Side Drifting – Chetco Style

By Andy Martin of Wild Rivers Fishing

In the past several years I’ve enjoyed the chance to side-drift for steelhead throughout the West Coast, from Northern California to the Olympic Peninsula and in Alaska, on such rivers as the Skagit, Sauk, Bogachiel, Skykomish, Kenai, Kasilof, Nehalem, Wilson, Nestucca, Umpqua, Rogue, Klamath and Sacramento.

I’ve noticed several variations to side-drifting on these rivers, as the locals know what works best on their home rivers. But I’ve also been able to catch fish on all these systems using the same general technique I use while guiding on the Chetco and Smith.

Here’s a quick lesson in side-drifting, Chetco style.

Side Drifting for Chetco Winter Steelhead
Mike with a couple hatchery steelhead from the Chetco caught while side-drifting roe.

Why side drifting?

If you present a bait to steelhead with a natural presentation, chances are you can get them to bite. The biggest key is getting the bait down to the strike zone – the area where steelhead are holding – and presenting it as naturally as possibly. Side-drifting is the ideal technique for a natural presentation, and is relatively easy for all skills levels. The Chetco is a classic side-drifting river. According to many of the old-time guides here, it is the Chetco and Smith where the modern side-drifting technique was perfected.

For years, on the upper Rogue, guides would target steelhead with a technique known as “rolling shot.” They would use fly rods and fly reels spooled with monofilament line, with a few split shot attached to the mainline above a leader with a small hook and a cluster of roe. They would strip out several feet of line and fling it out.

Many of the Upper Rogue guides spent the winters on the Smith and Chetco, and caught fish with their “rolling shot” technique. Later, fly rods and spinning reels were used. Today, spinning rods made specifically for side drifting and high-tech, lightweight spinning reels are used.The Smith and Chetco saw the evolution of side-drifting, with local guides first coming up with Puff Balls, and then “sploosh balls,” originally known as “Rock skippers.”

Our top 5 choices for the Best Spinning Reel of 2017

With side-drifting, guides found they can cover large sections of prime water with a very natural presentation. They maximized their fishing time, and covered miles of rivers, getting their baits in front of untold numbers of steelhead. (While some of the origins of side-drifting can be traced back to the Smith and Chetco, it also must be noted that forms of side-drifting also were pioneered on the upper Sacramento for rainbows. That technique was then taken to the Cowlitz, where is spread throughout Washington. Boon-dogging, meanwhile, can be traced back to the Skagit).

Side Drifting Sploosh Ball
Sploosh balls, a generic term for Plunk N Dunks and Mad River Drifters, and even Bouncing Betties, originated on the Northern California coast and are the stand-by weight for side-drifting on the Chetco and Smith rivers.

Sploosh balls and Puff Balls

While many side-drifters in Washington and the Northern Oregon Coast use Corkies, Rags and Cheaters while side drifting, Puff Balls (and now Fish Pills) are a staple on the Chetco and Smith. Adding a Puff Ball (a round piece of styrofoam painted a bright color) to your bait adds a splash of color, and slightly floats the bait above the bottom. Pink is an old favorite, but orange, peach, red, and yellow-orange are popular.

Most anglers on the Chetco and Smith use a piece of roe the size of a fingernail, slightly bigger during off-colored water. I also use a small piece of yarn, tied to the egg loop. This helps my customers pull the egg loop open to add bait. The yarn also gets caught in a steelhead’s teeth. But most important it adds more color, and apparently adds an action that steelhead like. I know I’ve caught a lot more fish using yarn with the roe and Puff Ball than just a Puff Ball and roe.

Sploosh balls, meanwhile, give your baits the most natural drift possible. The current pushes the weight down the exact speed it is flowing. The large mass compared to the light weight creates the natural drift you need when side-drifting. Remember, the more natural you can present your bait, the more likely a steelhead will take it.

The best way to rig a sploosh ball is on a sliding snap swivel placed above a bead and a barrel swivel connecting your leader. The sliding rig will prevent tangles. If you tie a sploosh ball with a fixed rig, chances are the leader will wrap around the sploosh ball and tangle. The bead serves as a bearing and is key for preventing tangles.

