The Incredible, Edible Egg
It sounds a little strange, but freshly spawned fish eggs are one of the most natural of all fish baits for trout and salmon. Lots of fish eat eggs because eggs make for both a convenient and abundant food resource.
The desire trout and salmon have to eat fish eggs goes deeper and is a little sinister. Trout and salmon eat the eggs of other salmonids not just for the food value, but also to keep other species and the blood lines of their own species from dominating in any given fishery. Just like a coyote will readily attack and kill a fox (who also eats the same foods as a coyote) in his territory, fish instinctively are competitive to the point of eating the off spring of other fish.
The irony of this complex survival strategy is that fish like steelhead or salmon can’t readily identify the species of egg they are eating and you guessed it trout and salmon often end up eating the eggs of their own species! Apparently it’s not a perfect survival system, but it does set up a fishing opportunity we’ll simply call the fall “egg bite”.
Not surprisingly, fresh eggs, cured eggs and a multitude of egg imitations are among the best fishing baits for steelhead, salmon and stream trout. Here in Michigan eggs from a host of species are spawned in rivers during the fall. Starting in September and stretching right into early December king, coho, pink and atlantic salmon, plus brook trout, lake trout and brown trout deposit a steady supply of eggs into Michigan’s most popular rivers.
Collectively these species are providing an abundant food source for one of the most sought after fish in the Great Lakes, the steelhead. Steelhead move into select rivers in the fall to gorge themselves on the spawn of other fish.
In fact, it’s pretty common to see steelhead positioning themselves just downstream of salmon spawning redds waiting for an easy meal to drift within striking distance. Because salmon tend to spawn on shallow gravel bars, much of the best fall steelhead fishing action also takes place in water less than six feet deep.
Late in the fall when the supply of eggs starts to decline, steelhead slip into deeper pools where they spend the winter. In the spring when it becomes the steelhead’s turn to spawn eggs again become one of the best fishing baits, because steelhead don’t hesitate to eat the eggs of their own species!
Eggs and egg imitations are fished a number of ways depending on the target species, water clarity and current speed. For steelhead fishing the always popular spawn sac has been the “go to” bait of Michigan anglers for decades. Spawn sacs can be made with fresh or preserved eggs and are normally about the size of a dime in diameter. Small foam floats are often added to the bag to give the eggs a little more buoyancy and a better drift. Different color netting is also employed to appeal to the highly developed sense of sight steelhead and other trout/salmon are known for.
Spawn sacs tied from fresh eggs are considered the best possible “bait”, but preserving eggs using a variety of commercial egg cure products is necessary to insure a good selection of eggs for the entire fall, winter and spring fishing season.
To cure fresh eggs simply break the eggs from the skein, wash them and dry them on paper towels. When the eggs are dry, put them in a plastic bag and sprinkle borax soap or a commercial egg cure over the eggs to coat them throughly. Properly cured eggs will stay good in the refrigerator for several weeks.
Most anglers make up spawn sacs from the cured eggs and then freeze the spawn sacs for later use. Ordinary borax soap is a common preservative used to cure fish eggs, but a host of commercial products that not only cure the eggs, but color them in the process are also popular with fishermen.
Getting the spawn sac to bottom is normally achieved by pinching a few split shot on the line about three to six feet in front of the bait. A No. 8 beak or egg hook is the most typical hook size used with spawn and most anglers will fish 6 to 10 pound test monofilament as main line and one size smaller break strength fluorocarbon leader at the terminal end.
Slinky sinkers are another popular alternative to using split shot for weight. A slinky sinker consists of a length of parachute cord with various size lead balls slipped into the hollow cord. A lighter is used to melt the ends of the parachute cord and anglers customize these sinkers to any weight necessary for achieving a slow but steady drift.
Slinky sinkers are renowned for their ability to avoid snagging bottom. Most anglers rig up for slinky fishing by threading a snap swivel onto their line and then tying on a small barrel swivel. The leader, hook and spawn sac is tied to the barrel swivel and the slinky sinker is attached to the free sliding snap swivel above. This simple to rig and fish spawn sac set up is amazingly snag free and can be fished in fast or slow water as conditions dictate.
The length of the leader is normally determined by water clarity. In the fall when the water clarity is often murky a leader of about 36 inches is considered normal. As the water levels stabilize and becomes more clear, seasoned steelhead anglers extend the length of their leaders up to six or seven feet if necessary.
