Gummy Bears For Steelhead: Soft Beads And Hybrids by Matt Straw

salmon fishing steelhead Steelhead Fishing trout fishing

The river rushes out of the mist-enshrouded forest as if emerging from a portal in time. The muted orange, yellow, and red of the trees merge into an impressionist painting. Wisps of fog drift over the water like ghosts.

steelhead matt straw fishing great lakes

Beneath the spectral parade, king salmon jockey for position on spawning riffles. But kings are not what we’re after. A short walk below those rowdy kings, steelhead vie for feeding stations. The food being conveyed by the current is supplied by the salmon.

The eggs—millions of free-drifting protein pills that fail to lodge in nests, all translucent at times, opaque at others—will inevitably come drifting along. Though “at sea” for 3 or 4 years, fall-run steelhead, returning to the river for the first time, somehow know this will happen and begin to stage in the pools and runs below the spectacle of spawning kings.

Steelhead expect eggs to be squishy and soft, not hard as glass. Which calls into question the recent bead-fishing craze. Hard-plastic beads should be rejected right away, say the purveyors of old-new phenomena—soft beads. Before all the manufacturers of hard beads for steelhead have a tizzy fit, let’s be clear: A hard bead fished under a float can’t be easily rejected because the float itself keeps the line tight once submerged. And they manage to hook steel even when bounced on the bottom. Michigan Guide Steve Martinez often fishes hard beads—most of which float—with bottom-bouncing rigs.

Having banked many steelies with hard-bead systems of all kinds, far be it from me to cast aspersions. But texture isn’t the only compelling reason to consider soft beads at times.

matt straw fishing steelhead great lakes

Loren Dunbar, vice president of Hevi-Beads (which obviously don’t float), fishes with, and sells, both hard and soft versions. “Our Super Soft Beads are neutrally buoyant, behaving just like real eggs in current,” Dunbar said. “Bounce one on the sidewalk and it pops up 20 inches, so it really bumps naturally off rocks and snags. Super Soft Beads are twice as soft as any bead on the market yet far more durable. By wrapping the leader around and through a soft egg twice to peg them, you set the hook and most soft beads out there get cut in half. A Super Soft is so stretchy it goes right back to being a bead instead of cutting in half. You can loop six or seven times and use them again.”

Also in keeping with the hot soft trend, Hevi-Beads introduced soft Clusters. Like the Super Softs, Clusters have a hole through the middle, making it easier to thread them on and peg to a leader with Bandz. “Clusters look faceted, like air bubbles all around a big egg,” Dunbar said. “We have 5 colors right now, but a whopping 44 colors combined for Light and Hevi-Beads with more in the works.” Some UV and Glow versions too, in sizes 6, 8, 10, and 12 mm so far.

Until recently, Hevi-Beads main product was, obviously, a weighted bead. “I started bead fishing and became super interested in it,” Dunbar said. “I used a weighted stone fly to get the bead down. When we first experimented with heavy glass-ceramic beads I noticed I wasn’t using flies anymore because I was catching more on the bead. A lot of people use split shot, and Hevi-Beads mean less weight and stress on the leader. The natural drift under a float is more up and down—no lag time in seeing the strike, creating better hook-ups.

matt straw fishing soft beads

The Hevi-Bead is your final weight, like a jig. If you don't know how deep the run is, the float tells you when the bead is tick, tick, ticking bottom. Now you adjust and you know exactly how far off bottom that bead is every time, easy. And the cool thing about our system, the bead and the Bandz (rubber strips), the Band comes through the bead and you make a loop to add yarn and other attractors to.”

When Dunbar fishes weighted 10mm Hevi-Beads he pegs them “two finger widths” from an offset octopus hook. “I usually tie a dropper directly onto the hook and peg another bead 10-12 inches below that. I like to use a Gamakatsu Wide Gap Finesse hook below the bottom bead. Depending on how much weight I need to get down to the zone, my dropper will either be an 8MM weighted bead or one of our lighter plastic, resin, or soft beads. So you have two levels covered and two different kinds of movement in the water.”

