Originally Featured in Salmon Trout Steelheader issue: May, 2014
The mystery of what lies beneath the surface intrigues me…always has.
As anglers, we have our theories and hypotheses (and wild-ass guesses) of what our gear is doing and how the fish react to it…but there is so much that goes on down there that we are still in the dark about.
While guiding on the Togiak River in Alaska, we had low, clear water and tons of jacks around…a perfect scenario for me to play around with some underwater photography and try to get some answers.
My goal was to see how salmon actually attack an egg cluster.
In my impromptu study, I found that they generally approach and eat the bait swiftly like the voracious predators they are in the ocean—quite different from a fish that’s supposedly not eating once in freshwater!
These images were all shot with an old, original GoPro so the resolution isn’t the best but I think they are compelling enough to show to you anyway. I have since upgraded my camera arsenal so the next round should be way better.
The chinook were particularly aggressive when there were other fish around.
From an angling standpoint, I can see how this kind of competition between fish can be a huge benefit to those of us above the surface with a rod in our hands!
In this case, there were a bunch of hungry dollies hanging around so there was a sense of urgency to get to the bait before the other fish.
Mikey likes it! I know fish can’t write but this big white cloud of egg “smoke” is akin to a 5-Star restaurant review.
This fish smashed headlong into the eggs and ripped them violently off the hook.
Then, once the bait was in his mouth, he seemed to mellow out and chewed slowly, enjoying every gooey bite. He kept chomping and blowing white trails out of his gills until the cluster was gone. So much for the whole “they pick up the eggs to put them back in the nest” theory!
When shooting, I clipped the point off the hook…I was much more interested in how the fish reacted to the bait than seeing what they would do when hooked.
Most of the time, I also ran a pink and white yarn ball on the hook so that I could see how the fish would respond to it once the eggs were all eaten off.
Despite the fact that the yarn surely had egg scent on it, there was a distinct difference in how the kings approached it.
As I said, they often attacked the roe with gusto…but it was a different story with the yarn. Yes, several fish bit the yarnie but the majority of them ended up rejecting it at the last second.
Of the many bites I captured on camera, there were very, very few fish that didn’t gobble down the eggs.
A fish here and there spit it out and I wonder how much that had to do with the taste of the eggs—or the fact that the camera was in very close proximity to the bait.
I know jacks are widely regarded as “egg eaters,” but I still can’t help but think that salmon simply like to eat—even when their biological clocks tell them to quit.
Must be hard for the poor buggers—they spend 3 or 4 years out at sea (or parts of two seasons for the jacks) as eating machines and then have to go cold turkey when they hit freshwater.
From what I saw, I guess you can say some of them just “fell off the wagon” and went back to eating.
On that note, we filleted some halibut at the lodge one morning and tossed the carcasses into the river. That evening, one of our guides cleaned a big adult chinook caught well above the lodge that had a strip of halibut skin in its belly!
One really interesting thing I noticed many times while watching kings underwater was the fact that it wasn’t always the fish I could see on camera that bit. Often, there’d be one or more fish coming up to inspect the egg cluster and then, out of nowhere, a king would come rocketing into the frame and swoop up the bait.
That’s exactly what happened here…it’s funny you can almost see the look of confusion and disbelief on the other fish’s face.
“Where the heck did that guy come from?”
I suppose that goes back to the whole competition concept I talked about earlier. Fish seem to get less reluctant to strike when they feel that somebody else is going to steal their snack. Those are the ones I want around when my bait’s in the water!
The kings typically came in at an angle to hit the bait. I imagine this has to do with the fact that their eyes are set back from the snout…it’s probably harder for them to see stuff that is straight out in front of their noses.
Of course, that got me to thinking about other stuff we throw at them. I always imagined that the color of the tail of a plug like a FlatFish was the main thing salmon keyed in on, but when you think about them coming in from more of a side angle, perhaps we need to spend more time considering what color the flanks of our plugs are.
Or maybe I’m overthinking it.
Well, maybe I can answer that question with my next round of pix!
- written by Scott Haugen
Visit https://www.scotthaugen.com/ to learn more about Scott.
GREAT PHOTOS AND ARTICLE. NOT MUCH OF AN EGG PITCHER BUT VERY INFORMATIVE.. I DO USE THEM AT TIDE WATER..SCOTT HAUGEN KNOWS HIS BUSINESS. LOVE S.T.S.
Great article. My understanding, from watching more scientific shows on salmon reproduction, is that they are eating eggs that are floating loosely down a river because they understand that those eggs will not hatch/survive so they provide the salmon with the nutrition needed to complete their run/spawn. They do not “steal” eggs off of beds from other salmon. Your description of the hard initial bite and then relative calm “chewing” of the eggs makes perfect sense given what I see my bobber do, especially in calm/slack water.