Pre-season Primer: EGGING TROUT 101
Five years ago, my daughters and I had one of our most memorable trips to the Kenai River. Besides catching a TON of salmon from the boat, they really enjoyed bank fishing for trout.
Like so many young people, their first experience with trout involved salmon eggs for bait.
The problem with using salmon eggs to catch wild trout is that the hooking mortality can be obscene. I've devised a very fish friendly technique for "egging" trout in flowing water that virtually eliminates the risk of a mortal hooking wound. This article was first published in Salmon Trout Steelheader back in June 2007, but with trout season right around the corner, the time is right to re-visit the issue. In the interest of conservation and better stewardship of a precious wild resource, I'll share the entire text here along with a few photos.
EGGING TROUT 101
A tranquil August evening was disrupted by the splashing antics of yet another Kenai River salmon going absolutely berserk. I paused mid-drift looking upriver 20 yards to check out the first “sockeye” hooked by a small group of flippers in the last 45 minutes. As I returned to the business of drifting eggs for trout below them, I overheard somebody exclaim, “My God, look at the size of that rainbow!”
“That thing is huge! You sure it’s not a red salmon?”
“No way, it’s a rainbow… just look at all those spots.”
My curiosity acutely piqued, I immediately scrambled upriver to check out just exactly what the excitement was all about. Sure enough, it was indeed a giant rainbow, and not an ounce lighter than nine pounds. The salmon-sized behemoth was flawless, not a mark on it; fins perfect and both maxillary plates intact, a rarity among the river’s large veteran trout. But there was something drastically wrong with this fish. It just laid there in the shallows nearly lifeless, its typically vivid colors ghastly faded to an anemic gray-white. As it gasped and convulsed in its final death spasms, one of the hopeful on-lookers remarked, “He’s moving, he’s gonna make it.”
Sadly, all the wishful thinking in the world would not breathe new life into the freshly exsanguinated trout. It had been hooked not by one of the guys flipping flies for reds, but instead by another angler pitching cured salmon eggs for trout. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the river’s trout and char suffer a similar fate every season in the middle and lower stretches of the Kenai, victims of anglers using salmon eggs for bait, not knowing just how lethal the results can be. Whether incidentally hooked by anglers targeting salmon, or purposely hooked by those seeking trout, the result is the same… an unacceptably high incidence of deep-hooking when fishing salmon eggs, all too frequently injuring the gills and ultimately resulting in lots of mortal bleeders.
Now before you put the magazine down in disgust about yet another anti-bait rant to vilify the egg-slinging masses, hear me out. This article is NOT about banning bait on the Kenai. It’s about fishing eggs more responsibly whenever their use is allowed by regulation. Read on!
The Kenai’s rainbows and dollies are shameless gluttons for fresh salmon eggs. In July, August, and September, aggressive trout carelessly suck them down without hesitation in their haste to load up fat stores for the long winter. If those eggs are attached to a hook point, odds are very high that the fish will be hooked in the gills, the gill rakers, or the base of the tongue. A hook point violating any of these vital areas will cause profuse, deadly blood loss. Anecdotally, this occurs at least 50% of the time for anglers purposely targeting trout with eggs.
I’ve come up with an innovative way to bring that kill rate WAY down. The key to fishing eggs without the associated mortality is to rig up your terminal gear so there is no hook point attached to the eggs. In other words, you must NOT bait the hook!
Egg-slingers need only borrow a tactic straight out of the fly-fisherman’s playbook… well, at least those fly-fishers that aren’t averse to pegging beads. The key is “pegging” your eggs some distance away from the actual hook itself. As the eggs drift downriver, a trout picks them up, and gets “flossed” in the process of trying to swallow the bait. The river’s current forces the leader into the corner of the jaw on both sides. Even when the trout shakes its head with mouth agape, it is unable to free itself of the monofilament Fu Man Chu dangling downriver from each maxillary plate. The fish spooks, turns sideways and flees toward the main current. The angler feels the fish chewing on the bait and shaking its head. Then as the fish turns broadside to the current, the rod loads up with the weight of the fish. A quick hookset, and it’s fish on!
Now let’s talk about the actual rigging. Tie a size 6 or 8 octopus style hook in standard fashion. Note that this hook will NOT be used to hold any bait. The pegging is accomplished with a second hook tied 2 ½ to 3 inches above the first with a standard egg-loop to retain the bait. The rig is finished by breaking off the point on the top hook and pinching the barb on the trailer hook. VOILA!
The leader can be attached via a 2-way swivel or double uni-knotted to 6-pound mainline. A few split shot can then be pinched on for weight, just enough to tick bottom through the presentation. A bottom-bouncing technique is employed with an extended-drift presentation accomplished by reeling backward with a spinning reel as the bait drifts downriver from your position. The same thing can be achieved with a baitcaster in freespool. Cast quartering upriver into a likely slot. Keep the rod tip high to minimize the amount of line lying on the water. Gather slack line as the offering drifts downriver toward your position, maintaining contact with the bottom. When the offering is directly across from you, pay out additional line to keep it drifting downriver in a straight-line slot, again maintaining contact with the bottom. If additional line isn’t paid out, the offering will start to swing in toward the bank out of the slot. A downstream swing presentation is undesirable for rainbows, but you’ll still get plenty of Dolly bites.
