Midwest Outdoors published a similar photo to this one, but the position of the hands, the smiles, and the tilt of my head, among other things, such as that the other photo was taken in a larger frame, distinguish the two. Don't mean to step on anyone's toes! This photo actually was published in Fur-Fish-Game about a year ago, but the six month term of rights is passed.
Noodle Rodding Steelheads with Beads and Spawn Sacs
By Bruce Edward Litton
Steelhead beads and spawn netting come in multitudes of color hues for good reason. Highly visual and selective, steelheads can choose color preferences that change with the hour. According to scientific research, their eyes sense infrared and ultraviolet light, although ultraviolet is visible only at the water’s surface, which leads anglers to suspect that smolts use it to distinguish floating insects. While ultraviolet light will not be a concern for pursuit of grown steelheads, and we can’t judge the infrared hues they see, the steelhead’s ability to perceive in these two spectrums is an indication of the extreme sensitivity we deal with. We have plenty of concern by experimenting with colors we can see.
Absorption and reflection of light determines color, so available light and stream conditions can be judged as a starting point in selecting what color bead or netting to use. Depth absorption of light is not quite the only factor. The color a steelhead sees 20 feet away will very likely shift as the object gets closer to the fish, but lateral light absorption is not a major concern because steelheads tend to move little more than a couple of yards to strike a bead or spawn sac. Nevertheless, it’s worth knowing about because in water clear enough, a steelhead may see a bead coming 20 feet away. It’s wise to place casts well ahead of target for a stealthy approach.
Sometimes steelheads on a particular river will strike one color all season, while steelheads on another stream nearby will strike another, or shift preference by the hour, day, or week. Ultimately, color preferences are a mystery we don’t know about. But we can begin our approach to the unknown by contrasting color with background. For example, if the water is clear, yet slightly tannic brown and weather is sunny, a bead painted over with iridescent nail polish (can’t find these commercially), or white, orange, apricot, peach, red, or bright fluorescent chartreuse stand out against the brownish background and may work. A fluorescent color may stand out too much and spook steelheads. In any case, you should be prepared to experiment. Whether or not steelhead will continue to hit a color drawing consistent strikes through the day is up to more than we may judge. If you’re not getting strikes, weather conditions or the spot you’re fishing may not be the problem; it may be because you haven’t tried the right color, so long as your presentation is otherwise in order.
I got interested in color after I had fished for hours a run of the Salmon River in New York known to produce. I was using a nail polish colored bead I had previous success with, but failing to experiment with others. Laziness can feel all too comfortable. At the time I knew comparatively little about steelheads’ selectivity, but certainly enough about it to act. Another guy walked up, waded in, and caught two steelheads in 15 minutes’ time.
So invest in many colors; fill the pockets of your vest. Standard sized beads are 10mm in diameter, some a little smaller, some as large as 14mm. Most are hard plastic with a line passage through the center. The soft plastic beads you can pin on a hook are marginally popular for salmon. I’ve never used them for steelhead because I fear the hook looks too unnatural and won’t hook up as effectively. And although the salmon eggs that steelheads feed on are singular in color, color contrast on individual beads may make a difference. So you can doctor beads with nail polish and/or model paint. With spawn sacs, contrasting netting with eggs is worth trying, as is placing a small bead inside a spawn sac to produce an “eye” effect. We don’t really know why it works, but results are that it does.
Float rigs by use of noodle rods are effective for placing the bead or spawn sac at steelheads’ eye level. Noodle rods are 10 to 15 foot, light power spinning rods with super-slow action to absorb the thrusts of 10 to 20 pound steelheads. Six pound test monofilament line on the reel spool is standard. Much more than this would easily result in a broken rod if the leader were also heavier test. The famous C formation is achieved by holding the reel upward, the rod in a total bend with butt forward directly under the tip high above, the rod taking shock in that absorbing bend to protect a five pound test leader. Fighting a large steelhead is an arduous exercise—the fish may depart on more than a dozen runs—but with careful determination and practice, you will catch most hooked. When netting a steelhead, let it run if it wants to go. Don’t force the issue. Awkward netting of fish results in some losses after long battles. Lower the net lip to bottom and let the steelhead in.
Steelhead floats come in many brands. Those that are mostly clear bodied may be less obtrusive, but a color top allows you to notice when it suddenly goes under. Use those that allow you to pass line through soft plastic sleeves at top and bottom, so you can adjust the position of the float on the line. A series of split shots, heaviest near the float to anchor it (medium sized split shot), and a few BB sized near a micro swivel, create a J pattern as the rig moves downstream with current. The heavier split shot up the line lag behind, while the end of the J curve presents the bead out in front.
Beneath the last BB split shot, the micro swivel is tied to six pound test monofilament and five pound test fluorocarbon fly leader. Fluorocarbon sinks and that’s perfectly fine for fishing a bead along bottom. The knot is simple. Pass the leader through the bead; loop back and pass it through again. Pass the tag end through the loop created, and turn it six times as if you were tying a clinch knot. Tighten into the bead and it will stay in place. You will tie the hook with the tag end so you have two and a half inches between bead and hook. This way, the steelhead takes the egg and it slips free when the hook is set; the hook usually meets the corner of the mouth for a clean release later. Tying off the bead to hold it in place is critical. Using a toothpick inevitably results in slippage on the line.
