The clear plastic float with red top marker vanished in a split second. I reared back, felt weight, and the drag began screeching, my 11 foot noodle rod in a shock-absorbing C-curve almost horizontal to the water. The steelhead approached the stretch’s tailout when it stopped and I began pumping, the rod’s light power with super-slow action absorbing thrusts against the five-pound test leader. The fish within netting range, I kept the rod at full bend low to the water, to my right side. Time and again the fish raced off a number of yards, but tired with each attempt and finally yielded.
Noodle rodding with plastic beads is a most popular method for steelhead and the battles the best you may ever know. The salmon egg imitations that tempt strikes come in an array of colors, because the fish often show a preference for one over the other. Steelheads will respond to a specific color at a given time because their eye structure is so sensitive they are thought to see ultraviolet and infrared portions of the light spectrum. In other words, make no mistake; these fish are color sensitive. Load a clear plastic tote with beads of all colors and experiment as though you’re a chemist trying to get the right mix.
A guideline you can follow takes light into account, since color is nothing without illumination and the name of the game more than pattern. Steelhead beads are usually 10 mm, with center holes, and though they resemble salmon eggs steelhead feed on, you’ll never find a green salmon egg in nature any more than you would a unicorn, and yet sometimes steelhead may prefer green. In bright sunlight on clear water, white, orange, apricot, peach, and red are good choices to start with. If the day is dark and water visibility limited, fluorescent red or fluorescent chartreuse may get snatched from the shadows. These hot colors spook steelheads in clear, bright conditions.
A trick you can pull out of your bead kit is to contrast colors on a single bead. Dab on iridescent nail polish at home. You can’t find color contrasted beads on the market, at least none I know of. Contrast makes it easier for the eye to pick out color. Spawn sacs are typically color contrasted, perhaps not with this reason in mind, but a difference between the color of netting and eggs may mean a strike or not. Placing a single bead of contrasting color in a sac produces an “eye” effect that steelhead seem to like. We don’t expect these fish to think something’s looking to get away, only to see something that might trigger aggressive response.
A consistent bite is the one relief from uncertainty, but so long as this isn’t happening, which is much of the time, you’re free to play with color. As painstaking as this effort can be, it’s better than standing in a river and feeling you’re there for nothing. Remember that available light and changing water visibility affect the absorption and reflection of light, which literally causes colors to change underwater. You don’t exactly fish what you see in your box, and if clouds ensue after sunshine, the fish don’t see the same color they did before, either.
Believe it or not, the color of the float you use may make a difference. Those with mostly clear bodies are less obtrusive, color on the top helping you see it disappear, dip, or pause suspiciously. The color contrast against the bead may make the difference sometimes. Steelhead can see in a 300-degree arc, so they see the float and the bead in relationship.
Make sure to use a float with soft plastic line sleeves at top and bottom; you can instantly adjust the float’s position on the line. Add a series of split shot to the line underneath, heaviest near the float to make it stand upright with just the buoyancy to stay afloat. Pinch smaller split shot in descending order with BB at bottom of the rig near a micro swivel. You’ve created the classic J presentation. The current pulls the lighter shot forward as the bead is swept out ahead. The idea is to hit the steelhead on the nose, so be chary about the depth you set that float.
Also when rigging up, tying off the bead is critical. Using a toothpick to peg it in place inevitably allows slippage. It’s better to pass five-pound test fluorocarbon leader through the bead, loop back, and pass it through again. Now pass the tag end through the loop created and turn it six times like a clinch knot. Tighten into the bead and it will stay in place. Finish by tying the hook to the tag end with a clinch knot. You end up with 2 ½ inches of leader separating bead and a size 8 to 12 wide-gap, beak-style heavy steel egg hook.
Look for current breaks where salmon eggs get funneled and then fall into pockets. Good water isn’t very hard to find, and until winter really sets in, is shallower than not. Steelhead fishing is usually a trying effort and may make you think no fish are present where you cast, though plenty fin just out of sight. Hours of effort yielding even just a few of these glorious fish are enough to fill the rest of your life with a desire to get back out and do it again.