Even though I remain a very confirmed lure tosser when it comes to river fishing for steelhead, brown trout, and salmon I have become very interested in the tremendous increase in the practice of bead fishing in Great Lakes tributaries.
Several very successful anglers have related to me how this technique is even more effective than drifting actual eggs and spawn bags. Since I have always had an aversion to messing with eggs (in 48 years of hardcore fishing for steelhead, my life time catch of these special fish on spawn remains at two), the idea of successfully drifting beads for steelhead is quite appealing.
Some aspects of bead fishing have been quite confusing to me. A main purpose of this article is to get anglers thinking about the technique which should lead to ways to make it even more effective.
Pegging the bead on the line or leader above the hook seems to be the standard method. When I ask anglers why, the usual answer is that was the way they were taught by fellow fishermen. Often a reference is made to the fact that it is how it is done in Alaska where bead fishing really got its start. The reason for pegging beads in Alaska is rarely described. Anglers there are fishing for very actively feeding rainbow trout and Dolly Varden char. These fish are trying to take in a year’s worth of calories in the three month or so period in the summer when the various species of Pacific salmon are spawning.
The rainbows and Dollies quickly swallow the salmon eggs and if the bead was at the hook, it and the hook would be swallowed. Since most anglers release these fish even in streams where it is not mandatory there needed to be a way to catch these great game fish without hooking them too deeply. This had long been a problem with egg flies such as Glo-bugs since the fly is tied on the hook.
Pegging the bead away from the hook so the trout would swallow the bead and not the hook was the answer.
While at times this does result in the trout being hooked outside the mouth it has been very successful in preventing the rainbows and Dollies from taking the hook too deep. Alaska does limit the maximum pegging distance to two inches to decrease the chances of the hook finding the fish’s eyes.
But, why peg the bead when fishing for steelhead?
Most of the time these fish are not actively feeding and usually don’t swallow the bead. When they discover it is hard and not soft like an egg, they are quick to expel it.
Most bead fishing steelheaders peg the bead about one and a half inches above the hook. While this does separate the bead away from the hook and make it look more natural as a salmon egg drifting with the current, it would seem to make hooking the steelhead more difficult. Frank Zak, a veteran and accomplished western New York center-pinning steelhead angler who has almost totally switched from eggs to beads, has observed steelhead take in the bead and then turn to the side to expel the bead so that it does not have to fight the current.
This action seems to pull the hook to the corner of their mouth. This still seems to make hooking the steelhead that grabbed the pegged bead kind of hit or miss. There is also the risk that bumping into line on each side of the bead will cause the fish to reject it.
A possible solution would be to peg the bead much closer to the hook so that hook would always be taken into the mouth when the steelhead grabbed the bead. Or, you could place in the bead in the egg loop of a snelled hook. It would be important in both cases that the hook size be matched with the bead. A large bead and a small hook would probably result in many missed fish.
Conversely, a large hook and a small bead might be rejected altogether. My other suggestion would be to peg the bead below the hook. This is easily accomplished by leaving an inch or so of tag end when snelling the hook to the end of your leader. This way the fish sees the bead first and then will inhale both the bead and the hook when the bead is an inch or less below the hook.
There are two other big advantages in pegging the bead below the hook. The first is that it makes changing beads much easier and quicker. As we will talk about next, finding the right size and color of the bead can be critical to your success. No longer will you have to re-rig each time you change beads or carry a bunch of pre-tied leaders with what you think will be the right size and color of beads for the river and the day. The other big plus is you can stop worrying about damaging your line or leader with the peg. While pegging has progressed past the toothpick stage with commercially available pegs designed to be very easy on your leader, you can use any kind of peg you want with impunity when positioning your bead below the hook. As an aside, Frank Zak told me that he and his fishing buddies have found an inexpensive alternative to the commercial soft rubber bead pegs. They found that certain inexpensive hair brushes they found at “dollar” type stores had smooth bristles that worked great as pegs. Of course, you might get some strange looks from the store clerk as you test different bristles with a bead to make sure the diameter is right.
When pegging the bead below the hook it is important to peg the bead from the bottom up to decrease the chance of the bead slipping off the tag end. This can easily happen when pegging the bead from the top down. Going back to the toothpick will also help secure the bead. Melting a little bead of fluorocarbon or nylon monofilament at the end of the tag end will add a little insurance.
Choosing the right bead color and size can make a big difference in your success. In Alaska, anglers and guides report that tiny changes in color can have big effect on how effectively they are for rainbows and dollies on a particular day. This is hard to understand since salmon eggs change in color with time after they are laid and fertilized eggs act differently than those that didn’t get fertilized.
At any one time there are eggs in the streams of many differ shades. Obviously there will be times when the trout focus in on a narrow range relative to color and it is important that the angler match it.
Steelhead in our Great Lakes tributaries are probably less interested in beads that are exactly like the prevailing eggs drifting in the current along the bottom but it is for sure that different colors and sizes can work better than others on a given day. The fact that steelhead are often attracted to beads that are larger than any of the natural eggs makes me think that they are not mistaking them for salmon eggs.
Plus, think of those times when fluorescent chartreuse is the killer color.
While not allowed in some states, Michigan anglers can fish two beads at one time. This technique seems to be especially prevalent on the Manistee River and doubles your chances of quickly finding the right bead color and size. Simply tie a second leader to the bend of the hook of the first.
Most Great Lakes tributary anglers present beads suspended under a float. Usually they position the float so that the beads drift a foot or two off the bottom of the river. This allows the beads to drift in the prime strike zone of the steelies.
These fish orient to the bottom where rocks, submerged logs, and uneven bottom structure provide refuge from the current. But, they look forward and up so beads drifted a bit above them are right in their strike zone. This is the same region of the water column where I try to sweep my spinners. More than imitating salmon eggs, I think beads are bright objects that steelhead don’t like in their space so they grab them.
There will be times when salmon eggs are fairly common in the river drifting with the current.
It should be noted that salmon eggs are denser than water.
This is by design so that fertilized salmon eggs will sink in to the crevices in the gravel where they can develop. At these times a more natural presentation will be to bottom bounce your beads. You can still employ a float to keep the line off the bottom and act as a strike indicator. Just make sure your float is positioned closer to the bead on your line than the water depth. While glass beads and some plastic beads will sink some plastic beads will not, especially if the peg also floats. In these cases you will need some help from a sinker(s) to keep the bead close to the substrate.
Speaking of sinkers, I continue to be confused by the elaborate shot placement formulas employed by float anglers. Last year I retrieved float rig from a snag that had 21 split shot attached to the line below a Drennan 11 gram float. The expensive, sensitive float told me that this rig was lost by an avid, experienced float angler but I sure didn’t understand why there were so many, mostly small shot. I am sure part of it is dealing with varying current speeds at various depths as well as stealth.
It would be great if a serious float angler would explain the whys of shot patterns in these pages.
Finally, getting back to stealth, I find it hard to understand using floats that have black or very dark bottoms. This would seem to be especially problematic when fishing very clear and relatively shallow water. You would think that fish looking up for the bead would be turned off by the dark float against the bright background from the sky. White or clear bottomed floats would seem to always be the way to go when bead fishing for river steelies.
As stated at the beginning I hope the above gets bead anglers thinking about their fishing method and ways to make it more effective.
- Jim Bedford (Originally featured in Mar/April GLA 2014)