Side Drifting Sploosh Ball with slinkey
A sploosh ball with a small slinky

The new Mad River Drifters come in an unweighted and a weighted version. When I’m fishing heavy water, I still prefer to add a small two- to four-shot Slinky with the sploosh ball. It seems to get down quicker, and stay down. You want the weight to hit bottom about every 7 to 10 seconds. A constant tap-tap-tap and you are dragging bottom. No taps and you may not be down in the strike zone.

Sometimes, especially in fast deep slots, or when the river is high, a Slinky fishes more effectively than a sploosh ball. I carry 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 shot slinkies. Again, I’m looking for the weight to tap bottom every 7 to 10 seconds. Overall, a 3/4 ounce sploosh ball without weight is my favorite side drifting weight.

Side Drifting Roe and Puff Balls
Roe cured with Pautzke BorxOFire and sugar, and a variety of Puff Balls.

Hot baits

There are many effective cures for steelhead. On the Chetco and Smith, borax-based cures, and Jello cures are popular. My baits are cured with natural colored Pautzke BorxOFire, with sugar added. I use a mixture of 2 parts BorxOFire and 1 part sugar. I’ll also add anise oil or anise-krill oil. Steelhead have a sweet tooth, and will hammer a borax-sugar cured egg.

I butterfly the skeins and then cut the clusters into quarter to golf ball size chunks and add a generous coating of the BoraxOFire-sugar mixture, roll the bait around, and then cure for three days in a Ziploc bag. I add the anise or krill oil the first day of curing. After three days, I dry the eggs for a few hours and then place them in a jar. They will keep in the fridge for several weeks.

I also carry a second cured bait at all times, usually the Buzz Ramsey three parts borax, two parts sugar, one part salt. It is similar to the BoraxOFire, but without the krill. Sometimes is is what the fish are craving.

Side Drifting swallowed bait
Steelhead like the sugar-enhanced cures, and will sometimes swallow the bait if you don’t set the hook quick enough.
Side Drifting ideal bait size
The ideal bait size, with a small piece of yarn, and a Puff Ball.

Side Drifting hooks

Depending on flows, I use a size 4 to a size 1 hook. A size 2 octopus hook, pictured above, is ideal. It is plenty big enough to hold a big steelhead, yet light enough it won’t sink straight to the bottom and hang up. I’ve used several brands and sizes of hooks, and now use nothing but Lazer Sharp size 4, 2 or 1. These are strong and sharp, and generally cost less than many other brands.

For a leader I use 10 or 12 pound test monofilament during most flows, and 10 to 12 pound fluorocarbon during low, clear conditions. I use mono when I can.

Side Drifitng Hook up
A size 2 hook has plenty of holding power for most steelhead. Here’s an ideal hook up in the corner of the jaw.
Trophy Chetco Winter Steelhead caught side drifting
Here’s Paul with a trophy Chetco steelhead caught on a size 2 Lazer Sharp hook and roe cured with Pautzke BorxOFire enhanced with sugar and anise-krill oil.
Side Drifting Rod
My favorite side-drifting set up – a Wright & McGill side drifting rod and reel.

Rods and mainline

Another key to side drifting is making sure everything is matched up. If one guy is using a heavy casting rod and the other a light spinning rod, it’s hard for the rower to detect a strike. Generally the guy rowing will know you are getting bit before you do (more on that later). Also matching line diameter is crucial. You will not get a good drift if one angler is using 10-pound mainline and another is using 15. One will be pushed downstream quicker than the other. You want all your baits to drift down stream naturally at the same speed.

While many Chetco and Smith guides still use a 7-foot-9 Loomis Hot Shot rod in a spinning rod version (which are no longer available), longer rods are now catching on. I use a 9-foot Wright & McGill Side Drifting rod rated for 6- to 10-pound-test line. This rod takes the guess work out of seeing a bite. It also has plenty of power for fighting big steelhead, and I think you lose less fish with a longer, flexible rod. For mainline I use 12- or 15-pound PLine fluorescent blue. The line is strong, and you can see it while side drifting. For leader, I use either Trilene XT mono 12 or 10, or Trilene Professional Grade Fluorocarbon, which is strong and invisible.

Fighting a winter steelhead while side drifting
A customer fights a Chetco steelhead with a Wright & McGill 9-foot side drifting rod. Plenty of power for big steelhead, long casts and seeing a bite.
Kid fights Chetco Winter Steelhead while side drifting
An anglers enjoys the fight of a Chetco steelhead.

