G. Loomis Rods

Advanced Plugging
Follow our Advice and catch more Steelhead!

Tuning

First and foremost, a plug of any kind needs to run straight and true to catch fish. Whether it be for salmon or steelhead, a plug that runs erratic, lays over on it's side while running, or does "loop-d-loops" in the water isn't going to do you many favors on the river. A well-tuned plug will dive more deeply and subsequently hold in the fishes strike zone much longer than one that isn't tuned. To determine if a plug needs to be tuned strip out some line and pull the plug alongside the boat against the current. I'll usually start by pulling gently on the first pass, a little harder on the second pass, and then I'll really pull hard on the plug on the final pass to make sure it will dive in strong current.

If the plug fails in the most gentle of current it will probably need some major adjustments. A plug that fails on the last pass, however, probably just needs to have a very slight adjustment to the eye to get it to track straight again.

Begin the tuning process by checking the belly and tail eyes to ensure that they're screwed in straight. The eyes that the hooks are attached to act as rudders and if they aren't positioned properly no amount of tuning on the front eye will get the plug to run the way you want it.

Tail Eye Adjustment

The final and most important step is to adjust the front eye on the bill of the plug, which accounts for the majority of the plugs action. Plugs like the Hot Shot come with an eye that's screwed into the plastic body of the plug and tuning consists of using pliers to twist the eye to the right or left until it runs straight. Twist the eye the opposite direction the plug is diving, making minor adjustments until the plug passes the boatside test.

Tuning a Hot Shot

Plugs like the Wiggle Wart, Tadpolly, Fatfish, and Brad's Wiggler have an eye that's built directly into the plug. While these plugs may seem impossible to tune, using slight pressure with needle nose pliers to push the eye to the right or left can get these plugs running straight again. Like the front eye the hook eyes on these plugs are also integrated right into the plug and if they're out of alignment they'll cause the plug to run to one side or the other. Be sure to check these in addition to the front eye.

Tuning a Wiggle Wart

Plugs are manufactured to work with a specific weight and size of hook attached to them. For instance, attaching a 4/0 hook to a size 30 Hot Shot will definitely affect it's performance. Changing the hook size to one size larger or smaller can slow down or speed up the action of the plug, however, and in some instances can make it work better. As long as the variation in hook size isn't too far out of line changing the hooks can be used to achieve a slightly different action on the plug. An example of this would be to add a larger tail hook to a K-15 or K-16 Kwikfish than the hook that comes with them to slow the action down.

Rods

There are two schools of thought when it comes to selecting a plugging rod. One concept is to use a rod with a parabolic action like the Fenwick Fenglass that allows a salmon or steelhead to essentially bend the rod right to the cork before feeling any tension, thus allowing them to turn downstream with the plug. The other is to use a rod with a somewhat fast action that tapers into a powerful mid-section that puts nearly instant tension on the plug as soon as a fish picks it up, penetrating the point of the hook into the fishes mouth before they turn or have a chance to. Whichever style rod you choose one thing will need to be the same, it should have a tip sensitive enough to allow the plug to work in any kind of current. This also allows the angler fishing the plug to see when a foul up has occured and the plug isn't running correctly, as any change in the plugs movement is translated right back thru the rod tip.

For steelheading the Lamiglas Hot Shot Composite G-1336T that lands somewhere between these two ideals is an excellent choice. This rod has a medium fast action that allows plugs to run in any current and enough power to drive the hook home as soon as a fish turns with the plug.

For backtrolling large plugs like the Kwikfish or Flatfish the Lamiglas G-1310T and the new Lamiglas Certified Pro XCF 803 are excellent choices. Both rods will fish large plugs and perform well when a hard-pulling Size 20 Jet Diver is added, or in the case of the XCF 803 a Size 30 or 40 Jet Diver, is added to get a plug down deep.

Keeping the rods at a relatively low rod angle achieves the latter effectively and the fast action gives the plugs the cushion that they need to keep working.

Reels

What reel you choose is perhaps the most insignificant part of your plugging package. The Shimano Bantam 50 and the Ambassadeur 5000, 5500, and 6000 models are all excellent choices for both your salmon and steelhead applications. All of these reels have level winds that travel as line is being released, making it easy to count passes. With new line counter reels coming on the market the need to count passes to determine distance may soon be a thing of the past, however. Depending on what your fishing for and how much line you'll need will determine the appropriate size reel for the occasion. The only thing I shy away from with my plugging reels is a thumb release that's positioned directly over the spool. These are great for drift fishing and quick-firing into pockets where the thumb release is easy to reach, but on a plug rod these can spell disaster. If you don't believe me put one of these reels in the holder of your boat and try frantically grabbing it without hitting the button to disengage the spool. A thumb release off to the side is the ticket for plugging for this very reason.

