Lucky lures: Anglers share their secrets about what catches steelhead

Surprisingly, anglers offered up their secret lures and flies to Idaho Outdoors.

pzimowsky@idahostatesman.comNovember 21, 2013 


    Here are some notes on steelhead lures:

    • Get your favorites at fishing shops during the off season or early in the season. Popular lures fly off the shelves and sometimes stores don’t get any more in until next season.

    • Popular plugs like Hot Shots and Hot N’ Tots can cost as much as $6 to $7 each. Spoons and spinners sell for $4.29 to $5.26, depending on the size.

    • There are knock-offs of popular plugs, spinners and spoons that are cheaper. Still, some anglers are superstitious about using the real thing.

    • Some anglers replace the treble hooks on their lures with a single, barbless hook. They believe the fish hooks up better on a single hook. Remember, you have to fish with barbless hooks for steelhead.

    • If your rod tip is not vibrating consistently when you use a lure such as a Hot Shot while back trolling, it means there’s something wrong with the lure. Either it is tangled, or has weeds or other debris on it.

    • Steelhead plugs may need to be tuned. They should wiggle and dive, but not veer left or right. To tune a plug, hold it in the current and watch which way it veers, then slightly turn the screw in front in the opposite direction.

    • When you cast out a spoon and you don’t feel the wobble, it also can be tangled.

    • Take a moment at home to bend down the barbs on the hooks on all the new lures you’ve purchased for your steelheading trip.

    In the heat of the moment on the boat or bank, you might forget to do it.

The pinkish-gold Hot N’ Tot plug dove, wiggled and flashed in the water across the golden cobblestone of Idaho’s Salmon River.

The fishing rod’s tip vibrated from the action of the lure and was mesmerizing as I rowed the drift boat against the current to hold it in the same spot in the river.

Occasionally, I’d let the boat sweep across the tail out in the river, hoping to cover as much water as possible to entice one of Idaho’s feisty fall steelhead.

Fish often hang out and rest in the tail out (the downstream end of a pool), after swimming through a riffle or rapid.

The rod tip telegraphed the plug’s action, and the beautiful fall weather, the sound of the oars squeaking in the oar locks and splashing in the water were hypnotic.

Then bam! It happened without warning and where it was unexpected.

Fish on!

I never thought there would be a fish in this spot, but I tried it anyway, and the river circus began with the fish flying out of the water three times and skimming across the emerald waters.

The rod tip bent clear to the water.

The two-ring circus ensued between the anglers in the boat and the frantic fish in the water.

Where’s the net? Who’s rowing? The boat’s heading downstream toward some rocks.

The steelie continued to rip line out of the reel. It’s when you have to keep your hand off the spool so you don’t get a line burn on your thumb.

Luckily, the drift boat settled in a calm eddy, and the steelhead was drawn closer to the boat, but it wasn’t giving in.

My fishing buddy had the net in the water. The fish dove and peeled out more line when it saw the net.

Then it jumped again and headed toward the boat, leaving me frantically trying to reel the slack out of the line.

“Oh no, it’s a goner,” I said, but my fishing buddy anticipated the fish’s move and netted it when it swam near the boat.

A lot of things contribute to a good day of steelhead fishing — fishing the right places, having a good number of steelies making their way back home from the ocean, and the right lures.

All steelhead anglers have their favorite lure, and mine is the pinkish-gold Hot N’ Tot. Oh sure, I’ll take a bluish-silver Hot N’ Tot, too.

Then there are times I won’t take a green or blue metallic Hot Shot off my line for the whole day.

Spinners, spoons, plugs and flies are funny things. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.

Since steelhead season is in full swing, I decided to ask anglers their favorite lures. I asked for suggestions in a column several weeks ago.

Surprisingly, anglers offered up their secret lures and flies. So here goes:

Ritchie Wheaton, of Nampa, was shopping at Cabela’s before a Hells Canyon steelhead trip, and he had a shopping basket of lures.

“The Black No. 5 Blue Fox spinner works well below Hells Canyon Dam,” he said. “They (stores) are always out of them.”

Dennis McManamon (via Facebook) said he liked a lure made by Rebel similar to my favorite, but with big yellow eyes.

Jim Whitman, a Clearwater River angler, said “I guess I need to go back to the tackle shop and spend another couple hundred dollars on Hot N’ Tots.”

Whitman fishes the Clearwater and Snake rivers near Clarkston, Wash., and he has good luck with Wiggle Warts and Mag Wiggle Warts in a variety of colors.

However, he’s really partial to the orange “M.J.” glitter. It’s his most consistent producer. Hot pink and chartreuse work, too.

Whitman believes Wiggle Warts work better early in the year and Mag Warts turn on when the water cools down.

“I also had good success with the Hot Lips in the smaller size in black with M.J. glitter,” he said.

Here’s another tip from a Salmon River angler.

“I love the 1/4-ounce purple Hot N’ Tot if the river is cold and clear,” said Roy Akins of Rapid River Outfitters in Riggins.

He uses a red-butt Wee Wart if the river is a little murky.

Robert Glenn (via Facebook) said he likes the Purple Peril fly tied low-water style for steelheading, but he thinks the Dardevle-type spoons have caught more fish.

Rexanne Zimmerman, owner of the Riggins Tackle Shop, once told me she loves fishing with a red-and-white Little Cleo.

Ted Eisele (via Facebook) said he likes the Purple Peril or Green Butt Skunk flies.

“Heck, even a black woolly bugger works,” he said.

Copper Little Cleo. That’s all Justin Ruen said via Twitter.

Amy Sinclair, of Exodus Wilderness Adventures in Riggins, hinted in one of her fishing reports a couple of weeks ago that the hot plug colors were green, anything with mauve, copper penny and purple.

Their tips gives you lots of options. Good fishing, but don’t go broke buying too many steelhead lures.

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

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