Cold War Connections: Russian Spoons
January 17, 2014
Ask anglers from across the Ice Belt if they've fished with beaded spoons (Russian spoons) and you are in for some head scratching. Russian spoons and their precursors, "Russian hooks," have been fished in Michigan for over 100 years, but they're still news to most anglers outside the Saginaw Bay area, birthplace of the "hard bead." Exceptions are Lake St. Clair, Michigan, and Lake Simcoe, Ontario, where hard bead baits fishing is standard fare for catching loads of big perch, especially during early- and late-ice periods.
Most of the rest of the country has never heard of beaded spoons, Russian Spoons; so knowledge of the lures and techniques for fishing them is still underground, kind of like the history of the hard bead itself, a collection of occasionally conflicting first-person accounts fraught with intrigue, recalled by operatives once caught in ice fishing's "cold war." The cold-war connection is on target because Saginaw Bay anglers reverse-engineered the Russian hooks — ice fishing's equivalent of recovered MiG fighter aircraft — reminiscent of a Robert Ludlum thriller.
Mother (Russia)of Invention
"When I was young, the Russians weren't open about how they caught perch," Bob Bachelder says. Bachelder is a Saginaw Bay angler, garage lure-maker, and a veteran of the auto industry. "They wore big bearskin coats so you couldn't see how many fish they were catching near Bayport and on Waterfowl Bay."
Yet Bachelder eventually learned how to make and fish the lures from that tight-lipped cadre. Some time in the early 1960s, he strapped a stranded Russian angler to his snow machine and was subsequently initiated into their circle of trust. He learned how to pull giant perch from shallow water without the use of livebait, almost unheard of at the time.
"It was ingenious," he says. "They attached a two-inch piece of piano wire at the top of their pocket-watch spoons to prevent pike bite-offs and they'd run that to a small length of line attached to a handmade willow rod. They'd jig the lure, letting it flutter down. As soon as they had a strike they dragged the fish up and out on a taut line, never even touching it, since the hook on the lure was barbless. And all without bait. They filled a sled with perch pretty quickly."
Bachelder says Russian hooks were the genesis of today's beaded spoon. "Even before I met the Russians, locals were copying their baits, although most kept their copycat baits a secret, too. The first of these beaded spoons I saw were called 'Jack's Hooks,' which probably go back to the 1920s. I made my own, based on the lures the Russians gave me, out of whatever metal I could find."
Don Lewenberger, a 78-year-old Saginaw, Michigan, resident and former tournament angler, also created his own "Russian Hooks." "I made my hard beads out of the thin metal used in drain pipe. One side was shiny, the other dull. I'd cut a shape out with tin snips, file it down, and kink it with pliers to create the back-and-forth flutter action. Solder on a hook, file down the barb, add a bead, and you were good to go."
Many anglers still make their own beaded spoons. And the majority of what's available are the product of garage manufacturers, many of whom are more concerned with designing lures that catch fish than making money. Most aren't available online; instead, they're relegated to pegboards in select tackle shops adjacent to Michigan's finest perch waters, places like Frank's Great Outdoors in Linwood, Michigan.
Hard Beads Today
Professional angler Joe Balog has spent thousands of hours fishing beaded spoons of all shapes and sizes. He says the reason they work so well is they mimic wounded forage with their flash, flutter, and wobble, and working them correctly can activate large schools of perch into biting. "I carry two main spoon colors at all times," he says. "In clear water I like a silver blade with a red bead. In dirtier water I primarily use gold, but also use silver at times, with either a fluorescent yellow or chartreuse bead. Purple can be a champion bead color, too."
But his recent favor for purple is reliant on the old-school practice of examining stomach contents at the fish-cleaning station, in this case of big Lake St. Clair perch. "Depending on where you are on Lake St. Clair — and the time of year — perch are feeding on gobies or young-of-the-year sunfish and rock bass. All these forage types can have a purplish hue to them. The combination of a gold spoon and purple bead can be hard to beat — it resembles a lot of different forage." But if perch are feeding on shiners, typically over expansive sandy flats, he opts for a silver spoon with a red bead.
