Spring Steel on Idaho's Upper Salmon River

Spring Steel on Idaho's Upper Salmon River

  • By: Greg Thomas
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas
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I’ve created a problem for myself; I am a steelhead junkie who lives 500 miles from salt water, in a state where those big sea-run rainbows don’t even exist.

I like where I live—Missoula, Montana—and I’m quite sure this is where I will raise my daughters. But in the back of my mind there’s this idea to endear a Canadian scarlet, gain dual citizenship (plus healthcare, right), and move north, to Campbell River, Bella Coola or, even better, to Smithers or Terrace, British Columbia, where the greatest race of steelhead still pours into the Skeena, Babine, Kispiox, Kitimat and Sustut rivers. That’s the glory list, and I could see myself fishing those waters a couple hundred days a year while pretending that I care about hockey.

Rewind quickly. Play that scratchy filmstrip in your head. Pretend that noise you’ve created is my imagination hustling back to reality. Now, let’s talk about how I really deal with my steelhead angst; at least once or twice a year, sometimes more, I drive three hours south from Missoula and work out my Spey-rod kinks on Idaho’s Salmon River.

It’s not British Columbia by any stretch, but the Salmon is pretty unusual as steelhead streams go. It’s surrounded by towering, arid, sagebrush- and pine-tree-laden mountains; it’s contained by jagged and colorful cliffs; and above its banks anglers often see mule deer, bighorn sheep, elk, mountain lion and, sometimes, wolves. The river passes a town with its namesake that serves as the unofficial hub of south-central Idaho steelhead fishing and rests just a few miles north of the 45th parallel, a halfway point between the North Pole and Equator.

I can tell you from personal experience, having worked in Salmon back in the day and having visited friends and relatives there—off and on—for 20 years, that the town hosts a pack of characters no less wild and unpredictable than those animals slinking above the banks of its river. And I mean that affectionately, because Salmon is a great place to visit, a town that serves meaty chicken-fried steaks for breakfast, low-cal, low-alcohol Natty Light for lunch, and 20-ounce ribeyes or fried chicken for dinner. Its high school nickname is the Savages, and it’s the birthplace of Sacajawea and home of the late firearms enthusiast Elmer Keith.

What really distinguishes the Salmon from other steelhead streams is its fish; they are born in the Salmon, then migrate to the Snake River. From there they fin down the Snake to meet the Columbia River in Washington. Then they negotiate a series of dams before touching salt water near Astoria, Oregon, nearly 800 miles from where they were born. By the time I visit the Salmon to meet them between the towns of North Fork and Stanley, they’ve spent two or three years in the ocean and have swum upstream, against a strong current, for another 800 miles. I consider each of those fish, having avoided birds, fish, whales, seals and sea lions, plus a labyrinth of commercial gillnets and sport-fishing lures (not to mention that they’ve gotten past 16 dams) to be a miracle.

Despite those odds, in recent years steelhead have returned to the Salmon, and other Columbia River tributaries, in excellent numbers. Unfortunately, most of those fish are hatchery bred rather than wild fish. Now there’s nothing wrong with a hatchery steelhead on the end of the line. After all, a grab is a grab. It’s exciting. But landing a hatchery fish is not the unique experience that the capture of a wild fish is. Why is that? I’ve thought about this at length, during the many hours of casting on the Salmon without a strike, hoping that even a hatchery steelhead would light me up. Here’s the deal: We picture hatchery fish being born in incubators and swimming in concrete raceways. They are jailed, spoon-fed, dependent and inferior creatures that can’t make their own way. We visualize wild fish being spawned by two willing participants, in near-pristine, roily tributary streams, fending for themselves, building self-respect while surrounded by massive forests in the wildest country. They are blue-collar albeit high-class fish that, when hooked, fight like their lives depend on escape. Most anglers know, just from the grab and a few headshakes, whether they are fighting a hatchery steelhead or a wild metalhead. The difference can be that pronounced.

Hatchery steelhead do serve a purpose, however, and that is to feed the hordes who pursue them between early October, when the first steelhead arrive in the Salmon, and the end of April (when the spring season closes on the upper river). Because these fish have so far to travel they are high in oil content and healthy fatty acids, the same kind of equation that makes Alaska’s Copper River and Yukon River king salmon so treasured and expensive. For a pound of those you might shell out forty or fifty dollars. In Idaho, you can catch hatchery steelhead on your own, bonk three a day, hold nine in possession, and serve them off the barbecue or, better yet, place them in a smoker for a few hours.

That’s for you and the locals, because I’m a seafood snob who turns his nose at anything that isn’t chrome-bright with a couple sea-lice attached to its body. I like fish cruising in on the tides, still salty and firm. That preference makes me an occasional hero to my cousin, Gary, and his wife, Cindy, who live in Salmon and gladly take those hatchery steelhead that I harvest on the Salmon River. Now for those of you who are religously zealous about catch-and-release, I’ll say two things: Fishing is not religion, and you ought to be bonking your limit of hatchery fish every time you can because that harvest benefits wild fish in several ways, First, taking hatchery steelhead out of the equation lowers the risk of inbreeding between wild and hatchery fish. Second, smacking hatchery steel means there is more room in a river, and especially in the prime spawning areas, for wild fish to operate.

