Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Tactic for river steelhead and salmon

Beads of all sizes have become the new go-to lure for the region’s river steelhead and salmon anglers.

By Mike Gnatkowski

Contributing Writer

In 2008 when I quit guiding and charter fishing and headed West, beads were just starting to become popular for steelhead fishing. The technique originally started in Alaska, but has caught on big time in the Great Lakes region. Why? Simple: The tactic is deadly and you don’t have to fool with spawn. 

You’d think that glow bugs would work just as well as a bead, but they don’t. Even though a glow bug may be the same size and color as a real egg it doesn’t have that translucent quality that a real egg has. Beads have that quality. 

When guiding for river salmon I always brought a couple rods rigged up to fish for trout. Trout typically would stack up behind the salmon beds to feast on eggs. If the salmon were being uncooperative, you always could catch some nice trout behind the salmon. 

You could fish a glow bug the exact color of the drifting eggs and the trout wouldn’t touch it. Put a three-egg spawn bag on and they would jump all over it. It might have been the smell, but I suspect it was more about the translucency. 

Beads come in a myriad of colors and sizes. Some are translucent and some are opaque. They all work at one time or another, and not only in colors that mimic the color of eggs. Sometimes chartreuse is a hot color. Why? That’s a mystery. One thing that does make sense is fresh spawn looks more translucent than eggs that have been in the water a while. Fresh eggs are bright orange and clear. Eggs that have been in the river a while turn white or pale orange and milky, which is one reason translucent beads work best when fish actively are spawning and more opaque beads work better after the spawn is over. 

But there are exceptions.

Not all fish spawn at the same time in the fall. Kings spawn in September and early October. Cohos spawn in October and November, and brown trout spawn anytime from November through December so there is a potpourri of eggs drifting in the river all fall. 

That’s one reason why different size beads work. There are different size eggs in the river at any given time. In general, 8-, 10-, and 12-mm beads work best with 10 mm being the most common. The beads are either pegged or tied on the line. Pegs are made of tapered rubber or plastic. The line is run thought the center of the bead and the peg holds it in place. The peg is trimmed on each end and can be used for a couple of beads. 

Another option is to run the line though the bead a couple of times and tie it in place. The bead is positioned two or three inches from the hook to facilitate better hook-ups. 

The fish generally suck in the bead hook and all. Strong, turned-up, eye egg hooks work best in size 4 through 1, depending on the bead size and the quarry. 

I’ve been lucky to join my college roommate Greg Dobis and friends on river charters with Captain Paul Schlafley on the Big Manistee River the last two Octobers. Paul is one of the most accomplished and knowledgeable guides on the river and has come to rely on beads to produce for his clients. 

On the water action

It was zero-dark-thirty when we left the boat launch at Bear Creek and headed upstream. Schlafley knows the river like the back of his hand and ran in the dark most of the time only occasionally hitting the spot light to navigate an odd logjam. Getting to a particular spot where he’d been having good success was his priority. 

Several miles upstream Schlafley finally idled the jet boat down and dropped the anchor at the top of a run. It was an ideal situation for fishing beads. Across from us was a gravel bank with the gravel extending well into the water where kings were splashing, rolling, and actively spawning. The eggs the salmon were dumping washed down to the tail of the run where steelheads were waiting. 

The plan was to fish for the kings in the darkness at the head of the run initially. 

 The kings were playing hard to get, but as we drifted the middle of the run Greg’s son Kyle felt a solid tap-tap-tap transmitted to the tip of the rod and he quickly set the hook. A chrome steelie came blasting to the surface and went cartwheeling across the surface. The rainbow went off on a blistering run downstream, and we had to give chase in order to have any chance of catching the fish. Eventually we worked the steelhead into the shallows along the banks and Paul scooped him up in the net. 

We moved back up in the run and re-anchored. This time Greg got in on the action, but the fish didn’t cartwheel or jump like a steelhead and it didn’t have the power of a king. Once the fish rolled near the boat we realized it was a beautiful brown trout. After a few anxious minutes Paul slid the net under the 8-pound brown. The orange-colored bead was hooked firmly in the corner of its mouth. 

Salmon don’t feed when they’re in the river, but we found they’d eat a bead or two. Kyle caught a giant kype-jawed male king that spilled milt all over the boat, and a short time later Greg caught a hen Chinook loaded with eggs. The eggs are like liquid gold to a river steelhead fisherman, but with the newfound option beads provide, spawn just might be relegated to back-up.

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