Getting Started Plug Fishing River Steelhead

I remember the first time I witnessed a river steelhead slamming a wobbling plug. It was in early winter on the Pere Marquette, River in Northern Michigan and I was back-trolling plugs from a drift boat with local river guide Mike Gnatkowski.

Watching that rod suddenly slam down and start bucking wildly made a huge impact on me. As that silver bullet cartwheeled across the surface again and again, I found myself instantly hooked on back-trolling plugs.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that first plug fishing experience set in motion a passion for steelhead fishing and wobbling plugs that would last a lifetime.

Fresh run steelhead like this impressive hen can make a cold winter day into a memory that lasts a lifetime.

Back in the day it was the iconic FlatFish that everyone turned to for river back-trolling. The wide wobble of the FlatFish was perfect for back-trolling and using oars to slowly inch the boat and baits across the current and downstream.

When rowing a drift boat, jet sled or small skiff the plugs on one side of the boat tend to speed up as the boat slides across the current. Meanwhile the plugs on the other side of the boat slow down. This constant changing of speed, direction and action is why plug fishing is so deadly at triggering strikes from river steelhead.

The FlatFish is unique in that it is one of the rare plugs that produce an aggressive wobble at slow to moderate current speeds. Most plugs simply don’t have enough action at slow speeds to generate strikes.


The FlatFish was and still is one of the better plug choices for back-trolling steelhead in rivers. Any time anglers are tasked with fishing slow or moderate moving water, the U20 and T4 FlatFish are great steelhead baits.

The Mag Lip is the new kid on the block when it comes to river steelhead plugs. Like it’s cousin the FlatFish, the Mag Lip features a wide wobble, but the Mag Lip performs flawlessly in a much wider variety of current speeds. The Mag Lip has great action in ultra slow moving water like the FlatFish, but it also fishes exceptionally well in moderate and even fast flowing rivers without blowing out.

Mag Lip comes in 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5 and 5.0 sizes, but the most popular steelhead sizes are the 3.0 and 3.5 versions. All the Mag Lip baits feature an unique hunting action that Yakima describes as a “skip beat”. The Mag Lip wobbles aggressively and then suddenly darts to one side or the other momentarily before settling back down to it’s rhythmic side to side wobble.

It’s this darting action that triggers explosive strikes from steelhead. “One of the things I noticed immediately when fishing the Mag Lip is fish tend to be hooked deeper than with other plugs,” says lure designer and steelhead fishing legend Buzz Ramsey. “The skip beat action of the Mag Lip is what causes steelhead to literally engulf these baits.”


The FlatFish and Mag Lip series of plugs aren’t the only baits that work great for back-trolling. The Fat Wiggler is another wide wobbling bait designed for back-trolling in a wide range of river fishing situations.

Available in three sizes including a 1/4, 1/2 and one ounce versions, the smaller baits work well in shallow rivers and in clear water situations. The larger plugs fish deeper making them very useful for targeting steelhead in bigger/deeper rivers and also in stained or cloudy water.

Fish like this are typical among winter steelhead anglers who use plugs and back-trolling tactics.


The huge assortment of fish catching colors available is another reason that the Yakima FlatFish, Mag Lip and Fat Wiggler are so popular with steelhead fishermen. Many of the popular sizes are available in 50 or more color options ideal for just about any water clarity or fishing situation.

Some of the most popular steelhead plug colors for back-trolling include Metallic Gold Flame, Metallic Gold Black Bill, Metallic Silver Clown, Grinch, Deschutes Dazzler, Bleeding Fire Tiger and Metallic Gold Green Pirate.

Other colors that rank an honorable mention among steelhead fishermen include NFL, Metallic Perch, Egg Florescent and Metallic Silver Blue Pirate.


FlatFish, Mag Lip and Fat Wiggler plugs catch fish right out of the package, but a lot of anglers like to customize their favorite lures with unique splashes of color and performance hooking options.