XFactor Tackle owner Jeff Warner said he came into the soft bead game honestly, making Jensen Eggs for Luhr Jensen. “Luhr Jensen sold and the eggs went to China,” Warner said.” But I learned all I needed to know about making soft beads. Bead fishing did not have the variety we have today. In a market exploding with versions, what sets us apart are polymers specially designed for absorption, super softness, buoyancy, and durability. We don’t drill holes in them, so they have to be threaded on and held (a couple of inches) above the hook with a float stop.”

XFactor Soft Beads appear in a variety of flavors, including shrimp, garlic, and salmon roe. Eggs come in four sizes (8-, 10-, 12-, and 14-mm). Egg Clusters come in mini, medium, and large sizes. Both Soft Beads and Clusters are available in a rainbow of colors with steelie appeal. XFactor supplies tiny discs to support eggs above their neoprene stops for added durability.

matt straw steelhead fishing

Brandon Wedam, co-owner of BnR Tackle with brother Ryan, has been making beads for six years.

“When the bead system caught on in popularity, the market soon flooded,” Wedam said. “We revamped in 2014 from hard plastic to Soft Beads with a hole.”

BnR offers 12 colors in an incredible list of sizes: 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, and a 20 mm that doubles as a ping-pong ball. “I thought 14 mm was ridiculous,” Wedam laughed. “People are demanding bigger sizes.”

All manufacturers of soft beads we talked to claimed steelhead will not surrender a squishy, chewy bead. “We’re avid fishermen and noticed right away that steelhead spit a hard bead faster,” Wedam said. “Bead fishing has really taken off and there are three major advantages to our Soft Beads: First is feel—steelhead feel less and are used to squashing real eggs. Fish hold on with the float down forever and won’t let go. The second advantage is neutral buoyancy. Most beads sink or float, but real eggs are mostly neutral so we use polymers that match natural buoyancy in the water. The third advantage is being able to change beads without cutting the line when you rig with our mono bobber stop. Our clear bobber stops are stealthier than most others. We tailor Soft Bead colors to match spawn from different species of fish—colors you actually find in the river when sampling eggs from the Vbottom, like they do in Alaska.” BnR supplies clear bobber stops and sleeves to hold the bead above the hook with easy-to-follow diagrams for rigging on the package.

Randy Bales, the owner of Lured Beads and Guide Service, created a hybrid—a hard bead with a soft exterior. “I figured out how to put a UV soft cover on a hard bead,” Bales said. “I call it the Incognito. It gives off a 3D UV reflection which can be seen in all water conditions. The hard beads are pure acrylic—machined round for a perfect balance and natural buoyancy. They lift and drop at the same rate as a natural egg. Incognitos sit on a bobber stop and won’t pull through like soft beads. It strikes a balance between two worlds with the fishability of a hard bead and the feel and movement of a natural egg. Fish chew on them and won’t let go—like a soft bead—but with the durability of a hard one. It’s quiet when ticking rocks, like the real thing, with high-tech UV visibility.”

Some Lured patterns include an “eyed” or embryo effect. Bales also makes what he calls Old School Soft Beads. “My soft beads have a hole to run your line through,” he said. “Old Schools have no holes.” A variety of rigging methods for each style of bead—with and without holes— are described on the Lured website.

steelhead soft bead matt straw

Steelhead Stalkers Premium Tackle zeroes in on the importance of UV, offering 10 colors in their UV Steelhead Beads series. Colors are unique and mostly natural, including shades like Steelhead Amber, Peach, and Dead Egg. Each is available in two or three levels of transparency —transparent, mottled, or opaque—to match egg color to the stage of the season for each species of importance. “This is the ultimate steelhead bead system,” says owner Chad Wilson. “We use high quality, ultra-clear plastic, and transparent multi-dimensional pigments to create the most realistic patterns on the market. Each kit comes with ten 12 MM beads or fifteen 10 MM beads, and ten to fifteen 3 MM transparent glass beads (orange or dark red) to imitate an embryo in real fish eggs. We slide the little glass beads on, loop it onto the leader, and slide the hook through the loop ten times to create an extremely strong knot on the bead. Then we thread the UV Steelhead Bead onto the leader and down over the glass bead, creating an eyed egg that won’t slide down.”

