This summer steelhead fell for a plug below near Dodge Bridge on the Rogue River. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Pluggin' for steelies

SHADY COVE — When Ryan Forbuss travels to the upper Rogue River in search of steelhead, the Grants Pass man brings a little of the middle Rogue with him. A silver and black Brad's Wiggler — a tacklebox staple for middle Rogue steelheaders — dangles at the end of Forbuss' fishing line. He runs it out in front of his driftboat as he rows through the upper Rogue's Buzzard Hole, hoping to use a summer steelhead's aggressive nature against him. An 8-pound hatchery fish can't resist. It chomps the plug, and the ensuing acrobatics have the steelhead doing aerial flips while Furbuss chortles in delight from the fight. "Plug fishing is a dying breed," says Furbuss, 30, and a part-time fishing guide. "Personally, I prefer to do plug fishing. And that's why." "Pulling plugs" is a traditional and effective way for driftboatboaters to catch summer steelhead, especially the feisty early-run steelhead now plying the upper Rogue's riffles and rapids. Initially designed to be cast and retrieved by bass anglers working Southern lakes and ponds, these metallic lures will dive deep into steelhead riffles when held against the current 45 feet or so off the front of a driftboat. The oarsman rows side to side as the driftboat moves through a riffle, allowing the plugs to wiggle in front of any steelhead there. The rods are often left in mounted holders, with the rod tips wiggling to the action of the plug until all hell breaks loose. In some cases, the metal or molded plastic plugs look like crayfish or other steelhead food. Other times, the shiny silvers or bright-pink bodies simply irritate the steelhead into biting. Regardless of a fish's motive, pulling plugs provides excellent opportunities for steelheaders to take advantage of what a driftboat and swimming metal lures can deliver. "They're extremely effective when you're fishing people who can't really cast, so you can still get them into fish," says Buzz Ramsey, a Washington angler considered one of the grandfathers of steelhead plugging. And how that happened is somewhat of an accident. The first diving plug dates back to the 1940s, when Eddie Pope crafted "Hot Shot" lures as bass baits to be cast and retrieved. Some Columbia River guides later discovered that they dove and wiggled well from anchored boats along steelhead migration lanes in the Columbia River. As one plug hooked a fish, the boat would drift down as the anglers fought the steelhead, then guides realized other plugs were getting strikes while on the move. "For a long time it was a guide's secret to get the non-experienced anglers into fish," Ramsey says. Ramsey went to work at Northwest lure company Luhr Jensen in the early 1970s, just after the firm bought the Hot Shot line. As precision tooling helped build better-swimming plugs, Ramsey became the smiling seller of all that's plugging in seminars and in anging media. "As we started promoting it, that's when it became more popular for the common man to use plugs, not just guides," Ramsey says. Ramsey, from Clickitat, Wash., now works for Yakima Bait Co., the Pacific Northwest's largest lure company, with several lines of plugs catering to the region's steelhead and salmon anglers. While interest in plug fishing has waned, Ramsey says he's seeing a resurgence in their use despite fish-fads like spey-casting, fishing bobbers and jigs and using bobbers instead of weights to side-drift bait. Much of it has to do with manufacturing, Ramsey says. In the past, technology was such that not every plug worked, or "swam," true. Anglers would have to buy two or three of the same plugs and tinker with them (called "tuning") to get one to swim right. The plugs that swam right caught steelhead. Lose it and it's like your second-best bird dog died. Plug-making machines are so well refined now that they can dial sizes into one-thousandth of an inch, so "everything swims right out of the box," Ramsey says. "There are better plugs out there," Ramsey says. "They're made better. They're fishier, and they help anglers find success." It's easy to sell that to Furbuss. Early summer steelhead bolt right past their normal Grants Pass-area steelhead haunts, thanks largely to unfriendly 75-degree river temperatures, heading for the cool waters of the upper Rogue, where they hang out until spawning begins in December. That makes the runs above and below Shady Cove desirable for August steelheaders. "When the temperatures are high, we go up because we know the fish in the upper Rogue are willing biters," Furbuss says. Furbuss and his father, Dave Furbuss, boated four big summer steelhead recently in less than two hours of plug fishing the upper Rogue. Each one of them bit that silver and black Brad's Wiggler. "Silver and black is go-to," Furbuss says. "We always run at least one, if not two. It's a killer." <I>Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or Follow him at</I>{br class="hardreturn" /}

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