The Lost Art of Steelhead Bottom Bouncing by Dan Robson

salmon salmon fishing steelhead Steelhead Fishing Tackle trout trout fishing

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for the center pin. Ok, I love it, as do most who try it.

But as the center pin revolution takes hold in the Great Lakes region it would seem that those who are taking it up are getting stuck on this singular method to catch steelhead.

I completely understand why.

Running a float with a center pin is an exciting, extremely effective way to bank fish, in fact one of the most effective. The problem lies in what these center pinners are missing out on. I know a lot of great steelheaders and the best of those are the most complete ones; the ones that aren’t hung up on one single method; the ones that use everything they can to their advantage. But it seems as if other methods are falling to the wayside; the ease and effectiveness of float fishing beginning to dominate Great Lakes steelheading. These other methods are quickly becoming a lost art.

drift fishing steelhead trout bottom bouncing

Drift fishing on the West Coast is and almost always has been the most popular method of steelheading. Better known here in the Great Lakes as "Bottom-Bouncing" it’s underutilized and often misunderstood.

I glance back at my ten-year-old self and realize that what I thought of as simply catching trout was actually shaping the foundation for the steelheader that I am today. Although back then I was far from good at catching steelhead while bottom bouncing, the lessons I learned and the skills I picked up have proved to be invaluable when applied to any method I use today.

Bottom bouncing forced me to learn how to read water; it gave me the ability to determine distinct bottom structure; it taught me the subtleness of a steelhead take; it gave me the patience to overcome any adversity on the water. In all honesty it made everything I ever did to catch steelhead from there on out that much easier.

With the exception of swinging flies, bottom bouncing makes a great case for being the most difficult method for banking steelhead.

Sure there are those guys that make it look easy but don’t let them fool you, it took a lot of frustrating days on the water to get them to that point. It’s all about finding that perfect balance between keeping the presentation up off the bottom and in the strike zone.

It was at least a dozen years of steelheading before I was comfortable enough with bottom bouncing to actually say I could be successful when doing it.

THE EQUIPMENT

I can’t stress enough the importance of a good rod when bottom bouncing. In the beginning I got by with a generic seven-foot medium spinning rod; the kind of rod used to throw just about anything, not just for steelhead but anything else I chose to chase. But having only a single rod is like a golfer playing eighteen holes with only one club. It just isn’t going to work. Then again, I caught fish, so it never really crossed my mind as to what I could be missing out on. That is until the day I was handed a rod that made me feel as if I had died and gone to steelhead heaven, and made me question my sanity for all the wasted years I had spent fishing a sub-par rod.

The rod is the perfect balance of power and sensitivity; what I now know to be the two most important aspects of any steelhead rod. Its extraordinary sensitivity enabled me to precisely read the bottom as the rig travelled, to the point where the movement of the rod tip told me what I was bumping up against. More importantly though, that sensitivity allowed me to pick up on the subtlest of steelhead strikes, something the fish are famous for.

I was floored when I thought of just how many fish I had passed up without the slightest indication that they were even there.

Anyone who has ever hooked a steelhead can attest to just how important a powerful rod can be. When a hot chrome fish decides to turn and hightail it to the nearest log jam the rod needs to have the power to turn it back around and make it think otherwise.

drift fishing river ice bottom bouncing

These two qualities can be hard to come by in a fishing rod, they often possess one quality or the other which is why I strongly suggest to spend a bit of money. Consider it an investment and with any luck it will be the only bottom bouncing rod you will ever have to buy.

The importance of a good rod should not take away from the importance of a good reel. Oddly enough it’s something that is often overlooked. Don’t blow your budget on a rod without considering what spinning reel you’re going to pair it with. You may be able to get away with a lower budget reel for a while but the time will come when a fresh chromer decides to make a long, powerful run and the drag on that reel has other ideas. Whether it seizes up or fails to work at all, the end result is always heartbreak.

Of course the drag isn’t the only thing that can fail, but it’s an example that I am all too familiar with. From bail springs to anti-reverse systems, every component of the reel must be made to withstand the punishment it sees from both fish and fishermen.

TECHNIQUE

We’ve established how important it is to have the right equipment, but it’s all for nothing without the proper technique. Yes, technique is important in any form of steelheading, but none is as hard to master as bottom bouncing.

The swing is a common concept in steelheading and unless you’re float fishing you’re going to be using it to present everything from flies to spinners. Bottom bouncing is no exception. A veteran bottom bouncer can make it look easy, but believe me when I say that it is far from it.

There are so many factors involved that it really can take years to master. These factors can often be overlooked which only leads to frustration that can in turn lead to calling it quits.