A size 8 to 12 wide gap, heavy steel egg (bead) hook is needed. These are not the same as gold salmon egg hooks and more than several brands produce the like. They are clinch knot tied with the tag end of the bead knot.
A note on split shot. Lead has become unpopular as environmentally friendly alternatives are on the rise. Don’t use shiny tin split shot. They spook steelheads, especially on sunny days. Use a tin/bismuth combination even duller in appearance than lead.
Typically the fishing is in water three or four feet deep, especially through current breaks where salmon eggs have funneled and fallen into a pocket. Steelheads clean up some of the mess salmon make. This is the whole point of using beads, even though many colors do not resemble salmon eggs. Imagine a green salmon egg. It would be like something out of Dr. Seuss, but green is a color steelheads will respond to on occasion. Green eggs and slam!
Cast well ahead of your target zone and hold the rod high to keep a fairly tight line off the water and on the float, not so tight that it affects drift. Trout fishing of all kinds in streams is about drift. More often than not, a little experimentation is required in setting the float and shifting the split shot to get that J presentation coming right at the eye-zone, bead first. This can be more daunting than it is for me to relate it to you in words. But if you are new to steelhead fishing, you have to begin somewhere. And the surest indication that the float is set too high is that it gets hung on bottom or drags at less than current speed.
A float riding right along can be deceiving. If your bead is riding two or three feet off bottom with steelheads six or seven feet deep, as on occasion there are, none are likely to rise for it. And if you’ve got the float set right, remember that steelheads have 300 degree vision. If water is clear, you can bet they see the color indicator on the float. It’s a good idea to contrast bead and float color, since color against background arouses interest in the fish. A float isn’t much of a background, but the color is very distinct and steelheads see it. So buying more than one color float is a good idea.
Most of the time, a float set a little more than three feet above the hook is right. With the J effect, the bead is presented close to three feet under the surface. When the float dips under, rear back on the rod immediately. When I first began steelheading, I found it very counterintuitive that most of the fish are in about three feet of water, sometimes two feet. The size of these fish made me feel they would naturally gravitate to holes. If brown trout share the river you fish, you will more likely find them deep and dark. After all, browns are nocturnal. Rainbows leap for the sun; browns dig for bottom. There’s more poetry in the previous sentence than truth, but nevertheless, the two are very different species and browns clearly seem to be more nocturnal. Steelheads like shallows even in the middle of winter to warm their backs the slightest degree on sunny afternoons.
Nevertheless, the best weather conditions are nasty. Snow in November is a real good sign. Get out and fish in it. Drift boats with three inch drafts float all day on the Salmon River in January, equipped with propane heaters. And if snow is piling up on the banks, it’s usually for the better. If water is clear, remember the list of colors I outlined. If it’s somewhat stained with visibility reduced to a foot and a half, try bright colors like red or fluorescent chartreuse first.
Particularly while wading a river, persistence is worth a lot more than routine on the job left behind for the outing. True enough, if you finish a drift boat trip, you may feel the duration of it all the way down, and it feels real good. But your guide knows the river like the steelheads do by plying it for years. This advantage is worth money spent, a smart way to get started. But if you beat back the bushes against waders and roll the rocks under wading shoes, remember that experimenting with colors and adjusting the float to get it about right is possibly more important than finding spots with fish in them. Typically, moderate runs of current about three or four feet deep will hold some steelheads.
You can experiment with both beads and spawn sacks noodle rodding, not so much that you get frantic, but enough that you feel your own effort sort of like coffee water simmering. It’s the sort of involvement that never gets bored and tends to eventually hit it right—score—and allows you to leave happy. Spawn sacks are presented by float or by simply using enough split shot to feel the occasional tick of the stream bottom, but the hook penetrates the sack and rather than size 8 to 12, a size 4 outset hook is appropriate. The first several casts with a spawn sack may be the most valuable because the release of oil and fluid from hook penetration flows along with the sack, dispersing. Sight is not the only sense steelhead have. By analogy, I think of another sight feeder, the bluefish, which have a highly developed sense of smell, although more of smell and far less discrimination by sight. No fish seems to compare to the steelhead for sight. There’s no end to appreciations of the steelhead’s sight abilities because their preferences change in truly uncanny ways. Unless you become an expert at matching color for response, you may feel the suspense of uncertainty more than assurance, except by keeping yourself busy experimenting or catching fish. You don’t want mere fish sense to beat your reasoning mind.
Don’t forget to layer clothing sufficiently and carry some ultraviolet light wader repair fluid, which hardens by sunlight exposure even on cloudy or rainy days. Most drift boat trips include wading. Vermiculite hand and toe warmers are a must. And a pair of wading cleats can save you from more than wet clothes and pneumonia as a result. On the Salmon River I fish, it’s understood by everyone that cleats are a necessity.
Steelhead fishing is for hardy anglers who find an attraction not only in the beauty, size, and subtlety of these fish, but the chilly weather conditions and stark environments confronted while going after them. I know people who have drift boat fished at three degrees in the afternoon, taking every advantage of the propane heater, but catching steelheads nevertheless. To be fully functional when weather and environment oppose you—active with a will to succeed, steady as river flow—is something relatively few pursuits offer anyone, and those who experience never forget.