While walking to retrieve my vehicle at the take out’s parking lot, I was unexpectantly approached by an older gentleman.
“Mind if I ask you a few questions partner?” the man said with a detectable southern drawl.
My initial thought was, “Yeah, not a good time.” I had just completed a grueling, ten-hour, semi productive shift on the river, so I wasn’t really interested in starting a conversation. Also, I was more concerned about making it back to the Chicagoland area in time to put my kids, and then myself to bed.
“What can I do for you sir?” using the sincerest tone that I could muster.
“I’m new to the area and don’t know a damn thing about these ah… steelheads, so I’m wondering—what do I need to catch one?”
“Sure, get some salmon eggs and float them under a bobber. You can’t beat fresh roe.” I answered in a matter of fact delivery.
“Someone told me that. But nah, can’t use it—I’ve been a bass fisherman all my life, and pride myself on using only artificials. Besides, I’m a catch and release man. Don’t want to mess with mother nature.” His words, not mine.
That could have easily opened up an enlightening dialogue about how deadly eggs can be on trout and salmon, as well as offering some insight about selective harvesting pertaining to wild fish versus the hatcheries, but I wasn’t about to dive down that rabbit hole.
“Understandable sir. Let me think about it.”
Now, what I could have done was toss him a few homemade spinners, or maybe a couple of crankbaits, then bid him a fond adieu. That probably would have been enough generosity to have metaphorically, “gotten me off the hook,” but for some reason, I decided to challenge my weary brain by dipping into its data bank to come up with a better answer.
It took a moment, but then it came to me—sponge balls! More specifically, a kitchen sponge that has been cut and trimmed into a shape of a ball, and then immersed in melted petroleum jelly and anise oil. The bait is also referred to as Vaseline balls.
I proceeded to rummage around under my boat seat and found a plastic jar that was probably left there a few months ago at the beginning of the salmon season. Upon further examination, the contents inside appeared to be in perfect condition, right down to the faint scent of a pizzelle, an Italian waffle cookie. I handed the man the container, went over some basic instructions, and then wished him good luck.
It’s been nearly forty years since my father came across a section about sponge balls in a book written by Dave Richey titled Steelheading For Everybody, where he describes sponge balls as an alternative to salmon eggs.
At the time, we were new to the game, and to say that we were open-minded and desperate for guidance would have been an understatement. We were having some success, mostly drifting spawn sacs, but really had no way of judging if our results could have been better. And like most greenhorns, we were hoping to discover that magic bait that the fish couldn’t resist. Maybe sponge balls would be the answer? They appeared to check all of the boxes that salmon and steelhead seem to want.
A sponge ball could be cut into different sizes to match the conditions, using aesthetically pleasing colors that salmonids are known to be attracted to, while appealing to a their highly sensitive olfactory system. Check, check, and double check.
After making up a substantial batch, we decided to try them for the first time at an Illinois power plant’s warm water discharge channel that dumped into Lake Michigan.
Illinois doesn’t have any natural tributaries along its shoreline, so its channel acted as a surrogate river for the fish that were stocked by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. That Saturday morning in Late October turned out to be one of my most memorable fishing experiences because, not only did I get my first ever, five fish limit, but I also completed a Great Lakes grand slam by landing a couple of chrome steelhead, along with a Chinook, coho, and a small brown trout.
I also lost countless more because that was during a time when I was going through a Noodle-rodding phase, and my gear was too light, so I wasn’t able to stop the majority of the fish in the heavy current that was being pumped out that day.
By that afternoon, we had several people coming over to find out what we were using, and some were practically begging us to share our stash of bait. We were more than happy to accommodate them.
Since then, I have used sponge balls throughout North America, and the results have been nothing short of fantastic. The bait has personally accounted for taking almost every species of trout and salmon that swims in the Great lakes, four out of the five types of Pacific salmon, (excluding sockeyes) in British Columbia, as well as inadvertently catching a bunch of hefty rainbows, Dollies and grayling in Alaska while targeting other species. One day, while side drifting on the world-famous Nushagak River, sponge balls stepped in and saved the day when my group’s skein supply started to run out. By having them as a backup, it allowed us to continue our fishing, and we were able to boat quite a few more kings and super-bright chums without a hesitation in the action.
In fact, sponge balls will catch fish in a multitude of river conditions and can be used the same way that someone would use a bead, single egg, or even a cluster of eggs. They can be fished on a plain hook, placed behind a drift bobber, or tucked under a yarn fly to give it some added scent. And even though sponge balls are buoyant, they still work great hung under a bobber. Another added feature is sponge balls won’t “wash out” and lose their color like eggs do after a few casts, and they are definitely more durable, which means they will stay on a hook longer. There really isn’t a bad time to fish sponge balls wherever scent is legal.
