The Great Steelhead Debate: Jigs Or Beads?

Photos by Tony Ensalaco

 

The following appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY TONY ENSALACO 

This country is being torn apart, and it appears that our differences won’t be resolved anytime soon. 

No, this isn’t about politics. Both sides of the aisle have been acting like stubborn, immature siblings who are fighting over the last scoop of ice cream, and I want no part of that toxic dialogue. The subject I’m referring to hits closer to my home and is much more relevant for the readers of Alaska Sporting Journal. It’s the long-running debate about what’s the best bait to use for spring steelhead: jigs or beads. 

This has become a hot topic among river rats lately, a debate that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be resolved anytime soon. I recently sat through a heated discussion between two hardcore metalheaders who saw eye to eye on just about everything that has to do with the sport – until this particular question came up. That is when the camaraderie went south and the gloves came off. 

One of the guys who happened to be a huge jig fanatic swore up and down that a properly presented jig dangled beneath a bobber was the perfect weapon to entice an Alaskan steelhead. 

The other dude was a devout bead junkie and stringently professed his loyalty to those tiny round devices. He wanted no part of the opposing testimony of the jig fan. It was fun listening to how passionately they defended their choices, and they were even more adamant about not giving in to the either’s opinion. 

Of course, bar stools and an abundance of libations were mixed into the fray, which didn’t affect the validity of the conversation. But it did make the verbal sparring quite fascinating throughout the bout.

 

There was a period of time when a plastic single egg or a yarn fly secured to a tiny hook were author Tony Ensalaco’s “go to” baits of choice. After three decades things really haven’t changed. I pretied my leaders and used them in low water or heavy fishing pressure,” he says. (TONY ENSALACO)

IT’S NOT UNUSUAL FOR anglers to become overprotective about their personal preferences. It’s also a fair bet to assume that beads and jigs account for the majority of steelhead landed by gear anglers throughout the Last Frontier, and there is no denying that either of them can be deadly at any given time. 

The bead guy made a compelling argument that salmon eggs make up a large part of a juvenile steelhead’s diet while they are still living in their parent streams, and they will spend months gorging on them before heading out to sea. 

When the fish return as adults, they will recognize something that resembles an egg, which automatically triggers a learned feeding response. 

Then, it was the jig man’s turn to chime in. He claimed that since steelhead feed on squid, crustaceans and small fish in the saltwater, the most effective presentation would have to be a jig. He attributed the jig’s success to the undulating action created by the marabou body, which mimics food found in their ocean diet. 

Steelhead will actively feed up to the time they enter the streams, and it would make sense for them to continue attacking something that they have been recently foraging on. 

When the clash ceased to make progress, they looked to see what I had to say.

And that is when I purposely chose diplomacy by replying that both of them made convincing arguments and had interesting theories on why those baits are so effective. I added something about each method having its place in a steelheader’s arsenal, and neither of them should be fished exclusively or be overlooked. 

That wasn’t quite the answer that either one was looking for and I knew that, but I also realized that ambiguity was the best way to step away from a conversation between two mooned-up steelheaders who had just completed 12-hour shifts on the river.

Besides, whatever I came up with would have been long forgotten by the time they woke up, bleary-eyed with pounding headaches, unfortunate derivatives from their inevitable hangovers. I also knew that if I shared my thoughts, it would have prolonged the conversation until last call, and I wasn’t really looking to start a two-front war with either one of them.

    

Ensalaco fighting one of the many Alaska chromers he’s hooked on jigs along the opposite bank holding under the shadows of the trees. (TONY ENSALACO)

TRUTH BE TOLD: I’M always apprehensive about expressing my opinions when the subject of adult steelhead feeding in freshwater comes up. There are a lot of fishermen who believe the fish will continue to feed once they have entered a river. But from my experience, I haven’t found that to be true. 

I have performed countless makeshift autopsies on hatchery steelhead that were taken home for the grill or the smoker and haven’t found any definitive evidence that steelhead feed in streams. 

Can it, or does it happen from time to time? Probably, but I don’t believe they enter a river with that intention, as much as they are instinctual creatures that will bite something that happens to float past them. 

I have found an occasional egg or two in the stomach of steelhead, but that was a rarity, even when the river was teeming with spawning salmon. I’ve also found bits of twigs and leaves, along with unidentified river gunk, which tells me they’re picking up whatever that comes at them. 

Besides that, on several occasions I have observed steelhead holding along a current seam that appeared to be mouthing and rejecting various debris that drifted past, telling me that it’s their way of defending their space. The fact of the matter is that we will never know the true reason why a steelhead hits a bait until we find a way to communicate with animals. The most important takeaway is knowing how to get fish to bite and not be too concerned about why they do it. 

When re-examining that night at the bar, I don’t know if anyone was trying to imply that spring steelhead actively feed once they enter the streams, as much as they believe a steelhead will hit something because it resembles a past food source. My perspective is that although steelhead have no intellectual abilities, they are certainly territorial and will instinctively respond to objects that approaches them. 

