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Gem State Steel: Idaho Steelhead Fishing

Gem State Steel: Idaho Steelhead Fishing
Fighting the cold water and the crisp air, Bill Mead shows off a keeper steelhead. Photo by Jim Foster.

Shortly after the move to Idaho, a neighbor invited me on a fishing float on the Main Salmon River. Spending the day on the water and watching him catch steelhead, while I basically watched my feet turn from feet into ice blocks, was intriguing but gave me the incentive to learn about steelhead as well as to buy better boots.

Catching my first steelhead created a moment of uncertainty. There was still a bow in the floating line and it seemed it took much longer than a few seconds to bring the 8-foot rod up and feel the strong fish. As the fish pulled the line from my reel it was clear the healthy amount of backing on the small reel would be used. There were also worried thoughts about the small fly-hook and the lack of a barb.

After a lifetime of fishing for river and stream trout, this fish had some power lacking in other trout. This fish circled the boat, just missing the anchor rope stretched off the stern. There was no doubt this was a steelhead using its swimming muscles acquired during the long trip from the Pacific.

The Idaho rivers with fishable populations and open seasons for steelhead are the Clearwater, the Snake and the Salmon. Of these three major rivers, the Salmon is the only river still undammed and flowing free. This includes the Little Salmon River where an excellent spring run has been reported.

The steelhead is a popular fish for western anglers and visitors alike. Last season during the spring run it was quite difficult to find a place to park a travel trailer or motorhome, or even pitch a tent along the Salmon River from the town of North Fork to the end of the river road, dead-ending where the Frank Church Wilderness area begins.

Add to this the local bank fishermen parked on the shoulders of the highway pullouts. The three Idaho rivers all attract out-of-the-area fishermen and women.

The steelhead is the agronomists form of the western rainbow trout. Like the salmon, it has migrated for eons from the Pacific Ocean and returned to the place where it was born, and then many times returned to the ocean.

Their journey covers 980 miles from the mouth of the Columbia to the main Salmon River. While in the ocean, steelhead will swim from northern California to Alaska and return.

Steelheads spawn in Idaho rivers from mid-April to late June, using areas of gravel or cobble for spawning nests near where they were born. The female selects a place in a riffle area below a pool to dig a redd or spawning nest. The female displaces gravel with her body and tail, and the male fertilizes the eggs as they are deposited. The female covers the eggs with gravel by swimming upstream, letting the current carry gravel over the eggs.

The eggs hatch in early to midsummer. The young fish born in the stream soon migrate to the ocean, usually after two years in the stream. The juvenile fish that migrate to the ocean grow rapidly and when they mature they enter the rivers.

The Clearwater River is a 74.8-mile-long river located in north-central Idaho. The Clearwater flows westward from the Bitterroot Mountains along the Idaho-Montana border, and joins the Snake River near Lewiston.


The Clearwater River provides world-class steelhead fishing and is famous for the large "B-Run" as steelhead return to their redds or spawning sites after two years in the ocean. A majority of these fish will tip the scales at 20 pounds; sometimes more.

In addition to the fantastic fall and winter runs, the Clearwater supports a wonderful spring and summer rainbow trout fishery. As with steelheading, most any style of fishing is practical on this great little river.

The "A-Run" fish are usually larger than 37 inches and often weigh more than 20 pounds. The Idaho state-record steelhead was 30 pounds and was caught in the Clearwater River in 1973.

The Clearwater has no tributaries from the Snake River at Lewiston to the Orofino Bridge on the North Fork.

A steelhead permit is required in addition to a fishing license. The Nez Perce tribe offers its own permit for the stretch of the Clearwater flowing through its lands east of Lewiston.

On the Snake River steelhead fishing begins below Hells Canyon Dam and continues to the Idaho state line and to where it meets the Clearwater at Lewiston. The only river entering the Snake is the Main Salmon River.

Steelhead fishing on the Salmon River begins near Stanley, Idaho, near the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery, and ends where it empties into the Snake. The only fork of the Salmon River is the Little Salmon River, near Riggins. Although the Salmon has many tributaries, the Little Salmon is the only one open to steelhead fishermen.

For more detailed information and a map of the open waters for steelhead, go to the Idaho Fish and Game's website and download the PDF file of Idaho steelhead regulations.