The other alternative to achieving a drag-free extended drift is to employ a float (AKA strike indicator). A float presentation works best with 20- to 30-pound gel-spun braid as mainline. Employing a float makes it very easy for a beginner to detect a bite, especially when they are having difficulty maintaining contact with the bottom using a standard drift presentation.
The key to making the system work is to let the trout eat. Do not jerk at the first nibble against the rod-tip or twitch of the float. Wait for the rod to load up or the float to go completely under. Immediately reel down to the water to further tighten the line, then lift up with a firm but controlled hookset. This seems counter-intuitive, especially when the goal is to prevent deep-hooking the fish. A premature hookset will result in either a miss or a snag. Let the fish commit to the bait. Once it has its lips firmly around your eggs (as evidenced by feeling the weight of the head shake or seeing the float go under), the fish has been effectively flossed. A quick hookset will cause the hook to penetrate the maxillary plate or the lip from the outside in.
I’ve found that the float will produce equal numbers of bites as bottom-bouncing, but the mechanics of the vertical presentation makes it a bit more difficult to actually hook them. Be prepared for more than a few misses even when the float goes all the way down. Tailor the approach based on the skill level of the angler. If the angler is able to master the art of maintaining good contact with the bottom using the bare minimum of added weight, the bottom-bouncing technique is far superior because the horizontal presentation better lends itself to “flossing” the fish.
At this point, I have almost certainly raised the ire of a few readers that this technique is somehow less than sporting, since technically the fish is being “snagged” from the outside in at the actual moment of penetration, rather than being hooked from within the mouth in traditional fashion. In the technique’s defense, I must stress that it only targets fish that are willful biters… they are not maliciously “force-fed” as is done with classic flossing/snagging techniques. More importantly, this method results in a non-lethal hookup over 99% of the time, even when the fish is given maximum opportunity to swallow the bait. When Kenai regulations require the release of all trout over 18 inches in length (and yes, there are plenty of them), the standard bait-on-the-hook rigging will kill far too many fish that are not even legal to keep. The method I have described is arguably the most responsible way to fish bait on the river, and in terms of diminished hooking mortality, I would confidently put it right up against fly-only regulations.
One final tip… carry a de-hooking device when trout fishing. Leave the pliers and hemostats at home. They are practically worthless once you have witnessed for yourself just how elegant and efficient a de-hooker is in comparison. It is bar none the best tool for achieving a no-touch release technique that will leave the trout’s mouthparts entirely intact. You don’t have to fish the Kenai for very long to realize just how badly a trout’s mouth can be permanently disfigured by a careless or sloppy release. You can thumb through the pages of past issues of this magazine and find plenty of rainbows missing their maxillary plate from having it jerked out with a pair of pliers or hemostats. Hopefully, widespread use of the de-hooker will one day make that a thing of the past.
A de-hooker can be cheaply fashioned from a short length of dowel and a small hook-screw. Best of all, it floats if you drop it in the water. To release a fish, hook your leader with the de-hooker in your dominant hand and slide it down to the hook in the trout’s jaw. Grasp the leader with your non-dominant hand and pull your hands apart to create enough tension to firmly engage the hook. Now simply pull down with the leader while pulling up on the de-hooker, and voila, the fish will fall off the hook instantaneously.
During our last Kenai fishing vacation, my daughters and I conservatively released upwards of 240 Dollies and rainbows over a two week span. Not one fish suffered a mortal hooking wound. NONE! While I would never proclaim that I’ve never deep-hooked a trout using this method, I will emphasize that it is an exceedingly rare event. Bottom line is that it’s just a better and more responsible way to use bait on the river. The next time you decide to target trout with bait on the Kenai River (or any other stream where bait is legal to use) , consider giving this technique a try. You will not be disappointed…. and neither will the fish.
"Let every angler who loves to fish think what it would mean to him to find the fish were gone."
The KeenEye MD
Originally Posted by Dr.No
Thanks Doc, Much better than just cutting line and leaving the hook like so many do. This almost makes me want to fish bait.
Originally Posted by power drifter
I say you need to give it a try.
Nothing like a big 'bow hammering away at your goods while waiting ever so patiently for that rod to finally load up. And you can do so virtually without fear of deep-hooking that fish.
Mortal hooking wounds with bait.... kiss 'em goodbye!
"Let every angler who loves to fish think what it would mean to him to find the fish were gone."
The KeenEye MD
Good post Doc. Fishing Kings is a blast for me but got to get the little ones on to more manageable and willing fish. Will try this.