Steelhead go for sardines
Written by Elkhart Truth   
Monday, 20 December 2004 19:18

Jeff Atkinson has been buying up tins of sardines, but they aren't in his diet.

They're on his hook.

Local fishermen have recently started using sardines as bait for steelhead trout, which continue to move up to the Twin Branch Dam. When local steelhead enthusiasts hear about using sardines for the first time, they seem surprised in a why-didn't-I-think-of-that kind of way.

"I just heard about it two weeks ago," said Atkinson of Osceola. He had a couple of tins stowed away in his cooler on a recent chilly night.

About two dozen anglers fished along the wall at the dam, hoping for a bite. The bite had died down for the evening, but the general consensus was that sardines have been working best.

And Mishawaka's Steve Hosken took some credit for spreading the sardine word.

"A friend of mine found (out about sardines for steelhead) on the Internet, and I just exploited it," said Hosken. "Now everyone's using it down here."

Atkinson was more than happy to find an inexpensive bait that actually works.

The eggs out of salmon and steelhead (often called spawn) are a common bait. If you can catch a fish full of eggs, they're cheap.

But the egg has to come first.

Atkinson said he's spent about $500 on spawn at about $10 a bag already this year, and the steelhead run is far from over.

Sardines cost less than a dollar.

To keep the mushy bait on the hook, anglers have treated it like spawn, tying chunks of sardine into spawn bag netting. The netting holds everything together. They've also tied in small pieces of sponge to soak up the oils in the bottom of the tin.

Hosken said the fish oils are what make sardines such a good bait. While roaming Lake Michigan, steelhead gorge on smelt and alewives, which are similar to sardines in size.

"It's the smell," said Hosken. "The oil. They eat lots of smelt. Smelt have that oil."

While in-line spinners and spawn are the standard baits, steelhead anglers have long looked for alternatives. Squid, shrimp and smelt are occasionally used along with tied flies, nightcrawlers and waxworms.

At Trail Creek in Michigan City, a few anglers used Chewy Jolly Ranchers, said Elkhart's Jeff Oakley.

"If you get bored, you can eat them," joked Oakley, who had conformed to the sardine craze.

Oakley had a steelhead alive on a stringer that was caught on a sardine. But another angler gave him the fish.

Just down from Oakley and Atkinson, Jon Dawson fought a fish, presumably a steelhead that grabbed his sardine sack.

But the crafty steelhead headed into several other fishing lines and got off after a few minutes of battling.

Jim Moorehead of South Bend also had been using cheap bait. When it rained the other day, he took advantage of all the night crawlers that surfaced on his driveway.

"Free crawlers," he said.

He walked up on his way back to the car after fishing for several hours and had caught wind of the sardine rumors.

"Sardines, huh?"

If the grocery stores take a cue from the oil industry, the days of sardines for a buck a tin are over.

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