Trout & the Egg
By Troy Letherman
For the Tlingit, salmon eggs are among the first foods fed to infants, beginning at just eight- or nine months of age. It’s not an uncommon practice among the Natives of Alaska, as noted by Dr. Weston A. Price, who visited several Eskimo groups in the 1930s while investigating his seminal book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. In it he reports that from a chemical standpoint, fish eggs are one of the healthiest foods found anywhere, sought after for their uniquely nutritious and developmentally beneficial value.
That jibes with today’s research, including a recent study from the University of Almería in Spain, which analyzed the roe of 15 marine animals and determined that omega-3 levels were particularly high in salmon roe – making upmore than 30 percent of the total fatty acids found in the eggs. It means that ounce-for-ounce, salmon eggs outrank even the fattiest fish as sources of super-healthy omega-3s.
As anglers familiar with the freshwater environment in Alaska already understand, it also means that our state’s trout are particularly well-fed.
Many populations of Alaska’s wild rainbow trout share a propensity for attaining very large, world-class sizes. This is a product of the distinctive lives they lead, with size influenced not only by genetic composition but also by the abundance of their primary source of food – the Pacific salmon. In Alaska, it’s an adage: “As the reds go, so go the rainbows.” But when discussing the preferred menu for the state’s resident freshwater species, including Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus – the coastal rainbow trout – we can go beyond just the sockeye, bringing in the Chinook, coho, chum and pink salmon as well. From egg to alevin to fry to smolt, and after the adult fish have spawned and are beginning to decompose, flesh – it’s all food.
During the right time of year, fishing imitations based on the juvenile salmon stages – alevin, fry and smolt – can offer some incredible angling action (particularly the annual smolt outmigration on certain rivers). Likewise, very late in the season, swinging various shades of flesh flies produces strong results – and some of the largest fish of the year. In between, as the mature salmon return to their natal streams and begin to pair up on the spawning grounds, the trout follow, staging below the beds and waiting for the start of the egg drop, when they’ll begin a true power-eating binge in an effort to store nutrients for the long Alaska winter.
At first the competition on the spawning beds can make egg fishing difficult. In many areas, especially those with monster sockeye runs, the trout tend to clear out until the spawn is set to start in earnest. But once eggs are in the water, there are almost certainly going to be trout around. Even a single pair of spawning fish might attract upwards of a dozen rainbows.
The trout, it should be noted, are feeding on eggs that have been washed or knocked out of the redds – not eggs that were eventually going to yield baby salmon (additionally, among those eggs fertilized and incubated in a redd, only about 1 in 10 survives to hatch). In the distant past there was a bounty placed on Dolly Varden in the state in a misguided attempt to aid salmon production. From 1921 to 1941 anglers could turn in tailfins at a paying rate of two-and-a-half per. In 1934, on the Situk River alone, 142,547 trout and Dolly Varden were destroyed. The program was shut down in 1941 after close examination of some 20,000 tails proved that over half of those turned in were actually from coho salmon – and of the remainder, most were rainbow tails.
For today’s trout angler in Alaska, egg imitations are an imperative. During the peak of the egg drop, most of a given stream’s rainbows will be congregated below the schools of spawning salmon, jockeying for prime real estate in order to take full advantage of the drifting buffet. Hitting it just right often means the best action of the open-water season.
To begin to fish egg imitations, anglers must pay attention to a pair of initial details: the size and the color of the eggs on offer. After all, the trout definitely know what they’re eating.
On the matter of size, each of the five Pacific salmon species that return to Alaska each year produces eggs of a different diameter. For instance, king eggs average about 9.5 mm in size while sockeye eggs range from approximately 5.3- to 6.6 mm.
Despite the difference in diameter, when first dropped most salmon eggs are a very bright orange, but also carry an almost translucent sheen. This will change in short order, as they begin to take on a milky white tint. The overall orange color will also fade through various stages of pink as the season wears on. The closer to the end of the cycle one gets, the whiter and more “washed-out” the eggs.
Where things become particularly complicated is when there are multiple species of salmon spawning in the same system. Take, for instance, the Kenai River, where August might find kings spawning in the main channel, with sockeye paired up and dropping eggs in a soft, inside seam just a cast or two downriver. In many rivers of the Bristol Bay region, with four or five species of salmon in the stream at once, it can be even more confusing – and critical to get the color and size combination right.
In general, both Alaska’s Chinook and sockeye tend to spawn in July and August, the kings mostly in larger streams and rivers, as they can handle the larger substrate and greater flows of main channels. The state’s sockeye spawn almost exclusively in streams that connect with large lakes. The salmon of Bristol Bay exemplify this lacustrine tendency, as nearly every sockeye population in the region returns to spawn in the rivers feeding or draining the big systems: Lake Iliamna, Lake Clark, and Naknek, Kukaklek, Kulik, Nonvianuk and the Wood-Tikchik lakes. Not without coincidence, these areas also host a significant portion of the state’s most prolific trophy trout fisheries.
Pink salmon return to freshwater streams from late June to early October, with the later in-migrations typically occurring in the southern parts of their range. They do not travel far upstream to spawn, notable exceptions being populations returning to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Chum salmon tend to spawn near the coast within days of entering the river as well. In most cases, summer runs are typical for streams in the northern part of the species’ range, with fall runs occurring in southern drainages. Returning to most streams from August through September, Alaska’s coho are typically the last to provide fresh egg-fishing potential for trout anglers.
