Steelhead season is well under way up and down the West Coast, but here in Idaho, on the Salmon River, the season is on a bit of an unofficial hiatus until March or April. The Salmon is a legitimate steelhead hotspot all throughout the fall, but by the time late December and January come around, the river gets cold, ice banks build up and, in many places along its course, the river freezes over. That’s not ideal steelhead water.
The fish are there, mind you, but they are likely settled into deep pools in a pretty chill state awaiting warmer spring flows and a bit of a melt before they push their way up into the river’s upper reaches. Some travel as far as the Sawtooth National Fish Hatchery above the town of Stanley. When it’s all said and done, these big Idaho steelhead have pushed fought their way over numerous dams, through slackwaters and come some 900 miles from where the Columbia River meets the Pacific. It’s an amazing journey.
Come late March or April, the fish are on the move again, and fly fishers are generally tuned in the migration. They’ll be swinging flies on the Salmon through April in hopes of connecting with one of these truly unique fish.
And it’s not easy. This year, the run is really down, but even in good years, it’s never a walk in the park. Above, Northwest Outfitters’ Mike Beard talks about swinging flies for steelhead and his preferred method of detecting the grab when a fish graces a lucky angler with a bite. He prefers to let the fish and his reel work together and he’ll only lift his rod after the fish as clearly taken the fly. I was taught to leave a little loop between your forefinger and the reel, with the understanding that a grab would pull that loop out of your finger and then you could lift the rod—a method Mike talks about in the short tutorial, as welll
Either way, this winter has been a bit mild here in Idaho, and there’s a chance the steelhead will begin moving up sooner than normal. It’s always good to collect good intel, like the tip Mike offers above, in preparation for a trip to the Salmon.
— Chris Hunt