Story & Photos by Jeremy Anderson
In my earliest memories of fishing, I recall rolling a plastic bead in my hands. I grew up fishing for walleye, bass and pike in central Wisconsin with my dad, and we used beads as attractors and as part of the tackle setup. In 2001, my first summer in Cooper Landing, Alaska, my understanding of the bead changed forever. Over 15 years later, I know exactly what bead I want to be in the water on most days, and I know where to find those specific beads in my numerous bead boxes. Of course, there are still occasional unknowns, leaving me to ask myself, “What bead should I use today?” But fishermen will always deal with that; the uncertainty is part of what keeps us coming back day after day.
Cooper Landing was a great place to develop bead-fishing knowledge. Nick Ohlrich, one of my business partners, and I spent countless nights painting beads as we prepared for our next day of fishing. Although we spent much time figuring things out by trial and error, there are two people in particular who pointed us in the right direction: Gary McFadden and the late Curt Trout. These two fishermen loved to see people develop fishing skills, have fun and succeed. They would give us just enough information to get us started and to pique our curiosity, but not so much that we didn’t have to experiment and develop our own understanding of works and what doesn’t.
Curt Trout was in a league of his own. I remember the days of grabbing a Philly cheesesteak at the grocery store and popping over to Curt’s bead laboratory. Whenever he opened the door and welcomed us in, Curt would ask us how the fishing had been and would show us a few things he had been up to. Curt’s creativity with bead painting motivated Nick and I to take ours to the next level. The man didn’t mess around—he actually kept Kenai River water in a jar so he could test his painted beads in it. Curt is one of the true pioneers of trout fishing with beads on the Kenai River. If you were lucky enough to ever fish with him, you know exactly what I am talking about.
Gary McFadden is another avid fisherman and a legendary guide in Cooper Landing. The most important concept Gary ever taught me is to have fun, no matter what the fishing conditions are. He still is one of my most impactful mentors on the Kenai fishery. There were plenty of nights where Nick and I would knock on Gary’s door with a rack of cold ones and get down on some bead painting. Gary would always remind us that “no two eggs are exactly the same.” It took me a while to understand what he was saying because I wanted my beads to be perfect. But in reality, and as Gary showed us, a little imperfection with your beads can pay off big.
Sharing passion and knowledge is an integral part of the continuity of the fishing community—it is a major reason I enjoy writing for Fish Alaska—and people like Gary, Curt and a few others taught our fishing crew that.
Why Does the Bead Work so Well?
Quite simply, beads catch more fish, and if you set-up properly, bead-fishing allows for an easy, safe catch-and-release opportunity for anglers. Just as a side-note, 2 inches is the legal distance from the hook to the bead.
There are always eggs in the water, which a big reason why the bead works so well. A lot of eggs get trapped in eddies, the gravel of spawning beds, the slow water and even in the ice. When the water levels change, it reloads the main channel of the river with another round of food. Even when the water comes up in the spring there are eggs and flesh floating downriver from the previous fall’s salmon spawn.
In the fleshy time of the fishing season, there have been days on the water where I used a bead and the person fishing next to me used a small flesh fly. We both caught fish and there wasn’t a huge difference in quantity or quality of the trout. Beads can look a lot like a small piece of flesh floating down river, and if you have the right shade on the results can be awesome. The same concept applies to steelhead fishing. I have thrown on a bead that was the same color as a productive streamer, and next thing you know a steelhead ate the bead.
Beads are super durable most of the time and easy to cast. These factors result in your hook and bead being in the water more of the time. The more you are in the water the more chances you will have to catch fish. There is a difference in durability between hand-painted beads and unpainted stock beads from the store. You can have a painted bead that chips up quickly but that is more of a clear-coat issue. There are dozens of clear-coats out there, from fishing products to exterior paint products, to help finish off the painting of your bead. Each clear-coat gives a different result in a different condition. Believe me, though, some days an unpainted stock bead out-fishes the bead you spent all night making. The important thing is to be mentally ready to fish either.
Another reason the bead can fish so well is because there are many different sizes and colors available for anglers to pick from. The toughest part is deciding when to use what bead. I am going to let you figure that one out on your own, but I will say that you can’t always judge a book by its cover. For trout and steelhead fishing, we typically use 6mm to 14mm beads. I do have a few friends that will throw 4mm beads once in a while, but I don’t fish much below a 6mm. There are five different species of salmon and their eggs are different sizes and colors, so it is important to get close to the egg size you are trying to replicate. We will up- or downsize beads to try and stand-out from the real ones floating down if needed.
Salmon eggs can be super fresh and translucent-looking or have a more opaque look if they have been in the water longer. Each salmon species’ “fresh” egg has a slightly different shade, so it is important to do your homework. Why do you think there are so many colors at the tackle shop? Each species of salmon also has a different shade of “washed out,” such as peachy or creamy. There are also a lot of eggs tumbling down the river that are in-between fresh and old. When I am starting my day, guided or unguided, I give the fish I am targeting different options. It helps me figure out how to proceed with the rest of the day.
