt" while they fish. Yakima calls it a "skip beat" action because the bait will be wobbling in a consistent and predictable manner, then suddenly skip a beat and dart suddenly to one side or the other. A second later the bait is back to wobbling in a predictable manner.

"The skip beat action of the Mag Lip is something that didn't just happen by accident," explains lure designer Buzz Ramsey. "We painstakingly worked on creating not only baits that are tuned and ready to fish out of the package, but baits that also have a natural hunting action."

The interesting thing about lures that hunt is they tend to generate even more aggressive and intense strikes than other wobbling plugs. "I think when that bait darts to the side, fish reach aggressively because it's getting away," adds Ramsey. "I've noticed in my own plug fishing experience that baits with a hunting action are often inhaled deep into the back of the fish's mouth. There is little doubt that fish are hitting these lures with more enthusiasm and getting hooked more solidly as a result."

Colors Matter

When it comes to steelhead fishing it seems every angler has his or her favorite plug colors. Some of the most popular color patterns for fall steelhead include metallic gold, metallic gold/black back, metallic gold/orange back, metallic gold/flame, metallic gold/green pirate, metallic perch and metallic gold/black bill.

On bright sunny days metallic silver clown, metallic silver/blue pirate, metallic silver/red herringbone, grinch, metallic silver/chartreuse and metallic silver/fluorescent red stripe are also good color options.

Custom Colors

In recent years a growing number of manufacturers have started offering their baits in custom colors. Dealers must order a minimum number to get these special color options. A few of the custom colors that have made quick names for themselves include hammer time, princess and payday.

Custom Hooks

In addition to fishing custom painted plugs, most serious crankbait fishermen are removing the factory hooks and adding premium after market hooks. On the west coast most anglers remove the treble hooks and replace them with Siwash hooks. A small swivel is first added to the split ring and then the open eye of the Siwash hook pinched closed around the swivel.

This rigging option allows the hook to rotate when a fish is hooked, preventing a powerful fish from rolling, thrashing and leveraging the hook free. For most plugs a 2/0 size Siwash is about right.

My experience with rigging plugs with Siwash hooks has been very good. The hook up ratio is about the same as with treble hooks, but the ratio of fish that stay buckled up is much greater. My favorite Siwash hook is the Eagle Claw Trokar in 2/0 size.

Great Lakes steelhead anglers are much more likely to use premium treble hooks when switching out the factory hooks on their plugs. Some of the most popular models include the Eagle Claw Trokar TK310 and Mustad's Short Shank KVD Triple Grip.

When switching out hooks on plugs, most anglers will opt for a hook one size larger than the factory OEM hooks. Going any bigger than one size is risky as larger hooks can and do impact negatively on the action of some plugs.

Sharp Hooks

For those anglers who aren't willing to purchase premium after market hooks, the next best option is investing in a good hook file and becoming religious about sharpening hooks. Rapala makes a good file that has a pair of rat-tail files on one side and a grooved diamond stone on the other. The file is handy for removing material fast and the diamond stone best for putting a finish edge on hooks.

A "sticky" sharp hook makes all the difference in keeping those fish that bite hooked up. Learning to sharpen a hook is easy. Taking the time when the fish are biting is something many anglers struggle with.

Scent Helps

All species of trout and salmon have a highly developed sense of smell. Using natural scent products is one way to help trigger strikes from fish that might otherwise be skeptical of hard baits. Natural is the operative word here because a lot of fishing scents are made up primarily of anise oil.

My favorite fishing scents are produced by Pro Cure, who uses natural baitfish like alewives, herring, smelt, etc., to make their fishing scent products. The baitfish is first dehydrated and then ground into a fine powder. Next a sticky and odor free gel is mixed with the ground up baitfish to create what is known as Super Gel.

Super Gel is ideal for fishing with hard baits because it stays where it is put and gives off a strong scent stream for about 30 minutes. Most fishing scents are liquids that wash off almost as quickly as they are applied.

Clean Up Matters

Fishing scents work nicely for triggering strikes, but for these products to work properly the lures must first be washed free of foreign odors. Bad Azz Hand and Lure Soap also produced by Pro Cure is ideal for removing the sticky residue left behind when using scent products. If this residue is not washed away it will eventually turn rancid.

A new product, this soap is designed to be used without water and also to be eco-friendly and nontoxic. This product also does a nice job of washing slime, blood, bait odors and fish smell from your hands.

Plug Wraps

Another way to create a scent stream in the water is to cut small strips of herring and attach them to your plugs using stretchy thread. Plug wrapping is wildly popular on the west coast, but few Great Lakes anglers have tried this trick.

The Mag Lip series of crankbaits even has groves molded into the side of the plug to help hold herring strips in place. Most guys who routinely use plug wraps tie up a few baits ahead of time, pop them in a plastic storage container and freeze them.

A plug wrap will create a nice scent stream for about 20 to 30 minutes. At that point the wrap can be removed and replaced with a fresh piece of herring or a scent product added to recharge the bait.

Plugging Rods/Reels

The ideal plug rod for stream steelhead applications is a medium action graphite rod about eight foot - six inches in length. The ideal plug rod must have a soft tip that allows the angler to monitor how well the plug is wobbling by simply watching the rod tip dance. If the rod tip stops dancing, most likely the plug has fouled on leaves that are constantly floating downstream.

A round frame baitcasting reel loaded with 200 yards of 12 to 17 pound test monofilament line is perfect for plug fishing. A growing number of anglers are using high visibility line and adding a six to eight foot leader of fluorocarbon at the terminal end. High visibility line makes it easier to see the line and direct baits into the kinds of places steelhead lay up like undercut banks, downed wood, rocks and current seams.

Mini Boards

Most steelhead plug fishermen fish their lures straight out the back of the boat. A growing number of anglers are discovering that with the help of pint sized planer boards wobbling plugs can be presented to places an angler could never cast into.

The Off Shore Tackle Awesome Crappie Board is just as awesome when it comes to steelhead fishing. By simply clipping the planer board onto the line after deploying a favorite plug, the Mini Board does a nice job of using the current to plane out to the side of the boat.

Boards work great when targeting current seams and they can also be used by anglers fishing from shore or wading. When a fish strikes, the board releases from the tow arm line release, but remains pinned to the line thanks to an OR16 Snap Weight clip mounted at the back of the board.

The second a fish is hooked the board releases and when the line pulls tight against the fish, the lightweight board actually pulls right out of the water. When the board nears the rod tip it is removed by simply pinching open the line clip.

Board fishing for river steelhead is becoming very popular because it allows anglers to fish multiple rods. Shore, wade and boat fishermen can set out a plug and board rig with one rod while casting spawn or a bead rig with a second.

Summing It Up

Michigan has no shortage of premier steelhead streams that attract lots of fish in the fall. The St. Joe, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, Pere Marquette and Big Manistee are the top prospects on the Lake Michigan side and the AuSable River reigns as the most popular destination on the Lake Huron side of the state.

Plugs catch steelhead on all of these rivers. The action gets going in November and stays strong throughout the winter months.

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