See the bite, Don’t feel it

When side-drifting, I tell my customers to look for the bite. You will see the bite instead of feel it. When you feel it, it generally is the weight hitting the bottom. Look for a dip in the rod tip and then a flutter. The 9-foot Wright & McGill side drifter, as well as other longer, lightweight spinning rods, are ideal for seeing the bite.

Remember, a steelhead is facing upstream when it sees your bait. When it bites, it is stationary, while the boat continues to move downstream. The bite will first appear as a dip of the rod tip and then a flutter or slight tap-tug-tap. When you see the rod dip, it’s either a fish or a hang up. If you see the flutter after the dip, set the hook hard. If the rod just dips down and stays down for more than a few seconds, lift up. This will often pull the rig away from the bottom and prevent a hang up.

Casting order

When fishing on the right side of the boat, I have the person sitting on the right cast first, slightly upstream to about the oar lock. I then have the person on the left cast straight out below the first line. Both lines are fished on the same side, parallel to each other. You don’t want one too far upstream or downstream. I then slow the boat just enough to works the lines to about the bow of the boat. I don’t want to drag them behind, but I also don’t want them pushed to the surface too far downstream. Sitting, I like the customers to hold to rod tips eye level. That way they can see the bite, and I can see the rod tip and lines as a row.

Drift fishing from a moving boat

Often the people who have the hardest time catching fish side drifting are the die-hard, expert bank drift fishermen. They know how to keep their baits moving downstream and get a good presentation from shore. But often they end up messing up the presentation while side drifting because they have such a hard time just letting the bait do its thing.

The first key to side drifting is waiting until the rower is ready. The boat has to have momentum doing downstream before you cast, otherwise the current will quickly pull the bait downstream and to the surface. Just because you an hit the perfect water doesn’t mean you should just fire off a cast. Side drifting is a team effort, and requires some patience. The rower will say how far out to cast (most of the way across, halfway across, 20 feet out, etc.), and will then control the boat to get the baits to drift down naturally.

When you can get back upstream, you should make several passes to cover all the water. Start out with a short cast, then five feet further out on each pass to cover all the water on each following drift.

Stay seated, because it’s a pain to get a good drift when one person is standing up, not only blocking your view downstream, but also making the boat lean and wonder from one side to the other.

Immediately after casting, reel in the initial slack, and then stop. Don’t keep reeling because you will just be bringing the bait back to the boat. A slight belly in the line is OK, since it will be moving downstream with the boat. Keep in mind at all times, you are trying to get your bait in the zone, and keep it there, with a natural presentation.

Side Drifting Gear

Relatively little gear is needed to side drift, but it is a good idea to have plenty of what you need. When you hang up, simply point the rod tip at the snag, hold the spool to prevent line from coming off the reel, and bust the leader. Then row to the side, re-rig, and resume fishing. Remember, you will lose gear when steelhead fishing. If you aren’t, you probably are not getting your gear in the zone.

Side Drifting Limit

When side-drifting, you have the chance to get some pretty high numbers in terms of hook ups and fish landed. You are covering lots of water, putting your bait in front of a lot of fish. Catches like this are common when side-drifting.

Anyone wanting a hands-on lesson in side-drifting can book a trip by visiting www.wildriversfishing.com. Also feel free to email if you have any questions on rigging up, curing eggs, or side-drifting in general.


Southern Oregon Fishing Guide Andy MartinAndy Martin is one of Southern Oregon’s premiere fishing guides. He specializes in Salmon and Steelhead fishing on the Rogue, Chetco, Smith, and Coos systems. If you’d like to book a trip with Andy visit his website www.wildriversfishing.com or email him at: wildriversfishing@yahoo.com

7 thoughts on “Side Drifting – Chetco Style

  1. Outstanding article and description of how to fish the Chetco River. Proud to have Andy as one of my friends. Always willing to help a fellow fisherman increase his/her odds of catching fish. I can’t wait to get him in my ol’ ’83 Willie again. 😉

    1. Larry – I’m not sure exactly which reel Andy uses (hopefully he’ll chime in). Personally though I love my Abu Garcia Cardinal 102’s. They’ve with stood a few accidental kings while targeting steelhead and are still going strong.

      The W&M Rods can be found at your local Bi-Mart.

  2. Interesting and very informative. Thanks for sharing this valuable info, Andy. Hope to see you soon for a hands on demonstration.

Leave a Reply to Brian Meek Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.