Steelhead Eggs And Selective Harvest


This is what I'm doing. Tying spawn bags. As the last post indicated, we were in Wisconsin over the weekend and into the early part of the week, catching some huge browns and (for the Midwest), a few dandy steelhead in the 13-pound range. We selectively harvested two 8-pound females, for food, for omega 3s, and for the eggs. (Don't want to deny anybody the opportunity to catch those flying, wallowing, screaming 13 pounders again within the next week or two before the rivers freeze up.)

When we travel to so-called "put-and-take" waters, we gather bait and a few fillets. But only from rivers that really have zero chance of producing any smolts. They get too warm in summer, killing off the young browns and steelhead parr, forcing the state of Wisconsin to restock every year. When fishing the South Shore  or North Shore of Superior, we harvest zero fish. On the rivers of Michigan's north-central Lake Michigan watersheds, we harvest no fish.


My partner in all things, Mary Savage, says she really likes the fact that we use the "entire fish" when we kill one. Well, we don't make fish-head soup or feed the dogs with the entrails, but we do use most of it. We both really enjoy goujonettes (cut the filets into 1- to 2-inch wide strips, dip in egg, roll in flour and spice, and fry in a pan with 2 to 3 tablespoons of peanut oil) and we love having fresh bait when we need it. As I often tell my fly-fishing friends, it's wonderful catching them on our own creations, lovely to control 60 or 70 feet of fly line in the air, and a blast to land them on that equipment. But it's also a blast to catch-and-release 40 or more in an afternoon, and, when the fish are in pools, it's almost impossible to experience that with a fly rod. And, when the fish are spawning — nobody should be walking on the gravel, crushing their eggs, sticking them in the face, and hauling them out of fast water in a state of exhaustion with a fly pinned to their pectoral fin in waters where natural reproduction occurs.


Fly fishermen love to talk about how horrifying and barbaric it is to use bait. They seldom like to discuss how their line is traveling horizontally across the bodies of fish trying to spawn, sticking them in the dorsal, tail, or pectoral. Talented steelheaders like the late, great, Bruce Gerhart of Vancouver Island would never throw a fly over fish to reach a fish. Most of us, well — I'll speak for myself and say I should stick to fishing pools with my fly rod. I feel I'm very good at spotting fish in rivers. But I'm not as good as Gerhart was, and when my fly line is traveling through glare or broken water I sometimes stick a fish in the pec.

But, in the pools, nothing beats Orange Gold for producing numbers of strikes. And when you dangle it under a float — a technique just as demanding and skill based as fly fishing — snagging a fish becomes almost impossible. If you hook up it's because the fish wanted what you were offereing.

Today I'm taking fresh skeins of steelhead eggs and pulling the eggs out of the meniscus (cellophane-like skein tissue). No salt, no borax, no cure. Little clusters still in meniscus are fine. Then I'm wrapping them up in small squares of Red Wing Tackle Spawn Net. I bundle it, wrap the neck 8 times with Red Wing Spider Thread, stretch it tight and cut. No need to tie a knot. This non-extruded mono stretches so much it simply binds to itself, saving precious time.

Red Wing makes soft, supple netting — almost like nothing's there at all but an accent of color. Unless I'm going fishing tomorrow and I know what they want, I use yellow, peach, orange, pink, chartreuse, and white netting every time I fill a tub with bags. Cover the bases. Most days, steelhead are really tuned in to about 2 colors and the related shades of those colors. Some days they'll hit anything, and some days they just seem to want one, very specific, color.

The tubs I use are old, plastic containers with screw tops that held flux, provided by my good friend Michael "McTrout" McLeod. When the tub is filled about eight tenths of the way, I add mineral oil. Leave room for the oil to expand. Unlike water, it won't freeze hard. It just gels up, so it won't damage your eggs. The oil is very nice to your hands, nullifying the extreme drying effect of the proteins in salmon and trout eggs. But, most importantly, it's inert. It adds no smell or taste of its own, but takes on the scent of the eggs and disperses them ahead of your presentation like a magic, invisible, aura of taste and smell.

I use a Thunder Bullets Paint Pen to mark the lid of the tub with the species of fish the eggs were taken from, the date, and the river(s) they were taken from. The process is simple. Time consuming, but simple. The steelhead and female brown we harvested will fill about 6 tubs with spawn "satchels," as my good friend Mike Neta calls them. That could represent anywhere from 10 to 20 days of fishing, depending on how torrid the bites are. And it takes a little less than an hour to fill each tub, when you have to separate eggs and cut netting. Five to six hours of labor for 2 weeks of fishing?  Fair dinkum.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a couple more tubs to fill.

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