The upper Salmon is a big river, super broad in places, multi-channeled and easy to wade in others. Some anglers wouldn’t dare fish the river from anything but a driftboat or raft, but wade anglers find equal opportunity, and in some places they may reach across the breadth of the flow with a solid launch from a Spey rod or switch rod. Ah, the Spey rod, the golden stick that I berated for so many years, saying that anglers could catch just as many steelhead on a single-hander as a two-hand rod. My mentality changed a few years ago, and I wouldn’t fish the Salmon without the long rod today.

But it’s not as if you need a big Spey rod to fish the Salmon, especially in the fish-fighting department. Why? Because, typically, Salmon River steelhead aren’t that big. A monster might stretch 35 or 36 inches, but there are dedicated metalheads who’ve spent many seasons on the Salmon and not landed a fish of those dimensions. In fact, Salmon River steelhead probably average five or six pounds, and a 10-pounder is a pretty beastly fish here. Downstream, in a massive roadless wilderness area, anglers find larger steelhead that are moving toward the Middle Fork of the Salmon. The Middle Fork is closed for steelheading, and the lower mainstem Salmon requires a jet boat to access. So most fly fishers spend their time on the upper river, toiling for those five- to 10-pounders.

That’s what I was doing last year on the SALMON when some buddies joined me. I’d already landed a fish and pointed to the bank where it was de-gilled, dressed and cooling on the snow, waiting delivery to Gary and Cindy.

Steelhead on the Salmon are like steelhead I’ve found elsewhere. They are not picky and they’ll drill all kinds of flies, including Skunks, Egg-Sucking Leeches, Pick-Yer-Pockets, Intruders, even smaller nymphs such as Bitch Creeks and golden stones. They’ll eat the heck out of egg imitations, too. In fact, one time three of us swing-em-up guys had fished through the length of a run without touching a fish, and we were just about to start the process again when some young dudes came in with single-hand rods and bead egg imitations. They started fishing the head of the run, and we were shaking our heads after one kid said, “Oh, missed one,” on his first three casts. Then he did hook one, and his buddies did, too. When they said, “How’d you guys do?” none of us wanted to answer.

The next morning one of our crew got up really early, braved ice in the guides and cold hands, and slipped into the run first—with a single-hand rod and a bead egg and some split-shot under a strike indicator. He recalls hooking seven fish on his first seven casts. I went through the run afterward and dead-drifted an Egg-Sucking Leech, but all I landed was a monstrous five-pound sucker.

But things change by the day on the Salmon, and the following morning I found some fish stacked up above a rapid, resting in the tailout of the run. The tactics were clear: Cast at an angle downstream toward the far bank, mend line to keep the fly moving slowly across the run—and at a depth where it would occasionally tick bottom—and set the hook when it stopped. By the afternoon I’d landed 10 steelhead, including one wild fish that was a bit longer than 30 inches and may have weighed more than 10 pounds.

While you could follow my tack and cast blindly across broad runs downstream from Salmon, many fly fishers strictly target the very upper river, between Challis and Stanley, where sight-fishing is often the game. Those anglers spend a lot of time driving, pulling off at all the turnouts. Then they peer into the water with polarizing glasses from their elevated highway position. Once they spot a fish it’s game-on. Unfortunately, overcast skies, wind, rain and snow can shoot down sight-fishing options. Drive the very upper Salmon if you choose. Do that driving and burn your eyes trying to find a fish. For me, it’s all about the mystery of what I can’t see, and using a rod, line and fly to unlock a secret.

If I had to choose one river to fish steelhead for the rest of my life, it wouldn’t be the Salmon. I’d head north and west and fish a coastal stream in British Columbia or Alaska. But the Salmon is a special river, as beautiful and as wildlife rich as any, and it provides a place for inland steelhead junkies to pursue the sport.

You can do so during fall, when most anglers trade the rod for the rifle and climb mountains for deer and elk. Or you can wait until winter is dying, in February and March, and hit the Salmon for steelhead that last sniffed salt water the previous July or August. That doesn’t make them inferior at all; in my mind that makes them some of the toughest fish in the world, survivors, and well worth spending the time to catch.

So this spring, guaranteed, when the days get longer and the sun shines a bit more, I’ll head to Salmon, visit my longtime friends and my family, and rally some steelhead buddies. We’ll build massive fires and eat and drink like we don’t care, letting the steam off after enduring four months of freezing temperatures and flying snow. We’ll swing some flies for steel and, you’re right, it won’t be like throwing prawn patterns to fish coming in on the tides. But it is the way we make our inland existences mesh with this crazy need to fish steelhead, 800 miles from the sea. 01_bwo20bug20small

Greg Thomas is this magazine’s editor. He lives in Missoula, Montana.