If you've ever been to a steelhead fishing seminar, you've probably heard a speaker mention "neutral buoyancy," a quality that most bead manufacturers attempt to shoot for with their products.
A common visual aid for this conversation is a glass of water with a bunch of beads in it swirled around to exhibit how they suspend in the motion of currents. Buoyancy is directly related to the vertical presentation of your bead in the water column.
Test the buoyancy of your beads by placing them a glass container and swirling them around.
Beads, whether used as an individual presentation or as components in your rigging can create a variety of presentations that fish differently for different applications.
The buoyancy of a bead can vary depending on the materials used in its construction. For instance, a glass bead will sink much faster than an acrylic bead. Even with the rise in popularity of soft plastics in bead fishing, the materials as well as the pours can vary from product to product, in some cases even in the individual bead.
A soft plastic bead with a dense plastic will sink faster than a supple plastic, or one with bubbles trapped during the process of pouring the plastic into the molds.
Scents can also contribute minor factors to the buoyancy as well.
While not all beads are created equal in terms of buoyancy, there are methods to equalize the qualities of those individual beads to create better presentations. Starting from the business end of your rigging, the hook plays almost as much of a role in the buoyancy of the bead as the bead does itself. An 8mm acrylic bead with a 1/0 hook not only detracts from it's visual appeal, but the hook is likely to weigh the bead down.
A small diameter bead not having much surface area and resistance in the current will leave your heavy hook dredging the bottom and making it more likely to snag something rather than being in the strike zone.
In terms of that strike zone, think about where an opportunistic fish would be most likely to feed. Eggs are the most nutritious food source available to anadramous fish while they're traveling upriver to spawn, but they're not exactly a substantial food source unless they're in abundance. Either way, a fish that sees a single egg floating towards it must make the decision whether or not to expend it's energy burning calories chasing after something a tenth the size of a skittle.
A roll of yarnies with a glass bead in the bait loop. A heavier bead will help the gear set during short drifts while fishing from the bank.
On the same note, a fish that is gorging itself on eggs in a spawning ground won't roll onto it's side to go for the eggs tumbling along the bottom, but might wait for one to hit the cobble below in just the right spot so that it bounces higher into the water column and almost boops the fish on the nose.
In order to imitate the specifics of that ideal forage egg, adaptations and adjustments are necessary to balance the weight of the hook to the buoyancy of the bead to fish near the bottom, but with space to float freely with the current.
This Situk River steelhead bit the exact same presentation twice, breaking off on the first strike, but came back for more. If it aint broke, don't fix it!
Hook weight can vary by size, style, and materials used in the construction which also varies depending on the manufacturer.
As an experiment, I put over 50 sizes, styles, and brand names of hooks on a postal scale, weighing each hook to the 0.01th of a gram to illustrate those differences. Even the same brands vary slightly from their nickel and red hooks in the same sizes simply because they're manufactured using different metals. Different styles of hooks vary in weight as well.
A sickle-style Gamakatsu Big River Bait hook has a more significant diameter wire than an Owner light wire mosquito hook. Even the profile of the Gamakatsu Glo-Bug hook makes it lighter than it's counterparts with the same materials in a different style.
Even with all the newest bead innovations available on the market, the classic hard plastic bead is still one of the most versatile and effective presentations for steelhead.
Line plays a role in buoyancy as well.
Most monofilament is fairly buoyant, while flourocarbon tends to sink. Line diameter also has the potential to effect the drift of a bead based on it's surface area and the resistance it creates. If you're tapering lines as components of your rigging, especially if you're combining both monofilament and flourocarbon, the tapers all have to work in harmony. Flourocarbon is typically only used for the leader, simply because it's nearly invisible underwater, and it's the most likely component of the taper to break if you hit a snag. The other components of your rigging such as swivels and weights control the buoyancy of your presentation as well. Micro swivels are great for low, clear water presentations, but aren't necessary for fishing higher water. Weight controls the presentation, but being able to adjust and adapt from spot to spot can be helpful.
Then of course there's the bead. As previously mentioned, the buoyancy of a bead varies depending on the materials it's constructed from, along with it's physical profile and resistance. As effective as a larger bead is at being seen in muddy water, it also carries more resistance, meaning that other components of your rigging such as line type and leader length, terminal tackle, weights and their placement all play a role in getting the bead into the strike zone. A heavier bead like a glass bead can help keep bait from getting blown out by the current, or help keep a wacky rigged worm under a float get down into the strike zone faster than a neutrally buoyant bead. On the same note, a floating bead can help keep a wacky rigged worm suspended off the bottom while drift fishing.
Experiment with enough different brands and styles of beads, and you'll begin to notice all of their subtle differences.
With all the sportfishing industry innovations coming from lure manufacturers in recent history, every new product fishes slightly different from the last one.
Taking the time to understand how all the components of your rigging function together can make a difference in how you fish beads that are more or less buoyant, making adjustments on the fly when trying to problem solve for different conditions and situations.
I'll admit that I'm a notorious overthinker, but being prepared with knowledge of everything from your line type to hook style and how it relates to buoyancy can sometimes make or break a trip.
Member Northwest Outdoor Writers Association