The need for fishing long leaders is one of the primary reasons that most steelhead anglers favor longer rods that allow the angler to cast effectively even when using longer leaders. My “go to” steelhead rod for fishing spawn sacs is an Okuma T-40X series model TX-S-992ML, which is a nine foot, nine inch long medium/light action high modulus graphite rod. I match this rod up with a RTX series spinning reel in size 35 and load that reel with 150 yards of eight pound test Maxima Ultra Green fishing line.
Drift fishing or what many steelhead anglers refer to as “rolling bottom” is best practiced from an anchored boat or wading from shore. From this fixed position the angler casts across and slightly upstream and allows the rig to sink to bottom. When just the right amount of weight is used, the rig will sink to bottom, but be washed downstream slowly creating the illusion of an egg cluster naturally tumbling downstream in the current.
The trick in “rolling bottom” is using just the right amount of weight to achieve a drift that’s nearly identical to the current speed. It’s also important to use a sensitive rod that can telegraph the “tick, tick, tick” of the split shot or slinky weights as they are washed downstream and collide with the bottom.
A bite can be detected as a subtle tap on the line, or simply a sensation of weight on the line. The best anglers use high quality graphite rods and concentrate intently on every inch of the drift. Once this rig has been swept downstream, the angler simply reels up and makes another cast, often casting many times to a particular current seam.
If a fish bites and is missed, it’s best to rebait with a fresh spawn sac. It’s also a good idea to frequently switch out spawn sacs that have been fished awhile and are “milked out” with fresh bait. It’s also very important to experiment with the netting color used to tie up spawn sacs as steelhead can become very color sensitive at times.
If the always popular “spawn sac” has a rival on the steelhead stream it would have to be the single bead rig. A bead rig is a single plastic bead usually 6 to 8 mm in size that is designed to replicate a single egg drifting downstream in the current.
The “bead rig” starts by threading a bead onto the main line and then using a piece of toothpick to secure the bead on the line. A No. 8 hook is tied on the terminal end leaving about two inches of line between the hook and the bead.
The same split shot and slinky rig described above can be used to fish a single bead. When a fish grabs the bead as it drifts downstream, the angler sets the hook and the fish is generally hooked on the outside of the jaw making it easy to release fish unharmed.
Beads come in lots of different sizes and colors designed to imitate the different species of fish eggs in the water. Bead color also replicates eggs based on how long they have been in the water. For example, a fresh king salmon egg is bright orange in color. That same egg turns almost white in color once it has been in the water a few days.
Many bead fishermen go so far as to custom paint their beads to show details like embryos and veins. Going to such extremes may seem over-kill, but hard core steelhead anglers are known for going the extra mile in the pursuit of angling success.
Many bead fishermen use fly fishing gear. A typical set up consists of a 10 foot/eight weight rod and a 10′ leader of 20# test monofilament and a short tippet of 10# test fluorocarbon line. A few small split shot are added to the line to get the bead to bottom and a strike indicating float is added near the fly line to help detect subtle strikes.
This rig is casted upstream of a drifting boat. Meanwhile the boat is kept downstream so the bead is always presented upstream of the strike indicator.
When fly fishing bead rigs from shore the angler casts upstream and mends line as the rig drifts downstream past the angler’s location.
Besides fishing with real eggs or beads that closely resemble
eggs, there are a number of other options stream steelhead fisherman commonly employ. Yarn flies,
soft plastic eggs and scented soft baits like Gulp and PowerBait eggs all have their place on the steelhead stream.
Because yarn flies are light they drift naturally with the current and produce exceptionally well in clear water conditions. Yarn flies are also available in a host of subtle color options.
Scented plastic eggs and soft baits bring to the party egg imitations that smell and taste the part. The idea here is that when fish bite they tend to hang onto a scented or flavor enhanced egg longer than beads or yarn flies.
The “egg bite” dominates the steelhead fishing scene for most
anglers in Michigan. As soon as salmon start spawning steelhead
show up in the same rivers to gorge themselves on salmon spawn. This fishing bonanza reaches a peak in
late October and remains hot through November and into December.
Countless steelhead come to net every year because of the incredible edible egg!
www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbRFCj9IBS8 (curing salmon eggs video)