Egg Flies

By Jeff Morgan

November through June is an important--and unheralded--"hatch": eggs.

Trout do not just feed on salmon eggs like they sell in jars at Wal-Mart. Trout feed frequently on the smaller eggs of whitefish, other trout species, and even the spawn of their own species.

Although anglers often ignore eggs, their imitations constitute some of winter's most reliable patterns. Eggs are widely available during the cold-weather months because the spawning activities of many fish take place in late fall or early spring. When insects, baitfish, and other trout foods are hunkered-down in the cold water, protein-rich eggs are constantly being deposited and disrupted . . . and often wind up as food for trout.

Even when tuned into eggs, many fly anglers use patterns that are too large or are the wrong color. While you should never seine a river for eggs, it doesn't hurt to look closely at the occasional egg that finds its way into your sampling net.

The eggs of a whitefish are the smallest of all--fitting on a size 18 hook. Then come trout eggs, which are imitated on size 16 hooks. The next largest eggs are steelhead and salmon eggs, which look surprisingly similar to what you find in a jar of Pautzke's Balls of Fire.

Colors wide range widely, but they are consistent in their pale and opaque nature. This seems rather different than the bright orange, red, and pink size 8 Glo-Bugs that are often billed as "egg patterns."

The Spawning Sequence

In terms of "matching the hatch," the sequence of egg availability is a pretty simple. First come the whitefish, which start spawning in November and continue into February.

While the eggs of a whitefish are very small, the manner in which they are deposited makes them the most important egg of all. Unlike trout, which are neat creatures and tend to build a tidy nest, whitefish spray their eggs like a fire hose. As a result, many drift a long distance downstream before settling to the bottom.

Next in the spawning sequence are brown trout and brook trout. They begin laying their eggs in late November, but the greatest period of activity is in December. In some high elevation waters they may spawn just prior to ice-over. February through May, rainbow and cutthroat trout spawn. The eggs of brown, brook, rainbow, and cutthroat trout are roughly the same size and the same shades of pale pink and pale cream.

Even though anadromous fish, such as summer steelhead and sea-run cutthroat, enter fresh water during the late summer and fall, they don't spawn until late winter or spring. Salmon, on the other hand, spawn in fall. The eggs of these migrants are larger than trout roe, but they are often the same colors as their resident brethren.

When to Use Egg Patterns

The two best times to use egg patterns are when they are being deposited and when they are disrupted. It is often easy to tell when eggs are being deposited by watching shallow riffles. You can usually spot larger fish (steelhead or salmon) as they construct a redd, but you may have to rely on "flashes" to locate the smaller trout and whitefish. As eggs are deposited they often miss the redds and tumble downstream. Even more eggs are kicked up when the adults cover the redd following the completion of spawning.

Eggs are also disrupted by rising water. They are often laid in areas of fine gravel, which are quickly disturbed during spates. If you live in the Northwest, the combination of salmon and frequent winter rainstorms means that eggs are often found drifting in the current.

I have read articles in some fly fishing magazines about the importance of sculpin eggs. I disagree. Sculpins attach their eggs directly to rock, and they adhere strongly with a gooey substance. You can locate the eggs in riffles during the spring. The eggs are seldom available to trout.

Where to Use Egg Patterns

When you use egg patterns, concentrate your efforts below riffles. While many anglers make a big deal--with good justification--about the ethics of fishing over a redd, there's nothing wrong with fishing downstream of redds. Spawning fish are extremely aggressive, and will chase off almost any fish that they don't want to court with. Combine this with the logical assumption that some eggs will miss the redd and drift downstream, and you can understand why it's effective to drift an egg fly below a redd.

Effective Patterns

Creating egg patterns is a simple endeavor: there are no legs, no tails, no fins, no wings--just a light colored ball. The three keys to match are faint color, opacity, and small size. Exactly how you do it is up to you. I prefer simple techniques and patterns, and unless you have a pressing aesthetic reason to spend five minutes tying an egg pattern, there is no need to get fancy with them.

The most basic of egg patterns is a simple chenille egg. Deschutes guide Gary Muck gave this pattern to me, so I call it Egg ala Muck . Simply tie in the chenille and wrap it into an egg shape; tie off; push the tie-off "nub" under the body, and you have an egg. This is a super easy way to go, and you can use a variety of chenilles from standard to sparkle chenille or even Estaz.

Another type of egg is the Comb Over Egg , given to me by another fine guide, Jim Koudelka. I am a big fan of this pattern, and once you hold it under water and see the air bubbles forming an impression of opacity, you'll be hooked on it too. This fly is simply a bead with "fly foam" (Glo-bug yarn) pulled over the bead and tied off. The key to making it last more than fifteen minutes is to add some cement under the bead.

The Milt and Egg is a combination of these two patterns. It matches a freshly laid egg still enveloped in a cloud of milt. Basically, it's an Egg a la Muck with white marabou pulled over the top. It seems to be productive only when fish are actively spawning, while the other two patterns shine throughout the season.

These are by no means the only egg pattern choices. There are numerous patterns that involve a number of methods from colored glue in glue guns to super-gluing fuzzy "pom-poms" to the hook. I like these patterns in this article because they are quick, cheap, and match the pale translucence of the natural egg. They are a reminder that sometimes the best patterns are the easiest to tie.

Jeff Morgan has written many articles for Westfly, mostly on entomology and fly tying. He is the author of An Angler's Guide to the Oregon Cascades and Small Stream Fly Fishing.