Ernie Plant, a resident fishing authority in Linwood, Michigan, has been making and fishing hard beads since the early 1970s, and agrees with their forage-matching potential, but adds that profile and action also are a big part of solving the big-perch puzzle. "Anybody who fishes a beaded spoon is fishing some variation of a lift-fall cadence punctuated with a series of quivers or solitary shakes once the lure falls back into place," he says. "Depending on the size and shape of the spoon, lure action varies dramatically."
In many ways, it's like choosing any lure for its rate of fall — whether it's a jig, soft plastic, or spoon. Different weights, shapes, and sizes are going to behave differently, and at times produce different results.
Plant: "There are teardrop beaded spoons that are fatter on top and narrower on the bottom; zig-zag willow designs that are bent out at opposing 45-degrees top and bottom; narrow spoons; stainless-steel hard beads like Slab Grabbers; Magnums for deep water — and the list goes on. Each has its own action and application."
But no matter the color or shape of a bead spoon, they must be put into play with specific techniques. Balog likens fishing a hard bead to fishing a fluke softbait in open water. "You want to fish them on a slack line to get the most flutter and wobble on the up-stroke, but keep your line taut following the wobble and flutter down. A taut line is even more important after the strike, because a bead reduces the hook gap. You're penetrating the fish's mouth with just the hook point, which often doesn't slide past the barb. Any slack line and the fish is gone."
Balog usually fishes them with short, quick hops near the bottom, which kicks the spoon out horizontally before it falls back. "I drop the spoon to the bottom and pick it up 4 inches, let it sit, drop and repeat," he says. "A hard bead like an oval- or willow-shaped Ken's Spoon flutters even on a short fall. Then, as soon as it stops and the line goes straight, that's when you get bit."
If he discovers the fish he's catching are small he drops the bait all the way to bottom, brings it up 4 inches and twitches and holds two times. If he doesn't get a strike he brings it all the way up to the bottom of the ice. Working the spoon there often draws strikes from the biggest perch in the vicinity.
Other times he reaches for a beaded spoon design like Ken's Skinny Mini, one of the longest and narrowest hard beads made. "There are times when big perch won't hit anything that doesn't have a big horizontal swing," he says. "That's when I turn to the long, slender hard beads. Some of them kick off to the side of the hole several feet when you snap the rod tip aggressively. It's deadly when fishing is tough."
Typically, Balog hole hops, never spending more than a few minutes in a spot if he's not catching fish, emphasizing that the most important drop is your first. And where the water's clear enough, like on Lake St. Clair, he recommends studying hard-bead action by using a flip-over shelter and sight-fishing in shallow water. Or in deeper or more turbid waters he uses a shelter and an underwater camera, specifically the Aqua-Vu Micro AV with the newly introduced Looking Glass app, which enhances, sharpens and crystallizes video in real-time for fishing applications. Deploy the Aqua-Vu Micro WiFi, open a window on your iPhone, and watch waters instantly clear.
"Sometimes you see fish but just can't get them to move. Other times a hole dies down after you catch a few. That's when I lift my hard bead 2 to 3 feet off the bottom and jig quickly a couple of times — often this fires the fish back up," he says.
And firing the fish up is precisely what Balog says beaded spoons do so much better than other lures. "From a group of few fish to hundreds, beaded spoons can activate schools like no other lure I've fished. Small fish are the first to rush in, which excites the entire school. The beauty of it is that bigger spoons and beads are hard for runts to inhale, which draws the attention of the bigger 'home run' perch. And even if they do inhale it, smaller fish often spit it out and a big perch rushes in to pick off the regurgitation."
It's the imperative of a larger fish to snatch up a smaller fish's missed meal that makes hard beads just as (if not more) effective as livebait. It's why Balog insists that hard beads allow him to filter through large numbers of smaller fish, targeting the largest perch in a school.
The essentials of hard-bead fishing for perch include a medium-length ice rod, light monofilament, and a handful of tiny snaps. Balog: "After a lot of trial and error — and watching lure behavior under water — I like a rod with a spongy tip like the 32-inch Frabill QuickTip. If a rod's too stiff it's difficult for the fish to inhale the bead."
