By Andy Martin
Drifting down the river the other day on a steelhead fishing trip, I noticed several boaters who would likely greatly increase their chances of catching fish if they made a few slight adjustments to their side-drifting techniques.
Side-drifting has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years on the Smith and Chetco rivers, and as it has become the go-to method for catching steelhead, success rates have also increased.
The idea is to cover lots of water while presenting your baits as naturally as possible, getting them to drift downstream at the same speed as the current right in the section of river where steelhead are holding.
Some of the common mistakes I noticed by some of the other boaters recently included baits not getting into the strike zone, baits being swept downstream too fast and boats with two lines fishing at different speeds.
One of the biggest keys to successful side-drifting is using matching gear. If two anglers are fishing in the front of a drift boat and one is using heavier line or weight than the other angler, it's likely one or both of the lines will not be fishing effectively.
It's vital to have the same diameter mainline so both will drift downstream at the same speed. Otherwise, the heavier line creates more drag in the water and will be pushed downstream faster than the thinner line. The same thing applies to weight.
Most successful side-drifters will rig up with identical gear, right down to the size of hook and leader length.
On my boat, I use Pflueger Trion graphite rods rated for 6- to 12-pound test line. I usually use 10-pound monofilament mainline, and depending on water clarity, 8- to 12-pound leader.
Size 2 hooks are ideal, although I'll go down to as small as size 4.
I use spinning reels, usually Pflueger Supremes, because they are easier to cast for beginner anglers, and also weigh less than bait casters.
Because snags are common when side-drifting, I carry two more identical rod and reel combos ready to go.
For weights, three-quarter-ounce sploosh balls work best, sometimes combined with a two- or three-shot slinky to quickly get down.
The person rowing the drift boat doesn't get to fish, because it's his job to make sure the baits are drifting downstream the same speed as the current. That usually requires slightly rowing against the current to slow the boat down, but sometimes pushing ahead to keep up with the baits.
As you enter the head of a drift, make sure the anglers, the people sitting in the front seats, have their reels "locked and loaded" to cast as soon as you tell them.
You want to be ready so you don't pass up any good water. Use the oars to begin pushing the boat forward with a few strokes before the anglers cast, otherwise the lines will often be swept down current of the boat right after the cast.
If fishing the right side of the boat, I have the angler on the right cast first, about 45 degrees upstream, and as soon as the bait hits the water, the angler on the left will cast to the right, straight out.
Fish both lines on the same side of the boat. Otherwise it's too difficult to get both lines to drift at the same speed.
Two baits on the same side also greatly increase the chances of catching a fish compared to just one.
With just one person fishing, I'll often be happy with one or two fish, but with two, the catch rate often jump to four, five or six fish.
Outdoors writer Andy Martin, a former editor of Fishing & Hunting News, runs a halibut charter boat in the Gulf of Alaska during the summer and guides on America's Wild Rivers Coast during the winter. His Web site is www.wildriversfishing.com.