Line

Once again, there are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to choosing a line for your plug reels. The first and oldest is to use straight monofilament that is elastic enough to allow a fish to turn with the plug before feeling tension and releasing its grip. The second is to use one of the new braided lines like Power Pro, Tufline, or Fireline that allow zero stretch and penetrate the tip of the hook into the fishes mouth before they have a chance to turn. The braided lines have a very small diameter that allow the plugs to run deeper and have the added benefit of strength, which comes in handy when a fish runs into cover. After two years of running Power Pro on my steelhead plug rods I'm still undecided as to whether it increases or detracts from hook ups.

When a suicidal steelhead commits to a plug it really doesn't matter what line your using, as they're going to hook themselves regardless. In the case where a steelhead hasn't fully commited to a plug, however, the no-stretch super braids could cause a fish to feel tension and release their grip on the plug. As I mentioned earlier, I am still undecided and will continue testing the super braids on my plug rods until I have sufficient evidence to switch back to monofilament.

Scent

There is no doubt that a clean plug will outfish a dirty one the majority of the time. This is especially true of Kwikfish that are wrapped with bait frequently or plugs that sit around in the bottom of a tackle box for an extended period of time. If you've used Kwikfish exensively you'll know that after a while the belly of the plugs acquire a build up of sardine gunk that if left alone can smell downright nasty after a while. Fish are more sensitive to smell than we are and if you can smell it the fish can smell it ten times better. Washing your plugs in Lemon Joy frequently can reduce the chance of a rank smell overpowering the fresh sardine fillet you just added to your Kwikfish.

A Plug in need of a cleaning

We humans have an amino acid in our skin called serine that deters salmon and steelhead and can drive them away from your plugs. Try to handle plugs and lures as little as possible and use a scent mask like WD-40 or some of the many commercially produced fishing scents on the plug when it's legal to do so. Some of the northwest's top guides will even wear Latex gloves to keep from leaving the serine "fish-b-gone" scent on their plugs and baits. In selective fisheries where scents are illegal it's best to wash plugs to rid them of any unwanted scents they may have picked up along the way.

The practice of adding commercially produced scents to the surface of plugs helps to mask our human scent and creates a scent trail that can ultimately lead a fish to your plug if water visibility is limited. Shrimp, garlic, anise, krill, sardine, herring, or anchovy, to name a few, are all excellent choices for scents.

Bait wrapping large plugs like Kwikfish and Flatfish serves not only to get a salmon or steelhead to hold onto the plug longer, it also masks our own scent. Pro Cure, Smelly Jelly, Pautzke's, and Mikes all produce over the counter scents that are excellent for salmon and steelhead.

Size

When salmon or steelhead fishing is concerned, plug size is more often than not determined by visibility, depth, and flow. Size 13 and 14 Kwikfish will generally outperform the larger K-15 and K-16 models in low water and likewise the larger models will generally perform well in higher water with less visibility. While this isn't always the case, it's a general rule that applies in most situations. Flow can also determine which plug to use, as the smaller the plug the less water it will take to overrun the plugs ability to dive.

Backtrolling a size 30 Hot Shot mid-stream in high flows will more often than not leave you with a plug spinning on the surface and zero fish in the boat. Reserve the smaller plugs for low flows and soft edges out of the mainstream and the larger plugs for high flows.

Ron Foley and Kelly Hawley with Bogachiel River kings caught with Rob using K-14 Kwikfish in low, clear water.

Depth is also a factor used to determine plug selection. Most steelhead plugs will dive 8 to 12 feet, but for depths greater than 12 feet plugs like the SE Hot Shot, Wiggle Wart, or Hot'n Tot are recommended, as they have larger bills that are made to dive deep. Kwikfish selection follows the same suit, as any of the "K" series plugs will dive 13 to 18 feet if tuned properly. Having said that, in 18 feet of water you'll get consistently closer to the bottom with a K-16 than you will a K-13. It's no surprise that smaller plugs won't dive as deeply as larger ones, so matching the correct plug to the depth being fished is something to consider.

