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Fred Botts carefully inspects a steelhead he hooked Monday while fishing on the Chetco. (Photo by Larry Ellis).
Fred Botts carefully inspects a steelhead he hooked Monday while fishing on the Chetco. (Photo by Larry Ellis).

By Randy Dowler

With coastal rivers and streams now in their winter steelhead prime, bankies and drift boaters alike can successfully apply a commonly used technique called "side drifting" to present natural and artificial bait that drift at the same speed as the current to a resting steelhead.

At the heart of successful side drifting is a properly weighted presentation. You need enough weight to get the bait to the bottom, but not so much that it sticks. If your weight is bouncing on the bottom stones about once a second, that's about right. Add or subtract weight as conditions permit.

Slinkies or pencil lead can be purchased at tackle stores. But it's a whole lot more fun and cost effective to make your own.

Using paracord, one can burn an end closed with an alcohol cigarette lighter, candle or butane torch. Then smash the burnt end with long nose pliers. Then slide in a BB-sized lead shot – .175 inches in diameter for shallow water presentations, or switch to lead buck shot – .210 inches in diameter for deeper runs and holes.

Many slinky-making kits are inexpensive. Pencil lead stuffed up surgical tubing can be easily clipped at stream side for proper weighting.

You'll certainly lose less gear using slinkies because pencil lead loves to stick in every nook and cranny along a river bottom.

Size-12 snap swivels work best, or use size-14 for rubber and pencil lead. McMahon style swivels are best for side drifting.

Hooks should be sticky sharp. Use size-1 and size-2 in muddy water. Use size-4 in clear clear conditions.

Most people like to use 10- pound to 12-pound test line. Some anglers never go below 10-pound test. Others prefer not to go above 10-pound test line.

Debates about the merits of each size, brand and color of monofilament are endless. There is not much debate about a particular preference to change lines, however.

Monofilament will stretch. Once it is stretched, a monofilament line, even if it doesn't break, will be substantially weakened. Change your line often.

Buy line in bulk. If you run your line through your fingers and it leaves a chalky residue, throw the line away because it's worthless.

Berkeley Trilene XT in 8- or 10-pound test is an excellent monofilament casting line. Ande, in Tournament Green, makes an excellent 10-pound test colored river green. It casts well by being limp, not stiff, and is very strong.

Maxima is strong and stiff, which makes it very abrasion-resistant and excellent leader material. However, most fishermen find it far too stiff to cast well.

Berkeley Fire line is an excellent non-stretch material with a smaller diameter- to-strength ratio than monofilament. I love this stuff. With no monofilament stretch, solid hooks sets are as easy to use. The clinch is absolutely useless with this line.

Learn to tye the uni-knot. Fireline is best used on Spinning Reels such as Daiwa SS 1300 Tournament Spinning Reel. Spider Wire is OK but not my favorite.

Most anglers agree that leader length should be 18 to 24 inches for side drifting. The longer the leader the more time steelhead have to spit the hook.

Fluorocarbon leaders work well in low and clear conditions, but are quite stiff in really cold conditions. Seaguar makes the best. All of Cabela's house brands are Seaguar-made fluorocarbon. A guy can save some money because brand name fluorocarbon is pricey off the retail rack.

For side drifting, Gamakatsu hooks or equivalent, in size-4 with 8-pound test line work best in low and clear water. Bump up to size-2 hooks and 10-pound test in medium water sporting steelhead in green water conditions. In highly stained and muddy water, size-1 hooks and 10-pound test work just fine.

When water is below 39 degrees, steelhead are lethargic to grab at bait. You just about have to bonk them on the nose to get them to take the bait. Water at 46 degrees is in the bite zone. Steelhead will follow bait to grab it.

When water reaches 50 degrees, steelhead become aggressive toward taking bait. At 55 degrees, which happens in March on sunny days, steelhead will rise to sip a fly off the surface film.

Natural baits, such as nightcrawlers, roe, shrimp, crawdad tails and cut squid strips are side-drifting magic.

But artificial roe, artificial worms, corkies, drift bobbers, Spin-N-Glos, glo bugs and others are also highly effective.

The key is to match your drift with the current's speed. This way your terminal tackle drifts at the same speed as the current running along the bottom stones.

Any drag on the line during cold conditions forces a steelhead to give chase, which makes it far less likely to get a bite in cold winter flows.

The most difficult aspect of mastering the side-drifting technique is learning the difference between your slinky bouncing through the bottom stones and the subtle take of a fish that has picked up the bait.

Sure, we all love the lightening grab of a pouncing steelie, but most strikes during side drifting will be subtle, especially in colder water. Cold water takes are subtle. So most fishermen never know they got a bite, and the steelhead already went patooey. Steelhead are very quick to spit a hook.

Whether boating or banking, the side-drifting technique is most effective in dredging a current seam that exists between faster downstream flows and slower currents along the inside banks of river bends, tailouts and shallow runs along willow root lines.

Please send your questions, comments and suggestions to Randy Dowler at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


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