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Beadology 101

A Comprehensive Guide to Bead Selection for Alaska Rainbows

By Mike Lunde

         As Alaska’s mystique rivers flow along their continuous journey until encountering the deep ocean blue, an annual event triggered by the release of hormones and magnetite in the salmon’s brain spawns one of the greatest migrations witnessed in nature. Full of wisdom and strength, Pacific salmon use their ecological and environmental cues to migrate back to the headwaters of their embryonic origin to complete their reproductive quest. Along their migratory journey, multiple predators—brown bears, eagles, sea gulls, sea otters, and certain residential fish species—partake in the feast to acquire the energy-rich nutrition salmon accumulated in the saltwater. Amongst these predators, elusive rainbow trout use their tan upper backs as a form of camouflage to blend in with the substrate. Day by day, they wait patiently like a pack of underwater wolves eager and determined to slurp in the first series of salmon eggs that encounter the water. Based off the discovery of this important predatory-prey relationship, this is where the art and science of beadology comes into play for targeting Alaska’s giant rainbow trout. 

Why Eggs?

         In the world of salmonids, rainbow trout forage opportunistically throughout various stages of their life history. A primary determinant of a rainbow’s trout potential to maximize growth is the presence or absence of anadromous Pacific salmon in a stream ecosystem. Rainbow trout located in non-salmon ecosystems, particularly those distributed throughout the lower 48, forage highly on aquatic and terrestrial insects. Other prey items rainbow trout inhabiting non-salmon influenced streams include sculpins, darters, crayfish, and minnows. Based off this prey availability, it explains why rainbow trout are relatively smaller in size compared to their gargantuan cousins in Alaska. Thus, rainbow trout in Alaska exhibit potential to grow to 30-plus inches and obtain weights of 20-plus pounds. This is credited to the nutritional content found inside salmon eggs. Scientific studies have determined that salmon eggs in general are substantially larger and more nutritionally enriched compared to eggs from other freshwater non-salmonid fishes. As salmon runs increase in abundance, rainbow trout alternatively switch their foraging behavior from invertebrate insects or salmon smolts to salmon eggs. It is often characteristic of salmon to occasionally bump into structural elements on their upstream migration, which could potentially result in unfertilized eggs to be released from the female. This explains for the rainbow trout’s behavioral characteristic to hover just underneath the salmon or in close proximity without revealing its presence. Another advantageous situation rainbow trout partake in is holding in transitional habitat just downstream from salmon redds. Here, where salmon complete their spawning quest, many fertilized and unfertilized eggs fail to reach the crevices and porous space in between the substrate, thus resulting in their demise as they float helplessly downstream in the current. Hungry rainbow intelligently engage their pre-foraging positions in proximity to the spawning redds where they expend little or no energy to maintain position in the current to consume drifting eggs. 

Relationship to Bead Size

         With and endless variation of bead sizes and colors provided from tackle manufacturers, bead size is an important component to consider before selecting the appropriate one. The relationship between the size of the bead and salmon egg it’s representing is salmon species-specific. King salmon generally contain the largest eggs with chums, sockeyes, silvers, and pinks possessing slightly smaller eggs. Matching this salmon species-specific concept to bead size, the following is a comprehensive guideline to correctly match the dominant salmon species in a river system at that specific time of the season. Bead sizes to imitate each salmon species are as follows: 10-12 mm for kings, 8-mm for sockeyes, chums, silvers, and pinks, and 6-mm for smaller pink and sockeye salmon eggs. Experimentation with each bead size is necessary when all salmon species are simultaneously present.   

Relationship to Bead Color

         One of the most important philosophies discovered in the beading era is bead color. Egg morphology changes throughout the course of the season with several environmental factors responsible. Some of these environmental factors include water temperature, water type (e.g. clear, glacial, tannic clear, spring fed groundwater), water chemistry, pH, and air temperature. An additional determinant of morphological changes to a salmon egg is simply the time duration the egg has spent in the water after its exit from the female salmon. Typically, when fertilized salmon eggs first encounter the freshwater following release from the female, the eggs are a dark reddish-orange color. The red color morphology of salmon eggs is attributed to carotenoids, an antioxidant pigment salmon received from their diet in the marine environment. In preparation for spawning, adult salmon deposit these carotenoids into the epidermis of their skin and eggs. As reflected in the dark-reddish orange color of fresh, fertilized eggs, the color is a physical testament to fitness and conditional status. Unfertilized eggs will generally appear lighter shaded and substantially less tone and brightness compared to a fertilized egg. Common colors of unfertilized eggs include pale yellowish-orange, faded orange, and yellowish-gray. As salmon eggs accumulate time spent in water after post-release, reddish-orange colors fade to peach and apricot coloration. In autumn, apricot colored eggs are present combined with others exhibiting a washed out appearance. Colors of washed out eggs include milt, gray, faded peach, and tannish-peach. Blood-dot versions of beads are offered to illustrate markings of an embryo. A provided chart illustrates specific bead colors to use throughout the course of the salmon season.   

