Side Drifting A to Z
Side drifting, also known as "boon-dogging" or "boom-dogging", originated on the Skagit River more than 50 years ago. Log tenders that floated down the Skagit on massive log rafts would often drag their favorite lure or bait off the back of the log boom as it careened it's way down the river, picking off whatever salmon and steelhead they could along the way. From there the technique was further developed by early Skagit guides like Ira Yeager, who did much the same thing, only from the comfort of a boat as they rowed their customers downstream. With the aid of oars to control the boat anglers would cast into the rivers many long runs and simply drag their baits downstream. With as many as 30,000 steelhead returning to the Skagit on a yearly basis a burgeoning industry was born and soon some 70 full time guides worked the river, with most of them "boon-dogging" their customers into fish.
Rob took this 14 lb steelhead on Idaho's Clearwater River
side drifting with guide Phil Jost
With the development of sensitive graphite
and composite rods some 30 years ago a handful of guides located in Washington's
southwest region, namely Clancy Holt and Mike Kelly, transformed the technique
into one that could be fished with light tackle. Light spinning rods,
spooled with 8 to 10 pound mainline, long leaders in 6 to 8 pound test,
and tiny baits were soon taking fish with great regularity on rivers like
the Cowlitz and Lewis. With the use of light spinning rods a much shorter
length of pencil lead could be used to hold the bait within the holding
zone along the rivers bottom, creating a much more natural presentation.
A second positive with the light spinning rods was that once a hot steelhead
was hooked they were a kick-in-the-pants to fight.
Today side drifting is used by both jet and driftboaters on every major river system in the Pacific Northwest for taking summer and winter run steelhead. With the proper tackle, quality bait, and a general sense of what makes this technique effective just about anyone can catch steelhead side drifting.
Light spinning rods like the Lamiglas Esprit Concept rated for 6 to 10 lb test make casting very short lengths of pencil lead easy, and provide ample sensitivity to detect even the most subtle of bites. A comparatively-sized spinning reel capable of holding 120 to 140 yards of high-vis monofilament should be used with this setup. The use of larger reels with more line capacity is not recommended for this light of rod, as the added weight of a larger spinning reel often deadens the sensitivity of the rod, making detection of a bite more difficult.
Why use high-vis monofilament? When side drifting with multiple rods the use of high visibility lines allows the angler to know exactly where the other lines are, so as not to cast on top of them, and it also allows the person operating the boat to see how the baits are drifting. Try using clear lines for side drifting on a bright, sunny day and you'll quickly be switching over to a high-vis line.
On the terminal end of things the most widely used rig is two size 4 hooks separated by either a cheater or corky to add a small amount of buoyancy to the bait. Leader length and test is adjusted to match water clarity, with longer lengths and lighter leaders reserved for the clearest of water. Mainline test rating should be one size above the test of the leader and when large wild steelhead are present in a river system heavier line, like 12 lb test, is suggested. In addition, when wild fish outnumber hatchery fish the use of a single size 2 hook rigged with a puff ball, as described in Side Drifting Rigs, can be substituted to reduce hooking mortality.
For weight both a sliding rig and a solid tie (see below) can be used. Personally, I prefer a solid tie over the sliding rig, as it tends to be easier for inexperienced customers to cast and is slightly quicker to tie after a break-off. Choosing which rig to use, however, is always a matter of preference.
Unlike standard drift fishing where the boat is often stationary, in side drifting the boat is actually moving along downstream with the baits. With the boat moving a much more natural presentation can be delivered and much lighter tackle is required to keep the bait in the holding zone.
Knowing that the current in the holding zone along the river bottom is slower than that at the surface the boat, whether it be a drifter or jet boat, should be slowed just enough to allow the lead to tick the bottom every 5 to 10 feet.
Having an assortment of leads precut in varying lengths can help to accomplish this task. Most successful guides will have lead precut in 1/4" increments from around 1" to as long as 3". The varying lead lengths are handy in situations where strong flows keep the lead from getting down, or too soft of current causes longer leads to hang up too often. Top guides will often know which lead length is appropriate in each piece of water to get the desired drift.
Once everything is rigged up and the boat is in position and moving downstream slightly slower than the current, the angler nearest the stern of the boat casts upstream at a 45 degree angle. The next person in line casts at the same angle and upstream of the first cast, staggering the baits 10 to 15 feet apart, and so forth until all the baits are in the water.
Once every rod is in the water the boat's downstream drift is kept in check with either a kicker motor or oars and preferably the lines are all kept at the 45 degree angle upstream throughout the entire drift. By keeping the lines at this angle the chances of an inexperienced angler hooking up with this method are greatly increased. Should a steelhead pick up one of the baits and hang onto it the boat will pull the bait directly into the corner of the fishes mouth and it's FISH ON!
Keeping the Baits at a 45 Degree Angle Upstream is
Optimal when Side Drifting
Should the baits drift downstream of the boat detecting a bite is difficult, if not impossible. With the boat moving downstream a steelhead that picks up this bait will usually get a free lunch and all that will be translated back to the rod is some slack line. This is also a good way to hang up all the weights in the rocks!
In catch and release fisheries, which are more prevalent than ever here in the northwest, having baits downstream like this can also mean Mr. Steelhead swallowing the bait. Definitely not a good thing if you want to release a steelhead unharmed.
Side drifting is easily accomplished from a jet boat equipped with a either a kicker motor or electric trolling motor, but more and more drift boaters are using this technique and many guides are rigging their driftboats with fore and aft fishing stations to better accommodate two side drifters. By checking the driftboats downstream momentum with the oars, much like with a kicker motor on a jetboat, the driftboat becomes the perfect tool for side drifting the many small coastal streams of Washington and Oregon.
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