Taking Your Beads to the Next Level
There are countless ways to take your beads to the next level and inspiration can be found in the most unusual places. I have often found myself in a craft store with my wife, Andrea, and all the sudden I find something to throw in the shopping cart and take to my bead lab. In fact, one of our most recent innovations with bead painting came from an idea that Andrea came up with as we were painting one night. The sky is the limit on what you can use for painting beads, but there are a few things to keep in mind.
Part of being creative in your bead laboratory is documenting your creation. You can very quickly make a bunch of variations of a bead that look almost the same. You would think the trout can’t tell the difference but I promise you they can. The process of every bead we make is documented. If it is a killer bead, we want to be able to replicate it exactly. If one is working and one is not, then you can compare what you did differently to get the desired results. This July I pulled a bead out from two years ago. It was out-fishing all the others and naturally I wanted to make more. So, I pulled out my notes and reproduced it with no problem.
Earlier I talked about Gary saying that “no two eggs are exactly the same.” When I make a batch of beads I look at them and pick out the ones that are consistently or irregularly painted. Trout want different things each day so knowing what beads I have is critical to understanding what a fish wants. Some days the trout want the beads that are painted perfectly like a gumdrop and some days they want that one that sticks out a little.
You can paint your beads in various ways. Without going into too much detail, a few ways you can paint your beads include dipping them, shaking them in a container and painting them with a brush. Having a variety of options in your bead box allows you to be ready for what the fish want. The stage of the real eggs tumbling downriver, the amount of light penetrating into the water column and the fishing pressure are just a few of the reasons a trout may want one over the other. If you are happy with your current setup, great. If you are looking for something else, just start experimenting.
Understanding the salmon spawning cycles in your area is critical to “matching the hatch” with the bead you are tossing in the water. Once you know what salmon is spawning, where they are spawning and what the water levels are doing to the eggs in the water, you can start to narrow your selection. When you are making your next batch of beads, make sure to be methodical enough about it so you have your bases covered, yet creative enough so you can add your own personal twist. Try looking at a real egg in the water, in your hand and then holding it up to the sunlight. Now make your bead look like that.
The Bead-Switching Game
Hitting the jackpot with a bead is one of the best feelings in the world and something you never forget. On the other hand, going out the next day with the same bead and having trouble even hooking a Dolly Varden is very frustrating. You wonder why it worked so well yesterday and what the problem is today. You should ask yourself: “Is it the bead?”
Switching to a different bead may be the answer. Don’t be afraid to swap out beads, but my rule is to swap one bead out at a time in the boat. You always start the day with the bead you think is going to catch you the monster on the first drift, right? So don’t give up on that bead so quickly. Yes, sometimes a complete bead makeover is necessary. But I caution you to give your beads a chance to work and be careful not to get in the bead-switching game.
If your results don’t improve after some swapping out it is a safe bet to go to the bead that you trust and rely on in a pinch. It’s a good bead for a reason, so use it if nothing else is working. Maybe you need to change the water you are fishing, your leader setup or the amount of split-shot. Or it could be some other technical issue. Like I mentioned earlier in the article, each day of fishing is unique, and solving the mystery is what keeps us fisherman coming back for more.
Putting it Together
Catching fish on the beads you painted comes with great satisfaction, but don’t forget that troutbeads.com has all the unpainted colors for a reason. If you want to get more dialed-in with what the egg colors and stages are, do your homework. The pictures, information and stages of salmon eggs are easy to find. It will give you a starting point for your bead fishing. Don’t forget to keep a log of what beads are working in what conditions and always have a variety of beads with you to increase your chance at catching more and better fish. Also always remember to use hook-release tools, rubber nets, measuring boards and smaller (preferably barbless) hooks. If you are going to get better at catching fish your ability to take care of the fish you catch needs to grow as well.
All the shops around Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula have beads you can buy and often they can give you pointers about what is working. Some fly shop employees keep their knowledge secret, but if you go somewhere where the staff is more open to talking fishing, they may tell you a few other key details. My advice is to spend your money at the friendlier shops that make it obvious that they want you to succeed. We highly recommend Mossy’s Fly Shop in Anchorage.
Most importantly, build a community by sharing information with your fishing friends. Pass down your knowledge and passion to the next generation of fishermen. All these years later, I have so much respect for my mentors and am still grateful for my Cooper Landing roots. They taught me that no one owns the river and that we can all enjoy it. They also taught me that we can all have our fishing secrets, but that we should help each other along. I think about this all the time when I am on the river, but especially now that my home is in Soldotna, 45 minutes away from where I started my journey on the upper Kenai.
Jeremy Anderson is a contributing writer for Fish Alaska magazine and co-owner of Alaska Drift Away Fishing. His passion for experiencing the Kenai River trout fishery with others is what keeps him on the water. You can find out more about Jeremy and trout fishing the Kenai River at www.guidekenairiver.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Fish Alaska.