Steelhead season:?Time for spawn sacs

By: J.D. Richey Journal Outdoors Columnist
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Well, steelhead fishing is off to a rip-roaring start this year in Northern California! Our local creek, the American, has been producing nice numbers of winter steelhead to 12 pounds – numbers we have not seen in years! To the North, rain finally opened up the Mad, Smith and Chetco rivers and they have all been producing excellent numbers of winter steel. Regardless of the watershed, drifting eggs is very hard to beat for winter-run fish. The problem with this method is eggs are delicate bait and the constant casting, drifting in fast current and bouncing off rocks means your offering takes a beating. Depending on your cure and the water you’re fishing, a cluster of roe may last only one to three casts. What that means is you’re going to spend a lot of time re-baiting. And when you consider the fact that steelhead are often referred to as the “fish of a thousand casts,” time spent out of the water is time wasted. So, what’s the answer? Well, let’s borrow a page from our Great Lakes brethren. Back there, steelhead fishing is done mostly with “spawn sacs” — clusters of eggs held together in little balls with netting. I think the main reason they fish that way is because a lot of the fish they catch for some reason seem to be dark and have loose eggs instead of skeins in them. Since you can’t attach loose eggs with the traditional roe loop knot that so many West Coasters use, the Midwest steelheaders had to improvise. Enter the spawn sac or egg bag. Having your bait tied in a sac not only keeps you in the water longer by reducing the number of re-baits you have to do but it also extends the life of your eggs. A spawn sac routinely lasts 10 or more casts — which is a huge improvement. Additionally, you can flub your cast (forget to flip the bail, etc.) and not have your bait all fly off. And when there are squawfish or smolt around, they can’t peck all your bait off in short order. The downside to spawn bags is it takes some prep time the night before to get a bunch tied up and ready for action. I typically spend close to an hour an evening tying up bags for the next day’s fishing but I still end up saving time in the long run by not having to put fresh bait on every cast or two — which is really a plus when I have three or four clients on the boat. 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 make a ton of difference. To tie the bags up, buy a roll of Magic Thread and then make sure you have a sharp pair of scissors handy. Now, place a thumb-nail 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 As far as storage goes, I like to put my baits 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 Brite & Tight (also available from Atlas Mikes), 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. Try spawn sacs out this winter — you’ll instantly love how much more time you spend fishing! J.D. Richey is a 1986 Placer High graduate whose outdoors pieces have been published nationally. Find him online at