Category Archives: Salmon River

Fly Fishing Late Winter Steelhead

salmon river steelheadThis has been a great year for us on the Steelhead rivers of Idaho, namely the Salmon.  Just last season I could barely manage a bite on the swing, usually fishing too heavy and hanging up on every damn snag in the river.  Losing confidence, I’d waste valuable time switching from swing to nymphs, and back again ten minutes later, then switch bugs to the point l I didn’t know what the hell to throw at them.

steelhead on the salmon riverFortunately that’s all behind us now, whether we catch fish or not that day, because we finally have this swing thing pretty dialed in.  Confidence, as with any fly fishing, is key.  Bug choice is easy now-I pretty much fish one pattern- as well as being set to the right depth, which really isn’t as deep as I previously thought.  Steelhead are predictable to a degree as to where they lie in the river, whether they bite or are even sitting there is the question.  So you pretty much have to fish your arm off covering water, and especially good water, which is the never ending quest.

steelhead salmon river idahoSo back to the river, our days start early and end late.  We have runs in mind that we want to fish, most of these we’ve caught steelhead in, but many others just look good, so we give them a swing.  Some of these runs are gargantuan, taking hours to cover, some are just little insides that have the look we want, and ten casts says it all.  I can’t count the miles of water that have held nothing, but eventually you figure out your favorites by simply covering every square inch of likely looking water.  Cast, step, cast, step, cast….tug!

Salmon River Steelhead

winter steelheadThe clients are essentially gone for the year; snow has set in hard in the high country; the elk have bugled, mated, and survived the long hunting season; and us fishing guides are finally released into the wild once again to pursue the almighty of Salmonids, Steelhead.  We don’t guide Steelhead trips, though we’re sure starting to think hard about it, because I am licensed as a Montana Outfitter only, confining our commercial operations to this great state alone.  But lo, a mere two hours from Hamilton south over Lost Trail Pass, lies the longest run of Steelhead in the United States of ‘Merica on the Salmon River in Idaho.

salmon river idaho steelheadWith 900 miles to cover from the Pacific ocean to their upper spawning grounds in Stanley, these fish don’t really get into our stretch of water until November and even December.  You think a cool day in June can suck, just wait till you start wading hip deep for hours at a time in January water temps and the Salmon River fog icing your eyebrows.  Utter punishment at times.  But the tug is the drug, and at some point in that long swing of the line a fish grabs hold and it’s all worth it.

winter steelheadSo while winter grips the valley as we await another great trout season coming up in March, we guides are still packing fly rods on the dashboards and tackle bags close at hand.  A string of good weather will get us twitching, and not long after that a phone call sets the madness in motion: 5 am on the road.  Two hours and a hundred close calls with elk crossing highway 93, we’re back on the water with the excitement of a summer’s day of guiding…  Except now we have 9 weights, thirty plus inch fish, and we’re doing all the fishing!

Salmon River Steelhead II

steelhead 009Just can’t get enough, can you?  I have to admit, this steelheading thing is straight addictive.  Once we learned these fish are merely an hour and a bit from Hamilton, one just can’t help themselves.  So here we go again, Chris and I decide just one more trip down south will be the end all to the season.  Late November, the earlier fall weather giving way to winter, we boogied out of Darby towing a raft in a full on blizzard. Lost Trail pass was four wheel drive all the way while wondering what our dumb asses are thinking trying this late in the year.  Finally hitting the Salmon, we get to see what we’re looking at as far as actual river conditions.  Not to bad, really.  Just a little slush here and there but full on fishable from our perspective.

steelhead 002We post up camp for the night and awake to a seven degree morning.  “Hey, how’s the river look?” I ask, huddling the Mr Buddy heater in the tent.  “Not good.”  ” Should we go?” ” Might as well, we’re here.”   Confidence.  If your gonna be stupid you have to be tough.  Being in no real hurry to commence the madness, we fire up my frozen diesel and sit in the comfort of the heated cab while waiting on espresso pots on the MSR outside.  Eventually we set sail and floated a short stretch with a ton of good water, as long as the slush cleared enough to get a drift through.

steelhead 007At three o’clock the magic happened.  Battling slush and frozen guides, lines, beers, boats, you name it, we finally pulled it off.  Every run we knew was choked with slush and ice, especially in the sexy gooey water where the steelies hang.  Screwdaddled on every turn, we laid our coins on our final and all time epic run, Power Eagle.  It actually had a different name up to this point, but from now and forever it shall be Power Eagle.  With Chris sitting up front and me in the rear, we worked that run like a well oiled machine, while anchored just perfectly beside the goods.   With the ice clearing and run opening up, we finally willed those damn steelies out of their lies.  Four fish in the last hours of the last day that river will be floated for the rest of the year.

Salmon River Steelhead

Chris_Rockhold_photo_3-50God bless Idaho.  I used to drive 31 hours from Wise River, Montana to reach Smithers, British Columbia where the turnoff for one of the most famous steelhead rivers in the world, the Kispiox, can be found if one is heads up enough to find it.  That’s all I ever knew of Steelies until I learned a little bit about our neighborly southern state of Idaho last November and December.  Driving just an hour past Lost Trail, Chris, Ian and I found ourselves on some sexy looking runs with nines in our hands, looking at deep gooey tailouts and bottomless inside turns.

steelhead 008Now to step back a bit, we planned on just buying one shuttle for this float and staying out overnight on the river.  We decided on our chosen water from Ian’s and local know how, then loaded up his big battleship steelie boat with all the camp necessities, including wood, and set off onto the mighty Salmon.  Ian, an Alaska native and guide there, dialed us in right away on how to get it done with these fish.

steelhead 004Sitting just where you’d expect once you have the eye for it, Salmon River steelies were plentiful throughout the twenty mile stretch we ran.  Swinging and nymphing, we dinged many many steelies both days of the float, and even got to keep a few hatchery fish to fillet out at the end of the day and cook on the grill in camp.  The best fish was just under 32 inches, with most between 26 and 30.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_3-37Camping on some deserted island on the river, we grilled a sacrificial fillet that first night with butter and cajun blackening, paired with Sierra Nevada and bratwurst.  Now if you’ve never grilled the day’s catch late at night over open coals, you’re missing out big time.  This was the most incredible fish I’ve ever laid into, hardly resembling their brethren the rainbow but more similar to the Pacific salmon of Alaska: rich and filling, Salmon river steelhead rival any fish around for table fare.

steelhead 009We woke to clean skies and another day of steelie hunting.  We searched as we floated, eyeing up runs for the tell tale water signatures that hold the fish.  One run that raised our antennaes ended up producing nine fish that first encounter, and has since become our all time sweetest steelie lie, Power Eagle. We kinda found fish here there and everywhere that first trip, sometimes going for a mile with nada then suddenly doubling up on some good looking bank.  With another night approaching, we wound it up and headed for the corral.  The rig was a blessed sight with its heater and stereo after more than 24 hours on the water.  We caught enough keepers for everyone to take a couple home, which we filleted on the spent aspen leaves covering the lower end of the boat launch, giving thanks for an amazing trip and fresh bounty from the Salmon.

Chris_Rockhold_photo_3-57 steelhead 011 Chris_Rockhold_photo_3-56 steelhead 001