In recent years, when I bring up spawn sacs to some of the best guides and anglers I know, they simply respond with “shhhh.”
Spawn Sacs tied with scrap soft plastics for contrast.
Anglers in the Pacific Northwest have scoffed at the idea using spawn sacs for steelhead for a long time. “That’s a Great Lakes thing,” is usually what I hear when I bring this tactic into conversation.w The paradigm shift in employing this tactic has been on course for a while, and although making a spawn sac is fairly simple, the complexities of making a more effective spawn sac that fishes more efficiently is another completely different conversation.
To make a spawn sac, you’ll obviously need some eggs. If you’ve been salmon fishing the previous fall and have some jars of bait that are mostly used up with a few singles at the bottom, you can make the most of what you have and put them to use, but as we all know, fresh bait is best. Starting from scratch is the best way to create a curing recipe that will be most effective for your target species as well. Cures are formulated with different additives that appeal to salmon which do not always hold the same appeal to steelhead. If you don’t have eggs, there are a number of differ-ent eggs on the market that are cured and available in jars that are intended for trout. Keep in mind that a steelhead is essentially just an ocean run trout anyway, so these eggs are extremely effective, but not exactly the most cost-efficient method of tying spawn sacs.
A spawn sac fished with a contrasting color glass bead. The glass bead sinks and helps get the spawn sac down quickly to fish short runs in the current.
If you’re using your own eggs starting from scratch, you’ll first need to remove them from the skeins. Late winter hatchery steelhead hens are notorious for having loose eggs, and these make an excellent spawn sac. However, by the time you have some of those loosies in your possession, the season will nearly be over. Scraping fresh skeins on the tail end of an entire season of fishing giant globs of eggs for Chinook seems almost sacrilegious. The timing of that seasonal transition is one of the reasons many anglers in the Pacific northwest has such a difficult time wrapping their heads around scraping a fresh skein that could be kept intact.
There’s a few different ways to scrape the skeins. Gently scraping the eggs “loose” with a spoon is a fairly common and effective method, but can be time consuming if you’re doing a lot of skeins at once and making a lot of spawn sacs. Just like any other preparation for the field, this is the kind of project that you want to have done in advance, and if you’re doing it in advance, it’s better to prepare for having a little more than you might actually need rather than having to replenish your supply the night before you go fishing halfway through the season. A more efficient way to remove the eggs from the skeins is to gently rub the skeins against a tennis/badminton/etc. racket or some small mesh chicken wire over a container that can catch the eggs. You can separate the eggs from pre-cured skeins, but they will hold the cure better if you do this with fresh skeins.
A flat tupperware is ideal for catching the loose eggs and moving to the next step, adding cure. Pro-Cure’s Fuze Steelhead Blend or their classic Steelie Pink are great cures for loose eggs. A basic cure with these is to simply sprinkle a couple tablespoons of cure pure pound of roe, allow it to soak until it develops a little juice. Then gently shake, rattle, and roll the eggs until they’re all covered evenly in the juice. Let the eggs stand in this juice for an hour or so, periodically mixing everything gently to continue marinating the eggs evenly in the cure. Once the eggs have taken on the cure in this juicing process, you can place them in a fine mesh strainer or colander and allow them to drain for another hour or two. After you’ve strained the eggs, you can spread them onto wax paper and allow them to air dry for another few hours if you want to achieve a more firm, durable egg. There are a number of other tricks and secret ingredients for egg cures in Scott Haugen’s Egg Cures: Proven Recipes and Techniques from Amato Books that are also certainly worth reading if you want to dive deeper into that rabbit hole.
Author with a quick limit of hatchery steelhead caught on spawn sacs.
If you have the luxury of choosing what species of fish you want to use eggs in your spawn sacs from, there is some science to which eggs hold up better inside of the compression of the mesh in a spawn sac. This is where it gets nerdy. Research on the Fine structure of the external egg membrane of five species of Pacific salmon and steelhead trout by E. P. Groot and D. F. Alderdice at the Fisheries and Oceans Research Branch of the Fisheries Biological station in Nanaimo British Columbia shows the thickness of the external structure membrane of eggs from steelhead and the five salmon species measured in micrometers +/- a standard error as follows:
- pink 61.64 +/- 1.53
- chum 53.05 +/- 0.33
- chinook 50.82 +/- 0.74
- sockeye 34.15 +/- 0.15
- steelhead 30.74 +/- 0.11
- coho 27.96 +/- 0.48
The menibrane consists of a thin outermost layer, the externus, 0.2-0.3 picometer (pm) thick, and the internus, 24-55 pm thick, which constitutes the remainder of the membrane. In sockeye, pink, and chum salmon and steelhead trout, an additional layer 3-8 pm thick, the “subinternus,” occurs beneath the internus. The entire membrane appears fibrous except for the thin and apparently solid externus. Pores in both the inner and outer surfaces are arranged in a hexagonal pattern and are connected by pore canals traversing the membrane. Except in the sockeye. Plugs commonly were seen blocking the external openings of the pore canals. Significance of the egg membrane fine structure is considered in relation to several of its roles in the water-activated egg: semipermeability, retention of internal pressure, and mechanical protection.
