Streamlined silver powerpacks line up at feeding stations. In fall, their food, conveyed by current, are the eggs of kings and cohos—millions of free-drifting protein pills that fail to lodge in redds.
Feeding steelhead expect eggs to be squishy and soft, not hard as glass, which calls into question the recent bead-fishing craze. Hard-plastic beads should be rejected right away, say the purveyors of soft beads. Before manufacturers of hard beads for steelhead get in a tizzy, let's be clear: A hard bead fished under a float can't be easily rejected because the float keeps the line tight once submerged. And they manage to hook steel even when bounced on bottom. Having banked many steelies with hard-bead systems, far be it from me to cast aspersions. But texture isn't the only compelling reason to consider soft beads at times.
Loren Dunbar, vice president of Hevi-Beads, fishes with and sells both hard and soft egg imitations. "Our new Super Soft Beads are neutrally buoyant, behaving like real eggs in current," Dunbar says. "Bounce one on the sidewalk and it pops up 20 inches, so they bump naturally off rocks and snags. Super Soft Beads are twice as soft as any bead on the market yet far more durable. You can peg them by wrapping the leader around and through a soft egg twice. When you set the hook, most available soft beads get cut in half. A Super Soft Bead is so stretchy, it's merely squeezed and not sliced by the line. You can loop them several times and keep catching fish."
Hevi-Beads also introduced soft Clusters. Like the Super Softs, Clusters have a hole through the middle, making it easier to thread them on and peg them to a leader with Bandz, which are little rubber strips that run through the bead. You can make a loop and add yarn or other attractors as well. "Clusters look faceted, like air bubbles all around a big egg," Dunbar says. "We have 5 colors right now, but a whopping 44 colors combined for Light and Hevi-Beads with more in the works." Some UV and Glow versions too, in sizes 6, 8, 10, and 12mm so far.
Until recently, Hevi-Beads primary product was a weighted bead. "I started bead-fishing and loved it," Dunbar says. "I used a weighted stonefly to get the bead down. When we first experimented with heavy glass/ceramic beads, I noticed I wasn't using flies anymore because I was catching more fish on the bead. Some anglers use split shot, but Hevi-Beads mean less weight and stress on the leader. The natural drift under a float is more vertical—there's no lag time in seeing the strike, which results in more hook-ups. The Hevi-Bead is your final weight, like a jig. If you don't know how deep the run is, the float tells you, as the bead ticks bottom. You can adjust and know exactly how far off bottom the bead is at all times."
XFactor Tackle owner Jeff Warner used to make Jensen Eggs for Luhr Jensen. "Luhr Jensen was sold and the egg production went to China," Warner says. "But I'd learned all I needed to know about making soft beads. There was not as much variety in bead-fishing as we have today. In a market exploding with options, what sets us apart are polymers designed for absorption, super softness, buoyancy, and durability. We don't put holes in our eggs, so they have to be threaded on and held above the hook with a float stop.
XFactor Soft Beads come in several flavors, including shrimp, garlic, and salmon roe, and in four sizes (8, 10, 12, and 14mm). Egg Clusters come in mini, medium, and large sizes. Both Soft Beads and Clusters are available in a rainbow of colors with steelie appeal. XFactor supplies tiny discs to support eggs above their neoprene stops for added durability.
Brandon Wedam, co-owner of BnR Tackle with brother Ryan, has been making beads for six years. "When the bead system caught on, the market became flooded," Wedam says. "In 2014, we switched from hard plastic to Soft Beads with a hole." BnR offers 12 colors in an sizes 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, and a 20mm that doubles as a ping-pong ball. "I thought 14mm was ridiculous," he admits, "but anglers kept demanding bigger ones."
Manufacturers of soft beads say steelhead won't spit a squishy, chewy bead. "We're avid anglers and noticed right away that steelhead spit out a hard bead faster," Wedam says. "Bead fishing has become more popular and our Soft Beads have three major advantages: First is feel—steelhead are used to squashing real eggs so they hold on with the float down and won't let go. The second advantage is neutral buoyancy. Most beads sink or float, but real eggs are mostly neutral so we use polymers that match natural buoyancy in the water. The third advantage is being able to change beads without cutting the line when you rig with our mono bobber stop.
