Back-Trolling Mag Lip for Winter Steelhead
By: Mark Romanack
There are lots of ways to catch a steelhead during the winter months, but nothing is more productive or exciting than back-trolling plugs. Plugs allow anglers to fish a multitude of lines/lures at the same time, creating a presentation that is impossible to compare with “rod in hand” river fishing methods.
Most river guides will back-troll with four or even six lines/lures at once. With so many lures in the water, it’s a foregone conclusion that eventually a steelhead will become frustrated and strike out of pure anger. When a steelhead slams a wobbling plug, the rod bucks wildly, the fish goes airborne in an attempt to shake the hook and the atmosphere in the boat is nothing short of chaos. In short, back-trolling plugs such as the iconic Mag Lip series of wobblers is not only productive it’s one of the most exciting ways to target winter steelhead.
WHAT IS BACK-TROLLING
For those who have not experienced the art of back-trolling, this unique presentation uses a drift boat, jet sled or small skiff to slowly snake wobbling plugs downstream in a highly controlled manner. The presentation starts by anchoring the boat upstream of a stretch of river water that’s deeper than the surrounding water.
Winter steelhead tend to concentrate in the deeper areas of the river. Runs that feature four to 10 feet of water are prime spots to find steelhead holding in the current, waiting for food to wash within reach.
The boat is positioned with the bow pointed upstream. An electric anchor winch is used to hold the boat stationary while plugs are played out downstream of the boat. Depending on the water depth, the plugs will be set out 30 to 70 feet behind the boat.
Once the reel is engaged and the rod placed in a strategically placed rod holder, the force of the current will push against the diving lip on the plug and cause it to dive. Rod holders are in turn used to position a bait straight out the back on opposite sides of the boat. Rod holders are also used to position another pair of rods/lures out to the side of the boat.
To stagger the distance between lures, rod holders are pivoted and in many cases anglers use varying rod lengths to further spread out their baits.
Once all the rods are set and the plugs are wobbling in the current, the anchor is lifted and the boat allowed to start drifting downstream. In some cases anglers set the anchor so it barely touches the bottom, allowing the boat to creep downstream slowly. In other cases, oars are used to hold the boat in the current and also to sweep the boat back and forth across the run while at the same time the boat is slowly slipping downstream.
The modern “back-troller” employs technology to control a winter steelhead boat. An electric motor that features an auto-pilot style GPS navigation system mounted to the bow is used to hover the boat in place. Some manufacturers of these electric motors call this “spot locking” and others call it the “anchor” mode.
In both cases the electric motor compensates for the current and holds the boat in place while plugs are deployed. The thrust of the electric motor can in turn be reduced, creating a situation where the boat slowly slips downstream. Meanwhile, the angler uses a key fob provided with the electric motor to steer the boat left or right creating the unique plug fishing presentation known as back-trolling. As the boat is moved back and forth and also allowed to slip downstream, the wobbling plugs are slowly allowed to work their way downstream.
As this “wall of plugs” is slowly allowed to slip downstream, steelhead are typically pushed downstream. When the boat approaches the tail-out portion of the run, steelhead tend to panic and smash the plugs out of pure frustration.
THE PERFECT PLUG RODS
Back-trolling plugs is a game that is typically played using four to six lines. Varying lengths of baitcasting rods from 8’-6” to 10’-6” are generally used to further spread out lures and cover more water. A plug rod must feature a soft action tip, yet have enough backbone to handle heavy fish. Most major manufacturers of fishing rods produce “species specific” graphite rods designed especially for the iconic presentation of back-trolling.
When back-trolling Mag Lip and other plugs, strategic rod placement helps to cover more water and eliminates a hooked fish getting tangled in another line. Most plug fishermen will run a four rod spread, but some use three rods per side or six plugs in their approach.
The reels used on back-trolling rods are baitcasting models that are capable of handling at least 200 yards of 12 to 14 pound test monofilament. Low profile, round frame and even line counter style baitcasting reels are commonly used for back-trolling plugs.
Any reel used for back-trolling steelhead must feature a velvety smooth drag system. River steelhead are powerful fish and the only way to control them is with a flawless reel drag.
Monofilament is the traditional line used for back-trolling, but a growing number of anglers are using a host of other line types including co-polymers, fluorocarbon lines and even low stretch super braids. While anglers don’t agree on the best line for back-trolling, most do agree that the line needs to be a high visibility color.
The ability to easily see the line as it enters the water, makes it easier to steer the trailing plugs into fish holding cover such as submerged wood, boulders, undercut banks or obvious structure edges. A high visibility line is ideal for back-trolling, but at the terminal end a four to six foot leader of invisible fluorocarbon line is required.
To add a fluorocarbon leader, first thread a small bead onto the main line, then tie a small barrel swivel onto the leader material using a Palomar knot. Finish the rig by tying the main line to the other end of the barrel swivel again using Palomar knot. Finish the rig by adding a small cross-lok style snap to the terminal end using an improved clinch knot.
This set up insures that if the plug gets snagged, the lure can be broken off without also losing the leader. Because the improved clinch knot is weaker than the Palomar knot, this rigging option helps keep “on the water” retying to a minimum.
The bead prevents the angler from reeling the barrel swivel into the rod guides and damaging the rod.
While just about any wobbling plug can be used for back-trolling steelhead, the Mag Lip series of baits produced by Yakima Bait Company are hands down the favorites on both the west coast and also in the Great Lakes region.
Mag Lip is produced in several sizes, but the 2.5, 3.0 and 3.5 sizes are the most popular among back-trollers. The “skip-beat” action these plugs display right out of the package, makes them an obvious choice for winter steelhead fishing. As the Mag Lip is wobbling, the plug wanders from side to side and occasionally the plug will dart quickly to the side and then recover. This darting or skip-beat action drives steelhead nuts and generates intense strikes that other plugs just can’t match.
Mag Lip come in over 50 different color patterns. A few of the consistently productive steelhead colors include Metallic Gold/Flame, Double-Trouble, Grinch, Green Machine, Metallic Gold/Green Pirate and Metallic Silver/Blue Pirate.
It seems every river guide has his or her favorite plug colors. Many anglers add custom touches by using permanent markers to add a touch of color to the bait’s bill, belly or perhaps a hand-drawn ladder back design.
SCENT IS IMPORTANT
Successful winter back-trolling is a presentation that requires mastering a lot of details. Using scent to help trigger strikes is one of those details many anglers overlook.
The Yakima Rooster Tail Spray Scent is a water soluble oil based scent product that is easy to apply. One or two squirts generates a powerful scent stream in the water for 20 to 30 minutes. Produced in collaboration with the scent experts at Pro Cure, Rooster Tail Spray Scent is effective, easy to apply and doesn’t require any special clean up measures.
SUMMING IT UP
Back-trolling the Mag Lip plug is an iconic and effective way of targeting winter steelhead. This same presentation also works wonders in late winter and early spring when spawn laden steelhead push into tributary streams.
Compared to other popular steelhead fishing presentations, there is no comparison. Back-trolling is flat out plug fishing on steroids!