Roe, Roe, Roe Your Boat

Try these techniques the next time you want to employ salmon or steelhead roe clusters in your steelhead-fishing regimen.

The big ocean-run rainbow trout known to West Coast anglers as the steelhead is one of fishing's greatest challenges; anyone who thinks otherwise is only one bad day on the river away from a serious reality check.

Challenging as steelies are, however, we can do a few things to improve our chances of sticking a hook into one of these magnificent game fish. And like thousands of steelheaders before me, I got better at the game when I mastered the art of fishing with roe.

Yes: I'm an egg-fisherman. I can recall many a time that eggs made the difference between catching steelhead and going home fishless. We have no shortage of bright bobbers, leadhead jigs, diving plugs, wobbling spoons and weighted spinners from which to choose for our steelhead-fishing arsenal, and most are very effective in the hands of an accomplished steelheader. As it can happen in fishing, though, there are times when bait will outfish artificials, and a good cluster of roe is hands-down the bait of choice when it comes to coaxing steelhead out of dormancy.

Steelhead don't eat as they make their way upstream toward the gravel bed or hatchery facility where their lives began. They bite, most fisheries experts agree, out of some territorial-defense instinct, or as a reflex from several years of feeding in the ocean. Because they aren't really "hungry," they only briefly hold baits or lures in their mouths before exhaling them back into the current, often without the angler at the other end of the line even realizing that he's had a "bite."

Steelhead can't seem to spit out artificials made of plastic, cork or metal fast enough. A fresh cluster of juicy roe, on the other hand, is the real thing, and fish will often hold such an offering long enough for a hook to get slammed home. Anything that gives anglers that extra split-second to stick a fish becomes an advantage in putting steelhead in the boat.

A good roe cluster "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 drifts into view.

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 effectively with a cluster of fresh roe. In fact, when the water is 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 will offer a good way to go. Bright colors in bobber or yarn can provide added visibility while the roe gives off its strike-provoking scent.

Author Terry Rudnick prepares to secure a roe cluster to an egg loop. Photo by Roberta Garret Rudnick

MATCHING ROE TO YOUR FISHING METHOD
Several fishing methods will entice steelhead, and roe can be used with all of them.

Drift-fishing - one of the traditional steelheading techniques and still one of the favorites - is well suited to fishing roe. The drift-fisherman works the 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 water in a short time, but it takes a trained hand and a sensitive touch to tell the difference between that sinker jumping along the bottom and the gentle tug of a steelhead. Lure-fishermen often get only one quick chance to 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 chances to drive the hook home.

Plunking, another time-honored steelheading method, was made for fresh roe. The plunker anchors his offering to the bottom with a heavy sinker; rather than go after the fish, he waits for the fish to come to him. The 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.

Boon-dogglin' (boon-dogging to those who weren't around 25 years ago when it started catching on), is a boat-fishing technique that's similar to drift-fishing, except that you cast directly upstream and pull the line behind you as you float downriver. Like the drift-fisherman, the boon-dogglin' steelheader bounces his bait or lure along the river bottom until a fish grabs it and hangs on. Most boon-dogglers use fresh roe clusters, because steelhead hold it longer and give the angler more time to feel the strike and react to it.

Many boat anglers also like to back-troll for steelhead, and the strike-getter at the end of the line is usually either a diving plug or a diver-and-bait rig. In what's sort of the opposite of boon-dogglin', back-trollers hold their boats against the river flow with the plug or diver working in the current below the boat, "backing" downstream a little slower than the river is flowing, so that the offering chugs through the fish-holding water ahead of the boat.

The "diver" part of the diver-and-bait combo may be something like a Pink Lady or Jet Diver, or even a diving plug with the hooks removed and leader tied into the ring where the hook used to be. The bait, though, is almost always a roe cluster.

KEEP IT ON THE HOOK
Whatever technique you prefer, the key is in 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. You'll need a "egg loop" leader to secure the roe to the hook.

Small clusters can be inserted into the egg loop and the loop pulled snug against the hook shank so that the cluster holds where it belongs. With larger clusters, you may want to thread the hook through the cluster once or twice, fold it back up the shank and place it into the loop.

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 create a loop. The sliding knot is a little more versatile, in that it can be expanded to accommodate clusters of any size without retying 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 (see illustration) requires the us

e of two "free ends" on the leader. It might be a better choice, if you like, to pretie your steelhead leaders and tie them to an in-line swivel as you need them.

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

Curing Eggs
Roe clusters don't hold up without a little care, and every steelheader a favorite "cure" for them. The key is to treat roe so that it's firm, colorful and tough enough to stay on the hook.

The simplest method is to lightly dust roe clusters in Borax, then place them in the refrigerator for up to about two months or in the freezer for more than a year. Keep them too long and the Borax will dry them away to nothing!

A more complicated process involves mixing one part salt, two parts sugar and three parts Borax. Dust the roe clusters with this mixture, then place them in the refrigerator in a sealed container. Turn the container upside-down twice a day for four days; add a little food dye if you like. Store in the freezer. The salt prevents them from freezing solid, but these clusters will keep for years.

Commercial products such as Pro-Cure, out of Salem, Ore., take the guesswork out of the job. You simply pick a color and follow the package's instructions.



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