Steelhead are for the Birds
How to modify Offshore Side Planers for better

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Home Salmon Busters™ Great Lakes Info Tips and Trix Capt. John's Log

Surface Fishing Tactics

This article was written almost 20 years ago in 2000 and predates my current line of tackle introduced in 2004.  2004 is when I quit chartering and became a tackle manufacturer.   

he birds are a handle that encompasses a variety of in-line surface side planing devices.  First ones were called Yellow Birds using a slogan "we fly to the side" and that's exactly what they did.  This amazing piece of technology increased the surface spread or distance away from the boat ten fold without the use of cumbersome standard planer boards.   The bird stayed on the line after a fish struck and slid down to a barrel swivel with a small plastic bead above it and a 5 foot leader to the fish, thus preventing the board from sliding all the way to the lure and smacking the poor fish in the snout.  Soon to follow Yellow Birds success were Tru Track, Willie, Gary Roach (the Walleye Guru) and the ones that I use are called the Off Shore Side Planer.

The above photos illustrate some of the changes that I've made to improve the Off Shore board for the exciting surface fishery that exists on Lake Michigan during April, May and June or anytime there's 38 to 54 degrees of water temperature on the surface.  Even though the planers have produced for me in 65 degree water as long as the colder water was just underneath the surface, but I like the colder water better. 

First off, the Off Shore Side Planer comes designed for slow trolling and will stand in the water upright at standstill, unlike most of the other planing devices.  The reason is, it's heavily weighted with a good sized flat chunk of lead.  The Research and Design that went into this product was for the Walleye market, because when the first prototypes were developed in the late 80's the Michigan Salmon Fishery was on the skids with BKD (bacterial kidney disease) causing the decline.  One of the reasons that I have used this product is; that I was involved in the early stages field testing on Lake Huron in the early 90's.  It helped too, that I kept my boat at Bruce Deshano's marina.  Bruce is the marketing genius behind the Offshore Release and designer of the Offshore Side Planer. 

In-Line Planers or Regular Planer Boards?

Why choose the in-lines over the standard dual planer board?  Because the in-lines offers advantages like the surging or jigging action the little boards impart to the lure.  Next, they'll run in rougher water the standard board which can flip over and cause you a world of grief when it turns into a deep six and heads for the bottom.   When a fish rips into the in-line planer it's a better hook set because you're directly straight lined immediately to the fish, plus the constant drag of the in-line planer the hook will stay in a fish better too, especially on the skyrocketing Steelhead that won't stay in the water.  

I've used the Yellow Birds, Willie Boards and the Roach Board and they all will work fine, however, I've had my best luck with the Off Shore Side Planer that features tremendous rough water stability.  But, they'll need the modifications below to attain pro-caliber results. 


(1.)  The stationary Mini Release needs to be changed to one that moves on a split ring.  This will assist in the hooking and mainly the board won't drag near so hard when you're pulling them in.  I've used the large split rings that come with the stock board.  The newer version of the board comes with a plastic arm and the older ones used metal with a tab of metal the hold the release outright.  Tip: if they're the metal arm, just break off the tiny upright tab of metal and insert the split ring in the exposed hole.

(2.)  The rear tow point needs to be moved from in the middle of it's side to the lowest point on the rear of the board and in the middle.  This can be done with just a pair of pliers but it's better to drill pilot hole. 

(3.)  Trim off 1 inch of lead on the front of the flat bar of lead (the keel).  This will allow the board to ride higher in the front and impart more of a skipping or jigging action to the lure.

(4.)  Get rid of that cutsie flag, it's gotta go!  If not you're asking for trouble when a mean spirited Steelhead starts thrashing all over the surface.

(5.)  Use a Speedo bead or a plastic bead with a swivel 5 feet up from the lure as a stopper.  Better yet is a bead chain keel weight sold at:

(6.)  Use 15 pound test mono for most hits and 20 pound test to insure against break offs.

Now you have the pro-modifications installed on your board that I've successfully used since 1991.  Although, admittedly the board will retrieve harder than most, it's nearly impossible to flip over and dig into a wave.  When you've got a fish on you won't notice the hard pull in factor because as a rule the fish swims the board to the boat.  Oh, I just about forgot to mention the fact that the board is a free floating mechanism, once it's tripped (won't subtract from the fishes fighting ability), so when a large fish runs line off the reel it just slides on the line eventually sliding down to the stopper.  

