Gerald Almy

Gerald Almy

Pieces of ice formed in the guides of the graphite fly rod and my breath exhaled in whorls of white mist as I cast to the dark forms hovering near the bottom of Michigan’s Pere Marquette River. Suddenly, almost imperceptibly, the head of one fish turned slightly. Its white mouth opened. Instinctively,  I tightened on the six-weight fly line.

A 10-pound steelhead, fat from gorging in Lake Michigan, bucked in response then tore downstream to the next pool. Stumbling and splashing wildly after it, I finally worked the fish in close to shore, twisted the barbless hook free, and watched it shoot like a broad silver arrow back into the depths.

After that excitement, the cold didn’t feel quite so bad.

The fly that fooled that steelhead on an April fishing expedition was one of the most unpretentious patterns imaginable – and also one of the most deadly for spring, fall, and winter steelhead fly fishing. The fly imitated the eggs of other steelhead, salmon and trout.

While you may not be planning a trip to the Midwest, these flies are also great for local Shenandoah Valley trout streams.

The first flies tied to imitate spawn appeared in the 1950s. They were originally dressed fairly large and tried to duplicate a cluster of spawn. Some of these large patterns are still used, but mostly today anglers use single egg imitations tied on size 6-12 on short-shank hooks.

Trout, salmon and steelhead expel millions of eggs from their swollen paunches when they spawn. Only a few actually hatch. In some streams none. What happens to the rest?

In most cases, they drift free in the current briefly before being gobbled up by another trout, salmon or steelhead. Fish eggs are one of the greatest food sources available in spring, fall and winter. Sometimes they’re also eaten by bass, walleyes and various species of panfish such as bluegills, redbreasts and yellow perch. Fish learn quickly that these brightly colored morsels are good to eat, rich in caloric value and free for the taking.

Some companies make artificial eggs that you can use on a plain hook, such as the Berkley Power Egg. And of course, bait fishermen simply use the real thing – single salmon eggs bought in jars.

All of these work, but flies are the most fun to fish. Egg flies are so simple to construct even a novice can whip out a dozen in an hour or two.

The two most important decisions when tying or buying egg flies are size and color. Size is determined by three factors – how large the fish are, what size natural eggs are most available, and how much angling pressure the fish are subjected to.

For large offerings, a cluster of eggs is tied on monofilament and that is then bound to the hook so three or four small eggs can be fished as a large single gob of eggs. In large rivers or with very big fish such as salmon, this is sometimes a good bet. For most Virginia waters, though, a single egg is preferred. Start with a size 4-12 short shank hook. You can weight the hook shank with soft metal wire but for a more natural presentation and fewer problems with hang-ups, tie the flies without weight and add split shot a foot or 18 inches above the egg imitation on the tippet.

Egg color varies widely, with dozens of hues available for egg fly tiers. The best idea is to match the most common natural eggs where you fish. Lacking that knowledge, try orange, peach, pink, yellow or chartreuse.

A simple fly made of egg yarn spun and trimmed to an oval shape on a plain hook is usually most effective. At times, though, adding dressings can increase the attractiveness of the fly. Add a few strands of Kyrstal Flash, marabou, or similar material around the front for a collar or a short tail on a few of your flies.

The best tackle for fishing egg flies is a fairly long rod – 9-10-½ feet – paired with a light reel spooled with backing and a size 4-7 floating line, weight forward or double taper. 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 are best. If the water isn’t too swift or deep, however, a few split shot on a short dropper leader will provide sufficient weight. Tie a barrel knot for the tippet with a long tag and attach the shot to that tag end, or tie in a two or three-way black swivel and attach the short leader and split shot to that. Using these methods the split shot will hang up but pull off when you apply pressure and you won’t lose the fly.

Deliver casts upstream and quartering across. Allow the fly to drift exactly as a real egg would, bouncing naturally along the river bottom without drag or movement. False cast if necessary, but typically the best tactic is to just let the fly swing through the drift and then lob out another roll cast upstream. Keep the rod tip pointed at the fly as it tumbles downstream in the flow through deep runs, pools, and tail-outs.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.