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Expert Anglers reveal simple but effective cures for Steelhead

This article appeared in the December 2009 issue of Salmon Trout Steelheader magazine

With half a dozen commercial egg cures on tackle shop shelves, selecting the best formula for preserving salmon and steelhead roe can be daunting. They all claim to be the most effective or most powerful, with secret ingredients that fish can’t resist. And for the most part, they all work well.

Yet when it comes to some of the best steelhead guides and anglers, consistently catching fish throughout the season can be attributed in large part to their tried-and-true “old school” borax cures.

“Borax toughens eggs up without a chemical additive like sulfites,” says veteran Washington guide Bill “Swanny” Swann. “When you use borax your eggs won’t be as juicy. They will be firmer.”

Swanny, along with legendary Northwest salmon and steelhead angler Buzz Ramsey, use a combination of borax, sugar and salt to cure all of their salmon and steelhead eggs. Buzz and Swanny enjoy phenomenal results during steelhead season, in part because they both have the philosophy of relying on a trusted base cure, then adding scents and colors each day until they find what the steelhead prefer.

“I suggest you carry at least a couple of different cures with you,” Ramsey shares. “Sometimes one batch will out-produce the others. I like to see what the steelhead like.”

Swanny agrees. “I always start out with four different tubs of bait with different scent and let the fish tell me what they want that day,” he says. “Your most common scent is sand shrimp. They spend a lot of time eating them. That’s one you can’t go wrong with.

Often, Swanny and Buzz catch the bulk of their steelhead on their base cure, often with scents added the day they fish.

Buzz’s basic cure

“I like the 3-2-1 cure, with three parts borax, two parts sugar and one part salt,” Ramsey says. “Sometimes I’ll add just a half-part salt.”

Buzz’s cure has caught on in recent years, although he points out old-timers have long enjoyed success with it. One of its advantages is it is so easy to use.

“I usually pre-mix a lot of the 3-2-1 so it’s ready to go when I need it,” he says.

Preparing the eggs for the cure is simple.

“I cut my eggs up into pieces, or sometimes individual baits,” Ramsey says. “I split the skeins lengthwise. Then I cut each skein into three pieces. One skein will give you six manageable pieces by splitting them and cutting them into thirds.”

Ramsey then places the eggs in a plastic container and sprinkles them with the pre-mixed cure. If the eggs are wet more cure is added to them.

The eggs can also be rolled in a bag of the mixed cure and then placed in a storage container.

“The idea is to cure them so they hold together,” Buzz says. “The neat thing about this cure is because of the salt and sugar content they stand up pretty well to freezer burn. They’ll freeze but not hard enough to burn.”

After a couple days of curing the whole container can be placed in the freezer. During the curing process, Buzz will add dye or food coloring if he wants brighter eggs.

The eggs will expel liquid during the first day of curing, then re-absorb it, along with any dyes or scents you add.

When it’s time to fish, Buzz separates the eggs into a few containers, and plays around with scents to see if the base cure or scent-enhanced eggs produce better.

Swanny’s secret cure revealed

Swanny’s big Wooldridge sled is often the hot boat on the southwestern Washington rivers he fishes. He’s spent decades playing around with egg cures, experimenting with different mixtures, and has found a base cure that is consistently a top producer.

“A steelhead is more of a sugar-based fish,” Swanny says. “They don’t much like sulfites. From what I’ve found, steelhead are very sulfite sensitive. When you fish steelhead, think sugar.”

Swanny’s base cure includes two quarts water, two cups salt, one cup sugar and one cup borax. “What cures the eggs is your salt and sugar,” Swanny says. “The borax helps pull some of the water out.”

Swanny brings the water to a boil and then adds the sugar and salt to disolve them. After the mixture cools he adds the eggs. For steelhead, he lets the roe soak for six hours.

He then dries the eggs on a screen until they are tacky, then coats them in borax.

“What so important is the borax toughens the skein and the membrane that holds all the berries.

Swanny likes to add scent after the eggs are cured, but sometimes he’ll add pure anise or Pautzke’s Liquid Krill or krill powder.

Once the eggs are placed in bait boxes for fishing, he’ll add a scent for each one, everything from squid to shrimp to garlic.

Aside from his base cure, Swanny also cures a good supply of eggs in Pautzke’s new Borax O Fire cure, following the instructions on the container. The Pautzke borax cure is a dry cure with a mixture of borax, sugar and salt similar to Buzz’s 3-2-1, although it also contains krill and bite stimulants. It also comes in red, pink and natural colors, to give steel headers more options for brighter baits.

Getting an edge

To keep an edge, Buzz and Swanny make sure they keep their baits fresh and cool, eliminate unwanted scents by washing their hands and keeping their gear and boats clean, use light leaders and sensitive rods, and super-sharp hooks.

Buzz says some days steelhead will only hit a natural-colored bait, while other days red or pink eggs are the ticket. He fishes both until he finds what is working.

Swanny pays close attention to which scent is producing fish for his clients and then switches everyone to it. If he has four clients, he may be fishing eggs with krill, shrimp, anise and sand shrimp, and then use whatever scent is hot.

Bleeding hens immediately, wearing gloves when removing the eggs from the fish, placing the eggs in clean containers with paper towels, and avoiding any contact with water before curing are all keys to more productive eggs.

Call Captain Andy Martin   •   541.813.1082 / 206.388.8988 Wild Rivers Fishing, P.O. Box 1646, Brookings, OR 97415

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Capt. Andy Martin spent 10 years guiding in Alaska but now guides and runs charter boats year round in Brookings, Oregon.