Ice froze in the guides of the fly rod as I cast to the school of fish hovering silently near the bottom of the stream. Suddenly a fish turned to the side and its white mouth opened. I set the hook quickly and was fast to a feisty rainbow trout. After a raucous battle, I worked the silver fish in close, twisted the hook free and watched as it darted back into the dark river currents.
The fight warmed me up quickly. Suddenly the cold didn't feel quite so bad.
It's hard to think of a single more productive pattern for catching trout and steelhead in winter and early spring than an egg fly. These flies first appeared way back in the 1950s. They were originally tied to imitate a cluster of eggs. Now those large offerings are still used by some, but most anglers today turn to smaller patterns that duplicate a single egg.
In large rivers or with very big fish such as steelhead and salmon, the cluster flies are still a good bet. For most situations, though, a single egg is preferable. Size 4-12 or 6-12 short-shank hooks are standard. You can weight the hook shank with lead, but for a more natural presentation and fewer hang-ups on the bottom of the stream, tie the flies unweighted and add split shot 12 inches up on the tippet.
Larger flies --4s to 6s -- are best for big fish or turbid water. For clear water go with size 8-12 hooks. The more pressure the water gets, the smaller the eggs you should use.
Egg color varies widely. Over 30 colors of yarn used to tie egg flies are offered. The best bet is usually to match the most common natural eggs where you fish. If you don't know that, try orange, peach, pink, yellow, olive and chartreuse. Over the years I've caught more fish on Peachy King than all other colors put together, but it still pays to be flexible. Experiment and the fish will tell you which hue they like best.
Egg yarn simply spun and trimmed to an oval shape on a plain hook is usually the best offering. At times, though, adding dressings can increase the effectiveness of egg flies. Try a few strands of marabou, Krystal Flash or similar material around the front for a collar or a short tail. This added bit of flash can help, especially if the water is slightly cloudy. Bead head egg flies are another option. These sink especially well for deeper waters.
Tackle for fishing egg flies should consist of an 8-9 foot rod and light reel spooled with backing and a size 4-6 floating line, weight forward or double taper. To this add a 9-12 foot leader tapering to a 3-5X tippet with a strike indicator near the top of the leader.
In deep water fast sinking tip lines or shooting heads can be used, but often just a few split shot will provide sufficient weight. You can crimp these directly to the tippet or tie in a tiny barrel swivel where the tippet connects to the rest of the leader and leave the tag end of that knot long enough to attach the split shot to. That way the lead will pull off if it hangs up without the fly breaking off.
Cast upstream and quartering across. Allow the fly to drift just like a real egg would -- tumbling naturally along the stream bottom without drag or manipulation. You can false cast when necessary, but often the best tactic is to just work the fly back close then lob out roll casts upstream. Keep the rod tip pointed at the fly as it works down in the flow through deep runs, pools and tailouts. At any slight hesitation in the line's drift or darting motion from the fish you're watching, set up by pulling the line and the rod back quickly.
Strikes will often be subtle. But once you set the hook, the fight of a sleek steelhead or trout will be anything but timid.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.