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Buzz Ramsey shares 5 tips for catching steelhead on plugs

This article appeared in the December 2009 issue of Salmon Trout Steelheader magazine

Side-drifting and float fishing have soared in popularity in recent years for steelhead fishing, making pulling plugs an often overlooked, underestimated and increasingly misunderstood method for steelhead.

But for expert Northwest steelhead angler, rod designer and lure inventor Buzz Ramsey, plugs are one of his favorite techniques. That’s partly because two of the biggest steelhead Buzz has ever caught, a 25-pounder, and a massive 30-pounder, were taken with plugs. Both fish held IGFA world line class records.

“I think side-drifting and float fishing are definitely the dominant techniques used right now,” Buzz says. “But I believe that pulling plugs is still viable and should be part of the arsenal.”

Check out Buzz’s Willie drift boat and you’ll see more than a dozen rods, some rigged for floats, some with slinkies and leaders with egg loops, and some with plugs. He likes to use a variety of techniques during a drift, and undoubtedly pulling plugs is near the top of the list.

“A lot of the really big fish are males, and males are exceptionally territorial,” Buzz says. “It’s that territorial instinct that these fish react to when you present a vibrating plug.”

The 30-pound, 5-ounce steelhead that smacked Buzz’s size 30 Hot Shot with a chrome body and blue top in British Columbia held an IGFA record for nine years.

Here are five tips from Buzz to catch more steelhead with plugs:

1. The wall of death.
When running plugs, it’s vital to have everybody fish the same distance in front of the boat. The wall of plugs will irritate the steelhead holding above a tailout. If all the plugs are the same distance out, steelhead will usually begin slowly backing downstream, unwilling to go around them. As they get pushed toward the faster water, they’ll break, and strike.
Herding steelhead isn’t as effective if all the plugs aren’t the same distance, as if there is an angle, the fish are more likely to scoot around. Three plugs zeroing in on a steelhead, however, will trigger an immediate territorial bite, or force the steelhead to backtrack until it must make a choice to either retreat down the rapids, or remove the invader.

“The fish will sit back on the tailout and a lot of times I’ll run the plugs right to where they are about to break over,” Buzz says. “These fish are territorial. If the plugs are all coming down in a line, the fish will really react.”
Buzz uses Abu Garcia Line Counters to get everyone out the same distance, but for years used 5500 Ambassadeurs. “I was counting the passes of the level wind,” Buzz says. “On a 5500 Ambassadeur, I’d run seven passes, with seven feet to a pass. Once across is one pass. Left to right is one, then right to left is another.”
With a line counter, 40 to 50 feet is usually far enough with a drift boat. Make sure everyone resets their counter before letting out, and that the plug begins at the rod tip so everyone gets to the exact same distance.
You can also measure out 40 feet of high-vis mono and use a blood knot to attach it to clear backing. When the knot connecting the high-vis and clear line hit’s the rod tip, everybody is in the zone. Use a clear leader as well, making sure each is the same length.

2. Getting a line on fish.
When running plugs, Buzz uses a high-vis monofilament mainline, usually 8- to 12-pound test. The lighter the line, the deeper the plugs will run. Braid isn’t used because a little stretch is important when fighting fish on plugs.
“I’ll splice on a 3- to 4-foot fluorocarbon leader,” Buzz says. He uses a blood knot or a uni-knot.
No swivel is used. “Without a swivel, you can reel that plug right to the tip and hand the rod back without that plug swinging around or getting tangled up,” Buzz says. That gets the rod out of the way when someone else has a fish on, and when you decide to switch over to side-drifting or bobber and jigs.
High-vis line is used as a mainline so the rower can see that all the plugs are running straight, and are out the correct distance. The high-vis line also makes it easier for someone fighting a fish so they know exactly where it is.

3. Hold em tight.
One of the biggest mistakes Buzz sees plug-pullers make is using rod holders. The holders are fine when trolling for salmon or running FlatFish or Kwikfish for salmon, but when fishing for steelhead, you want anglers to hold their rods, Buzz says.
“I want the anglers to rest the rod on the gunnel,” Buzz says. “Not only does this help the person see what the action is doing, it seems like you get a better hookup ratio. Usually by the time the rod goes down you’ve got the fish. You want the rod to bottom out before you set the hook.”
Set the rods against the gunnel about a 45-degree angle from the point of the bow. Rubber gunnel guard on your boat will save wear and tear on the rods.
“The biggest reason we don’t hook the fish is they person doesn’t have their thumb on the reel when they set the hook,” Buzz says, noting the drag can’t be too tight because light line is used.
Usually when holding a rod while pulling steelhead plugs, the fish is hooked by the time the angler feels the bite. Set the hook hard anyway.

4. Perfect rod and perfect plugs
While with Berkley, Buzz designed more than a dozen models of salmon and steehead rods. One of his favorite is the magnum taper steelhead plug rod. The Berkley Air IM8 rod is 8-foot, rated for 8- to 17-pound test.
“It’s a magnum taper,” Buzz says. “It’s a light tip so you can see that rod work, and a heavy butt so you can really pull that hook into the corner of the steelhead’s mouth. We made it just for pulling plugs. The very best magnum tapers come in a one-piece rod. It’s long enough so you can steer those fish around the boat.”
G.Loomis and Lamiglas have similar models for running steelhead plugs.
As far plugs, Buzz’s favorites include size 30 Hot Shots, although the K11x Kwikfish is another hot seller.
“The size 30 Hot Shot is still a mainstay for me,” Buzz says. “I use it a lot. The last lure I designed at Luhr Jensen was the K11 extreme. That’s turning out to be a real winner and I use it quite a bit.”
On clear days, metallic colors are good. Buzz always has a blue pirate, chrome with blue top, chrome with pink top and gold. Another favorite is the white with a black top or bill.
The size 30 Hot Shot and K11x Kwikfish are ideal in classic steelhead plug water. “Steelhead like water that is 4 to 5, to maybe 7 or 8 feet,” Buzz says. “There are exceptions of course. Most of these plugs are designed to run close to the bottom.”
Buzz likes to add scents to his bait, mainly from a Berkley PowerBait or Gulp! Trout Worm. The baits are small enough they don’t interfere with the action of the plug, but they release a strong scent and also add to the visible attraction of the plugs.
Customizing plugs also can give anglers an edge. For example, the K11x Kwikfish come in a handful of proven colors, but with a black permanent marker, the plugs can be customized for different water situations. Adding a black bill to the pink plug can make a deadly steelhead lure.

5. Slow it down
“For those new to pulling plugs, I would say you can’t back-troll too slowly,” Buzz says. “You can back troll too fast. I would encourage people to work the plugs with patience and slowly back troll through the run.”
The slower the better, he says. “Anglers will learn where they can back troll slowly. Hold the boat hard in the current and let those plugs really wiggle and dive. I’ve even caught steelhead rowing back upriver.”
Most of the steelhead will be caught in the lower third of the run, Buzz says. Often they strike in areas where other boats would have given up. Fish all the way to the break, Buzz suggests.
“You slowly allow your boat to slip downstream in the holding water where the fish are,” Buzz says. “The bottom third of the drift is usually the best.”
Run the plugs straight, Buzz says. Moving sideways allows the steelhead to get around the plugs instead of herding them to a breaking point.

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