The goldish-pink Wiggle Wart steelhead lure did its magic in the emerald water of the Salmon River as Eric Jones of Grangeville watched the deep-diving plug drift through a steelie run.
Jones wasn’t in a drift boat. He was bank fishing and still able to get the lure way out into the river and let it do its thing. That’s because he was using a bright pink side planer, a device designed to take the lure across a river.
“You just have to let the current do its thing,” Jones said. “It will take it out there.”
Bank anglers fishing for steelhead may be jealous of drift boaters and jet boaters who are back-trolling with lures in the river, but the jealousy doesn’t last long after the first fish that is hooked with a side planer.
Shorebound anglers using a rig like the Luhr-Jensen Hot Shot Side Planer can work lures (also called plugs) up to 100 feet from shore while standing on the bank. That really counts when you want to get to a prime spot for steelhead.
“They’ve been around for years and years and years,” said Sue Ward of Black Sheep Sporting Goods in Lewiston. “We’ve sold the heck out of SideWinders (another style of side planer).”
Anglers who are proficient with side planers are pretty successful, Ward said.
First of all, let’s explain some fishing techniques. A popular way to fish for steelhead is by back-trolling. That’s where drift-boat or jet-boat anglers drift lures like Hot Shots, Wiggle Warts or Hot ‘N Tots from the back of the boat.
Back-trolling is where the boat is held steady in the river’s current, either by rowing the drift boat or using a trolling motor on a jet boat. The lure is fished by letting out line downstream and then allowing the river current to cause the lure to wiggle and dive.
An angler can then sweep the jet boat or drift boat back and forth across the river, thus dragging the lure through lots of steelhead water.
In typical trolling on lakes, anglers drag the lures behind their boats going forward at a slow speed. As the boat moves, the lure wiggles. In a river, the boat is held still, and the current creates the action of the lure.
However, shore anglers don’t have the advantage of boat anglers, who can maneuver their watercraft across the river. That’s where the side planer comes in.
The rig floats and has a rudder that moves the shore angler’s line and lure away from the bank because of the power of the current and, hopefully, to a run where a steelhead is resting from its journey from the ocean.
Variety of side planers
There are several types of side planers on the market, and prices can vary from $14 to $24 and more. The Luhr-Jensen Hot Shot Side Planer is a tried-and-true side planer that’s been on the market for a long time. But innovative ideas are always popping up. There’s even a glow in the dark SideWinder side planer or planer board that can be seen at a great distance in the dark for fishing at night.
Here are some tips from Idaho Fish and Game and Luhr-Jensen:
Rigging a side planer
▪ Read the assembly directions carefully. It has to drift away from you in the current, so make sure the strut and rudder are on the proper side of the planer. The Luhr-Jensen side planer comes with a standard rudder and a smaller rudder for faster water.
▪ From 12- to 20-pound-test line is recommended as the main line on the reel for fishing side planers. Luhr-Jensen suggests the line for the leader to the lure be 2-pound test lighter than the main line.
▪ String the main line through the side planer so you have between 20 and 40 feet of line below the side planer, according to Luhr-Jensen. Rig a shorter length of line for shorter drifts and shallow water, and a longer length of line for longer drifts and deeper water.
▪ Put a small bead on the end of your main line down from the planer and then tie on a barrel swivel. The bead and swivel will act as a stopper as the side planer is tripped when a fish hits. The side planer has a trip arm and is released down the line so that the angler isn’t fighting the pressure of the side planer along with the fish in the current. The trip arm tension for the release can be adjusted.
▪ To the other end of the barrel swivel, tie a 24- to 36-inch leader (lighter test line than the main line). Put on a snap, and then snap on the lure.
Fishing with a side planer
Don’t cast the side planer and lure. Place them in the water, and the river current will catch the fin of the planer and slowly pull it and the trailing plug away from you and across the river.
Work the lure down through prime water by taking a few steps downstream on the bank and stopping.
An important tip from Luhr Jensen is to keep your line up and out of the water so there’s a direct line from the rod tip to the planer. Line lying on the water can hamper the performance of the planer.
The steelhead run up the Salmon River had been stalled out in early October, and fishing wasn’t as good as it in past years during the early part of the fishing season.
Warm weather and water temperatures stalled the fish well downstream in the Snake River.
However, things are changing.
Cooler, wet weather did a lot of good for fishing conditions in the Salmon River in the Riggins area, according to Amy Sinclair of Exodus outfitters.
“Recent rain brought more water and cooler temperatures to the Salmon River without causing any discoloration or visibility issues, which is exactly what was needed,” she said.
The river has been running around 3,900 cfs, and the water temperature is ranging around 53 degrees at White Bird.
As of mid-October, 120,067 steelhead crossed Lower Granite Dam. It is about 20,000 fish shy of last year’s number at the same time, and about 30,000 shy from the 10-year average.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has predicted the run size would be a bit smaller, but would still be a good run, around 70,000 hatchery fish.
“I believe that, because of warm water temperatures, the fish are racing through here (the Riggins area) looking for cooler water temps farther upriver or balling up at the confluence (downstream) waiting for cooler temps,” Sinclair said. “Either way, these cooler temperatures are going to entice them to settle in and stay around for a bit.”