For nearly 30 years, Mick Thomas has spent every morning from mid- November through March guiding thousands of anglers to catch some of the West’s finest steelhead. He’s tested countless baits and lures and has come to a single hypothesis; there’s no better steelhead bait than fresh, cured roe.
Thomas is in the majority with this statement. And, while other notable baits are imperative to have in the boat, roe is something that can’t be overlooked. Beginning with roe, we’ll examine the best steelhead baits that must be in your boat this winter and early spring.
FRESH CURED ROE
Thomas’ choice is echoed in the guide world. Nearly every successful steelhead angler fishes roe at some point during the season, if not daily. Thomas’ explanation makes sense.
“My number one choice is roe, period. It’s because of the fish’s natural instinct to kill the eggs,” he says. “Steelhead are very territorial over them.”
Thomas tells Game & Fish that he’s spent his life consulting with hatchery personnel and fisheries biologist and presents a powerful explanation to back his statement. According to Thomas, steelhead aren’t keen on seeing steelhead eggs floating downriver, even in their natural state. Free tumbling steelhead eggs, he says, draw in predators, particularly predator fish. Most notably when they are getting ready to spawn, which they do in the winter and early spring, steelhead become overly protective of their own eggs, which is why roe is so effective. To keep predators away from the eggs, steelhead pick up the eggs, smash them and destroy them when they find the eggs free flowing in any system, Thomas explains.
“When a steelhead picks up the roe, they are picking it up to pop the egg. They aren’t eating them; rather popping them. If those eggs are floating free, then the bullheads, the juvenile fish and the other predators can smell it and it’s like a chum line,” he explains. “The steelhead don’t want these predators to come find all the eggs, so they are trying to kill the roe. They open their mouth, smash the egg and spit it back out, thus killing the eggs.”
With the reasoning now understandable, it’s obvious why roe is so vital to steelhead anglers. While several methods of curing eggs are effective, Thomas personally uses Pautzke’s Borx O Fire, simply because it’s a complete cure with lots of sugar and krill, two other things that draw in winter steelhead.
“That’s why you need to be on the trigger when you are winter steelhead fishing with roe, because they don’t keep it in their mouth long,” says Thomas. “The steelhead opens his mouth, closes his mouth to smash the egg and in a split second spits it back out.”
A Southern Oregon steelhead expert guide, Andy Martin, of Wild Rivers Fishing, also believes roe is the most effective steelhead bait, but also won’t row from shore without an assortment of Spin-N-Glos. Possibly more effective than roe in tight quarters, Martin says these inexpensive, bite-size baits are a must for any steelhead angler.
“On small, relatively fast rivers where you basically have one shot at the fish, where they might be behind a log, boulder, or in a tight spot behind a boil and you need to get the bait in front of fish immediately, I like my clients tossing Spin-N-Glos,” notes Martin, who recommends size 10 or 12 models, with a few single salmon eggs on it. Red/chartreuse, red and silver, and rainbow are the best he says.
“You need a visual attraction, something with more than just bright colors and the Spin-N-Glo will spin, which creates vibration and flash, which tempt the steelhead to come hit it,” he says. “They are going to be territorial. They are going to get rid of anything they don’t want there in a hurry. In small quarters like this or in planes where the boat is drifting fast, you’ve got to have something to trigger a fast strike and this bait will do it.”
When fishing these baits in smaller systems, Martin urges anglers to shorten their leaders. Doing so, he says, allows the bait to sink into the strike zone faster, thus allowing it to remain in the zone longer.
“You’ll need a shorter leader to get down there fast. Most people are using 4- or 5-foot leaders when they are side drifting, but in this type of fishing you need to use a 2-foot leader because you need to ensure your bait gets down there faster, you may only have a few seconds before the fast water pulls the bait away from the fish, so a short leader is a must.”
Another tip offered by Martin: Normally he tips the hooks of the Spin-N-Glo with single salmon eggs. However, in recent years he’s found simple yarn to be less messy and equally effective.
“Because of the fast presentation you don’t necessarily need roe or other baits on it. Personally, I use yarn and scent it in Nectar because it has a natural salmon egg scent,” Martin suggests. “The color of the Nectar doesn’t matter, it’s the salmon egg scent that you want.”
In recent years, artificial eggs have gained popularity throughout steelhead country. Due in part to many systems no longer allowing the use of bait, these eggs have become a mainstay in tackle boxes.
