Plunking For Steelhead: Includes 2 Most Effective Plunking Rigs

Plunking for steelhead simply refers to casting a large heavy weight that sits on the river bottom with a bait attached to it, however, there are some tips and tricks that guides and experienced anglers use that will make steelhead plunking more effective.

The heavy weight anchors the bait close to the bottom while you sit and then wait for the steelhead to swim by and eat your bait. Well, at least that’s what most anglers do.

Anglers will cast the bait out and put the rod into a rod holder and just wait but is this really all there is to plunking for steelhead? It may take minutes or hours for a hungry steelhead to swim by and grab your bait or nothing will bite at all.

Periodically moving and also choosing high percentage areas can greatly increase your chances.

Also, only certain baits will work with this method which I will discuss in this article.

Plunking for steelhead works in rivers or in the ocean or great lakes. I have even seen guys do this in the river while fishing out of a boat.

In this article you will learn a couple of setups for plunking for steelhead, you will see which baits work best and how to make those baits work better. Some baits just don’t work well.

There are also certain hooks that work better than others which will also be discussed in this article.

Plunking For Steelhead

Plunking for steelhead is an effective technique for steelhead fishing; however, on many rivers, it is not a very common method, and you won’t see it done very often.

There are times when certain steelhead rivers are blown out of shape and with low visibility after heavy rain. This is one of the times when plunking can be effective.

It often takes a long time for some rivers to get low enough to the point usually considered an ideal fishing condition, and other river fishing techniques such as float fishing or drift gear that are used for steelhead fishing just don’t work well in the high dirty water.

Plunking is a still fishing method, and because of this, it provides lots of time for the steelhead to locate and see the bait.

During this high flow and dirty water period, the steelhead will often abandon the middle of the river or other areas where they would typically hold, and instead, they locate the path of least resistance which is usually close to the bank or in deep pools that are hard to fish.

With plunking, you can get very deep and into spots the steelhead will hold.

Plunking also allows you to position your bait along the bank where the steelhead travel during high and dirty water. Your bait can stay in this spot for long periods of time and will be found by passing steelhead.  

Generally, the principle behind plunking is to drop the bait into a spot in a steelhead river where you know steelhead are holding or will be traveling through and then wait for them to strike. 

This steelhead fishing method simply involves casting large sinkers with bait attached to it, into the steelhead river, and allows it to sit on or near the bottom. Then you just sit back and wait for a hungry steelhead to swim by and grab your bait.

Pros Of Plunking For Steelhead

With a steelhead fishing method such as plunking, an angler is able to fish at odd times such as when the water is high and off-color. You don’t have to join other steelhead anglers in waiting for the steelhead river to drop to normal conditions. So whether the time is seemingly right for steelhead fishing, or the water is high, you are still able to fish for steelhead. 

Plunking is not so difficult to do. It does not require any special casting skills. It does not put many physical demands on an angler and does not require expensive gear.

As a professional angler, I have fished several times when the water is on a normal flow and when it is high and off-colored too. The two conditions work well for me because I understand how steelhead respond to and behave in different river conditions.

At times, other methods will work better. It’s always good to have other options since plunking may not always be the best method in some river situations or spots.

Plunking For Steelhead Best Practices

Steelhead like to hide, so they choose the river’s stillest path. That’s why you have to take note of the riversides and swift water channels. In case the river current rises, the steelhead will look for still areas to rest. 

For a successful plunking for steelhead, you have to take note of the “where” and “when” to plunk for steelheads.

Where To Plunk For Steelhead

There are a number of steelhead rivers that enjoy extensive steelhead stocking programs and natural production where this method will work very well.

Plunking for steelhead is largely dependent on this upriver migration and movement of steelhead and required that you know the route they pass through on their return to their release points.

This way, you can position your plunking along this migration route. Plunking for steelhead also demands that you know where steelhead are holding. It is only natural that you want to be hitting where the steelhead are and it helps to know if they are moving, or holding in pools.

