My introduction to the effectiveness of using spawn sacs—clusters of eggs tied into a neat, little packages with mesh cloth—for steelhead came in very dramatic and impressive fashion.
I was in Northern British Columbia fishing a small stream my pal Justin Gyger, then co-owner of West Coast Fishing Adventures. We had been doing well fishing egg clusters under floats but had recently run out of bait. In a MacGyver-like move, Judgy found a jar of Pautzke’s Balls O’ Fire in his vest, some netting and thread and then proceeded to whip up several berries before I even really understood what was going on. I was impressed with his improvisational skills, but I had my doubts about how effective it would be…
Well, not too many minutes later, his float gets sucked under and a steelhead the size of a chinook is suddenly cartwheeling all over the pool. Nothing like twenty-something pounds of angry steelhead to make you a believer in a hurry!
Proof positive that spawn sacs work!
Well, since that watershed moment, I have become a firm believer in spawn sacs—for both steelhead and salmon. It’s not like I’ve made some great revelation, however…our Great Lakes brethren are ardent supporters of spawn bags and have been using ‘em for decades. For some reason, though, the West Coast hasn’t been as hip to the berry…but that seems to slowly be changing.
There are some significant pros to fishing your bait inside a protective bag of mesh! First off, and this is a biggie: You’re going to get more fishing time. Spawn bags extend the life of your bait. You can’t rip them off with a flubbed cast or jerk ‘em off on the hookset like you would a regular cluster (a huge benefit for guides and anybody else who fishes with less experienced folks) and your eggs remain intact longer. That means you’re going to spend less time re-baiting. And the simple math looks like this: fewer minutes a day spent baiting up means more time in the water and that, well, you know where that leads…
When side-drifting eggs in the early fall for steelhead on the Klamath River, there are days when we might encounter 50 to 100 halfpounders in the 15- to 18-inch range per trip.
The little buggers are like piranhas and will devour any and all baits that get within 15 feet of them. Drop into a spot that has a bunch of them around and it’s hard to have any bait left for the adult fish to key in on. When I used to fish straight skein bait, we’d sometimes blow through 8 to 10 baits per drift. Time consuming…and expensive from a bait supply standpoint! But here again is where spawn sacs come really in handy!
On a similar note, berries are sometimes the only way you can fish bait when a bunch of smolts are around or the squawfish are extra hungry.
You can store spawn sacs in Borax or liquid brine. Either way, they keep well and, most importantly: They catch fish!
I’ve also used spawn bags when my bait supply was dangerously low—like it was at the beginning of California’s epic 2011 salmon season. I was down to the bottom of the barrel last August when the fish showed up because we’d had three consecutive closed seasons in the years leading up to it. With tons of jack-sized chinook around gobbling up boonedogged eggs, I quickly calculated that my supply was going to last about a day and a half if I didn’t take action. So, I cut all my red bait into bite-sized chunks and made spawn sacs, which greatly extended the life of my supply—long enough, in fact, to get back to a nice fresh freezer full.
Another check in the “pros” box is the fact that you can use spawn bags really in any way you’d run straight eggs—under floats, on drift gear, back-bounced, etc. In other words there’s no disadvantage to fishing roe this way.
Okay, so you can argue that the main downside to spawn sacs is that the process of making berries can be time consuming. Before guide trips, I may spend an hour tying up enough bait for the next day’s action, but I’d still rather spend the time on dry land getting my baits dialed, so time on the water is maximized. In the end, I still feel I come out ahead.
All you need to make up a bunch of spawn balls is some netting—available in pre-cut squares or rolls at most tackle shops. I prefer the 3-inch size in pink, red or orange, but color really doesn’t seem to make a ton of difference out West. To tie the bags up, buy a roll of Magic Thread and then make sure you have a sharp pair of scissors handy.
The Spawnee Bait Tying Machine can help you pump out a bunch of spawn bags in a hurry.
Now, place a thumbnail-sized cluster of eggs in the center of a small square of netting and then pull the netting tight and twist it a couple times in your hand. Wrap the top with 4 to 6 turns of Magic Thread (it sticks to itself and doesn’t require a knot) and then trim everything nice and tight so all you end up with is a tight little bag of eggs. Just don’t go so tight that you squish the eggs!
You can make bags by hand or try the Spawnee Bait Tying Machine from Atlas Mike’s (available for about $20 at www.atlasmikes.com).
What’s also cool about spawn bags is you add “meal enhancers” to your baits. Drop a piece of coon shrimp or crawdad tail in with your eggs for a nice steelhead combo meal. When making larger bags for salmon fishing, you can add stuff like a sardine chunk and/or a piece of prawn. Maybe some tuna, perhaps? The possibilities are endless! You can also drop a few small puffballs into the bags to give them buoyancy for drift fishing applications.
And then there’s scent…a liberal squirt of your favorite juice into a spawn bag can also enhance its effectiveness.
Spawn bags are also super easy to store and will keep well for a long time. After you make up a bunch of baits, you can put them into Mason Jars or Tupperware containers and then cover everything with Borax. They’ll last in the fridge for several months this way and in the freezer for a couple years.
You can also put the baits in jars (sans Borax) and fill them to the brim with a brine solution like Brite & Tight (also available from Atlas Mikes), which is a bottle-based cure that preserves, scents and dyes your eggs. It’s super easy—just drop your baits in the solution, seal your containers and put ‘em in the fridge until you are ready to fish. They keep great for months on end this way in the refrigerator.
- written by JD Richey