Steelhead are moving upstream, which often means better access and smaller rivers
Steelhead have spent most of the winter holed up in deep water waiting to make their final push upstream, and late winter and spring is when it happens. Anglers looking to cure cabin fever can get an early start on their fishing season, as well as catch one of Idaho’s most prized fish.
Steelhead move into headwaters of Idaho’s famous steelhead streams during late winter and early spring, which concentrates them in the upper tributaries of the Clearwater and Salmon rivers. Anglers key on those areas for the opportunity to catch these large, ocean-going fish that are traveling upwards of 900 miles to hatcheries or spawning grounds.
“”The South Fork Clearwater River and the mainstem Clearwater River in the Kooskia/Kamiah area are just starting to turn on, whereas the main Clearwater River near Dworshak Hatchery and the North Fork Clearwater River have been fishing good all winter and should continue to fish good through the spring. Finally, expect catch rates in the Little Salmon River and the Snake River near Hells Canyon Dam to pick up as soon as water temperatures warm a little.”
In the Upper Salmon River, the Deadwater ice jam was still in place on Feb. 16, and Salmon Region Fisheries Manager Greg Schoby said he expects it will be early March at the earliest before it breaks up and spring steelhead season began in earnest in his region.
Dupont said that as catch rates pick up, they are likely to remain high into April for most waters, but added that they will vary throughout the spring depending on weather and river conditions.
As most folks know, the weather in Idaho is unpredictable in late winter and early spring. Warm weather, or rainy weather, can turn rivers into muddy torrents and make steelhead fishing difficult, so paying attention to the weather and river flows is critical to success.
Anglers can see a gauge of river flows thanks to the U.S. Geological Survey, which has gauging stations throughout Idaho. By watching the weather and the stream flows, anglers can track in real time what’s happening with the rivers.
Steelhead typically like “Goldilocks” conditions, not too high and not too low and with a little color in the water (think emerald green), but not muddy. Warming water (even just a few degrees) often offers better fishing.
Steelhead fishing also tends to improve when a river recedes after a big pulse of runoff. Good steelhead anglers, or lucky ones, can catch fish in almost any conditions, but using those guidelines will help you improve your chances of catching fish.
With fish congregating in smaller headwaters and tributaries, anglers tend to follow, which means there can be crowding. In some cases, that gives steelhead fishing a social atmosphere, but there can also be intense competition for prime fishing spots.
Don’t feel like you have to stand shoulder to shoulder with other anglers to catch steelhead. There’s plenty of river access and fish to go around. The upper Salmon River between Salmon and Stanley, for example, has more than a hundred miles of mostly road-accessible river where you can find places to fish.
To further fine tune your knowledge, anglers can check Fish and Game’s harvest reports to see how the fishing is.
“The key thing I always remind anglers to look at are the catch rates,” Dupont said. “When you see catch rates at under 10 hours per fish, we call that good. When it’s five hours a fish, that’s excellent.”
When it comes to monitoring the harvest reports, be forewarned that when the reports are good, you may still miss the prime fishing because the fish may have passed through that section of the river.
Another option is to check the hatchery returns, which helps you track when fish start arriving at hatcheries, and it can also be an indicator of how many remain in the river nearby.
A phone call to Fish and Game regional offices or local tackle shops can also provide anglers with useful and timely information.
By doing a little homework and watching the weather, you can take your best shot at going fishing when rivers are in good shape and fish are there. Remember those dates because there’s a fair-to-good chance it will be similar the next year.