"Our clear bobber stops are stealthy. We tailor Soft Bead colors to match spawn from different species—colors you find in the river when sampling eggs from the bottom." BnR supplies clear bobber stops and sleeves to hold the bead above the hook with easy-to-follow rigging diagrams on the package.
Randy Bales, owner of Lured Beads and Guide Service, created a hybrid—a hard bead with a soft exterior. "I figured out how to put a UV soft cover on a hard bead," Bales says. "I call it the Incognito. It gives off a 3D UV reflection that can be seen in all water conditions. Our hard beads are pure acrylic—machined round for perfect balance and natural buoyancy. They lift and drop at the same rate as a real egg. Incognitos sit on a bobber stop and won't pull through like soft beads. They provide the fishability of a hard bead and the feel and movement of a natural egg. Fish chew on them and won't let go—like a soft bead—but with the durability of a hard one. They're quiet when ticking rocks, like the real thing, with high-tech UV visibility."
Some Lured patterns include an "eyed" or embryo effect. Bales also makes what he calls Old School Soft Beads. "My soft beads have a hole to run your line through," he says. "Old Schools have no holes. There are several rigging methods for each style of Lured bead, described on our company website.
Steelhead Stalkers Premium Tackle zeroes in on the importance of UV, offering 10 colors in their UV Steelhead Beads series. Colors are unique and mostly natural, including shades like Steelhead Amber, Peach, and Dead Egg. Each is available in two or three levels of transparency—transparent, mottled, or opaque—to match color to the stage of the season for each species of salmon. "This is the ultimate steelhead bead system," says owner Chad Wilson. "We use high-quality, ultra-clear plastic and transparent multi-dimensional pigments to create the most realistic patterns on the market. Each kit comes with ten 12mm beads or fifteen 10mm beads, and ten to fifteen 3mm transparent glass beads (orange or dark red) to imitate an embryo in real fish eggs. We slide the little glass beads on, loop them onto the leader, then slide the hook through the loop 10 times to create an extremely strong knot on the bead. Then we thread the UV Steelhead Bead onto the leader and down over the glass bead, creating an eyed egg that won't slide down."
Wilson describes several other methods for rigging his beads, each creating the eyed-egg effect with the smaller hard bead. "More videos of rigging and other tips are coming soon on our website," he promises. "Our goal is to design, manufacture, and sell the highest quality fishing tackle for steelhead, salmon, and trout anglers around the country. Our soft beads are trusted by some of the best guides and fishing experts in the industry to put fish in the boat or on the bank."
ClearDrift Fishing Floats offers several soft eggs and rigging systems, including a standard Soft Bead and Embryo Soft Beads in six sizes from 6.25 to 14mm. Embryos have a dot on the side of some eye-grabbing clear and translucent hues, like Candy Apple pink with an orange, embryonic dot. UV is added to "bring out the brightest color." ClearDrift Soft Eggs and Embryos are designed to be threaded on with a needle and held above the hook with a transparent bobber stop. The process is quick and easy when the hook is tied to the leader before sliding the stop and bead down from above, then tying to a swivel.
Another "hybrid" of sorts, Lazy Larry's EZ Systems Trout Beads have a slot instead of a hole. These are hard beads that can be easily slipped on and off a leader without cutting off the hook and retying, using EZ Pegs. EZPegs, offered in six UV and clear colors, create an eyed effect inside the bead. The almost limitless possibilities of mixing and matching those six colors with the 124 patterns of Lazy Larry's matte, mottled, glow, UV, and "lake" beads might give you a headache, but speaks to a point I've been making for many years: Steelhead are picky about egg color. Small changes in hue can make a huge difference.
Hard beads, soft beads. Bait, plastics. Spinners, spoons. Flies, crankbaits, hair jigs, floats. Is steely fishing becoming too much like bass fishing? These pursuits seemed so simple once upon a time.
But the allure of fishing involves learning new things. For steelhead, texture and the passage of light through an egg is important. So your choices just might determine how productive the day is.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is a veteran steelhead angler who continually seeks the latest in tactics and techniques to catch them.