Crank baits, or diving plugs as steelhead lures have been around for a long time.
The most popular ones have been of the compact banana shape, with high action and the ability to dive fairly deep. The Hotshot, Wigglewort, Tadpolly, Hot-n-Tot, Flatfish, Steeliewort, Kwikfish, and Brad’s Wiggler are good examples of steelhead plugs.
Almost always they are held against the current and slowly backed down the river, usually from a boat. The term 'hot-shotting' has been used for a long time to describe fishing these plugs from a drift boat that is rowed against the flow - causing the plugs to dive as the craft is slowly slipped downstream at a rate slower than the current.
Until recently minnow plugs or 'stick baits' have rarely been used for steelhead in rivers. However, they are popular lures on the Great Lakes, especially in the spring for steelhead, brown trout and salmon that are shallow in the spring or fall, and when steelhead concentrate near the surface at vertical temperature breaks in early summer.
Based on my experience over the past five seasons, I think they definitely have a place in the river angler’s arsenal for steelhead.
The stick baits seem to be most effective as steelhead approach their spawning times. Fly anglers have long been successful using the egg sucking leech pattern when swinging streamers for steelhead.
I had always thought that the contrasting colors of the head and body of this pattern were what made it more visible and noticeable and thus so effective.
This is still likely to be true for summer and fall run steelhead, but there may be something to the theory that these fish are indeed protecting, or getting ready to defend their eggs from being taken by small fish.
Just like with the typical high-action, deep-diving steelhead plugs, the minnow lures are best fished against the current.
Casting them quartering downstream and then allowing them to sweep across the river is a great way to find and elicit a strike from a migrating steelhead. Once they have swung below your position, keep fishing by slowly retrieving them upstream with an occasional pause, back down, and then restart the retrieve.
Suspending stick baits work especially well for this start-stop retrieve. Floating lures will also work but may rise out of the strike zone when paused.
You will find several minnow imitating plugs in my vest at all times now.
My favorites are suspending Bomber Long A and the XCalibur Xt3 deep twitch bait. These plugs dive to slightly different depths in the two to four feet range. Even though these lures don’t dive very deep they will still attract steelhead resting in five or six feet of water. This shows again that, while steelhead still orient to the river bottom, they look forward and up. The prime strike zone is a foot or two above the substrate and it is better to be a bit high than to always be snagging up on the rocks and logs.
In addition to the above stick baits, I also carry one deep diver, the Deep Rattlin’ Rogue. This allows me to get deeper when I need to and I can still fish it in the shallower runs by slowing the retrieve and raising my rod tip.
Since we are targeting steelies in relatively shallow water with minnow plugs and fishing for them downstream from our position, it’s important to be stealthy. In small and medium sized streams it is best to wade upstream to keep from spooking the steelhead. So you must plan ahead in order to get in the right spot above the holding water to cast your plugs.
Usually it’s just a matter of keeping tight to the bank on the opposite side of the river from where you expect the fish to hold. Sometimes it may be best to take to the bank to get above the fish. This is especially true when there is an eddy on the shallow side that may carry sand and silt upstream ahead of you and circle it back into the holding water.
Regardless of the situation, it is critical that the steelies are not aware of your presence.
While you may get lucky and catch a fish that has spotted you, you are much more likely to catch steelhead that don’t know you are there.
In most cases stick baits should not be tied directly to your line, especially if you are using a fairly heavy pound test. A loose attachment allows the lures to have their maximum action.
While there are special loop knots you can use to keep the line from being cinched down to the lure eye, I’ve found a small, size 2 black duo-lock snap to be the better plan. Most quality minnow plugs come with split rings attached to the eye. While the split ring achieves the loose attachment goal, it is difficult to tie a good knot to the split ring and it doesn’t allow you to change lures easily. I take off the split rings and save them for when I might have to replace a damaged one attached to a hook. The exception to this plan is when you are using a deep diving stick bait that has its eye recessed in the big lip. Here I leave it on and hook my snap to the split ring because attaching to the recessed eyelet is difficult, especially with numb fingers.
Not only does the snap help your plug work well, it makes you a more versatile angler because you can change your lure to match the holding water better. I change back and forth between stick baits and spinners many, many times in one outing. Not only does it allow me to match the lure to the depth and current speed of the water but it gives the steelhead a choice. The spinners are the first choice when the water is deep and fast and in pocket water while the plugs are perfect for the large, flat tail-outs and gravel runs.
Because it is so easy to switch lures with the duo-lock snap instead of retying it is easy to neglect checking your knot and line. If you are not checking your line, you can be sure that a steelhead will find the nick or fray for you and it won’t be a happy ending. I routinely test the strength of the knot and last few inches of line with each lure change and retie the snap after each fish even if it seems strong and there is no noticeable fraying.
You can improve your success when fishing stick baits for steelhead by watching the lure or the area where you think the lure is located. Steelies will often make an initial pass at the lure without striking it. If you are keeping a close eye on the path of the plug you will see a flash or possibly a surface disturbance when they do this. Try several more casts in the same spot to see if the steelhead will come back and grab your plug. If this doesn’t happen, it’s time to switch lures and keep trying. You have found an active fish and you need to give the steelhead every opportunity to bend you rod.
My favorite stick baits imitate minnows well and have dark backs and silver or gold sides. This makes them difficult to see on and in the water. Placing a small circle or oval of a brightly colored lure tape on the top of the head of the plug makes it more visible.
Fluorescent orange is a good choice for a color and, who knows, the steelhead might even think it is a minnow stealing an egg. In any case, it really makes it easier to watch your lure swim a couple of feet under the surface. It also lets you see the lure as you float it down to a boulder or just the right distance above the lip of the tail out so you know just when to start retrieving or sweeping you lure.
Whether you are a drift angler or a metal tosser, put some stick baits in your vest and give them a try on your next time on the river. They most certainly will put additional steelhead on the end of your line.
- Written by Jim Bedford (Author of Spinner Magic)