It doesn’t matter if an offering appears to be an exact facsimile of something found in a stream or happens to look like it has been fabricated by a flamboyant circus clown. Steelhead respond to various presentations because they are predators.

There is nothing in the wild that resembles an erratically vibrating plug, yet a steelhead will often pulverize the lure if it comes within 10 feet of the fish. Why? Because it instinctively knows that it has to protect its space. Anglers call that a reaction bite and it’s possible to trigger a response from a fish even when you present something that looks nothing like anything found in nature. That example seems to prove that steelhead will react to or ignore different presentations because they are territorial, and not because it was a past food source.

One of the many piles of jigs the author tied in preparation for his April spring steelhead trip to Alaska. These are some of his favorite color schemes. (TONY ENSALACO)

 

SO, WHICH BAIT DESERVES the top honors in the aforementioned debate? I can say without hesitation that it depends. I’m sorry about the evasiveness, but I have to analyze the conditions before I can determine what I’m going to use. 

I will consider several factors, such as how long the fish have been in the river (stage of the run), fishing pressure, water clarity, current speed and the depth of the holding water. All of these things influence my decision about what I attach to the business end of my leader.

What I can tell you is that I have been using some sort of egg imitation since I started pursuing salmonids back in the early 1980s with fantastic results, and I don’t think it’s ever a mistake to try faux eggs in any condition. 

There was a period of time when a plastic single egg or a yarn fly secured to a tiny hook were my “go-to” baits of choice whenever I wasn’t able to get my hands on the real thing. I have always fished them with complete confidence. I would use an imitation almost exclusively, even on rivers that didn’t enforce a bait ban. A lot of the guys around me were using fresh eggs, but their catch rate didn’t seem to be significantly higher or lower than mine, so there was no reason for me to change my style.

Fast forward 30-some years and now beads are the “glamour bait” in the steelheading community, which doesn’t surprise me. They’re inexpensive, simple to use, and most importantly, they’re super effective. You can fish them under a plethora of conditions and remain confident that you are fishing at a high level. 

What I like about beads is that they can persuade a neutral or negative fish into hitting, which can be a difficult task when the fish have been in the river for a while or there is heavy fishing pressure on the stream. There are days late in the season when small beads and light tackle are the only way to get a response.

Beads are also hard to beat when fishing in clear, shallow water, especially when you can see the fish holding in front of you. Beads are the perfect size to get a steelie’s attention, but subtle enough so they will not spook the fish. 

Another productive way to present a bead is to remove the bobber, add some weight to the mainline and roll them along the bottom. This allows you to change and control the route the bead is traveling downstream, which can help entice a finicky steelhead to bite.

If there are any disadvantages to bead fishing, the most obvious one would be that beads might not be the best choice in off-colored water due to their small size. When the river is running high and dirty, you will be better off using a bait that has a large profile, or better yet, something that creates some flash and gives off a vibration, such as spinners or spoons.

Besides the problem with the visibility issue, beads aren’t very intimidating to a steelhead in heavier current flows. Oftentimes, a steelhead will ignore an offering and/or move out of its way if it doesn’t appear to be threatening. 

If you insist on drifting beads in excessive river flows, then I recommend trying to compensate for the poor visibility by using fluorescent, supersized beads that could help increase your chances of a hook-up. But in my opinion, there are better options when faced with high-water conditions.

  So, it sounds like I’m a dedicated bead disciple, right? Wrong. I’m a hardcore jig man. I love fishing painted lead and colored feathers whenever I can, but I didn’t initially embrace the jig revolution the first time I tried the method. It took some time.  

An Alaskan steelie taken on a bead. So we can probably say you can catch fish via both beads and jigs. And as veteran angler Ensalaco writes, this represents “A debate that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be resolved anytime soon.” (TONY ENSALACO)

I WAS INTRODUCED TO jigs by a well-known guide on the Skykomish River, near Seattle, Washington, back when the method was just starting to gain momentum. My guide anchored the driftboat over an uninviting, slow-water side pool, and he handed me a long spinning rod rigged up with a bobber and some sort of pink, fluffy concoction attached to the end of my line. 

He instructed me to let the rig float downstream until I lost sight of the bobber – then do it again and again. The time it took to finish a drift could have been measured in minutes, which doesn’t really hold the attention of someone who suffers from ADHD, like myself. 

The guide didn’t fully grasp the concept at the time and thought jigs were only used in slow currents because of the expanding and contracting motion of the marabou. After going fishless for about 20 minutes, I wasn’t all that impressed by the new sensation, so I asked him if we could scrap the plan and go back to plugging. In the guide’s defense, he admitted that he’d just started experimenting with jigs and hadn’t figured out all the nuances.   

 It wouldn’t be until several years later that jig fishing became a regular fit into my steelheading regimen. I learned how effective the technique could be while I was fishing with my buddy Danny Kozlow on a less-than-average week of steelheading on Alaska’s Situk River about a dozen years ago. 

