“Try this egg, and if nothing hits, we’re moving downstream,” Dad said, as he handed me a fresh jar of cured salmon roe. We’d been fishing a salmon hole for nearly two hours without a bite. The spring Chinooks were there; we could see them jumping but nothing was biting.
On my second cast with the fresh bait, I felt a subtle tug. Knowing what it was, I let the springer chew on the bait for a few seconds, then set the hook.
When I brought the Chinook to the net, the bait and drift-bobber had vanished, as the fish had swallowed it. A few casts later, Dad caught a salmon from the same spot, then another. Twenty minutes later, I had our fourth and final springer of the day in the boat and we were headed home.
WHY THE EGG?
This scenario has repeated itself many times over more than 45 years of fishing for spring Chinooks in rivers throughout the Pacific Northwest, and our success hasn’t come by chance. In this case, we simply used a different cured egg — one that was brighter red, softer and scented differently than the two previous egg cures we’d fished. The salmon liked it, turning a slow day into one of success.
For decades, cured salmon eggs have been regarded as the premium bait when it comes to targeting spring Chinooks in tributaries along the West Coast. As egg-curing recipes continue to evolve, along with the ways eggs are being fished, the result is more salmon being caught.
When you think about it, cured eggs, or roe, are the perfect package to present to salmon. Keep in mind, these fish are born in a tiny nest — a redd — in the bottom of the river. Their sense of smell is measured in parts per billion.
They remain in the river until the smolt stage, then migrate to the ocean only to return two, three or four years later to the exact place they were born. Adult salmon migrate to their birthplace in rivers and streams by smell, and successful anglers know the need to capitalize on this sense.
Well-cured eggs have an appealing color, scent and texture that salmon love. But the key to catching more salmon is figuring out the cure or cures they like the most, then how to consistently fish them with success.
Cured salmon eggs can take on different colors, from brilliant red to deep purple, bright orange to natural. These colors are achieved by introducing dyes during the curing process. Some dyes are added as their own ingredients in specialized, homemade recipes. Dyes can also be added at the same time as other curing ingredients, as is common in commercial cures.
The more salmon fishing you do, the more dialed in you’ll become to the colors that work best in which rivers. One river I like fishing in Northern California sees the best bite coming on red-colored eggs, while the best bite on several Oregon rivers comes on natural-colored eggs. Other streams find bright orange being the egg color of choice.
Most egg clusters are fished under a drift-bobber. A drift-bobber not only adds buoyancy to the presentation, it also adds color and movement. Cured eggs will milk out, or lose their color, while being fished. Softer cured eggs often lose color fastest. Adding a drift-bobber like a Lil’ Corky or Spin-N-Glo will greatly increase the visibility of the presentation. Adding colored yarn atop your hook, between the cured egg and drift-bobber, also helps increase visibility.
The objective of the egg-curing process is to enrich baits by introducing specific elements, compounds, scents and colors. Salmon are scent junkies. Eggs cured for salmon fishing utilize a range of salt-based agents that capitalize on enhancing chemical reactions, as well as color and odor preservation, during the curing process. Sweet extracts, natural oils and numerous scents can be added during or following the curing process.
The individual egg cells that make up a skein, or a bait-sized chunk, of eggs contain mostly water. The semipermeable membrane of each egg cell allows the process of osmosis to take place. While osmosis only allows water to move back and forth through the membrane, this action moves the curing ingredients around, allowing it to penetrate the outer cell walls and connective tissues within the skein. This is how color and scent are introduced into a curing batch of eggs.
When using commercial cures, follow manufacturer directions for the best results. If creating your own cure, experiment with curing times and methods. My favorite homemade cure is where I start by cutting the skein into bait-sized chunks for fishing. I cut a layer of baits from the skein and place them into the bottom of a 1-gallon glass jar. Then, I add my dye, compounds and scents. I’ll then cut another layer of baits, add my ingredients, and repeat the process until all the eggs are used. I store the jar in a cool corner of my shop or in a refrigerator. Avoid subjecting the curing eggs to light and heat, as this will cause them to discolor and will compromise their smell.