To properly fish egg imitations, Alaska anglers need to first devise strategies tailored to the water being fished, as, for example, autumn angling on the Kenai will present decidedly different conditions than the Naknek – and neither are anything like Moraine Creek. In glacial rivers, such as the Kenai, trout are not leader-shy. Casting over these fish and using a heavier leader will not affect success rates. However, when fishing clear streams with moderate to heavy fishing pressure, sloppy presentations will spook fish, as will heavy leaders and non-stealthy approaches. In these smaller waters, sight-fishing is the norm, and most productive, while in larger waters fishing blind is typically necessary – though it’s made much easier by knowing what kind of water is favored by the spawning salmon and starting there.
Nymphing is the name of the game when egg fishing for trout, which for the majority means indicators. A good nymph angler can see the ever-so-slight hesitation in the line that signifies a pickup, but for the most part, fish will lift and reject egg imitations without the angler ever knowing they were there. Along with general nymphing protocols comes the need for split-shot; the egg imitation needs to bounce along just off the bottom, like the real thing. Expect snags.
The basic cast when nymphing eggs is the three-quarter up-and-across-current cast, landing the fly upstream of the target (usually a pod of salmon, easy to see in their spawning colors). As the fly (or bead) tumbles downstream, follow the indicator downstream with the rod tip and manage the slack line. The imperative here is to produce an absolutely drag-free drift. Salmon eggs do not swim.
Last, a note on beads – while technically not a fly at all (and not classified as such by the State of Alaska), they easily outpace other egg imitations when it comes to pure production on the stream. They also can be much more ethical means of pursuit for catch-and-release anglers, since trout can be aggressive when they see an egg and standard egg flies like Glo-Bugs often wind up hooking a fish deeply. Onthe other hand, properly pegged or free-sliding beads tend to result in a hook that settles neatly into the outer part of a fish’s jaw.
In the end, when the salmon have returned, the rainbows have stacked up and the spawn is on, it’s simply a matter of giving Alaska’s trout what they want. Let them eat eggs.
• When adding a “paintjob” to your bead, use nail lacquer instead of nail polish or enamel. The latter will chip easily and wears off after only a few drifts, while multiple coats of the former will make for a more durable egg imitation.
• When connecting tippet (typically 24 inches) to leader for your egg-fly rig, do not clip the tag end after tying your blood knot. Tie an overhand knot at the end of the tag end and affix your split-shot here. This saves the leader from unnecessary wear and tear, which can be critical when targeting large autumn ‘bows.
• If you can see salmon on the spawn but are not picking up trout with your drifts, change the color of your egg imitation immediately. If you run through a few colors and are still striking out, go to a different size.
Choosing Your Basic Beads
Beads can be bought in bulk from a variety of sources, including local fly shops and online retailers (several specialize in egg imitations almost exclusively), as well as at craft and specialty stores like Alaska Black Elk Leather, Beads and Stones in Anchorage. Start with the principal base colors, and add your Sally Hansen Barely Pink (or other favorites) to perfect / personalize.
Matching the Hatch – Bead Sizes
Alaska’s Special Bead Regs
In areas where legal, beads fished ahead of a fly, lure or bare hook must either be fixed within two inches of the hook or be free to slide on the entire length of the line or leader.
A bead is considered an attractor, not a fly. In waters designated as fly-fishing only, a bead fished on the line above a bare hook is not legal gear. In this case the bead must be attached above a fly – most anglers in this situation prefer a small flesh fly tied on below the bead.
In the fly-fishing only Russian River, regulations state that weights, if used, must be at least 18 inches ahead of the fly.
As always, check the current regulations thoroughly before heading out on the water.
Rods: Standard Alaska fly gear is the norm (5- to 8-weight rods, depending on the water being fished and the average size of the trout present). If anything, slightly longer rods are favored, due to the nymphing techniques necessitated by fishing egg imitations. Longer rods allow for more control of the drift, and achieving a drag-free drift is critical.
Lines: When fishing floating lines with indicators, choose lines that load fast, which will help turn over unwieldy indicator rigs. Ideal are some of the Nymph lines offered by companies like RIO, Scientific Anglers and Cortland.
Leaders: Leaders should vary with the conditions – length and tippet size are regularly dictated by spooky fish and shallow or deep flows. Leaders need not be too complicated, but a great setup for Alaska nymphing conditions (that will turn over indicators and split-shot) would be nine feet of stiffer monofilament or fluorocarbon, tapered down to a 2X (.009) tippet section. Start with 32 inches of 30-pound-test mono connected to 21 inches of 25-pound. Follow with a pair of 12-inch sections, 20-pound to 15-pound, then eight inches of 12-pound and another eight inches of 1X, which is knotted to the 18- to 24-inch tippet section. Blood knots should be used for all connections save tippet-to-fly, where an improved clinch works well.
Indicators: Standard store-bought foam or yarn indicators arefine. For skinny water, ram’s wool or poly yarn tied onto the leader just below the fly line can work well. Keep a bottle of Gink or other flotation aid handy to apply to any yarn or wool indicators.
Troy Letherman is the editor of Fish Alaska magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.