Trolling Boat  

Planer Boards for River Steel

Small on-line planer boards offer river steelheaders a way to cover more water, experiment with more different lures and put plugs right into a colorful bullet’s snaggy winter living room.
“I use small planer boards a lot when I’m on the river after steelhead,” affirms Michigan angler Bob Lausman, who chases them from his 18-foot Starcraft customized with a “camper top” and heater. “Even when I’m anchored and working spawn skein along the bottom directly behind the boat, I’ll put a little Church TX-6 Planer boards with a plug on each side of the boat. Sometimes those are the hottest rods, especially if the fish are moving upstream. If they’re moving up and not in the path of the bait, those planer boards increase the chances of fish contact.”
The same is true when trolling.
“It’s just like on the big lake when you’re forward trolling,” says Lausman. “For forward trolling with high-action plugs on the river, I move up to a TX-12 planer, but the TX-6 is terrific for drop-back trolling. Boards not only let you experiment with different colors and actions, it also gives those plugs a wider range of action and speed when you make gradual ‘S’ turns with the boat. The plug on the outside of the turn speeds up while the plug on the boat’s other side stalls and floats up a bit. Both actions can trigger fish.”
“Planer boards also let you put plugs closer to logs and brushy snags and keep them there, provoking any steelhead hanging there into biting,” says Kevin Essenburg, river-trolling vet on Michigan’s snaggy upper Kalamazoo. Essenburg targets winter steelies with plugs exclusively. “You can put a little TX-6 planer board just five or six feet in front of the plug because it doesn’t spook fish. Then you hold your rod and manually maneuver the plug right next to snags where fish can see it—these fish rarely see another lure, and certainly not for an extended period of time.”

Gearing up for planer board fishing in rivers is simple and calls for common sense. Most anglers find regular baitcasting gear that they would normally use for trolling to work just fine for planer boards. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use spinning gear.
One key is to make sure you have the right line. A favorite set-up of veteran trollers is a reel spooled with 30-pound braid, which can also double for Dipsy Diver fishing for salmon and steelhead on a Great Lake. One reason anglers opt for Church Boards when using braided line is the clip holds the board in place without damaging the line, which can happen with clips from other companies. In fact, one competitor advises to tie in a length of monofilament when using their board so the damage their clip causes is more visible. This isn’t an issue with a Church clip, which has a coating that is gentle on all types of line.
Opaque braided line needs a leader to the lure in most cases for steelhead. Not only is it far less visible to a steelhead that might become line-shy in a heavily fished river, it also provides a “shock absorber” when fighting the fish. Stretchier monofilament and some types of fluorocarbon have just enough stretch to keep a fish from tearing free, which could happen if the whole line was no-stretch braid. Leader weight depends on where you’re going to try and put your plug. If you’re going to keep it in fairly snag-free areas, an 8-pound test leader will work fine. If you’re around a lot of snags and are going to try to put your plug in the heart of it, best go with 12- or even 14-pound test. Although that’s heavy, a river environment around a snag has a lot going on, and the sudden appearance of a crankbait in a steelhead’s strike window will often get a strike right away before a steelhead thoroughly inspects the lure and gets turned off by seeing the leader.
On the other hand, keeping a crankbait wiggling right by a steelhead hanging in a snaggy area can eventually provoke that fish into striking even with a heavier, 12-pound test leader.
A wide range of rods work well for planer trolling in a river with small boards. While some anglers like shorter, 6- and 7-footers for plugs, many who like to manipulate boards into snags feel they have better control with longer downrigger-style rods, from 8 to 10 feet long.


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