Flip the jar a couple times a day. If curing in a sealable baggy, gently move the curing eggs around by hand, being careful not to rupture the cells. If you’d like to add a bit more scent at this time, feel free.
My favorite scent for spring Chinooks is pure-grade anise oil. I get mine from Pro-Cure. Shrimp, tuna and sardine scents are also good to add to your egg cure. Add only one scent to your egg cure. If wanting to use multiple scents, cure smaller batches. Be sure to label the cure scents used.
Egg-curing recipes widely vary, from ingredients to drying times. Soft eggs are often used when fishing calmer water, like beneath a float or behind a diver. Firm eggs are fished in fast, heavy water where they need to withstand the punishment turbulence will cause when bounced along the bottom and being repeatedly casted.
When your eggs are ready to remove from the cure, place them on a drying rack. Plastic screens are best, as metal can create a chemical reaction that transfers unwanted odors to the baits. Allow juices to drain and air to circulate around the entire bait, resulting in a uniform dryness. Place eggs in a cool, shady place. Soft baits can be dried on a plastic surface, just enough to drain away excess juices.
Check the firmness of the egg and, when ready, place in a clearly labeled, sealable baggy or glass jar. Note what cure, dye and scent is used, and the date of curing. It’s best to fish cured eggs when fresh, rather than after freezing them. Freezing and thawing salmon eggs greatly compromises their ability to hold-up — the cells expand, burst and grow weak — to fishing in fast-moving waters common with tributary and upper tributary fisheries this time of year.
Oftentimes, a recipe is blamed for a poorly cured egg that falls apart when, in reality, it’s the handling process that’s to fault.
FISHING CURED EGGS
When targeting spring Chinooks, cured eggs can be fished multiple ways. Drift-fishing allows water to be covered from the side by casting, usually from the bank or a boat anchored near shore. Firm eggs are best for drift fishing and colors that elicit a reactionary strike are the goal.
Back-bouncing cured eggs can be done in semi-fast to fairly slow-moving water. Medium-textured eggs are best. These bites are usually slow and docile, with the fish typically swallowing the bait. This means scent and texture are key in your cure as you want the fish to hold on and swallow them.
Soft baits are great for back-trolling behind a diver or fishing beneath a float. Soft baits milk out fast, releasing a great deal of scent into the water column. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a range of scents when back-trolling or float-fishing in order to optimize that scent trail.
Also, keep all curing ingredients on-hand prior to going fishing so you can cure the eggs you get once you’re home. The fresher the cured egg, the better it will fish. Diversifying your egg cures, and how you fish them, are key to catching more salmon, and the time to start is now.
The egg-curing process begins the moment a salmon is landed. After delivering a death blow, cut or snap a gill rake in order to remove the blood from the fish. Hold the fish in the water to optimize the bleeding-out process. Blood harbors bacteria that taints eggs, greatly decreasing the quality of the end product.
Because salmon have such a strong sense of smell, handle eggs with gloved hands. From the time of skein removal, through the entire curing process, and even when baiting a hook, wear rubber gloves to prevent the transfer of odors and oils from your hands to the eggs. Nitrile-based gloves are perfect for handling salmon eggs.
Once the skeins have been carefully removed from a salmon or steelhead (yes, steelhead eggs catch salmon), release any excess blood that may have gathered in the veins. With a sharp knife or scissors, snip any veins in the skeins that hold blood and gently force it out with a finger. Blot the blood with a clean paper towel. The goal is to achieve the cleanest, blood-free skein prior to starting the actual curing process.
If blood coagulates around the ends of the skeins while in the carcass of the fish, be sure to cut away and discard those portions as soon as possible. You want to start the curing process with a clean skein of eggs, and even a tiny amount of blood can taint an entire batch.
To achieve the best egg cure, you must start with the cleanest, highest quality of skeins. While there are numerous ways to cure salmon eggs, the best recipes won’t fix a poor-quality skein. Always starting the process with clean, fresh eggs if you’re serious about catching more spring Chinooks this season.