He also likes the red dot strike indicator included on the QuickTip, which clues him to the bite when fish bite tentatively. And he uses a Frabill Straight Line fly-reel style reel, which allows him to cup the reel in his hand to work the hard beads more effectively. When hole hopping in water from 2 to 6 feet deep, he switches to the line-through-blank Frabill Jiggler combo designed for shallow-water plucking.
"I fish high-vis mono for better bite detection and discernment in low light," he says. "Three-pound Sufix Ice Magic with the orange tint is just right. I can see it and it's strong enough to slide fish out of the hole without breaking — and I've yet to notice fish shying from it."
Lastly, Balog emphasizes the use of a snap to promote proper bait action. He buys the smallest snap swivels he can find, snips off the swivel portion, using only the snap.
Walleyes & More
Far from the home water of Lake St. Clair, Balog has proved the efficacy of beaded spoons for filtering through small panfish, allowing him to pluck the largest, most aggressive bluegills in the vicinity. And, just this past winter, the technique proved effective as I fished the back lakes of Ontario's Sunset Country with Kenora-area guides Dave Bennett and Dean Howard, as we pursued shallow-water crappies. Many of the 12- to 15-inch crappies were tentative feeders when offered livebait or soft plastics but hit hard beads with zeal.
Although beaded spoons have had little application beyond Great Lakes perch, the aggressive meatless technique has potential for big bluegills, crappies, trout, and splake across the Ice Belt. Especially on waters that receive a lot of pressure, the unique fluttering action of hard-beads should be another tool for your arsenal. And while hard beads have become synonymous with shallow waters, underwater footage proves that they excite fish no matter the depth, begging for more experimentation well past the 15-foot mark.
Perhaps the greatest potential for hard beads lies in their use for walleyes. Saginaw Bay charter captain Joe Raymer has taken his hard-bead arsenal to waters outside Michigan, fishing Minnesota's Mille Lacs and Devils Lake, North Dakota. "I got some squirrely looks fishing them at Devils Lake," he says. Yet, while fishing with ice pro Jason Mitchell, he says big silver spoons with a red bead, like those from Mark's Custom Tackle and McGathy's, proved a deadly way to catch walleyes on the Great Plains.
Upping his standard perch rig to a 36-inch St. Croix medium-fast-action ice rod and spinning reel loaded with 6-pound Vicious Fluoro, he says the technique often out-produced those around him fishing livebait. "At Devils Lake, the best approach was puffing bottom and then lifting the rod tip 3 feet or so and shaking it aggressively so the spoon would swim far off to the side of the hole," he says. "That attracted fish which would hit almost as soon as the spoon was paused and drifted back below the hole."
Meanwhile, Mark Kulaszewski, the man behind the Marysville, Michigan-based Mark's Custom Tackle, agrees that hard beads have potential on walleye waters across the country. "There have been many situations on both Lake St. Clair and Saginaw Bay when I've caught walleyes with the same lures and jigging technique that we use for perch. Their side-to-side wobble and flutter back to center on the fall mimics baitfish and likely triggers some deep-seated part of the fish brain to respond."
Kulaszewski also says that hard beads allow walleye anglers to fish quickly and effectively as they move from hole to hole, searching out active biters, especially over shallow breaks with adjacent deep water. First, with their wide horizontal flutter, hard beads allow anglers to cover more real estate at each location. Second, finishes like his silver-plated 1.5-inch Silver Streak can be seen from farther by already visually acute walleyes. "Nickel, brass, and especially zinc have less reflective potential than silver," he says. For deeper waters he opts for the slightly heavier 8-mm, rather than 6-mm bead. His go-to bead color is Blood Red, with opaque chartreuse or purple a close second.
Kulaszewski also recommends the Triple Bend for walleyes, a hard bead with an aggressively bent body shape, like a reverse-cupped Mark's Custom Willow. "The Triple Bend moves in a distinct 'walk the dog' pattern when it returns back to center," he says. "I free-spool the spoon to the bottom, lift up 3 to 4 inches, and make it walk the dog back down. Then shake it as you move the rod tip up 4 to 6 inches and stop. On the pause, the bait rocks on its back with the bead out horizontally as it falls."
