A Trout Fisherman's Guide to Beads
By Gary Lewis
"You shoulda been here last week. The river was full of silvers. You could have walked across on 'em."
The old-timer went on to say there weren't a lot of salmon around this week, but he expected another big push in a few more days. "We're in a bit of a lull right now."
Same old story. We pushed up the little stream and at one corner where the tea-colored water was too deep, my daughter Jennifer elected to stay behind. Her rod was rigged with beads and feathers and split shot to get the craft-store setup down on the bottom.
I'd already cast a fly in that spot. Nothing. I continued on upstream and when I returned an hour later, she told me the story. She drifted her rig through the tailout several times then a fish grabbed it. Five minutes later, she landed a Dolly Varden she said was 19 inches long.
That did it, we made adjustments and minutes later Dad caught his first rainbow of the trip on a bead and a bugger.
The hardest thing for the first-time Alaska trout angler to figure out is that the tactics that work in the Lower 48 are not all that effective in the Great Land. Yes, Alaskan rainbows will take a dry fly, but not when the sockeye are on the spawning beds.
By late July, the first of the sockeye begin to claim their redds in the upper reaches of the river and lake systems. And when the females put their eggs in the gravel, hungry rainbows take their stations downstream. Through most of the spring and early summer they have made a living on insects and minnows, now begins a cycle of spawning activity that will continue through October.
For the next four months, the trout grow from lean to leviathan, their proportions distort as they feast on the bounty that precedes the long, cold winter.
There's no better way to match the food source than to drift beads. Because of the simplicity of the rigging and the size of the offering, this tactic may be employed by fly-fishermen as well as anglers equipped with spinning gear.
A Spawn Simulation System
It is at once, a simple concept and a complex puzzle. Fishing beads are sized from 4mm to 14mm and come in hundreds of color combinations and patterns.
On our last run on the Kenai in September, we spent the afternoon with Taylor Thorp, the owner of Kenai River Charters. We had two hours to fish the big water and I took the opportunity to quiz Thorp on Kenai bead basics.
"It all starts to happen about the third week of July behind the second run of sockeye," Thorp said. That's when the trout pull in behind the salmon and begin to feed on spawn in earnest.
Salmon are gravel spawners and the eggs that don’t make it into the rocks tumble down with the current, close to the bottom where they get vacuumed up by everything with gills. "The biggest trick with the beads is the size of the bead and once you figure out what they're eating, stick with that size and color," Thorp said.
It pays to bring a selection of beads of various sizes and hues. Try to figure out what fish are on the spawning beds then drill down on the right size and color. Pink salmon roe is orange, while steelhead eggs are likely to be reddish orange and sockeye spawn will have a ruby or pinkish hue.
"I like to use a 6mm to 8mm bead when the sockeye are spawning, a lot of times in a ruby red or an orange pearl," Thorp said.
Things get a little more complicated when there are pink salmon, sockeyes, kings, silvers and chums in the river.
"It really turns on in September. The serious fishermen come then because you have the kings spawning and the sockeye spawning at the same time."
Thorp recommends a 10mm to 12mm bead when fishing behind the kings. "I look for kings to spawn starting about August 17," he said.
A color change might be necessary when moving from one spot to another, based on what fish are spawning where. "Sometimes you can see the fish," Thorp said. "The kings usually are in deeper water, while the sockeyes are shallower."
Thorp thinks of the spawning season in terms of fresh eggs and dead, or spent spawn that has lost its color. After the spawn has been in the gravel, the eggs change color. That’s why in mid-September, a yellow-brown, milked-out white or pearl bead might out-produce the milky-orange bead that worked at the end of August.
A Traveling Craft Store
Think of the bead box as a traveling craft store. At a minimum, trout guides rely on at least one 7-inch by 10.5-inch box with 18 compartments holding various color/size combinations. That would be where the similarities end and where the magic begins.
Some favor plastic beads, using nail polish and hobby paints to apply their favorite finishes. They like the neutral drift the plastic gives them while others favor a heavier art bead. Of more importance though is the depth of the finish, the liveliness of the painted bead contrasted to the plastic bead. The painted bead is subtle, reflects light differently than production plastic. And perhaps more important than how it looks is the time and confidence that the angler has invested. If he or she believes it will catch fish, it will catch fish.
Now where does a fisherman start? What color to try first?
After making a decision based on time of year and fish on the spawning beds, it pays to follow these rules.
Use a darker bead when fishing longer runs. In pocket water and when the river is murky, go brighter. A darker bead is a better bet too in tannin-stained creeks. In clear water, lighter colors pay off. If the bottom is dark, use a more subtle color. If the bottom is light, use a light color.
