• Plastics for Steelhead

    Float fishing plastic baits is slowly catching-on amongst anglers in the know….but it is not a new thing. That lovely morning ten years ago opened my eyes to the options that steelheaders have for drifting Great Lakes rivers. Spawn catches fish, no doubt, but it is not the Holy Grail when it comes to putting fish on the bank. When I started float fishing nearly two decades ago, fresh roe was the only bait I used. Nowadays, spawn accounts for about 50% of the steelhead that my acquaintances and I land each year. The other 50% of steelhead come on a multitude of artificial baits, the most productive of which are plastics.

    Why do they work so well? Simple - they appeal to a steelhead’s natural instincts. Plastic baits are made to mimic the food trout eat, from inverts to worms, roe or baitfish. On top of that, many plastics trigger the aggressive response of steelhead in a river environment. Some gaudy, brightly-colored plastics just ignite the flame in a steelhead’s anger factory, a feature that roe presentations tend to lack!

    Picking Plastics….

    When it comes to packing plastics on your next river trip, the options on the market are vast. A good starting point would be a look at the availability of panfish-sized plastic baits in your local shops. Tubes, twisters, worms, rubber roe clusters, and creature baits are basic designs that steelheaders can bank on. I carry baits in all of the above options, and they all catch fish. Exude Soft Plastic Baits offers a line of scented plastic roe imitations, as well as trout worms in hot pink and natural tones. These are stand-bys in my chest pack. Mister Twister produces a 4" nightcrawler that is deadly in hot pink and natural colors. The company also makes a sweet little mayfly nymph in soft plastic that is lethal during the spring run. The Mr. Minnow baitfish imitations are another Mister Twister product that will light up baitfish-eating steelhead in the fall. I fish both the 2" and 4" models with great success on the Niagara River, where they also become Brown Trout and Laker candy!

    Northland Fishing Tackle has a few gems in their line-up as well. This company produces some awesome plastics for the hardwater panfish enthusiasts that score well with river steelhead. My good buddy, Dan Gravel, laid a beating on mid-winter steelies using the "Small fry tails" and "Bloodworm tails" on micro jig heads under the float. The "techni-glo" series of soft plastic minnows from Lindy Fishing Tackle are another bait that gets the nod when big river steelies are loading up on shiners and other baitfish. You would be surprised at how well these minnow imitators work when it comes to fishing big water like the Niagara, or the multiple Erie tribs that host fall and spring baitfish migrations.

    How to fish soft baits…

    One of the great things about fishing for steelhead with soft plastics is how easily they fit into your conventional float fishing set-up. Run the same floats, same shot, and quality fluorocarbon lead line. Ardent steelheader and Ontario resident, Jason Holyome, turned me onto pink plastic worms nearly ten years ago, after he had spent a few seasons fishing steelhead on the West Coast. Highly regulated coastal rivers have bait-ban seasons, causing anglers to fish artificial offerings. Holyome brought back his new-found techniques and hooked pressured fish all over the Great Lakes well before the "pink worm" craze that swept Lake Ontario tributaries a few years back.

    Jason runs his 3" and 4" pink worms on the same float set-up he runs when drifting spawn. He replaces his tiny Kamazan hook with a larger size #8 and rigs the bait in the midway point. When fishing faster currents, Holyome will stack a little more shot above his swivel at his leader, which helps to anchor the plastic bait down in swirling currents. Plastic worms hook fish in any river that holds migrating steelhead. Bubblegum pink is a favorite for sparking interest in fish that have seen 1000 roe bags. Switching out to a worm after a spawn bite dies can usually coax a few more fish out of a productive run or hole. When waters get colored-up in spring, and big presentations are called for, bumping up to a 4" pink worm will bring fish in. For better hook-ups on the big worm, try threading your leader down the length of the bait, out the bottom end, then tie on a number 8 Raven or Kamazan hook. If you’re fishing clear water and pressured fish, the smaller trout worms in natural hues can prove to be lethal.

    Micro twister tails and tubes are normally rigged on a strong, but light-weight jig head. The average "panfish" jig head hooks are fairly soft; therefore, not the best option for steelhead. Choose jig heads with a heavier gauge wire which can hold up to a hot steelhead thrashing and twisting after hook-up. For tubes and little twisters, run heads that are less than 1/16th oz.

    When river temps are above 35F, the smaller/lighter the jig head, the better, as it allows your bait to move around during the drift. Cold water steelhead, however, prefer plastics offered with minimal movement; if you’re fishing cold water, heavier heads will anchor your bait. In terms of bait and color, a white crappie tube drifted down a wintering hole can induce violent strikes. Steelies just seem to go nuts for these baits in cold water. I found it hard to believe at first, but these little plastics can really shine.

    Little creature baits, such as the Mister Twister plastic Nymphs and Northland Baits, can be fished both with jig heads, or weightless. Options are dependent on water temps. Cold water requires you to fish them weighted, while warmer flows allow you to fish them free-floating on a weightless hook. I’ve found that these baits excel during stonefly and mayfly hatches. I had a day on Superior last spring that saw dozens of fish bite on plastic nymphs while an intense spring hatch was going off. Live nymphs were pulling off the bottom, so drifting the plastic bait under the float below fast water sections was the ticket.

    Soft plastic minnows are one of the most versatile and productive options when it comes to fishing steelhead with plastics. The minnow imitators mentioned earlier should find a home in your pack when streamside. I rig minnow baits in two ways. First, in slow, cold flows, I like to anchor a plastic minnow down with a jig head. This holds the bait at a single depth, suspended in the zone under my float. Cold water fish like this presentation. If I am fishing a pool with slow currents and a uniform depth of 7ft, I will rig up my presentation to have a total of 5ft from float to bait. Send it down the trolley tracks and hold on.

    When fishing big, fast water, such as the Niagara or St. Mary’s, I rig plastics to allow for more movement of the bait. Instead of a jig head, I will thread the bait onto a #8 or #6 steelhead hook and run it just as I would fish roe. The lack of weight will allow the minnow to blow around in the current like an injured baitfish, sparking savage takes from feeding steelies. This presentation is dynamite for rivermouth steelhead where current is rolling into the lake. During spring smelt runs, hungry steelies patrol the mouths snapping up smelt off the current rip. Don’t be afraid to trott (hold back) on your float when fishing minnow imitators, this will cause the bait to level out and fight the current, appearing more natural to the fish. These minnow baits have proven to be golden on early spring road trips across the south shore of Lake Erie. Many of these tribs will experience baitfish runs at this time, and all you need to do is drift a plastic minnow to light up the steelhead.

    Fishing soft plastics for steelhead isn’t rocket science. The key to any new presentation is confidence, something you will gain quickly if you fish these baits properly. Believe me; they work, at times better than any other presentation you can drift. Relying on spawn alone to consistently hook steelhead is going to result in a skunking some days. It is surprising what alternative baits can do when fish go off a spawn bite. Next time you hit the river, pack some plastic. Give these baits a valid shot and you’ll land more fish; it’ll make you a better steelheader in the long run.

    Originally published by Great Lakes Angler Magazine/March 2011
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