An ordinary permanent marker does a great job of adding a splash of color to a plug’s nose, tail or flank. Red and black are the two most common accent colors, but let your imagination go crazy.

Round bend style treble hooks come standard on steelhead plugs. Lots of anglers remove the belly hook on their plugs to help reduce snags. Adding a slightly larger tail treble hook is another option that helps plugs catch more of the fish that strike.

To prevent powerful steelhead from twisting and tearing free, consider using two split rings on the tail treble hook instead of one. The extra freedom of movement using a second split ring provides, virtually eliminates any chance the fish can twist and leverage the hook free.

Wide bend, short shank style hooks including the Mustad Triple Grip, Eagle Claw Kahle and the Trokar Kahle do an exceptional job of hooking fish and keeping those fish buckled up. When replacing the factory treble hooks on steelhead plugs it pays to tread lightly. It’s usually best to stick with the same size hook or to bump up just one hook size. Using hooks that are much too large for a particular lure can destroy the bait’s action.

In situations where catch and release is important, replacing the factory treble hooks with single Siwash style hooks is also a good option. A Siwash hook functions best when two split rings are used or a small barrel swivel is added between the factory supplied split ring and Siwash hook.


Back-trolling plugs has historically been a presentation performed using 12 to 17 pound test monofilament line. Monofilament has the advantage of being affordable, tough to see in most water conditions, it has great abrasion resistance, excellent knot strength and enough stretch to be forgiving when a big fish makes a sudden run.

Despite the many advantages of monofilament line, these days a growing number of anglers are making the switch to super braids for back-trolling.

“I like 30 pound braid for back-trolling plugs,” say Bob Ison of Another Limit Guide Service. “Super braid lines deliver crushing hook sets and because of the near zero stretch plugs cause the rod tips to telegraph every wiggle of the bait. The instant one of my lures fouls on a leaf or other debris in the water, I know it when fishing braid.”

The disadvantage of fishing with braids occurs in freezing weather. Braids readily absorb water and freeze, making them challenging to use in below freezing weather conditions.

A growing number of plug fishermen are using mini-boards to position bonus plugs out away from the boat for river steelhead. The mini-board does a great job of positioning plugs up close to submerged logs, undercut banks and current seams that could not be reached with traditional back-trolling tactics.


Back-trolling with plugs requires mounting saddle style rod holders at strategic spots near the back of the boat. The spacing of the rod holders is to help position rods so that baits are less likely to tangle, so that the baits are covering all the water directly downstream of the boat and also so rods can be removed quickly when a fish strikes.

A typical back-trolling set up consists of four rods including a rod perpendicular to the gunwale on both the port and starboard sides of the boat and two rods positioned parallel to the hull fishing straight out the back of the boat. Collectively these plugging rods are covering a swatch behind the boat about 30 to 35 feet wide.

A growing number of back-trollers are adding to the mix a pair of in-line planers that allow plugs to be positioned out further to the side of the boat. “Mini sized in-line boards do a great job of covering water I couldn’t ordinarily reach while back-trolling,” says Josh Crabtree a dedicated plug fisherman from Michigan. “I use these mini boards to steer plugs right up along submerged logs, up tight to under cut banks and current seams I could never reach without them.”

River guide Bob Ison holds an excellent buck steelhead that smashed a 3.0 Mag Lip back-trolled on the Manistee River in Northern Michigan. This Metallic Gold Flame color is one of the most popular among river guides.


It only takes one steelhead to hook a fisherman into a life long passion for plugs and back-trolling. Without question back-trolling plugs is an exciting way to catch steelhead and also one of the more efficient strategies for covering water.

Yakima Bait produces three plugs that excel on winter steelhead, including the iconic FlatFish, the fish crushing Mag Lip and tenacious Fat Wiggler. All three of these popular baits are available in multiple sizes and countless fish catching colors. It doesn’t get much better than that in the world of back-trolling plugs for winter steelhead.