With this knowledge, it’s necessary to understand that while a pink salmon might have extremely durable eggs, it might also not accept additives during the osmosis phase of curing the eggs as well as a coho. At the same time, while a sockeye egg may seem like a happy medium of those factors, it also doesn’t have the same porous design by nature of the other species. Given that most of us don’t have the luxury of choosing eggs from different species, all of this might be completely irrelevant to you, in which case choosing what to make your spawn sacs with using the eggs that do you have involves being a little creative.
Using Mad River’s Fish Pills and Atlas Mike’s Bait Sac Floaters will increase buoyancy and profile with contrasting colors. Berkeley and Eagle Claw make soft plastic floating eggs that serve the same purpose with the addition of adding scent. Thirsty Fishing beads can be added as a buoyant foam bead that can be marinated in scent as well. A piece of sponge could be cut and added to a spawn sac as an alternative buoyant, scent trailing addition to a spawn sac. All of these will function best as a drift-fishing, side-drifting, or bobber dogging presentation with a primary weight that keeps your presentation close to the bottom. Added buoyancy will prevent your spawn sac from snagging up as often, and keep it floating in the strike zone of sluggish fish. If you’re float fishing a spawn sac, buoyancy might not be the focus of your construction in your spawn sacs, but a lot of the characteristics of these products are still applicable.
A highly effective and cost efficient substitute for these products is to simply save your old soft plastics and re-use them in your spawn sacs. All of your worms, soft plastic beads, etc. work great as “filler” for your spawn sacs that will also enhance the color contrast schematics of your presentation. When a steelhead pulls the tail
off your worm or rips the worm down the shank of the jighead, save them in a separate bag for a later date and chunk them into pieces. The more colors you have in your palate to work with the better. A little chunk of black here, a little chunk of chartreuse there, just a dab of blue, toss it all in there with a dozen cured eggs and you’ve got a killer looking spawn sac that is going to set your presentation apart from others. Scented plastics like the classic Jensen Egg are great additions too.
A high water hatchery steelhead that hit a spawn sac fished in combination with a Hawken aero-drifter.
Beyond buoyancy, scent, and color, Pautzke’s Fireballs are a biodegradable soft plastic that expand almost like Orbeez toy water beads. They come soaked in various scents, but once they’ve been fished a bit, they absorb the water and expand your spawn sac to give it a fuller, more round shape (because nobody likes a droopy spawn sac). One more addition to your spawn sacs that can increase the longevity of scent is to tie in a short piece of yarn. Once you’ve filled the mesh with your eggs and other ingredients, you can fold together the corners against the yarn and twist so that where it’s tied off there’s an additional “blood-dot/hotspot” contrast pattern where scent can be applied. When you’re tying off spawn sacs, leave a little bit of space with your twists before adding magic thread. Once the thread is added, it will cinch down a lot of the extra space. If you twist the mesh too tightly, wrapping it with thread will cause some of the berries to burst.
Once you’ve constructed the perfect combination of cures and ingredients for your finished spawn sac and tied it off, you’ll need to store them properly. While they tend to fish fairly well on their own, adding liberal sprinkle of borax to your container before adding your finished spawn sacs will help keep them separated and hold in the scents and juices from the cure rather than them draining into the bottom of the container. Layer the bottom of the jar with borax, add a few spawn sacs, shake them up too, add another layer of borax and continue until you’ve got a full container.
When it’s time to pull them out of the container and fish them, keep in mind that if you push the hook directly through the spawn sac it will likely puncture a few of the berries and deflate the bag a little bit. Threading the hook through a small piece of soft plastic inside the spawn sac will help prevent it from puncturing any of the loose eggs inside. Spawn sacs are typically fished directly underneath the bend of the hook. It’s still possible to slide them up the shank and slip them into a bait loop, but this will often affect the shape of the bag or burst some of the berries under the added pressure. The bait buttons product is an effective tool for keeping spawn sacs higher up the hook shank without damaging the eggs inside.
Whether or not you plan to primarily fish spawn sacs throughout the day, they’re fairly simple to carry in a small container in a backpack or tacklebox as a backup plan when artificials aren’t cutting the mustard. Because they fish longer than cut chunks of roe, you don’t necessarily need to bring a giant quart jar of bait and instead can carry them in a very compact container that doesn’t take up a lot of space. They’re great for high water and low visibility situations, but they’ll fish well in a variety of conditions. One thing for certain is that if you incorporate spawn sacs into your arsenal of presentations, it’ll help you put more fish into the bag.
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