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  • Mark Romanack

Back-Trolling Plugs For Steelhead

Most presentations used to target river steelhead require the angler to cast or drift a bait, rig or attractor to waiting fish. Back-trolling in rivers is a rather unique steelhead fishing method that uses the boat to present wobbling plugs to fish holding in runs and shallow holes.

Popular with steelhead guides, back-trolling allows the guide to skillfully position the boat and deploy an assortment of wobbling plugs immediately downstream of the boat. Rod holders are used to space out the rods and allow the plugs to fish without tangling among other lines. Meanwhile, the clients wait patiently in comfortable chairs positioned near the back of the boat.

Back-trolling plugs for steelhead is a peaceful and relaxing experience until a strike occurs. When steelhead decide to strike a plug they do so with the kind of aggression anglers who target other species rarely get to experience. The rod hammers down and while the angler struggles to free the rod from it’s holder, a screaming mad steelhead takes to the air cartwheeling across the surface again and again.

After a few heart pounding leaps, a hooked steelhead settles down and begins to use it’s power and the current to strip line from the reel. The power of these fish is simply amazing. Like a smallmouth bass on steroids, steelhead put on a show unlike anything else in fresh water.

The author lives in Michigan where there are several world class streams that dish up back-trolling action for steelhead all winter long. This fish was taken on the Muskegon River while filming an episode of Fishing 411 TV.


Back-trolling with plugs in rivers is a game of boat control. Anglers who are skillful at moving the boat in such a way as to steer their plugs into productive water are treated to explosive strikes. The traditional way to control a boat for back-trolling is to use oars to manually slow down the boat’s drift while allowing the current to bring wobbling plugs to life.

Anglers who are skillful at rowing a drift boat or small skiff can also move the boat laterally in the current, moving lures across fish holding water in the process. The combined process of holding the boat in the current and also moving the boat laterally causes the trailing plugs to speed up and slow down enticingly.

In addition to using oars to control the boat, many boats particularly in the Great Lakes region set up for back-trolling are also equipped with an electric anchor that allows the anchor to be raised and lowered remotely. Mounting the anchor switch on the oar handle makes it easier to raise the anchor as needed and then immediately use the oars to take over boat control.

When a fish is hooked, in many cases the angler will lower the anchor to hold the boat in place while the fish is played out. This method works nicely for most steelhead, but when an exceptional fish is hooked, often the anchor must be raised and the boat allowed to drift naturally with the current. Drifting downstream while fighting a stubborn fish makes it much easier to get the upper hand on a powerful steelhead.

Oars and electric anchors are the bread and butter of back-trolling for steelhead, but a growing number of anglers are discovering the same presentation can be duplicated using a bow mounted, GPS guided, auto-pilot style electric motor. Auto-pilot electric motors are controlled using a key fob that allows the operator to control the direction of travel, speed and even to hold or hover the boat in one spot.

Recently on the St. Joe River in southwestern Michigan, plug fishing enthusiast Josh Crabtree and yours truly used a MotorGuide Xi5 electric motor to expertly back-troll plugs. We started just upstream of the runs we wanted to fish by putting the electric motor in the water and engaging the “anchor” mode which essentially holds the boat in place.

With the boat hovering in the current we then deployed our plugs far enough downstream that they would dive down and make contact with the bottom. Once our plugs were set and working nicely, we used the “jog” feature on the key fob to move the boat left, right or backwards in five to 10 foot increments.

Using the “jog” feature made it easy to simply touch a button on the key fob and move the boat laterally while at the same time moving our lures across prime steelhead water. Holding a 18 to 20 foot boat effectively in strong river current requires using a 24 or 36 volt electric motor.


When back-trolling plugs the water depth to be fished dictates the best plug options. The Mag Lip family of wobbling plug come in seven different sizes including the 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5 and 5.0. The most popular sizes for steelhead fishing in most rivers are the 3.0 and 3.5 sizes. These baits easily dive down six to 10 feet making them ideal for most

steelhead rivers.

Gabe Dennison is an avid plug fisherman and the founder of the Yeah Pluggin’ Facebook site. Gabe caught this beautiful hen pulling a 2.5 Mag Lip.​

Recently while back-trolling plugs with Gabe Dennison of the Yeah Pluggin’ Facebook site, we enjoyed excellent success using the smaller 2.5 Mag Lip. “I find that the smaller 2.5 Mag Lip works best in low and clear water fishing situations,” says Dennison. “The 2.5 Mag Lip only features a tail hook which also allows this bait to fish among snags much better than the larger sizes of Mag Lip which feature a belly and tail hook.”


Back-trolling enthusiasts are always looking for ways to improve this presentation. One way to get the most from wobbling plugs is to experiment with different hooking options. The Mag Lip family of baits feature great action in both slow and fast moving water, making them ideal for custom hooking options.

“When fishing the 3.0 and 3.5 Mag Lip, I remove both the belly and tail hooks and then install a larger tail hook,” says Josh Crabtree. “Steelhead are one of the hardest fish to keep hooked up. Using just one hook on the tail of the Mag Lip prevents hooked fish from gaining leverage and tearing free. Also, because the Mag Lip has such good action, the bait can support larger hooks with a better bite than the hooks which come standard on the baits.”


Back-trolling with plugs is a presentation that is popular among anglers who target steelhead in the fall, winter and spring. In the dead of winter, when other popular steelhead fishing methods simply don’t produce consistent results, back-trolling plugs is the “go-to” presentation of countless guides and fishing enthusiasts.


The aggressive wobbling action of a plug seems to drive steelhead crazy even when the water is icy cold. In addition to the Mag Lip family of plugs, the U20 and T4 FlatFish are also noteworthy plugs for back-trolling steelhead. The 1/4 and 1/2 ounce sizes of the Fat Wiggler are also good choices for back-trolling.

All of these plugs are produced in a wide variety of popular steelhead colors including both painted and metallic finishes.


Back-trolling plugs for steelhead works anywhere that steelhead run rivers in the fall, winter and spring. Back-trolling is not only effective, it’s a very comfortable way to fish especially when ole man winter comes a calling.

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