Rudnick: Using Roe to Catch More Steelhead


By Terry Rudnick

Steelhead fishing is never really easy. The big, ocean-run rainbow trout we call the steelhead is one of fishing’s greatest challenges, and anyone who thinks otherwise is only one bad day on the river away from a serious reality check.

Challenging, yes, but there are a few things we can do to improve our chances of sticking a hook into one of these magnificent game fish. Like thousands of steelheaders before me and thousands more since, I got a lot better at the game when I mastered the fine art of fishing with roe. Yes, I’m an egg-fisherman, and there are many times when it has made the difference between catching steelhead and going home fishless.

West Coast anglers have no shortage of brightly colored bobbers, leadhead jigs, diving plugs, wobbling spoons and weighted spinners from which to choose their steelhead-fishing arsenal, and all can be very effective in the hands of an accomplished steelheader. Like most fishing, though, there are times when bait will out-fish artificials, and a good number of honest anglers will tell you that a good cluster of roe is their bait of choice when it comes to coaxing a steelhead out of dormancy.

Anglers and fishery biologists alike are in general agreement that steelhead don’t need to eat as they make their way upstream toward the gravel bed or hatchery facility where their lives began. They bite, most folks agree, either out of some territorial-defense instinct or as a reflex from a year or two of feeding in the ocean. Because they aren’t really “hungry,” they typically hold baits and lures in their mouths very briefly before exhaling them back into the current, often without the angler at the other end of the line even realizing he’s had a “bite.” The problem is often worse with artificials; wary steelhead take the phony offering of plastic, cork or metal and can’t spit it back into the water fast enough. A fresh cluster of juicy roe, on the other hand, is the real thing, and fish will often hold it long enough to get “stuck.” Anything that gives anglers that extra split-second to set the hook is a big advantage in putting steelhead into the landing net.

A good roe cluster also “milks” into the water as it’s fished, leaving a downstream scent trail that may draw fish into striking range. As it works its way down the river ahead of the bait, this built-in chum line may also trigger that ol’ feeding instinct, putting steelhead in a biting mood a few seconds before the bait comes drifting into view. Getting ’em revved up a little before they see the bait certainly can’t hurt your odds!

But you don’t have to fish roe all by itself to be effective. If you like to do your steelheading with bobbers or yarn, for example, both can be used very effectively with a cluster of fresh roe. In fact, when the water’s dark very early or late in the day, or when it’s running high and dirty after a hard rain, such a bait/lure combination is a good way to go. The brightly colored bobber or yarn provides added visibility while the roe gives off its strike-provoking scent.

Several fishing methods will entice steelhead, and roe can be used with all of them.

Drift-fishing, of course, is one of the “traditional” steelheading techniques, still one of the favorites, and is well-suited to fishing roe. The drift-fisherman works his bait or lure along the bottom with the current, using a sinker that’s just large enough to bounce along the rocks without constantly hanging up. Drift-fishing allows anglers to cover a lot of steelhead water in a short time, but it takes a trained hand and sensitive touch to tell the difference between that sinker jumping along the bottom and the gentle tug of a soft-striking steelhead. Lure fishermen often get only one quick chance to tell the difference and set the hook. Steelhead that inhale a soft, juicy roe cluster, on the other hand, may hold onto it for several seconds or pick it up and drop it two or three times, giving an angler more time to detect the pick-up and drive the hook home.

Plunking is another traditional steelheading method, and it was made for fresh roe. The plunker anchors his offering to the bottom with a heavy sinker, waiting for the fish to come to him rather than going after the fish as the drift-angler does. That scent trail milking into the water helps draw fish to the bait, and when steelhead find it, they tend to chomp down and hang on.

Side-drifting, boon-dogglin’ (or, boon-dogging, as it’s called by those who weren’t around 30 years ago when I first learned the word), back-drifting and back-bouncing all are effective boat-fishing techniques for steelhead, and fresh roe is as well-suited to these fishing methods as it is for drifting or plunking. The majority of side-drifters, back-bouncers, boon-dogglers and back-drifters are, in fact, egg-slingers.

Whatever steelheading technique you prefer, the key to the whole thing is keeping the roe cluster on the hook. That sounds easy enough, but a cluster of several dozen salmon or steelhead eggs won’t stay attached for more than a few seconds if you simply run a hook through it and start casting. The clusters melt away and disintegrate if you hook them that way. You must use some kind of leader “egg loop” to help secure the roe to the hook. Small clusters can be inserted into the egg loop, the loop pulled snug against the hook shank, and the cluster is held where it belongs. With larger clusters, you may want to thread the hook through the cluster once or twice and then fold it back up the shank and place it into the loop. This hooking-and-looping method holds the roe in place very well.

There are two kinds of egg loops, those that slide up and down the shank of the hook to open and those that remain stationary on the hook shank and require line to be pushed down through the hook eye to open the loop. The sliding knot is a little more versatile in that it can be expanded to accommodate clusters of any size without re-tying the knot. It’s also a knot that can be tied with only one end of the line, allowing anglers to use roe clusters while fishing main line directly to the hook. The stationary egg-loop knot, on the other hand, can be tied by many anglers more quickly and easily (See illustration). Since it requires the use of two “free ends” on the leader, it might be a better choice if you like to pre-tie your steelhead leaders and tie them to an in-line swivel as you need them. The stationary egg-loop knot that I use for steelheading is virtually the same knot that most of us use for our salmon mooching leaders. The only difference for me is that I make only seven wraps on the upper (bumper) portion of the knot for a mooching leader, while making at least 10 or 12 wraps on the upper half of the knot when using it as an egg loop. Those additional wraps give me a little more room behind the hook eye at the upper end of the knot, so that tightening the knot around an egg cluster doesn’t cause the hook point to curl up toward the leader.

It’s a good idea to learn how to tie both kinds of loop knot if you plan to fish roe a lot.

Roe clusters don’t hold up very well without a little tender loving care of some kind, and every steelheader has his or her favorite way of “curing” them for use on the river. The key is to treat them with something that keeps them firm, colorful and just tough enough to stay on the hook for more than a just a few minutes. There are some commercially-prepared egg-cure produces that take much of the guesswork and fear of failure out of the job. One of the best-known is Pautzke’s. Make this choice and all you have to do is pick one of the several available colors and follow the instructions on the package. Do what you’re told and the result should be favorable.

The simplest home-cure method for roe clusters is to dust them lightly in pure Borax, after which they can be placed in the refrigerator for up to a month or two or kept in the freezer for more than a year. Keep them too long and the Borax will dry them away to nothing!

A slightly more complicated process involves mixing one part salt, two parts sugar and three parts Borax. Dust the roe clusters with this mixture, place in a container with lid and put in the refrigerator. Turn the container upside-down twice a day for four days, and add a little food dye if you like. Store in the freezer. They probably won’t freeze solid (because of the salt) and will keep for years.