“It’s an artificial egg that is very soft. You can use a single egg or make them in a chain,” says Washington guide Bill “Swanny” Swan, of Swanny’s Fishing. “I always have an EZ egg on my set up, even when I use bait. It’s because they take the place of a Corkie and they are more buoyant. When the fish bite them, they don’t feel anything hard, so they don’t let go.”
Swanny admits that EZ eggs have replaced trout beads and Puff Balls in many systems. And, in systems where bait is no longer permitted, they’ve taken the place of roe. Still, Swanny says he’d choose fresh, cured roe over artificial eggs, yet considers them a valuable alternative to roe.
“Although scent can’t be used in rivers where bait is banned, the EZ eggs soak up whatever scent that you add to them. I’ll soak them in Liquid Krill. They are very porous, yet very buoyant,” notes Swanny. “They are a
lso transparent. You can see right through them.”
However, their greatest attribute, Swanny says, is their durability.
“You can’t destroy the material. The eggs last a long time so you get a lot of usage out of them,” he says. “You’ll lose your setup before you lose your EZ eggs.”
EZ eggs come in seven colors, Swanny says. They include red, tangerine, chartreuse, pink, orange, blue and glow.
“I use tangerine and red exclusively, just because they resemble the eggs better,” he says. “The tangerine look like natural roe. The red resembles more of a cured egg.”
A DIVER AND SAND SHRIMP
In the last decade, Idaho-based guide Toby Wyatt, of Reel Time Fishing, has seen an increase in the number of steelhead anglers utilizing shrimp. Those who employ a diver and sand shrimp remain a step ahead of others, Wyatt says. Due to the scent they emit and the motion they induce when fished live, the sand shrimp are a deadly combination for steelhead anglers throughout the West.
“The diver and sand shrimp allows you to work a hole slowly. It also gives you one of the ultimate, scented baits known to man. It’s a versatile bait. It works really well in low water situations when side drifting roe might spook the fish,” he says.
“Take the sand shrimp, put them on a diver and back them down to a hole and the fish has no choice but to see them.”
Wyatt believes the surest way to fish the sand shrimp is to back troll them.
“It won’t work in a back eddy. There’s got to be current to use it, but if you can find current, the fish love to eat them because they have so much scent to them,” adds Wyatt.
Wyatt, who also, believes roe is the best bait for steelhead, maintains that the sand shrimp can be fished in almost any type of water in nearly every system in the West.
“I’d say you can fish them in just about every kind of hole. You just have to adjust your diver to the depth of the hole. If it’s shallower than 12 feet, I’d use a small Brad’s diver, but from 12-20 feet you’ll need a medium-size diver,” he explains. “If you are in a deeper hole, switch to the jumbo diver. Luhr Jenson is known to make some great divers.”
THE HOT SHOT AND FAT FISH
Long-lived as the best steelhead plug on the planet, the Hot Shot has been a mainstay for steelhead anglers for decades. Always backtrolled rather than cast, the Hot Shot excels at remaining in the strike zone and does a great job at aggravating steelhead into striking. Historically, most anglers agree that the strikes to Hot Shots stem from aggression, rather than feeding.
“Because the bigger steelhead are so territorial, you tend to catch larger steelhead on plugs like the Hot Shot,” Thomas notes. “I use Hot Shots everyday when I’m on the river because they are so consistent. You can use them to cover a lot of water.”
Martin, however, leans toward the Fat Fish, a deep diving lure that gives a lot of wiggle action. The Fat Fish and Hot Shot are similar plugs, manufactured by competitors. Martin chooses the Fat Fish because it has a larger bill and dives steeper.
According to Martin, plugs are best when the water is cold or when the steelhead are in calm, shallow water, basically places where the fish can be easily spooked. Running a Hot Shot or Fat Fish allows you to extend the lure far behind the boat, without spooking the fish. In addition, whereas side-drifting roe or a Corkie only focuses on a small section of water, running a plug covers much more water.
“You want them all out the same distance. As you back the Fat Fish down you want them all going out the same distance at the same time because if a steelhead sees three of them at once, eight times out of 10 he’s going to hit one of them,” Martin says. “What happens is as you back them down slowly, they tend to bite by the time it gets towards the end of the hole because the steelhead don’t want to leave the hole, so they’ll hit the bait to try and get it out of the way.”
SPECIAL BONUS: FROM THE BANK
When targeting steelhead from the bank, all the above veteran guides choose roe as the best bait. However, they mentioned several spoons and spinners that shouldn’t be overlooked. A spoon or spinner, such as a Panther Martin, Blue Fox, Little Cleo or Mepps, is a standard steelhead lure that always produces when fished properly. All the guides agree that various sizes and colors of these lures are necessary in your arsenal.