Hot Shotting; Great Lakes Style

By: Capt. John Derbabian
Copyright 2003

The practice of Hot Shotting originated more than 30 years ago in the Pacific Northwest. This highly effective type of fishing was developed to catch Salmon and Steelhead on large rivers of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California. The practice, somewhat different than the Great Lakes style, was to anchor to a drop buoy above a run and drop back large flat fish into the current to work runs effectively. The whole premise was to create a ‘wall of bait’ fish that would back the fish down the run to the point where they would strike the bait in anger (Fig 1). When a fish hit, they would release the boat from the buoy and fight it down stream. After the fight, they would motor back up and anchor to the buoy again and repeat the process. As the Great Lakes Salmon/Steelhead fishery developed, this technique was slowly adapted to the smaller rivers in the Great Lakes region, but with some changes.


The technique that is used here in Michigan differs somewhat from the west coast. The principal difference is we use smaller rods, lines, and baits and the use of drop buoys has not really caught on. Other tactics remain the same. The boat is anchored or held in place by motor (electric or gas) and the baits are sent downstream. Then depending on the type of boat you are using, you can slip down stream several feet at a time (drift boat) while rowing and then side-slip back and forth across the run, working your way down through the run.

If you were running a jet sled or other type of motorized boat, you would hold your boat in place above the run with the electric or gas motor (or anchor). Then you would use a technique that was mastered by the legendary Emil Dean, called Drop Back. This consists of dropping your plugs back a given distance for a given length of time, then sending them back a few more feet and waiting again. This whole process is repeated until the entire run has been covered. The advantages of this technique is that when you do hit a fish, you are still at the top of the run, whereas in a drift boat, you may be in the middle or bottom of the run and may not be able to get back up to the top. Emil perfected this technique and would stay in a good run for hours at a time, often taking many fish from the same run.


Many types of lures can be used when Hot Shotting. Some of the more popular are Hot-N-Tots®, Flat Fish, Hot Shots®, Willy’s Worms®, and Ping-A-T’s®. Different types of lures work better in different conditions. Flat Fish work well when the current is slower, whereas Hot-N-Tots® work better in a faster current. A key to selecting the right bait is to run the right lure for the current. If you run a lure with a large bill in faster water, the lure will roll and not run naturally. A lure with a small bill in slow water will not dig down to the right depth and the right action will not be imparted.

I cannot say enough about tuning your lures and keeping the hooks sharp. You can have everything else perfect and if your lures are not running true and/or your hooks are not sharp, you won’t be catching fish. Worse yet, If they are not tuned, you run the risk of tangling some or all of your lines with each other. This can make a real mess that will take you out of the game for sometime while you untangle/cut lines and re-rig. In a nutshell, drop the lure over the side and observe how it runs. If it pulls to the left, bend the eye to the right. Check and tune again until it runs true. Don’t assume that because you tuned it last time out, it’s still in tune. I always sharpen the hooks on each lure before it goes over the side. Check every lure, every time you drop it overboard.


Ask ten people what the best line for Hot Shotting is and you’ll get ten different answers. Some prefer light mono, some, the new super lines. I prefer to use a co-polymer line such as Silver Thread®. This is a great line that is very abrasion resistant and very strong. I run anywhere from 10lb. for Steelies in clear water to 17lb. for Kings in the fall. Many different techniques can be employed with lines. For my standard rigging, I use Silver Thread® down to the lure. Then I tie a polymer knot. In the fall, we often face a different issue. There will be a lot of debris in the water at this time of year, leaves being the biggest culprit. I will use my standard 17lb. line for Kings. Then I slide a plastic bead on the line and then tie on a barrel swivel. From the barrel swivel, I tie a 6 to 8 foot piece of 17lb. mono. When debris hits the line and slides down, instead of sliding down and fouling the lure, the debris will hit the bead and stay there.

This can help reduce the frustration of having to bring all the lures in often to clear them. You can’t catch fish with junk on your lures. Another tactic is to spool up the appropriate pound test for the season in a high visibility line like some of the flo green or flo yellows. To the end of this, blood knot a 10 to 15 foot piece of fluorocarbon. This has two advantages. First, it makes it real easy to see where your line is running and the flouro helps the business end of line that’s in the water disappear. This works well particularly for Steelhead in clear water conditions.


There are many good rod manufacturers today. You can spend as little as you would like or as much as you can afford. The ideal Hot Shotting rod would be a bait-casting rod in either 7’ or 7’6” medium to medium/heavy weight with a very light action tip. The tip action must be light enough to show the thumping of the lures, but the rods needs enough backbone to drive the hooks home on the set. The rod must have a handle not longer than 12” to 14”. Several companies make a great high modulus graphite Hot Shotting rod, but they were designed for the west coast and the handles are 16” and longer. This simply will not work here in the Great Lakes unless you cut down the handle.

Rod Holders

Rod holders are essential to Hot Shotting. They must be located in a good position so you don’t have to struggle to get to them, but they aren’t in the way. Rod Holders give the rods and lines a fixed position. When I know where the end of the rod is and where the line is, I can maneuver the boat in and out of tight spots to more effectively fish them. There are many different types of rod holders on the market from removable to fix mount.


A good bait casting reel with a smooth drag is an essential part of Hot Shotting. Steelhead and Salmon are both capable of some pretty awesome runs and a drag that starts up smoothly is often the difference between fish landed and broken lines. Manufactures such as Shimano, Abu Garcia, and Quantum all make very good reels. This again is an area that you can spend as little or as much as you want. Generally, a good reel with 2-3 ball bearings will run around $60-$70 dollars.


The strategy I use for Hot Shotting depends on the river I’m fishing. I run a drift boat that seats two (2) people up front. This means I can run four (4) rods. There are many times, based on the size of the river or where I am at the time, that I may only run three (3), two (2), or even one (1). If you look at figure 1 again, in this scenario, I may choose to run only 1 and 2, or 1, 2, and 3, or 1, 2, and 4. In areas of heavy obstructions, fewer rods are better. They can be maneuvered more carefully and accurately into prime holding spots.

Hot Shotting is sometimes described as “hours of boredom interspersed with minutes of shear terror”. It’s as exciting and productive a method as there is for Steelhead and Salmon in the river. A key factor to remember for this type of fishing is keeping your gear in top working condition. I change lines, grease reels, check guides for cracked or missing rings, and monitor my lures weekly. Nothing will break your heart faster than having that monster on and loosing it to old line or dull hooks.

John Derbabian is owner/operator of Red Sky Guide Service. John runs guided Steelhead and Salmon Drift Boat trips on the Pere Marquette River. You can contact him through his web site at

For further information and articles hit Johns Bio Page.