Appropriate Tackle 

         Since heavyweight rainbow trout can achieve size classes of 30-plus inches and 20-plus pounds in some watersheds in Alaska, a 9- to 10-foot moderate-fast to fast-action 8-weight graphite rod is highly recommended. Standard or traditional 9-foot 5-weight single-hand fly rods which are recognized as the American standard for a rainbow trout in the lower 48 is inefficient unless targeting rivers in Alaska that contain smaller fish. In addition to their immense size and condition, Alaska’s rainbow trout display a steelhead-like fighting regimen and anglers unprepared with lighter weighted set-ups frequently lose fish that take off for the races or wrap themselves in logjams. Large arbor reels should contain an approximate line capacity of 150-yards of 20-pound backing with well-secured knots on the backing to the fly line. Fly line selection for beading is one of two simple choices. A standard weight forward floating or specialized nymph version, which is characterized by a slightly thicker diameter head that is specifically designed for turning over indicator split shot rigs are sufficient selections. When backcasting room is limited, a 10 ½ to 11 ½ foot switch rod matched to a Skagit line via floating Skagit shooting head performs wonders that may not be possible with the single-hand. An additional 15 to 35-feet of casting distance is possible when using a switch rod. To formulate a bead rigging system, terminal tackle selection needs to be configured so a well-performed downstream drag free drift is engaged. Split shot is the primary weight established for bead-rigs. With multiple preferences centered on weight, it is typically size BB and #3/0 split shot that sink quickly through faster flows, yet still castable. Larger split shots are casting nightmares, thus creating opportunities of creating stress fractures in the rod blank, hitting yourself on the back or forward cast, and making roll casting a daunting task. Two splits shots of identical size works to match most water conditions.  

Rigging Fundamentals

         The art and science of beading for rainbow trout requires a unique fundamental approach not observed in other styles and techniques of fly fishing. The central focal point of the beading rigging system revolves entirely around the pegging system. Regardless of pegging methodologies, if beads are not pegged appropriately, then they serve two problematic situations. First, if pegged too high from the hook, it will increase susceptibility of potential hook scarring around the eye. This a common characteristic associated with one-eyed trout on trout streams throughout Bristol Bay and alongside the Parks Highway, two areas in Alaska that substantially receive more pressure than remote systems. Second, if pegged and located just on top of the hook eye, a risk for deep hook injury or misplaced hook placement in the trout’s mouth is definitely possible. Therefore, to maximize the likelihood of improved hook-up percentages, a bead should be pegged around 2-inches from the top of the hook eye which thus minimizes potential injury and allows for better mouth penetration. Additional information as well as regulations for pegging regulations can be found in the sport fishing regulations from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG).

         Several components should be taken into consideration for perfecting the ideal bead pegging and rigging system. The first parameter that should be recognized is the leader length. Standard 9-foot leaders or shorter leaders designated for swinging are not applicable for beading. At minimum, a 9-foot leader is ideal and should not exceed 11 feet in length. Longer leaders turn over the indicator better and allow for improved drift capabilities compared to leaders shorter than the 9-foot minimum. Butt sections should consist of 20-pound monofilament and tapered to one or two sections to finalize the leader. Typically for most Alaska fishing destinations, I use a 3-foot butt section of 20-pound monofilament either Albrighted or blood knotted to a section of 15-pound fluorocarbon followed by 10- to 12-pound fluorocarbon tippet. In watersheds where trophy potential is high, this tippet range is recommended and lighter than 10-pounds can be employed if fishing is slow or fishing in super-clear water conditions. Specifically, the rigging illustrations designate the appropriate bead pegging system. 

A double from Alaska’s Morraine Creek.

Bead Tactics

         Rainbow trout in Alaska rivers exhibit preferences for certain habitat types whereas disinterested in others. Habitats that rainbow trout like include moderate to deep runs, pools, and middle regions to tailout sections off riffles transcending into runs or pools. Specifically, fishing these habitats with beads is a highly efficient tactic to employ during the salmon runs, particularly when observing the presence of any in these habitat types. Other times, the observation of salmon in any given area of a river system should send off light bulbs to rainbow trout anglers. When schools of spawning salmon are observed, it is an absolute requirement to methodically focus the bead’s presentation upstream and downstream of those salmon schools. Most anglers concentrate heavily on pink and sockeye salmon schools since they are the most abundant. 

         The appropriate technique for presenting beads is important in order for the drift associated with the presentation to be successful. The fundamental technique for beading is the traditional high-stick nymphing technique. Casting distances are not a long distance Hail Mary because roll casting is often involved most of the time. As the bead-indicator rig strikes the desired target, throw in a primary upstream mend with the rod tip. Thus, this should send the floating fly line upstream in conjunction with allowing the bead to sink quickly towards bottom against the force of the current. Throughout its downstream drift, pay considerable attention to the strike indicator, noticing for any bobbles or sudden jolts. It is characteristic of rainbow trout to pull down the entire indicator under water without hesitation. Once the indicator is yanked underwater, initiate a solid hook set.

Custom Beading

         Similar to the tying construction of fly patterns and fundamentals of lure making, there is a science when it comes down to the customization of painting beads. Although commercial bead manufacturers produce excellent products for trout anglers to mimic specific morphological phases of salmon eggs throughout the season, it is presumably believed that custom-painted beads can offer a lifelike appearance of the real deal. An application of nail polish while a single individual toothpick holds the bead is one preferred technique. Spinning the bead with a toothpick generally corresponds to a finer coat than other tedious methods. To increase durability of the painted finish, an application of clear nail lacquer is often utilized. Experimentation with multiple coats of nail polish changes the morphology of the bead to represent different length of times eggs have been in the water for. Online tutorials on You Tube and local fly shops seldom teach bead painting seminars which for some is quite the skill to master.

Harder, plastic beads are most commonly used, however soft plastic beads are a nice option as well. These soft beads come in a variety of colors and their textures resemble an actual egg. When looking for an alternative these make excellent choices. 

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