Steelhead like follow the current and remain as deep as possible. That’s why you have to take note of the current, deep riversides, and swifter water channels, and find the deeper sections where plunking tends to work best.

Steelhead will avoid the high water, and instead opt for the part of the river with soft edges. This is often on the seams, bubble lines, or basically out of the fastest currents.

Oftentimes, you won’t need to cast long distances as the steelhead will be right at your feet in dirty water following the river bank.

Shows concentration spots and seams in a river
For best results place you bait in travel routes or holding spots. These spats are often the seams and concentration spots.

As a rule of thumb, concentrate your efforts on the bends and near-shore areas with less current and look for concentration areas and seams.

Concentration areas are often found where on the softer water edges just below a rapid or shallow section.

Seams are the transition area between the fast water and the slow water. Often seams collect the most bubble and anglers often call these bubble lines. Food for the fish, like insects and eggs will also concentrate in the seams.

The seams allow the fish to be out of the fastest water, but still remain in the current.

Every experienced angler and river guide knows that the holding of steelhead in any location in a steelhead river depends on the time of year, the temperature of the water. This is important information if you want to be able to consistently catch steelhead. 

When To Plunk For Steelhead

The simple answer to the above question would be when steelhead are in the river. However, it is not as simple as that, as there are other factors one needs to consider.

Bear in mind that one of the major factor influencing the travel and movement of steelhead is river height. Oftentimes, this follows after a big rain event. To plunk successfully, you need to learn how to monitor different river levels, and when the run peaks in a particular river. 

You may want to go further and choose a few steelhead rivers (say one to three rivers ) and learn when runs return. This will go a long way to help you learn when steelhead will be in different rivers. I discuss river flows, run-off rates, and the best times for fishing different steelhead rivers on many of my pages about select rivers.

As much as plunking is a steelhead fishing method for high water, it is most effective when the water level is dropping. Steelhead won’t bite well on a rising river.

Different rivers have different schedules for clearing and dropping. In my professional opinion, the best time to plunk is 1 to 5 days after the high water has peaked and dropped. At this point, the color of the steelhead river must have turned more green than brown.

Best Baits For Plunking

There are many great baits for plunking for steelhead. Live and real baits are often the best baits.

Artificial baits like beads can be fantastic when fishing with other methods, but those hard beads have no taste, and as soon as a steelhead picks up and bites that hard bead it will spit it out.

Baits like a spawn sacs (also known as roe or roe sacs), skein, worms, minnows, and shrimp are all good baits because they scent well in the water and they taste and feel natural so the steelhead will hold on long enough for the angler to detect the bite. This is critical with this method!

NOTE: check the regulations in your area to be sure baits are allowed.

Keeping The Bait Off The Bottom

One thing that is really important is to use the correct setup that allows you to keep your bait 12 inches to 3 feet off the bottom.

Since steelhead will look forwards and upwards and they are usually 6 inches to 12 inches off the bottom, it is rare for them to feed down. Therefore if your bait is lying on the bottom, or is in between the rocks, the steelhead are not likely going to see it and bite it.

Spawn Sac Floaters

To keep the bait off the bottom, anglers will use eggs floaters in their spawn sacks (as seen in the picture), or floating beads or lil’ corky’s on the line to float the bait up and off the bottom.

Also using a Drop Shot style plunking rig is a great way to elevate your bait and keep it at the desired level.

Plunking With Lures

Worden's Spin-N-Glo
Worden’s Spin-N-Glo

It is also possible to use lures like Spin N Glo, or crankbaits, or one of my favorites is the Kwickfish Xtreme, or Flatfish.

These lures sit in place and spin or wobble back and forth, and as the salmon swim close, they see it and grab it.

In some cases like with the Spin N Glo, anglers will tip the hook with skein, a shrimp, or a minnow.