Wilson described several other methods for rigging with his beads, each creating the eyed-egg effect with the smaller hard bead. “More videos of rigging and other tips are coming soon on our website,” he said. “Our goal is to design, manufacture and sell the highest quality fishing tackle for steelhead, salmon and trout anglers around the country. Our soft beads are trusted by some of the best guides and fishing experts in the industry to put more fish in the boat or on the bank.”

Wilson claims Steelhead Stalker soft beads imitate the real thing better than most other beads. “Natural salmon eggs reflect UV light, so we’re just trying to mimic what steelhead and trout see in nature,” Wilson said. “Salmon and steelhead have cones and rods in their eyes that detect UV, and much of what they eat in the ocean reflects UV light. We also have mottled and dead egg imitations. But the biggest thing that sets us apart is how bright and transparent most of our colors are. All of our beads are as realistic as possible in color to match real fish eggs at every stage found in rivers and streams. The plastic we use is very expensive and of a density that slowly sinks to precisely mimic real fish eggs in the river.”

matt straw bead fishing steelhead

Some of the most interesting soft eggs and rigging systems are from ClearDrift Fishing Floats, which now markets a standard Soft Bead and Embryo Soft Beads in six sizes from 6.25- to 14 mm. Embryos have a dot on the side of some eye-grabbing clear and translucent hues, like Candy Apple pink with an orange, embryonic dot. UV is added to “bring out the brightest color.”

ClearDrift Soft Eggs and Embryos are designed to be threaded on with a needle and held above the hook with a stealthy, transparent bobber stop. The process is quick and easy when the hook is tied to the leader before sliding stop and bead down from above then tying up to a swivel.

Another “hybrid” of sorts, Lazy Larry’s EZ Systems Trout Beads have a slot instead of a hole. These are hard beads that can be easily slipped on and off a leader, without cutting off the hook and retying, with EZ Pegs. The Pegs, offered in six UV and clear colors, create that “eyed” effect inside the bead just discussed. The almost limitless possibilities of mixing and matching those six colors with the 124 patterns of Lazy Larry’s matte, mottled, glow, UV, and “lake” beads might give you a headache, but speaks to a point I’ve been making for many years: Steelhead are anal about color. Small changes in hue can make a huge difference.

Hard beads, soft beads.

Bait, plastics.

Spinners, spoons.

Flies, crankbaits.

Hair jigs, floats.

What is this? Bass fishing?

Steelhead pursuits seemed so simple, once upon a time. But the great thing about the relatively new phenomena of soft beads is the addition of so many options in color and translucency. Personally, I choose opaque, bright, or glow-in-the-dark versions in cloudy or dark water.

Light passing through a bead is not an advantage in dirty water, and it often helps to use a larger, multi-colored bead. Contrasting colors are more easily seen and reflection is the key. In clear water, by contrast, I prefer natural, translucent colors. Light passing through a lightly shaded orange, yellow, red, Oregon cheese, cream, or lime-green bead creates a clear advantage in low-water conditions.

The allure of fishing includes learning new things. For steelhead, texture and the passage of light through an egg can be a big thing. In other conditions, reflection is more important, determining whenever steelhead see it as fake or real. The choices you make regarding that factor just might determine how the day goes.

-  Matt Straw

Soft, Hard, And Hybrid Beads

Clockwise from the Top: ClearDrift Embryos and Soft Beads Hevi-Beads Lured Beads Hard, Soft and Incognito Beads Steelhead Stalkers Premium Tackle UV Steelhead Beads XFactor Tackle Soft Beads and Egg Clusters Lazy Larry’s EZ Trout Beads BnR Soft Beads Center: Threading tool and BnR Clear Bobber Stops and Sequins soft beads steelhead fishing



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