Former Professional Walleye Trail champion and Ice Fishing School instructor Mark Martin is another angler excited about hard beads. "Last year I caught a lot of walleyes in 15 feet of water or less during the evening on our daytime perch spots. Walleyes would move in toward dark and we found we didn't need to change tactics. We went from catching perch on Ken's Spoons to walleyes. It was just a matter of timing in the same locations."
Martin found that walleyes preferred less furtive jigging movements than those that typically trigger perch. Often he caught walleyes by dead-sticking hard beads. "A lot of anglers work hard beads so aggressively you'd think they're going to yank their arms off," he says. "Often I just let water current do much of the work. These spoons are light enough that just a bit of current makes them wobble and flutter. On camera, it looks like the flickering of an emerald shiner. Good as they are in still water, they should really shine for river walleyes."
I also sought the council of In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange, who has used hard beads in several areas of North America over the years. "I fished with the late Paul Grahl, the man who started HT Enterprises, over the years," he says. "HT has always had a hard bead spoon in their inventory, and it was Paul's favorite perch lure. Of course, we caught walleyes incidental to the perch everywhere we fished.
"I'm no expert on the use of hard beads, or Russian Spoons, but I can speak to the broader picture within which they fit. They fall into a class of spoons that makes them a potential hot option for walleyes. We've long talked about classifying lures into categories to give anglers a better handle on what to use on the water. I divide spoons into two fundamental categories: slab spoons, like the classic Acme Kastmaster, which typically fish precisely, falling quickly vertically back into place after they've been jigged; and horizontal spoons, one of the most well known being the Custom Jigs and Spins Slender Spoon. Spoons in this category fish more erratically and turn on their side as they fall, fluttering and shimmering."
Stange emphasizes that while most anglers have slab spoons of many types in their arsenals, not many anglers carry the horizontal spoons — and even fewer have several different types. Besides the Slender Spoon, one of his favorites from recent years is a light flutter spoon, the Williams Nipigon, which he modifies by removing the standard treble hook, adding a #1 Stringease Fastach Clip and 4X-strong #6 Lazer Sharp L774 treble. The Fastach clip allows the treble hook, which he tips with a minnow head, to pivot more easily into a walleye's mouth. He says the heavier-duty hook has points that never roll on a vertical hook-set, especially when fishing in shallow water or with no-stretch line. He says it's the combination of the springy lighter hook as it rolls off the roof of a walleye's mouth on the hook-set as the fish's head is lifted and it opens its mouth that causes missed fish.
Stange: "Watch the hard beads in a tank and you immediately see that they fall into the horizontal spoon category, with most of them lying absolutely flat and shimmering and shaking as they fall, flat on their side. This category of spoons is overlooked for the most part. I wrote last year about the cycle time of lures. Slab spoons cycle quickly; horizontal spoons do the opposite. It's a matter of speed control as well as action. The horizontal spoons don't just cycle more slowly, they also give off more flash and vibration. Anglers should quickly see that they need both spoon categories in their bag.
"With the hard beads, I'd like to see some of the spoons made without beads, so we can add our own soft options, which would allow hooking fish better in many instances. Walleyes and some of the other predators fight harder than perch, so without having the hook penetrate past the barb, it's more difficult to land fish. I use pliers to break off the hard bead, adding Berkley Gulp! and PowerBait Salmon Eggs to the spoons."
Based on that observation, I'd toss into the mix that other Great Lakes anglers also replace the hard beads with a Pautzche's salmon egg. Another option should be the recently introduced Northland Tackle Perch Eye, which has a highly reflective "Attractor Pupil" and is offered in four colors, including my favorite, glow white.
The realm of horizontal spoons, including beaded spoons, is waiting for most anglers to discover. It's a world of elevated fish-catching potential, not just for perch and walleyes, but for other species as well — all the way from Russia with love.
*Jim Edlund, Battle Lake, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler and freelance writer. This is his first contribution to In-Fisherman.