Trout look for spawn on the bottom and are hugging the gravel to be in line for the groceries. If the beads don't touch down from time to time they are not fishing. Bead anglers can use a lot of different ways to get beads down. A common method is to employ a drift-fishing technique with pencil lead or split shot bounced along the bottom. Beads are knotted, friction-fit with peg bands or toothpicked to the line.
To simulate skein and milt, use a tool to pull white or apricot-colored marabou through the bead. For flash, add a little tinsel.
A bead looks different in the open air than it does beneath the surface. Under various conditions, the eggs change color. Before pegging a bead on the line, plunge it in and see how the light catches the bead in the water.
To fix the bead in place, use a toothpick and break it off, slide the bead over a bobber stop knot, or use rubber "peg bands." Where to peg the bead?
On the Kenai, the rule is two inches. Why is this important? A bead set too far away is likely to result in an outside-the-mouth set, which is considered snagging.
Ten-foot, 7-weight fly rods are the standard. The most favored fly-fishing rig consists of a floating line on a 10-foot tapered leader. Loop a Thingamabobber strike indicator to the butt section of the leader. Pinch on two or three small split shot then slide the bead up over the tippet. Using a blood knot, tie on a No. 4-6 egg hook two inches from the hook. Because of the cumbersome nature of the setup, roll casts are used a lot more than the overhead cast.
Look for fairly straight classic drifts. Watch for water that is neither too fast or too slow, but moves at about the speed of a fast walk.
Many guides prefer a nine-foot spinning rod and a reel that can hold about 160 yards of eight to twelve-pound test main line. Hi-visibility lines are good to give the boat operator a quick sight reference. For leader, use 48 inches of six- to ten-pound clear mono or fluorocarbon, knotted to a No. 4 single hook. In clear water, step down a size to a No. 6.
In the weight box, keep up to five different lengths of pre-cut hollow core pencil leads. Or tie up with a sliding snap swivel on your main line and connect it to a pre-tied ‘slinky’ weight.
Use just enough weight that your pencil lead or slinky ticks the bottom every two or three seconds.
In a jet boat, set up to drift downriver stern first, with the bow slightly angled into the run. At the head of the slot, start the kicker before shutting down the big motor. The rearmost angler (often the boat operator) should make the first cast. As soon as that line touches the water, the next angler should cast. Both anglers will reel up any slack. If their tackle is matched, there should be no tangles.
Using the kicker, make slight adjustments in forward and reverse to keep the lines taut and the baits fishing in line. Make sure that the anglers keep their rod tips up at a 45-degree angle.
Other ways to employ the bead include in fly patterns (think Egg-Sucking Leech) and in front of Woolly Buggers. Another sneaky play is to run a bead dropper off a marabou jig. Tie the leader to the bend of the hook. Another option is to peg the bead in front of a steelhead crankbait to simulate a baitfish chasing an egg.
One of the great things about Alaska's coastal trout fishery is an angler can bank on it. Unlike the salmon runs that pulse up the rivers, the rainbows and cutthroats and Dolly Varden can be counted on to be there, day after day. Locate the spawning salmon and find the trout right behind them.
You can pretty much count on an old-timer being there too. If he's got something to say, he's a salmon fisherman. If he keeps his mouth shut, try to get a look inside his trout bead box. He's hiding something.
A weather system can blow out a river for a few days, but there are always rainbows somewhere, stacked behind the spawners. And they will take a bead.
To contact Gary Lewis, visit www.garylewisoutdoors.com
Species, Spectrum and Spawn
Fish eggs Color Timing
Cutthroat trout eggs yellow Spring
Rainbow trout eggs red-orange to orange Spring
Lake trout eggs yellow Fall
Dolly Varden eggs yellow-brown Fall
Whitefish eggs yellow to peach February to March
Sockeye salmon eggs red to pink August
Coho salmon eggs red to orange October to November
Chinook salmon eggs red/pink to orange September to November
Pink salmon eggs orange to light orange September
Chum salmon eggs red orange to pale pink August to September
Bead to Hook to Fish
Bead Hook Fish
14mm No. 1/0-2 Salmon/steelhead
12mm No. 2-4 Salmon/steelhead/trout
10mm No. 4-6 Steelhead/trout
8mm No. 6-8 Steelhead/trout
6mm No. 10-12 Low water steelhead/trout
4mm No. 12 Trout
Best Bets for Beads
Beads can be found at craft stores and specialty stores that cater to the costume jewelry trade, but the best information and trickiest patterns are available from suppliers that are fishermen first and businessmen second. Here are some on-line resources for trout beads.
Alaska Fly Fishing Goods
Kenai River Red Lodge
Kenai River Charters
Chet's Fishing Guide Service
Let's Fish Guide Service