After months of fish flesh and unfertilized salmon eggs floating down-stream, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that flesh and eggs should be the “meat and potatoes” of your fly box during October and November. For as aggressive as steelhead are, they can also be quite picky. In my experiences, I have found that most dark leech patterns, large nymphs, and flesh flies work well from day to day. Dead drifting or bottom bouncing any of these can produce an intense strike where setting the hook is done by the fish, not you.
Since its conception on the world famous Kenai River, bead fishing has become a deadly alternative to glow bugs and egg-sucking leeches. During the fall months, trout beads have helped anglers across Alaska to land monstrous Dolly Varden, rainbows, and steelhead. This is the time of year that I blow the dust off the bead box and give my flies a rest.
First, we need to set up our bead, peg and hook – a simple process that is easily mastered. Typically 10-12 lb. test does fine; keep your leader long, at least 10 to 13 feet. Slide your bead on the leader and fasten your hook to the end with your own trustworthy knot.
Trout beads come in many colors and sizes. You may want to experiment with some to find the right color, but in my book you can never go wrong with pink or orange. The size of the bead should vary only between 8 and 10 mm. – they both work equally well. The hook you use is very important. It must be sticky and razor sharp, and for me that means Gamakatsu – C14S Glo-Bug in sizes 4-8, to be specific.
Now, you don’t want the bead on the eye of the hook or it will cover the point, barb and gap. To solve this problem, you’ll need a round toothpick. Slide the bead up from the hook two inches and press the tip of the toothpick into the hole and break it off clean with the surface of the bead. Repeat on the opposite side and your rig is done. The purpose is for the fish to inhale your bead, and when the hook is set, it imbeds into the meaty flesh of the outside corner of the mouth.
This great method ensures a solid hook set without the chance of your prize fish being hooked deep in the throat or tender gills.
If there is one thing I have learned in my 25 years of drifting nymphs for trout in Colorado, it is that using the proper amount of weight for the water conditions is just as important as matching the hatch. If you are not getting your edibles down to the bottom where the fish are, your opportunities of success will dwindle greatly. Fishing beads in Alaska is no different. In a natural setting, salmon eggs are very dense and drop surprisingly quickly to the moss-laden rocks and gravel. Fish are quite fond of picking food off the bottom where the current, camouflage, and aerodynamics are in their favor. Steelhead will always stay within inches of the river bottom, so remember to check your lead regularly.
Ready to fish, I stand in the river and gauge the average flow, depth, and current in front of me and use the far riverbank as my 12 o’clock. I decide how much lead it takes to hit bottom by casting to my 11 o’clock upriver, tapping bottom at 12 to 1 o’clock and swinging it off the bottom near 1 to 2 o’clock. Most strikes will occur from your 12 to 2 when your slack tightens and your set-up comes off the bottom. If you have too much lead you will snag or have to pull it along, which would take away from its natural drift. If there’s not enough weight, you’ll float the offering right over the top of the fish. Either way, a small BB’s worth of weight could be the difference between a tired casting arm and a tired catching arm.
Work the runs well and hit all the water in front of you, then simply take a few steps downstream and repeat. Before long you just might be holding that Alaskan steelhead of a lifetime.