Making sponge balls is fairly simple once you have accumulated the necessary materials.
All you need to get started is some finely porous sponge in your favorite trout and salmon catching colors, a jar of petroleum Jelly, a bottle of pure anise oil (not anise extract), a small, heat resistant pan, tweezers, and a sheet of wax paper and you’re good to go.
All of these items can be easily found at any Walmart type store, except for the anise oil. Years ago, anise oil was only sold in certain drugstores to treat health ailments. Nowadays, the best way to score a bottle is through the internet.
I obtain my supply from Pro-Cure Bait Scents because I know that I’m getting a quality product every time I place an order with the company. The pure anise oil that Pro-Cure sells comes in a two-ounce bottle, which should be enough juice to construct hundreds of baits.
Once you have all of the supplies, it’s time to make some sponge balls. Here are the steps.
- Cut the sponge into cubes, then trim into the shape of a ball. The balls do not have to be perfectly round. Size can vary from a salmon egg, up to the size of a nickel.
- Slowly melt two to three tablespoons of the petroleum jelly in a pan on the stove’s burner. Be extremely careful not to overfill to prevent an accidental spill onto the flame. I still use a metal lid that I saved from an old Vaseline jar.
- After the petroleum jelly liquefies (around a quarter inch in depth), add 10 to 15 drops of Pro-Cure pure anise oil.
- Mix carefully, and then add a few sponges into the liquid.
- Allow the liquid to fully saturate the sponge balls.
- Using tweezers, carefully remove the sponge balls and immediately immerse sponges into a bowl of ice water. Do not allow any water to mix with the melted petroleum jelly because it will splash.
- Once the petroleum jelly solidifies, remove sponge balls from the water and place them on wax paper to allow the excess water to evaporate.
- Place dry sponge balls in a plastic container and store in a cool, dry place such as a refrigerator.
One of the things that I like about sponge balls is they have an indefinite shelf life, and when stored correctly, they can last for years without losing their effectiveness.
Also, if you forget to put them away after a fishing trip, that’s alright, they won’t perish like salmon eggs. I have accidentally left them in a hot garage over the summer, and they still appeared to be in good shape once they resurfaced, just in time for the fall season.
There are always going to be some fishermen who will be apprehensive about trying new things, and the hardest mental obstacle for them to overcome is their own skepticism. Knowing that, I would like to share some of the things I have discovered over the years to help shave time off of the learning curve.
Me with some Wisconsin brown trout on a bottom rig while I was busy jigging.
Believe it or not, lime green is my most productive color for every species of salmon and trout, especially during low light conditions. I don’t’ know why because I hardly ever use the color, other than when I’m fishing with sponge.
Fall steelhead love pale yellow sponge. Again, I almost never use the shade unless it’s a sponge ball.
Salmon that have been in a river for an extended period of time will oftentimes grab a sponge ball once the lure bite shuts off.
Lake trout in current will devour a sponge ball drift fished along the bottom, either on a plain hook or trailing behind a Spin-n-Glo.
A sponge ball’s productivity isn’t affected by water temperature. I’ve done well on summer steelhead when the water was starting to reach the point of becoming too warm for the fish to survive releasing, and I have caught winter fish on a bobber and sponge ball floated along the shelf ice.
I’ve played with the ingredients by infusing sponge balls with a different array of scents, but have found that anise oil still works the best.
Once the action slows down after assaulting an area with eggs, sponge balls will usually get a response from a few extra fish when other methods fail.
Sponge balls work surprisingly well in slow water. I used to fish a sponge ball on a single hook with a small split shot pinched about a foot above in the sluggish-moving Indiana creeks and would do pretty well. With that in mind, I now make it a ritual to drag a bottom rig over the side of the boat whenever I am drift jigging for brown trout in open water during the winter months.
These are some broad guidelines to help build confidence, and truthfully, whatever tricks that have been working for you can be applied to sponge ball fishing.
Me with a British Columbia chum taken on a lime green sponge ball drift fished.
Of course, if I had to choose only one bait to use for salmon or steelhead, it’s a no-brainer, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick fresh salmon eggs. But I also realize that there isn’t one bait, method, or technique that produces one-hundred percent of the time, and having other options can make the difference between an average day, or something more memorable.
Sponge balls are a great alternative to natural bait because they are easy to make, low maintenance, long lasting, and most importantly, they catch fish.
Whenever I use sponge balls, I feel confident that I’m fishing at a high level, and never leave the river second guessing myself. Sponge balls may never completely replace roe, but it can be a viable choice in most situations. So, the next time you are about to secure a glob of skein into an egg loop, instead, think about adding a sponge ball to your hook for a few casts and see what.
- written by Tony Ensalaco