The spring run was late that year because the river’s water temperature was averaging in the low to mid-30s during the week we were there. Due to the frigid water temps, there was only a trickle of fresh steelies that were willing to leave the saltwater and ascend the stream. 

The fall-run holdovers hadn’t flushed back downstream out of Situk Lake and the few ocean fish in were bright. Despite the icy water, they were more than willing to play if you happened to find them. We did have some sporadic action, but unfortunately, there weren’t very many fish congregated in any one area. 

Danny elected to use a bobber and jig, while I chose to stick with a traditional drift-fishing presentation. I would start at the top of the run and systematically work my way downstream, making several repeated casts through the holding water. It would take me several minutes to thoroughly cover a run. 

Meanwhile, Danny would position himself in the middle of the run and cast as far as he could upstream and let the bobber float to the end of the drift. It only took Danny a handful of casts to cover the water. 

Because he was fishing quickly and efficiently, Danny was able to pick off most of the cooperative steelhead before I got the chance to get my bait in front of the fish. That experience (ass kicking) taught me that a bobber and jig set-up was the perfect tool to search for active fish, and that I needed to re-examine the jig phenomenon if I wanted to keep up with the times. 

Since then, I have implemented a jig strategy whenever there is a recent push of fish in the system, and I am sure that the change in tactics has improved my fishing. It’s no secret that when an ocean-run rainbow first enters a tributary and becomes acclimated to the freshwater, it will be at its physical best. There is a definite advantage to tossing jigs. 

DON’T GET ME WRONG: A chromed-out steelie that is fresh in from the salt will attack almost anything. However, I prefer to use jigs when the fish are super aggressive. A brightly colored marabou jig with pulsating action seems to challenge the fish to attack.

I also dig the larger and stronger hooks found on most steelhead jigs because they increase my landing percentage. These new arrivals haven’t been subjected to fishing pressure and they’re definitely not line shy, which means you can get away with using heavier equipment. 

I enjoy putting the “screws” to a steelhead from all of the years I spent fishing the log-infested tributaries of the Great Lakes. It’s reassuring to know that I can lean back a little harder when I am fighting a hot fish. Bead fishing is more of a delicate presentation, which normally requires lighter line and smaller hooks that matches the size of the bead. 

That’s fine if the river is wide open and void of snags or if the steelhead have been in the stream for a long period of time and they are not at their physical best. Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible to land large fish on light tackle. Noodle rod enthusiasts have been proving that for decades. 

However, a good fisherman knows that the odds of landing a steelhead are usually stacked against him, so it makes sense to use stout equipment whenever you can to help balance the playing field.

Another scenario when a bobber and jig might be the best option is when you are fishing from a moving boat and you’re targeting pocket water, the small, relatively shallow areas around or behind rocks, logs, or other obstructions where fish will often rest. 

When you pitch a jig into these places, the weight of the lead head will straighten out the line and pull the jig down into the fish zone. Your jig will be fishing shortly after it enters the water. That’s important when you are floating downstream and you might only get one chance to place a precise cast into the pocket water. 

Unfortunately, the reason why a jig works well at times can also be a disadvantage in certain situations. I’m talking about fishing in water about 2 feet or less. The difference between jigs and beads is where the weight is located. The weight of a jig is attached to the body of the bait, while a bead rig is weighed down by a sinker – usually a split shot – that is secured several inches above the bead. 

If an angler misjudges the depth of the holding water and has too much line between the jig and the bobber, the jig will dredge the streambed and won’t be very desirable to a steelhead. I have seen steelhead dig a jig out of the gravel, but I wouldn’t recommend fishing that way. 

A bobber and bead combination have more room for error. If you run a bead rig too deep, the bead will still drift downstream below the weight while still continuing to fish. 

There are times when I am bead fishing and I will purposely hold the bobber back in the current by creating tension on my mainline. This causes the bead to drift in front (downstream) of the bobber instead of letting it suspend directly underneath of the float. 

Fly anglers who use indicators have been practicing this technique for years while sight fishing for fish in shallow water. This trick works great when the steelhead are holding in water that can be measured in inches, and there isn’t enough depth to fish the rig the way God intended it to be used.

THESE ARE SOME OF the things that I have discovered from my past piscatorial experiences in the 49th state. I strongly recommend cataloging some of these ideas in your steelheading archives under the title “Loose Guidelines to Follow” section. 

None of these concepts are written in stone anywhere; just ask any veteran steelheader. He will most likely tell you that there is an exception to every rule, and to fish whatever way that gives you the most confidence, which is probably the best advice an angler can receive. 

One other thing: Remember the two guys I mentioned at the beginning of the story who were arguing at the bar? Well, I saw one of them on the river the next morning. He appeared to be a little slower than usual, probably due to the residual effects from all of the escapades of the previous night. 

I am not going to say which one, but as soon as he caught up to me, he looked over his shoulder and whispered, “Dude, don’t tell ‘so and so,’ but do you have any extra __? I never carry the stuff.” 

What can I say? Steelheaders can be opinionated, but they certainly listen to one another! ASJ

 

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