Plunking For Steelhead Setup

The first setup is for plunking for salmon using lures. This is the most common plunking rig and it’s adjustable. You can set your depth based on the length of your dropper.

You can also set your weight based on the velocity of the current. In slower current use fewer weights, and in faster current use more weights.

The plunking rig for steelhead
This is the most common plunking rig for steelhead. You can adjust the line sizes and lengths to accommodate the type of water or the size of the steelhead in your area.

There are a number of ways to set up your rig, but for the sake of this post, these are two ways to set up a steelhead plunking rig.

  • To start with, you need a sturdy rod holder that you can knock/forge into the ground and will firmly withstand a steelhead strike when they bite.
  • Tie a three-way swivel to the end of your mainline (I personally recommend a 50-pound braided mainline).
  • Tie your leader to one of the eyes on the swivel. I personally recommend leader material made of monofilament and in the range of 12- and 15-pound test.
  • Tie a long dropper line to the remaining eye on the swivel (about 8 to 20 inch)
  • Tie a hook (octopus-style) to the end of your leader, ranging from 1/0 to 3/0 using an egg loop knot
  • After tying hooking, slide down your spin and GLO choice and a bead matching the color of the lure.
  • Attach a Duolock swivel to the end of the dropper and snap in a sinker weight via this duo lock (1 to 10 oz). For best holding sinkers in strong currents, you should go for Pyramid or teardrop sinkers
  • Some anglers always like to attach a bell on the rod, so that when a steelhead bites, it alerts them. 

The Steelhead Plunking Rig For Baits

The plunking rig below shows you how to rig your line for baits like eggs. You can also use prawns, shrimp, worms, minnows, or even cut-bait.

For salmon fishing around the great lakes, one of the hottest baits for this method, and one used by a lot of river guides is Skein. Skein is the mature eggs that are still attached together by the egg membrane, or skein.

Always ensure to check your rig frequently. Knowing that you’re fishing in high water means there will still be lots of junk that can begrime your gear.

The steelhead plunking rig when using baits
This is a common steelhead plunking rig that works well for baits. Adjust line sizes based on desired depth, and the size of the steelhead in your area.
pro-cure whole skein
Pro-cure whole skein

Salmon Roe

Some of the best Salmon skeins you can buy are the Pro-Cure Vacuum Packed Salmon Skeins eggs.

The skein is cured in Pro-Cure’s proprietary blend and can be hard to find.

Check These Stores

Check Store

King Roe

Coho Roe

Skein chunks
Pro-Cure Salmon Roe

Pro-Cure Salmon Roe Clusters

These premium natural egg skeins are individually cut into soft durable clusters and packed on a tray.

They are made and processed to stay on the hook better.

Pro-Cure Wizard Egg Cure
Pro-Cure Wizard Egg Cure

Skein Cure

If you can harvest your own skein, be sure to cure it properly.

Many anglers use Pro-Cure Liquid Bait Cure or Pautzke Balls O’ Fire Cure Fish Egg Cure.

How To Detect The Bite

Some anglers always like to attach a bell on the rod, so that when a steelhead bites, it alerts them. There’s really no rhyme to steelhead bites when plunking, as it varies from one steelhead to another.

Sometimes what you get is a series of taps on the tip of your rig that looks like a steelhead bite. That could be as a result of a steelhead coming along and just grabbing your gear, and figuring what is going on. Or it could just be a hit-and-run bite. In that case, your rod can get yanked if not properly kept.

Always look out for the tip of your rod, when it loads up or shakes, and check for a bite.

Plunking for steelhead is only one of many methods that can be effective when steelhead fishing, and I recommend knowing multiple methods to be able to adapt to different types of river conditions. You can see these methods and more on my page Steelhead Fishing: How The Guide Catch More Steelhead

Plunking For Steelhead FAQ

If you have a question, comment, or tip about plunking for steelhead please let us know in the comment section below.

Tight Lines,


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