A special note for anglers: On some of Idaho's waters that are open to steelhead fishing, a boat is definitely needed. A good example of this is the upper sections of the Snake's Hells Canyon and for the wilderness sections of the Salmon where a drift boat is needed.

Access for waders can found on the long shallow stretches of the Clearwater, the lower entrance to Hells Canyon, and the lower and upper stretches of the Salmon River. Boats equipped with propane heaters have proven to provide much more comfort for anglers.


Most steelhead anglers use conventional spinning or baitcasting, tackle. The most common tackle is a spinning rod and reel using at least 15-pound test line. The rod must have a good backbone in order to hold these strong fish in fast water. It is suggested for spinning as well as baitcasting that an 8- to 10-foot medium-action rod, like the Berkley Air Salmon rods, be used. For best results the rod should be matched to a reel with a medium to large line capacity.

Many bank anglers use live worms and dead shrimp in order to attract fish to their hook. There are also several artificial lures that produce excellent results. Some of these are lead weights with flies or streamers.

In Idaho, some anglers — both conventional and fly-fishermen — are switching to circle hooks. In Idaho, barbless hooks are required of all steelhead anglers. As of this time I have not found a hook manufacturer that makes barbless hooks. The barb must be pinched down or entirely off in order to be legal.

"The reasons anglers are switching to circle hooks are few yet quite profound. Foremost is the 90-percent landed fish ratio. However, a close second reason is reduced fish mortality. Just remember a hook set is not needed. A slow sweep of your rod is all that is needed," said T.J. Stallings, who has worked for the last 20-plus years with Tru-Turn and Daiichi Bleeding Bait hooks. He knows hooks.


Here a 9-foot 7- to 9-weight fly rod is considered the minimum size and going up to at least a 9 1/2-foot rod and 8- or 9-weight line is more realistic.

The longer "spey" rods are being seen more and more, especially when the riverbanks are too steep or brushy for a long backcast. Some fly-fishermen prefer a floating line with a sinking tip or shooting-weighted line. Most of my friends use a floating line with a sinking tip and a long leader with an adjustable strike indicator.

First among the top-producing flies and lures is the artificial egg that has gained popularity throughout steelhead country. The banning of real bait on some waters caused these eggs to become a mainstay for many anglers.

"The myth that steelhead don't eat once entering freshwater is false," states John Harkin, guide and owner of the online Idaho Fly Shop. "Anglers should not disregard flies that imitate food." John went on to say that steelhead flies must also be barbless with the barbs pinched down. The only exception is in the Boise River where steelheads are all stocked hatchery fish.

A steelhead expert, John Niles of western Idaho, also believes that roe is the most effective steelhead bait but also uses a Spin-N-Glo when roe is not available, and won't leave ramp without an assortment of them. This lure is possibly more effective than roe in some tight quarters.

There has been an increase in the number of steelhead anglers utilizing shrimp. Fishing a diver and sand shrimp remains popular because of the scent emitted and the motion induced when fished live. The sand shrimp are deadly for steelhead anglers throughout the West.

To find a steelhead comes down to the old real estate saying, "location, location, location." And that location is near or close to the bottom and is called the "strike zone." This zone is one or two feet above the bottom. If you are not in this zone, your chances are slim to none. In addition to being in the strike zone, movement is the best way to fish, even for bank fishermen.

Mark Troy, owner of Idaho Adventures, which guides the main Salmon from the city of Salmon through the Frank Church Wilderness Area for both the "A" and "B" runs, said, "Some fishermen like to fish by what is called "hotshotting." This amounts to fishing a crankbait-type lure either from a back-rowed drift boat or by wading the gravel bars found near deep holes." Mark went on to say that most steelhead are caught at the lower end of these slower moving pools.

One of the best steelhead plugs available today is the Hot Shot that has been around for decades. This plug may be cast from a gravel bar or back-trolled. This lure is easy to keep in the strike zone and does a great job at aggravating steelhead into striking. In other words, Hot Shots strikes are from the aggression of the fish and not from the want of food.

The best time of the year for steelhead fishing is October and November, and then again in March and April. The seasons may be open during other months. The regulations and limits change constantly, so check with Idaho Fish and Game before heading out to your favorite spot or launching your boat.

For more information on Idaho steelhead fishing go to:

Idaho Fish and Game at,

Idaho Fly Shop at,

Idaho Adventures at (800-789-9283) or

Adventures Wilderness Press, Inc. at

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