Color

There are hundreds of plug colors to choose from and in my honest opinion the color of the plug is somewhat insignificant in comparison to the action, size, and presentation of the plug. Color choice does play a small role, however, and matching the right plug color to visibility and lighting can help vault you into the "10 Percent" club. For winter steelhead I put colors like pink, orange, cerise, red, and chartruese at the top of the list. For reasons unknown to us knuckle-dragging fisherman steelhead that enter the river mature, as most winter steelhead do, are more apt to attack a brightly colored object than their summer run kin. This color scheme is especially effective in medium flows with classic steelhead green water between 3 and 5 feet of visibility. These same bright colors can be used in clear water with low light, such as at dusk and dawn or in water with shade from overhanging trees. In low and clear water with bright sun, however, silver, gold, green and blue pirate, white, green, and copper all see time on the end of my plug rods.

This Skykomish River summer run fell to a green size 30 Hot Shot in low, clear water.

Summer run steelhead are an entirely different creature and seem to prefer blues and greens above anything else. The bright colors may still see some action in the summer if the flows are up and visibility is down, but by and large plugs that have blue or green in them will generally hit the water first in my boat. As the summer goes on and flows decrease I'll switch to silver, gold, copper, green, or blue, and I'll downsize the plugs as much as possible. Hot Shot 30's and 35's will typically see the most action if I'm fishing the North Puget Sound rivers.

Fall chinook taken on a "Chicken Little" Kwikfish in 3 foot of visibility from a Washington coastal river.

Color selection for salmon varies as wildly as the salmon runs themselves. As a very general rule stick with chartruese in limited visibility and as the water clears up start mixing in purple, pink, blue, geen, silver, gold, etc.. Kwikfish that incorporate pink and chartruese have always performed well for me in medium flows with 3 to 5 feet of visibility and plugs like the "Fickle Pickle", "Grinch", and "Double Trouble" are all producers when flows are up and visibility is limited. As I mentioned earlier, as the waters recede and clear I'll generally start dropping the size of my Kwikfish to match the water conditions.

Distance

Quite a few years ago I had the opportunity to fish Alaska's Situk River for steelhead. With unbeleivable numbers of steelhead in this relatively small, clear river we were able to see how steelhead react to our plugs. On one particular day we were working a small run that held around 30 steelhead. The fish were holding closely along a brushline and as I backed the boat slowly down into their holding water we watched in disbelief as all but a half dozen of them swung out midstream and let us pass, edging back into thier lair one by one only after we had passed. The half a dozen, or so, steelhead that remained below the plugs, however, were not so lucky. In text book fashion these fish slowly let our wall of plugs push them downstream into the tailout and the more shallow it became the more fidgety these fish acted. As if it had enough one of them finned up behind one of the plugs and began tracking it, following its every movement. Then another steelhead, just miles from the North Pacific, slid up behind the port side plug and began tracking it, as well. Silence fall upon the boat as we watched the calm before the storm. After some 15 to 20 seconds the steelhead on the starboard side bolted forward and hammered the wiggling green Hot Shot and blistered off across the tailout. As if oblivious to the fate of its school mate the other steelhead stayed intently with the plug it had honed in on and with luck smashed the gold size 30 Hot Shot after the other fish had cleared the vicinity.

Is every fish going to behave like this, certainly not, but it proved that steelhead can, in fact, be herded and pushed by a pattern of plugs all the same distance from the boat. The Situk also gave us the chance to set the plugs at varying distances and watch the fishes behavior. Much as I had suspected, the fish would weave their way thru the plug pattern and end up between the boat and the plugs unscathed. Time and time again it's been proven that a group of plugs worked in conjunction with each other can be used to draw steelhead and salmon into biting.

Of course, the perfect plug presented to an aggressive fish will usually draw a strike, but working a group of plugs together to draw strikes from both aggressive and somewhat passive fish is just one small piece of becoming a successful plug fisherman. Depending upon water conditions plug distance from the boat can vary between 35 and as much as 100 feet. Water visibility, flow, and depth all play a role in determining the right distance. On average my steelhead plugs end up 40 to 50 feet from the boat under optimum conditions and further as the waters get low and clear. Salmon plugging distances are much the same, though I'll tend to keep a little more distance between the boat and plugs when using the kicker motor to backtroll.

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