Much of what I learned of bottom bouncing was self-taught, in a time when information was a lot less readily available than it is today. That doesn’t mean I didn’t do a lot of reading up on the subject in an attempt to better myself. There is one thing I learned from reading fellow steelheader Bill Herzog that was a complete game changer for me. That game changer; the grid.

In short the idea is that every piece of holding water should be broken down and fished in a grid based on water clarity and visibility. A section of water should be fished methodically starting with casts in close and working out. The distance between casts should be based on water clarity. For example, if visibility is two feet then every cast should be placed two feet from the last until the holding water has been completely covered. Once satisfied that it has it's time to move downstream. Your next grid should start at the point where your previous drifts were ending their swing. Herzog not only changed bottom bouncing for me with this simple system but my steelheading all together.

herzog drift fishing

Now that we’re breaking every bit of holding water into a grid, let’s talk about the swing. The swing is the bread and butter of bottom bouncing and when done properly is extremely affective. On the other hand, if it’s not done properly it can be extremely aggravating.

Cast placement will vary depending on the water being fished. The idea is to have the set-up in the strike zone (at or near bottom) directly I front of your standing position. Fast, deep water will require a slightly upstream cast; slower water requires a cast directly in front of, or slightly downstream from your position.

It’s important that the rod is held high throughout the swing. Keeping as much line off the water as possible will help combat the current “pushing” the line out in front of the set-up which in turn pulls the bait at an un-natural rate. As the set-up settles near the bottom and the swing begins, the line now starts to tighten.

If allowed to do so, the current then pulls the bait up off the bottom and out of the strike zone. Counteract this by turning your body and following the swing all the while pointing the rod tip at the set-up. At this point it may also be necessary to give some line. This is an important moment in the swing and its imperative that it’s done correctly. Too much line let out too quickly and the slack will cause the set-up to drag bottom, potentially snagging up. Too little line let out too slowly and the tight line will result in the set-up rising up and out of the strike zone.

Perfecting this isn’t going to happen overnight and will take more than a little practice.

Even more tedious than figuring out how much line to let out is the amount of weight being used. During the perfect swing you should be able to feel the rig just brushing the bottom every couple of seconds. To accomplish this, constant adjustment is needed, not just from holding water to holding water, but from grid to grid. This is definetly not a lazy man’s game and you have to be willing to make these constant adjustments to be successful.

Bottom bouncing isn’t for everyone and is a technique that took me years to master. It requires an incredible amount of patience and persistence but for those willing to put in the time it can be one of the most effective ways to bank big chrome.

THE GREAT LAKES BOTTOM BOUNCING SET-UP

Without a doubt the simplest part of Great Lakes Bottom Bouncing is the set-up. If you’re already a steelheader then chances are you already have what you need:

bottom bouncing fishing drift fish steelhead hook hooks weight

  • Depending on the water being fished, mainline should be 8- to 12-pound mono with a 6- to 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. The bigger or more colored the water, then heavier the line you can get away with.
  • 12 to 24 inches of fluorocarbon should be attached to the mainline with a quality barrel swivel, something small but strong like Raven’s XXXS barrel swivels.
  • When attaching the barrel swivel to the mainline, the tag end of the line should be left long. This is where the split shot will be placed.
  • Be sure that the tag end is long enough to accommodate various amounts of small split shot. The idea of placing the shot on the tag end of the main line is to help avoid getting hung up. If the weight does get hung up, the split shot will simply slide off the line, freeing the rig and saving you from breaking off the entire set-up.
  • Finally on the business end is a hook sized anywhere from 6 down to 14 depending on water clarity. Steelhead are rarely as line shy as they are perceived to be and hooks sized 8 or 10 will usually cover most situations.

- written by Dan Robson



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  • Capt Pete Rosko on

    As a lure designer for many of my 83 years, including Rapala, I know of no better bottom-bouncing lure than a metal jig. Whether in fresh or salt water, lake or stream, it will out-fish all other techniques almost all of the time. The secret is in the flash and vibration on its downward flutter…a deadly imitation of an injured bait fish. No other lure-type does it better in producing a strike response in predator fish. The Crippled Herring has been referred to as the “Rapala of metal jigs” for the multitude of fresh and salt water fish records it has achieved over the years. The Kandlefish, and Sonic BaitFish, are two of my more recent metal jig designs to follow in the success path of the Crippled Herring. Tips…1) Use the smallest lure to effectively reach your target fish when the bite dies…especially on winter-time rivers. 2) Use only single, not treble, hooks to minimize snags when bottom-bouncing. 3) Keep a sharp hook point with a fine-tooth file.


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