*A special thanks goes out to Capt. Bill Bale from Best Chance Charters and Tournament Team for figuring most of this out for me.  Bill has a mild type "Clark Kent" personality on land, but when he's on the water he turns into "Superman."

How to Attach the Board to your Fishing Line
(Very Important)

Attaching the fishing line to the board with the red Off Shore mini release is very important.  If done incorrectly the release won't trip and it will just slid down the line grooving the pads in the release.  See the above photo for the correct technique.  Be sure to click on the thumbnail for full size view.

(1.) Let out desired amount of line to the lure.  Here's a tip you might find useful, the calmer the water the further the lead.  In a light chop, 80 feet is fine, flat calm I'll go back a 100 to a 125 feet.

(2,)  Spin the mono fishing line to put about 4 or 5 loops in it.  This is easy and can be done by just rolling the line with your thumb and index finger.

(3.)  Insert the line into the release with the loops you've just created facing forward or to the front of the board.

(4.)  Place line in the tow clip or swivel at the end of the board.  This is what keeps the board on your line once a fish strikes.

(5.)  The loop you've just put in there will lock the board in place, assist in tripping the board and help hook the fish better.

(6.)  I've used a rigid or in place for photo only, I recommend the split ring modifications mentioned above.  (I've used the rigid release setup for towing lead core line only).

Lead Lengths and Lure Selections

The length of the lead from the planer to the presentation or lure really depends on the condition of the lake.  If it's flat calm 120 feet back isn't out of the question and when it's rough with seas running to 4 foot or better I've caught fish on 25 foot leads.  If you're looking for the norm I'll generally distance the lure about 80 feet back, this cuts down on tangles also.

Lures that are popular side planer selections for me include the Mini Streak, the DW-LD and the standard Stinger.  You'll see I've gravitated to the smaller profile lures for the most part, because if you've seen the micro-sized bait in the fishes gullet like I have, you'll see that a smaller presentation makes more sense in most cases.

Stick or Rapala style baits are deadly offerings in the early spring.  It's hard to beat the fluorescent orange or red 15 long A Bomber for a planer bait.  Any combinations or colors can work, but an old stand by for me is the 11S standard Rapala in black and silver when all else fails to produce.

Pro Tips

(1.)  If the surface is producing well on the planers I'll run 4 on the port side and 4 on the starboard for a total of 8 side planers.  I'll run all the same weights and lure styles on one side to assist in reading the boards.

(2.)  The birds or side planers need to flock in a vee pattern like a flock of geese and you have the right direction.  If one side lags and is they're all out of kilter adjust your course.  The lagging is generally caused by wind direction, current or not holding a true course.

(3.)  Any planer not in the flock pattern is either dragging a small fish or has debris on it.  Bring it in and check it immediately. 

(4.)   A good hard snap of the rod and I mean hard will trip the board and allow for retrieval, don't be in a hurry here, let the board float over the other lines until it's straight back behind the boat, then pull it in.  This will eliminate tangling with other lines in most cases.

(5.)  I'll start off either the port or starboard side with a half ounce bullet worm weight and one ounce weights on the opposite side, then adjust to which side is producing best.  By adding weight you'll speed up the amount of time it takes to set a line and sink the lure closer to the fish.  The weight thing also tightens up the action of spoons especially: more action.

(6.)  I've run the regular sized Silver Streak off the boards with no weight with outstanding success.  This article was written back in 2000 and predates my Salmon Buster™ spoons by 19 years.

(7.)  On the red Mini Off Shore Release there's a small adjustment that can be made by sliding the little spring, push it closest to the pinch pads with a small screwdriver for the firmest setting.

(8.)  Use line counter reels for your bird rods for exact distance settings if you budget allows for it, besides line counter reels now are no longer the high priced spread like they once were.

(9.)  Any medium action downrigger rod will work fine as a side planer rod.  The side planers don't pull near as hard as let's say, a dipsy diver.

(10.) Don't and I'll repeat don't watch the rod tips for strikes because there'll be constant movement, watch the boards for a hard or violent yank in reverse.  Use a loose drag setting on the strike because if it's a large fish it will be screaming the drag.

Michigan Sportsman & Capt. John King Copyright©2000