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Silver in the Sawtooths – The Epic Run of Rocky Mountain Steelhead

By March 4, 2010 February 22nd, 2019 No Comments


The Salmon River was originally named for the migratory salmon species which teemed within its banks, but this spring it will be the Steelhead which draws anglers to its shores. Steelhead are the springtime attraction for fishermen on the “River of No Return” and this year promises to offer the highest steelie return in recent memory. The Idaho Fish and Game as well as local outfitters, guides and fishermen are expecting this to be an epic run and one that could be talked about in local fly-shops, restaurants, and bars as the best steelhead season in modern history. The number of fish which have fought their way past the eight dams between the Pacific Ocean and the Sawtooth Mountains this year, dwarfs any run in recent memory. As many as nine thousand fish are projected to reach the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery by the end of April – grounds for any angler within striking distance to plan to spend some time casting for these remarkable fish.

History Lesson

Before hitting the icy waters, it is important to understand a few facts about the Steelhead and the Upper Salmon River run in particular. The Salmon River Steelhead that make the journey toward Stanley, Idaho and the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery are unique. Returning Steelhead will swim approximately 960 river miles to reach the spawning grounds from which they originated. This is the longest anadromous run of any steelhead in the lower 48 states. Each fish will have negotiated eight hydroelectric dams, countless predators (oceanic, fresh water, aviary and human), gill nets, trawlers, a myriad of natural and man-made obstacles as well as iced-up rivers, waterfalls, hot and cold temperatures and many other unforeseen factors. The odds of any one of these fish actually making it back to their birthplace is miniscule. Nearly 97% of all juvenile Steelhead (known as smolt) are killed by the dam turbines on their journey to the Pacific. Although man made changes to the natural river systems have put the survival of Steelhead in jeopardy for years, conservation efforts and a robust hatchery system has resulted in a significant rise in Steelhead returns this year.

Although Steelhead will run up the Columbia River and its tributaries during their annual migration, it is in the Stanley Basin where our local fish return to spawn. Remarkably, these feisty fish, through a powerful sense of smell and an intuitive knowledge beyond our understanding, are able to retrace their previous journey to eventually come to rest directly above the spawning beds (known as redds) from which they hatched two or three years earlier. The cycle of life is therefore not only figurative in this case, but also literal. To realize, when holding one of these treasured trophies, that the fish in your hands has traveled nearly two thousand miles as a part of its circle of life before taking your fly is, one of the most satisfying feelings an angler can experience.

The Equipment

So how does someone new to the sport of Rocky Mountain Steelhead fishing find the equipment, tackle and knowledge to entice one of the hardest fighting freshwater fish onto the end of their line? First, let’s talk tackle. The most common fly patterns used locally for these sea-run rainbows include leeches, egg imitations, woolly worms, stonefly nymphs and mayfly nymphs. Leeches, which are many fly anglers “go-to” patterns, may be thrown in colors ranging from purple, black and chartreuse, to orange, blue, pink and white. Egg sucking leeches which feature egg like imitations tied at the eye of the hook, can be effective especially when coupled with a trailing hook (sometimes referred to as a stinger hook). Often fishermen will drop an egg pattern from the leech, but when sight fishing, this may lead to undesired snagging of fish which should be avoided at all costs. As mentioned, nymph patterns can also be effective and should be fished along the bottom in the same way that trout fishermen employ nymphs by using a strike indicator and a splitshot. A combination of any of these patterns works well when blind-fishing for Steelhead.

Rod selection is a matter of personal choice and river flow conditions. Steelhead are large fish and will likely measure 22″-40″, but because the water they live in is so powerful, rod weight consideration should revolve around the ability to land a fish in heavy current rather than presenting a gracious cast. Rod weights between 7 and 10 are most common. A larger steelhead in heavy water will likely take you to the rod’s limit regardless of the weight.

Where To Look

So where should you search for the wily Salmon River Steelhead? Early in the season, before the fish move to their spawning beds, blind-fishing deep runs and pockets is the best option. Look for deeper holes between riffled runs where fish will pause to rest before negotiating the faster water upstream. Using any of the aforementioned flies, weight your line with the proper amount of splitshot that will allow the fly to bounce along the bottom where the fish are holding. I find that a “high sticking” technique where the rod tip is pointed upward at a 45-60 degree angle allows one to employ the proper mends while maintaining a connection to the fly. If done properly, you will feel every little bump and bounce of the fly on the riverbed and when your strike indicator pauses or you feel immediate pressure on the line, set the hook. Although you may lose a few flies on the many boulders that blanket the riverbed, eventually your patience will be rewarded by the unmistakable head shake and the adrenaline rush which inevitably follows hooking up with a Steelhead.

As the season progresses into April, sightfishing will become more popular as the fish begin to stage in shallow, gravelly bars and riffles. By dead drifting flies across the snout of the Steelhead, you will often irritate the fish into hitting the fly out of aggression. It is important to remember that once Steelhead move into freshwater from the ocean, they do not feed for nourishment. Although they do feed on occasion, it is out of aggression or habit, not hunger. Therefore, if you can accurately float the fly directly in front of the nose of your target, your success rate will increase significantly.

Tell Me More

As with any outdoor endeavor, steelhead fishing demands hard work and patience. If you want some help navigating the icy stretches of the Salmon River, our guides are the most professional and experienced fishing guides in the region and can provide you with all equipment, tackle and knowledge necessary to find regular success with Idaho “steelies.” If you decide to try for these river monarchs on your own, visit the shop on Main Street in Ketchum. Ask Dave or Todd about which flies might be the hottest patterns at the moment and arm yourself with the local knowledge necessary to hook into one of these magnificent fish.