Ol' Tom was at the oars, skillfully maneuvering our drift boat through the pool. As he rowed, I kept track of our rods. The tips bounced rhythmically, indicating that the lures were working properly.
We eased downstream in the current. Tom guided the boat in a deliberate zigzag pattern, angling back and forth across the water. The rod tips continued their dance without skipping a beat."If it's going to happen, it should be just before the water slows and shallows up at the tailout," Tom muttered. "If those steelhead haven't moved, we'll have them cornered at the bottom end."
Suddenly, a rod began to bend. Tom stroked feverishly on the oars and I jerked the rod, reeling madly to set the hook.
The rod continued to bend.
Behind us, a 30-inch steelhead leaped from the water. It was a male and his fiery red sides contrasted with the dark green river. He embarked on a mad run and the reel sang like a banshee.
Moving powerfully upstream, the big fish got into the fast current, then headed for the pool's deepest water. I was preoccupied, but Tom simplified things by reeling in the other rod and turning the boat.
"The hook should be in him pretty good now," he shouted. "You got a good set 'cause I pulled pretty hard on the oars. That should've taken the slack out of your line."
I could only nod because I was busy with other things - quite busy. The steelhead was deep in a pool on the Salmon River, pulling and turning like a dervish, ripping line from my reel like a tug-of-war team gone berserk.
Tom muscled the boat around, getting us to the side and lightly upstream of the fish. After a few more minutes, the fish began to tire from the angle and steady pressure. I could feel it weakening, but it took a few more minutes to net the 12-pound warrior.
It was an exciting few minutes and yet another tribute to the effectiveness of backtrolling for spring steelhead.
Simply put, backtrolling works because steelhead are never distributed evenly throughout a river. It allows anglers to cover a large area, which boosts the odds of hooking up with a hungry steelhead.
The more water you fish, the better the odds of finding fish.
Another reason backtrolling is effective is that steelhead wind up "cornered" at the downstream end of pools. As lines and lures drift downstream from the head of a pool, they approach the fish well ahead of the boat.
Since the steelhead aren't actively feeding, they often drift backward, downstream, toward the end of the pool. When the water gets too shallow and their backs, almost literally, are against the wall, they have two choices: bolt back upstream to safety or attack the annoying lure.