By Hannah Pennebaker
I'll never forget the first time I saw planer boards. We were in the Cowlitz River, wading up to our chests in freezing cold water and casting our corky/yarn setups all day with no bites. With cold legs and sore arms, we began the long journey back to the truck. On our way back, we saw 3 fishermen sitting around a fire with their feet up and downing beers. 4 beautiful, chrome king salmon graced their stringers. We couldn't help but stop and observe their technique for a moment. Their poles were in rod holders, and their lures were kept in place on the other side of the river by strange orange floats that I thought were bobbers at first glance. The fishermen noticed our curiosity and showed us their setups. They were using plugs wrapped with a strip of herring. They would cast out and their planer boards would slowly carry their plugs all the way the other side of the river, where the fish were holding. Then they would put the rod in a holder and wait for a bite. In all my time fishing the Puyallup, Carbon, Humptulips, and Satsop rivers, I had never seen anyone use planer boards. I've been fascinated with them ever since, and they've been a mainstay in my tackle box. Read on to learn why they should be in yours, too.
As previously mentioned, planer boards are a great way to vary up your river fishing technique. Small, lightweight side planers are great for river fishing because they offer less resistance when reeling in a fish. Usually you'll use them with lightweight plugs or spin n glo's, so they don't need to be heavy duty. Run them onto your main line, attach a swivel and sliding weight, then put on your plug or spin n glo. There has to be a bit of current where you're fishing, or the side planer won't work correctly. Drop your setup in the river, being careful to avoid tangles. Let line out and let the board take your lure until you're right where you want to be fishing. If you don't get any hits, it's a good idea go experiment with different depths and lures until you find what's working.
The other type of planer board is larger and heavier. These are meant for trolling from a boat. That's right, not only are planer boards great for river fishing, but they are right at home on boats too! On Riffe Lake, we used to struggle with trying to fish 4 poles on our boat. 2 downriggers and 2 straight lines would inevitably tangle up, and when we got sick of untangling lures we would just go back to using 2 poles. Planer boards were a complete game changer for us. Finally we could fish 4 poles without headaches! Using planer boards while trolling is very similar to using them from shore on a river. Simply tie on your bead chain swivel, dodger, and favorite lure as usual. Use as much weight as you need to get down where the fish are at. Make sure to check how much weight your planer board is rated for first, or the planer board might not function correctly. Let out 50-100 feet of line (I highly recommend a line counter reel), then clip on your planer board and let out another 40-60 feet of line. The planer board is designed to pull your gear away from the boat in a forty five degree angle. Boards are designed for port and starboard - they won't work if you mix them up! Finally, put your rod in the rod holder. There's going to be a fair amount of pressure from the board so holding your rod is not a good option. Because of the planer board pressure you'll want a rod with some backbone to it. You're all set!
How do you know when you have a fish on your planer board? Different planer boards have different release styles. Some of them need to be "set", where you pull back a lever and wrap your line 3-4 times around the arm. Others have a simple downrigger clip style release. Some have a flag that gets pulled down when the fish bites. A big fish will even pull your planer board underwater! You'll know when your planer board releases because it will suddenly swing towards the shore or the boat.
Why are planer boards so effective? There have been days out on the boat where the fish don't want anything to do with whatever we throw on our downriggers, but we can't keep them off our planer boards. The style of boards we use are completely clear, so fish don't see them. Fish that are scared off to the side of the boat by the motor zooming over them often go right to the planer boards. They also allow you to fish a much wider range since they spread out your lures more than straight lining would.
One word on angling etiquette. If you're fishing a big lake with lots of space between boats you can let your planer boards go out farther, but if you're on a small lake or there are more boats around you should keep your planer boards closer. when passing by other boats it's your responsibility to prevent your planer board from getting run over. Not all boat anglers will realize you have a planer board out.
Now that we're right in the swing of kokanee and trout fishing, this is a great time to try out planer boards. Once you're an expert, you'll be able to use them effectively during the salmon season too! They are an extremely effective way to spread out your presentations, get your lure out to where the fish are holding in the river, and keep from tangling multiple lines. They're a great tool to have in your arsenal!