On Outdoors: Salmon and steelhead drift fishing

By Jim Hagerty
Staff Writer

Anglers making trips north for salmon and steelhead fishing do so having the basics of drift fishing in their back pockets. Those who go at it blindly rarely return.

Drift fishing involves bouncing a piece of bait on and off a river bottom. Also known as “bottom bouncing,” it’s an age-old method for hauling in trophy steelhead and salmon. In addition to a proper drift fishing rig, successful drift fishing involves knowing some inside information to make proper casts, properly work currents and choose the right rod and reel combo.

Reel and rod

An ideal reel for drift fishing is one that will work in rugged conditions and stop the often stealthy and powerful runs salmon and steelhead are known to make once hooked. Always reach for a trusted level wind reel, one with with strong gears and a free spool lever. Leave the spinning reels at home, and always use a 9- to 10.5-foot rod.

Line weight

In drift fishing applications, line must come in contact with the river bottom and obstructions below the surface. It, therefore, must be strong. Improper line will twist, stretch, bunch and snap easily, especially if a salmon or steelhead hits aggressively. Using a 12- to 20-pound braided line is a key to successful fishing.

The snell knot

While just any old knot may work well for some applications, drift fishing for salmon and steelhead calls for a strong snell knot. A snell keeps baited hooks secure as they fight through currents and strong jaws of steelhead and salmon. A snell utilizes the eye of the hook and the shaft, and completes a drift rig.


Successful drift casting involves understanding currents and the parts they play in bait presentation. Although simply casting into the drink and allowing your bait to bounce around may produce some strikes, a secret of the pros involves allowing bait to reach a fish’s range of vision by the time the hook is directly in front of the angler. For salmon and steelhead, this is as close to the bottom as possible. The key is to utilize upstream casts and allow bait to drift to holding areas in front of you.

Fighting the push

As river currents can be unpredictable, drift fishing rigs often get pushed against the flow of the water. This almost always causes bait to be lifted from the bottom, out of a steelhead and salmon’s range of vision. It also causes novice anglers to give up. When lines become tight and the rig is pushed from the bottom, it is important to follow the drift. This can be accomplished simply by positioning the angler’s body and rod toward the current. Some of this technique will be based on feel and river experience; however, following the drift until line loosens usually allows bait to remain low.

Outdoors news and photos can be sent directly to Jim Hagerty at jim.hagerty@rockrivertimes.com.

From the July 7-13, 2010 issue

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